Pietism and Social Justice: The Legacy of Johann Arndt’s True Christianity

by Mark Safstrom

In a previous article in Pietisten, I suggested that P.P. Waldenström’s commentary on North American society reflected some traditional Lutheran Pietist concerns for social justice. Prompted by a friend at Seattle First Covenant, this was expanded into a Sunday school series that traced the Covenant Church’s history of social ministries through its Pietist roots. This article is a summary of part one of that class.

To make the claim that Lutheran Pietism has had a long relationship with social justice ideals, one has to address some common perceptions of both Pietism and social justice. The first assumption, often made, is that Pietists have historically pursued a mystical and otherworldly lifestyle, addressing only the symptoms of social problems, not their causes. The other assumption that is sometimes made is that social justice is a modern secular concept, or that when it has appeared in Christianity, it has mainly been a Catholic, not a Protestant, concern.

However, this article will point out some ways in which Pietists have historically articulated social justice concerns. It will focus on Johann Arndt’s devotional classic True Christianity, and make comparisons to social justice theology in the broader Christian tradition, namely the writings of contemporary Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.

Social justice is a term used by various groups, both religious and secular, and among these groups there is a diversity of perspectives on the origin and nature of justice. However, at a basic level, what all seem to agree on is that social justice is an application of justice at the societal level. Whereas an individualistic perspective focuses on how an individual’s rights and interests are served by a just application of the law, a social perspective is concerned with how various elements of society relate to one another, and how national and international practices and laws either facilitate or distort justice for various groups.

In the secular sense when the term is used, it is generally in reference to the theories of 20th century philosopher John Rawls. However, Western notions of justice have been inescapably impacted by Judeo-Christian ideals, articulated by the Old Testament prophets and revisited by medieval Christian scholastics. Many strands of social justice ideology, both religious and secular, can be traced back to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who systematized a theological basis for justice in his writings, including the Summa Theologica. It was in the activity of Catholic clergy in Latin America that the concept of social justice saw famous practical applications. One notable figure was Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566), who criticized the Spanish colonial system of land ownership that kept the indigenous people poor, and petitioned successfully for the famous legal reforms of 1542. This attention to systemic injustice was echoed and expanded by Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio (1793–1862), who is actually credited with coining the term “social justice.” D’Azeglio was alarmed by the condition of urban poverty resulting from the Industrial Revolution and, as a means to address these issues, encouraged a revival of Thomas Aquinas’ writings on justice.

The Catholic heritage of social justice theology was therefore well established when it produced “Liberation Theology” in the late 20th century. This was articulated by the priest Gustavo Gutierrez in an attempt to explain the suffering of the indigenous people of Peru. One of his books, On Job; God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, addresses these issues of social injustice by challenging the Old Testament doctrine of rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked. According to Gutierrez, the book of Job presents Christians with a model for affirming a divine order of justice in God’s creation, despite the glaring contradictions visible in the inequalities of this world.

He explains Job’s innocent suffering as an indicator of the freedom that God allows both to himself and to his creations. Although Job might want God to punish the wicked and bless the righteous, God restrains himself. This is because God has an overwhelming respect for human freedom; if he were to be confined to a system of immediate rewards and punishments, then it would be impossible for human beings to operate freely to choose or reject him. These freedoms are essential to the existence of his grace.

Furthermore, it is by experiencing the seeming injustice of the world that human beings are able to understand and love God. Gutierrez explains that Christians must identify with the poor and suffering in order to understand the love that God has for his creations. By imitating the acts of grace that God freely gives to his creations, Christians are able to understand God’s heart. Gutierrez thus asserts that for Christians, “Relatedness to God requires a relatedness to the poor.” Furthermore, he explains that, “[t]alk about God […] requires, therefore, that we discover the features of Christ in the sometimes disfigured faces of the poor of this world. This discovery will not be made apart from concrete gestures of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are wretched, abandoned, and deprived.”

By stressing that faith is experiential, Gutierrez identifies participation in acts of compassion, mercy and justice as essential to understanding the nature of God, and as a core manifestation of Christianity.

There have also been strong impulses of social justice within Lutheranism. The reform movement bearing the general label of “Pietism” had emerged by the beginning of the 1600s. From the outset, the concern of these Pietists was to continue the reformation that Luther started. Relatively unconcerned with the doctrinal struggles of the day, they focused their attention on the reform of society. Their complaint was that a century of orthodox scholasticism might have perfected a doctrinal position for the Lutheran church, but it had neglected to reform the lives of church members and the world in which they lived.

The “grandfather” of the Lutheran Pietist school was Johann Arndt (1555-1621), whose devotional True Christianity (1605-09) sparked a movement of introspective Christianity that focused on personal and societal renewal. When read in light of the statements by Gustavo Gutierrez above, there are a number of similarities that are apparent, particularly with regard to sentiments about obligations to the community.

Arndt is credited with having helped the Lutheran churches rediscover some of the core social values articulated by Luther, which had been overlooked in the first century after his death. Heiko Oberman identifies Arndt with having been the first Lutheran scholar to point out that Luther’s understanding of justification by faith included an expectation that faith would naturally bring forth good works. Whereas leading theologians of the day perceived good works with suspicion, stressing grace by faith alone, Arndt would once again validate good works by highlighting Luther’s statements. However, Arndt did not simply repeat Luther’s words, but actually took them a step further. One of Arndt’s bold claims in True Christianity was that love of one’s neighbor was a natural result of union with Christ, an idea not emphasized by Luther.

