What can Spener teach United Methodists?

I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.

As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.

His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.

Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.

Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”

As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.

So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?

He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.

  1. Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
  2. Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
  3. Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
  4. Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
  5. Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
  6. Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits

Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.

Questions from above and below

Henri Nouwen writes about his friend Adam, who had profound physical and mental disabilities:

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”

I once was blind but now I see

The old Methodists had a question; Do you know the one in whom you believe?

For them this was a distinction that made all the difference. It was one thing to know about God. It was one thing to have learned the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. It was one thing to see in the wonders of nature signs of a creating God. It was quite another to know God.

John Wesley taught that we by nature are unable to see or know the invisible God. We can formulate doctrines about God, but we cannot see God any more than we can see the moons of Saturn with our unaided eyes. And if we cannot see (or hear or feel) God, then we cannot really love God. We can make some motions, but we cannot force our hearts to love what remains hidden to us.

It is only by an act of God’s grace that we come to “see” God by the witness of our spiritual senses. We gain eyes to see because God gives them to us. And seeing God, coming to know God, we will not help but love God, who is good and just and loving and beautiful beyond all our words to explain it.

The big problem Wesley saw in the church was that there were lots of people running around who were the blind leading the blind. They did not know God, but they talked a lot about the things of God. They substituted doctrines and liturgy for an experience of God’s grace. And so, they were Christians in name, but were in fact no different in heart from the men and women who remained outside the church. Indeed, Wesley would often write, the heathens outside the church often lived outwardly more like real Christians than most who bear the name.

This doctrine of assurance, then, was far more than just a warm feeling that we are saved. It was really the entire foundation of what Wesley called real Christianity. God reveals Godself to sinners, which allows them to actually perceive the God they had heard about but never known. This is the gift of faith, the evidence of things not seen. In the moment of this faith, we come to see not only the majesty of God, but also the love of God in Jesus Christ who died for us. Our heart is filled by the love of God. We have the witness of the Spirit to our spirit that we are beloved and forgiven.

This is assurance. This is heart religion.

It was uncommon in Wesley’s day. Methodists were always a tiny minority of the Church of England. It is even more uncommon today. But Wesley believed it was the foundation of actual Christianity.

Do we understand it? Do we teach it? Do we believe it? Have we experienced it?

Do you know the God in whom you believe?