God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: Revisiting the Pietist Vision for Christian Higher Education

Two weeks ago today, I had the chance to talk about Pietism and teaching with college and seminary faculty, staff, and administrators at North Park University in Chicago. It was the third time that I’ve been invited to another Christian college campus to reflect on themes from our 2015 book, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education, and — no offense to the good folks at Messiah College and Grace College & Seminary! — this invitation was particularly meaningful. Not only is North Park owned and operated by my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, but NP leaders like David Nyvall and Karl Olsson have loomed large in my own research on Pietism and higher education. (And they’ll figure prominently in the chapter on Christian formation in The Pietist Option, my forthcoming book with Covenant pastor Mark Pattie.)

Old Main at North Park
Old Main at North Park University – Creative Commons (Zol87)

So I’m grateful to NP provost Michael Emerson for making possible that conversation, and to education professor John Laukaitis for facilitating it. Not surprisingly, I rambled on enough that we didn’t quite get to all of John’s questions, so I thought I’d use the blog to answer one that we had to skip:

We often hear [August Hermann] Francke’s words “God’s glory, neighbor’s good” at North Park and consider the words central to our sense of purpose. As you understand Francke’s words in their historical context, what should continue to frame our thinking as we consider our role as members of a Christian faculty teaching within the Pietist tradition?

Now, as a friend pointed out recently, this phrase actually predates August Hermann Francke and the other German Pietists by more than a century. In fact, it’s a Reformed formula, from a somewhat obscure section of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q&A 101

Q. But may we swear an oath in God’s name if we do it reverently?

A.Yes, when the government demands it, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.

Still, if we hadn’t gone with the Bethel-ese of “forming whole and holy persons,” “God’s glory and neighbor’s good” could easily have been the subtitle of our Pietist Vision book. The title of a Francke biography, that phrase was repeated by several of our contributors, and you increasingly hear it from Bethel’s own leaders.

So here’s how I would have answered John’s question:

God’s glory…

“[W]hatever you do,” Paul admonished, “do everything to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). That “everything” could certainly cover higher education, but how do we seek God’s glory within the context of a university like North Park or Bethel?

First, we affirm that — whatever the academic discipline — we are focusing our attention on the marvelous creation of God. In our 2015 book, physicist Dick Peterson quoted from Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Whatever we study, from ancient history to zoology, has the potential to reveal glimpses of God’s glory.

At the same time, we acknowledge that Creation fell into sin. So our task is also to help each other recognize that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), to acknowledge and repent of our shortcomings. But we don’t languish there; such study leads us from death into (new) life. As I write in our book’s conclusion, quoting from Bethel president Carl Lundquist, “the liberal arts are liberating arts, freeing us from ‘the chains of ignorance, provincialism, bigotry and narrowness’ to choose to follow Christ, and to become ‘our unique and creative best for the glory of God.'”

Crouch, Strong and WeakSo an education dedicated to God’s glory is a potentially transformative education, leading to the kind of human flourishing Andy Crouch describes in his new book:

We are meant to flourish—not just to survive, but to thrive; not just to exist, but to explore and expand. “Gloria Dei vivens homo,” Irenaeus wrote. A loose—but by no means inaccurate—translation of those words has become popular: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To flourish is to be fully alive, and when we read or hear those words something in us wakes up, sits up a bit straighter, leans ever so slightly forward. To be fully alive would connect us not just to our own proper human purpose but to the very heights and depths of divine glory. To live fully, in these transitory lives on this fragile earth, in such a way that we somehow participate in the glory of God—that would be flourishing. And that is what we are meant to do. (Strong and Weak, pp. 10-11)

But this not for ourselves! Crouch observes that, throughout history, the Christians who were most “fully alive” (“the ones in who the glory of God was most fully seen”) were those “who flourished and brought flourishing to others” (p. 25, emphasis mine). Or as the apostle Peter reminds all those who enter Bethel: (I can’t remember which version is inscribed halfway up the stairway in Bethel’s Community Life Center, but I like the New Living Translation here)

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen. (1 Pet 4:10-11)

If using God’s gifts “to serve one another… will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ,” then the main thing we need to remember is that God’s glory is inseparable from neighbor’s good.

…Neighbor’s Good

Weiner, "Learn of Me"
“Learn of Me,” the 10-foot statue of Jesus made for North Park in 1963 by sculptor Egon Weiner

There’s something fundamentally conversional about this Pietist vision of higher education. But I think we mean conversion in the sense that North Park seminary dean Don Frisk meant it in his 1969 book, The New Life in Christ:

To be converted to Christ is always in a sense to be converted (turned) to the world. It is to see the world through the eyes of Christ, to share his compassion, to perceive his will for the world, and to strive to follow it.

In short, a university like North Park or Bethel should help us to see through the eyes of “Christ the Servant of Culture” (Pietism scholar Dale Brown’s alternative to Richard Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture). Through the very process of being “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” we should come to love and serve the same world to which Paul wants us not to conform.

I think this is why schools like ours have historically tended to graduate so many teachers, nurses, social workers, missionaries, and pastors. But our suffering, footwashing Servant-Lord can also serve as the model for the better-paid professionals being trained in an institution of higher learning. The key, taught Francke, is that the convert “carries out his professional calling joyfully and cheerfully to the glory of God and his neighbor’s good without greed.”

(And “if you cannot turn your profession itself to God’s glory and neighbor’s best, but rather it brings about your neighbor’s harm… you must also change your profession even though it may appear as hard to you as the command of Christ to the rich young man.”)

Larson & Shady, From Bubble to Bridge
Not totally coincidentally, tomorrow I’m going to start a multi-part series on Sara and Marion’s book about interfaith engagement in Christian higher education

But even this may not be enough.

In our present political moment, I think it’s incumbent on colleges and universities dedicated to “neighbor’s good” to resist the forces seeking to shrink our understanding of “neighbor.” Schools like North Park and Bethel must remind their Christian constituents that Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?”, in the most radically inclusive way possible for his context. Remembering their own origins as immigrant schools, they must advocate for “the stranger” and others most vulnerable to the politics of fear. And as institutions in a religiously plural society, they must inculcate the receptive humility, reflective commitment, and imaginative empathy that are necessary to move Christian colleges, in the words of two of our contributors to the 2015 book, “from bubble to bridge.”