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Pietism—The Brethren Soul

The next several blog posts are an attempt to elucidate the dialectical (both/and) tension at the heart of Brethren theology and relay its importance for today. 


In 1708, a new group emerged in the German village of Schwarzenau in the territory of Wittgenstein that synthesized the theological views of Swiss-German Mennonites and Radical Pietism. In their theological outlook, they would end up creating a dialectical theology that provided balance to the two streams of thought that formed the burgeoning movement. They chose to call themselves “Brethren” after the Apostle Paul’s name for his fellow believers in the various churches he addressed in his epistles. To the church leaders around them, they were known as the Neu-Täufer, “New Baptists of Schwarzenau,” after their unique practice (and insistence upon) baptizing forward by trine immersion.[i] In his book, Another Way of Believing: A Brethren Theology, Dale Brown captures the centrality of baptism to Brethren history and theology (albeit a little tongue and cheek):

To baptize or be baptized was originally an act of civil disobedience, a stance that espoused religious freedom, separation of church and state, and voluntary acceptance of the faith. Unlike most of our history, early converts needed to count the cost of possible imprisonment, banishment as refugees, and suffering even to death. In a safer nineteenth century, baptism at an earlier age seemed more feasible. A frequent historical caricature of Brethren preaching claims that whatever the text, the minister always managed to get around to the topic of baptism.[ii]

The centrality of immersion baptism came from the growing sect’s reading of the New Testament and a study of the early church, synthesized through the writings of Radical Pietist Gottfried Arnold.[iii] In this practice they found a convergence of the inner change of heart described throughout Pietist literature and the outward form they believed Scripture and the early church required to indicate such a change. Baptism remains central for Brethren groups as a signifier of the central dialectics at the heart of our faith—inner and outer, individual and corporate, Word and Spirit.

The conversations that sustained the group that would become the “New Baptists” trace their origin to another Radical Pietist, Ernst Christoph Hochmann von Hochenau, a disciple of Arnold. Hochmann had a tremendous impact on Alexander Mack, considered the founder of the Brethren movement. If Arnold was the great teacher of the movement of Radical Pietism, then Hochmann was its chief evangelist. Hochmann’s teachings provided the necessary catalyst to coalesce varied theological sentiments into the firm convictions that would serve as the foundation for the congregation in Schwarzenau. Mack did not blindly assent to Arnold’s and Hochmann’s views but drew upon insights gained in conversations with Swiss-German Mennonites in the region. Such an infusion of ideas helped form the historic dialectic that makes Brethrenism possible—Radical Pietism and Anabaptism.

Pietism, especially the Radical Pietism that informed the early Brethren, is an important stream of thought in Brethren theology. If Anabaptism is the structure of the Brethren, then Pietism is the soul. Pietism is difficult to distill down to core tenets. The term first comes into vogue by a professor in Leipzig in 1689. “The name Pietist is known all over the city,” he writes. “What is a Pietist? One who studies God’s word and leads a holy life. This is well done; indeed, it would be good for every Christian.”[iv] Though difficult to discern, Brian Moore has argued that four themes are common to this large umbrella movement. (1) The “fall” of the Church, (2) a disassociation from fallen “Babel,” a term applied to the fallen Church, (3) an emphasis on new birth, the Holy Spirit, and personal holiness, and (4) an emphasis on an adult response to Jesus.[v] Roger Olson and Christian Collins-Winn further develop lists like Moore’s and suggest that Pietism emphasized ten core tenets:

(1) The embrace and acceptance of orthodox Protestant doctrine, broadly defined; (2) experiential, transformative Christianity; (3) conversion, the regeneration of the “inner man”; (4) conversional piety—a strong devotional life and a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ crucified and risen; (5) visible Christianity—holy living and transformed character; (6) love of the Bible understood as a medium of an immediate relationship with God; (7) Christian life lived in community; (8) world transformation toward the kingdom of God; (9) ecumenical, irenic Christianity; and (10) the common priesthood of true believers.[vi]

