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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 79–83 

P. E. Schellenberg: The Professor Who Became My Friend

Jacob A. Loewen

When I came to Tabor College as a student in 1945, I was a very sincere, but dogmatic, fundamentalist soul-winning evangelical. Two professors there seriously attracted my attention: S. L. Loewen, the biologist, and P. E. Schellenberg, the psychologist. I took as many classes as I could from both of them. S. L. grounded me firmly in the natural sciences, which I loved. P. E. became my mentor in the social sciences and the intricacies of the human psyche, matters which eventually I found to be extremely useful.

I realized that it was P. E., not his “pious” attackers, who was living and behaving as a genuine Christian.


When I was elected leader of the Christian Fellowship Association (CFA) on campus, I launched Tabor students on a soul-winning crusade just like the one I had been engaged in previously. This had been in British Columbia with the West Coast Children’s Mission, then operated by the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church. P. E., who was also president of the college, frequently called me in for conversations about CFA and its activities. Yet he never voiced any opposition against or disapproval of my strong fundamentalist soul-winning stance.

In spite of my religious dogmatism, I learned a lot about human nature and human psychology in my classes with P. E. There always were a few heresy-seeking older students in his classes who suspected {80} him of modernism or liberalism. P. E. suffered their insolent attacks with calm dignity. When an attack was particularly virulent, he would lean back in his chair, his suit jacket would partly slide off his right shoulder and he would reach for the bridge of his glasses, slowly sliding it back and forth on his nose. When the diatribe would finally subside, he would quietly field some penetrating question that would often lay bare the attacker’s shoddy reasoning.

I soon found myself in a troubling dilemma. Theoretically I was one with the fundamentalist attacker, but emotionally I found myself siding with P. E. Gradually and reluctantly I had to realize that of the two camps—the pious attackers and the supposedly worldly professor—it was the latter who was living and behaving as a genuine Christian.

The more I learned to know P. E., the more I had to respect him. If he had a weakness, it was the tendency to play “mirror” to his tormenters. By his gentle but subtle questioning he would lay bare the faulty reasoning and hypocrisy of those who were accusing him. Later I realized that he did this not only in class but also during meetings in which he participated, with some of the church’s leaders. Many of these leaders, however, did not take kindly to having their inconsistencies and hypocrisy exposed in this mirror.

Gradually P. E. introduced ever-greater realism into my thinking. I still did not abandon my fundamentalism or my mechanical soul-winning techniques, but again and again I was forced to examine my thinking and my actions, each time more critically.


When I was about to graduate (with highest honors), P. E. called me into his office once more and made me an offer: “If you will go directly to graduate school in the field of your choice, I will commit myself to find all the financial resources that you will need to graduate debt-free.” At that open challenge to my declared missionary intent, the fundamentalist soul-winner in me took over and I—using P. E.’s own mirror approach—piously asked: “Dr. Schellenberg, have you ever heard of something called ‘the call of God?’ ”

At that, P. E.’s coat began to slide off his right shoulder and his left hand pushed the bridge of his glasses back and forth on his nose. He gently but firmly responded, “Loewen, you’re alright! You had better go straight to the mission field!”

This I proceeded to do. There, the everyday unvarnished mission-field reality, coupled with the foundational realism I had received from P. E., finally forced me to recognize that my formulaic soul-winning (a {81} la “Four Spiritual Laws”) was not God’s design for my Christian witness. I recognized that my legalistic treatment of people who drank or were promiscuous did not match Jesus’ caring example. Many of these life-changing mission-field experiences have been detailed in a book recounting my spiritual pilgrimage (Educating Tiger).


My frustrations with the intricacies of culture and the subtle difficulties of communicating a relevant message cross-culturally ultimately drove me to graduate school on our first furlough. When I graduated, the mission board felt it had no assignment for a person with a Ph.D. on the mission field. As a result, I unexpectedly ended up teaching back at Tabor College.

When I returned to the college as a professor, P. E. was rapidly becoming a distant historical memory. In the twelve intervening years some of his former students, now with leadership roles in the church, had ganged up on him and had railroaded him out of the college and the MB church as a liberal. He was now teaching at neighboring Bethel College where he often became the object of rather degrading inter-Mennonite derision.

Teaching at Tabor, I soon found myself in a series of unsettling personal crises involving self-image and various spiritual matters. Yet P. E. had done his foundational work well, for I realized more and more just how complex a phenomenon my human psyche was.


To appreciate another valuable contribution which P. E. made to my life requires some preliminary explanation. When a group of psychiatrists from nearby Prairie View Hospital invited me, as an anthropological specialist, to join their team in a community effort to help ministers, I jumped at the opportunity. These psychiatrists wanted to enlighten “psychologically naive” ministers in the intricacies of the human psyche. While ministers may be specialists in force-feeding their parishioners, they very quickly developed psychological indigestion under the equally force-fed psychiatry to which they became subjected by this group. The organizers of the effort were compelled to find a new batch of ministers every week or two when those who had been there previously would not return.

