Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition

Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition

(Eerdmans, 2015) by Roger E. Olson and Christian T. Collins Winn 
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Reclaiming Pietism is written with the awareness of the bad reputation and distorted meaning that the word ‘Pietism’ has acquired and attentive to those “interested in the spiritual life and in developing a theology that is grounded in experience while at the same time remaining biblically faithful” (p. xii). More specifically, it is about reclaim[ing] the word (pietism) by engaging the history of Pietism to understand the original motives and themes that energized the movement” (p. 1). Reclaiming Pietism consists of 8 chapters.

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 1 unpacks the various misconceptions of Pietism and “correct them in terms of the actual history of the Pietist movement” (p. xii). Citing influential scholars F. Ernest Stoeffler and Harry Yeide Jr., Reclaiming Pietism explains how ‘Pietism’ got a bad reputation. Original Pietism (Spener’s Pia Desideria) have much to contribute to the theologies of Ritschl (19th century modern liberalism) and Barth (20th century neo-orthodoxy and dialectical theology) whose criticisms gave Pietism a bad name. Original Pietism focused on the individual dimension to salvation while not being inherently individualistic and tended to be synergistic rather than monergistic while not necessarily being Pelagian or semi-Pelagian and finally included an “emphasis on the vertical dimension of the Christian life while no becoming otherworldly” (p. 17).

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 2 examines the Christian mystics and the devotionally minded Puritans that serve as the precursors of historical Pietism. We are informed of Pietism’s late medieval precursors (Theologia Germanica and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ), Reformation era precursors (Caspar Schwenckfeld and Paracelsus) and the post-Reformation cousins of Pietism (Johann Arndt and Jakob Bohme). A key historical incident that overlaps the life of these latter figures was the Thirty Years’ War, a situation that exacerbated the bad conditions of German Lutheranism and led to the Age of Orthodoxy or the Era of Confessionalization. The aftermath of this period led to the production of Puritan devotional writings and the emergence of figures such as Jean de Labadie who initiated the practice of hosting conventicles (sort of like Bible studies) in his home in Geneva and later in Holland. The late medieval to the early modern period witnessed a series of voices who called “for a deeper practice of devotion of God and a more fervent love of neighbor” (p. 37).

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 3 traces the beginning and development of the Pietist movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by focusing on its founders, namely: Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke. Spener’s book Pia Desideria: Or, Hearfelt Desires for a God-pleasing Improvement of the True Protestant Church and Francke’s conversion which define Hallensian Pietism (leading Francke’s educational work particularly among orphans, the Halle orphanage) initiated movements that sought to renew church and Christian society.

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 4 explores the radical Pietism and the work of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf and the Wurttemberg tradition. On the one hand, Zinzendorf attempted to reconcile the radical and ecclesial forms of Pietism, a vision of the church that still exists in the contemporary Moravian church. On the other hand, Wurttemberg Pietism was advanced by eschatological vision of Johann Albrecht Bengel and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger’s holistic worldview.

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 5 expounds on the defining themes of Pietism in both past and present. These include the following: embrace and acceptance of orthodox Protestant Christian doctrine; experiential, transformative Christianity; conversion, conversational piety, visible Christianity; love of the Bible, life together; world transformation; ecumenical Christianity and the common priesthood of all believers.

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 6 narrates “how German Pietism moved onto British and North American soil through the evangelical awakening led by John Wesley and others” (p. xiii). Here we are told about the influence of Pietism on American culture; how the role of Pietism has been misunderstood; how Pietism’s presence flourished in England and in America; the practices and impact of the Moravians in America; the influenced of Pietism on the Wesleys and early Methodism and a brief description of early radical pietism social experiments in colonial America.

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 7 “outline the reformation of Pietism during the long nineteenth century in Europe and discuss how several leading modern theologians and philosophers took up elements of Pietism in their systems of thought” (p. xiii). The intellectual challenges of modernity associated with the nineteenth century movements of rationalism, romanticism and idealism led to the re-formulation or re-invention of Pietism in figures Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theological orientation of religion as ‘feeling of absolute dependence’; Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of Danish Christendom and the search for authentic Christianity; the German awakening movement, the Christocentric theology of experience approach of Friedrich August G. Tholuck, the integrated vision of society of Johann Hinrich Wichern and the inner mission and the Blumhardt movement.

Reclaiming Pietism chapter 8 “examines contemporary figures who have appropriated Pietism, looking especially at theologians such as Donald Bloesch, Richard Foster, Stanley Grenz, and Jurgen Moltmann” (xiii). This last chapter not only profiles the early life events that shaped them but also comments on the role and influence that Pietism has played on these contemporary German-speaking twentieth century figures. This last chapter concludes that all of these four figures have much to contribute to the renewal of contemporary Christianity and that none of them “could be considered anti-intellectual or legalistic or ‘holiest then-thou’ super-spiritual people who were or are too heavenly minded” (p. 181).

Reclaiming Pietism is dedicated to evangelicals “who, apart from Pietism, tend to fall into dead orthodoxy” (p. xiii). I appreciate this work. I love this topic. I am inspired by these themes. I appreciate the sympathetic retrieval of the authors of Reclaiming Pietism. I love the fact that these authors are able to get over the Calvinist-Arminian divide and recognize that Pietism not only has elements of both of these two camps, but is also part of the ongoing conversation by those who pray for reformation, renewal and revival. Finally, I am inspired by this narrative because it resonates with a contemporary church who struggles with the current culture and most importantly by one who is called by the Great Commission and the cultural mandate not only to save souls but to be salt of the earth.


The author David