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Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils

Thomas M. Crisp, Steve L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof (eds.)
Published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2014

The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons

Christopher Gehrz (ed.)
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2015

Reviewed by John W. Hawthorne, Sociology, Spring Arbor University

As a sociology professor and administrator serving several Christian universities over the last three decades plus, I have been fascinated at how institutional ethos varies from school to school. A university may be celebrating a centennial, yet the hiring of people who “fit,” the priorities placed on certain aspects of academic life, and the strategic priorities of administrators all seem to reflect the DNA of the particular institution.

Institutional ethos is clearly evident in the two books covered in this review. The first, by Thomas Crisp and colleagues, arose from the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. A series of semester discussions and a year-end conference provided the impetus for the essays in the book. Similarly, the Gehrz book came out of faculty discussions and a workshop at Bethel University in Minnesota.

Both books deal with serious issues within Christian higher education, albeit from the perspective of unique vision of these two fine institutions. I will first attempt to summarize the central questions of each of the books and then devote the balance of this review to the contrasting assumptions.

Christian Scholarship is a collection of ten essays: two from Biola faculty and the balance from scholars invited to the year-end conference. The fact that most of the authors come from somewhere other than Biola may weaken my institutional ethos claim somewhat, but the structure of the workshops and the editing of the essays still reflects a Biola stance. Consider this framing of the volume from the editors:

Paul instructed those in his churches to “take every thought captive to Christ.” In the context of the academy, following this injunction will require careful and sustained reflection on the nature of Christian scholarship. The essays that follow are an example of such reflection, and we pray that they will push forward the ongoing conversation on the prospects and perils of Christian scholarship in the twenty-first century. (xii)

Two things stand out to me in this statement. First, there is a recognition that Christian scholarship is something over which one wrestles. The idea is that we should be very aware of what it means to be a Christian scholar as an expression of faith. Second, Christian scholarship offers both positive and negative outcomes for the Christian scholar.

The book opens with excellent essays from Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. These two essays seem to set the parameters for those that follow. To Wolterstorff, scholarship is a natural expression of the faculty member’s Christian commitments even when engaging with the broader academy. But that scholarship is less a special work than an outgrowth of the Christian mind within the scholar. For Plantinga, on the other hand, Christian scholarship requires a vigilant defense against the default assumptions of the academy. He critiques the default assumptions of science, social science, and physics around which the scholar must navigate. Where Wolterstorff sees interactions with secular scholars as an outgrowth of one’s work, Plantinga sees Christian scholarship as never quite fitting in to establishment paradigms.

Several of the other essays in Christian Scholarship provide “over the shoulder” excursions into particular disciplinary areas. Paul Moser explores how a philosopher would do “Christ-Shaped Philosophy.” Jonathan Anderson examines how art criticism can reflect key theological principles. Natasha Duquette discusses how understanding the sublime and the beautiful allows an interpretation of dissent in literature and art.

Another set of essays attempts to craft a definitional structure for the project of Christian scholarship. For example, psychologist M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall explores ”scaffolding” for understanding scholarship. Amos Yong examines the impact of the role of the Holy Spirit in enlivening and advancing scholarship. George Hunsinger suggests that a Barthian methodology is particularly valuable for the Christian scholar.

Any edited volume has the weakness of a sense of unevenness to the essays. Some are more centrally connected than others. In addition, some of the disciplinary specifics of the perspectives offered make it hard for the over-the-shoulder effect really to work. Frequently I was struck with the awareness that I did not have the background to engage the writer’s argument fully. Finally, it would have been helpful if the authors had been asked to address similar themes from their various perspectives. While it is possible to make some contrasts and similarities, it is left for the reader to do that (at the risk of forcing contrasts where they might not exist).

Still, Christian Scholarship does achieve the goals it set for itself. The editors had a substantive teleological aim:

[I]f there are Christian approaches to the various academic disciplines, it might be that by approaching them in these ways, we can better manifest the gospel, better image the manifold wisdom and beauty of God, better serve a suffering world. If there are distinctively Christian ways of approaching our scholarship, it would be good to know. (viii, emphasis in the original)

It is safe to say that this aim was evident throughout the essays. The book would be a valuable resource for a faculty reading group, particularly an interdisciplinary one. It might be heavy sledding for a new faculty Faith-and-Scholarship workshop, but more experienced scholars will find it valuable source for discussion.

In contrast, Pietist Vision takes a broader view than simply Christian scholarship, focusing on the greater enterprise of Christian higher education. In the introduction, Christopher Gehrz lays out a common understanding of what Pietism is about:

Pietists in all times and all places seek a more authentic Christianity: not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected, but lived out through the transformative experiences of conversion and regeneration. Suspicious of “dead orthodoxy,” Pietists subordinate doctrine to Scripture – with an irenic or peaceable spirit prevailing in matters where the Bible leaves open a range of interpretations (or where Pietists encounter those of other or no religious faith). Clergy and laity alike form a common priesthood actively engaged in worship, education, evangelism, and social action, in the firm hope that God intends “better times” for the church and the world. (20-21)

Every one of the seventeen authors in Pietist Vision has a Bethel connection. They graduated from Bethel, taught there in the past, or currently teach there. All attempt to frame the implications of Pietism for Christian higher education from the author’s unique perspective. They do rely heavily on a few key individuals as jumping-off places: Philip Spener, August Francke, and Carl Lundquist are used by most of the authors as grounding perspectives.

Pietist Vision, like the Biola book, represents a broad range of disciplinary views. Authors come from theology, philosophy, English, communication, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The book is organized into four sections: some definitional issues on the nature of Christian higher education, a section exploring social responsibility, consideration of how the Pietist vision is expressed in the natural sciences, and discussion of the challenges and opportunities of the Pietist approach. While section three is interesting, the other sections have broader appeal so I will unpack them a little more.

