Sinning Boldly on Campus
Rethinking the Role of the Christian Faith in the
Colleges and Universities of the Church
Mark D. Tranvik

Most readers probably think there is enough bold sinning on our college campuses. But I would like to move away from conventional notions of sin and talk about the tendency of mainline schools of higher learning to “lower the volume” when speaking of their Christian convictions.

As a way of framing the discussion, I would like to go back to Germany in the tumultuous year of 1521. It is August. Martin Luther has been excommunicated, and he is holed up in the Wartburg Castle. Meanwhile, back at Wittenberg, the home base of the Lutheran movement, changes were rapidly taking place. Luther’s junior colleague, Philip Melanchthon, was nominally in charge. The situation was chaotic. Monks and nuns were leaving their monasteries and cloisters. Priests were rejecting their vows of celibacy and seeking permission to marry.

Melanchthon is not faring well in the role of the beleaguered administrator. Deeply unsettled, perhaps even in some panic, he writes to Luther asking for advice. Luther responds by commending Philip for some of the changes that have been made and gives him advice about how to proceed in other areas. But, toward the end of the letter, Luther gives Melanchthon some counsel that might be worth pondering today. Sensing his friend’s hesitant and cautious manner (and we should keep in mind that Melanchthon is only twenty-four years old), he admonishes him with the following words:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world. (Luther’s Works, 48: 282)

“Be a sinner and sin boldly…” How these words of Luther have been used—mainly against him—down through the centuries. But there might be something in his response that is relevant to those of us charged with figuring out the role of the church in our colleges and universities. While I am reluctant to draw too many parallels between sixteenth century Wittenberg and our situation today, we do share the experience of rapid and bewildering change. Old assumptions are now questioned while new voices clamor for attention. The way forward is not always clear, but most know that defense of the status quo is not an option.

I will begin by outlining our context—the state of things in mainline higher education (our “Wittenberg” if you will) and then suggest how we might “sin boldly” and lead our schools in a manner that is at once faithful to the Christian tradition and sensitive to the needs of our world.

So what does “Wittenberg” look like? Let’s begin with our students. Some think the heartland is different from either of the coasts, but I am no longer so sure about this assumption. My evidence is anecdotal but perhaps telling. I recently taught a religion course at my Midwestern Lutheran college (Augsburg in Minneapolis) that had twenty students. Two identified themselves as Lutherans, four were Roman Catholics, two were Jewish, and one was a Muslim. The other eleven simply weren’t sure.

Religious differences aside, most of them have absorbed the ethos of a culture that, as Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart) stated over twenty years ago, celebrates individualism at the expense of the common good. As many have noted, when that ethos is translated into the world of work, employment is seen primarily as a means of private advancement rather than public contribution.

For our students, this results in an “instrumental” understanding of education. The joy of learning is secondary. Rather, education is a means to another end. The focus, reinforced by parental pressure (and everyone else), is on getting a job. And not just any job, but one that pays well. For being well-compensated allows one access to the goods and services that the market is eager to have us consume. Teachers and administrators need to be careful about being too critical of this model. It is fashionable for academics to sneer at the middle class, but we sure are quick to take their money. After all, the ranks of our student bodies are swollen with suburbanites, many of them quite affluent.

The overall issue is not that we should be disappointed because our students use their degrees to become gainfully employed. Preparation for the world of work should be a focus for our colleges and universities. The issue is the way this instrumental view of education tends to limit horizons. A good education opens up a whole new way of thinking about yourself and your world. It involves an expansion of the questions you are likely to ask as you pursue a degree. Beyond the focus on self (How much can I earn? Where can I gain power and status quickly?)—a larger picture and much bigger questions come into view: Who am I? Why am I here? What are the needs of my world? How does God fit into how I see myself and my world?

