A Pietist (and Baptist) Vision for Academic Freedom

This week I’m co-leading a faculty development workshop meant to help Bethel colleagues write a tenure application essay on how they relate faith to learning. As that workshop concludes this afternoon, I’ll try to explain our topic in the context of Bethel’s religious heritage. I don’t expect that all of our faculty be Baptist (I’m not) or Pietist (I am), but I do want them to understand that our mission grows out of particular soil. We might use words and phrases that are commonplace in Christian higher ed, but they stand for more particular understandings.

Take the phrase “academic freedom.”

First, I want to underscore that there’s a fundamental relationship between tenure and academic freedom. Tenure, as our faculty learned in April, is not simply a long-term employment guarantee. It is meant to liberate scholars and teachers committed to the mission of the institution to find new and better ways to fulfill that mission through their teaching and scholarship.

By definition, a commitment to innovation and improvement commits the institution to weather controversy and criticism, from within and without, both because “better” is always a contested term and because “new” inevitably raises the hackles of constituents with a vested interest in what’s old. Sometimes they’re right to vest that interest; new for new’s sake isn’t necessarily better, and every academic community needs to uphold certain common values, principles, and practices. (As William Ringenberg argues in his 2016 book on the subject, Christian scholars exercise academic freedom in and for communities.)

But sometimes the status quo — economic, political, racial, even religious — becomes an idol. And it is certainly the task of the Christian scholar to tear down false idols. Bethel should use tenure to encourage its faculty in that work.

I would say the same if I taught at a different Christian college, but I teach at Bethel, where that commitment to academic freedom is particularly rooted in our “Baptist Pietist” heritage.

The Scandia Baptist Church in Waconia, Minnesota, ca. 1910. It was relocated to the Bethel campus in the 1970s, across from what was then still the home of the Seminary – Bethel Digital Library

As a Baptist institution, Bethel should defend the academic freedom of its professors because:

  1. Baptists believe in the authority of Scripture alone. Though denominations like Bethel’s have adopted affirmations of faith like the document that we teach under, former Bethel Seminary dean Gordon Johnson warned that “such affirmations of faith cannot become laws that supersede the Bible… All statements of creed must be subservient to the Scriptures.” (I’m quoting from his short book, My Church.) Such documents can be instructive, but they can never be authoritative for the individual in the way that the Bible itself is, lest we become like (in Johnson’s illustration) the Pharisees whom Jesus accused of “setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (Mark 7:9). If the historic origin of Bethel is in Swedish Baptists reading the Bible for themselves and deciding that what it taught about baptism trumped what the Lutheran state church taught about baptism, then Bethel should foster the freedom of students to read Scripture anew.
  2. Baptists believe in soul freedom. Precisely because the “Bible is God’s personal letter to you and me,” Johnson knew, “I am completely free to make my own decisions about what it says.” As their faith affirmation explains, the Baptists who sponsor Bethel “believe that every human being has direct relations with God and is responsible to God alone in all matters of faith.” No authority (“ecclesiastical or political”) can interfere with that relationship, trying to coerce it into turning out a certain way.
  3. Baptists are dissenters. It can be hard to tell sometimes, in a country whose largest Protestant denomination is a group of Baptists whose leaders have grown comfortable walking the corridors of secular power. But there is radical DNA in what David Stricklin calls the Baptist “genealogy of dissent.” He points to figures like Walter Nathan Johnson, Clarence Jordan, and Foy Valentine, whose work for racial justice and economic equality both rankled Southern Baptist conservatives and reflected core Southern Baptist ideas and practices. Up here, I can’t think of Bethel’s Baptist tradition without my mind going to the late historian and political scientist G.W. Carlson, who said (at a 2012 symposium honoring Jordan) that his Baptist heritage started with “early identification with people in need or people who are unacceptable to mainstream societal norms” and “a serious discontent with the witness of the established Christian church and a desire to recover a more authentic faith.” (See more on GW and the radical Baptist tradition in this 2019 post at The Anxious Bench.) Of course, GW was such a courageous person that he might have lived out this “discontent” even without tenure, but academic freedom can encourage it.

I hasten to add that Bethel isn’t affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It was founded by Swedish Baptist immigrants who started coming to this country in the mid-to-late 19th century after having been profoundly shaped by another Christian tradition: Pietism.

Bethel leaders in the Seminary chapel ca. 1965 – Gordon Johnson is on the far left with his back to the camera, talking to Carl Lundquist. Virgil Olson is the central figure in the foreground – Bethel Digital Library

I trust that’s not a new idea for regular readers of this blog. But briefly, let me summarize why I think that Bethel’s Pietist heritage should lead it to defend the academic freedom of its faculty:

  1. Pietists seek living faith, not dead orthodoxy. Since the first stirrings of this ethos in 17th century Germany, Pietists have warned that right belief can be stripped of its power if it is reduced to a form, a tradition, or a confession demanding mere intellectual assent. Even those core beliefs that we regard as essential for our faculty to affirm must be continually re-rooted in Scripture, reinterpreted in light of the contexts into which our mission calls us, and lived out in the personal experience and communal practice that is central to authentic Christianity. Pietism’s “warm, rich experience of the Lord,” the Lutheran Pietist scholar and poet Gracia Grindal said here a few years ago, “simply cannot be passed on to the next generation through doctrine or structure.” So it’s in our DNA to question all attempts — including our own — to formalize Christian belief and practice.
  2. Pietists live by an irenic spirit. And most Christian beliefs and practices are not essential matters requiring universal agreement. Just as Philipp Spener emphasized the importance of experience alongside belief, he warned against indulging in angry polemics as part of needless controversies over secondary doctrines. At Bethel, we often talk about this in terms of the “irenic spirit,” a way of living at peace amid difference. So even if we can agree that, say, beliefs about God and the Bible are essential, they should not be used to shut down free inquiry and debate surrounding other beliefs — e.g., by weaponizing words like “Godly” and “biblical” to delegitimize dissenting positions on ethical, political, economic, or other issues.
  3. Pietists seek the renewal of the church. Pietism, said the Bethel professor and dean Virgil Olson, would always arise in reaction against “superficial Christianity whether it be found in rotting formalism, a thinned-out evangelism or a misfired scholasticism, or anything else that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.” To the extent that this ethos ever takes shape as a movement, it’s for the sake of renewing the church — and through the church, individuals and their societies.

It’s a paradox: Pietists (like Baptists, I think) are inherently suspicious of institutional Christianity, yet they have sometimes found it necessary to sustain institutions in order to further their mission. So as their educational institutions relate to their ecclesial institutions, wrote Bethel president Carl Lundquist, the challenge is to

find the golden mean where there exists sturdy confidence in the spiritual and intellectual integrity of the school even when it raises disturbing questions, engages in rigid self-evaluation, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and seeks less popular but more consistently Christian solutions to the problems that vex mankind.

In a sense, the participants in our workshop are writing faith-learning essays in order to help Bethel maintain that “sturdy confidence” among its Baptist and other supporters; our president and provost read such documents in part so that they can go to our trustees, donors, pastors, alumni, and families and testify to the “spiritual and intellectual integrity” of professors like me.

But all for the sake of having tenure, which allows my colleagues and me the freedom to ask such questions, engage in such evaluation, and propose such solutions.