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Faith and Rebirth: Pietism

Born from above

Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’. (John 3.3)

Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus in Jn. 3 is full of the language of birth. In the stillness of the night, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born from above’ (Jn. 3.3), ‘born of water and Spirit’ (3.7) and simply ‘born of the Spirit’ (3.8). It is an evocative and elusive set of images. That this conversation is set during the night makes Jesus’ talk of light and darkness at the end of the chapter all the more ironic. Jesus is the light of the world (Jn. 8.12) and yet Nicodemus comes to him in the darkness. Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, and therefore knows that Jesus’ signs and deeds can only come from one in whom God is present. Yet his befuddlement at Jesus’ talk of being born from above - ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ (3.4) - seems only reasonable. The familiarity and current use of the phrase ‘born again’ makes it difficult to recognize how strange and stark these words of Jesus are.

The New Testament is full of notions of rebirth, new creation and the new person, and thus so are the various intellectual and spiritual traditions within Christianity. Rebirth signals the beginning of a process, a beginning of growth. Within the modern period the idea that faith is a rebirth, conversion and regeneration of the mind and especially of the heart can be seen in such different groups as the Reformed English Puritans, the Catholic French Jansenists and the primarily Lutheran Continental Pietists. It is with this last group in particular that we will be concerned in this unit, as the notion of rebirth or conversion has been called ‘the central expression for the self-understanding of Pietism’.[1]

  • [1] Markus Matthias, ‘Bekehrung und Wiedergeburt’, in Hartmut Lehmann (ed.), Geschichte des Pietismus,vol. 4, Glaubenswelt und Lebenswelt (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004), pp. 49-79 (49).
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