Predictably enough, our institutions tend to be very responsive to the instrumental view of education. In some cases, students are labeled as “consumers,” and curriculums and degree programs are arranged accordingly. Instead of being driven by a sense of mission grounded in the heritage of the school, market forces and the desires of the student-customer dictate the allocation of resources for teaching and learning. Our colleges and universities are vulnerable to this way of thinking because of their fragmentation and lack of focus. This story has been told elsewhere and with much more skill and detail than is possible here. Over fifty years ago, University of California chancellor Clark Kerr (1963) described the rise of the “multiversity” and its myriad of programs designed to be attractive to the student-consumer and grant-awarding institutions and foundations. The “multiversity” stands in contrast to the “university” and its suggestion that there are “universals” or over-arching principles guiding the purpose of the school. When such universals are jettisoned (and few would deny the marked secularization of the academy in the past two centuries), pragmatic concerns overwhelm the agenda. Proponents of the liberal arts kick and scream, but they are regularly reminded that their majors do not keep the lights on or pay the salaries.

One great irony should be noted as well. While students do tend to see their education in an instrumental way, they are more receptive than ever to the big questions. Sharon Daloz Parks (2000) makes a persuasive case that the student of today cares deeply about “ultimate concerns.” This is often not expressed in terms of traditional religious concepts, though the growth of conservative and evangelical schools should not be ignored. In a way quite different from often recent generations, today’s students are asking questions about the meaning and purpose of life. When I was in college, I tended toward a state of reaction against my religious upbringing. In a sense, my religion defined me, albeit it a negative way. But many of our students today have no religious background, and they are searching for something to fill the void. They are receptive to religious claims and arguments, though they tend to be skeptical of institutional religion. The result can be described in a metaphor drawn from that classic American institution, the auto industry. As administrators and teachers, we find ourselves on the showroom floor of higher education, proudly displaying the latest models. The customer is listening politely to our pitch and saying to us: “I like what you have… but isn’t there something more?”

This “snapshot” of our Wittenberg is, at best, a synopsis of the situation that probably does not do full justice to some of the complexities facing administrations and faculties in our individual schools. But I don’t think it is a straw man either. My thirteen years experience teaching in a Lutheran college, coupled with a review of the extensive literature produced in the past twenty years, tells me that I am at least within sight of the truth. So what might it mean in our time to “sin boldly”? It is to that question we now turn.

First of all, when it comes to our religious heritage we must stop letting ourselves be defined by what we are not. As many recognize, the national media is clumsy, at best, in its attempts to cover religion. Coverage of Christianity tends toward stereotypes and is dominated by American Evangelicalism and the American Roman Catholic Church. Conservative Protestantism, which is a quite complex phenomenon, is often pictured as closely aligned with Republican politics and as a rather rigid, well-defined moral code. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to be seen as either perpetually entangled in scandal or struggling with Rome for breathing space. The result is that large segments of the American public associates religion with the alien imposition of authority. It is assumed that a “religious” school is dominated by a host of narrow-minded prohibitions which inevitably results in the curtailment of free and open discussion.

Higher education in many mainline colleges and universities has tended to respond accordingly by soft-pedaling its religious heritage. Distinctiveness is downplayed; generic values are lifted up. We embrace questions. We welcome a wide range of spiritual expressions. We will help you develop your talents and abilities so that you can find meaningful work. We aspire to be a place of “spiritual discernment.” All of this is laudable. How could you be against any of it? But it is so banal, boring, and, above all, careful. It might have been lifted from the documents of many of our institutions or… the mission statement of any public community college. Because we want the world to know that we are not Oral Roberts or Brigham Young or Liberty University, we unwittingly have allowed these institutions to define the parameters of the discussion.

Second, we need to find creative ways within our institutions to express positively what it means to affirm the Christian faith. Leadership in this area has typically been assumed by presidents, deans, and religion departments. But in the last generation the roles of each have become increasingly complicated. Few administrators or academics in our colleges are interested in simply abandoning the Christianity. Many profess a profound belief in the Christian faith. But the need to respond to a plethora of voices pleading for “equal time” as well as the demands of a pluralistic culture often lead to a blunting of distinctive Christian claims. It is better to be wide than deep, some would say. Ironically, this may have the unintended consequence of obscuring the generosity and hospitality that flow from a deep engagement with the Christian tradition. Maybe it would be better to say that the deeper one goes in the Christian faith the wider it becomes. But it is difficult to reverse the direction. The simple reality is that distinctive Christian voices are increasingly hard to hear in mainline colleges and universities.

