Philip Jacob Spener, Part IV

by Peter Sandstrom

We must beware of how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies with unbelievers and heretics." This fourth proposal for the renewal of the church from Philip Jacob Spener's Pia Desideria (p. 97) might also have been titled, "Disputation as if conversion, ecumenism, scripture, life, and the love of God and neighbor mattered." Spener's proposal #4 is an evangelical and ecumenical tour de force.

That it was written before the gatherings of the Edinburgh Conferences, the World Council of Churches, and Vatican II is breathtaking, That it was written on the heels of the religious carnage of the Thirty Years War is astounding. That it remains good counsel for present-day missionary and ecumenical efforts is a blessing.

The rootage of the entire Pia Desideria in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War was explored in the discussion of proposal #3 which was published two issues ago in Pietisten. Suffice it to say that Spener's next proposal concerning religious controversy — in particular, religious disputation and debate — was written with a working knowledge of just how lethal the outcome of religious conflict could be. And he refers here only to conflict limited to the realm of the Christian church itself!

Spener describes his fourth proposal by using five suggestions. I summarize these roughly as: Prayer, Our Example, Christ's Teaching, Practice:, and Limits of Disputation. He prefaces these by emphasizing that first priority be given to "strengthen and confirm ourselves, our friends, and other fellow believers in the known truth and to protect them with great care from every kind of seduction. Then we must remind ourselves of our duty toward the erring" (p. 97).


The above quotation shows something of the spirit and the conflict in which proposal N4 is written. There is a sense in which Spener divides the world between "believers in the known truth" on the one hand and "heretics," "unbelievers," and "the erring" on the other. He remains committed to the idea in Lutheranism and its ancestor Catholicism that truth, especially in its propositional forms, can be known. Those within the whole Church who depart from or are unpersuaded by these truths are "in error" and/or "heretics." Those who are outside the Church, whether by choice or lack of contact are "unbelievers." Spener and other pietists were interested in reaching and staying in conversation with both heretics and unbelievers. In regard to the former, the erring, this fourth article proposes that, before anything is said or done by those who assume they are within the truth, they first enter into prayer. In lifting up their brothers and sisters in the Church, whom they perceive to be erring, pietists are to pray for their enlightenment, for their being led into truth, for preparing their hearts for such a process, and for a reinforcement of the truth which is still within them.

Spener goes a significant step forward with this advice and places all these prayer concerns for the erring church in the context of the first three articles of the Lord's Prayer, "that God may hallow his name in them, bring his kingdom to them, and accomplish his gracious will in and for them" (p. 98).

Spener frequently refers to the truth. Yet, by demanding that prayer precede discussion or action concerning truth or its attainment, he effectively puts a qualification on truth, including its propositional forms, by making it subsequent to spirit and to the language of spirit, which is prayer. Further, by placing truth discussions in the context of the Lord's Prayer in particular, Spener not only looks at truth in relation to God's name, kingdom, and gracious will, but also in relation to a petition stating needs and admitted weaknesses; we need bread, we have sinned, we need forgiveness, we nod to be spared from temptation and testing. In short, we are incomplete and needy. Those who would pray for the erring must first pray a prayer that requires they humble themselves and admit their own incompleteness, neediness, and errors in the face of God's grace. The Lord's Prayer seems a good first challenge for would-be inquisitors and teachers of truth.

Spener's advice and spirit is reflected in the following report of a Mission Meeting of Swedish pietists in America in 1874.

Saturday afternoon the first question discussed was, What dangers did Jesus sec for his disciples when he admonished them saying, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy?" (Luke 12:1). From this came many important admonitions to God' s children. One danger is that at the present time so much is preached, discussed, and written about the heresy of others, forgetting ourselves and examination before God's word in such passages as "We all like sheep have gone astray," and the Lord's word, "See to it that you are not tempted," and "First remove the beam in your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." [sic] The necessity of guarding against hypocrisy before brothers of another confession as well as within one' s own denomination, even more particularly to guard against hypocrisy before one's own heart . . . . (Missions-Vännen, October, 1874, p. 80 as cited by Eric Hawkinson, Images in Covenant Beginnings, 1968, p.29)

Our Example

"In the second place we must give them a good example and take the greatest pains not to offend them in any way, for this would give them a bad impression of our true teaching and hence would make their conversion more difficult" (p. 98). Spener's second suggestion, though only one sentence long, continues the paradoxical and bold path of this fourth proposal. For someone claiming to know truth and professing a desire to let others know what it is, Spener behaves oddly, especially considering this is a truth discussion led by a seventeenth century Lutheran.

First he claims a relationship of truth to life, of a proposition to a person, by saying that the believability of a truth is+ affected by the example of its proclaimer's life. Very quietly, and in the course of one sentence fragment, Spener has just insisted, to the surprise of his contemporary Lutheran, Catholic, and Reformed listeners, that truth does not stand by itself. Truth's ability to persuade is interrelated with the lived experience of human beings. If truth is not or cannot be lived out by its proclaimers, then its validity is in doubt. You must "walk your talk."

Spener doesn't let it go at this; he then insists that "great pains" must be taken not to offend the erring in any way. This would both give them a bad impression of "our true teaching" and make conversion more difficult. It is possible that Spener's constant remarks of "our truth" and "our teaching" might make him seem to be one more presumptuous preacher of absolutes. As this second suggestion of his shows, however, Spener is not very easily dispatched to such a caricature.

As readers, we must take a few moments to project ourselves into Spener's audience to sense how radical, even absurd and futile, his call not to offend others must have seemed to many. The Continent, with its seething Christian factions of Protestant and Catholic principalities and perspectives, had a poisoned collective memory of recent slaughter, destruction, and hatred. The closest parallel in this country is the aftermath of the Civil War in terms of lives lost, ways of life lost, and unresolved waves of resentment and rage. In their walking and talking with the inheritors of that kind of distrust and loathing in seventeenth-century Germany, Spener insists that his followers begin by offering their adversaries and combatants the moral equivalent of doughnuts and coffee: don't be rude! Why not? Well, Spener presses the edge of this unworldly admonition even further. Be friendly because there is a hope that sometime some of them may be converted! Make your lives consistent with the truths you proclaim, live humbly, don't take or give offense, and the gospel itself may persuade hearts and minds to turn. There is a further implication that this will also have a positive effect on the lives of the witness

This was as out of place and seemingly impractical in 1674 Germany as it often seems to be on 1989 Christian Cable TV. To this day the inheritors of the stream of pietism that flows from Spener remain more comfortable with an evangelism that requires the use of a handshake between individuals than with an evangelism that needs either a catch phrase or a good line convincing a multitude of listeners or viewers without personal contact. It is difficult to shake hands with someone if offense is given or taken. Using the TV tube or the lectern microphone, you never really know if you've offended or not, or, if your listeners would even want to shake hands with you. If one does not share Spener's concern for personal contact, it doesn't much matter.

Christ's Teaching

"In the third place, if God has given us the gifts which are needful for it and we find the opportunity to hope to win the erring, we should be glad to do what we can to point out, with a modest but firm presentation of the truth we profess, how this is based on Christ's teaching" (p. 98). I n this third suggestion, Spener presents a five-fold means of approaching "the erring."

The first of these five points, which is also the key to the other four, is the instruction to show how our perspective on truth relates to "the simplicity of Christ's teaching." In discussions about truth with other Christians, Spener emphasizes Jesus' role as teacher rather than saviour or God incarnate.' In other words, in pursuing the intricacies of truth, Jesus is our rabbi. This, then, places Jesus in the larger tradition of "the teacher" in Jewish and Christian scriptures.

This also leads directly to Spener's second point: "At the same time we should indicate decently but forcefully how their errors conflict with the Word of God and what dangers lie in their wake" (p. 98). For Spener, Jesus' teaching is the entryway into the other teachings of Scripture. Any Christian in-house discussion, therefore, must first relate itself to Christ' s teaching and must see Christ's teaching in light of the entire discussion going on among all the teachers, writers, and persons in the whole of the Bible.

In the midst of this array, Spener identifies Jesus' teaching as one that can be characterized by "simplicity." He does not define what he means by that term, but I am led to think that he is referring to Jesus' own summary statements of Mosaic law which all rabbis were required to pronounce when they were "put to the test" by other teachers or critics. Further, I get the impression that Spener feels that this simplicity applies to the discussion of the rest of scripture as well when he states that we should be able "decently but forcefully" to show others their errors in interpreting the Word of God. Complexity is not a characteristic of Scriptural discussion that Spener is willing to recognize in this instance.

Next, with respect to Christ's teaching, Spener notes that in discussing scripture with the erring, "All . . . should be done in such a way that those with whom we deal can see for themselves that everything is done out of heartfelt love toward them, without carnal and unseemly feelings, and that if we ever indulge in excessive vehemence this occurs out of pure zeal for the glory of God" (p. 98). Though he does not say so, I think this is an integral part of what the simplicity and centrality of Jesus' teaching as "heartfelt love" means to Spener.

Christ's teaching, scripture, and heartfelt love ought to be modeled in discussion with others in at least one specific manner. This is the fourth point under Christ's Teaching. "Especially should we beware of invectives and personal insinuations, which at once tear down all the good we have in mind to build" (p. 98). Spener stands directly against a prevalent idea that church doctrine debates of the seventeenth century could be won or lost by the use of sophism and character assassination.

Disputations and discussions among rival church thinkers often had a sarcastic tone, like a contest between arrogant debate teams rather than the spirit and tone of mutual seekers of truth. An extremely divisive party spirit was carrying the day, But Spener leaves no doubt about what he considers important, again with Jesus, the teacher, as his model. "In other things which pertain to human life we should demonstrate that we consider these people to be our neighbors (as the Samaritan was represented by Christ in Luke 10:29-37 as the Jew' s neighbor), regard them as our brothers according to the right of common creation and the divine love that is extended to all (though not according to regeneration), and therefore are so disposed in our hearts toward them as the command to love all others as we love ourselves demands.... A proper hatred of false religion should neither suspend nor weaken the love that is due the other person" (p, 99).

In this light it is fascinating to note that, in point five, Spener requires of those "others" with whom he is in dispute with that if, at the end of discussion, they arc not "able for the present to comprehend what we have said, they are to be admonished at the very least not to slander or speak evil of the truth which they have heard from us" (p. 98). If they do not agree with us or comprehend what we are saying, then we do not require that they submit to our position on truth or scripture but we entreat that they refrain from slandering our perspective.

Spener urges a cessation of verbal abuse and personal attacks. In addition to asking the parties to debates to refrain from certain behaviors and attitudes, he encourages ("admonishes" actually) them to "reflect further on the matter, in fear of the Lord and with fervent prayer and in the meantime to try seriously to advance in the truth and to serve their God according to the practical principles and rules of conduct which most people who call themselves Christian have to some extent in common" (p. 98). Like living in Christian love.

In short, Spener recognizes that discernment of truth is a process, an ongoing activity of reflection and prayer. It is characteristic of Spener and a part of this proposal that he takes things a giant leap forward by proclaiming that opposing sides in a dispute of Christian doctrine can nevertheless acknowledge in each other a common capacity and will to "serve their God" and to hold both prayer and "practical principles" in common. Spener's emphasis on recognizing the significant things that Christian factions have in common is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries on the Continent. His proposals and posture were an extraordinary entry into the debates and climate of his time.


In the "practice of heartfelt love toward unbelievers and heretics" (p,99), Spener makes a distinction between matters of false belief or unbelief and those "other things" that "pertain to human life." No joy is to be taken in others' falling from truth. Spener proposes a five-fold means of still regarding these other people as companion human beings.

In these five points, Spener evokes a stunningly humane respect for others. In regard to these matters "which pertain to human life," he recommends that: (1) "we should demonstrate that we consider these people to be our neighbors," (2) that we "regard them as our brothers [and sisters] according to the right of common creation and the divine love that is extended to all," (3) that we be "so dispose in our hearts toward them as the command to love all others as we love ourselves demands," (4) that "to insult or wrong an unbeliever or heretic on account of his religion would be not only a carnal zeal but also a zeal that is calculated to hinder his conversion," and (5) that a "proper hatred of false religion should neither suspend nor weaken the love that is due the other person" (p. 99).

This is a powerful word, a word abundantly full of good counsel. The grace that flows out of it is bountiful and insightful, yet we have never really had it held up for us before so that we could reflect on it and be encouraged. The inheritors of pietism have been done an injustice by not having been told loudly and often that this kind of spirit and this particular model for relationships with those within and without the church is a rightful gift of their spiritual heritage

This model provides a wonderfully humane and scriptural alternative to the other more judgmental, destructive, and inhumane models that have been hoisted upon us in the name of being true to the faith. Listen again to just the sound of some of these words as we consider our ecumenical, evangelical, and missionary conversations: "heartfelt love" and "practice" — "the practice of heartfelt love"; "human life"; "neighbors" — "we consider these people to be our neighbors"; we should demonstrate that "the right of common creation and divine love that is extended to all"; "so disposed in our hearts . . . to love all others"; "to insult or wrong an unbeliever on account of his religion would be. . . a carnal zeal"; and "neither suspend nor weaken the love that is due the other person."

This is the kind of language, depth of spirit, and common creatureliness that can help make possible Christian conversation that is both honest and humane. And as Spener would heartily remind us, it also makes for a dialogue that really works, that is, it doesn't "hinder.. . conversion." So it is not only personal, it is quite practical as well.

Limits of Disputation

Spener concludes this fourth proposal with a seven-point fifth suggestion that describes the limits of disputation. the context for this is Spener's hope that some meaningful coming together of the church can actually take place. As he writes, "if there is any prospect of a union of most of the confessing among Christians, the primary way of achieving it, and the one that God would bless most, would perhaps be this, that we do not stake everything on argumentation" (p. 99). Nonetheless, Spener's first point of this fifth suggestion is a recognition that disputation and truth conversations have been a necessary tool for building the church and that the Apostles themselves modeled this in their own lively arguments.

However, and second, Spener sees this activity through the viewpoint of Johann Arndt who writes in True Christianity, "Purity of doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing but also by true repentance and holiness of life" (pp. 99, 100).

"Therefore," as his third point, Spener declares, "that not all disputation is useful and good" (p. 99) and "proper disputation is not the only means of maintaining the truth but requires other means alongside it" (p. 100). He has a distrust of the motivations of many of the debaters of his day, sensing that many of them are driven more by ego than by the Spirit. In such debates, reason is separated from the Word and can't be trusted by itself. Because of this, disputation can only be one means among others of discerning the truth.

Fourth, Spener notes that even if a disputation is conducted in a proper, spiritual, and scriptural manner, still "God may not add his blessing, nor will he always allow the truth to prevail" (p. 101), An addendum to this fourth point is that part of the reason God may not add God's blessing and truth to a debate is that a party spirit and numbers game may be the real hidden agenda behind the proceedings. As Spener writes from the perspective of his own church, "this is the case with those whose thoughts hardly extend beyond making many people Lutheran and do not deem it important that with this profession such people become genuine Christians to the very core. They therefore regard true confession of faith merely as a means of strengthening their own ecclesiastical party and not as an entrance upon a life of zealous future service of God" (p. 101)

Instead of these motivations, Spener proposes as his fifth point that the purpose of disputation is to convert a person not only to truth but to a life of obedience and gratitude to God. Throughout this fifth suggestion and now again in its fourth and fifth points, we see in Spener's pietism a strong emphasis on life and its centrality in faith and truth discussions. In this entire fourth proposal, concerned with ecumenical and evangelical issues, we witness pietism as essentially a life movement or better, an entrance to life rather than a ledger of party spirit and numbers.

This focus on life issues carries into the sixth point, which is that intellectual conviction of truth is not the same thing as faith. "Faith requires more" (p. 101). The desire to apply one's life to serving God and doing God's will is of greater importance. This is the meaning for Spener of John's word in the eighth chapter of his gospel: "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (p. 102).

The seventh and final point of this fifth suggestion is that disputation is not enough either to keep or to share the truth. The love of God is necessary. "If only we Evangelicals would make it our serious business to offer God the fruits of his truth in fervent love, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our calling, and show this in recognizable and unalloyed love of our neighbors, including those who are heretics, by practicing the duties mentioned above!" (p. 102).

Philip Jacob Spener was devoted to truth, life, and the love of God. In his desire to promote a church in which all three of these devotions were lifted up, he discovered that even the very way Christians spoke with each other and with unbelievers often contributed to the demise of the Gospel. That such practices continued, even after the cataclysm of the Thirty Years War exemplified the violent results of inter-church contempt and self-righteousness, was a sign to Spener that the Church was still in need of reform, including a dramatic change in the way Christians of opposing points of view conversed with each other. What is perhaps most astonishing in all this — in the writings of the Pia Desideria and its fourth proposal — is that Spener actually manages to hold onto a small hope that possibilities do exist for reform of the Church and onto the chance that Christian factions and others might recognize and respect each other "according to the right of common creation and the divine love that is extended to all" (p. 99). Spener doesn't assume that it will happen, but that it may.

The concluding words of his fourth proposal speaks to that continuing hope: "For the Word of God has the power, if it is not viciously impeded either by those who declare it or by those who hear it, to convert men's hearts. Thus holiness of life itself contributes much to conversion as Peter (I Peter 3:1, 2) teaches" (p. 102).