The Pietist University in the 21st Century (part 3)

I concluded the second part of this preview of the conclusion to our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher education (IVP, late 2014) with the sentence that provides the essay its title: “…Pietist educators ought to bear one principle in mind: Their mission does not depend on innovations; their mission is innovation.” Explaining what I mean brings us to the heart of my argument, and the conclusion of this series.

Philipp Jakob Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) – Wikimedia

The Oxford English Dictionary is helpful here: its first definition of “innovate” is “To change… into something new… to renew.” If nothing else, German Pietism sought renewal, and the same desire for new life runs through the ethos we’ve observed in the history of Bethel and the Swedish revivals out of which it grew. In his biography of Philipp Jakob Spener, K. James Stein organizes that Pietist patriarch’s theology around three themes: “The New Person,” “The New Church,” and “The New World.” We might adapt these three “News” to help us decide whether any particular innovation serves the larger innovation that is the mission of the Pietist college or university.

First, does it help bring about the new person? Given the Pietist emphasis on the “new birth”  and “new life,” we should ask if the innovation helps produce a conversion of the whole person, not only providing head knowledge but changing the heart.

My own opinion is that this test should lead Pietist schools to resist fiercely one particular change: deemphasizing the liberal arts in favor of professional and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) training. There are many reasons to defend a model of education that is well-rounded, integrative, and — because it’s not especially instrumental — easy to undervalue. But one is particularly relevant for pietistic Christians who are suspicious of nominal, cultural, or purely formal Christianity: The liberal arts are liberating arts, freeing us to respond to God’s grace and choose to follow Christ. Not just “the training of cooks and bakers, engineers and physicists, teachers and preachers,” said North Park president Karl Olsson (not even “the zest and the joy of intellectual and aesthetic adventure” for their own sake), the Christian liberal arts college in the Pietist tradition “is primarily interested in pointing beyond itself and beyond all created things to the Source of life and truth, who by giving Himself to us sustains within us the hunger for salvation” (again, from his 1961 address, “The Meaning of Comprehensive Education,” held in the Covenant Archives).

Stein, Philipp Jakob SpenerSecond, does the innovation help the college bring about the new church? Even as he lamented the “wretched conditions” of the German state churches after the Thirty Years War, Philipp Spener still had hope for their renewal. He offered several practical proposals meant to bring about “better times for the church,” but the chief means by which Pietists sought the renewal of the Church was through the establishment of ecclesiolae in ecclesia — “little churches within the Church.” Just as conventicles in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Dresden, and other early modern German cities sought to revive churches from which they were distinct but not separate, we might think of the Pietist college as an ecclesiola, more intimate and more specialized than the ecclesia to which it is connected, but vital to the renewal of the larger body. During his tenure at Bethel, Carl Lundquist emphasized that the church needed to support autonomous “renewal groups” that could act as “experimenting agenc[ies]” on behalf of the larger ecclesia.

This has at least two implications for the Pietist university. First, professors and students must retain the freedom to ask questions and seek answers. Noting that Pietism was nurtured in German universities, Free Methodist theologian Howard Snyder hypothesizes that “the atmosphere of intellectual inquiry and of greater personal and academic freedom in university settings, combined with the idealism and mobility of youth, created a more congenial environment for the initial rise of a spiritual renewal movement than held true in church and society generally” (from his dissertation, which became this book on church renewal, albeit with more focus on Wesley than the Pietists and Moravians).

Of course, readers who are Christian college trustees or donors, or pastors or members of sponsoring churches, may now fear that we’ve hit on another, more troubling meaning for “innovation.” A generation before Pietists criticized “dead orthodoxy” in German state churches, heresy-hunting Puritans in England’s parliament imprisoned William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for “bringing Innovations into the Church.”

Carl Lundquist in the Bethel library, 1950s
Lundquist early in his tenure as president (1954-1982) in Bethel’s library – Bethel University Digital Library

All Christian colleges and universities struggle to balance their commitments to academic freedom and orthodox witness. Pietists, with their characteristic theological eclecticism and playfulness, might struggle more than most. But Carl Lundquist’s answer to the problem exemplifies how the Pietist school may serve faithfully and creatively, as an ecclesiola within the larger ecclesia. Writing on the importance of free inquiry for professors and students in his 1961 annual report to the Baptist General Conference, Lundquist concluded:

Our hope at Bethel is to find the golden mean where there exists sturdy confidence in the spiritual and intellectual integrity of the school even when it raises disturbing questions, engages in rigid self evaluation, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and seeks less popular but more consistently Christian solutions to the problems that vex mankind.

