The Pietist Option (Christopher Gehrz & Mark Pattie III) - A Review

THE PIETIST OPTION: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. By Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. 148 pages.

Earlier this year a book sparked much attention. The book, authored by Rod Dreher, is titled The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. I’ve not read the book, but based on conversations I’ve heard, along with an interview on NPR with the author, it appears that the book is a call for politically active evangelicals and Catholics to step back from the cultural fray and rebuild from within, much as St. Benedict did in the sixth century as the so-called Dark Ages began to fall on Europe of the Middle Ages. Since I’ve not read the Dreher book, I won’t try to engage his vision.  I mention it, however, due to the more recent publication by IVP Academic of a book with a seemingly similar title.  Titled The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity, this book is a manifesto calling for the renewal of Christianity through an embrace of the principles of Pietism. The Pietist Option is rooted in the work of seventeenth century Christian leaders including Philip Spener. Spener and his compatriots sought to renew and revitalize what they believed was a spiritually dry and sterile Protestant Christianity.

The authors of this manifesto are both members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a church that has roots in the migration of Swedish evangelicals to the United States (I considered pursuing ordination within the Covenant Church during seminary). One of the author is a Covenant pastor (Mark Pattie III), while the other is a historian who teaches at Bethel University in Minnesota, a college that also has Pietist roots—Swedish Baptist (Christopher Gehrz). The Pietist option is quite simple. It is a call to come back to Jesus. Having been called back to Jesus, it provides an opportunity to engage in mission by engaging in both evangelism and compassion.

One of the keys to Pietism is the ministry and writings of Philip Spener, a German Lutheran who sought to move beyond the sterile scholastic Lutheranism of his day. I read his book Pia Desideria many years ago. I remember it (faintly) as a call to spiritual renewal, a move from dry theological orthodoxy to a more relational faith. I also remember it as encouraging a missionary spirit. It should not surprise us that John Wesley’s own evangelicalism was stimulated by his encounter with Pietist Moravians on his return from his mission to Georgia. While many today often equate pietism with a religious orientation more focused on heaven and on morality, such was not the Pietist vision of people like Spener, August Franke, and Nicholas von Zinzendorf.  While this movement has roots in the Lutheran Church, it spawned religious movements that crossed denominational boundaries and continues to influence Christian life to this day. In the introduction, the authors several Pietist instincts, which they develop as the book progresses: First, relationships over propositions, unity, a focus on the living presence of Jesus, and an ongoing hope for better times. They write: “If God can transform the life of an individual, Pietists believe trust that he can do the same for the larger church and the world beyond it” (p. 8).  In offering this Pietist Option, the authors want to clarify the meaning of Pietism, reclaim its vision, and offer it up to the broader church as an option for renewal in this time of cultural confusion and disarray. The authors are evangelicals, who believe that Pietism offers evangelicalism a way out of its own morass of cultural captivity. 

To catch the essence of Pietism is to suggest that it is Jesus-centered. The authors are very clear that to be Jesus-Centered is not the same thing as being Christ-centered. They want to be Christ-centered as well, but to be Jesus-centered is to embrace his life as a living model for the church today. Pietism is, the authors assert, a movement that continues into the present. It may have flowered in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and then faded to a degree in part because its leaders tended to be suspicious institutions and education. But, it is also a movement that has leavened other movements, such as Methodism. As for the Pietist Option, the authors write that "we're talking about a kind of Christianity that is 'not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected.' Pietism doesn't happen accidentally; it requires a conscious choice to respond to God's grace. The Pietist option is to opt in to a distinctly hopeful way of coming back to Jesus: growing to be more and more like him, living at peace as part of his body, and fulfilling his mission in service to others" (p. 9). 

The book is divided into two parts. Part one is titled "Christianity in the Early Twenty-first Century." In the course of two chapters, the authors lay out their sense of what is troubling Christianity at this moment in time. In other words, why might the Pietist vision have something of value to say to a time like this. Then there's a chapter about hoping something better. This is the foundational piece, upon which what follows is based.

The rest of the book, Part Two, offers "Proposals for Renewal." There is a chapter inviting us into a "more extensive listing to the Word of God." This is an invitation to center one's spiritual life in the reading scripture, both individually and in community. With this as the starting point, they speak of "the common priesthood for the common good. This is a reminder that the Pietist movement called for the full involvement of the laity in the life of the church, including women. All are priests, and Spener spoke of three elements of this priesthood. First, they are called to sacrifice themselves in the service of others. Second, they pray for and bless others. Third, they should read scripture "prayerfully and obediently under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit" (p. 60). One expression of this effort was the establishment of small group Bible study. They move on to the emphasis of Pietism on Christianity as a way of life (not just something we do on Sunday), on the importance of an irenic spirit (a concern for unity of the Christian Community), an emphasis on what they call "whole-person, whole-life formation, and finally it is a call to proclaim the good news—it is evangelistic in orientation. It should not surprise us that a book calling us back to Jesus as reflected in the story of Scriptures, that the authors include a guide for using the book for personal devotions, but also for small group discussion. Both are central to this vision.

In the opening introduction the authors argue that the critique of Pietism, that it failed because it has disappeared, is misleading. Indeed, it succeeded because it has influenced so many streams of evangelical Christianity, moving it beyond doctrine to relationship. Can pietism serve as a means of renewal today? Can people like Spener speak to our own times? Perhaps. For, even if there are aspects of Pietism that might not fit every faith community, the Jesus-centeredness of the movement is compelling. Even if some descendants of Pietism have taken a more conservative turn than perhaps I’m comfortable with, the movement’s concern for lay formation and service is very enticing. As a pastor in a denomination that saw itself as a movement of reform with the unity of the church in mind, I am attracted to its irenic spirit.

I can say this, I find the “Pietist Option,” much more attractive than the monastic vision of the “Benedict Option.” While I’ve not read the book, from what I’ve heard, including from an interview with the author, the Benedict Option seems to be a call for Christians to retreat from public life, to rebuild strength in preparation for the next attempt to take power in society. That could be a misreading, but that is how I read the call. On the other hand, the Pietist Option is much different. It is a call to form community, but not in order to flee culture or prepare for taking power. Yes, they acknowledge that there is much that is wrong in society and in church. There are challenges. Churches have often failed to live as followers of Jesus. But, there is hope. Renewal is possible. We've already seen it happen in the seventeenth century with Spener and others. Thus, this is a call to mission that is both evangelistic and compassionate. It is a call for the pursuit of unity within the body of Christ for the purpose of engaging in such a mission. In other words, pietism is not the same as pietistic, as in being “holier than thou.” With this in mind, I offer this book up as a conversation starter on the road to renewal in an age of ecclesial disarray. 


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