Sunday, November 22, 2009

How Syriac Christianity Saved the Protestant Reformation

by Fr. Dale A. Johnson

In 17th century Europe the protestant reformation began to lose it's fervor. It was weighed down by the intellectual weight of scholasticism, science, and the new socialism created by the wealth and power of nation/states who were discovering new lands and resources. Galileo and Newton were pioneering modern science. Descartes was forging modern philosophy. Hugo Grotius was promoting the idea of international law. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were forming modern political theory. In the same century strong centralized nation/states entered into worldwide competition for wealth and power by colonizing America and Asia.

The spiritual sons and daughters of Martin Luther were comfortable in their new world. Protestant theologians feared that Protestants had lost their way in theological legalism, secular science, and new social order.

German Pietism

Johnnes Arndt was a German Lutheran theologian born in 1555, the year Widmanstadt and Moses of Mardin published the Syriac New Testament in Vienna. He was attracted to the Syriac theology of Macarius, translated from Greek to Latin in 1559 in Paris. The Homilies of Macarius were available at the Lutheran University of Wittenburg in 1577 when he attended. It was these homilies that did more for the transmission of Syriac theology to Europe than all the Syriac New Testaments printed by Widmanstadt and his successors. Arndt wrote two famous devotional books, the Garden of Paradise and True Christianity. It is said that Arndt memorized all fifty homilies of Macarius. Whole passages of Macarius find their way into his writings and thus Syriac Christian ideas are passed into the revival of the Protestant Reformation.

The book True Christianity was read by Philipp Jacob Spener nearly a century later when he attended the University of Strassburg. The Syriac ideas of Macarius so deeply influenced him that he wrote a book that would become the foundation document of the pietistic movement: Pia desideria (Pious Desires,1675)

The Pia Desideria or “Heartfelt Desire for God-pleasing Reform” is the classic statement of Pietism. First published in 1675 by Philip Jacob Spener of Frankfurt on Main, it is both a devotional work and a textbook on church renewal.
The churches in Germany in the century following the Reformation were weakened by sacramentalism and confessionalism and endless theological disputes. Morality and spirituality among the laity and clergy were at a low ebb. The Protestant Reformation needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit of revival and personal piety.

Spener took advantage of a Frankfurt publisher’s invitation to write a preface for a new edition of Johann Arndt’s True Christianity. Spener discussed his assignment with his fellow ministers and submitted his manuscript in 1675. His remarks won immediate acclaim and within six months he published the preface separately under its own title, “Pious Desires.” In this seminal work, Spener responded to the spiritual conditions he observed with a sixfold program of church renewal. His principal concern was the “scandalous worldliness” of the churches and his hope for renewal was based on the conversion of Jews to Christianity in the first century churches. Thus Spener became known as the Father of Pietism.

Pietism was a movement within Lutheranism lasting from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century. It became influential among most Protestants and Anabaptists inspiring not only John Wesley and his Methodist Movement in England, but also the Brethren movement founded by Alexander Mack. The Pietist movement had an enormous impact on world history because of the Puritan influence in the development of the United States with its emphasis on individualism and Christian piety.

Spener offered six proposals for reform in Pia Desideria which became a short summary of pietism:

(1) There should be "a more extensive use of the Word of God among us." The Bible, Spener said, must be the chief means for reformation
(2) Spener called also for the priesthood of all believers citing Luther's example in urging all Christians to be active in the general work of Christian ministry.
(3) He appealed for the reality of Christian practice more than a matter of relying on simple knowledge.
(4) Spener then urged restraint and charity asking his readers to love and pray for unbelievers and sinners to adopt a moderate tone in disputes.
(5) Next he called for the need for training clergy in piety and devotion rather than academic subjects.
(6) Last he implored ministers to preach sermons people could understand.

The chief characteristic of Syriac Christianity is reflected in the six basic proposals. This is seen especially in the Homilies of Macarius. One can find the Homilies of Macarius online and by reading the titles of the fifty homilies it is easy to see the direct parallels to the principles of pietism. If there is one phrase to describe both Syriac Christianity and German pietism it is spirituality of the heart.

University of Halle

In 1694, after nearly 20 years of fame, Spener helped to found the University of Halle near Wittenburg under the charter of Leopold I and the patronage of Fredrick III, Elector of Brandenburg and Fredrick I of Prussia. He invited August Herman Frankce to become a professor at the new university.T his was no accident or a lightly considered offer. Spener specifically chose Frankce because of his passion for Syriac writers like Ephrem and Macarius. By making Syriac Christianity part of the core curriculum the spiritual principles would pass over to German pietism in the heart of its practice. The University of Halle perhaps did more for the transmission of Syriac theology more than any other institution, person, or event in the history of the West.

Francke lived his faith. He opened his own home as a school for poor children when he moved to Halle in 1692. Within a year he had to buy a building to house 100 orphans. He established a teacher training institute, and later he helped found a publishing house, and later a medical clinic.

Francke had experienced a dramatic conversion from cold theology to warm personal faith in 1687. Seven years later, under his leadership Halle became the center of Protestantism's biggest social enterprises and most ambitious missionary endeavors in 17th and 18th century Europe. The university established a center for Oriental languages including Syriac. The Homilies of Macarius became the core part of the curriculum. The Syriac ideas of Macarius shaped the four main features of Halle Pietism: individual piety, missionary zeal, compassion for the poor, and devotion to prayer and scripture.

Individual Piety

Syriac Christianity is a history of individual piety over legalistic corporate responses. The Syriac monk tended to be more alone, eccentric, and radical in his or her expression of prayer. We need only to picture the image of Simeon the Stylite bowing before his Creator a thousand times a day on top of his column. This is is contrast to the western image of the monk who lives in community and military like obedience to an abbot.

Missionary Zeal

Syriac Christianity is a history of missionary zeal having reached China a thousand years before the Jesuits. Desert monks from the Syriac east reached Gaul when Europe was still asleep. Syriac missionaries arrived in Ireland shortly after Sts Columban and Columba.

Compassion for the Poor

Syriac Christianity is a history of compassion for the poor as Syrianc Christians of every social class were studying in the university School of Nisibis a thousand years before the first university was built in Europe and Ephrem was operating a hospital and refugee centers in Edessa a thousand years before Galen and Hippocates was being read in Europe.

Devotion to the Word of God

Syriac Christianity is a history of devotion to the Word of God is music and prayer. Bar Daisan was composing music based on folk tunes and scripture more than a thousand years before Martin Luther was using the same technique.

All the features of Syriac Christianity mentioned above were made alive in the revival of the pietists in the 17th century through their rediscovery of Ephrem, Macarius, Jacob, and Isaac. The pietistic movement saved the Protestant Reformation.


Macarius is known to present day scholars as Pseudo Macarius and generally regarded as an anonymous Syriac writer of Mesopotamia, perhaps from the present day area of Tur Abdin. But for purposes of this article and because the pietists believed the Fifty Homilies to be from Macarius we shall refer to him as Macarius.


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