The first essay in the opening section has philosopher David Williams suggesting how Pietism reshapes the “Faith-Learning Integration” concept so central to much of Christian higher education. Because conversion is at the center of the Pietist understanding, integration language gives way to transformational character shaping. The work of Christian higher education becomes community centered and character forming and not simply doctrinal or philosophical.

Katherine Nevins and Roger Olson underscore the centrality of community in their essays. The former examines the ways in which Christian education in the classroom is contingent upon humility. The latter places the work of Christian higher education in service to the mission of God, in which our role is to be whole people in community.

Two other essays in the section put some distance between Pietism and more philosophical perspectives. Phyllis Alsdurf contrasts the Christian university vision of Carl Henry with that of Bethel president Carl Lundquist. Janel Paris explores the limitations of the integrationist model, using her field of anthropology as an illustration.

The second section of the book explores some of the implications of the Pietist approach. Dale Durie examines how the priesthood of believers has implications for our classrooms. Christian Collins Winn discusses the unique role of civil discourse within a Christian university. Marian Larsen and Sarah Shady suggest that the Pietist perspective offers tools for dealing effectively in interfaith dialogue.

The final section considers how the Pietist approach is challenged by contemporary social changes and how it might be better nurtured. Raymond VanArragon describes the challenges of pluralism and how a life of discipleship mitigates against these challenges. Joel Ward reminds us that modern efficiency moves in higher education run counter to Pietist assumptions and that institutional identity must be nurtured. Samuel Zalanga echoes Ward’s concerns, suggesting the Pietist vision, though highly valued, is threatened by neoliberal assumptions in modern society.

The final essay is a summary piece by Christopher Gehrz. Challenging the temptation of Christian universities to chase the newest trends and structures, he suggests that embracing “Institutional DNA” is key.

It is possible, Gehrz argues, that Pietist higher education may prove too difficult in the face of the challenges presented in section four of the book. Perhaps the small Christian liberal arts institution is a relic of another time, as its critics claim. Yet Gehrz ends on a hopeful note, recognizing that God works in ever-renewing ways:

For his good reasons, God chooses to accomplish that renewal of the world through renewed persons gathered together as a renewed church. May Pietist colleges and universities – finding new life in their usable pasts – continue to take up their share of that mission, in hope and with joy. (233)

Pietist Vision suffers the same challenges noted earlier; edited works wind up with uneven coverage and at times I wanted more elaboration of themes. In addition, by relying so heavily on some key foundational voices it can be repetitive at times. A fully developed chapter on Spener and Lundquist that later essays referenced would have improved readability at times. Yet its overarching strength is the articulation of a grounding focus that provides Pietist institutions like Bethel with significant touchstones when confronting changing social circumstances.

As someone who has studied Christian higher education for over three decades, it is intriguing to consider how these books differ in focus. Christian Scholarship is primarily directed at the work of the individual scholar within the context of the larger disciplinary guilds. This is an important consideration. As scholars engaging academe in general, it is important that the Christian voice and values are neither marginalized nor overly politicized. Knowing how to ground scholarship in Christian ethos is important as is knowing how to communicate that ethos to our colleagues who do not share it.

It is one thing to work out such ethical and theological dilemmas in theology, philosophy or psychology. Other fields like anthropology, as Janel Paris argues, may find it much harder to work through such issues.

While Pietist Vision may raise some of these same concerns of working through the demands of Christian learning, the issues the authors examine are more apt to be found within the context of students and faculty together in a particular educational setting. The importance of place is especially important here. Issues of civic engagement or educational innovation may run across institutions, but the Pietist ethic is centered in a particular set of interactions. Samuel Zalanga makes clear that some innovations, like advanced technology, may run directly counter to the personal encounters in community so central to the Pietist ethos.

These two approaches to Christian higher education may illustrate one of the key issues for faculty members in the Christian university. One book defines the work of the individual scholar while the other defines the work of the teacher/mentor/colleague. It is a difficult reality that as Christian academics that we operate in both of these roles and live with the ensuing tension on a regular basis.

There are other perspectives that could be explored. There are the administrative challenges of seeking new efficiencies and mitigating costs. There are the concerns of students and student life professionals for developing character outside the classroom as part of the transition from home to the larger society. As I have explored in my own work, A First Step Into A Much Larger World: The Christian University and Beyond (Wipf & Stock, 2014) there is also the dynamic of the student attempting to navigate his or her new world as a Christian college student.

And yet these multiple perspectives actually underlie a strength of Christian higher education: we believe that the work we are doing is part of larger Kingdom work. In the last essay of Christian Scholarship, Amos Yong calls us to imagine the Christian university focused on the work of the Holy Spirit:

In the end, such a renewalist approach to the Christian university will gain traction only if it can specify the difference the Holy Spirit makes to empowering teaching and imbuing research and scholarship with vitality. If this can be delineated, then the results ought to be relevant for all Christian – and especially evangelical – educators. (177, emphasis mine)

Christian Scholarship and Pietist Vision each raise slightly different challenges for Christian higher education in the early 21st century. Somehow, those of us who are so invested in Christian universities must continue to find ways of faithfully pursuing God’s call on our institutions in the years to come.

As we work together on that task, these books provide some valuable fodder for the important conversations that lie before us as the Holy Spirit gives us guidance. There is therefore room for us to pursue our institutional distinctives expressed through ethos and also our commonality as Christian educators.

Cite this article
John W. Hawthorne, “Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils; The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:2 , 187-191

John W. Hawthorne

Spring Arbor University
Sociology, Spring Arbor University