Roger OLSON and Christian T. Collins WINN. Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. 190 pp., $18.00 paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6909-8. Reviewed by Steve W. LEMKE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA 70126.
“Pietism” as a movement is a negative designation for some Christians, who associate it with religious emotionalism, subjectivism, anti-intellectualism, weak doctrinal standards, excessive individualism, lay Christian leadership, and otherworldly quietism. Olson and Collins seek to demonstrate in this work that those caricatures are inaccurate, and to restore the good name of Pietism. Collins is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Bethel University in Minnesota. Olson, a former faculty member with the associated Bethel Seminary, is now Foy Valentine Professor of Theology and Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, associated with Baylor University.
Toward this goal of reclaiming Pietism, Olson and Collins trace the origin of this movement back to precursors such as the Brethren of the Common Life, Thomas à Kempis, Caspar Schwenckfeld, Jakob Böeme, and Johann Tauler. Olson and Collins focus on the movement’s key early leaders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries − Johann Arndt, Phillipp Jakob Spener, and August Hermann Francke. These thinkers were reacting against the prevailing form of Protestant (Lutheran) orthodoxy which overemphasized justification at the expense of regeneration and sanctification. While not denying the objective forgiveness of sin through justification, the early Pietists felt that mere intellectual assent in Protestant Scholasticism missed the personal response of faith in conversion and the necessity for inward personal transformation in sanctification. Pietism sought to correct this cold intellectualism with warm hearted personal devotion and holy living.
In Spener’s Pia Desideria, he offered six proposals to reform the deplorable condition of the Lutheran church − the use of “conventicles,” small groups of laypersons for Bible study and prayer, affirmation of the priesthood of lay believers, intentionally matching orthodoxy with orthopraxy, avoiding endless disputations and polemics, appointing regenerate priests who give evidence of personal devotion rather than those with power or intellectual vanity. These became key principles in the Pietist tradition.
The book traces the Pietist tradition from these early leaders through its expressions in America in Methodism and Moravianism, and in more contemporary expressions such as the German Awakening Movement and the Blumhardt Movement. The history recounted by the authors is simply too rich to recount here, but the book makes a valuable contribution by connecting and describing all the varied expressions of Pietism through church history.
The authors do identify a helpful list of ten key hallmarks that most Pietists hold in common: (a) acceptance of broadly defined orthodox Protestant doctrine, (b) experiential, life-transforming Christianity, (c) conversion/regeneration of the inner person, (d) a strong devotional life with a personal relationship with Christ, (e) holy living with a transformed character, (f) love of the Bible, (g) a focus on Christian community, (h) social activism to transform the world to further the Kingdom of God, (i) ecumenical, irenic Christianity, and (j) the priesthood of all believers. The authors support the case for these distinctives of Pietism not only in this chapter, but also in the survey of all the key leaders in the movement.
If the book has a weakness, it is that the authors imbibe too deeply from the “Great Man” school of history advocated by Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Adams Woods, in which history is defined by a few great leaders. In this work, the focus is almost entirely on a few key theologians, with little explanation of how Pietism was expressed and experienced by common people (who often do not affirm or understand fully what the theologians of their tradition taught). Nor do the authors address in depth any doctrinal confessions of Pietist groups, which would have strengthened their point about the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Pietists. Exploring Pietism’s impact on laypersons and in confessions would have enriched this defense of this tradition.Nonetheless, Reclaiming Pietism accomplishes its end of providing a compelling defense for most forms of Pietism, and provides a rich survey of the history of the tradition. Highly recommended.