Johann Arndt: A Prophet of Lutheran Pietism

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Johann Arndt: A Prophet of Lutheran Pietism

Author of Work:

Daniel Van Voorhis


Pastor Benjamin Phelps

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Johann Arndt has a reputation for being both important and controversial. Arndt is frequently placed on the historical timeline as a sort of proto-pietist—a man whose thoughts paved the way for that controversial movement and, according to some, prefigured Pietism’s theological positions in his own writings. In his recent book, Johann Arndt: A Prophet of Lutheran Pietism, Daniel van Voorhis takes a new academic perspective on Arndt by adding an examination of his private letters to the analysis of his published works. Taking a broader approach, Van Voorhis argues, “Arndt’s thought—and with it, his identity—cannot be divorced from his personal biography and his historical context” (105). Van Voorhis first offers his readers a summary and analysis of interpretations of Arndt in the past four hundred years; then he next offers a review of Arndt’s life and of his six books of True Christianity. Van Voorhis proceeds to review doctrinal issues debated among Lutherans in the late sixteenth century and convincingly establishes Arndt’s confessionalism by comparing his public and private writings to the Book of Concord. Finally, Van Voorhis analyzes the mystical aspects of Arndt’s theology and his self-perception as a prophet in the narrow sense. 

Van Voorhis clearly establishes True Christianity’s importance. It was the best-selling book in parts of Europe after only the Bible for over one hundred years—having been printed in at least eighteen languages and 141 editions (72-73). The historical record makes it clear that they found Arndt’s True Christianity useful and important. Should we? 

Van Voorhis offers his readers an overview of True Christianity. Book 1, he says, focuses primarily on new life in Christ, dealing with the image of God, the fall, repentance/conversion, the Christian life, and glorification. Book 2 develops thoughts on an inwardly confessional faith. Van Voorhis describes Book 3 as “radically devotional,” very inward-focused, and rejected by Johann Gerhard for speaking of an “unmediated communion with God” (no external means of grace) and for quoting too many mystics while not containing enough Lutheran confessionalism. Book 4 is essentially Book 3 cleaned up and given a more orthodox presentation. Arndt talks about ethics while presupposing the doctrine of justification. Books 5 and 6 were posthumously published apologies and vindications of the previous books. 

Van Voorhis highlights Arndt’s particular theological approach saying, “Arndt claimed that without a proper understanding of original sin, all the other doctrines pertaining to the gospel were impossible to grasp” (46). Indeed, Arndt did not hold back. We lost the image of God, and instead, we all had the image of Satan in our fallen state (7-8, 14). In a letter to Johann Gerhard, Arndt wrote that the first goal of teaching should be to turn a person inward, then, only after fully understanding his misery, point him to Jesus and all his blessings (47). 

Van Voorhis also adds, “Arndt argued for the necessity of human volition in moral improvement and the responsibility of the individual to devote himself to the imitation of Christ,” but, on the other hand, also wrote to distance himself from those who asserted any human responsibility in conversion (47). Van Voorhis claims that Arndt refused to see faith as simply binary (are you in or out, do you have it or not?). He saw it on a spectrum (71). 

Van Voorhis’s research into Arndt reveals an interesting theological perspective. In a letter to orthodox Lutheran theologian Balthasar Mentzer, Arndt wrote that the church renewal is founded on, “the revealed word of God, by means of the merit and example of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit and the illuminating faith and justification” (88). So yes, Jesus’s purpose on earth was to be our meritorious savior, accomplishing a vicarious atonement. But Jesus’s purpose and continued work in the Church is also as example. The Scriptures surely make this clear, but Lutherans seem to be rather timid about preaching a sermon with “Jesus is our example” as the theme.  

Is it fair to say he had an unhealthy obsession with sanctification? Or can we ever be free to work for any length of time on sanctification in isolation, assuming the truths of justification? These are questions for both continued historical study and theological consideration. 

Van Voorhis’s research unveils the fact that Arndt was critical of those in the church who chose to debate justification rather than simply accept it as the foundation of the Christian church and proceed from there (50). Arndt bemoaned the Lutheran Church’s propensity for writings and disputations, saying it was a great error to assume that pure doctrine is preserved only in schools while forgetting the Christian life (66). Was he simply anti-intellectual? 

