A Pietist Model of Christian Scholarship: Against Faith-Learning Integration

What would Christian scholarship look like if rooted in the Pietist tradition? Would Pietists affirm something like “the integration of faith and learning”? Yesterday I had the chance to talk about these questions as part of Bethel’s annual faith-learning workshop for faculty on the cusp of applying for tenure. Thanks to workshop facilitator Kathy Nevins for the invitation! (Kathy is a psychology professor and former dean of the faculty at Bethel. She’s also one of the contributors to our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher education — here she is talking about the classroom as a pietistic community, and here she is being interviewed about her intellectual autobiography and approach to teaching.) I didn’t write out a speech and won’t try to reproduce all my comments, but I thought I’d reconfigure a few of my thoughts into a two-part post.

Jacobsen & Jacobsen, Scholarship & Christian FaithIt’s a bit like coming full circle to give a talk on Pietism at a Bethel faith-learning workshop. My ongoing research into Pietist models of Christian higher education began at such a workshop early in the summer of 2006. It featured Messiah College professors Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen, authors of a book that sought to “enlarge the conversation” about Scholarship & Christian Faith beyond the dominant model of “the integration of faith and learning.”

What is that model? Here’s how the phrase was defined by a Bethel study group in June 1979: (thanks to Kathy for unearthing this report, which I hadn’t seen before in the archives)

The integration of faith and learning is the synthesizing into a wholistic [sic] unity the truths of God which can be acquired by the systematic study of his creation (learning) and the truths of God which can be acquired by the systematic study of His Word (faith).

Early in my career, I would have found that definition inspiring. Despite having had a stellar education, when I came to Bethel I had just begun to think seriously about the implications of what I believed for what I studied. So there was something fresh and exhilarating about contemplating the interconnectedness of theological categories like creation, incarnation, sin, and redemption with the presuppositions of my discipline.

I still do this kind of integration. (For example, in Senior Seminar this past spring we discussed several of those categories while reading ch. 5 of John Fea’s Why Study History? Here’s one student’s reflection on the implications of the Imago Dei and the reality of sin for the study of history.) But by the time of the 2006 workshop, the thrill was largely gone.

I don’t think I knew exactly why “integrationism” had lost its luster until I read the Jacobsens’ first chapter, where they observed that this model of Christian scholarship largely reflected the theological emphases of the Reformed tradition:

Scholars from other traditions can gain insights from the integration model, but other Christian scholars—whether of the Catholic, Wesleyan, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, or any other non-Reformed tradition—will probably 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. (Scholarship & Christian Faith, p. 26)

I’m one of those non-Reformed Christians: the two faith communities in which I participate (the Evangelical Covenant Church and Bethel University) were most distinctively shaped by pietistic Lutherans and Baptists. And the more I identified myself with Pietism, the less valuable I found the integration of learning with faith defined in the way it was by the Bethel group in 1979:

The group spent a great deal of time in debate over our working definition of what the term “faith” meant in the expression “the integration of faith and learning.” Defining this expression as the “synthesizing of the knowledge of a particular discipline and the various processes by which this knowledge is acquired” with the teacher’s personal confidence or trust in Jesus Christ, presented a serious problem in that whereas the former (learning) is substantative [sic] and objective, the latter (faith or better “faithfulness”) is essentially existential and subjective. It is, of course, hoped and expected that a Christian scholar’s learning will lead to a life of greater devotion and faithfulness. Nevertheless, for our purpose it seemed best to interpret the integration of faith and learning as the attempt to “synthesize the knowledge of a particular discipline and the various processes by which this knowledge is acquired with the knowledge of the doctrines and teachings of the Christian faith and the various processes by which this knowledge is acquired.”

