(Beyond) A Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education

by Chris Gehrz

Eight years ago I walked into a faculty development workshop at Bethel University, looking for pointers on how to write my application for tenure. I walked out of the workshop unable to shake a question that had nothing to do with my training as a historian of international relations:

Is there a Pietist vision for Christian higher education?

Having grown up in the Evangelical Covenant Church, I’m sure I’d heard about Pietism once or twice. I clearly hadn’t paid enough attention. When I came to Bethel and heard my colleague G.W. Carlson claim that the school was rooted in something called the “Swedish Baptist Pietist tradition,” I had a decent sense of what the first two adjectives meant — my mom’s side of the family is all Swedish and I attended Baptist churches during my decade studying on the East Coast — but no idea what to do with the third.

Nor, it turned out, did most anyone else I talked to at Bethel. Our administrators and faculty used the “P”-word, sometimes amplified by the slogan: “We educate whole and holy persons.” I hadn’t realized just how little we, or anyone else, knew about the implications of Pietism for Christian higher education until I attended that workshop in the summer of 2006.

Our facilitators were Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen from Messiah College. Working from their book Scholarship & Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation, they sought to take us beyond the model of Christian scholarship prevailing on most evangelical campuses, and instead to “integrate faith and learning.”

The “integrationist” model is a powerful one, allowing Reformed scholars like historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, and philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga to be leaders in their fields, admired by even their secular colleagues, as they integrate the presuppositions of their academic disciplines with Christian “truth claims.” But, as the Jacobsens argued, Christian scholars who aren’t Reformed Protestants often “feel they are speaking a second language of sorts if they try to adopt the integration model in its entirety. Some of the core theological concerns of non-Reformed Christian traditions simply do not translate into integration-speak” (p. 26).

As one response, the Jacobsens encouraged us to explore how other varieties of Christianity have approached scholarship and education. When they turned to my own tradition, they had little to say. Pietism, in their passing analysis, was simply one form of biblicist “primitivism” that was unlikely to sustain its own distinctive model of scholarship or higher education. (And all those who instinctively associated Pietism with anti-intellectualism said “Amen”…)

For whatever reason, that response felt wrong to me. After all, even if no one could explain it very well, whatever was distinctive about Bethel was often chalked up to Pietist influence. As I began my research, I soon realized that Pietism had shaped several American denominations, almost all of which had founded colleges, universities, and seminaries: Brethren schools like Elizabethtown, Lutheran ones like Augustana, and the Covenant’s school, North Park.

Nowadays, few of these institutions make much of this Pietist heritage. Even North Park, (especially on the college side) seems less than vocal about its Pietist roots. But spending time in the archives at Brandel Library introduced me to the educational philosophies of David Nyvall, Karl Olsson, Donald Frisk, Zenos Hawkinson, and other “Pietist schoolmen” from North Park’s history. That inspired me to dig into the history of Bethel, where I found that our ongoing embrace of a Pietist heritage was revived in the post-WWII era, when leaders like Carl Lundquist and Virgil Olson appealed repeatedly to Pietism to explain what made their small college unlike other evangelical and Baptist institutions: conservative, but irenic, and as concerned for changed hearts as for trained minds.

At some point in my research, I got the idea that I should write a book drawing on such a “usable past” in order to articulate a Pietist vision of Christian higher education for the twenty-first century: a kind of Pietist response to more Reformed efforts like Arthur Holmes’ Idea of a Christian College or Duane Litfin’s Conceiving the Christian College. It struck me that it would be more consistent with a Pietist ethos to cast this vision not via a monologue (or sermon), but as a conversation taking place within a small group — an ecclesiola within the larger ecclesia.

So with the help of a grant from the Lilly Fellows Program, in June 2013 I gathered a “conventicle” of current and former Bethel professors to discuss the history of Pietism and its implications for teaching, mentoring, research, community, and outreach at schools like Bethel. Most of those scholars — plus a couple of other former colleagues — spent the rest of the year writing chapters for this book.

Now, more than eight years after that pivotal workshop, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons will be released in January 2015 by InterVarsity Press. It features contributions from, among others, theologians Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn, anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris, philosophers David Williams and Sara Shady, sociologist Samuel Zalanga, and physicist Dick Peterson, plus a preface by geographer Janel Curry (a Bethel alumna, now serving as provost at Gordon College).

As excited as I am to see this project come to fruition, I agree with George Scott and C. O. Rosenius that “we should certainly fear and tremble, if devotion for this same confession [Pietism] involved some necessity to be prejudiced against all other confessions, or even to suspect their capability to serve as a means to draw their adherents into the one sheep fold” (from their 1842 essay on Pietism, printed in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of this journal). If nothing else, a Pietist vision is a catholic vision, small “c.”

So I want to end this column with some questions I plan to take up in future articles, intended to celebrate the diversity of Christian approaches to education and scholarship:

> We Pietist schoolmen and women can learn from Roman Catholic scholars’ commitment to the unity of all truth, as well as looking for “Where it is written”; and even as we bring the language of conversion and renewal into the realm of education, Pietists can appreciate the patience of a scholarly tradition that assumes that “the thoroughly human quest for truth, goodness, and beauty will ultimately lead to faith if it is pursued with appropriate vigor and breadth of vision” (Scholarship & Christian Faith, p. 82).

> I hope we Pietists retain enough Lutheran DNA that we won’t be too surprised when the search for truth results in mystery, ambiguity, and paradox.

> Like most mainstream scholars, we should let ourselves be challenged by the Anabaptist commitment to discipleship and nonconformity — as historian Richard C. Goode puts it, “Because we have a faith that calls us to die, we need a historiography that can teach us how to get killed.”

> Particularly because it’s so easy to set up projects like ours in opposition to a Reformed model, we should go out of our way to celebrate scholars like Marsden, Noll, Wolterstorff, and Plantinga, whose intellectual strengths are matched by their heartfelt love of God and their commitment to seek first God’s kingdom.

Chris Gehrz is a professor at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn., and member of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton. Read his blog The Pietist Schoolman at pietistschoolman.com.

See all articles by Chris Gehrz