Eros and Pietism

This passage from Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex seems to be accurate, with more than a little relevance for evangelical churches here in America:

Pietism, in contrast with Luther, raises the psychological question. It had to arise for Pietism if only because even in the realm of piety it always started out from experience, the experience of conversion, regeneration, repentance, joy in the Lord. In conformity with this interest in the psychic experience the eros experience also called for interpretation and theological evaluation. And yet this question was not posed in such a way that the eros experience as such, having its own value as an encounter with the created world, became the object of the question. Hence this kind of psychological interest, despite its new sensitiveness, was not capable of opening the way to a relationship with modern forms of experiencing eros and marriage. Rather in Pietism the psychological question was focused on the compatibility of the eros experience with the experience of union with Christ. But since the eros experience as such was not thought through theologically and thus remained a spiritually unsubdued element of strong psychic force, its relation to the religious experience could be regarded only as competitive. Here was a power that sought to fill up the whole of the psyche to the limits of its capacity.

[John W. Doberstein, trans., Harper & Row, 1964, p. 302]

In Pietism’s defense, nobody has a good grasp at controlling eros. The objectivity of confessionalism, or even secularism, may help, but we’re all pretty messed-up. It sucks being postlapsarian. Pietism’s “Jesus-love” — the emphasis on a personal and affective relationship with Jesus Christ — may be inadequate but so is the stoicism, whether confessional or secular, that attempts to counteract this.

Image: Amor und Psyche by Antonio Canova



  1. Kevin,

    Your blog is awesome.You sure beat us in the intellectualism department. I look forward to being a regular reader. I am not sure I am smart enough to comment but may try when I get up the courage!

  2. As a “card carrying” Pietist I feel I should somehow respond. (I am a member in the Evangelical Covenant Church, which self describes itself as Pietist with a capital “P”.) However, I’m just not sure what the heck he’s trying to say. Having grown up in an intellectual and doctrinare kind of denomination, as an adult I have found the warm and heart felt joy in the Lord of many of my fellow Pietists to be most welcome and encouraging. Indeed, I have little to teach them, but they have much to teach me. Dealing with eros, with our sexuality … we all, all of us, don’t deal well with integrating this into our spirituality. Pietists do have a Friend they can call on, this is not a hindrance.

    • Yes, my own pietist proclivities include a lot of appreciation for “the warm and heart felt joy in the Lord.” Yet, I am concerned about how such eudemonistic emphases, by catering to the therapeutic self, may actually serve to dislodge eros from its agape moorings.

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