A Talk I Gave on Pietism and Christian Higher Education

Further Thoughts on Pietism and Christian Higher Education: Seven Years Later

Roger E. Olson

            Seven years ago I spoke at Bethel College’s faculty retreat about “Thoughts on the Christ-centered College/University” using Wheaton College’s then president Duane Litfin’s book Conceiving the Christian College. I focused that talk on Chapter 4 of the book that dealt with faith-learning integration.

Propelled to do so by this assignment I re-read that talk. I stand by everything I said there today, seven years later. There and then I focused on recognizing and preserving, even strengthening a pietist vision of Christian higher education. After surveying several models of Christian higher education I reflected on what I regarded as Bethel’s distinctive one that draws on its pietist heritage. And I compared that with the ethos of the seminary where I now teach.


In contrast to Litfin’s “systematic” and “umbrella” paradigms of Christian higher education and Robert Benne’s “atmospheric” one I recommended one based on “conversional piety.” In it, I said, “Christ-centered education begins with the experience of knowing Jesus Christ personally.” I went on to talk about how such a model of Christian higher education values transformation over information without discarding or demeaning information and critical thinking.


From a pietist perspective, the main purpose of Christian higher education is the shaping of Christian character, helping students become “whole and holy persons.” Such transformation requires life-transforming encounters with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without setting aside critical inquiry or generous orthodoxy, it focuses on orthopathy and orthopraxy. The ultimate goal or telos of such Christian higher education is not mere knowledge or skill but character.


That means that Christian higher education is primarily about instilling certain dispositions in persons, dispositions that can be summed up in the word “integrity”—all of life and thought centered consistently around the person of Jesus Christ, his love, his justice, his peace, his care for persons. In two crucial sentences I summed up the ethos of such a Christian higher education community. Commenting on what its vision of Christian character and community forbids and promotes I said that it “forbids duplicity, double standards, revenge, punitive treatment of persons, excessive competition, harassment and apathy.” And I said that it “promotes compassion, honesty, justice, fairness, redemptive treatment of persons, forgiveness, cooperation, respect and dedication.”


I have had the privilege of working and living in two Christian higher education communities that strived, and I trust still strive, to embody this pietist ethos. During my fifteen years at Bethel I observed in amazement how, for the most part and most of the time, the faculty, administration and staff worked together for the common good under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our common experience of him and commitment to his Lordship rubbed off on students as we modeled it before them. A concrete example of that was my co-teaching the required freshman course “Christianity and Western Culture” for nearly fifteen years. The four of us prayed together, collaborated, critiqued ourselves and each other in love, and demonstrated before the freshman how Christian colleagues can work and teach in harmony in spite of very different personalities and intellectual styles.


I’ve been at the seminary where I now teach for almost as long as I was at Bethel—fourteen years. Upon arriving there I recognized a pietist impulse at work in the way the curriculum was designed, the emphasis on spiritual formation, and the person-centered ethos of the community. At the center of everything about the seminary is Jesus Christ and personal experience of his living, transforming presence. Professors as well as students meet once weekly for hour long “covenant group” meetings in which we practice lectio divina and pray for each other and for our community and the world. In my covenant group we sing hymns and tell our stories.

What I’ve been trying to say is that there is a distinctive pietist ethos that shapes Bethel and my seminary and similar Christian communities of higher education. Because it is Christ-centered, it is also person-centered. To use an early pietist phrase, it sees the purpose of existence as “for God’s glory and the neighbor’s good.” Therefore, the purpose of education is to glorify God and form persons in God’s image, that is, to heal and make whole God’s image in them.


I believe this ethos translates in many ways into the character of a pietist-inspired institution of higher education. One way is that such an institution, or better, community, will be a safe place for sincere questioning. One of my last statements in my talk to the Bethel faculty at their retreat in 2006 was “I believe a Christ-centered and Christ-serving college or university is one where community members feel safe entering into conversation with each other about constructing a Christian life and world view that draws on and does justice to all the disciplines without prejudice.” Vital higher education requires critical thinking and inquiry. A pietist community of higher education should be one where people who dare to question “settled answers” intelligently and sincerely, without a spirit of iconoclasm or skepticism for its own sake, are affirmed rather than shamed into silence or pushed away.


