Non-Covenanters, Meet John Weborg

I seem to have this thing for organizations that can be described as “best kept secrets.” At my most sanguine, that’s how I feel about my employer — perhaps our forthcoming book will boost Bethel’s profile a bit. It’s no doubt true about my denomination, which I can’t help trying to explain to the tens of millions of American Christians who don’t belong to it — but really should.

C. John Weborg
C. John Weborg – North Park Theological Seminary

So I suspect that the name of C. John Weborg means nothing to most people outside of the Evangelical Covenant Church and its seminary in Chicago, where he taught theology from 1975 to 2003.

Even I haven’t read Weborg’s books, and I don’t think I’m that unusual in that respect. Made Healthy in Ministry for Ministry (2011) is held by only twenty-two libraries in the WorldCat network and Alive in Christ, Alert to Life (1985, now out of print) by five, with North Park being the only one to have both. In Spirit and in Truth, a 2006 Festschrift in his honorunjustly languishes at #4,151,378 in Amazon rankings.

If I weren’t a Covenanter, I’d probably have known of Weborg solely via his contribution to Don Dayton and Robert Johnston’s The Variety of American Evangelicalism. But the fact that I was interested in that chapter (“Pietism: Theology in Service of Living Toward God” — a fantastic subtitle) in the first place has everything to do with my heritage in the Covenant Church, and few within that movement have done more to locate its roots within Pietism.

Weborg’s two chief research subjects as a young theologian were Philipp Jakob Spener and Johann Albrecht Bengel. Like them, he advocated a non-sectarian Pietism, as in a 2009 interview with North Park professor Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom:

The Evangelical Covenant is an ecclesial piety who has traditionally valued some of the gifts passed on by the historical church, including confirmation, the lectionary, good preaching, and hymnody. One of the fruits of this churchly Pietism is that while we treasure a personal relationship with God, especially as summed up in the metaphor of God as friend in our hymnody, we do not take this relationship as private or individualistic. Our relationship with God is also a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we affirm the church as the fellowship of believers, this comes from our ecclesial piety and is marked by the fruit of the spirit. The fruit of the spirit, furthermore, is a communal virtue that, when embodied, witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ. (published in Clifton-Soderstrom’s book on Pietist ethics, and also excerpted in the journal Pietisten)

(For an introduction to Weborg’s thinking on Pietism: he also contributed an article to the 1986 issue of Christian History that I often recommend to those looking to start their exploration of the tradition.)

Weborg in 2011 at North Park Seminary
Weborg at his last North Park chapel sermon in 2011 – Covenant News

As I’ve thought through the implications of Pietism for higher education, I’ve focused on traditional undergraduate programs. But if such a model is indeed about forming “whole and holy persons,” then we stand at least in part on the shoulders of Weborg, who made spiritual formation an integral component of Covenant seminary education at North Park. (NP’s Center for Spiritual Direction is now named for him.) Indeed, when Bethel Seminary was seeking to integrate spiritual formation more intentionally into the training of Baptist General Conference ministers, Weborg was invited to give the 1980 Adolf Olson Lectures here in St. Paul. (Read more about it in Jeannette Bakke’s “A Religion of the Heart and Bethel Seminary,” in the Pietism-themed March 2012 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion.)

If any of that introduction makes readers of this blog want to learn more about Dr. Weborg, they’re in luck: an extended profile of him is the cover story in the current issue of The Covenant Companion! (The issue also has an interview with Weborg in which he reflects on his interest in spiritual direction as a direct outgrowth of Pietism.)

Here’s how writer Stan Friedman described his goals in profiling his former professor:

I hope it will help readers who haven’t “been there” to better understand why some of us speak about John Weborg in almost mythic terms, why we who were his students were awed and sometimes amused by John being John….

(Or as ECC president Gary Walter put it in Friedman’s story: “I realized I was in the presence of a true giant in terms of understanding the ways of God…. There was a presumption of profundity by the students.” Back to Friedman…)

There are teachers who educate, and then there are those who open vistas, showing you worlds you didn’t know existed. That’s who John has been for many of us. He could tell us what lay before us, but he was most interested in seeing us explore. It could be exhausting at times. One semester, I had him for back-to-back classes, which some days was overwhelming….

Ultimately, I wanted to write the story to say thank you—even if John didn’t know exactly why.

3 thoughts on “Non-Covenanters, Meet John Weborg

  1. Thanks for this about John Weborg, Chris. I became acquainted with John through the American Theological Society (Midwest Division) way back in 1985 when I joined it under the sponsorship of Bethel professor Al Glen (in many ways my mentor–at least at Bethel). I eventually became president of the ATS. Over a period of about 15 years I became very well acquainted with John and came to love and respect him as a model of Pietist scholarship.

    1. Absolutely, Roger. No doubt I’m overstating the degree of anonymity — among fellow theologians, at least, I’d expect to hear that John is well known and respected.

  2. Chris, thank you for the kind mentions of the story. This was one of the favorite stories I heard about John while researching the article. “Jay Phelan, senior professor of theological studies and former president and dean of North Park Theological Seminary, recalls, that, “Some years ago John gave a paper for the theology conference of the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches. I was leading the activities that day and after John’s paper, several members of the audience said that they wanted us to cancel what we had for the afternoon so they could talk more with John. And so we did. Nearly the entire group of theologians and teachers from around Europe, the United States and Asia gathered for a lively conversation.”

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