But there might be a different way of proceeding. Within our institutions, many of us have voices from our pasts that reflect a profound and generous view of the Christian faith. Our task is to revisit the legacies of some of these saints and mine their words for insights on how to proceed today. And then we must create forums within our institutions to ensure that these voices can be heard in fresh and new ways.

As an example, I would like to lift up a “saint” from my school who is not well known outside of this community. Bernhard M. Christensen served as president of Augsburg College from 1938–1962. He was one of the “hinge” figures in the history of the school as it moved from being a parochial college of a small Lutheran denomination (the Lutheran Free Church) to an accredited institution of higher learning. Christensen did not leave an extensive list of publications. But he did write several books, the best known of which is perhaps The Inward Pilgrimage: Spiritual Classics From Augustine to Bonheoffer (1976), and he also preached extensively during his tenure as president. Moreover, there are many alive who remember him well (he died in 1984). A number of us at the college have been working to recover Christensen’s heritage so that it can help the school chart a course for the future. (Phil Quanbeck I, Phil Quanbeck II, and David Tiede have been especially helpful in shaping the Christensen tradition for the twenty-first century.) This work has resulted in five themes that will animate a recently established Augsburg Center for Faith and Learning, the creation of which was greatly aided by two Lilly Endowment grants intended to encourage the integration of a theological understanding of vocation into the life of the college.

All five of these animating themes exhibit concerns that were central for Christensen. While they reflect his Lutheran commitments, the themes are broadly ecumenical. The themes should be understood symphonically; they overlap and mutually reinforce each other. Later themes are foreshadowed in early ones, and ideas discussed first may also support claims discussed later on.

1. The Christian Faith Liberates Minds and Lives

At the heart of our theological proposal is the notion that we are made right with God by grace through faith. Our good works or efforts do not merit God’s love or favor. Human activity is for the sake of the neighbor and this world. These are the only constraints—the well-being of the neighbor and the stewardship of creation. God’s love in Christ liberates us to use our minds in service to God’s world. Our expression of this freedom can take an endless variety of forms. It might entail exploring new theories in the physics or chemistry lab. It might mean writing an edgy play that challenges deeply held cultural norms. Or perhaps it will uphold norms now considered “old-fashioned” or “quaint” by a culture that is reluctant to place any restrictions on the desires of the self. It may entail a critical study of the Scriptures that attempts to locate a particular text within its social world and thereby enable a fresh interpretation. It rejects the notion of Christianity as a confining and limiting faith, something that is inherently conservative and forever guarding its flanks.

2. Diversity Is a Community Calling

In exploring this theme, I am relying on the work of Richard Hughes’s The Vocation of Christian Scholar (2005). This book is a thoughtful exposition on the relationship between faith and learning. The flip side of saying that we are saved by grace is the claim that we cannot save ourselves. While we are made in the image of God, we are also extraordinarily limited. As Hughes notes, our viewpoints are constrained by language, location, and history. Moreover, greed and self-interest infect all of our attempts to comprehend the world. Given our limited perceptions, Hughes asks: “Who are we to assume that other human beings from other cultures, from other periods in human history, from other political persuasions and religions may not have perceptions and understandings as fully valid as our own?” (122). He then makes this engaging and controversial claim: “This is precisely why I argue that church-related education is most deeply Christian when it reflects a radical commitment to diversity, pluralism, and genuine academic freedom and grounds that commitment in a Christian view of reality” (123).

3. Inter-faith Friendships Enrich Learning

When it comes to inter-faith relationships, the present models are not very helpful. Some Christians assume that they possess the truth and sharing their faith simply means “delivering” this truth to those who do not embrace it. The danger of condescension is great. Others tend to regard the differences between religions as insignificant. Matters of truth are really not at stake, since we agree there is a God and everyone is free to worship God in their own way.

However, there might be another way of proceeding that avoids the pitfalls of arrogance and indifference. Bernhard Christensen had a deep respect for other religions, especially their spiritual traditions. Living in a time when the lines tended to be drawn more firmly, he displayed a breath-taking ability to make friends with people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds.

