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

In our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher education, probably no passage of Scripture inspires as much reflection as Jesus’ “Great Commandment”:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:34-40, NRSV)

Having already explored the implications of loving God — and being loved by God — within scholarship, let me close by turning to love of neighbor…

Christian Collins Winn
Christian Collins Winn – Bethel University

First, Pietist scholarship is irenic. The importance of Pietism’s “peaceable” spirit runs through our book, but probably the best starting point is the chapter on civil discourse and education, by theologian Christian Collins Winn. Referring back to Philipp Jakob Spener’s fourth “pious wish” in Pia Desideria (that he and his readers “beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies”), Christian suggests that Pietists argue in a spirit of good faith, with humble openness to being taught, in the hope that God’s healing work continues, and with love of one’s neighbor inextricably related to the quest for truth. Spener insisted that “disputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary” (Pia Desideria, p. 105), from which Christian derives this principle for Christian scholarship: “Progress in the truth is made possible in and through genuine love, and therefore a civil discourse marked by a concern for truth will also be marked by love of neighbor.”

Here Christian underscores that love “was no mere emotion, but the practice of real and genuine care through acts of service.” Or as Paul told the Galatian church, “…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (That verse is the cornerstone of Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s book on Pietist ethics.)

Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysSo we should return to our original concern that Christian scholarship not be defined solely, or even primarily, by the intellectual exercise of integrating that which we believe by faith with the presuppositions of one’s discipline, and insist that Pietist scholarship needs to have practical benefit for others.

Now, I want to be careful not to suggest that I’m only interested in the material, instrumental, quantifiable benefits of scholarship. There may be no immediately observable good resulting from, say, theoretical research in physics, but it’s as valuable as applied research that produces improvements in medical technology. I’m quite sure that the chief benefits of scholarship in the arts and humanities are as vitally important as they are “impractical.”

But I do think that Pietists would want scholarship to result in more than the accretion of knowledge. Here we might borrow an idea from my conclusion to the Pietism/higher ed book, in which I suggest that the mission of the Pietist college or university is innovation, as that word used to be used: meaning the renewal of persons, the church, and the larger world.

First, Pietist scholarship should renew other people, not just the scholar herself.

When our department gathered in May to define a list of student learning outcomes, we affirmed the value of our students’ becoming more knowledgeable about human history and about the discipline of history (and how Christians practice it — “faith-learning integration” lives). But at least as important was that they become skillful, able to ask and answer questions and to communicate well with others. And most important of all: What kind of persons are they becoming? Is the study of the past making them more humble and more comfortable with complexity? Are they increasingly empathetic and hospitable to others?

Is historical scholarship helping them to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbors as themselves?

Christian scholarship rightly understood can and should aim at forming such persons. It’s probably easiest to think of this in terms of teaching, but perhaps other kinds of “transmission of knowledge” — e.g., writing for and speaking to different audiences, blogging even? — can have formative effects.

Title page from a 1676 edition of Spener, Pia DesideriaThere might be an analogy here to another of Spener’s wishes: that preaching should be done “plainly but powerfully,” with “all sermons… aimed at” the “inner man or the new man.” (I’ve often thought that professors are more like pastors than they’ve been trained to think.) If Pietist scholars reemphasize the transmission of knowledge — via teaching, writing, speaking, or digital-age skills like coding — then they should remember that their purpose is not to engage in “an ostentatious display of one’s skill,” but to bring about something like conversion in the people listening, reading, or watching.

Think about this in terms of a second kind of scholarship-as-renewal: Pietist scholarship should renew the Church.

If nothing else, Pietism was a church renewal movement: the “wretched conditions of the church” was Spener’s principal concern in Pia Desideria; “better times for the church” his chief hope. This section inour book’s conclusion speaks fairly directly to the activity of scholars, so I’ll point you there for a fuller discussion of how Pietist scholarship can serve to renew the church. It yields two implications for the practice of Christian scholarship:

  1. It should serve the church, not just the academy. It primarily does this by…
  2. It should challenge the church, prompting it to rethink the assumptions and habits that keep it from renewal. (Here we might borrow one of the principles of Church of the Brethren education that Donald Miller attributes in part to the influence of Radical Pietists like Gottfried Arnold: a “commitment to look at new evidence and to be open to a new understanding of truth” — “The Brethren Philosophy of Higher Education,” Brethren Life & Thought, Summer-Fall 2004, p. 179).

Finally, Christian scholarship done according to a Pietist model should renew the world.

If we agree with A.H. Francke that Pietists chiefly “[change] the world by changing people,” we might trust primarily in the ability of Pietist scholars to transform individuals. It’s probably evident by this point that it’s almost impossible for me to disentangle my thinking about scholarship from my passion for education. So I’ll leave it to someone else to suggest a Pietist model of Christian scholarship that’s not embedded in institutions of higher learning.

But to the extent that Christian scholars can also help to bring about “better times” for the world through their larger cultural, social, intellectual, economic, and even political impact…

A.H. Francke
August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) – Wikimedia

Here there’s some tension within the Pietist tradition. On the one hand, no Pietist did more to engage with the world than Francke, but he was more than willing to work through structures of power like the Prussian monarchy. (See my earlier post on Pietism and the Prussian army’s chaplains corps.)

But other Pietists have been deeply suspicious of such models of social action. In a mid-1950s address at Bethel, historian Dalphy Fagerstrom found central to European Pietists their “criticism of an institutionalized Christianity which was closely tied in with the social and political structure” and “their insistence that the Christian life means a new way of walking in contrast to the world.” In our book, physicist Dick Peterson advised that “pietistic scientists and teachers should keep their minds and hands busy in the mix of human struggles and help carry the load of the disenfranchised” but worried that “Perhaps we are too allied to the god-like power structures of the world within our elitist towers.”

So I again turn to a model of cultural engagement suggested by Brethren historian Dale Brown. Desiring “to heed the commandment to love not the world because of loving the world so much I want it to be what God wants it to be,” Brown proposed a Pietist alternative to H. Richard Niebuhr: not Christ the Transformer of Culture or Christ against Culture, but Christ the Servant of Culture. He explained, “To adopt this third way is neither to try to get on the top in order to make things come out the way we think they should or refuse to become involved at all.”

Something like 4000 words into this essay, I’ll stop musing and invite others to reflect on what “serving culture” would mean for scholarship — and to challenge, affirm, or modify any other elements of this sketched-out model. (See my Reformed colleague Tim Essenburg’s comments on the original posts.)

But before I go… I’m struck that Brown’s desire (“…to love not the world because of loving the world so much…”) brings us full circle to Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A series that began by critiquing attempts to integrate learning with faith ends up infusing learning with another virtue, the one that Paul said was greatest.

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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