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At the Same Party: A Tribute to a Friend

By July 1, 2013 No Comments

Jon Pott

I’m pretty sure that I met Rich Mouw at a party, probably in the late 60s, not long after he had joined the Calvin College philosophy department and I had landed at Eerdmans Publishing. For me, and no doubt for others, he came out of nowhere. Who was this noisy, seemingly unpedigreed character who had had no earlier association with Calvin (or even with the Free University of Amsterdam)? Unprecedented in the philosophy department at the time. The name was Dutch, but not much else fit. Not even—as it emerged—his background in the Reformed Church in America and at Western Theological Seminary quite credentialed him in the Calvin provincialism of the day. The ultimate irony, of course, is that this “outsider” became—or was already at the outset more than we recognized—the consummate “insider,” able to tell you more about Calvin’s history and the intellectual history of the Christian Reformed Church than almost anyone else alive—certainly more than one might have predicted of a graduate of Houghton College. Try him out sometime on Herman Hoeksema or on the tribulations of the Janssen case at Calvin Seminary. Still, he has remained the outsider, too, moored to the Dutch Reformed tradition but also to his more evangelical past. And these twin moorings, sometimes pulling him in one direction and sometimes in the other, have given him his distinctive position in the Christian intellectual world and have made him a particular gift to the Eerdmans publishing program. The party to which I referred would have been a gathering of an amorphous and idealistic (also, no doubt, self-romanticizing) little group of Calvin faculty and Eerdmans staff (joined perhaps by a Calvin grad or two working elsewhere) who tended to be, comparatively speaking, on the left side of the theological spectrum (a few were on their way out of the faith) and who shared a passionate commitment to cultural affairs, especially social and political. One or two had marched on Selma, Alabama; everybody would have railed against the war in Vietnam and the ’68 Democratic Convention—and a good many would show up in the pages of the Reformed Journal.

It was probably through the Journal that I first encountered Rich’s writing, which began there at least by 1969 (and he rather quickly joined the RJ editors). Still, it is the early books, rather than the Journal pieces, that I recall most clearly, owing to the more imposing nature of books but also to the fact that those books were so central to the company ethos and mission at the time, joining other books, like Art Gish’s The New Left and Christian Radicalism, on the evangelical left. When I read now the current summons from evangelical precincts to take the cultural, social, and political mission of the church to heart, as though this were a new clarion call, I often want to turn heads gently backwards and point to what Rich Mouw and Nick Wolterstorff and Lew Smedes—not to mention kindred spirits like Jim Wallis and John Howard Yoder—were saying some forty years ago. I also recall one of Rich’s early books—likely Political Evangelism, his very first—as being the occasion for a little office fun. To fuel the excitement of our ambitious young author, my colleague Marlin Van Elderen and I concocted and sent over to him cover copy for a phony Swedish edition of his book with a Swedish translation of his title—we could handle that much—positioned atop some bogus, Swedish-looking description of the contents. We may even have composed a gibberish blurb or two from the likes of Anders Nygren. Our author was suitably impressed, and Political Evangelism, I’m happy to add, did eventually make it into Swedish.

It is interesting to see, looking back at the early work, how selfconsciously evangelical Rich was even in those formative Calvin days, overtly identifying himself as an evangelical, as others in the Calvin community and on the Journal editorial board at the time would not, and directly addressing evangelical issues and personages. Not that he wasn’t sometimes critical of fellow evangelicals. In 1970 he wrote a Journal editorial criticizing Billy Graham for appearing with Bob Hope at an “Honor America” celebration. But ten years earlier, the Journal, ref lecting Christian Reformed mores, had run a piece entitled “The Billy Graham Crusades—Shall We Participate?” The answer was a guarded yes, but the question was one it would never have occurred to Rich to ask. Whatever the importance of the theological framework the Reformed tradition gave him by which to address his “concerns over social justice, racism, and militarism,” as he says in Political Evangelism—and notice the noun “evangelism”—the Reformed scholar has never strayed far from the sawdust trail. Even his academic lectures rarely fail to end as a revivalist summons to the cross, to the apocalyptic visions of Isaiah and Revelation—and, of course, with the cry of Abraham Kuyper that there is not a square inch of creation over which Jesus is not Lord! To know the scholar is to know the preacher.

