Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw

Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw’s new book, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper, was released yesterday afternoon. 

In honor of the happy occasion, here’s an excerpt from the book, in which Mouw describes one aspect of Abraham Kuyper’s thought that he feels is exceptionally useful for Christians as they contemplate the right relationship between faith and public life. 

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There are some [basic ideas of Abraham Kuyper], of course, that do not need significant updating, especially the foundational redemption-as-restoration theme that led Kuyper to focus on providing guidance for Christians in their everyday cultural involvement to a degree matched by few other theologians. This focus, in turn, emerged from a markedly different theological impulse than we find in those Christian thinkers today who depict the workings of present-day culture primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of fallenness. Here is a story that illustrates my own appropriation of the Kuyperian impulse.

During the 1970s, I attended a gathering of folks who were focusing on “radical discipleship,” and one of the speakers kept describing the United States as given over to “the way of death.” His primary example, of course, was the war being waged in Vietnam, which we all agreed needed to be opposed. He formulated his case theologically by citing William Stringfellow’s argument, quite popular at the time, that the United States was the present-day manifestation of the biblical portrayal of fallen Babylon. As I listened, I was struck by the gap between this unqualified rhetorical depiction of the American political system as given over to death dealing and my own experience that very week of accompanying our son on his way to school. He had just started kindergarten, and his daily walk to school followed a path through many blocks in the inner city. As I took the journey with him, I was especially aware, as a parent concerned for the safety of our son, of the places where there were traffic lights and stop signs. Approaching the school, I overheard two teachers mention a fire-safety inspection that the city had conducted the day before. Later, as I drove during the noon hour to the campus where I was teaching, I passed another school where a uniformed crossing guard was taking children by the hand to lead them across the street.

These phenomena all struck me as life-promoting services provided by the government, for which I as a parent was deeply grateful. In the light of those services, the unqualified rhetorical depiction of “the American system” as given over to “a way of death” struck me as rooted in, among things, a theological myopia. My uneasiness with that kind of perspective was grounded in what I am presenting here as a very basic Kuyperian impulse.

The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship

The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship

The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder once captured the impulse quite nicely when, during one of our public Anabaptist-Calvinist debates in the 1970s, someone in the audience asked him if he could put in simple terms what he saw as the basic issue of disagreement between his views and mine. Here is how he answered: on questions of culture, he observed, “Mouw wants to say, ‘Fallen, but created,’ and I want to say, ‘Created, but fallen.’”

That was a helpful way of putting the differences, including the element of ambivalence in each case. We Kuyperians do pay considerable attention to fallenness — at least we ought to — but our basic Kuyperian impulse is to look for signs that God has not given up, even in the midst of a fallen world, on restoring the purposes that were at work in God’s initial creating activity. This calls for Christians, then, actively to work together as agents of this restorative program that encompasses the whole range of cultural involvement. Indeed, it is no rare thing in those circles where Kuyper’s name is still revered, for laypeople to credit Kuyper’s influence in their understanding of what it means to serve the Lord in the insurance business or journalism, or as a state legislator or in the teaching of English literature. Even when these folks may not know much about the technical details of Kuyper’s theological system, they are quick to quote at least some version of his bold manifesto, set forth toward the end of his inaugural address at the founding of the Vrije Universiteit: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

But what about the other impulse, the one expressed by Yoder’s created-but-fallen emphasis? As articulated more recently by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in their influential book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, this impulse means that while this is still in some profound sense “our Father’s world,” our collective fallenness has nonetheless so pervaded the original creation that there is no clear basis for looking outside of the church for signs of God’s restorative activity. For Hauerwas and Willimon, the Way of Jesus embodies economic, political, and social norms that are so antithetical to the patterns of collective life in the larger human culture that Christians are required, in effect, to create an alternative “public,” embodied within the life of the Christian community. They even wonder whether Christians can legitimately use terms like “justice” and “peace” in addressing issues of public policy, since that assumes that Christians share a common core of meaning with non-Christians in using that kind of language. Because only the biblical witness to Jesus’ ministry “gives content to our faith,” they argue, it is questionable whether such terms can have meaning “apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.”

But here too there is an element of ambivalence. Hauerwas has actually been taken to task by people who have drawn inspiration from his writings but who worry about what they see as a lack of consistency in his formulations. The philosopher Robert Brimlow has been particularly outspoken on this. He complains that while “the vast majority of Hauerwas’s formulations are correct and contain blessed insights,” Hauerwas seems inclined to take away with one hand what he has offered in the other, as when he insists that he has “no interest in legitimating and/or recommending a withdrawal of Christians or the Church from social or political affairs. I simply want them to be there as Christians and as Church.” This is a concession that Brimlow labels “ridiculous,” given what he admires as the main thrust of Hauerwas’s theological ethics.

While I see Hauerwas’s ambivalence as a healthy groping for the kind of larger vision that Kuyper’s perspective in fact provides, I can also express a qualified Kuyperian appreciation for a rigorous opposition to the dominant patterns of present-day culture. The firm Anabaptist-type “Nein!” is mindful of some very dangerous collective tendencies in our fallen world, pointing us to times in human history when those tendencies ran wild. This is evident, for example, in the “post-Christendom” and “post-Constantinian” rhetoric that has become quite popular these days, which has certainly made us aware of the ways in which the church-state and church-culture arrangements of the past often promoted a perverse merging of civic and Christian identity that led the believing community into sinful cultural compromises. The users of this rhetoric also rightly point us to the horrors of the Nazi terror, a time when established churches openly cooperated with programs of unspeakable evil. And in reminding us of these historical examples, they also rightly celebrate those followers of Jesus Christ who in those circumstances were willing to risk all to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4). These are crucial lessons that we ignore at our eternal peril.

But we also run spiritual risks if we fail to align ourselves with God’s positive purposes in the world. No theologian, for example, has done more in recent years to urge us to take seriously our “post-Christendom” missional location than the late Lesslie Newbigin. Yet Newbigin also calls for care in assessing the errors of Constantinianism. “Much has been written,” he notes, “about the harm done to the cause of the gospel when Constantine accepted baptism, and it is not difficult to expatiate on this theme”; there is no question, says Newbigin, that the church has regularly fallen “into the temptation of worldly power.” But should we conclude from this that the proper alternative was for the church simply to “have . . . washed its hands of responsibility for the political order?” Do we really think, Newbigin asks, that the cause of the gospel would have been better served “if the church had refused all political responsibility, if there had never been a ‘Christian’ Europe?” The fact is, he observes, that the Constantinian project had its origins in a creative response to a significant cultural challenge. There was in Constantine’s day, he says, a spiritual crisis in the larger culture, and people “turned to the church as the one society that could hold a disintegrating world together.” And for all the mistakes that were made along the way, it was nonetheless a good thing that the church actively took up this challenge.

Click here to order The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship, by Richard J. Mouw.