To be sure, faith has objective content and can be deepened by intellectual activity. Former Bethel president Carl Lundquist explained it well in a section of his 1962-1963 annual report that both rejected false objective/subjective dichotomies and articulated the value of intellectual rigor within a Christian community:

Carl Lundquist in 1977
Lundquist in 1977 – Bethel University Digital Library

Scholarship also leads to precision of expression and thus calls for intellectual formulization of religious experience. Christianity is an experience long before it is a creed. But mystic experience with God apart from Biblical understanding always is suspect. And Biblical understanding apart from personal experience is empty.  Even though the academic thrust of a Christian school leaves room for a valid leap of faith when the mind reaches “the end of its tether,” its insistence upon a careful description of experience with God is a major contribution to the spiritual life of the institution.

But there’s no way a Pietist like Lundquist could have come to the conclusion stated in the 1979 report. (I’d love to know who was in that study group. Lundquist was still president at that point, but the report sounds nothing like his work.)

First, truth — however it is revealed and learned — is fundamentally personal and relational, not just propositional:

The other side of this coin is that emphasis upon the spiritual also enriches the academic. Perhaps most importantly this is true because it provides a unifying center for all human knowledge. To the Christian, truth ultimately is God, and God is truth. Therefore, the cohesive element in all human knowledge is God himself. Without Him we do not have a uni-versity so much as a multi-versity. It is the Christian revelation of God that gives ultimate meaning to all truth—even to scientific truth in this age of space exploration.

If Christian scholarship is about seeking after truth that “ultimately is God,” then it may be more like mystical experience than scholastic hairsplitting. (Not that we need to set those two medieval paths to God at odds: Thomas Aquinas engaged in scholarship precisely because it helped him to “see God in his essence.”) It certainly suggests that we not bracket off “greater devotion and faithfulness” as things to be “hoped and expected” rather than integrated.

But still more crucially for a Pietist: One could go through the intellectual labor of synthesizing the systematic study of God revealed in Creation with the systematic study of God revealed by his Word and still wind up with what the Pietists called “dead orthodoxy,” or the emptiness of Lundquist’s “Biblical understanding apart from personal experience.”

For a Pietist, a purely objective faith is meaningless apart from an “essentially existential and subjective” faithfulness to the God who is Truth.

So how would a Pietist model of Christian scholarship integrate “faithfulness”? I’ll sketch some outlines in part two.

Read the second part of this series>>

5 thoughts on “A Pietist Model of Christian Scholarship: Against Faith-Learning Integration

  1. Christian education involves, but is not limited to, teaching and scholarship, both rooted in our Christian faith.

    That many find the Reformed integrationist (faith and learning) model a kind of “second language of sorts” makes sense to me. This is because the Reformed version of education that I grew up with (Christian Reformed Church and K – 12 schools; Presbyterian Church in America and Covenant College) is much more comfortable with creeds, catechisms and confessions (not to mention systematic theology and, historically, more alcohol consumption and smoking). This alone will lead to a cross-cultural experience by Christians without this background. In addition, articulated philosophy is important to Reformed-types. My (limited) experience (relationships and reading) is that Pietiism does not emphasize philosophy in the same way. If one wants to read about the Reformed philosophy of education, names like Nicholas Wolterstorff (fidelity to God, responsibilities, shalom, justice in love), Henry VanTil (culture), Albert Wolters (worldview), Cornelius Plantinga (sweep of history, vocation), Richard Mouw (culture and common grace) are called upon. I know of no such list for “The Pietist Philosophy of Education.” That Reformed scholars think of “integration” as grounded in remaining faithful to God is also accurate.

    Reformed education that I grew up with most definitely nurtures its youth–again, starting in K-12 day schools. The idea that the Christian faith taught (teaching, assigned readings, role modelling, class discussion) in these schools is heavily propositional and light on nurture and role modelling is a fiction of someone’s imagination. Carl Lunquist’s statement that “Christianity is an experience long before it is a creed” fits quite well in the Reformed circles I know. But the Christianity is a collective expression before it is individual.