Pietism challenged the state religion to a more robust, vibrant expression of orthodoxy and discipleship. Born out of Lutheranism, Pietism differed in that “unlike the increasingly pessimistic and quietistic Luther, Pietists believed in the possibility of the active transformation of this world, the achievement of the kingdom of God on earth; and they believed…that it was their duty towards God, for the greater glory of God, to attempt to change conditions in the here and now.”[vii]

This Pietist challenge came in response to the systematizing of Luther’s theology by the generation that followed the great Reformation thinker. Known by later scholars as “Verkonfessionalisierung,” this development

refers to the rigid confessionalizing of Lutheranism which was undertaken by its seventeenth century theologians. The process was aided by the reappearance of Aristotelianism in German universities and gymnasia early during that century. The result was an unprecedented hardening of Lutheran doctrine. Not only did the guardians of orthodoxy endeavor to keep pure the teachings of the communion but the truth had to be stated in accepted phrases. Any deviation in phraseology was immediately viewed with great suspicion. After John Gerhard, the various minutiae of the seventeenth century systems of Lutheran theology had to be treated in proper order and sequence so as not to raise apprehensions of heresy. In this heavily dogmatic atmosphere the essence of Christianity came to be regarded as consisting in a series of rationally ordered propositions. Faith had been largely re-defined so as to consist in personal assent to those propositions. Confessional theology and Christianity were regarded as almost synonymous.[viii]

Brown is similarly critical in his evaluation of Lutheran Confessionalism, viewing it as a virtual reversal of the Reformation. Protestant Scholasticism became a sort of “intellectual pelagianism” in which good works of the medieval church were traded for works of understanding. Justification by faith, a central belief to Luther, became a dogma of Luther’s posterity instead of the pietistic source of dogma of the reformer. The testimony of the Holy Spirit and the reading of the Bible were reduced down to “mere intellectual processes… to verify the creedal dogmas.”[ix]

What developed in light of this scholastic theology is what Stoeffler describes as “doctrinal nominalism.” As a result, fiducia had become assensus, the liberty of the Christian man had given way to the tyranny of scholastic theology, and the Bible had once again become an arsenal of proof texts.[x]

The “liberty of the Christian” becomes front and center in the writings of Pietism. Lutheran confessionalism saw an unfortunate collapsing of faith into mental assent to Lutheran symbols and theology. Johann Arndt (1555-1621), considered the grandfather and precursor of Pietism, makes this criticism one of the central themes in his foundational book, True Christianity. “True Christianity,” argues Arndt, “consists not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arise righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself.”[xi] With these words, Pietism emerged as an impulse within Reformation theology.

These Pietist concerns, however, are not merely Christian humanism. Arndt writes later that “true Christianity” recognizes the need for an experience of the divine. Faith is less intellectual assent and more a transforming experience of the transcendent.

Note that faith consists in living, consoling trust and not in empty sounds and words . . . This is true knowledge of God, which arises out of experience and consists in living faith. Therefore, the Epistle to the Hebrews calls faith a substance, a being, an undeniable witness (Heb. 11:1). This is a piece of the inner, spiritual worship, the knowledge of God, which consists in living faith, and faith is a spiritual, living, heavenly gift, light and power of God.[xii]

Adding to this sentiment, Arndt writes, “In the living and working faith and in the following of the holy life of Christ, the true living knowledge of Christ consists.”[xiii] Arndt’s teaching inspired the central catalyst of Pietism, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705).[xiv] As early as 1670 Spener was calling believers to meet in small groups. These small groups were known as “conventicles” and their central purpose was to take the Sunday sermon and discuss its application.[xv] The seminal work of Pietism, Pia Desideria (“Pious Desires”) was originally a foreword to one of Arndt’s devotional works. In this work, Spener called for six reforms needed for the church to experience reform:

  1. More thoroughly acquaint believers with scripture by means of private readings and study groups in addition to preaching;
  2. Increase the involvement of laity in all functions of the church;
  3. Emphasize that believers put into practice their faith and knowledge of God;
  4. Approach religious discussions with humility and love, avoiding controversy whenever possible;
  5. Ensure that pastors are both well-educated and pious; and
  6. Focus preaching on developing faith in ordinary believers.[xvi]

