Book: Spener. Pia Desideria

Philip Jacob Spener wrote this initially as a preface to an edition of some sermons by J. Arndt; it became popular in its own right and subsequently was published by itself, in the fall of 1675. The translator gives “Pious Wishes” as the meaning of the title.The work canvasses the corrupt condition of the evangelical (i.e. Lutheran) church of his day, suggesting that as a result, the Jews “are moved to blaspheme the name of the Lord” and papists feel no reason to leave their own assembly, even if they sense the perversion of the gospel there. Next, Spener argues that improvement is possible, then sets out several very specific ways that improvement could take place.

The corruption has come about through lax preaching; Satan learned this method when the fiery persecutions of the early church had the opposite effect to what he desired (41). All three “estates” have become worldly. The civil magistrate is not doing enough to further the evangelical cause; the pastors are worldly, and indeed those that do show zeal are mocked (47). The common people have lapsed into vices (57-75).

That improvement is possible is evident from reflection on the parable of the wheat and tares. To be sure, this shows that perfection is not possible on earth; among other reasons, “the farther a godly Christian advances, the more he will see that he lacks, and so he will never be farther removed from the illusion of perfection than when he tries hardest to reach it” (80). But on the other hand, the image should be a wheat field with some weeds, not a weed field with a few stray wheat stalks: “thus the weeds will no longer cover the grain and make it unsightly, as is unfortunately often the case now, but the weeds will be covered by the grain and made inconspicuous” (81). Moreover, we know that improvement of the current situation must be possible by comparing its condition to that of the early church.

The proposals for correction include

  1. Bible reading
  2. Appropriating the priesthood of all believers
  3. Internalizing the faith
  4. Useful interaction with unbelievers
  5. Education of pastors to emphasize piety
  6. Practical training of pastors

(1) includes, in addition to family readings, the proposal for something like what we would call “small groups,” where people could ask questions of the meaning and import of each verse.

The significance of (2) is that each individual Christian should be carrying out the entire office of the pastor (except the public functions), including Bible study and being ready to exhort his household, pray for his neighbor, and indeed, “pay attention to the minister, admonish him fraternally when he neglects something” (94).

(3) picks up on Arndt’s message: head knowledge is no Christianity at all.

(4) includes engagement both with lapsed believers, papists, and unbelievers. The keynote should be gentle but firm explanation, not insult or triumphal refutation. A “conviction of truth is far from being faith” (101).

The training of pastors (5) must include encouragement of a godly lifestyle. Career recommendations should emphasize this aspect over academics. A list of devotional literature includes Thomas a Kempis and others, even while being mindful that to them “something of the darkness of their age still clings” (112).

(6) The training should include practical skills as well as academic: how to deal with the sick, the ignorant, and above all preach understandably. An important passage sounds the battle cry against formalism in the sacraments:

Nor is it enough to be baptized, but the inner man, where we have put on Christ in Baptism, must also keep Christ on and bear witness to him in our outward life. Nor is it enough to have received the Lord’s Supper externally, but the inner man must truly be fed with that blessed food. (117)


The criticism of the civil magistrate for not doing enough to further the evangelical church is interesting, especially in view of the common view that the Lutheran two kingdom model implies state neutrality.

It is interesting that the vices among the common people that Spener highlights are drunkenness and lawsuits. The discussion of drunkenness seems to include drinking of any kind: at least, the issue of “drinking to a friend’s health” is condemned. An historian’s note as to whether, in that context, this was a ceremony that typically led to drunkenness would be helpful, to contrast that with the possibility that even light social drinking is condemned.

Spener is regarded as the father of German Pietism. The very term Pietist, like Puritan in England, is basically a Schimpfname coined by their respective enemies. (And there is a connection between these movements: Spener read several of the English Puritans in his youth, and some of his distinctive motives will be recognized as similar to those of the Puritans.) We should use the term due to historical convention, but without the connotations of the unbeliever.

The Reformed seminary curriculum, in its rush to cover so much material, often lapses into clichés, and this is especially lamentable when the clichés were coined by the enemies of a movement. But as Dabney pointed out in 1881 (Discussions, vol. 1, p. 444) the distinctive emphases of Spener would have been received by American evangelicals as “obvious.” (We might quibble with this or that detail, of course.)

Another note pertaining to modern seminary training: far too much of the history and Bible curriculum utilizes secondary literature, even when it is not necessary. This little book could easily be incorporated into the reading and discussion for a course on either Reformation or Modern Church; the relevance of the topic to our own day should add interest.


Review of Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria. Eng. tr. Theodore G. Tappert. (Phila.: Fortress Press 1964 [1675]). BR 1650 .A2 S613

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