Best of The Pietist Schoolman: A Pietist Model of Christian Scholarship

It’s going to be an unusually busy summer week for this college professor, so in place of new posts, enjoy a few of my favorites from the first half of 2014. We’ll start with my attempt to sketch a Pietist alternative to the scholarly model known as “faith-learning integration” — a three-part series that represented a fleshing out of some thoughts I shared with Bethel University colleagues at a workshop earlier this summer.

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 Nevins 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
Carl H. Lundquist (1916-1991)

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.

2 thoughts on “Best of The Pietist Schoolman: A Pietist Model of Christian Scholarship

  1. Chris, Your last sentence gets an emphatic amen from me. However, I don’t see why this must be an either-or. It seems to me that a pietist scholar can learn and practice both kinds of integration and without both (propositional-worldviewish and relational-spiritual) something is missing in the faith-learning integration process. My time at Bethel (1984-1999) convinced me that some very devout Christian scholars integrate the relational-spiritual side of their Christian faith with their teaching while teaching theories that completely conflict with Christian truths. The danger hovering over a purely relational-spiritual approach is uncritical acceptance of theories that are inconsistent with historic Christian orthodoxy. The danger hovering over a purely intellectual-propositional approach is sterile intellectualism. Surely the two can be brought together in a dynamic, holistic process.

    1. And that gets an emphatic Amen from me, Roger! Jumping off from that 1979 Bethel document (setting “faith” against “faithfulness”) probably pushed me a bit too far in the other direction. Both/and, not either/or. It’s one reason that (see p. 3) I think that Christian scholarship needs to serve the church: I suspect that both “sterile intellectualism” and “uncritical acceptance of theories that are inconsistent with historic Christian orthodoxy” are less likely to result if scholars are fully participating in the worship, formation, fellowship, and ministry of congregations.

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