One of the pathoses of pietism, of course, is anti-intellectualism. Another is super-spiritual other-worldliness. Yet another is legalism. None of these is necessary to true pietism, but they are all manifestations of what I call pietism “gone to seed”—pietism that has lost its way and allowed certain dangers inherent in its spiritual emphasis to take over and control it. In reaction against these dangers, attempting to cure these pathoses, some react against pietism and throw the baby out with the bathwater—something I continually warn against doing. My argument here is that true pietism is Christ-centered and therefore person-centered and therefore never anti-intellectual, other-worldly or judgmental.


The life of the mind is part of the image of God and exercising it even with critical questioning of settled traditions is part of transformation, growth in the image of God. God is the creator of the world and Christ is Lord of it, so super-spiritual otherworldliness that ignores justice here and now is antithetical to Christ-centered piety. Judgmental legalism is by its very nature crushing to persons; true pietism is grace-filled and compassionate.


Another of pietism’s pathoses, however, is the tension it must negotiate between spirituality and intellectual honesty and excellence. Two things can happen within a pietist ethos. It can lead to anti-intellectualism or it can lead to dualism—a separating between the life of the spirit and the life of the mind so that they are never integrated. The challenge facing a pietist-inspired community of higher education is emphasizing equally and in a non-competitive way both spiritual experience and critical, intellectual inquiry in all aspects and disciplines of the institution. This is part of the ongoing conversation and even debate that makes up the pietist tradition. There is no easy solution; no rules or litmus tests can be given out.


The reason this is a tension that often turns into debate is that true pietism, as opposed to liberal pietism, holds to a cognitive content of Christianity. For true pietism, going back to its roots in Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke and others who founded the movement, Christianity is not only a feeling. It is that, but it cannot be reduced to that. True pietists did not and never have tossed aside Christian orthodoxy or the Bible as authority for faith and practice—even as they held that transforming experience of God is primary for defining true Christianity.


It is simply a misunderstanding of pietism to assume, as some have, that since person-transforming spiritual experience of God is what’s permanent and most important in Christianity there is no firm, definite, non-negotiable cognitive content to Christianity. That would be like assuming that since persons are more important than rules, rules are unnecessary. Communities must have rules, but from a pietist perspective they serve persons, not the other way around. So it is with beliefs, doctrines. They serve persons, not the other way around. But they are necessary. In a pietist perspective, doctrines have a ministerial function, not a magisterial one.


Okay, but that still leaves a question unanswered. What happens in a pietist community, especially one dedicated to critical inquiry, “science” broadly understood, when a person not only questions but denies a settled, non-negotiable doctrine? Sooner or later, every pietist community faces that issue.


Of course, there’s no pietist formula for handling heresy. There’s no pietist rule book that addresses the problem and tells how to approach it. So, we are left to draw on pietist impulses, the pietist ethos, if you will, to discern how best to handle it.


It seems to me that if the person pronouncing the heresy is part of the community, the community itself has to take some responsibility for the failing to nurture him or her in the right way. But it also has to consider the possibility that the heretic is right and the community’s tradition is wrong. Finally, being person-centered, not rule- or doctrine-centered, the community ought to express to itself and the world around it that, even though this is not what the community believes, it values the person enough to keep him or her as a vital member and move on with dissent in its midst.


I am told that during the formative years of the Baptist General Conference, when it was the Swedish Baptist General Conference, it ran into this very issue. One of its leaders denied the doctrine of the Trinity. According to the minutes of a meeting of Swedish Baptist leaders, they gently remonstrated with him. When he persisted they affirmed him as a valued member anyway, prayed that God would help them deal wisely with the disagreement, and went their separate ways without excommunicating him. This story was often told by BGC leaders as an example of pietist “irenicism.” Eventually, however, as the BGC was affected by fundamentalism and then entered into the wider, “generic evangelicalism” of the American evangelical movement, it became something of an embarrassment to some in that denomination. The point is, however, that authentic Christian pietism, as a movement and ethos, always held firmly to the doctrine of the Trinity while at the same time making room for those who had their doubts.


