Theology at St. Olaf in need of diversification

The debate on the Biblical and Theological Studies – Bible (BTS-B) and Biblical and Theological Studies – Theology (BTS-T) General Education (GE) requirement is not new, but it is always lively.

As a Lutheran-affliated college, St. Olaf requires its students to enroll in two courses where they “study major biblical texts and their interaction with theology, religious practice, ethics and social values [in order to] understand the essential content of Christian belief in a critical and coherent manner.”

These courses used to be appropriate when the majority of St. Olaf students were descendents of Norwegian immigrants and practicing Lutherans. However, as the world becomes more pluralistic and St. Olaf diversifies its community of faculty, staff and students, the college faces a problem: Are the BTS-B and BTS-T requirements still relevant to a liberal arts education and reflective of St. Olaf’s diversity?

It is necessary to clarify that BTS-B and BTS-T requirements are not problematic themselves. In fact, they can be a valuable academic experience for many students, both religious and secular. The goal has never been to convert students, but to foster an intellectual and critical environment where diverse views are accepted through the efforts of the college administration and religion professors. Yet Christianity as the principal focus of the theology requirements is a problem.

When reflecting on St. Olaf’s history, Christianity has shaped the college in more ways than just hosting a daily chapel service or a Bible reading. Lutheran values have shaped St. Olaf’s education philosophy as well.

A former professor of Lutheran studies at Gustavus Adolphus College Darrell Jodock argues that there is a unique relationship between Lutheran studies and a liberal arts education. Jodock believes that Lutheran tradition “serves the community … [encourages] academic excellence … and honors freedom of inquiry.”

Rather than obstructing academic curiosity or isolating non-religious people, Lutheranism has encouraged an open and welcoming environment at St. Olaf.

I admit that the Lutheran philosophy, with its emphasis in liberal learning and vocation for community, is valuable. However, I don’t believe that students must read the Bible to benefit from a liberal arts education. One might say that Luther originally recommended reading the Scripture as a way for Christians to exercise their freedom. However, on a newly diverse campus, a sole focus on Christian scripture is no longer appropriate. Others might say that a large part of the student body is still Christian; therefore, it is best to keep the current BTS-B and BTS-T requirements. I would respond by arguing that the freedom to study whatever religion you want is important, even if the students choose Christian theology. As much as Christianity benefits us intellectually and spiritually, other religions have many valuable tenets as well. The opportunity to study other religions should not only be given to religion majors.

The Christian emphasis of the theology requirements can be attributed to St. Olaf’s identity as a Lutheran college. These courses exist partly to remind students of the college’s history. It would be regrettable for St. Olaf to lose sight of its Lutheran heritage. Without these requirements, is St. Olaf still St. Olaf? I believe that the college can still maintain its Lutheran identity as long as it educates its students of the founding principles of the college and adjusts to its more diverse community by defining “Lutheran” in a broader sense, as a liberal spirit and service for the community. This adjustment can be made by the diversification of the religion GE requirements.

My Khe Nguyen ’19 ( is from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. She majors in political science.