Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Seminary and author of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction. In these two short excerpts from that book, Mouw explains when and how he became a “Kuyperian” — and why he believes so strongly that Kuyper’s voice still needs to be heard today.
The Lure of Kuyper
I encountered Kuyper as a formative influence during the last half of the 1960s. It wasn’t that he had been a total stranger prior to that period in my life; I had actually read one of his long theological treatises, Principles of Sacred Theology, when it was an assigned textbook in a seminary course that I had taken earlier in the decade. Yet only when I turned to Kuyper’s writings about issues of public life did I find exactly what I urgently needed.
In the late 1960s I found myself immersed in the turmoil of secular university campus life. It precipitated a crisis of faith for me, as I wrestled much with how I as a Christian should be dealing with some of the big issues being debated in American public life. This was the time of the civil rights movement and the bitter debates about the legitimacy of the war in Vietnam. I felt ill-prepared for these challenges as an evangelical Christian. I had been raised in the kind of evangelical environment where the life of the mind was not held in high regard.
We were suspicious of “worldly learning.” I had made my way out of that kind of anti-intellectualism, but I still was not sure where to look for help in finding an alternative to the “other-worldly” mentality of my younger years. I had been told often that getting involved in “social action” was not the kind of thing God wanted from us. One of the favorite lines I heard from preachers as a kid was that trying to improve things here on earth is like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. The attitude we were to have toward “this world” was summed up nicely in a song we often sang:
This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Eager to distance myself from that mentality—especially given the pressures of the activist sixties — I explored other theological alternatives. But it was a frustrating time for me spiritually and theologically. I was not attracted to a liberal “social gospel” approach. And while the social teachings of the Catholic tradition made some sense to me, I was not ready to travel the road to Rome.
It was during this time that I came upon Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, the Stone Lectures that he had delivered at Princeton Seminary during his 1898 visit to the United States. In Kuyper’s robust Calvinism I discovered what I had been looking for: a vision of active involvement in public life that would allow me to steer my way between a privatized evangelicalism on the one hand and the liberal Protestant or Catholic approaches to public discipleship on the other hand. I have attempted to walk in this way ever since.
. . .
An Important Voice
I have written this short and personal introduction to Kuyper because I am convinced his voice continues to speak in important ways. He certainly can be a big help to evangelical Protestants in the United States. During one of the public debates over potential justices for the United States Supreme Court, a political journalist observed that evangelical Protestants regularly make a lot of noise about such matters, but when conservative candidates come to the fore, they are typically Roman Catholics. The pundit remarked that this was a sign that evangelical Protestantism, in contrast to Catholicism, lacks “intellectual heft.”
That journalist had it pretty much right when it comes to theological perspectives on questions of public policy. Evangelicals have been a prominent presence in public life in recent years, but we have not been known for having a coherent theological-philosophical perspective on our efforts to influence the policies and practices of the larger society. Kuyper can be an important guide in this regard. As we will see, there is plenty in Kuyper that needs updating and even serious correcting. Yet almost a century after his passing, he still has some vital insights to offer about Christian cultural and political discipleship.