Pietism: A New Monasticism

How much good it would do if good friends would come together on a Sunday and instead of getting out glasses, cards, or dice would take up a book and read from it for the edification of all or would review something from sermons that were heard!  If they would speak with one another about the divine mysteries, and the one who received most from God would try to instruct his weaker brethren! . . . If this should happen, how much evil would be held in abeyance, and how the blessed Sunday would be sanctified for the great edification and marked benefit of all!  It is certain, in any case, that we preachers cannot instruct the people from our pulpits as much as is needful unless other persons in the congregation, who by God’s grace have a superior knowledge of Christianity, take pains, by virtue of their universal Christian priesthood, to work with and under us to correct and reform as much in their neighbors as they are able according to the measure of their gifts and their simplicity.

Throughout church history, preachers have called ordinary believers to extraordinary levels of spirituality.  In late seventeenth century Germany, Philip Jacob Spener, pastor of the Lutheran church in Frankfurt, exhorted believers to gather together in small groups, read the Scriptures, and teach each other.  Though well-intentioned, this attempt to call ordinary believers to extraordinary levels of spirituality had the negative consequence of creating a type of two-tier Christianity.  As this type of pastoral exhortation has been repeated in different ways at different times throughout church history, the Protestant confessions included certain statements to safeguard against getting carried away by the negative side effects of pietism.

It is fascinating to observe some of the parallels between Spener’s pietistic proposals and similar statements made by John Chrysostom.  There are similarities and differences in their historical contexts, but there is an uncanny resemblance between the two.

In the late fourth century, Antioch was one of the largest and most important cities in the Roman Empire, excepting Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome itself.[1]  Antioch had a Christian presence since the apostolic era, and it had become predominantly Christian by the middle of the fourth century.[2]  Following the Council of Constantinople in 381, catholic orthodoxy had finally emerged victorious over the Arians.  Here, in 391, John Chrysostom preached the following to his congregation in Antioch:

“For which of you when in his house takes some Christian book in hand, and goes over its contents, and searches the Scriptures?  None can say that he does so, but with most we shall find draughts and dice, but books nowhere, except among a few.  And even these few have the same dispositions as the many; for they tie up their books, and keep them always put away in cases, and all their care is fore the fineness of the parchments, and the beauty of the letters, not for reading them… The Scriptures were not given us for this only, that we might have them in books, but that we might engrave them on our hearts.”[3]

Chrysostom exhorted his congregation to read the Scriptures instead of playing games with dice, similarly to what Spener would say thirteen centuries later in Germany.

The similarities continue as one examines Spener’s classic work on the subject, Pia Desideria.[4]  Spener lamented the current state of the church, how it is on the one hand orthodox, yet on the other hand lacks vitality, with church members being involved in drunkenness and lawsuits.[5]  Chrysostom likewise described a similar situation in his day, where the church is orthodox, yet the typical church members are not as fully committed to living as Christians as he would like.  In his case, it is rather the frequenting of the theater that he saw as the socially acceptable sin for Christians in Antioch.  Spener looked at the example of the early church in Jerusalem’s community of goods as an example of Christian love to be emulated.[6]  This, again, was a theme that was predominant throughout Chrysostom’s preaching, with him likewise using the early church in Jerusalem as an example to be imitated.  Spener looked forward to a conversion of the Jews based on his interpretation of Romans 11.[7]  When Chrysostom preached through Romans, he presented a similar interpretation of Romans 11.[8]  Spener taught that the holy lives of believers will be a means for unbelievers’ conversion.[9]  Chrysostom also taught that the holy lives of believers will be a means for unbelievers’ conversion.[10]  Further areas of similarity could be produced in regards to Spener’s recommendations regarding the priority of practice over knowledge and the conduct of religious controversies.

Not all was identical between Spener’s and Chrysostom’s setting and preaching, though.  In Chrysostom’s day, he exhorted members of his congregation to acquire and read copies of the Bible themselves, an exhortation that would be unexpected in the fourth century were it not that many citizens in Antioch were “comfortably off and quite educated,”[11] and therefore able to do what Chrysostom urged.  In Spener’s day, it was taken for granted that everybody in the congregation owned a Bible and could read it, so he specifically encouraged members to get together with other believers to discuss what they read.  When it came to the reformation of schools, Spener’s and Chrysostom’s recommendations differed greatly due to the large difference in form in which education took in the different times.  Chrysostom also commonly extolled the virtues of a life of virginity, something that isn’t mentioned in Pia Desideria.

The benefit of seeing the similarities between Spener’s recommendations in seventeenth century Frankfurt and Chrysostom’s preaching in fourth century Antioch is that one can recognize in what sense both are examples of a theme that is common throughout church history, while at the same time recognizing the individual qualities of each occurrence in its own historical setting.  In that light, seventeenth century German pietism shows a remarkable affinity with fourth century Antiochene monasticism.  Chrysostom spent six years as a monk in the mountains outside of Antioch before he was ever a deacon, priest, or bishop, and he “remained a monk at heart (what, after all, was a monk but a Christian striving to live out the gospel to the full?).”[12]  In his life, Chrysostom remained a monk in the city, and in his preaching he called his congregation to be fully committed to living the Christian life, as it was then exemplified in monasticism.  While Spener wasn’t recommending that people become monks, he was also calling on people to be fully committed to living the Christian life rather than to settle for simply being an orthodox member of the church.

The benefit of Spener’s recommendation is clear and readily apparent.  His first recommendation, a more extensive use of the Word of God, is in fact beneficial for the members and the church as a whole, just as following Chrysostom’s exhortations was beneficial for his congregants.  Members of the congregation are able to profit more from sermons when they’re more familiar with the texts that are being preached.

