- German Pietism and the Problem of Conversion by Jonathan Strom
"Without question," writes Strom, Professor of Church History at Candler School of Theology, "Pietists yearned for conversion, wrote about it, and preached sermons designed to evoke it …" (146). Indeed they did. Conversion is the theological heartbeat of the movement from its inception to its many manifestations over the centuries. But the problem that preoccupies Strom in this detailed study is that the perception of what conversion is has been [End Page 246] subject to, even victim of, a simplified stereotype of Bußkampf: that is, a guilt-ridden penitential struggle that leads to a specific moment of rebirth. The model for this is the conversion narrative of August Hermann Francke (1663–1727) whose Lebenslauff, composed 1690/91, recounted his dramatic confrontation with the superficiality of his own faith. Despite the fact that he was theologically educated and knowledgeable in scripture and doctrine, Francke fell into despair and self-loathing because of his insincerity: "'I was with all my studies nothing more than a great hypocrite … I grasped my theology in my head and not in my heart and it was much more a dead knowledge than a living recognition.'" (17). This awareness, a specific episode in 1687, led to a change of heart and rebirth.
The Lebenslauff remained in manuscript form and was not widely known during Franke's lifetime; nor did the author make much reference to it. It was only after his death that the account slowly gained fame. Only at the end of the eighteenth century did the narrative became established as the basis for what Strom characterizes as "a highly schematic and rigid understanding of conversion … a single compulsory mode" (42) in which fear and shame figure prominently as does the importance of a specific time, place, and circumstance. What Franke experienced provided a model or norm for others.
Against the idea of conversion as conforming to one model or norm, Strom argues that conversion was in fact conceived among Pietists in a variety of ways. This variety is to be expected for any theology that seeks to examine the subjective human experience of personal faith and its dynamics. As Pascal famously taught, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knowns nothing." These reasons may be many and various. Strom provides myriad examples in a thorough and valuable examination of primary literature. So, for instance, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorff (1700–1760) made clear that he could not point to his own definitive moment of coming to true faith and was suspicious of the idea of Bußkampf (152). Even Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), at the headwaters of the Pietist movement, never made a specific act of conversion a requirement of Christian life, nor did he recount a conversion experience in his own journey of faith (156). [End Page 247]
These are valuable observations. Pietism should not be stereotyped. But it should be remembered that, despite the distortions to which the idea of Bußkampf might be subject, penitential piety, out of which the notion of Bußkampf emerges, is fundamental to the context of Christian faith.
It is biblical. Jesus announces the presence of the Kingdom in the indicative. But he follows this announcement with two imperatives, the first of which is the command to repent (Mk 1:15). The significance of believing is nothing less than life over death (Jn 3:16). Holy Communion involves self-examination. Without self-examination, the person to whom the sacrament is offered incurs judgment (I Cor 11:29).
Penitential piety is also Lutheran. It is part of the foundation of Luther's theology, grounded in Luther's acute awareness of the wrath of God and the experience of Anfechtung. In his "Exposition of Psalm 90" (1534), Luther described the ultimate saving event in stark terms. Commenting on verse 8 ("You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance"), Luther wrote:
This is the climax of the drama which God enacts with us. His intention is...