Saturday, January 17, 2015


Edification is a central theme in sections 5 and 6 of Part Three (pp. 103-122) of Philip Spener’s, Pia Desidera.  Edification is a major focal point in the training of seminarians, in which the professors serve as the primary role model for aspiring students.  As an essential part—more radically put, as the most essential aspect of their seminary training—“students should have it impressed upon them that holy life is no less of consequence than diligence and study” (p. 104). Without due attention to the formation of a character based on the primacy of holiness, engraved on the heart and soul early on in one’s training, there is the very likely prospect that the desired character formation will not be readily available in one’s formal ministry.  Spener warns against self-deception in any assumption that it will be easy for the ministry student to change stripes once assuming official duties in the pulpit, “as if a deeply ingrained love of the world [does] not generally cling to people throughout their lives” (p. 107). 
Spener identifies a number of focal points, including that of carrying on “edifying conversations” (104) by both students and professors in formal areas of studies and more informal communicative settings.  He also emphasizes the importance of discernment in dealing with controversial issues; to engage in such (when necessary) in a manner that builds up rather than tears down the life of holiness and faith.  Neither polemics nor doctrinal erudition are as important as the formation of holy character.  Attention to such requires that “great care … be exercised to keep controversy within bounds,” in which the entirety of one’s “theology ought to be brought back to apostolic simplicity” (p. 110).  In contemporary terms, theologians would do well to be more irenic in constructing theological frameworks that, consistent with orthodoxy, build bridges with others rather than drawing sharp lines of demarcation, especially where they do not need to be drawn. To cite a well-known aphorism: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (Cited in Olson & Winn, p. 104).
Spener also identifies, along with a sacramental approach to Bible reading, the study of devotional books as another edifying way of instilling right moral character based on the formation and ongoing exercise of holy aspirations and habits.  In addition to Arndt’s True Christianity, he identifies other similar texts such as the various works of John Tauler, the anonymous, 14th century Theologica Germania, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Luther’s Small Catechism, various works by Augustine (pp. 110-111), and other similarly inspired and inspirational texts.  Spener advocates multiple readings of such inspired texts, sifted through a devotionally-prompted heart to complement a similar reading of Scripture.  With foundations thus lain, the appropriately trained seminarians will be optimally poised to assume the pulpit and the duties of the pastorate with a sense of inner integrity and corresponding sense of assurance to nurture their congregation in the quest to live out a holy and devout faith for personal edification and missions as related to all the spheres of life.
There is enough in Pia Desidera to persuade me that Spener assumes a holistic approach to Christian character formation that takes into consideration the importance of the great doctrines of the faith (the sovereignty of God, the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the mandate to spread the gospel throughout the world, and the importance of the historical church).  The quest to exude a holy and devout Christ-based character formation has been a central aspiration of mine, notwithstanding the persisting chasm between the reach and the grasp, which can seem, at times, rather pronounced.  I can also attest, on personal experience, to the importance of both systematic and devotional Bible reading and to the study of both the devotional and more formal theological literature of the saints of God throughout the ages as mutually contributing to my faith formation.  This balanced and comprehensive approach to faith formation is echoed in Pia Desidera.
My only concern with the pietistic impulse is that of making the formation of the devout heart the (or even a) central litmus test of one’s allegiance to the Christian faith.  One concern is that the persisting gap between the quest and the attainment of the desired edification of heart, soul, strength, and mind can leave one with (a) a sense of futility, given that the quest is beyond our capacity to attain; (b) a sense of illusion that one may be “closer” to Christ than one actually may be, or (c) a sense of certainty that can override the ambiguity or complexity that one may actually experience, or (d) a sense that other critical faith-based matters, such as systematic and critically-informed Bible study, theological acuity, 2000 years of church history, and the truths that are incorporated into other religions or world-views (secular and religious) are of little or no account in the complexity of seeking to live out a consistent, well-formed Christian life in the mist of our post-Christendom, pluralistic, global area. 
While much of my early Christian formation was through a distinctively born-again Pentecostal prism where pietistic experience was central—and there’s much about this formation to which I am still attracted—I place more emphasis on faith itself, which may or may not exhibit itself in specific emotional experiences. That is, I may or may not feel pietistic in any given context. This includes that of participating in the most devout worship service, in which I do not base my faith on the attainment of a given experience, however holy or devotional my experience within the worship service may seem.   Rather, I adhere to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3); that is the historical faith of the Christian revelation, as embodied within and throughout the New Testament and embodied within the best theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastic texts of our faith tradition.

I believe Spener and Francke would say something similar. Where I may differ is that I am not working out of a similar historical context as were they, where the pietistic impulse is, subtly or not, pitted in opposition to formal doctrine or dogma. More radically stated, I do no define the pietistic impulse as the defining litmus test of faith, however important and central it may be—a phenomenon that is more defining and central to some serious, committed Christians than others; so I believe.

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