Van Voorhis notes that ever since Arndt’s death in 1621 he has been “regarded as either the most significant Reformer since Luther or an uneducated and dangerous element within the Lutheran Church” (xv). Already in Arndt’s lifetime, he received negative reviews, both publicly and privately. Van Voorhis offers several noteworthy examples. Some claimed that his wording on the human will sounded synergistic. He defended himself by letter by telling his critics to pay attention to his audience. As is clear from his introduction, Arndt was clearly talking only to and about Christians—those who have faith and the Spirit’s work of new life and renewal already in place (49). 

Others, a bit more gently, questioned whether Arndt’s urge to “contemplate Christ’s passion” (which is reminiscent of Roman Catholic mysticism) confused law and gospel by pointing to the cross as God’s wrath against sin, rather than the good news of forgiveness. Arndt in reply pointed to two uses and two ways to view Christ’s cross (51). 

Lucas Osiander, the grandson of the more famous Andreas Osiander, had a reputation for loving polemics. Some said that “he saw the Holy Ghost appear in the form of a raven, rather than a dove” (xxi). Osiander attacked Arndt after he was in the grave with some devastating name-association. He said that Arndt was just like Thomas Müntzer, Schwenkfeld, and other enthusiasts for insisting that there is a time and place for Christians to turn inward. Yet, Osiander’s attack prompted others to come to Arndt’s defense, such as Philip Jakob Spener fifty years later. Spener, the uncontested father of Pietism, refuted Osiander’s attacks with Bible passages and quotes from Luther. Spener’s famous Pia Desideria was originally meant to be an introduction to True Christianity. 

Van Voorhis notes that it has probably been Spener’s praise and claim to have walked in Arndt’s footsteps that have been the greatest cause of associating Arndt with Pietism. Indeed, many of the negative views of Arndt that have persisted are also directed at the Pietist movement. Valentin Ernst Löscher was perhaps one of the most vocal critics. He accused them of only caring about pure spiritual life and rejecting external things like public worship and doctrine. In his view, they only found grace inwardly and not through external means. Löscher also critiqued Arndt for his love of mystical books and for carelessly incorporating harmful concepts into his works. Nevertheless, Löscher still said, “I love the sainted Johann Arndt from my heart as a faithful preacher of righteousness” (xxiii-xxiv). 

Arndt, the pastor-writer, got in trouble with more academic theologians for language that could be easily misunderstood or misconstrued. Johann Gerhard, a well-regarded Orthodox Confessional Lutheran theologian, knew Arndt well, having been his personal student from the age of 14. Still, Gerhard wrote of Arndt, “he feels more correctly than he speaks.” Gerhard also thought that Arndt lacked the education level of other theologians and was too apt to eclectically read non-Lutherans—especially medieval mystics (58). 

Van Voorhis argues that Arndt, a contemporary of the formation of the Formula of Concord, would not have looked at subscription to the Lutheran Symbols as a mere formality connected to documents of historic or sentimental value. In the age of High Orthodoxy and the context of many controversies, Arndt knew how important it was to carefully word and guard doctrine, not just for the sake of his audience, but also for his own career and reputation within the Lutheran church. Van Voorhis’s main contribution to understanding Arndt and his theology is his analysis of Arndt’s letters. Arndt went to great lengths to have his works peer-reviewed by Lutheran theologians at the universities and to defend his orthodoxy against charges of heresy. He wrote, “I have spoken clearly with much care and diligence.” However Arndt may have been interpreted, he never saw himself as anything else but a Confessional Lutheran (56). 

Van Voorhis makes a solid case that Arndt saw himself as, in a broad use of the term, a prophet of the church in his own age (xvi). Was he? I suppose we would have to know the church of his age very well before we would be in any position to make a judgment. Van Voorhis asserts that it was Arndt’s “lack of theological sophistication that made him a popular and effective devotional author” for the church of his age and in the following centuries (106). 

Johann Arndt: A Prophet of Lutheran Pietism offers new and significant insights on a major topic of historical theology that also touches on significant systematic and practical issues. This biography serves as an excellent supplement to reading True Christianity for practical personal or pastoral use.