Understanding Pietism in the Past and Present: Some Thoughts on the Colloquium on Pietism Studies at Bethel University

I’ve just returned to Philadelphia after a few days out in St. Paul, Minnesota. My regular readers will know that I was in the Twin Cities area on Thursday and Friday to participate in Bethel University’s inaugural Colloquium on Pietism Studies, which was held yesterday.

The event was a fantastic opportunity to explore the past and present significance of this historic Protestant renewal movement — one that has had a major influence on the Brethren in Christ Church. (You can read more about the conference here and on Twitter at #BethelStudies.)

I was especially thrilled to join with pastors and scholars from other Pietist-influenced communities — including the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Baptist General Conference, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) — for a panel discussion on Pietism as a “usable past” for today’s churches. Interestingly, despite the theological differences between the Brethren in Christ and these other traditions, all of us panelists described similar challenges today: a declining emphasis on the Holy Spirit and “heart religion” at a time when many young people are raising questions about such religious phenomena; a watered-down theology of conversion as a result of popular evangelical revivalism; and a failure to “train up” the next generation of church leaders through the re-telling of our denominational (hi)stories. The roundtable reminded me of why I decided to pursue a historical vocation in the first place: my desire to help the contemporary church better understand itself through the telling of history. Because the past is both a “foreign country” and a popular, dynamic force for present-day identity-making, today’s churches need historians with a profound confessional commitment and a willingness to engage with the past in order to help clergy and laity alike to more effectively face contemporary challenges.

Beyond the roundtable, yesterday was also a great opportunity to network with scholars like Chris Gehrz, Christian Collins Winn, and others. Moreover, the keynote presentations from Scot McKnight and Jon Sensbach provided much fodder for lunchtime conversations and post-conference chats.

A few key takeaways from throughout the day:

  • Scot McKnight: Pietism continues today as a “disposition” seeking “inner renewal toward greater biblical authenticity.” (via Chris Gehrz’s Twitter feed: @cgehrz)
  • McKnight also thinks that today’s evangelicalism suffers from a shallow theology of conversion that replaces authentic discipleship with narcissistic therapeutic religion– a bastardization of classical Pietism’s deep theology of salvation. (I tend to agree; I’m hoping to explore this more in a future post!)
  • 17th century Moravian missionaries to the Caribbean lack the theological tools to explicitly subvert the slave culture of their new environs, according to Jon Sensbach. In fact, early missionaries actually became slave owners in order to convince the colonial elite that they were not a threat to the imperial system.

Finally, I was especially glad to have a fellow Brethren in Christ person in the conference midst yesterday: my faithful reader David Byer made the trip up from his home in Rochester, Minn., to participate in the festivities. Thanks for coming, David!

About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah University.
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7 Responses to Understanding Pietism in the Past and Present: Some Thoughts on the Colloquium on Pietism Studies at Bethel University

  1. Tom Grosh IV says:

    Wish I could have been there! Appears to be an excellent next step in conversation and by God’s grace take-aways which will be incarnated in daily life. Thank-you for reporting.

    Are the t-shirts for sale 🙂

  2. Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

    Thanks, Tom! I was particularly interested in the Moravian perspective that was offered during the conference (mostly from attendees, rather than presenters, though Sensbach’s talk involved Moravian missionaries). Would be interesting to connect with the Young Center’s Jeff Bach on such questions.

    In any case, I’d like to get one of the t-shirts too — if I track some down, I’ll let you know! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Pietism Colloquium Recap: Scot McKnight « The Pietist Schoolman

  4. Pingback: Pietism Colloquium Recap: Roundtable on Pietism’s “Usable Past” « The Pietist Schoolman

  5. Pingback: Does Pietism Provide a “Usable Past” for Today’s Churches? « the search for piety and obedience.

  6. Pingback: Brethren in Christ on the World Wide Web « the search for piety and obedience.

  7. Pingback: How Useful is Pietism for Today’s Christians? | The Search for Piety and Obedience

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