I soon realized that my invitation to participate had been motived more by my being “a benighted minister” than by my training as an anthropologist. The psychiatrists needed a willing ministerial guinea pig, and since I desperately wanted to better understand my own psyche, I volunteered to be such. Each week I subjected myself to analysis so that {82} the other ministers present could listen in on the process. At every session I tried to be transparent about my inner struggles and conflicts as well as my victories as a husband, a father, a professor, and a father-confessor to hurting students.

P. E. enters this story as one of the panelists who conducted the psychological analysis. On the whole I found him uncharacteristically silent yet definitely not disinterested. I instinctively felt I could trust him as I bared my soul before this august psychiatric sanhedrin.

Some sessions turned out to be extremely painful for me, the psychological analysis more like plucking. Once when I was explaining how I discerned personal direction for individuals who came to me for help, the psychiatrists unanimously affirmed, “That was no ‘Spirit of God’ speaking to you! That was just straight forward free association in your own psyche!” Or, “That wasn’t God speaking to you at night, that was letting something from the unconscious rise into your consciousness!”

I must confess that, at first, these spontaneous but perfectly reasonable psychiatric interpretations shook me to the core. On further reflection, however, I realized that I was a normal human being. I had been created in a certain way and functioned on the basis of certain rather universal psychological mechanisms that were part and parcel of our inventory as human beings. I further realized that the only channels God could use to communicate with me in my life were those with which I had been naturally endowed as a human being. As I realized this more fully, I began to breathe easier. I was beginning to understand the mechanisms which God was using to communicate with me in my inner being. His Spirit was communicating with my spirit (Rom. 8:16). Nevertheless, the probing treatment continued.


Once I was sharing a recently discovered insight into true and false guilt (ideas I later also found in Paul Tournier’s Guilt and Grace), only to find myself being virulently attacked from all sides by some rather indignant panelists. “There is no such a thing as true guilt!” they vehemently affirmed. “All guilt is loaded onto weak souls by society, and especially by the church!” Just when I wondered whether I would be completely undone in my psychological nudity, P. E., the mirror, suddenly pulled the psychiatrists up short.

“Now wait a minute, gentlemen!” he interrupted. “Can you all honestly affirm that you have never met true guilt in your practice? Have you never had a patient whose superego you had whittled down patiently and whom you then discharged as guilt-free, who then came back after a few years {83} overwhelmed by guilt? And not a socially-induced superego guilt, but a genuine guilt induced by violations of that person’s very own values?”

There followed a long and rather painful silence. Suddenly a young psychiatrist, the son of a well-known MB minister, spoke out. “Gentlemen,” he confessed, “this time I am going to have to take my stand with Schellenberg and Loewen! I went into psychiatry because I felt that my father was doing a lousy job forgiving people’s sins. I was determined to do a better job! For four years I whittled down overgrown superegos and in due time sent home guilt-free patients. I was understandably proud of my good work. But after four years, a number of my early patients returned more guilty than ever. When I examined them, I realized what Schellenberg has just said. These people were coming back with real guilt. They had violated some of their very own internalized values and needed more than psychiatric forgiveness. Gentlemen, we must admit that we can only forgive socially-induced false guilt. We often are helpless in the face of true guilt!”

With that rescue I was overwhelmed with gratitude toward P. E. I felt a need to speak with him at length and, after the session, asked him to join me for an evening meal. These evening meals after sessions became a fairly regular institution and through them P. E. became a genuine friend.


Before long, however, I realized that I had gained a friend who was hurting badly. He was still suffering under the patently false accusations of some of his former students. He longed to return to the church which he considered to be his spiritual home: the Mennonite Brethren. He voiced two deep-seated wishes: that certain of his former students would come and make amends for some of their unfounded allegations, and that the MB church leadership would welcome him back into a position of responsibility in the church community.

I tried to follow up on these wishes but failed on both counts. None of the implicated former students had the courage to meet P. E. face to face, and the church hierarchy would not act until they did. Many in church leadership were still wary of P. E. as a mirror!


  • Loewen, Jacob A. Educating Tiger: My Spiritual and Intellectual Journey. Hillsboro, KS: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, forthcoming.
  • Tournier, Paul. Guilt and Grace: A Psychological Study. New York: Harper and Row, 1962 [1958].
Jacob A. Loewen served as a Mennonite Brethren missionary in Colombia from 1947 through 1957, taught at Tabor College from 1959 through 1964, and was a translation consultant with the United Bible Societies from 1964 until his retirement in 1984. He is currently engaged in research and writing at his home in British Columbia.

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