Philip Jacob Spener's Proposals, Part I

by Peter Sandstrom

Part of Pietisten's reason for being is to attempt an ongoing description of what pietism is and has been. Philip Jacob Spener of Germany (1635-1705) was one of the very first to write down what would become some of the primary concerns of the movement in his 1675 proposal for church reform entitled Pia Desideria. In last year's mission meeting issue of Pietisten, Zenos Hawkinson made reference to the six points of Spener's proposal and we are long overdue for a time of exploring them. further. In a series of articles, I will revisit this watershed work and in so doing offer our readers an opportunity to check out for themselves whether Spener's writings are still a wellspring of helpful insight. It's my hope that over the next few issues these articles will encourage several of you to reflect and to write on what aspects of pietism currently resonate with your own spirit and thinking and also to discover where some conflicts might arise. We need to hear from each other about how and if pietism continues to work for us in our Christian journeys of faith.

The Pia Desideria did not start out as a separate work but, rather, was solicited as a preface to a new edition of a collection of sermons by Johann Arndt. Spener was deeply influenced by Arndt (1555-1621), who had carried on and further developed the mystic tradition lifted up by Martin Luther. This long line of Catholic mystics included Luther's own Augustinian spiritual director, Johannes Staupitz; Thomas A Kempis (1389-1471); the Dominican monk, Johannes Tauler (1300- 1361); the Franciscan nun, Angela of Foligno (1248-1309); and the Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). The work of each of these persons was studied by Luther and also was read and appreciated by various pietist writers who followed him. Tauler and Angela were especially influential on Amdt's masterwork, True Christianity.

What was unexpected in 1675 was that Spener's preface would become a smash hit all by itself and would be published separately within a few short months under the title Pia Desideria. Immensely popular, it was frequently reprinted until 1712 (quotations in this article are taken from the 1975 edition published by Fortress Press). It is divided into three sections. The first is an analysis of the corrupt conditions of the church, including the defects in the civil authorities, the clergy, and the common people.

The second portion is a short declaration of the possibilities of better conditions in the church. The third section comprises the six proposals for correcting conditions within the church. These six, in abbreviated form, are:

  1. That "thought should be given to a more extensive use of the word of God among us."
  2. That there be "the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood."
  3. That "the people must have impressed upon them and must accustom themselves to believing that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice."
  4. That "we must beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies with unbelievers and heretics.... We must remind ourselves of our duty to the erring.
  5. That both integrity of life and sound education which includes spiritual development be considered necessary when calling persons to be pastors.
  6. That sermons be so prepared by all that their purpose (faith and its fruits) may be achieved in the hearers to the greatest possible degree."

Spener begins his first proposal by writing that "thought should be given to a more extensive use of the Word of God among us." It is important to note that he says these words in a town and region that were highly permeated with the presence and doings of the church. The parish had a strong public posture and there was a great deal of preaching from many pulpits on the assigned texts throughout the week as well as Sundays. Spener complained that, although sermons were based on scriptural texts, that in itself did not provide for adequate acquaintance of the laity with the scriptures and certainly not for adequate study of them — especially since the pericope covered only a certain fraction of the Bible.

He suggests that three courses of action be considered as possible remedies to the situation. The first is a daily persistent reading of the scriptures in every household. The second is that, during or after the public worship service, time be provided for the books of the Bible to be read one after the other, without comment, so that the whole of the scriptures could be heard by all the people readers and non-readers alike.

His third suggestion, also his most adventurous, is that consideration be given to reintroducing "the ancient and apostolic" church meetings. These gatherings would be in addition to the regular worship and other meetings of the congregation, Rather than just one person preaching, "others who had been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgement of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife." This could be done when several ministers got together or within a congregation when several lay people, under the leadership of a minister, met to discuss each verse and idea in a cordial spirit, with the intent of educating all those present. As this was intended for discussion, "anybody who is not satisfied with his understanding of a matter should be permitted to express his doubts and to seek further information." Spener sees this as a wonderful way for ministers and their parishioners to get to know each other better, to enhance the freedom to ask questions, and to encourage further study of the scripture at home.