Radical Pietism, unlike other Reformation groups, was never satisfied with merely reforming the Church. The Radical Pietists argued that the true church had been lost through centuries of complicity with empire dating back to the “fall of the Church” under the Emperor Constantine. These Pietists became frustrated with the pace of reform offered by theologians like Spener. Encouraged by the writings of the mystic, Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), these Radical Pietists called for a full separation from the institutional church. Boehme’s writings had a strong underground influence on this blossoming movement detailing illuminations of the “deep mysteries of life and cosmos” via a school of thought known as “theosophy.”[xvii] His most famous works were Aurora (1612), which detailed visions he had received in 1600, and Weg zu Christo (The Way to Christ) (1622), which was a collection of several short works. Boehme’s writings were influential on the Radical Pietist Gottfried Arnold.[xviii]

Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714) studied at the University of Wittenberg, considered the citadel of Lutheran orthodoxy, where he focused his studies on the thought of the early church. While at Wittenberg he was influenced by Spener. Arnold, like other Radical Pietists, struggled with Spener’s reform when contrasted with the vision of the early church that Arnold discovered in his studies. Therefore, in 1696, his first work, Die erste Liebe zu Christo, oder, Wahre Abbildung der ersten Christen: nach ihrem lebendigen Glauben und heiligen Leben (The First Love for Christ, or, True Illustrations of the Early Christians According to Their Living Faith and Holy Life), depicted the first 300 years of church life in an attempt to capture the primitive church’s understanding of the faith and the necessity of a life changing, loving relationship with Christ.[xix] In this first work, Arnold began to make his defense of immersion baptism based on the example of the early church.[xx] This mode of baptism became a signifier of his quest for a larger retrieval of the witness of the New Testament church.

In 1699, Arnold published his largest work, Unparteische Kirchen- und Ketzer-historie (Impartial History of the Church and of Heresy), the first work to describe church history from the dissenters’ point of view (many of whom were deemed “heretics”). Arnold’s thesis was cutting: “heretical movements had actually perpetuated the true church, while the orthodox church that had persecuted them was, in reality, the anti-church.”[xxi] His critique of the established churches sounds quite similar to that of the Anabaptists:

The church has always flowered best under the cross; it was never the majority and the persecutor but rather the minority and the persecuted. The anti-Christian false church has always found its work and its holiness in outward things, symbols, shadows, sacraments, manners, and ceremonies.[xxii]

This project, consisting of two large volumes, led to accusations by established church leaders that Arnold showed more sympathy toward heretics than established churches or their clergy.[xxiii] Yet it was this last work that solidified Arnold’s classification as a Radical Pietist. Arnold argued that works deemed “heretical” came from those in positions of empire in the conflated existence of church and empire. This produced an accommodated church. When faith and empire were at odds, Arnold claimed, empire always defeated a true understanding and presentation of the faith. What remained was an accommodated church devoid of the true gospel.

With this distortion came an accommodated understanding of baptism. Where the early church employed baptism by immersion as a sign of a believer’s commitment to a life of regeneration and discipleship, the accommodated, established churches promoted infant baptism. “Arnold…holds that the introduction of infant baptism, for which he sees no historical evidence prior to the third century, tends to distort the connection between baptism and faith.”[xxiv] Stoffer continues, “[Arnold] insisted that early Christianity involved first of all a true, vibrant, living faith; and that secondly it involved pious behavior which is inseparably related to faith.”[xxv]

Bringing together the examples of the early church, the writings of Arndt and Spener, and patristic sources, Arnold becomes the first Pietist to advocate for immersion baptism. Such a practice captures Arnold’s rediscovery of the witness of the true church since the true church was not known by its orthodoxy (correct doctrine) but by its orthopraxis (true life/behavior).[xxvi] Stoffer captures the importance of water baptism for Arnold (and eventually the early Brethren):

Arnold understands baptism as a sign of an already commenced conversion and rebirth; by virtue of this rite, one is received into community. For Arnold baptism is integrally tied to the active faith which must follow repentance…Because [the water of] baptism effects nothing, it realizes its true meaning only through conversion and a change of character. Thus, renewal of the heart and daily repentance are necessary aspects of every Christian life.

