What Became of Luther’s German Church (A Book Review of Philipp Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria)

Pia Desideria. By Philipp Jacob Spener. Leipzig: Karl Franz Köhler, 1841. 211 pages.

Philipp Jacob Spener was a Lutheran parish minister in Frankfurt on the Main, Germany. He was born near Strasburg in 1635. Devout from childhood, Spener devoured Puritan classics and lived a careful and strict life. He pursued an extensive education culminating in a Doctorate of Theology. His pastoral career was unanticipated: he had intended to teach. He is the father of German Pietism, and Pia Desideria is the chief exemplar of his spiritual program.

Seventeenth-century Protestantism was a turbulent environment. In England, religious dissent prompted a civil war in which Oliver Cromwell deposed and executed Charles I. In America, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was persecuting and exiling Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Clarke, and Obadiah Holmes. Germany suffered the tragedies of the Thirty Years War. The constant conflict of warring sects focused the energy and creativity of many Christians upon doctrinal disputes.

Spener witnessed a decline in the vitality of Lutheranism during his lifetime. He believed that spiritual and ecclesiastical vitality came when individual Christians pursued the simple spiritual disciplines of personal piety. In a passage from the introduction Spener contrasted his spiritual priorities with those he perceived in the culture:

Let us consider that we will not be asked in the last judgment how we were taught and have offered our learning to the world, in what favor men loved us and how much we knew how to keep their love, for what things we were exalted and how great a name we left behind in the world, or how much we collected our treasure in earthly goods and thereby have drawn the curse upon ourselves. Instead, we will be asked how faithfully and with how much of a simple heart we sought to expand the Kingdom of God, with how pure and godly a teaching and worthy an example in the disdain of the world, denial of ourselves, taking up of the cross, and following our Savior, we sought to build up our hearer, with what zeal we set ourselves against not only error but also godlessness of living, or with what consistency and joyfulness we endured the persecution or adversity put upon us by the openly godless world or by false brothers and in such suffering have praised our God.1

Pia Desideria is more sermon than treatise. It calls German Lutherans to action. As a call to action, its effectiveness lies not in its originality or even its accuracy, but in the response of its readers. The title, which simply means “pious desires,” was not original: Herman Hugo had published a book under the same name in 1624. The content of the book broke little new ground. Jean de Labadie’s La Reformation de l’Église par le Pastorat covers many of the same themes, and Spener himself never tried to assert the work as a piece of original thought. More significant is the fact that Pia Desideria sparked a reform and revival movement in Germany.

Spener wrote the work in three sections. The first is his “Overview of the Corrupt State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.”2 Spener addressed his critique to all conscientious Christians. First he surveyed the faults of the worldly officials. Spener was no Baptist: he envisioned no separation of religious and civil authority. Instead, he called upon the civil leadership to embrace and encourage adherence to the first table of the law as well as the second. Spener did note a problem that had earlier led Roger Williams to advocate religious liberty for all. Spener complained that those civil authorities who did possess zeal for the first table of the law tended to encourage dead, formalistic compliance rather than promoting true religious sentiment. He surmised that many of these authorities enforced religious laws only out of political self-interest. Spener linked these officials with the Papists who had opposed the German Reformation, and in doing so he leveled an accusation that any Lutheran would have received soberly.

From his brief indictment of civil authorities, Spener promptly moved to a much lengthier critique of spiritual authorities in Germany. The appearance of outward moral scandal among the clergy was rampant and debilitating, yet Spener was not calling for mere outward moral reform. He feared that many of the clergy were unacquainted with “true Christianity (which entails more than abstaining from vices and remaining in an apparently good life).”3 Essentially, Spener is claiming that the Evangelical Lutheran clergy are no better than the German Catholic clergy were before the Gregorian reforms. He offers the same catalogue of complaints that one would expect in the day of Henry IV: the clergy are corrupt; they clamor for powerful and lucrative offices; they neglect pastoral duties in favor of personal pursuits; they undervalue personal piety. Spener did add a distinctively post-Reformation complaint when he alleged that the German Lutheran clergy were largely unaware of the true nature of salvation. They prized outward conformity over earnest, inward godliness. Most significantly, Spener accused the clergy of devoting their time and energy to theological disputations (with the Calvinists) rather than inculcating personal faith in their charges. He called for Lutheran ministers to focus once more on building Christians rather than defeating Calvinists.

Consequently, the heads of households,4 lacking regulation from the civil authorities and edification from the spiritual authorities, were ill equipped to build godly homes. Spener primarily faulted the common people for defects in their morality. Drunkenness, lawsuits, heartless mercantilism, and a neglect of spiritual service are too prevalent among the Germans. The people did not adequately attend to the sacraments. They did not grow spiritually.

