Staying Christ-Centered: A Pietist Perspective (My Remarks to the Christian College Consortium)

The last two days I was honored to take part in a Christian College Consortium (CCC) gathering at Wheaton College. Our delegation from Bethel was assigned to help lead the Tuesday morning discussion, of what it means for colleges and universities to stay Christ-centered. I’m grateful to our president, Jay Barnes, for inviting me to prepare some remarks stemming from my research on Pietism and Christian higher education. It seemed like sharing what I had to say would be a good way to restart The Pietist Schoolman after nearly a month off

In preparing for this session, we were given three questions:

  • How do institutions like ours stay Christ-centered?
  • What are the greatest threats to our Christian identity?
  • And how you do hope to address them?”

As a Christian historian, my first thought here is that one can’t answer such questions in the abstract. We center ourselves on the Word incarnate, as members of his Body who are sent out into a material world bounded by time and space. We experience him only within context — within communities, cultures, economies… within history.

To use another embodied metaphor, Christian learning communities — like Christian individuals — have DNA: complex, distinctive patterns that repeat across generations of recruiting, hiring, teaching, learning, worshiping, conversing, and living together.

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationWhich is probably why Jay asked me to take part in this session. Over the past eight years, I’ve rather unexpectedly found myself setting aside my grad school training in the history of international relations in order to ask how Pietism runs through the DNA of schools like Bethel University, North Park University, and Messiah College, where Pietism is one of the three or four streams flowing into Brethren in Christ identity. So I’ll be sharing a Pietist perspective on what it means for a Christian university to stay Christ-centered, drawing on elements from our forthcoming book from InterVarsity Press.

* * * * *

Pietism was the historic movement that renewed German Protestantism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but we treat it as an ethos — one that has influenced Bethel from its origins within the Baptist wing of a 19th century revival in Sweden through its development in 20th and 21st century America.

Now, I suspect that, for many of you, Pietism is a synonym for impulses within Christianity that seem out of place in any discussion of Christian higher ed: anti-intellectualism, legalism, and quietism. Let me start, then, by reframing this Pietist ethos — via the definition I offer in the introduction to our book:

Pietists at all times and in all places seek a more authentic Christianity: not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected, but lived out through the transformative experiences of conversion and regeneration. Suspicious of “dead orthodoxy,” Pietists subordinate doctrine to Scripture — with an irenic, or peaceable, spirit prevailing in matters where the Bible leaves open a range of interpretations (or where they encounter those of other or no religious faith). Clergy and laity alike form a common priesthood actively engaged in worship, education, evangelism, and social action, in the firm hope that God intends “better times” for the church and the world.

Even if you wouldn’t have named it as Pietism, I hope this ethos is more or less familiar to everyone here. As W.R. Ward, Mark Noll, Donald Dayton, Molly Worthen, and others have argued, Pietism is one of the founding impulses within evangelicalism, and it shares common cause with many of the Wesleyan, Anabaptist, and Quaker concerns that animate other CCC member-institutions. So even if what I’m about to say is particularly rooted in Bethel’s experience, perhaps it will resonate with your own.

* * * * *

So how would a Pietist advise a college or university seeking to stay “Christ-centered”?

Virgil Olson in 1956
Virgil as church history professor at Bethel Seminary in 1956 – Bethel University Digital Library

1. Staying is not static: Bethel historian Virgil Olson once wrote that a Pietist ethos will always arise in response to any “superficial Christianity… that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.” If 17th century Pietists bemoaned how the supposedly “evangelical” churches of their day had turned the pulpit, lectern, font, and confessional into “four dumb idols,” then their 21st century descendants should be particularly attuned to the danger of the same thing happening to supposedly evangelical colleges and universities. Classrooms, chapels, dorms, and stadiums can become dumb idols too.

If nothing else, Pietism is about the process of being made new. For a Pietist university to stay Christ-centered, it must continue to find new ways to make new persons who serve a new church, taking up the mission of a God who is making all things new.

So staying is not static, or stationary. At our worst, Pietists’ centering on Christ has entailed retreat and withdrawal, turning in on ourselves and away from the world. At our best, though, Pietists have stayed centered on a Christ of movement, a Christ who invites us to “follow me” — into the missions field, into the realm of ideas, into places of poverty and suffering, and into seasons of change and disruption.

2. To be Christ-centered is to be centered on a person: I can’t do better here than to quote Carl H. Lundquist, Bethel’s longest-serving president and one of the founders of this Consortium. In 1959 he asked what it meant for Bethel to be “Christocentric”:

It affirms that the unifying center of the academic program is neither Truth nor the Pursuit of Truth but is Jesus Christ Himself. Ultimately, in our Christian view, Truth and Christ are one, and the important thing about Truth is that it ought to point to Christ.

Decades later, while serving as CCC president, Lundquist wrote that “Truth is personal as well as propositional. Truth, in fact, is troth—a way of loving. And it is motivated not only by curiosity and the desire to be in control but by compassion. Truth is meant to be personalized through our response of obedience to it.”

