Pietism began with Philip Jacob-Spener and Pia Desideria is an encapsulation of his yearning for renewal and better conditions for the church. Such desires can be easily understood when juxtaposed with the prevailing situation at the time. Spener witnessed the final decade of the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648) — a product of religious intolerance between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, and grew up knowing the atrocities and destruction it caused to Germany and the church in general. Towards war’s end, Germany was divided into three hundred territories which were governed by princes or rulers (3). These political rulers also had ecclesiastical control which somehow limited the church’s movement or any plans of reforms.
Spener got acquainted also with Arndtian and Puritan piety and theology aside from Lutheranism, which served as a lens that magnified the defects of the church and society. The deeper he allowed himself to be influenced by them, his desire for renewal further intensified. He was then educated at the University of Strassburg in 1651 and was ordained in 1663. In 1666, he became the pastor and senior ministerii at Frankfurt am Main for twenty-years (Snyder, 76-77). As a pastor, he organized collegia pietatis where members studied the Bible and had devotion because he believes that the laity should be equipped and empowered. Five years after establishing these groups, in 1675, he published Pia Desideria as a preface to Arndt’s Postil but eventually became the “fundamental charter of Pietism.” (Gonzales, 259-260). Pia Desideria served as a manual for the development of a pious life.
The Pia Desideria was reprinted as a separate book upon request of quite a number of people. The book has three parts. The first part talks about how Spener laments the church’s spiritual misery or corruption — which is far worse that the atrocities brought about by the war, famine, and pestilence. This misery is expressed in the persecution and expulsion of faithful ministers proclaiming the true doctrine of the church, the abuse of papal powers, and by the fact that “everywhere there is something wanting in the church” (40-42). He then mentions specifically about political and ecclesiastical defects of the civil authorities, clergy, and the common people which taints their Christian witness — therefore nullifying their call. Such defects include nominalism, abuse of powers, and drunkenness. These corruptions insult the Jews who were living amongst them, the heretics (the papists), and the godly people whose watchful eyes were all around (39-75).
Part two of the book talks about Spener’s aspiration for better conditions of the church. For him, it is possible to achieve the better state, though cannot be fully perfected but there are things that can be done in order to move towards it (76-86). Part three reveals his proposals on how this can be achieved. Spener has six proposals on how the church’s situation can be alleviated. First, Spener believes that the Word of God must be extensively in the homes to produce more faith. Second, lay spiritual priesthood must be established and exercised. Third, Christians must live righteously as a witness to their salvation. Fourth, Christians should know how to conduct themselves properly on religious controversies. Fifth, those who are called to the ministry must be equipped and educated at reformed schools and universities. Lastly, preaching and sermons must be practical and clear enough to be understood so as to produce faith and bear much fruits (87-122).
Pia Desideria was written at a time when the church needs it the most. The church suffered a great blow during the Thirty Year’s War and moral degeneration was seen everywhere — even within the church, corruption was evident. Spener’s cry for renewal as reflected in his book was his attempt to bring the needed change. He, perhaps, realized that with the existing corruptions, the church leadership or hierarchy cannot do it alone — that it takes a whole church to birth out change. This change is possible when the Word of God is brought to the homes and people are exposed to it so that they can live sanctified lives.
This, of course, was met with criticisms particularly with the orthodox leadership because Spener’s views and ways (small groups) were considered “radical and threatening” (81). Among the things that were considered radical during his time are: 1) the priesthood of all believers which is upgrading the role of the laity. It can be viewed as an attack to civil authorities and the clergy; 2) the collegium presbyterium (council of elders), which he felt was needed by the church as pastoral support but seen as introducing some Calvinistic element to Lutheranism; 3) the use of collegia pietatis or small groups, were seen as threats to divide the church (81).
Though met with a lot of criticisms, Spener brought the tides of change in Protestantism — a change that was necessary to wake up the church in its slumber. Any change is not comfortable and someone has to suffer and receive the blows from critical people. Spener started a movement that if one will see through the 21st century lens would realize that he advocated for discipleship, lay leadership, sanctification, and church renewal. These things are actually the language of our times and like Spener, we are faced with the same defects and desires for a better church. Perhaps we can use the same programs he endorsed — only adjusting them to our own context.
Book on Review: Pia Desideria by Philip Jacob Spener. Translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert. Fortress Press, 1964.
- Gonzales, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, Vol. II. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.
- Snyder, Howard A. Signs of the Spirit: How God Reshapes the Church. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997.