By viewing baptism as a sign of the new birth and a pledge to live a new holy life, Arnold maintains a close connection between regeneration and baptism without resorting to any kind of baptismal regeneration. However, Arnold holds that the original connection between regeneration and baptism found in the thought of the early church was distorted by an opus operatum interpretation. Thus, the outward performance of the rite was thought to convey the grace of God, conversion, and regeneration whether or not repentance and faith in God were present.[xxvii]

His insistence on this outward form of baptism put him at odds with other Radical Pietists, including his disciple Ernst Christoph Hochmann von Hochenau (1670-1721), who would influence Alexander Mack.[xxviii]

The early Brethren are heavily indebted to the Pietist witness for their desire to have a lived faith, to lead a devotional life, and to model a transformative witness to the world. The absence of any sort of structure to Christianity, as several Radical Pietists espoused, created friction between the early Brethren and other Radical Pietists. The early Brethren disagreed with other Radical Pietists who held that the way to restore the primitive Church was to abandon external symbols altogether. Brethren advocated, instead, a “blessed middle way.” Stoffer remarks, “One of the hermeneutical principles that guided the Brethren was a harmonizing approach to Scripture [and theology] which sought to give due consideration to all the biblical data.”[xxix] Immersion baptism became a central practice that communicated this harmony and dialectic. With practices like immersion baptism, the dialectic of the inner experience of the faith demanded by Radical Pietism could be balanced with the need for an external witness and structure advocated by Anabaptism.[xxx] For this structure, the early Brethren looked to Anabaptism.

Next Post: What is Anabaptism?


[i] This name distinguished them from the “Old Baptists,” a term given to Mennonites.

[ii] Dale Brown, Another Way of Believing: A Brethren Theology (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2005), 120.

[iii] Stoffer remarks, “Scriptural evidence for the threefold action has traditionally been found by the Brethren in the Trinitarian formula of the Great Commission. It has been held that the formula of Matthew 28:19 is elliptical in construction and therefore supports an action for each of the three names” see Dale Stoffer, Background and Development of Brethren Doctrines, 1650-1987 (Philadelphia: The Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., 1989), 263.

[iv] Donald Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren, 1708-1995, 2nd ed. (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1996), 8.

[v] Brethren Encyclopedia Project, Brethren Spirituality: How Brethren Conceive of and Practice the Spiritual Life (Philadelphia, PA: Brethren Encyclopedia Inc., 2015), 69.

[vi] Roger Olson and Christian Collins-Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2015), 84-85

[vii] Ibid, 101.

[viii] Ernst Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (Leiden: E.J. Bill, 1965), 182-183.

[ix] Brown, Another Way, 24.

[x] Stoeffler, Evangelical Pietism, 183-184.

[xi] Johann Arndt, True Christianity, trans. Peter Erb (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 112.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid, 277.

[xiv] Spener’s student, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), would become the central theologian of Pietism and would serve on the faculty of the University of Halle, a center for Pietist theology in the late 17th and early 18th century.

[xv] The central impulse of Pietism lies in the individual, inner experience of God. As the movement developed, loosely organized fellowships (small groups) began to develop that Spener termed ecclesiola in ecclesia. Rarely did the ecclesiola separate from the established church. The Brethren were one of those separatist groups.

[xvi] See Philipp Jakob Spener. Pia Desideria. Translated by Theodore G. Tappert. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1964. The orthodox ordo salutis of Spener’s day was divine calling, illumination, repentance, saving faith, justification, and sanctification. The first four were often subsumed under the heading of regeneration or conversion. Strong emphasis was placed on justification. See Stoeffler, Evangelical Pietism, 240-241. Though Spener and, subsequently, Francke follow this order, emphasis is moved from justification to regeneration, or “new birth.” This shift will hold significant ramifications for Pietists. Pietists view forgiveness of sins as an aspect of new birth which was distinct from the orthodox understanding of forgiveness of sins being associated with justification. Reformers then derived their doctrine of assurance from forgiveness of sins rooted in justification. The Pietists connected assurance with regeneration and sanctification. Reformers, therefore, viewed assurance as an entirely divine gift that was forensically valid. For Pietists, this assurance came in the divine-human relationship in a cooperative understanding of sanctification. Therefore, an intrinsic dialectic developed for Pietist theology: an inner spiritual character deemed the “new birth” produced an outer expression of marks of obedience, good works, active faith, and love. See Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 252. The Brethren, however, depart even from Pietism and its language of sanctification and regeneration choosing, instead, a model of salvation marked by discipleship. Such a view is a product of the Anabaptist stream in Brethren theology. Menno Simons wrote a description of salvation, or the “new birth,” that would have resonated with early Brethren:

