Walter Brueggemann: Reflecting Awe: Intersecting Pietism, Faith, and Science

My theme for this comment comes from a question my friend, Conrad Kanagy, posed for me amid his work to narrate my life. He asked about the attitude of my childhood faith toward science. I am glad for his invitation to reflect on the matter.

My childhood faith—led by my mother and presided over by my father-pastor—was a form of “German pietism” that we practiced readily in our community of German-American immigrants. The phrase, “German pietism” is so readily misunderstood in terms of “piety” that I will give it some reflective attention. “Pietism” arose in Germany in the 17th century. It was a response to orthodox, scholastic Lutheranism that trafficked in syllogistic reasoning, insisted upon doctrinal certitude, and imposed conformity of thought. In resistance against such reductionism, there arose a movement of deep and serious faith (Pietism) that refused such doctrinal exactitude and authoritarianism. It placed its emphasis upon personal intimate faith and trust in the Lord Jesus. Among the most prominent, most often mentioned leaders of this movement are,

Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705),

August Hermann Franke (1663-1727), and

Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760).

The movement came to expression in a variety of forms, most especially among the Moravians, and through John and Charles Wesley, the Methodist movement. The German immigrant community that is my antecedent community also participated in that movement.

In the 19th century, pietism continued to have compelling force, not least among the German Evangelicals from which my family derived. In the 19th century pietism was made particularly important through the scholarship of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), and Freidrich Schlieremacher (1768-1834). Schlieremacher was directly involved in the shaping of the faith community from which my family came. The pietism of my German forebears was made more complex and eventually more agile because of the Prussian Union of 1817 when the Prussian King, Fredrick William III merged the Lutheran and Reformed Churches into a United Church. The pastors who readily embraced that Union were termed “Union men,” because they did not want to linger over the theological niceties of either Lutheranism or Calvinism. (My father, in his turn, was indeed a “Union man.”) The act of the Union precluded doctrinal exactitude in either a Lutheran or a Calvinist mode. Through the leadership of Schlieremacher, the Prussian Union took on a distinctly pastoral casting that vigorously eschewed scholastic exactitude and intellectual conformity.

My own childhood faith was very much a product of that movement, even though the specificities of pietism were not much talked about among us. My simple formulation of my childhood pietism, given me by my parents in their walk more than their talk, is that we may love the Lord Jesus in an intimate and direct way, and our energy is to care for the vulnerable, that is, in quite practical ways, “to love God and to love neighbor.” My own sense of that faith in practice includes the following:

  • Our family practiced “daily devotions” every day at suppertime. This consisted in a devotional tract from the denomination that was called “Daily Talk with God.” It provided daily guidance and nurture; it included each day a brief scripture reading, a brief exposition, and a prayer. Sometimes my mother would read the printed prayer; sometimes my father would offer a prayer.

  • The Evangelical Catechism occupied central attention in my growing up. It is a little blue book of 128 questions and answers that walks the student through the Creed in its three articles, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer, the staples of Reformation catechisms. It was designed to prepare young teenagers for confirmation into church life. On the catechism see Frederick Trost, The Evangelical Catechism: a New Translation for the Twenty-First Century, and my own brief commentary, The Evangelical Catechism Revisited. The faith to which the catechism bears witness is simply put, direct, and intimate. Thus on “creation” (a subject that draws attention concerning “faith and science,”) the catechism offers these simple affirmations:

Q15:  How does God constantly prove himself to be the Creator?

A:  God constantly proves himself to be the Creator by his fatherly providence, whereby he preserves and governs all things.

Q16:  What has God done for you?

A:  I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me and still preserves my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my sense, also food and clothing, home and family, and all my possessions.

Q17:  What does God still do for you?

A:  God daily and abundantly provides me with all the necessaries of life, protects and preserves me from all danger.

Q18:  Why does God do this for you?
A: God does all this out of sheer fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part.

We can notice what is generously affirmed. We can also notice what goes without comment, namely, all the claims that might lead to a clash with science. The catechism will have none of that, nor will the tradition of pietism that informs it.

Most notably the catechism concludes with this question:

Q128:  What does our communion daily require of us?

In response the suffering love of the Lord Jesus is articulated. And then this:

A:  Lord Jesus, for thee I live, for thee I suffer, for thee I die!

Lord Jesus, thine will I be in life and death!Grant me, O Lord, eternal salvation! Amen.

We can notice the direct address to “Lord Jesus” with whom we are judged to be on the most intimate of terms. One can observe in this answer and its intimate language a shunning of all scholastic formulation.

  • Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the practice of pietism in my memory is my memory that members of the church would annually stage a major cookout in the fall to make pots of apple butter and applesauce from the fall harvest. The apple produce was then canned and taken to our two “Emmaeus Homes” funded by the church. These “Homes,” located in St. Charles and Marthasville, were institutions designed to care for epileptics and “feebleminded” persons. Much of the food for these Homes was produced by local congregations, a practice only discontinued when state laws prohibited such food provision. The funding of these Homes, along with an orphanage, a hospital, and inner-city Settlement House constituted a steadfast commitment of the community toward the vulnerable in society. Already in the 17th century Franke had founded a school for children and an Orphan House funded by his friends. Care for the socially vulnerable was a major mark of the faithful obedience in this tradition.

  • The long-running tension between scholastic Lutherans and evangelical pietism in Germany was readily transported to the United States. In the small town where I grew up (and in many similar towns), German immigrants were largely divided into two congregations, one a Missouri Synod Lutheran and the other the evangelical tradition, in my experience, a congregation of the Evangelical Synod.  Congregations and pastors of the Missouri Synod were scholastically insistent, whereas the evangelical congregations and pastors were much more attuned to the actual realities of lived life. I can remember that my father, as a pastor, frequently had to adjudicate “mixed marriages” between a Missouri Lutheran and a member of our congregation. The issue most often turned on an authoritarian insistence that made the relationship problematic. It often remained for the evangelical pastor to pick up the pieces of human woundedness from such a relationship. It is striking that we were able to transfer that old German conflict into the American scene.

  • The evangelical tradition was characteristically irenic and was most reluctant to engage in doctrinal dispute, being willing and able to allow great latitude in belief and practice. That latitude was made possible (and necessary) by the recognition that human life is bottomlessly complex, and that our grounding is in the grace of God that does not depend on doctrinal exactitude.

All of this background we may take as preliminary and preparatory to our question of faith and science. Perhaps the place to begin with this question is to notice that quite early in the 19th century my German evangelical denomination readily embraced “historical criticism” as a legitimate way to study scripture. The perspective of historical criticism permitted and required consideration of the best scientific learning that we could muster. The Evangelical Union (my church) had a few early skirmishes about the matter, but by the time my father went to seminary (1922) and my brother and I followed him to seminary (1954-55), the matter of the critical study of scripture was a settled matter. Indeed my brother and I were fortunate to have as our Old Testament teacher, Allen G. Wehrli, (who had been our father’s teacher as well), who had studied with Hermann Gunkel at the University of Halle. Wehrli had no hesitation in utilizing the best scientific methods for his teaching.

For the most part we did not notice that in the 19th century “critical learning” in scripture had completely adapted to the evolutionary hypothesis of Darwin and applied it to scripture. Thus the old “documentary hypothesis” of JEDP was lined out in an evolutionary scheme from the most primitive religion to the most sophisticated. This approach dominated scripture study until the 1970s. The textbook we read in seminary was Unraveling the Book of Books by Ernest Trattner (1929) that was an unapologetic articulation of the evolutionary hypothesis applied to the history of Israelite religion. Further, my father’s hero, Harry Emerson Fosdick, a noted “liberal” preaching icon, had published a book articulating the evolutionary hypothesis of how biblical faith “developed.”

This tradition of faith did not have a great deal to say about scientific matters. It did affirm, however, that faith must engage with the best learning available, including advances in science. It never saw that emergent science needed in any way to collide with or contradict the claims of faith, because the claims of faith were most passionately cast in personal, interpersonal terms. This casting permitted the tradition to be enormously elastic and agile in its recognition of new learning. To be sure, the tradition insisted, and continues to insist, that there are compelling moral restraints on the development of scientific learning into technological practice. The criterion for such restraint is of course the damage that such development may cause to the environment and to the most vulnerable of human creatures.

It is the case that such pietism continued much too long in its embrace of a simplistic evolutionary scheme with reference to the Bible and to faith more generally. With the dramatic changes and advances in scientific matters around the developments in quantum physics and the recognition that reality consists in energy as much as substance, the pietistic tradition, like much else for the church, has not adapted as readily as it might. Thus the church, in its pietistic manifestations, is always playing catch-up with new learnings. It is playing catch-up, not because of its resistance but because new learning always requires fresh formulations and articulations of faith. The pietistic tradition has no particular reluctance about such re-formulation and articulation.

