Webber: The Divine Embrace 4 – Romanticism & Pietism

The second shift away from ancient spirituality resulted from the romantic movement and influenced spirituality toward a preoccupation with experience. –Webber, page 89

The Enlightenment (or so it has been called) resulted in a shift toward an intellectual, reasoned approach to theology, separating theology from spirituality, turning justification into a transaction of sorts, and sanctification into something to accomplish. As a reaction to this rather cataclysmic shift, romanticism arose. The Romantics rejected the analytical method of discovering truth in favor of “a more intuitive, inner experience of knowing through the imagination, the senses, passion, and the will.” Webber explains that the Romantics also emphasized a return to an organic, holistic approach to knowledge rather than the compartmentalization of science. (Sound familiar?)

While Webber says that it is hard to say exactly how Romanticism impacted 19th Century spirituality, he notes that the pietist and revivalist movements also focused on an inner, experiential knowing. Pietist William Spener in 1675 wrote that a “right feeling in the heart” was “more important than pure doctrine.” Spener also taught that a person’s faith was more than acceptance of the truth of the Gospel, it caused “Christ to dwell in the believers’ heart.” Pietism appears to be the beginnings of the emphasis on conversion as a one-time decision/experience, if not the origin of the concept itself.

Revivalism was not too far behind, connected primarily with John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, both of whom had life-changing spiritual experiences. Wesley had a need for something more than the purely intellectual understanding he had as an Anglican priest; I’m sure we’re all familiar with his description of having his “heart strangely warmed” as he listened to Luther’s preface to Romans being read. Edwards’ experience led him to the conclusion that only through what he described as a Divine Light would “bring the soul to a saving close with Christ.” It is interesting to note that both Wesley’s and Edwards’ teachings seemed to be heavily influenced – if not driven – by their experience.

These movements, with their corresponding emphasis on holiness, differed significantly from the ancient church’s understanding of spirituality, as these later movements’ emphasis was on the individual’s experience of forgiveness, not on Christ’s experience. Baptism also shifted from identity with Jesus’ death and resurrection, to “my personal testimony” of an individual decision (Webber points out that baptism, then, no longer has any meaning).

To recap a bit, Webber has pointed out how the reformers took spirituality back from the errors of dualism and mysticism to a spirituality based again on the story of God. However, the language of the Reformation lent itself to a shift from an incarnational understanding to a transactional understanding of salvation and justification, and holiness became something separate, something based on our works rather than God’s work. As the Enlightenment all but destroyed spirituality (and theology), Pietism shifted spirituality from an emphasis on living an incarnational life (focused again on the work of God) to one based on our personal experience, our personal decision, and our personal faith.

Such was the state of the Western church as we entered the 20th Century, which we will look at next time. By the way, I am doing a very inadequate job of summarizing Webber, as I really encourage you to buy the book and read it yourself. There’s a lot more in there than I am presenting.

One thought on “Webber: The Divine Embrace 4 – Romanticism & Pietism”

  1. Which lead to the Evangelical Shibboleth: “I accepted Jesus as my Personal Savior.”

    Whereas, I prefer to say “I capitulated to the Lordship of Christ.”

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