The operative word is “friendship.” Missiologist Roland Miller contends that the best way to understand another religion is not by simply knowing its history, theology, and practices but through actual friendships. He acknowledges the need to honor the “facts” of another religion. But to move beyond stereotypes we need to cultivate friendships (13–21). In other words, what if our campuses were places where we brought together people of different faiths not just for “dialogue” (a term that is overly intellectual and somewhat safe) but in order to cultivate friendship?

4. The Love of Christ Draws Us to God

There are many things implied by this theme. Christensen’s sermons evidence a strong rejection of all achievement-based religion. One of the dangers in an educational community is to think that our knowledge brings us closer to God. Members of academic communities are tempted to think that their degrees, grades, books, and papers are of ultimate significance. This theme reminds us that our identities are fundamentally not derived from what we know. We do not create who we are; we are created in the image of our Creator.

Furthermore, American forms of Christianity often have been highly experiential. In other words, they emphasize the emotional and subjective side of faith, often to the point where people believe they are saved by their feelings or inner experiences. This theme avoids denigrating the importance of experiencing the Christian faith, but it does seek to ground that experience in the prior love of God in Christ.

5. Our Vocations Move Us into God’s World

Christensen was deeply grounded in the Lutheran tradition and spoke regularly of seeing education within the context of vocation. We need to invite our students to move beyond the one-dimensional kind of thinking that sees education as job-training and employment as a means to personal fulfillment. Our goal is to invite them into a three-dimensional realm where they see themselves called by God and sent into the world to serve the neighbor and be stewards of creation. In a one-dimensional sphere, the self and its desires set the agenda. But in this three-dimensional realm, the self is now centered by two key relationships. First, it recognizes that it has certain gifts and abilities given by the Creator. And second, it now asks about the needs of the neighbor and the world to help determine how those gifts should best be used.

Some may be wondering how the Augsburg Center for Faith and Learning (ACFL) would operate within the college as a whole. A few examples might be helpful. Reflecting the concerns of the Christensen heritage, the ACFL might fund faculty research that deepens our understanding of Christian love or reveals new dimensions of the Muslim immigrant experience in America. Or perhaps it will sponsor a school-wide forum on the meaning of academic freedom in a college of the church. The ACFL might support student projects that investigate what it means to be an environmentalist and a Christian. Or it may host a faculty-staff book study on a controversial topic that has proven to be religiously divisive. It could also invite the local congressional candidates to a symposium to talk about how their faith informs their political views. The possibilities are endless, but the goal is to remind the academic community continually that matters of faith and vocation belong at the heart of the school’s agenda. These cannot be merely “private” concerns relegated to the interior life. Nor are they merely the concerns of campus ministry or the religion department.

I began by having you travel back to sixteenth century Wittenberg. Luther was absent, locked up in the Wartburg Castle. The leader of the fledgling Lutheran movement in the city, the brilliant but inexperienced Philip Melanchthon, anguished about how the Reformation ought to proceed. Luther counseled him to “sin boldly” but if you recall, he did not only say that. He also told Philip “to believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world” (LW 48:282).

I suggest that this is good advice for those charting the course of higher education in the colleges and universities of the church in the twenty-first century. Move boldly and with courage. Put a brake on the “institutional backpedaling” that seems to consume so much energy in our places of higher learning. Moreover, begin to see the tradition as a resource that can liberate and empower lives to make a difference in the world. Lift up one of your saints and construct some type of platform so that his or her voice can be heard in our time. Of course, there will be mistakes and missteps. But don’t let that lead you to play it safe. For you are grounded in a deeper hope and you are guided by the One who showed mercy to sinners and radiated a love that refused to be limited by cultural conventions and boundaries.


Mark D. Tranvik is Associate Professor of Religion at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.



Bellah, Robert. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1996.

Christensen, Bernhard M. The Inward Pilgrimage: Spiritual Classics From Augustine to Bonheoffer. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976.

Hughes, Richard. The Vocation of a Christian Scholar, rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1963.

Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols. Eds. Pelikan and Lehmann. St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955.

Miller, Roland S. Muslim Friends: Their Faith and Feeling. St. Louis: Concordia, 1995.

Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. San Francisco: Jossy-Bass, 2000.

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