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Philipp Jakob Spener

Coming back from Germany and wanting to understand more the theology behind the Baroque buildings of Fulda, Würzburg and elsewhere, I bought Professor Johannes Wallmann's 'Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands seit der Reformation'. First published in 1973 and in its 6th revised edition, both the thought and the German language flow beautifully. It is a standard textbook, I gather, at least on the Protestant side – Wallmann is Protestant, and while not unsympathetic or unfair to Catholicism, it is clear that he has a much greater historical sensitivity, and interest, for his own confession.

Protestantism gets the lion’s share (over 90%) of the 50 pages he devotes to the period I am interested in, that is between 1648 (Peace of Westfalia) and the end of the Holy Roman Empire. It is not what I was looking for, but the history of the Pietist movement makes fascinating reading. It is basically the story of people feeling the 'if you want to be perfect' calling in a mono-confessional situation - changing confession (a common solution now in a multi-confessional society, if you feel the need to take your Christianity deeper), not being an option. People like Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), the founder of the Pietist movement in Frankfurt, his more separatist con-disciple Johan Jakob Schütz (1640-1690), August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), the founder of the so-called Halle Pietismus, which developed a huge social work, with schools and orphanages, and started serious missionary work, and Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), and his Brüdergemeine, were clearly animated by a desire for God, and an experience him in their hearts, which largely overcame the strictures of Protestant theology.

The paradox here lies in the constant reference back to the ‘dead’ church from which they come, and with which most of them kept formal links, however tenuous and at times strained. This remains in the background, somehow providing a reference and a stability without which these smaller, 'going deeper' (I want to avoid the word 'extremist') groups would have foundered. In fact, both sides, I suspect, lived in a sort of unconfessed symbiosis, the first keeping the second from drying up totally, the second providing a theological and moral reference preventing the first from going off the rails into the chiliasm and sexual excess to which such groups are always prone.

I suspect there are lessons for today here.

Apart from that Wallmann’s book doesn’t really answer my question as to the theology behind the Baroque, other than one rather lapidary sentence:  “The image-filled magnificence of the Baroque, which the Jesuits brought as a church building style to Germany, reflects the rich imagination-rousing effect of the Exercises [of St Francis of Loyola]. The ‘Jesuit style’ presented the soberness of the Protestant cult with the richness and superiority of Roman Catholicism’”.  

 Yes and no, Professor Wallmann: the understanding of the faith in terms of a series of ‘mysteries’ is certainly there (instead of the straight Bible narrative of the Middle Ages). Magnificent, yes if it’s your cup of tea. Full of ‘soul-working’ imagery – once you strip out the putti and the women representing mater ecclesia in various guises – I am less sure. I sense a dearth.

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October 2015

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