The disadvantage of Spener’s recommendation, though, is not so readily apparent.  The main problem with pietism, as expected, is the same as the main problem with monasticism.  It creates a two-tier kind of Christianity, where most Christians are on the “lower level,” but there are certain Christians who are on the “higher level,” those who are the real spiritual Christians, the ones fully committed to living the Christian life.  “Lower level” Christians are constantly exhorted to become one of the “higher level” Christians, and everyone knows that the “higher level” Christians are better and more valuable, even when they don’t outright say so.

Monasticism presented Christendom with a millennium of this kind of two-tier Christianity, and it was rightly rejected by the reformers in the sixteenth century.  Monasticism also didn’t take centuries to develop into a two-tier kind of Christianity.  In Chrysostom’s day, monasticism was still a relatively recent phenomenon, but he already speaks of the single life as being more honorable than the married life.  Similarly, pietism didn’t take long to develop into a two-tier kind of Christianity.  Within a few years, a collegia pietatis in one church refused communion because they saw the other members of the church as unworthy.  In fact, problems of this kind caused Spener to spend his later years trying to correct these problems in his later writings.

The Protestant evaluation of a two-tier kind of Christianity can be seen in the Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  Whether addressing the medieval monasticism that preceded their writing, the pietism that arose later, or modern forms of two-tier Christianity, the Protestant confessions stand opposed to them in how they speak of Christians.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith gives a number of safeguards against forms of two-tier Christianity in Chapters 13 to 16.[13]  First, in Chapter 13, it addresses the topic of sanctification.  All who are united to Christ and regenerated are being sanctified (13.1), yet sanctification is incomplete in this life (13.2).[14]  There is no category distinction between Christians who aren’t being sanctified and Christians who are, as if only the “higher level” Christians were becoming holy.  Whether a monk, a pietist, or a common Christian, every Christian is being sanctified.  Similarly, there is no category distinction between Christians who are partially sanctified and Christians who are fully sanctified, as if there were “higher level” Christians who have been fully sanctified.  When it comes to sanctification, Christianity does not admit a two-tier system.

Chapter 14 of the LBCF addresses saving faith.  “The grace of faith… is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased, and strengthened (14.1).”[15]  The relevance of this statement is that forms of two-tier Christianity inevitably involve looking for growth in faith outside of the ordinary means of grace.  The practices of monasticism or the practices of pietism become the new means of grace, and the spiritual lives of Christians are evaluated by the presence or absence of means which were not “appointed of God.”

Chapter 15 of the LBCF addresses repentance, and its emphases are similar to the chapter on sanctification.  There is no one that doesn’t sin, and “the best of men may… fall into great sins” (15.2).[16]  Consequently, “repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives” (15.4).[17]  Again, this militates against any kind of two-tier Christianity.

Finally, Chapter 16 of the LBCF addresses good works.  This chapter warns against regarding any kind of extra-biblical work as a good work.  “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word; and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions” (16.1).[18]  While the practices of monasticism or pietism may be helpful for some of those who practice them, they should not be regarded as good works unless there is Biblical warrant to do so, and if there is, then it’s a practice for all Christians, not just some of them.

How then, in conclusion, should Christians evaluate the common theme throughout church history of preachers calling ordinary Christians to extraordinary levels of spirituality?  Can Christians appropriate the benefits of what Spener called for without falling into a form of two-tier Christianity?  The key to doing so, as expressed in the confessions, is to always and explicitly recognize the difference between, on one hand, the God-ordained means of grace and what the Bible calls good works, and on the other hand, potentially helpful practices that Christians are at liberty to do or not to do.


Downey, Glanville.  A History of Antioch in Syria: From Seleucus to the Arab Conquest.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Harris, William V.  Ancient Literacy.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Kelly, J.N.D.  Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Krupp, R.A.  Shepherding the Flock of God: The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom.  New York: Peter Lang, 1991.

Renihan, Mike, ed.  A Confession of Faith, 1677.  AKA: The Second London Baptist Confession & the “1689”.  Auburn, MA: Baptist & Reformed, 2000.

Schaff, Philip, ed.  The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  First Series, Vol. 11, St. Chrysostom: Homilies on Acts and Romans.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Schaff, Philip, ed.  The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  First Series, Vol. 14, St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint John and the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.

Spener, Philip Jacob.  Pia Desideria.  Translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002.

[1]. Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria: From Seleucus to the Arab Conquest, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 419.

[2]. Ibid., 382.

[3]. Homily 32 on John, in Philip Schaff, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 14, St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 114.  Similar exhortations are found in Homily 11 on John, in Schaff, NPNF, 1:14, 38, and Homily 53 on John, in Schaff, NPNF, 1:14, 193.  I am indebted to R.A. Krupp for bringing these passages to my attention in Shepherding the Flock of God: The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom, (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 142-143, 149.

[4]. Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, Translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002).

[5]. Ibid., 58-60.

[6]. Ibid., 60-62.

[7]. Ibid., 76.

[8]. Homily 19 on Romans, in Philip Schaff, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 11, St. Chrysostom: Homilies on Acts and Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 486-495.

[9]. Spener, Pia Desideria, 77.

[10]. Homily 6 on Romans, in Schaff, NPNF, 1:11, 374.

[11]. William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 304.

[12]. J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 35.

[13]. See also Chapters 13 to 16 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Savoy Declaration of Faith for virtually identical statements earlier from the Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

[14]. Mike Renihan, ed., A Confession of Faith, 1677.  AKA: The Second London Baptist Confession & the “1689” (Auburn, MA: Baptist & Reformed, 2000), 44-45.

[15]. Ibid., 46-47.

[16]. Ibid., 49.

[17]. Ibid., 50.

[18]. Ibid., 51.

About Nate Milne

Historical Theology student at Westminster Seminary California.
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