Don Frisk on Pietism and Christian Education

Evangelical Covenant Church logoAs part of the seminar on Pietism that I’m leading this weekend at Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis, I’ll devote an hour or so to my chief area of interest: Pietist models of education. In doing some reading for that talk, I revisited an interesting document from my own denomination‘s history: a working paper from 1963, written by North Park Seminary dean Don Frisk, that proposes some “Theological Perspectives for Christian Education in the Covenant.” It considers how the deep-seated influence of Pietism on the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) shapes that denomination’s approach to Christian education, but it points to some Pietist educational principles or emphases that might have more general relevance.

A bit on the provenance of the paper (which is found in box 11 of the Karl A. Olsson Presidential Papers at the Covenant Archives in North Park’s Brandel Library, series 9/1/2/6a)… In April 1962 the Covenant’s commission on education agreed to prepare a paper “dealing with the philosophy and general objectives of Christian education under which we should live and work as educators in our church.” Frisk’s draft was presented in February 1963, and was supposed to be revised in time for a colloquium scheduled for that November at Minnehaha Academy — the Covenant school just down the street from Bethlehem Covenant. But while Minnehaha president and education commission secretary Wilbur Westerdahl reported that Frisk did this in November 1963, with a follow-up discussion including Minnehaha’s faculty, the initiative seems to have dissipated. Westerdahl doesn’t report any further work on a philosophy of education at the commission’s sole 1965 meeting, nor does it show up in the 1966 or 1967 Covenant yearbooks. Then the next year there was apparently yet another call for an intensive study of education in the Covenant, but nothing had been produced by the end of the decade.

Don Frisk
Donald C. Frisk (1911-2010) – North Park University

I stumbled across Frisk’s paper while doing research on Karl Olsson at North Park and showed it to my friend Kurt Peterson (who used it for the chapter on Olsson that he and RJ Snell contributed to our Pietist Impulse book), but I’m not sure anything more has been done with it. Whatever its direct influence, it’s certainly significant. One of the most distinguished children of my own congregation, Frisk was perhaps the most influential theologian in the Covenant in the second half of the 20th century — as professor and dean at North Park, he taught hundreds of Covenant clergy between the end of World War II and the 1970s, then later authored the denomination’s six affirmations — and did much to recontextualize the ECC’s Pietist heritage at a time when the denomination began to outgrow its immigrant-church roots and draw in a more theologically diverse clergy and laity. (In many ways, that work was continued at North Park by Frisk’s student and successor, John Weborg, who addressed Frisk’s legacy at his death in 2010.) And while the ECC has issued other statements about Christian formation, Frisk’s is the earliest Covenant philosophy of Christian education I’m aware of — and the one most explicitly shaped by Pietism.

He starts with some presuppositions before offering specific principles:

  • Pietism (like Romanticism — not sure why he felt the need to introduce this similarity…) protests “against the rationalist’s attempt to equate reality with what can be caught in an intellectual concept” and instead contends that “knowledge must include the whole range of human experience and that proper place must be given to the emotional and volitional aspects of life”
  • Pietists believe that all human experience “is brought to a focal point in the personal awareness of redemption in Christ,” but also that individual responses to this revelation are so diverse that any Christian fellowship will have tremendous diversity, leading Frisk to a classically Covenant definition of what it means to be a Christian: “The test for inclusion in the Church is not formal adherence to correct doctrine but the vital, life-changing expression of fellowship with Christ. It is this thrust in our heritage which necessitates that education be Christian.”
  • Finally, he acknowledges that Pietists have not always engaged well with the world and sometimes been too quick to flee from it (alluding here to wariness of the same aspects of culture that a liberal arts education would find such rich terrain for learning — more to come on this). Nevertheless, since Pietists want all of life to “be brought into conformity with what we find in Christ,” they do not seek “to reject the world but to reconstitute it in the light of their experience of Christ.”

