Review: The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education


The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationChristopher Gehrz, ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: The contributors to this volume consider the “usable past” in Pietist thought and practice that might serve in the “forming of whole and holy persons” in Christian colleges with a Pietist heritage.

Pietism often comes in for a bad rap in discussions of higher education from a Christian perspective. It is often viewed as anti-intellectual, more concerned with the affections of the heart than the life of the mind. The contributors to this volume, most with a connection to Bethel University, would propose both that this is a mere caricature of a truly robust Pietism, and that there are significant resources of theology and practice in historic pietism that may be drawn on as a “usable past” to form “whole and holy persons” from the students and faculty at Pietist institutions.

I found the contributions in the first two sections of this work to be the strongest in actually defining what this usable past might be and how it could be critical to the higher education enterprise. In Part One on teaching, scholarship, and community in a pietist university, Daniel Williams argues that the convertative and conventicle aspects of pietism provide basis for transformation in a community of learners. Katherine Nevins argues for the importance of the priesthood of all believers, the emphasis on love of God and neighbor, and the pietistic virtues of humility and openness to correction as vital in the university classroom. Jenell Paris proposes that the Reformed integrative paradigm, with its focus on intellect and worldview may be complemented by the Pietist focus on the love of learning and the value of the intrinsic worth of a discipline of study. Phyllis Alsdurf contrasts the educational visions of Carl F. H. Henry and Carl H. Lundquist, a former Bethel University president. Henry was the better know both for his publications and his vision of a Christian Harvard. Lundquist, while sharing many of Henry’s evangelical commitments and endeavors actually realized the leadership of a Christian institution, instilling a perspective that linked love of Christ and learning, of heart and mind, of university and church mission together. Roger Olson returns to the themes of conversion and community and their role in fostering a learning that is transformative rather than just informative, and values sincere questioning and critical thinking done communally.

Part Two then considers Pietism’s impulse of service to the world as part of our witness to Christ. Dale Durie applies the priesthood of all believers to the idea of a priesthood lived out in every field of inquiry in God’s temple, the creation, under God’s leadership, praying for and blessing others, being the church wherever we are, and acting in the world for the common good. Christian Collins Winn commends the Pietist virtues of openness, humility, love, and hope as vital to fostering a civil public discourse. Marion Larson and Sara Shady write of how these virtues have informed their efforts to educate students to relate to those of other faiths (see also From Bubble to Bridge from the same authors reviewed here).

Part Three includes two models of Pietist informed education, in the fields of science and science teaching, and in nursing. Part Four seemed the most “miscellaneous” of the four parts. It begins with an essay by Raymond VanArragon on how open-mindedness and a Pietist concern for truth are held in tension. The next turns to the question of whether a Pietist university can be coherently organized while emphasizing Christian experience. Following this is Kent Gerber’s discussion of the need to curate and preserve Pietist resources and archives to foster research into “the usable past.” Finally Samuel Zalenga writes of the challenge of preserving Pietism given the neo-liberal economic pressures impacting the life of all universities.

Christopher Gehrz concludes this collection with what he thinks Pietism can contribute in a season emphasizing innovation in the university world, and in so doing summarizes themes that have run through a number of these essays. Pietism emphasizes conversion, a transformation of the heart and not simply the informing of the mind, and Gehrz argues for the liberal arts when STEM has gained ascendancy as the “liberating” arts. He contends that the Christian university can function as a “little church within the church,” bringing reform to the whole. Finally, he sees the Pietist university as instrumental in serving to bring about a new world, as inward transformation is translated into outward service.

What strikes me in reading this work is that it reflects one side of a conversation between the Pietist and Puritan (Calvinist Reformed) streams of the church in American history. The collection underscored for me both a deep appreciation of the Puritan stream, and yet a recognition of the worth brought by the undervalued Pietist stream. Rather than opposing these to each other, it is exciting to dream of what could happen in bringing these two streams together into a mighty river bringing fresh life and transformed character as well as intellectual rigor into Christian higher education, which may in turn both serve and challenge the secular higher education establishment.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: February 2017 | Bob on Books

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