This pietist irenic ethos was put to the test at Bethel in the late 1990s. Some constituents of the college and seminary judged that a professor had expressed heretical opinions and ought to be fired. Great pressure was put on the administration to do just that. The administration organized a “Day of Theological Clarification” which was really a heresy trial. The “jury” was composed of all the tenured professors of theology of the college and seminary. Some who were retired were invited to serve on it. Most of us disagreed with our colleague’s controversial opinion, but we voted unanimously to keep him among us. The same result happened when the denomination took up the issue of what to do with him. I would say the institution and denomination passed the test with flying pietist colors.


Finally, is there a pietist way of knowing, of investigating, of thinking about the phenomena of heaven and earth—the things we study and teach in higher education? I do think pietism affects, colors, influences the ways we go about our investigations, but I don’t believe in a “pietist epistemology” as such. How does it affect, color and influence our ways of studying and thinking about heaven and earth?


I judge that there is real tension between classical foundationalism and pietism. At best the two fit uncomfortably together. Pietism is not an epistemology, but it is a posture—a posture toward reality. So is classical foundationalism. I know I tread on thin ice here, so I’ll tread lightly.


It seems to me that classical foundationalism tends to treat knowledge as objective; perspective is set aside, bracketed out. Only that counts as “knowledge” that can be proven objectively or at least intersubjectively using logic working from indubitable truths of reason or experience. “Faith” is ruled out as irrelevant at best and corrupting of the search for truth at worst.


While classical foundationalism may work well, as an ideal, in the so-called “hard” or “experimental” sciences such as physics, it seems less appropriate in the search for truth in the human sciences. Postmodern thought is showing us that even in the so-called hard or experimental sciences, however, something like faith, at least perspective, is inescapable. Cold, hard rationalism is at best an ideal. There is no “view from nowhere.”


But Christian pietism says there ought not to be a view from nowhere. Not only does such not exist, for the Christian it ought not exist. Kierkegaard’s “passionate inwardness,” faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of all, a transformed perspective on reality that puts God at the center, is part and parcel of the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit in conversion. Conversional piety is the ongoing process of being transformed in mind as well as in character—to see everything in the light of God as creator and redeemer.


This Christian pietistic perspectivalism plays itself out, I think, in various ways, depending on the discipline. But all have in common “seeing the world as” God’s good creation, loved by God and being redeemed by Jesus Christ who calls us into being created co-creators of a new creation with God through the Holy Spirit. They also have in common love for God’s creation and hope for new creation, for redemption, for the promised liberation of creation from bondage to decay and faith that our efforts, together with God’s grace and power, can make a difference penultimately even if only God can liberate creation fully and ultimately.


Put another way, Christian pietism is a posture that “sees” all disciplines taught in the university as servants of the missio dei—of God’s mission in the world to heal it and draw it to himself.


“Integration of faith and learning,” then, from a pietist perspective, is not so much subordinating every discipline to a rigid, detailed, rationally coherent worldview as regarding every discipline as a servant of the mission of God and therefore dedicated to healing, to making whole, to bringing harmony out of chaos and peace out of strife.


The issue for mathematics, for example, is not what difference Christian doctrine makes for how it’s practiced but what difference Christian faith as participation in the mission of God makes for viewing mathematics’ purpose. Why be a mathematician? A pietist answer is “For God’s glory and the neighbor’s good”—and creation’s healing.


I my own opinion, there are certain theories, ways of seeing reality as, that Christianity rules out. They may not be as obvious in mathematics as in, say, the social sciences, but they are probably somewhere in every disciples as it is practiced by secular theorists. I believe a true pietist Christian cannot embrace social Darwinism—a common alternative view of life’s meaning and purpose that infects both the “right” and the “left” in the modern world.


A pietist Christian will always shine the critical light of faith in God as creator and redeemer on every theory and adopt and adapt only those that fit with the mission of God into his or her practice and teaching of his or her discipline.


Again, it is my contention that pietism is not an epistemology but a posture; it does not require any one theory in any discipline, but it does rule some out. I think it tends to conflict with rationalism and finds certain points of congeniality with postmodernism. I explained what they are in my article “Pietism and Postmodernism: Points of Congeniality” published in Christian Scholar’s Review in 2012.



