Pastor's Blog

“Christianity is not a religion;  it’s a relationship.”

I’ve heard that many times over the years from evangelicals and fundamentalists – and I’ve heard it more and more as time goes on.  We talk about the need to “have a personal relationship with God” (or with Jesus) and about the need to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior.”

Personal relationship.  Personal savior.  Odd terms to be used by people who claim to be completely Bible-based because the Bible never uses these terms.  That doesn’t mean the terminology is false – the word “trinity” doesn’t occur in the Bible either – but we ought understand what we mean by these terms and we ought to understand the biblical basis for the ideas they represent if we’re going to use them.

There is an interesting tool on Google called the “Ngram Viewer”.  You plug terminology into it and Ngram searches a broad database of literature and reports the occurrences of the phrases in the literature.  It’s not exhaustive and it’s not fool-proof, but it’s helpful.  I entered four phrases:  personal Savior, personal relationship with Christ, personal relationship with Jesus, and personal relationship with God – and I searched from 1600 to the present.  These phrases started to become common after the Civil War and usage skyrocketed after 1960.

The few pieces of literature in the pre-Civil War era that used the phraseology indicated two things.  First, that the terms were already being used widely and second, that the traditional church was arguing against using such terminology.  Let me explain a little bit of the church history to make sense of that second point, because it’s important.

The Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s was a scholarly protest against doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church that weren’t sufficiently grounded in the Bible.  Martin Luther (Germany) was the earliest notable reformer.  When Catholicism wouldn’t be reformed, Luther developed his own church, a reformed Catholicism that came to be known as the Lutheran Church.

Luther reformed church doctrine.  The Bible was the final authority rather than the Pope, creeds, or councils.  Salvation was by grace through faith, not religious works.  But the religious experience of the common man was still distant and impersonal, dependent upon the clergy for relationship to God through the sacraments and doctrinal preaching.

In the mid-1600’s a movement arose within Lutheranism that argued that this dependence on the clergy and the institutional church was bad for the church, producing “dead orthodoxy” rather than vibrant genuine faith.  The leader of the movement, a Lutheran scholar named Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), preached that Christianity was far more than an intellectual understanding of right doctrine;  it was a life that needed to be lived out every day.  Spener organized small groups of parishioners that met for prayer, Bible study, and encouragement in the living out Christian morality. His focus on personal piety (as opposed to mere bookishness or “scholasticism”) gave the movement its name: pietism.

The leaders of the traditional Lutheran church saw pietism as dangerous and worked to limit its practice and influence.  It seemed an oversimplification of the great doctrines of the faith and it seemed to lead to the idea that educated leadership and the institutional church were completely unnecessary to the Christian faith.  Spener didn't formally preach these things;  it was just the troublesome slippery slope that traditionalist believed Spener's ideas generated.

Pietism didn’t survive too long in Lutheranism.  But its ideas spread like wildfire through Protestant Europe.  The 17th century saw the flourishing of the Moravians under Count Zinzendorf in what is now the Czech Republic and the Puritans boldly fighting dead orthodoxy in the Church of England.  Methodism took up the same cause in the Church of England in the 18th century, and all three movements – Moravianism, Puritanism, and Methodism – were powerful influences in the population of the newly founded colonies in America.

Although none of these groups spoke of having a “personal relationship with” God, their ideas were, as far as I can tell, the first wedge driven between the institutional church (religion) and practical spirituality (which later focused on “personal relationship”).

More next week…



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