By this counsel we are all taught that we must hear Christ, believe in Christ, follow his footsteps, repent, be born from above; become as little children, not in understanding, but in malice; be of the same mind as Christ, walk as he did, deny ourselves, take up his cross and follow him; and that if we love father, mother, children, or life more than him, we are not worthy of him, nor are we his disciples. See Menno Simons, 1537, “The New Birth,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 101.

Menno’s dialectical connection between an inner experience of hearing Christ that is then manifested in a life of discipleship departs from a Pietist understanding of salvation that was more ethereal and inward in nature. Daniel Liechty remarks:

The major strains of Protestantism stressed the absolute helplessness of the human individual before God to in any way affect salvation…. Anabaptists…stressed both the corporate character of salvation and the ability of the individual to cooperate with God’s grace in the course of salvation. See Daniel Liechty, Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality) (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994), 1.

Such a dialectical, cooperative distinction, which would have resonated with the early Brethren, produced an inner and outer hermeneutic of Scripture in contrast to the mere external reforms of Protestants. “This ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ word was not an esoteric hermeneutic” but was an indictment of how the solely external reforms of the Reformation had failed to change moral conduct. For Anabaptists, “no spiritual experience of God or Christ could take place without it resulting in a marked betterment of life. A deepending spirituality meant a moral change in living habits” see Liechty, Early Anabaptist Spirituality, 10.

[xvii] Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, 10. “Theosophy,” or nature wisdom is a hyper-mystical form of theology in which nature is seen as the penultimate expression of divine wisdom and truth. Knowledge of divine truth “must be found in ‘the heart of God’ [mystical union with God] from whence nature proceeds, and only the pure in heart can see God. Hence it requires a strenuous spiritual discipline,” see C. David Ensign, “Radical German Pietism (c.1675-c.1760),” PhD dissertation (Princeton: Princeton University, 1963), 30-31.

[xviii] The book was originally entitled, Die Morgenroete im Aufgang (The Rising of the Dawn). The book was never finished. The work was considered heretical and Boehme was threatened with exile. This forced his subsequent works to go underground.

[xix] The work was reprinted five times before 1732 revealing its larger appeal. Arnold cites men such as Origen, Pelagius, Vigilantius, Eutyches, and Nestorius as “witnesses of the truth” Arnold, Abildung, 8, 23.

[xx] Arnold argues that the Holy Spirit is received prior to baptism. See ibid, 2, 14, 19.

[xxi] Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, 12.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 23.

[xxiv] Ibid, 33.

[xxv] Ibid, 41.

[xxvi] Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, 12.

[xxvii] Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 33.

[xxviii] There is disagreement as to when Hochmann first met Arnold. Some believe that one of the “two companions” present with Dippel at Geissen in 1697 was Hochmann. For further exploration, see Ensign, “Radical German Pietism,” 150. Also, see Heinz Renkewitz, Hochmann von Hochenau: 1670-1721, translated by William G. Willoughby (Philadelphia, PA: Brethren Encyclopedia Inc., 1993), 43. Renkewitz provides the only biography of Hochmann. The question of water baptism had been raised by Hochmann’s followers in 1703 and 1706, see Willoughby, Counting the Cost, 48-49.

[xxix] Dale Stoffer, ed., The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997), 159.

[xxx] It is important to note that many Anabaptist/Mennonite groups (up to the present day) do not agree with the mode of baptism the early Brethren employed.

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