Olson and Collins Winn, Reclaiming PietismWhy is this significant? Our former colleague Roger Olson (who has his own book on Pietism, with Bethel theologian Christian Collins Winn, coming out next February) would suggest at least two implications:

First, that we evangelicals ought to beware our tendency to view truth as an abstraction to be defined rather than as a person to whom we relate. Our primary task as a Christ-centered university is not to stand watch on the intellectual frontier demarcating orthodoxy from heresy. It is rather the task of conversion, turning people towards the person in whom we live and move and have our being, however near or far they stand from him. (See Roger’s remarks on evangelicalism as a “centered set category” in Reformed and Always Reforming.)

Second, then, Roger writes in our book that

Because the [Pietist] ethos is Christ-centered, it is also person-centered. To use an early Pietist phrase, it sees the purpose of existence as [being] “for God’s glory and the neighbor’s good.” Therefore, the purpose of education is to glorify God and form persons in God’s image — that is, to heal and make whole God’s image in them.

When I spent some time compiling the index for our book this summer, I found that our contributors repeatedly invoked intellectual virtues. Faith and truthfulness, of course, but given the language of Lundquist and Olson, I’m not surprised that five others were even more common: love, openness, hospitality, humility, and hope.

* * * * *

If those are indeed intellectual virtues, if we are person-centered, and if we embrace change for the sake of renewal, then I would conclude by warning us to take care with the language of facing threats.

Here the story of Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of German Pietism, might suggest an instructive metaphor:

Pietist leader Philipp Jakob SpenerSpener was born in Alsace, in 1635, the same year that the kingdom to the west, France, entered the war to the east, extending to thirty years a conflict that ended up killing a quarter of the German population. After 1648, peace was kept by forcing Germans to subject themselves to Lutheran, Reformed, or Roman Catholic mini-Christendoms.

So Spener became a Lutheran pastor in a time when the various Protestant churches not only rejected Catholics as heretics but drew ever sharper confessional distinctions between each other. Trying desperately to stay Christ-centered against what they saw as threats on all sides, they clung stubbornly to scholastic orthodoxies that sapped whatever spiritual vitality had not been extinguished by war.

Over 300 years later we may be exiting a culture war in which Christian conservatives, if not the losers, are certainly not the victors. It would be easy to respond by holding on to whatever territory we control, patrolling the boundaries separating us from our cultured despisers and saying farewell to the traitors within. Meanwhile, those across the border — including other Christians — will do the same. The result is likely to be something akin to what happened to Germany after 1648: ever clearer, and ever more lifeless, orthodoxies.

That, for the Pietist, is the threat to our Christian identity. We have nothing to fear from technological, economic, cultural, political, or legal change — nothing to fear, that is, but our demise as institutions that may potentially outlive their missional utility. But we do need to beware the risk that when we set ourselves over and against others, we may possess the form of piety, even as we lose the power thereof.

The hope, then, is much the same as it was when Spener wrote Pia Desideria in 1675: to emphasize convertive experience over intellectual assent; to ask “Where is it written?” and not mean a creed or confession; to cultivate an irenic spirit and avoid needless controversy. To be, as the Brethren historian Dale Brown once said of Pietists, the servants of our culture, not its mimics or its rulers — or those watching it burn from a safe distance.

Our hope lies in recognizing that, like the Alsatian Spener, we inhabit a borderland — between faith and reason, church and academy, public and private, commerce and service. Borderlands are often where the combat is fiercest, but they teach their denizens to speak multiple languages, and to move between groups, earning the trust of both. At its best, a Christ-centered university like Bethel is not a garrison of defenders of the faith, preparing for battle in the safety of their citadel; it’s a community of people serving faithfully, fearlessly in contested territory, building bridges, healing wounds, and inviting their enemies to turn towards the Prince of Peace.

7 thoughts on “Staying Christ-Centered: A Pietist Perspective (My Remarks to the Christian College Consortium)

  1. Thanks, Chris, for a very helpful post. Some of us are preparing papers for a Spring consultation at Bridgewater College (Church of the Brethren) on the relationship of American Evangelicalism to the Church of the Brethren in particular and to Anabaptism-Pietism more generally. I’m buying your book!

    Scott Holland, Warren A. Slabaugh Professor of Theology & Culture at Bethany Theological Seminary

      1. That sounds fascinating, Jared and Scott. Unfortunately, my trip to Conference on Faith and History later this week is going to use up my biennial travel fund, but I’ll see what I can do. What are the dates?

      2. Jared & Chris, Yes, I have long thought we Pietists with Brethren roots need to be in conversation more with Pietists from other denominational traditions. The late Burton Nelson and I were in communication but more about Bonhoeffer studies than Pietism.

        The Bridgewater event is a pay your own way gig. Chris, I would be interested in exploring the possibility of a future conference or consultation at your school or mine — or at Jared’s.

        This year several several Anabaptists or Neo-Anabaptists have been in touch with me about some of my work suggesting that Pietism can be a corrective or supplement to the current rage for Anabaptism. This might be a topic. Or a look at varieties of Pietism and how some of us have been influenced by the movement of the second generation of Continental Pietists into aesthetics, poetics and theological Romanticism.

        Chris, I was once a card carrying member of the Conference on Faith & History but after paying dues to 19 professional societies something had to give!

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