For the sake of the ecclesia, the college-as-ecclesiola must have sufficient autonomy to question, evaluate, and even agitate; the alternative, Lundquist wrote, was for the school to accept a “dull mediocrity” and fail to give leadership. There is hardly hope for “better times” for a new church if there’s no one free to draw attention to the “wretched conditions” that exist.

But equally, the college must remember that it serves the church. “If a school moves so far out ahead of its people so that no one follows,” warned Lundquist, “it no longer is giving leadership.” Striking this balance is difficult, and Lundquist, if forced to choose, preferred meeting “the expectations of the majority” to “pursuing an academic ideal to which our people hesitate to subscribe.” Perhaps he erred to one side of the “golden mean,” but in any case, Pietist scholars must take seriously their role in renewing the church. At the very least, they should join historian Tracy McKenzie in recovering a “dual calling” to Academe and Church, in part by resisting “the pervasive assumption that the only scholarship that matters is the scholarship for other scholars.”

[I’ve written previously about Tracy’s presidential address at the 2012 Conference on Faith and History, which focused on this theme of a “dual calling.” At his own blog, Faith and History, he just started a new series on “The Church and the Christian Scholar” that I highly recommend to your attention.]

Finally, does the innovation help bring about the new world? Brethren historian Dale Brown complained that

Brown, Understanding PietismThere is probably nothing in which historians have been more unfair to Pietism than in defining the mission of the church to society. A frequent stereotype of Pietistic Christianity portrays it as almost exclusively preoccupied with inward devotion and private moral scruples. On the contrary, the Pietist milieu resulted in a desire to transform the living conditions of the poor and oppressed, reform the prison system, abolish slavery, break down rigid class distinctions, establish a more democratic polity, initiate educational reforms, establish philanthropic institutions, increase missionary activity, obtain religious liberty, and propose programs for social justice. (Understanding Pietism, rev. ed., pp. 86-87)

Here I’ll limit myself to one general observation about how Pietist educators might think about their role in preparing people to be, in Roger Olson’s phrase, “created co-creators of a new creation with God through the Holy Spirit.”

Rather than “Christ the Transformer of Culture” or other Niebuhrian categories, Dale Brown encouraged Pietists to follow the model of “Christ the servant of culture.” Elsewhere, I’ve summarized this model as Brown suggesting that “Christ-centered devotion be accompanied by a Christ-like activism—in the world to serve it, not of the world, ruling it, or detached from it” (from my recent article in The Covenant Quarterly). For Carl Lundquist, it meant that Bethel College was preparing an “a task force for the evangelical penetration of society.” He didn’t mean that Bethel graduates should aspire to the power, status, or wealth of elites, but that they should seek “vocations which will involve significant human relationships in order that their influence for Christ may have maximum impact. Consequently, they go from Bethel into teaching, Christian ministries, medicine, social work, and business, in that order, and then into a great variety of other walks of life” (from his 1967 annual report). Moved by “a pained awareness” of illiteracy, hunger, illness, and every other kind of human indignity and suffering, Lundquist wished Bethel graduates to enter professions out of a desire to serve others and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

None of the News is sufficient without the others (“Pietism and activism are interdependent,” insisted Carl Lundquist in the middle of the Vietnam War), though some innovations may conduce more to one than the others. Nonetheless, the work of the Pietist college is not meaningful if it mistakes specific innovations for the great innovation that God is working. “See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5) heralds the most disruptive innovation in history, as God brings into being not just a new heaven, but a new earth. For his good reasons, God chooses to accomplish that renewing mission through renewed persons gathered together as a renewed church. May Pietist colleges and universities — finding new life in their usable pasts — continue to take up their share of that task, in hope and with joy.

Thanks to my colleagues Sara Shady, for her helpful comments on this conclusion, and Sam Mulberry, who invited me to give a keynote address at last year’s inaugural West by Midwest symposium, in which I first explored the meaning of innovation within the context of the Christian liberal arts.

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2 thoughts on “The Pietist University in the 21st Century (part 3)

  1. Especially enjoyed the “new church” section of this final post. Thinking of Bethel as a college-as-ecclesiola seems workable, and it was cool to see Bethel’s history reflects that (considering it’s from Lundquist after all). Because people (the “new person”) make up the church, and the church hopefully works toward the “new world,” the vital intersection between a Christian person and the world seems like it should be the church.

    So, the challenge for Bethel/other Pietist universities, and for their surrounding churches (!), is to bridge academia and ecclesiology in a constructive way. It doesn’t always feel like this relationship exists the way it should, although the recent Templeton Foundation grant is a beautiful example of this exact idea, which is definitely encouraging.

    1. Exactly, Stephen! I think that science is a field in which Christian colleges are ideally suited to help bridge the relationship between the (new) church and (new) world. Very excited to see what Christian, Kyle, et al. are doing there.

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