Spener designed Pia Desideria to appeal to Lutherans. He argued that the German people had squandered the spiritual heritage of the great Reformer. They had left Roman Catholicism, which Spener compared to the Babylonian Captivity, but they had not pressed forward to build the godly church that Luther had envisions. In Spener’s analogy, they had returned to the Promised Land but had not bothered to reconstruct the temple.

The second section, “On the Hope of a Better State of the Church,”5 directly counters those who acknowledged the corrupt state of the Evangelical Lutheran Church but did not believe that a better church was humanly possible. Such people advocated a resigned ambivalence toward German spiritual decline. Spener countered on two fronts. First, he invoked some optimistic eschatological passages in the Bible to imply that God had promised the potential of widespread renewal. Specifically, Spener believed that a mass conversion of German Jews might be imminent. Second, he reasserted the validity of paraenetic passages in the Bible, calling upon the church to recognize the real authority of scriptural injunctions to live a godly life. The Bible would not command such things if we were not justified in pursuing obedience.

The heart of Pia Desideria is the final section. Here Spener detailed six concrete proposals for Lutheran reform. First, he called Evangelical Lutherans back to the scriptures, demanding intensive Bible study in the church. In this section Spener sanctioned regular assemblies for the study of the scriptures. This proposal led to the establishment of the collegia pietatis. Second, Spener asserted the priesthood of all Christians. He assailed the stronghold of clerical privilege and advocated a greater role for the laity. Third, he reminded the Lutherans that true Christianity consists of practice, not knowledge alone. Fourth, he requested an end to destructive theological controversies. Fifth, he posited universities as a key institution to effect the spiritual reform of the clergy.

The Pia Desideria forms a critical juncture in the history of German Christianity. In composing this work, Spener drew from the German mysticism that had held sway in the Rhineland for several centuries. Pia Desideria, with its strident tone and emphasis upon clerical reform and lay piety, is reminiscent of Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias. Perhaps its widespread popularity is at least partially dependent upon the Germanness of the book. August Hermann Francke succeeded Spener and brought Pietism to an even greater state of maturity.

Spener’s style is complex and unwieldy, even for a work in German. Kurt Aland’s critical edition of the text is the most dependable, although no serious textual difficulties plague the work. Most editions include a helpful array of notes. The apparatus will be especially useful for the reader who is unfamiliar with the literature, personalities, and events of seventeenth-century Germany (added note for the blog: “, but not at all helpful for the reader who is blessedly unfamiliar with German”).6

1Spener, 6: “Lasset uns gedenken, daß dermaleinst nicht werde gefragt werden, wie gelehrt wir gewesen, und solches der Welt vorgelegt haben; in welcher Gunst der Menschen wir gelebt, und dieselbe zu erhalten gewußt; in was für Ehren wir geschwebt und großen Namen der Welt hinterlassen; wie viel wir den Unsern Schatze von irdischen Gütern gesammelt, und damit den Fluch auf uns gezogen haben: sondern, wie treulich und mit wie einfältigem herzen wir das Reich Gottes zu befördern getrachtet, mit wie reiner, gottseliger Lehre sodann und würdigen Exempeln in Berschmähung der Welt, Berleugnung unsrer selbst, Aufnehmung des kreuzes und Nachfolge unsers heilandes wir unsrer Zuhörer Erbauung gesucht; mit welchem Eifer wir uns nicht nur ben Irrthümern, sondern auch der Gottlosigheit des Lebens widersezt; mit welcher Beständigkeit und Freubigkeit wir die beswegen von der offenbar gottlosen Welt oder von falschen Brüdern zugestoßene Berfolgung oder Ungemach getragen und unsern Gott in solchen Leiben gepriesen haben.”

2Spener, 8: “Übersicht des verderbten Zustandes der evangelischen Kirche.”

3Spener, 15: “ welche das wahre Christentum—das ja nicht bloß in Enthaltung von außerlichen Lastern, und einem sittlich guten Leben bestehet—recht verstehen und üben.”


5Spener, 49: “Von der Hoffnung eines bessern Zustandes der Kirche.” Some older German texts only divided the text into two sections; therefore, this section appears as the sixth chapter of section one in these editions. The Aland text rightfully divides this into a separate section.

6Yes, this is nothing more than my reprinting an old book review that I wrote back in 2003. Yes, posting it amounts to the laziest form of blogging out there (second only to my not posting anything). But it nonetheless seemed relevant in this season, and so I decided to post it.