Theological perspectives for Christian Education

by Donald Frisk

How might Pietism — so often derided for anti-intellectualism — shape and sustain the work of education? One thoughtful answer came from Donald Frisk, dean of North Park Theological Seminary. In 1963, Frisk wrote this working paper for the Covenant’s education commission. In this paper, you’ll see the “breadth of… mind” and “depth of his call to serve Christ” that Frisk’s granddaughter celebrated in the obituary she contributed to the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Pietisten. While this working paper does not seem to have been adopted, it presents a robust argument for the interrelationship between a liberal arts education and what North Park president Karl Olsson called “convertive piety.” - Chris Gehrz

The pietistic and romantic movements, although separated in time of origin, reveal a marked inner affinity. Both are in protest against the rationalist’s attempt to equate reality with what can be caught in an intellectual concept. Without denying that reason has its legitimate function, both contend that the full dimensions of human experience are distorted if reason alone is the interpreter of life. Both pietists and romantics are convinced that knowledge must include the whole range of human experience and that proper place must be given to the emotional and volitional aspects of life. This interest has made them sensitive to the variegated richness of everyday life. Desiring to respond to all facets of experience, they are reluctant to exclude anything which may enrich life. The thrust of this emphasis can only lead to a concern with the liberal arts.

For the pietists, however, this interest in man’s many-faceted experience is always subsumed under one all-consuming loyalty or passion. All experience is brought to a focal point in the personal awareness of redemption in Christ. Here “God’s varied grace” (I Pet. 4:10) has been made known and all human experience has been illumined by the divine presence.

Since no individual’s response to this revelation can exhaust its manifold meaning, the pietist must seek to hold within the fellowship of faith many varying expressions of the life in Christ. The test for inclusion in the Church is not formal adherence to correct doctrine but the vital, life-changing experience of fellowship with Christ. It is this thrust in our heritage which necessitates that education be Christian.

It may appear that the concern for the total range of human experience is contradicted by the pietist’s tendency to flee from the world, to reject almost the whole of the culture of his day. Certainly the fears of many Covenanters concerning higher education seem to preclude any positive evaluation of the cultural achievements of the human spirit. It should be observed, however, that the pietist holds that our total life must be judged in the light of our experience of the Lordship of Christ, and further that our total life must be brought into conformity with what we find in Christ. Admittedly, pietists did not always see clearly at this point, but it was their intention, at least, not to reject the world but to reconstitute it in the light of their experience of Christ. What seemed to be total rejection was a fumbling attempt to bring into being a new world which would exist within the family of believers. Here those values which faith saw to be central and altogether lovely would have their rightful place. The missionary and evangelistic zeal of the early pietists is a testimony to their conviction that all men would find fulfillment of life within this new culture.

It is apparent then that a concern for Christian liberal arts education arises legitimately from our pietistic heritage. Our task in this paper is to discover the theological presuppositions within that heritage which may give structure and direction to a contemporary philosophy of Christian education.


We begin with a presupposition common to all within the Protestant tradition. It is the conviction that reason shares in man’s fallen state and is itself in need of redemption. Far from being the ground for man’s hope of salvation, reason is a primary obstacle in the way to deliverance. Our pietistic forefathers were too dependent upon Luther to fall into the trap of identifying man’s sin solely with his “lower” nature, or with the body and its passions. They knew the seat of sin to be in the totality of man’s nature and particularly in those powers which tempted man to proud reliance upon self. They saw that in the use of his reason man may most effectively express his rebellious disdain of the grace of God.

This does not mean that our forefathers were anti-rationalists. From Luther they had learned to distinguish between a proper and an improper use of reason. Without uttering the words, they knew the difference between Tillich’s technical reason and ontological reason. They knew that reason may legitimately be relied upon when used in reference to the “Kingdom of Earth” (coram hominibus). As good farmers and carpenters and, in a later generation, as capable contractors and engineers they knew reason to be an excellent gift of God. But in reference to God’s Kingdom, (coram Deo), they knew that reason can only “stumble like a man on stilts.” It can know nothing of God. Instead it fashions its own gods, or elevates self to the place of God. Essentially such reason is arrogance in the presence of the creator.

This inability of reason to comprehend the things of the Spirit was not due to a deficiency or flaw in reason itself. Reason was a function of man, a tool in the employ of man. Its destructive power resided not in itself but in its user. The natural reason was in bondage to self and on an even deeper level to the Kingdom of Evil. In this context Luther called reason Frau Hulda, the Devil’s Whore.

If our forefathers knew that reason could not be trusted to give adequate answers to man’s ultimate questions, they also knew that reason could be redeemed. What was needed was a change of masters. When the totality of man’s being is in captivity to sin, reason becomes its servant, but when the whole man is grasped by the Holy Spirit, reason becomes an “excellent instrument of godliness.” Like all of man’s powers, reason has to be drowned in Baptism and raised a new creature in Christ Jesus.

