Friday, June 22, 2007
So while we do see signs of vital transforming relationship with God in the monastic and mystical movements, the official focus of faith is not one of personal relationship, but rather a mediated faith administered by the institution. Everyone was baptized as an infant, and thus a member of the church. No was choice involved, no concept of new birth existed. You accepted the authority of the church, or you were killed. The point here is not just that this was extremely oppressive and murderous, but that people simply did not have any concept that they even could have a relationship with God, since it was not taught, and no Bibles were available to read. People like Julian of Norwich surely existed. God was there despite the darkness. But they were the exception to the norm. Officially, personal relationship with God was not promoted as an option.
The turning point, as you might have guessed, was Martin Luther who in his "Turmerlebnis" (tower experience) rediscovered the Gospel of salvation by grace while reading the Apostle Paul's book of Romans. Luther describes this in his own words as "like being born again". This rediscovery of the Gospel sadly went into a recession after Luther's death in 1546. By the early 1600's the Lutheran church had become engulfed in the scholasticism Luther hated so much. Large tombs of theology were written with every answer to every question so that if the Lord God himself was unsure on a particular point of doctrine, why he could look it up right there. Pastors would hold long and tedious lectures expounding ad nauseum on these topics that were completely irrelevant to the lives of the congregation. In response to this cold and barren propositional theology that Lutheranism Protestantism had become, German Pietism was born, and with it the resurgence of Luther's own message.
While remaining theologically orthodox to Lutheranism, the German Pietist movement, headed by Philipp Jacob Spener, sought to cultivate in people a living and intimate relationship with God. One of the key ways that it sought to do this was through “Bibelkreise” (meaning "Bible circle" evoking the picture of people sitting together in a circle reading the Bible). These groups were very similar to the home-group Bible studies common in Evangelical churches today. One of the central teachings of Spener was "Wiedergeburt" (born again). This new birth into a relationship with God was at the very heart of German Pietism. Out of the German Pietist movement, Zinzendorf and the Moravians emerged adding a strong focus on evangelism. It was the Moravians who John Wesley met while on a missionary journey to Georgia in the new American colonies. Wesley writes in his diary of his encounter with the Moravian leader August Spangenberg who asks Wesley about his personal relationship with God,
Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
I was surprised, and knew not what to answer...
"Do you know yourself?"
I said, "I do." But I fear they were vain words.
As is well known, at Aldersgate Wesley did come to the personal assurance he lacked, where his heart was “strangely warmed” as he listened to a reading of Luther's commentary on the book of Romans. It is worth noting that it was the combination of the proclamation of the Gospel message of saving grace, combined with seeing this lived out in the vibrant and personal faith of the Moravians that together resulted in Wesley coming to an assurance of God's love and forgiveness.
Not surprisingly these renewal movements experienced persecution from the institutional churches, now including the Protestant churches. One bewildering example is a decree issued in 1690 under the urgings of the Lutheran officials declaring "private meetings in which the Holy Scripture is explained" as "dangerous" and forbidding them "upon pain of imprisonment"*. This is painfully ironic coming from the denomination of a man who stood before Rome alone with his Bible and translated the Scriptures for the first time in to German so common people could read the good news. As the Pietist renewal movement, centered in a vital and transforming relationship with God, continued to grow in numbers and in conflict with the traditional Protestant state churches, people began to flock to the new American colonies in search of religious freedom. Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and many others traveled to the colonies. It was in this atmosphere that the First and Second Great Awakenings exploded in tent meeting revivals across the new frontier.
In the next installment we'll explore how this idea of a living personal relationship with God took shape in the new world, from the First and Second Great Awakenings, to the forming of denominations, and finally the neo-Evangelicalism of Billy Graham.
* Quoted in Dale W Brown, "The Problem of Subjectivism in Pietism" (unpublished PhD dissertation Northwestern U, 1962) p 86. From Johann Arnds et al. Der Deutsche Pietismus: Eine Auswahl von Zeugnisen (Berlin: Furche, 1921) p 109