“In Pursuit of a Living Orthodoxy”: Chris Armstrong Explains How the Pietists Invented Church History

Philipp Jakob Spener, the "father" of seventeenth-century Pietism, wrote the influential "Pia Desideria," which -- according to a recent essay by Bethel Seminary professor Chris Armstrong -- "invented" church history.

A great new essay from Chris Armstrong, associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, Minn.), is at Christian History. His thesis? Pietists — those seventeenth-century German Lutherans who desired a warm-hearted, experiential faith (and who imbued the early Brethren in Christ with a similar desire) — invented church history.

Here’s a taste:

. . . [A]long comes Philip Jakob Spener and his “Pietists.” Spener—a universally respected Lutheran pastor—is appalled by the deadness and dryness and division and nastiness in the major Protestant confessions. He mourns over the age’s theologia spinosa—“prickly theology.” Christianity, Spener insists, is not just the memorization of catechisms and forms. Theology must be lived. It must be embodied in life. But too many Christian leaders are more concerned about being right than about being righteous. . . .

Seeking in this way to absorb and teach a living faith, the Pietists added a new discipline to the theological curriculum. In a real sense, they invented Christian history. Not that histories of the church hadn’t been written before—but they were the first to give history and biography status as theological disciplines.

Why did the Pietists do this? Quite simply, they discovered that when you turn from theological treatises to church history, you begin to see how theory has become practice in the lives of real people. Then when you return to do theology, you have gained a new angle on the task.

Armstrong’s take on Pietism’s contributions to theological education has implications for the way we think about the early Brethren in Christ. Were these men and women, like Spener and his seventeenth-century co-religionists, “in search of a living orthodoxy”? What did that mean to them, a group of Mennonite separatists living on the banks of the Susquehanna River? And what does it mean for us today, as American Evangelicalism has flowed into our previous streams of Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism — all of which, it seems, demonstrated a concern with ethics and lived-out faith?

Read Armstrong’s entire article here.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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