Then to his three “theological presuppositions within [the pietistic] heritage which may give structure and direction to a contemporary philosophy of Christian education”

“…reason shares in man’s fallen state and is itself in need of redemption”

Though common to all Protestants, Frisk argued that Pietists had inherited Luther’s belief that sin affects “the totality of man’s nature,” not just the appetites but especially the attributes that tempt us into self-reliance and rebellion: of which reason is chief. Without disdaining the utility of reason, Pietists nevertheless believed that reason by itself “can know nothing of God” and instead creates idols “or elevates self to the place of God.” At the same time, Pietism teaches that reason — as much as the rest of the human person — could be redeemed and regenerated:

When the totality of man’s being is in captivity to sin, reason becomes its servant, but when the whole man is grasped by the Holy Spirit, reason becomes an “excellent instrument of godliness” [in Luther’s words]. Like all of man’s powers, reason has to be drowned in Baptism and raised a new creature in Christ Jesus.

Redeemed reason did not become infallible reason, but Frisk did believe that “faithless reason may through the miracle of regeneration become faithful reason” — not becoming any “more brilliant,” but finding itself “caught up in the service of faith and made an integral aspect of faith. As such it [faithful reason] is faith (which involves the whole man) reflecting upon itself, its world and its God.”

“…truth, i.e., ultimate, saving truth, can be found only in personal encounter or confrontation”

Søren Kierkgaard“For Pietists,” Frisk wrote, “God does not dwell at the end of a syllogism, nor can he be known by the simple assent of the intellect,” but only through the “miracle of conversion.” So Frisk placed Covenanters “within the tradition of experiential Christianity,” albeit with an “affinity” for Kierkegaard’s “emphasis on the discontinuity between all forms of experience and the reality of God, and his stress upon the infinite, qualitative distinction between God and Man….” But while “Truth is not found in experience” and “no Socratic process of recollection can bring [man] to awareness of it,” Pietism also insists we are capable of knowing “the reality of the Living God” through our experience of conversion to Christ — the “joy, peace, forgiveness and power” we experience in that conversion should not be confused with Christ himself, but he is also not known where such feelings are not experienced.

In this (the longest section of a short paper) Frisk concludes by observing the peculiarity that Covenanters both stress the “necessity of personal encounter with Christ” and that “such encounter normally occurs within the believing community.” Like the “churchly” German Pietists, but unlike the Radicals, the Brethren, and the Covenanters’ Baptist cousins who founded my institution of employment, Covenanters were Pietists who stressed conversion but retained infant baptism and confirmation. Why, and what does this mean for education? Frisk thought it reflected a belief that “God makes himself known in and through human experience,” including the experience of Christian fellowship and ecclesial structures. And so:

To the degree this emphasis upon continuity (and also upon discontinuity) between experience in general and the experience of Christ is followed through faith and learning, faith and culture can meet an illumine one another. Behind such an assertion lies the Lutheran insight that the finite can contain and express the infinite. Where this is seen to be true no area of legitimate human interest lies outside of the concern of the Christian believer.

“…it is the nature of faith to seek understanding”

Granting that “faith has primacy where reason is concerned” does not mean that faith can live autonomously, “as if reason did not exist.” Indeed, faith can “be fully itself only where there exists a living and working relationship between itself and reason.”

Here Frisk makes his last and most compelling arguments why Pietists ought to value the liberal arts. He’s flirted with this idea throughout the paper:

  • Concern for redeeming the totality of human experience has made Pietists “sensitive to the variegated richness of everyday life” and “reluctant to exclude anything which may enrich life”
  • A person of “faithful reason” can and should reflect not just on God, but on herself and the world that God created
  • If the “finite can express the infinite,” then the believer can and should be concerned about any “area of legitimate human interest”

In this closing section on “faith seeking understanding,” Frisk first acknowledges that reason can bring order and direction to Christian belief and conduct, and that it can provide the basis for more effective apologetics. But his third point is — to me — the strongest argument for the connection between liberally-educated reason and the “living faith” that Pietists see as the greatest resource of Christian renewal:

It is imperative that faith, if it be living faith, raise questions about itself and face honestly the questions which others raise. In so doing faith exists in tension with unfaith and knows the agony of a Job delivered over to Satan to be tried by him. Here believing reason is put to its severest test. In conversation with the faithless world it meets its objections and its allure by dipping more deeply into its own resources. For faith does not establish its truth by uncritical reference to criteria outside itself by by a deepened awareness of its own inadequacy in the face of every question which can be asked.

Hope to see you Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Sunday morning at Bethlehem Covenant, when I’ll have much more to say about Frisk and lots of other Pietists!

3 thoughts on “Don Frisk on Pietism and Christian Education

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