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  • This is perhaps the best essay I’ve ever seen on how to live your religion deeply and with integrity while respecting the rights of others to do the same. Change the context from Christianity to Islam or Buddhism or my own Paganism and it’s just as helpful. Thank you.

  • Van

    Dr. Olson said, “A pietist community of higher education should be one where people who dare to question “settled answers” intelligently and sincerely, without a spirit of iconoclasm or skepticism for its own sake, are affirmed rather than shamed into silence or pushed away.”

    Very well put. Here’s a test case: Just last night I came across a 14 minute video by Joshua Tongel on the subject of Penal Substitution. I considered his comments against PS to be very enlightening and in keeping with good theology even though they might not agree with “settled answers” embraced by others.

    • Roger Olson

      I am increasingly deleting hyperlinks from comments because I don’t have tie to preview everything. Interested people can search for the lecture on youtube or wherever.

  • Don

    Thank you for a compelling vision of pietism or the pietistic impulse. I was envious of the covenant group meetings where students would have contact with professors in a small group devotional setting. Would that my own college/seminary experiences would have included that! And the perspective on the necessity of rules might well have moderated my own frustrations in that area too. Ah, well. So long ago, that bridge has been sailed under….
    My question is about two terms you use “orthopathy” and “pathoses”. In neither of these cases did my dictionary searches arrive at positive identification of what those terms mean. Do you perhaps mean “pathologies” for the second term? And, if not, how do you define pathoses? The online dictionaries seem rather deficient here…even orthopraxy was not properly addressed, correct practice is how I remember us using this. Is that close to the proper definition?

    When I have more time, I will need to take a look at the article your last lines have referenced too.

  • Larry

    Thanks Roger— insightful observations about how piety works itself out in the academic setting. My difficulty is why the church out-sourced this entire effort to institutions of higher learning?? By doing that Christian colleges and seminaries often accented theory at the expense of the practice. How can the church and academia bridge this gap and provide this type of learning experience for all believers? Why shoudn’t the church become a place of “character shaping” foundational to the way of the Kingdom? The current dumbing-down of pastors, alongside the isolationism of many Christian colleges/seminaries have left the church with few theologically trained and gifted pastors who can lead the church into this type of spiritual formation. Suppose your article was a vision of the expression of piety in the church much should apply to the spiritual development of every believer.

    shaping of
    Christian character, helping students become “whole and holy persons.”
    – See more at:

  • John A.

    I love this and am trying hard to digest it all. I love how you mention that leaning room for doubt helps. I am in the Air Force and in one paper on the Air Force core values “Integrity First, Service before Self, Excellence in All We Do” Col Charles R. Myers(in the 1997 ASPJ article) says “Merely maintaining today’s standard, merely achieving today’s mission requirements, puts the Air Force in danger of falling behind. Airmen must be adventurous in “reinventing” the Air Force to protect and promote the nation’s interests. They must take risks, and must encourage others to take risks, to improve everything about the Air Force……Excellence as constant improvement”

    Without people feeling safe to take some risks you loose out on personal or organizational growth. Of course military doctrine can be reinvented where religious doctrine cannot but taking risks can correct areas where we have fallen lax. You cannot have iron sharpening iron without some sparks 🙂

    I have also wondered how lay Baptist piety works in daily life. I can see a monk,hermit,or Anabaptist using it; but, living day to day it is hard not to see the world in a Social Darwinist construct. Can a Baptist be for Just war or self defense and still hold a pietist ethos? Or is pietism better left to those who live “set apart”?

    • Roger Olson

      I’m not sure what you mean about the Social Darwinist construct. But I’ll address the rest of your question. Yes, I think a pietist impulse or ethos can be lived out “in the world,” but it will require some degree of tension with the world. I grew up in a very pietist church that I now describe as “urban Amish.” We drove cars and had television, but we avoided many amusements we considered deleterious to spirituality such as dancing (other than folk dancing), attending Hollywood movies, and drinking alcohol. Not all pietists would live out their spirituality (“conversional piety”) in exactly that way, but I judge that such pietist spirituality will always set one somewhat over against “worldliness.” But it doesn’t require physical separation from mainstream society.