Waking the sleeping congregation

Hans Rollmann
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An old Latin theological distinction draws attention to two kinds of Christian faith: fides quae and fides qua.

The first expression, fides quae creditur (“faith that is believed”) marks beliefs that the community of faith and individual believers hold. These beliefs are the doctrinal and intellectual content of religious faith.

Yet, if faith were only beliefs or doctrinal deposits and traditions, religion would be an intellectual exercise, something for the mind only.

In contrast, fides qua creditor (“faith by which one believes”) complements the content of belief by dynamic and practised affirmation of one’s religious experience in one’s relationships to God and human­kind, a crucial dimension that is often called “the life of faith.”

These two kinds of faith can be observed throughout the history of Christianity and of religion in general.

One-sided emphasis on the doctrinal and intellectual element of religion always provokes a powerful reaffirmation of the experiential and practical dimension.

Rigid orthodoxy

So it was also in 17th- and 18th-century European Protestantism, when a stale and rigid orthodoxy made religion stifling and deadening, putting many alienated church members to sleep in their pews.

William Hogarth’s engraving “The Sleeping Congregation” shows a whole church slumbering through a boring sermon, an apt commentary on a dead Christianity.

What roused the snorers from their pews and woke up the sleeping congregation was Pietism, a European — and, later, worldwide — renewal movement that eventually spawned what historians of Christianity have called “The First Great Awakening.”

That movement swept not only the European mainland and the British Isles, but also North America and Newfoundland.

The two individuals who are often credited with having started and given early leadership to the movement were two Lutheran pastors and theologians, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), and August Hermann Francke (1633-1727).

Devout desires

Spener, a Lutheran pastor in Frankfurt, on the River Main, set out to wake up the church of his day in a popular book eventually translated into many languages.

In “Pia desideria” (Latin for “Devout Desires”) Spener proposed that the church should once again take seriously Martin Luther’s understanding of “the priesthood of all believers” by calling and empowering lay people to do meaningful work in the church.

Bible study groups, in which people from all walks of life could explore the relevance of scripture for their lives and help each other grow spiritually, became one important means of lay involvement.

Spener understood nurturing and understanding faith as a total experience would engage the whole human being in something more than an intellectual assent to beliefs.

Leaving aside acrimonious theological disputations, Spener recommended discussion of religious matters in a spirit of charity rather than controversy.

In educating theological students for ministry, he called for greater attention to pastoral and spiritual dimensions of their work than had been the case at the time.

Pulpit, not a lectern

To wake up their sleeping congregations, Spener called preachers to refrain from abusing the pulpit as a lectern for theological discussion.

Instead, he demanded, they should use it to instruct, challenge and inspire the listeners in the pews.

Justo L. Gonzalez,  in his “History of Christian Thought,” finds that Spener’s book exhibits the distinguishing marks of Pietism: “an emphasis on personal piety; the practice of forming small groups to promote that piety, while at the same time implying that the church at large was incapable of performing that duty; the stress on personal reading of Scripture; the feeling that the core of Christian doctrine must be simple, and that it is theologians who complicate it; and the emphasis on the ministry of the laity.”

Personal experience

For Gonzalez, such emphases are framed by the conviction of Spener that the personal experience of the believer had greatest significance for a lived faith.

This conviction of personal experience was particularly felt and expressed by the other pillar of Pietism, August Hermann Francke, about whom I shall write in my next column.

Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of Religious Studies at Memorial University and can be reached by email: hrollman@mun.ca.

Geographic location: Lutheran, British Isles, North America Frankfurt River Main

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