There are an abundance of options that Christians have to help them cope with the Western world at this particular cultural moment. The “option” language all started with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which he wrote about in his columns at the American Conservative for years before he published a book by that name. Since then others have come up with (among others) the Augustinian Option, the Kuyper Option, and the Walker Percy Option.
Now, not all of these options are necessarily at odds with one another or even anything new. In fact, I’m convinced that a lot of this “option” conversation is just people taking advantage of Dreher’s new nomenclature to argue for the same theological commitments they’ve been boosting for years.
At any rate, last fall, historian Chris Gehrz and pastor Mark Pattie gave us another option—The Pietist Option (IVP Academic, 2017), which calls modern-day Christians to learn from the renewal movement, later called “Pietism,” that Philipp Jakob Spener kicked off with his 1675 book Pia Desideria (“pious desires”).
The book comes in two parts. Part one consists of two chapters that introduce the state of contemporary American Christianity and make the case for adopting a hopeful attitude in spite of difficult circumstances. Part two is much longer, and consists of six specific proposals for renewal of Protestant churches drawn from Pia Desideria:
- A more extensive engagement with the Bible
- A renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers
- An understanding of Christianity as a way of life, not merely an assent to certain doctrines
- A commitment to an irenic spirit in the face of theological disagreements
- A commitment to spiritual formation for the whole person for the whole of life
- A proclamation of the good news rooted in the proclaimer’s own experience of God
In many ways these are standard evangelical beliefs. In fact, Gehrz and Pattie are up front about the fact that “Pietism has disappeared not because it failed, but because it succeeded” (4). It was a renewal movement that did its work of renewing, and The Pietist Option is Gehrz and Pattie’s argument that we need another, similar renewal movement in our time.
I was not an impartial reader when I came to The Pietist Option; I was predisposed to like it. In my young adulthood as a Christian, I was more influenced by the Reformed stream of Christianity: My family has roots in the Christian Reformed Church, and I attended both CRC and Presbyterian churches (but also, for most of my childhood, a Southern Baptist one). I would not even now explicitly repudiate that stream of Christian belief, but during my time in seminary I was drawn more and more to the ethos of Pietism. As Gehrz and Pattie write, Pietism is more about instincts than particular beliefs. I found that I shared those instincts: I wanted an engagement with the Bible that shaped my identity, not just my beliefs (though beliefs were incredibly important, I found they were not the whole story); I wanted to have an irenic spirit whenever possible; I was committed to the whole mission of God, but in terms of proclamation and service. Eventually, I came to the point that I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church, where I continue to make my home.
Yet not everyone likes the Pietist Option. Notably, there was a review from the (Reformed-leaning) Gospel Coalition that said: “The same Continental Pietists who gave us Pia Desideria and Wesley’s ‘strangely warmed’ heart also gave us Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher.”
But did they? Isn’t it just part of living in a fallen world that good things may be corrupted? As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Wouldn’t it be better to say that when you detach Pietism from a conscious dependence on the Spirit you end up with Schleiermacher, just as when you detach Calvinism from Calvin’s own focus on the Spirit you end up with Protestant Scholasticism and, later on, Max Weber or even modern-day New England? Simply because something may be corrupted doesn’t mean it is in itself bad. As for myself, I am not convinced that the theology of Schleiermacher is inherent in Pietism.
In this time when “evangelical” has become a term loaded with negative political baggage, I wonder whether the term “Pietist” will make a comeback. I’m hopeful about it, but am not entirely sure it will; in some people’s minds it still has negative connotations of individualism, quietism, or (as in the TGC review) theological liberalism. I don’t know what a resurgence in Pietism might lead to down the road, but I think in the short term those who are looking for renewal and revival in American Christianity could do a lot worse than recovering a Pietist spirit that seeks to foster a living faith and love toward God and neighbor.
Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.