A few years ago I was involved in doing a good bit of reading and research for writing a book on the unholy matrimony between Christian pietists and humanists over the past two centuries. It was quite an interesting project but one that I never completed. About nine months into the effort my business partner and I found ourselves growing too rapidly during the first year of “The Great Recession”. Our lack of cash and control during that time of growth in the midst of economic turmoil resulted in an “all hands on deck” response.
I’m from Florida so I would liken it to a hurricane that you saw coming but somehow you still found yourself in the middle of it, unprepared. My dedicated study time on weekdays before dawn and on Saturday mornings was soon caught up in the category three cyclone such that for a couple of years I barely had time to sleep or even pay adequate attention to my family. Although I would do some things differently if I had it to do over, I learned a lot. Needless to say, my writing project after being relegated to the back-burner, was soon taken off the stove altogether.
During my time of study for the project referenced above, I came across an incredibly interesting and at the time very helpful book entitled, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia by Richard L. Gawthrop. I’m sure it was far from the author’s intent but after reading it, I came away with a better understanding of how clearly Christians aid in strengthening the power of the state when we ignore the proper application of Biblical law and God’s three ordained covenant institutions. Christians far and wide lament the increased role of the state this day and age, and many spend time crying out against it. That said, of those that are protesting, not many seek to understand just why we are experiencing an invasion from this bureaucratic juggernaut into every area of our lives. And although in this article I will only introduce some preliminary application from Gawthrop’s book, I think his work provides some helpful insight.
“How did a state as small and backward as Prussia in 1700 transform itself to compete successfully in war against states with far greater human and financial resources?…
The intensive use of every available socializing institution to inculcate state-service ideology had a profound social and cultural impact that laid the basis for subsequent influence of “Prussianism” on the development of modern Germany.
This ideological campaign can best be understood in terms of the history of German ascetic Protestantism, especially the Lutheran Pietist movement. Strongly influenced by English Puritanism, the spirituality of Pietism emphasized a “born-again” conversion, followed by a highly disciplined life centered around “doing good for others.” How the Prussian state came to embody the values of this activist form of Christianity is the subject of this book.(1)
Over and against other historians, Gawthrop discusses what he calls the “underestimated cultural factor”. This recently reformed culture had been permeated by a puritan ethic and a pietism that went beyond the traditional definition to include a definite concern for changing every area of the surrounding culture. The zeal was present. The Biblical understanding of how to express such zeal was not.
Deeply influenced by English Puritanism, with all its intrusive moralism and emphasis on tangible results, Lutheran Pietism in its first two generations struggled to find the appropriate institutional means through which to impose moral “reform” on society.(2)
The first mistake was the attempt to “impose” the chosen morality. This is not how God subdues society into a grateful submission to his Lordship. Gawthrop demonstrates throughout the book that the chosen “institutional means” for imposition was the state. The state’s reach encompassed nearly every aspect of society.
The agenda…included increased state support for the theology program at the University of Halle, improvement in the care for orphans, elimination of begging through the founding of workhouses, and the setting up of “common schools” in order to train all the children of the country in religion and useful skills.(3)
Sound familiar? The state assumed the role of savior and caretaker. Again, a zeal for law that represented the reformed milieu was not lacking, but an institutional framework through which to express their religious commitment was.
…the context within which the Prussian political culture took shape was the common effort on the part of all the post-Reformation Christian confessions to inculcate discipline, morality, and knowledge of the faith into the population at large.(4)
They also lacked a clear understanding and application of Biblical law in all areas of society. When a society does not apply scriptural law to all areas of life, other forms of law arise. Such man-made laws may be well intended, but they are man’s laws nonetheless. This is seen clearly in the influence of one of the leading clergymen of the time – August Hermann Francke.
Francke also sought to help his followers remain obedient to God in their work by devising a comprehensive code of conduct, his Lebens-Regeln. These “rules for living” went well beyond the exercises in piety prescribed by Spener in laying down detailed rules and regulations governing all aspects of life, including everyday social interaction.(5)
There is a way that all of this might be good, correct? God’s morality being distributed throughout society, codes of conduct being set up to further the conforming of each and every individual according to the Protestant ethic – this is all positive and a breath of fresh air to the current secularized world we live in, right? Wrong.
Make no mistake, God intends for his Lordship to be present in every area of society. God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to fill the earth and subdue it was not just for the first Adam prior to the fall. Christ’s preaching on the kingdom of God includes God’s will being done both in heaven and on earth (Matt. 6:10). But he has specifically designed the way in which we are to carry out such an extension of his rule. He has established three ordained covenant institutions and has given each specific laws, jurisdictions, and sanctions detailed throughout the whole of His Word. When we seek to carry out his will through another framework, we should not expect long-term success. In the Prussian example, the state was given a role that extended beyond its God-given jurisdiction. They concentrated rule within the state, in effect making them God. This has disastrous consequences as we have seen throughout history.
It is no different today. We not only have to do what God desires, we have to do it in the way he desires it to be carried out. This includes an understanding of what power and responsibility he has granted to the state. The constant crying out of the Christian community in our current cultural context is not sufficient. Yes, we must acknowledge where we sit. Beyond this we must understand better how we arrived here. Then, we need to do something about it – God’s way.
- Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Back cover copy(↩)