True Christianity served as Arndt’s call for a reevaluation of the Lutheran churches’ priorities. One can find numerous passages in which Arndt expressed his view that the church needed to overcome its preoccupation with doctrine and shift the emphasis from the individual belief to the reform of the community. Arndt’s emphasis on following the example of Christ reflected an influence from medieval writers who focused on union with Christ. However, in Arndt’s analysis, union with Christ should not be limited to the advantages gained by the individual Christian, but should produce a life that imitated the selfless love of Christ.

If we contemplate the holy life of Christ, we see it as pure love. Let us learn from him in true faith his love, humility, meekness, and patience just as he commanded us […]. Therefore, those who do not awake from the sinful sleep of this world, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the private life, cannot be enlightened by Christ.
If one compares the life of the present world with Christ’s teaching and life, one discovers immediately that the greater part of the world is completely opposed to Christ. What is the life of man now other than covetousness, concern over food, search for wealth? […] In a word, the whole life of the children of this world at this time is nothing other than worldly love, self-love, self-honor and the desire for self-gain.

Arndt’s attack on individualism was motivated by a belief that such an attitude was an underdeveloped relationship to Christ. In a true union with Christ, a Christian would be prompted to die to himself or herself. This self-denial was not just a means of fulfilling a religious requirement or passing a test of faithfulness to Christ. Instead it was a very practical means showing aid and compassion to other human beings who were suffering. This required an understanding of the temporary nature of this world. Christians, according to Arndt, were to treat temporal things as if they were “guests” in the world.

Furthermore, Christians were called to identify with the matters that concerned God, particularly the suffering of other human beings. Arndt made a radical connection between the love of God and the love of the neighbor, identifying them as inseparable. The closer that Christians came in relationship to God, the more they would act like him.

A true lover of God loves everything that God loves and is saddened by everything that saddens God. Therefore, man is to love righteousness because God himself is righteousness. […] Man is to love mercy because God himself is mercy.
He who wishes to be reconciled with God must be reconciled with his neighbor, for the love of God and the love of neighbor are not able to be distinguished. The love of the neighbor is a test of the love of God in man. These are the two goals of our whole life.

Solidarity with other human beings, especially those who are suffering, was a means of reminding the Christian of his or her sinfulness and mortality.

…therefore the trespasses of your neighbor are your mirror, in which you are to learn to know your weaknesses, and that you, too, are a man. Therefore, you are to help bear his weaknesses and burden with patience, humility, and meekness.

By aiding those who were struggling and oppressed, regardless of the reasons for this suffering, the Christian would be able to imitate on earth the pattern of divine love established by God and demonstrated in the life of Christ.

There are several striking similarities between Gutierrez and Arndt’s descriptions of the Christian’s social obligations. Perhaps foremost of these is the fact that each explained social justice as an experiential means for the Christian to understand God. It is by identifying with the suffering that theology comes to life. It is not enough for the Christian to simply know about God’s grace and accept it intellectually. Rather, he or she will come to understand it by imitating God. Furthermore, both saw the Christian life as incomplete if lived in isolation. Christians who have not actively engaged themselves in advocating the cause of their suffering neighbors remain underdeveloped in their relationship to Christ.

Arndt’s message of active faith had a major influence in the development of the Pietist movement. This is not least due to the fact that True Christianity remained a best seller through the 1800s! Peasant-class Germans, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes in these centuries often owned very few books, but Arndt’s book was a staple in many homes. It is of note to Covenanters that Paul Peter Waldenström mentioned True Christianity as having been instrumental in his own conversion.

Several Pietists in the generations after Arndt would make practical applications of his message of social renewal. Pastor Philipp Jakob Spener wrote an introduction to the 1675 edition of True Christianity, which outlined a practical plan for the reform of the church. Known as the Pia Desideria, it called for the increased involvement of the laity, and for Christians to engage themselves in genuine love of their neighbors. Although his focus was on spiritual edification among the laity, he was not unaware of the social obligations of Christian living. Spener saw poverty as the result of a lack of Christian unity. He once stated, “Poverty is a stain upon our Christianity. The bond of the holy brotherhood is torn apart through the deficient piety of Christians.”

August Hermann Francke is perhaps the most famous Pietist to apply Arndt’s theology of social obligation. Francke’s establishment of the orphanage at Halle in the 1690s quickly blossomed into an international ministry by the early 1700s. The Franckean brand of Pietism was noted for a fervent engagement in social problems, offering ministries of aid and education to the poor and orphans, widows and vulnerable women. Under the patronage of the Prussian monarchy, Halle was able to influence decisions at all levels of society. Halle had a truly global impact, sending out missionaries, tracts, and medicine to distant parts of the world. Francke appears to have been as concerned with the spiritual and physical wellbeing of people in Siberia, India, Greenland as he was with the people of Halle and Berlin.

Count Nicholaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a student of Halle, is a third major figure in the Pietist movement influenced by Arndt. The community that developed at Zinzendorf’s estate Herrnhut after the arrival of persecuted Moravians in 1720s was based on the principle that union with God was essentially corporate. This ethic typified life at Herrnhut as well as the Moravian societies established around the world by its missionaries.

The common thread that ties Arndt, Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf’s expressions of Pietism together was an emphasis on a socially-based Christianity, in which fellowship and mutual obligation were essential to a person’s development as a Christian. The Pietist strategy to reform the world began with the transformation of the individual into a socially-oriented Christian who would in turn transform society as educators, missionaries, and members of government.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom