Pr. Eric Swensson

11 July 2013

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I began a blog ten years ago, and when it was time to pick a name, I saw no one on Google Blogger had taken the name “pietist” and I took it [It is actually called "Awakenings but the url is]. There have been many times since I have rued that decision. Why? Well, I am not a pietist. I am a Lutheran Christian and am of the understanding that Lutheran is an adjective. It should be enough, that one adjective, but sadly it isn’t. We have Evangelical Catholics and Gnesio Lutherans and Lutheran Charismatics and Lutherans who just use their denomination’s initials and so on. There are very few who call themselves Pietist Lutherans. Why did I name my blog “Pietist”? Well, I was several years into researching three large topics: first, Martin Luther; second, the Lutheran Churchly Pietists; and then revivalism in general. I found all three topics endlessly fascinating. Luther had always been a spellbinding figure, and about seven years into parish ministry, a congregation where I had tried everything to get the darn plant to bloom I bought two books at a conference and reading them seemed to have set me on a certain course.

What were the two books? Well, let me set the stage a little. I was at Oneonta New York. Every summer in August the Upper new York Synod holds a week long conference at Hartwick College. It is essentially their deacon training program. The first year I was in New York, (20 years ago), I had gotten a flyer at the church and I decided to go. There were some interesting speakers and courses being given. I saw that Paul Hinlicky was teaching and having heard some interesting bits about him, I decided to go. And I did and I returned and seven years later when I got married, I even convinced my wife to go with me a couple of times.

It was one of those early years of my marriage when she was with me at the conference at Hartwick College and for some reason I wasn’t quite captivated by the course work as usual and we were kinda just walking around I saw that one of the people there had a used book store and had set up tables with boxes and boxes of the kind of books that must have come from the libraries of pastors who had gone on to their reward.

I called my wife over and said, “Look at this, honey. Pia Desideria, or whoever you pronounce it. I read this in seminary.”

“Is it good?”

“Yeah, I think so. I wonder what happened to my copy. Oh, look, it is only a dollar. I’m going to get it.”

When I went to pay for it the fellow said, “If you like that you should get this other book,” and he walked me over to the table and he held up the Paulist Press edition of True Christianity. Since it was only a couple of bucks, I got it, too.

Reading those two books did something to me. At that time in my life, about nine years in the parish, I felt like I had given about all I had. I was ready to either quit or surrender and reading to Arndt and Spener helped my to quit trying to please everyone. I knew that I wanted to know more about the power of God, and if God could do great things through men like that, why not with us?

So I read more and began to try and think like a historian. I began to see that there has always been divisions in the Church, and the divisions had always said terrible things about each other. And they do this, not like politicians, but out of a real sincerity.

I posted a link to some of my research on Facebook the other day and I was promptly told by a brother Lutheran that the Pietists were responsible for everything from the weak footing of the ELCA to this man’s worst imagined Enlightenment philosophers. I didn’t even bother responding to him because I have learned it is a complete waste of time. Once someone has made a bogeyman of a school of thought, they are not open to hearing anything of a positive nature.

However, there are real theological differences that we can discuss. One is about the Law. In short, are there Two Uses, that is the Civil Law and the Theological. The latter is surely the one that we preachers deal with and I would that all preachers do it properly. But are there three?

I think so. It is all my pea brain can sort out. I like the phrase “Curb, Mirror and Guide” to explain the Third Use of the Law.

I also like the Pietist Principle as found in Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. That is, in short, “application.” You see, this is terribly important. What is the good of sermons or of Scripture itself if it is not applied to human lives? Now one could argue that the Theological Use is applied to the human conscience when we are cut to the quick and see our situation as it really is and we feel it, we know it, that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God as it were. But even then, what kind of God would then simply apply the balm of the Gospel and send us out to live free, free, free? That would not be a loving God at all. We do need to know how to live. And God does not do pronounce us to be good little children and send us out to play. He saves us, yes, yet He continues His saving work by transforming us. After our justification we have our sanctification before us. But most telling of all, if you ask me, and this really is me here and I am speaking for no one else, what do you do with texts that tell you how to live? What do you do with sermons like Luther’s where he quite explicitly tells people what to do?

What do you do with “Love your neighbor like yourself”? I call it a pretty good plumb line, a way to judge how I am doing in my sanctified life. I take no credit in being able to love my neighbor or in judging how I am doing at the task. It has nothing to do with my salvation. That was already set. I was lost. He found me. And talking for myself here, I was a mess when he found me. If I had thought God was telling me that I was then OK and I should go on out and play, I would have gotten good and lost again.

I might have lost you in my attempt to transition from Pietists to Third Use of the Law, perhaps my saying that while labels are not important but theological differences isn’t that impressive. However, I do invite ongoing discussion on what’s important. How we are saved and how we live that out is important. I don’t think I’m OK, you’re OK. I think living the Christian life is not for sissies. I'm glad God is there every step of the way. How about you? And how goes your walk with the Lord go, my pietist brothers and sisters.

Yes, actually, I think we are all pietists at heart. While we might have signed up for one party or the other, and we might not be toting a Bible with us everywhere we go, I think most of us do know that the Bible is a lot more real than we are. You probably agree with me that it is best to turn to it quickly and often, and if we did so the world would be a better place.

The Lutheran Churchly Pietists got a lot of bad raps. One was that they were "other-worldly". Another is that they introduced new teaching that were not Lutheran. In fact the Pietists were not interested in new teaching, they wanted to emphasize the doing of what was supposed to be taught. And do they did. A.H. Francke, in what started as a means to help the poor in his immediate neighborhood, began an Institute that raised hundreds of orphans at any given time and a school that was actually six different schools with over a thousand students. He oversaw the sending of the first Protestant missionaries, began a hospital, a printing press and many other things. And he did it all while being pastor of the large church next door and taking over leadership of a whole movement that wanted to fundamentally change the world for the better.

There is so much that we could do if we would only let God do it.

  • In Christ,
  • Rev. Eric Swensson
  • Director for Marketing, Institute of Lutheran Theology
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