In summarizing his first proposal, Spener also describes his methodology for creating change: "This much is certain: the diligent use of the Word of God, which consists not only of listening to sermons but also of reading, meditation, and discussing (Ps. I:2), must be the chief means for reforming something."

Many recognize Spener's foresight in the first two suggestions, and his description rings true with regard to the current prevalence of biblical illiteracy among so many Christians. Spener was concerned that so much of scripture outside the pericope was being missed, especially in the homes. I don't know if he could imagine our present plight in which many church members do not know even a portion of the Sunday texts.

What is interesting and prophetic is that some of Spener's third suggestion for what he called the apostolic church meeting became actual. Much of his design and his language describing that meeting seems also to describe what later became known as "conventicle" among an increasing number of people who took Spener's words to heart. We recognize Spener's influence on the conventicle in its use of text, an assigned topic, and open discussion allowing both lay persons and clergy to ask questions and to express faith and doubts.

What Spener does not seem to have anticipated is that his hope for such a meeting to take place within the church building itself, as a part of regular church life, would soon be keenly resisted in many places and for such a long time. So successful was the resistance that we now think of the conventicle as a home meeting. A continuing issue in pietist history has been how to keep the conventicle a part of congregational life when it has been denied access to the parish church.

Spener's third point reminds us of other things besides conventicle. What he describes can sound in various ways like what we now call adult Sunday School, Bible study groups, small groups, or sharing/caring groups. The former two have been a regular part of Church life in some denominations for several generations.

An important question is: To what extent is adult Sunday School — which has had access to the church building and has been a regular part of congregational life — in any of its important forms faithful to Spener's vision of an apostolic meeting? It seems that it depends upon the class. A traditional lecture without discussion, though dealing with important matters, including scripture, does not fulfill Spener's vision. A class which would function by questions and discussion that is not centered on study of scripture would be lacking, also.

Spener's vision and the condition of the intimacy of a small group found in the conventicle compare to the intimacy of present day small groups, but here, too, there are differences. The small church group that has the therapy group as its primary model is usually more interested in personal growth issues, and because the group in its meeting does not focus on a text, it is something other than Spener's vision. The conventicle requires assigned scripture and is usually more interested in the reflection and conversation of the many than in the dominant perspective of a single leader, which is already available through sermons.

What is held in common by Spener's proposal and the vast array of current offerings in adult education found in congregations is a sense that what happens in worship, even in regard to use of scripture, is not enough to sustain Christian spiritual development. It is commonly held, also, that the resources of spiritual development can come from the laity — from the many — as well as from the guidance and offerings of the one or the few — the clergy. It is a view that was radiantly affirmed by a descendant of those same Catholic mystics whom Spener and other pietists held so dear, Pope John XXIII, at Vatican II.

It is fair to say, I think, that although conventicle and current adult Christian education have much in common, they are still in essence distinct. Conventicle cannot by itself meet all of the agenda of current adult education, be it instruction, personal development, or special issues. On the other hand, it is my impression that the vast majority of adult education offerings in the church do not even come close to the conventicle in meeting Spener's vision of a place and time where (a) ministers and members of the congregation gather together regularly outside of worship; (b) the scriptures are systematically studied and examined; (c) discussion is open and vulnerable, and includes commentary and questions that may come from anyone to anyone; and (d) resolution of conflict, if it comes, arises through consideration of the text and listening to the "pious" opinions of the persons in the group, not by imposition of the leader's opinion only.

It is Spener's summary comment I find so very intriguing. His perception is that scripture is a means of reform. This "diligent use" of God's Word includes not only listening to it in sermons but "reading, meditating and discussion" of the texts. It comes so clearly from Spener that scripture is not a closed end in itself but is made known through process. This process requires that we bring to scripture and to our gatherings a willingness and a determination to be reflective and conversive with the text and with each other. I believe it is our own trust in Spener's process that leads us to publish Pietisten and to do our best to continue reading, meditating, and discussing the Word.