    I suppose it is ironic to Pietists that the motto of Calvin College is “My heart I give to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” I would challenge anyone to say, upon a lengthy conversation with Wolterstorff, VanTil, Wolters, Plantinga, and Mouw that they do not embrace that very phrase. I would challenge anyone to hang out with the RD’s and RA’s, coaches and Campus Ministries personnel (of Calvin or Covenant) and conclude that they lack the role modelling of a Christian faith is relational, that the heart is important.

    I well understand Pietists’ concern that “Biblical understanding apart from personal experience is empty” [Lunquist]. This seems to be held up “against” the Reformed philosophy of education and I find it wanting. Lundquist also wrote “mystic experience with God apart from Biblical understanding is suspect.” Not only do I experience the evangelical students I teach (and readily admit they are not a random sample of Pietists, but a non-random sample of evangelicals) to have very low levels of Biblical literacy, they also find it difficult to articulate their worldview and draw inferences and conclusions from it. They are able to make some inferences and conclusions from their faith (a kind of mix of references to the Bible and personal relationship with Jesus) and have difficulty understanding that a worldview is more than Bible knowledge and relationship with Jesus. Sometimes I think some (students and employees) at the evangelical college where I teach become apprehensive when systematic thinking from a worldview is called for, when asked to go beyond a personal relationship Jesus as they “think Christianly” about the purpose of work, business, politics, church, education etc.

    One final thought :). I was taught (verbally, readings) in high school and college that the truth of God comes from general revelation (science, art, humanities) and special revelation (Bible, Holy Spirit), that creation is good and the ontological line is between God and everything else, that life is to be lived as a whole, that God’s common grace is beautiful, and that culture is to be an expression of our collective understanding of God and his desires. I have found this “Reformed” faith-integration winsome.

    And look forward to what Chris has to say (Part II) about “how a Pietist model of Christian scholarship [would] integrate ‘faithfulness.'”

    1. Thanks, Tim! While I do find the Reformed model a bit foreign, I certainly value it — or, better, I value the people who have been shaped by it. I’d be hard-pressed to list a more admirable group of Christian scholars than the one you rattled off.

      1. Here’s what I wish for, in hope.

        IF Pietism emphasizes a lived faith, a heartfelt-personal-relationship-with-Jesus faith, an on-going transformative faith, an irenic spirit, and it seems to do this, THEN let’s wed that to the “Reformed faith [that] teaches the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all creation” [DeMoor, Reformed: What It Means, Why It Matters]. Let’s merge the streams with relative emphasis so that we get a well-rounded orthopathy, orthopraxy and orthodoxy–not fixed for all times and places, but critically evolving.

        I take it as a given that virtually all “versions” of Christianity would agree with DeMoor’s “over all creation” statement. However, “Reformed believers [of the CRC and PCA variety that I know, and the flavor of Reformed is VERY important] place a lot more emphasis on this than many other Christians do. As a result, Reformed believers have invested a lot of their energy and resources in Christian education … Christ-centered political/social action, and parachurch ministries to those in need” [DeMoor].

        Let’s consider the winsome arguments (deeply, and simultaneously, Christian, philosophical, heartfelt, and lived) of Wolterstorff, VanTil, Wolters, Plantinga, and Mouw. Let’s consider that the originators (quite possibly) of the faith-integration project likely were scholars arising from the Christian Reformed Church version of Reformed and that we the worse for discounting their ideas and life, just as we are the worse for discounting Pietism that, and Pietists who, emphasizes emphasizes a relational faith.

  2. Thanks for this. With so many small, tuition-dependent Christian colleges struggling, I think it is absolutely essential for those of us who are committed to the project to ponder our ultimate purpose at this historical moment. The “integration of faith and learning” has become our version of the secular university’s rhetoric of “excellence” (as reflected upon in Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins). It sounds pleasant enough, but we really need to wrestle with what it means. If we as an institution don’t make an effort to do this, we risk simply becoming both spiritually and intellectually dead. I greatly appreciate your post and the other resources you provide here. I will be sure to look for part II.

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