Spener And The Pietists

Spener And The Pietists


Were Pietism to be judged solely by its founder, none but the most captious and spiritually insensible could find ground for censure. Philip Jacob Spener, in his principles, his temper, and his conduct, was a worthy example of the Christian reformer. Earnest, but free from fanaticism, patient and undaunted in the face of opposition, he was well fitted to guide those already longing after better things, and to awaken such as mere still satisfied with their formalism.


Spener was born in 1635. His forty years of pastoral labor were divided chiefly between Frankfurt (1666), Dresden (1686), and Berlin (1691-1705). During his twenty years' stay at Frankfurt his principles were substantially completed and made known to the world. Great care was expended by him upon the catechetical education of the children. In the pulpit he avoided the artificial and cumbrous style characteristic of the age, and sought only the clear exposition and effectual application of the truths of the Bible. He did not depreciate dogmatic distinctions, but held that they should be subordinated to the great aim of personal renovation and holiness. "From the regeneration of the individual, in the genuine old apostolic sense, Spener expected the regeneration of the Church, and with it the coming of peace." 1 Hagenbach, Kirchengeschichte, v. 193. His ministry conducted on this plan was, on the whole, eminently successful. Some in his congregation at Frankfurt, it is true, were offended at the directness and the searching character of his preaching. But others mere most wholesomely awakened. A number of this class initiated the custom of gathering Sunday afternoons in order to review the sermon of the day, study the Bible, and by conversation on holy things encourage each other in the Christian life. Spener heartily welcomed this evidence of religious interest; but to insure the safe and profitable conduct of these gatherings, he thought it advisable to be present himself, and to assume the leadership. Under his management the time was mainly occupied with the exposition and practical application of the Scriptures. All discussions of a merely controversial nature were studiously avoided, and upbuilding in piety was made the great aim. Thus originated the so called Collegia Pietatia (1670). The institution was copied elsewhere, and became characteristic of Pietism.


In 1678, Spener gave a wide publicity to his reform principles by the publication of his noted work, Pia Desideria. The chief maxims embraced in this were the following: "That the Word of God should be brought home to the popular heart; that laymen, when capable and pious, should act as preachers, thus becoming a valuable ally of the ministry; that deep love and practical piety are a necessity to every preacher; that kindness, moderation, and an effort to convince, should be observed toward theological opponents; that great efforts should be made to have worthy and divinely called young men properly instructed for the ministry; and that all preachers should urge upon the people the importance of faith and its fruits."


The teachings of Spener were soon the object of bitter attack. The Wittenberg faculty charged him with an appalling list of two hundred and eighty-three errors. His scheme was declared to be unchurchly, anti-lutheran in the stress which it placed upon good works over against justification by faith, depreciatory of the sacraments, and infected with mysticism and fanaticism. In opposition to his subjective piety, with its emphasis upon the living; presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer's heart, his opponents, at least the more extreme among them, assigned an efficacy to priestly functions and to sacraments which involved a species of deism, a substitution of the second cause for the first as thorough-going as is implied in any of the postulates of Romanism.


Pietism was also assailed with the charge of undue asceticism. But, so far as Spener is concerned, asceticism was hardly carried beyond an appropriate seriousness and sobriety of life. His opposition to the current amusements may be referred in part to the excess to which they were often carried. He discountenanced dancing and theatre-going, not as being sinful in themselves, but as being in the existing state of things almost universally accessory to dissipation. At the same time he thought that practices of this nature were to be cured not so much by violent denunciation as by nurturing the spirit which should make such diversions no longer coveted. On this subject Spener stood in favorable contrast with some of his followers, who were too much inclined to interpret any participation in these amusements as sure evidence of impiety, and to magnify the virtue of abstinence from them; and in no less favorable contrast to the extremists of the opposing party, who became actually disposed to regard dancing and theatre-going as good signs of orthodoxy.


Near the time that Spener was called to Dresden, two young men had begun to attract attention in Leipzig, where they were serving as private instructors. These were August Hermann Francke and Paul Anton, who were afterward joined by J. C. Schade. Much of the spirit of Spener, with whom they had communication, was in these men. Their exegetical lectures and Bible readings came to be largely attended by the students of the University. Some of the professors in consequence lost patronage. Opposition became virulent; a partisan investigation was instituted; the lectures of the young men were prohibited, and with the jurist Thomasius, who volunteered to serve as their advocate, they were obliged to leave Leipzig.


The exclusion from the University of Leipzig was no disaster to the Pietists, for it resulted in the origination of a university in their interest. At the suggestion of Thomasius, the Elector of Brandenburg founded the University of Halle. The theological faculty was selected in accordance with the pleasure of Spener, and consisted of Francke, Anton, and Breithaupt. Besides fulfilling the duties of professor and pastor, Francke found time for building and superintending the institution which, in particular, has immortalized his name, the Orphan House at Halle.


In the generations that followed Spener and Francke, Pietism lost somewhat of its original virtue. If it still produced the true wheat, it admitted a larger admixture of tares than heretofore. The outward form of devotion without the heart, a spirit of pharisaical assumption and separatism, an undue depreciation of philosophy, and a lack of sympathy with ordinary human interests, characterized too many of its adherents.


But, on the whole, Pietism was a blessing to Germany and to Christendom. "The spirit of the School of Spener," says Gieseler, "abode for a long time, especially at Halle, and extended itself thence over a large part of Germany. It has the unquestionable merit of having revived Bible study, of having directed theology back to its Scriptural foundation, from which it had been too widely severed by the cultivation of polemics, and of having made religion again a matter of the heart and will, at a time when it had been degraded almost entirely to a matter of the understanding." 1 Kirchengeschichte, 1648-1814, § 45. The widespread effects of Pietism are thus described by Hurst: "The theological instruction of Francke and his coajutors in the University of Halle was very influential. During the first thirty years of its history six thousand and thirty-four theologians were trained within its walls, not to speak of the multitudes who received a thorough academic and religious instruction in the Orphan House. The Oriental Theological College, established in connection with the University, promoted the study of Biblical languages, and originated the first critical edition of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, it founded missions to the Jews and Mohammedans. From Halle streams of new life flowed out until there were traces of reawakening throughout Europe. First the large cities gave signs of returning faith, and the universities which were most bitter against Spener were influenced by the power of the teachings of his immediate successors." 2 History of Rationalism, p. 97.


Having characterized some of the individual exponents of practical piety and liberal sentiments, it remains now to direct our attention to men whom history connects more directly with an ecclesiastical party.