The banner image running across each screen of this blog is cropped from a 1601 painting by the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio, “Supper at Emmaus.”
The story of the risen Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples traveling to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) has special meaning for me, in particular the evocative question “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (v 32).
It’s one of the most popular pericopes for Pietists (probably), central to their emphasis on conversion. It clearly echoes in the language John Wesley chose for his historic diary entry of May 24, 1738. Less famously:
- A year later, Nicolaus von Zinzendorf published his own translation of the New Testament, featuring as its frontispiece an engraving of the Emmaus supper by the Moravian artist C.H. Müller.
- Closer to my own time and tradition, the Swedish-American Baptist Pietist Carl Lundquist (president of Bethel College and Seminary from 1954-1982) promoted Christian spirituality in retirement via an organization he called the Evangelical Order of the Burning Heart. (An image of “The Burning Heart” created for Lundquist by Bethel art professor Dale Johnson currently adorns the door of a special devotional room in the Bethel Seminary Library and is featured on the cover of our book, The Pietist Impulse in Christianity.)
While this phrase obviously resonates with the pietistic Zinzendorf’s notion of “heart religion,” the Emmaus passage reminds me that the emotion-laden experience of conversion to Christ need not be anti-intellectual or lead to quietistic withdrawal from the world, and suggests something crucial about the Pietist approach to education.
First, “burning hearts” are here treated as inseparable from the “life of the mind” (in this case scriptural study, but not necessarily limited to that particular intellectual discipline). In the words of Baptist historian Virgil Olson, who was a seminary professor and college dean at Bethel under Lundquist, “With the trained mind there must be the burning heart.”
Second, rather than withdrawing into an inner-world of quiet devotion, Cleopas and the other disciple are so moved that they walk (run?) back to Jerusalem in the middle of the night and immediately engage in evangelism, sharing the good news of the resurrection with others.
All of this suggests again that the “Pietist schoolman” (or the Pietist college) must — contra stereotypes — refuse to pit head, heart, and hands against each other. But still more importantly, that education of an Emmaus type is defined by its center: Jesus Christ himself. (And not by the doctrines, traditions, practices, etc. that bound it and distinguish it from alternatives.) As the Emmaus passage illustrates, one can be familiar with Scripture itself, but only a relationship with the Risen Christ can yield the “burning heart” that enlivens the trained mind and moves servant hands. Cleopas and friend were surely deeply read in Torah, Psalms, and Prophets, and looked to them frequently to guide their actions, but did not truly know the Word of God and act on it until the Word Himself taught them.
And so while I value historic orthodoxies and appreciate the reinvigoration of American and international Protestantism brought about by mid-20th century “neo-evangelicals” suspicious of theological liberalism, I’m cautiously on board with Roger Olson here in understanding evangelicalism (and Pietism, which Olson treats a key source of his “postconservative evangelicalism”) as a “centered-set” and not a “closed-set” category:
That is, the question is not who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ but who is nearer the center and who is moving away from it. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by its centrifugal center of powerful gravity and not by outlying boundaries that serve as walls or fences. (Reformed and Always Reforming, p. 59)
And what, or who, is the “centrifugal center”? Olson would agree with one of the main figures in my research on Pietism and Christian higher education, former North Park president Karl Olsson, who reflected on the centrality of Jesus Christ to the Pietist college in a 1964 address to the NP faculty. After arguing that, for learning to take place, students must “render [the teacher] extraneous,” he closed:
But I would be untrue both to my own deepest instinct as well as to the educational philosophy of this institution if I left the individual student enthroned in Emersonian self-reliance at the very navel of existence. There is a more central center. There is the new man, the second Adam, the name above every name by whom and in whom and for whom we were created and through whom we were redeemed. It is in Him, as the Logos, the word, the ratio that our existence finds its true coherence. He is the omnium magister and from him there streams to the farthest darkened periphery of energy or vacuity the life, the light, and the love which moves the sun and the other stars…. if I understand the Scriptures correctly, God is, which means that He is everywhere. The question is hence not where God is in relation to me but where I am in relation to him, for in Him we live and move, and have our being.