Just now we may take notice of a new study entitled, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It can Transform Your Life, by Dacher Keltner. It is remarkable that such a book is able to label a fresh appreciation of “awe” as “The New Science.” Whether this is new as a science remains to be seen. But we may fully appreciate the new attentiveness to “awe” that invites us to wonder and not to either explanation or exploitation. Such a posture compels the practitioners of awe to recognize that there is something greater, more hidden, and more sublime than our explanatory practices in science. Of course the reality of “awe” is not new in religious awareness, even if it strikes one as new in a “scientific” perspective. The rendering of awe in biblical poetry is through the singing of doxology in the recognition that the base, bottom, and ground of what we are is rooted in a reality other than us. Thus pietists have for a very long time engaged with and practiced the doxological awe voiced in the Bible. Such doxologies refer to the one who stands outside of all of our explanatory categories and beyond our naming.

The book of Psalms breaks open all explanatory categories, and invites to doxologies of wonder:

By awesome deeds (nora’oth) you answer us with deliverance,

O God of our salvation;

you are the hope of all the ends of the earth

and of the farthest seas.

By your strength you established the mountains;

you are girded with might.

You silence the roaring of the seas,

the roaring of their waves,

the tumult of the peoples.

Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed (yiyra’) by your signs;

you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy (Psalm 65:5-8).

He sends out his command to the earth;

his word runs swiftly.

He gives snow like wool;

he scatters frost like ashes.

He hurls down hail like crumbs—

who can stand before his cold?

He sends out his word, and melts them;

he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.

He declares his word to Jacob,

his statutes and ordinances to Israel (Psalm 147:15-19).

Praise the Lord from the earth,

you sea monsters and all deeps,

fire and hail, snow and frost,

stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars!

Wild animals and all cattle,

creeping things and flying birds! (Psalm 148:7-10)

The doxological tradition is utilized in the poem of Job as a way of letting the hidden mystery of God escape the explanatory power of Job and his friends:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?—

when I made the clouds its garment,

and thick darkness its swaddling band,

and prescribed bounds for it,

and set bars and doors,

and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? (Job 38:4-11)

Do you give the horse its might?

Do you clothe its neck with mane?

Do you make it leap like the locust?
Its majestic snorting is terrible.

It paws violently, exults mightily;

it goes out to meet the weapons.

It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;

it does not turn back from the sword.

Upon it rattle the quiver,

the flashing spear, and the javelin.

With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;

it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says “Aha!”

From a distance it smells the battle,

the thunder of the captains,

and the shouting (Job 39:19-25).

The wonder of God as creator is enough to render Job to silence. Job can recognize that his explanatory capacity to reduce reality to his categories of reason is futile. The holiness of God will not be hemmed in by human knowledge. The faithful community has long known this, while the scientific community, according to Keltner, is ready for a fresh embrace of this reality.

The doxological cadences of the Books of Psalms and Job, moreover, are reiterated in the New Testament Epistles of Ephesians and Colossians. These epistles make the claim that the rule of Christ extends to all of creation, a claim the pietists gladly echo:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

It is for this reason that these epistles essentially dissolve into doxological wonder. And so it is that pietists refuse the explanatory reductions of scientism, but welcome the probes to understanding in responsible science. As faith is always playing catch-up to every new emergent in science, so it is not too much to say that science is playing catch-up in its emergent wonder and awe as it embraces appropriate ways to be in awe before the wonder of the creator. In the great pietistic hymn of Charles Wesley, we are at the end not fixed in explanation. We are, rather, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” It is for that reason that pietism is a singing tradition. The deep claims of faith cannot be rendered in explanatory rationality, even though the theological tradition continues to try to do that. They can only be voiced in the cadences of trust and wonder that allow for the closest intimacy with holiness, while at the same time affirming the complete “otherness “of that holiness.

Pietism is not put off by science. It insists, however, that the service rendered by science must be governed by a single criterion, namely, the good or ill that will be done to “the least.” (See Matthew 25:40, 45.)  It is always “the least” who turn out to be the ultimate host for God’s holiness. Any pretense otherwise—to find God’s holiness in doctrine, liturgy, or ethics—is to misconstrue. Pietism anticipates that in the fullness of God’s rule, that the last will be first, thus a reiteration of the way in which the crucified one is seen to be raised to governance. Such a reversal from Good Friday to Easter defies all of our most cunning knowledge.

It turns out that the generative tension between scientific knowledge and trusting faith is well voiced by the ancient sage in Israel:

It is the glory of God to conceal things,

but the glory of kings to search things out (Proverbs 25:2).

It is human work to search things out, the work of science. It is the work of the holy God to conceal from such study the mystery of life. That context between searching out and concealing goes on and on. Human freedom in such work is definitional. It does so, however, amid the awesome rule of God. This much the pietists understood intuitively. That is why we bow in worship before the holy God, while welcoming the best work of science.

Walter Brueggemann

April 18, 2023


Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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