While Covenanters of today may not be entirely happy with Luther’s doctrine of the two Kingdoms, there can be little doubt that we share his misgivings concerning the ability of reason to point the way out of man’s spiritual dilemmas. Are we not also in agreement that faithless reason may through the miracle of regeneration become faithful reason? This does not mean it loses its fallibility; it always remains a creature. Nonetheless there is a difference between the use of reason “ante fidem” and “post fidem.” The difference is not that the intellect suddenly becomes more brilliant, but rather that reason acquires a new stance, it functions from a new perspective, and makes use of new materials provided through faith in the Word of God. Faithful reason is reason caught up in the service of faith and made an integral aspect of faith. As such it is faith (which involves the whole man) reflecting upon itself, its world and its God.


A second conviction within our heritage is that truth, i.e., ultimate, saving truth, can be found only in personal encounter or confrontation.

A significant ambivalence exists in this emphasis. On the one had we seem here to stand completely within the tradition of experiential Christianity. In the experience of conversion God comes to us. On the other hand this conviction carries with it the implication that there is a discontinuity between all human experience and man’s encounter with God. We know him in the miracle of conversion.

We shall consider the latter first.

For pietists God does not dwell at the end of a syllogism, nor can he be known by the simple assent of the intellect. There is no highway leading from man to God. If God is to be found at all it must be as he meets us in his Word and establishes a relationship with himself through the Holy Spirit. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

In view of this emphasis upon the crisis of decision and the action of God it is no accident that Covenanters came to feel an affinity with Søren Kierkegaard. The gloomy Dane’s emphasis on the discontinuity between all forms of experience and the reality of God, and his stress upon the infinite, qualitative distinctions between God and Man, seemed to echo the pietists’ recognition that no man can know God except as God makes himself known in conversion. With Kierkegaard our fathers held that man does not possess the truth in himself; hence, no Socratic process of recollection can bring him to awareness of it. Truth is not found in experience; it is always other than our experience and in judgment upon our experience.

To follow this line of thought to its conclusion is to stand with the earlier Karl Barth emphasizing the high and holy self-impartation of God in Christ and the discontinuity of this revelation with all human thought. The value of such a position lies in the dramatic high-lighting of the sovereign claims of the Gospel upon man. Its fatal danger is two-fold. Either it makes the revelation completely arbitrary – an action of God quite independent of any response or need of our own, or it makes faith a capricious and essentially irresponsible judgment on our part. In either case it makes a fruitful relationship between faith and learning impossible.

The pietist heritage, however, has never permitted this emphasis to stand alone. It insists that what we know in Christ is transcendent, it is not from man, it is not produced by man but is the reality of the Living God present in Christ. And Christ is far more real than our experience of him. But it also insists that he is nonetheless known in our experience of him. He comes as the Incarnate One, the Word made flesh. He enters into the world of our experience and in that world we know the Holy One of Israel.

True we must not confuse our experience of joy, peace, forgiveness and power with the One whom we meet in that “experience.” As one of the African visitors at the Midwinter Conference reminded us, “the drums are not the King.” But it is also true that the King is not known where there are no drums.

Some of the complexity of the Covenant movement is seen in the fact that even as it stresses the necessity of personal encounter with Christ it also observes that such an encounter normally occurs within the believing community. The logic of the pietists’ stress upon conversion would seem to preclude an emphasis upon baptism and confirmation. But such is not the case.

The reason for retaining baptism and confirmation is simply that God makes himself known in and through human experience. God speaks to the individual not only “from above” but also horizontally within the family of believers. One comes to faith within a perspective and fellowship in which his life and thought are structured. Through the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the Church, Christ graciously makes himself known wherever there is a response to his presence.

To the degree this emphasis upon continuity (and also upon discontinuity) between experience in general and the experience of Christ is followed through faith and learning, faith and culture can meet and illumine one another. Behind such an assertion lies the Lutheran insight that the finite can contain and express the infinite. Where this is seen to be true no area of legitimate human interest lies outside of the concern of the Christian believer.


A third conviction in our heritage insists that it is the nature of faith to seek understanding.

We gladly admit that faith has primacy where reason is concerned. Every man is a believer before he is a theologian or philosopher, and that not only chronologically but essentially. But to say that faith is primary is not to say that it is autonomous. Faith cannot live as if reason did not exist. It can be fully itself only where there exists a living and working relationship between itself and reason.

For one thing, faith must rely upon reason in order to bring its ideals, beliefs and practices into an ordered whole, which can be unreservedly accepted and consented to by the whole man, thereby giving direction to both thought and conduct.

Faith also must reflect upon itself and its world in order to make clear its grounds for belief. Faith does have its grounds. They may not be “proofs;” they may not be logically demonstrable. But unless faith can show itself to be meaningful, to make good sense, it cannot long endure.

It is imperative that faith, if it be living faith, raise questions about itself and face honestly the questions which others raise. In so doing faith exists in tension with unfaith and knows the agony of a Job delivered over to Satan to be tried by him. Here believing reason is put to its severest test. In conversation with the faithless world it meets its objections and its allure by dipping more deeply into its own resources. For faith does not establish its truth by uncritical reference to criteria outside itself but by a deepened awareness of its own adequacy in the face of every question which can be asked. If faith is to seek understanding it must involve itself in relevant conversation with the world on every possible level. This conversation is the essence of Christian education.

Note: This paper was archived in the Karl A. Olsson Presidential Papers, series 9/1/2/6a, box 11, Covenant Archives, Brandel Library, North Park University, Chicago. For further reading in this and similar topics in Covenant history, visit the online library of the Frisk Collection