Which, of course, makes him more than a little like Kuyper, his hero and intellectual father—that restless, transformative Dutch theologian, journalist, administrator, public intellectual, and preacher about whom Rich has written much, and whose combination of intellect and piety have so deeply informed his own work. If Rich has connected the worlds of Dutch Calvinism and American evangelicalism, he has bridged other worlds as well. Close to home for Eerdmans and the Dutch Calvinist community, his voice, along with the voices of Nick Wolterstorff and Lew Smedes, did much to reassure the older editors of the Journal that the journalistic move from the agenda of the Christian Reformed Church to a broader arena was a natural extension of the magazine’s founding vision. Rich also helped to encourage rapprochement in the intramural conf lict between a more general Kuyperianism and the particular form it took in the work of Herman Dooyeweerd and D.H.T. Vollenhoven, both scholars at the Free University of Amsterdam Kuyper had helped to found. One should note here as well Rich’s appreciation of a wide range of Dutch Calvinist theologians with sometimes combative views. And who besides Rich could have attracted twelve hundred followers of Herman Hoeksema (and where but in Grand Rapids!) to a respectful debate on the subject of common grace?

Beyond the world of Dutch Calvinism, no one in the Reformed camp (though old readers of the RJ will remember Leonard Verduin!) has pursued more dialogue with the Anabaptist tradition than has Rich, on at least one occasion in formal debate with John Howard Yoder, whose fierce commitment to the “politics of Jesus” Rich has deeply respected. As someone who himself takes seriously a theological tradition, he has furthermore engaged and learned gratefully from Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. (Some may recall a touching piece he once wrote about praying to Mary.) And when, a couple of years ago, the Christian Century and Christianity Today staged a discussion in Chicago between a prominent evangelical and a prominent mainline commentator on “The Christian Future,” who more natural to ask than Rich and his longtime presidential counterpart at Auburn Seminary, Barbara Wheeler? These two friends can be depended upon to disagree on some issues but never to waver in their regard for each other—an affection fed at a deep level by their defiantly lowbrow mutual enthusiasm for the airport hotdog! Lately — and controversially—Rich’s theological conversations have extended to Mormons, exploring with his friend Bob Miller of Brigham Young what commonalities they might share, particularly on the doctrine of Jesus.

And none of this is to mention Rich’s voice, amplified from the platform of Fuller Seminary, as a public theologian and as a go-to spokesman in the media for a convicted but commodious evangelicalism. The New York Times editors, I’m sure, have him on their cell-phone contacts list, and I don’t know of an evangelical who has appeared more often on Krista Tippett’s NPR show On Being.

Rich’s sheer connectedness, like that of others in the Eerdmans network, has been a great gift to the company. The party, one might say, has never ended, and meeting Rich’s friends, whether his peers or his young discoveries, has been an ongoing source of inspiration to me and a source of authors and ideas for our program. And the introductions tend to be naturally selective in helpful ways. To be a friend of Rich’s goes a long way towards being a friend of ours, given the soil from which he grew and in which he remains deeply rooted. But, of course, for our publishing program the connectedness is only as good as the ideas it generates, and Rich has been a remarkable catalyst for creative discussion wherever he goes. And he goes everywhere, one week in South Korea at a huge Presbyterian gathering and the next in Chicago at, say, the convention of the American Academy of Religion, where he hobnobs enthusiastically, keeps his fingers on the academic pulse, and holds forth at the Fuller breakfast, at the end joining in “Heavenly Sunshine” with a fervor that the Genevan Psalter in my ear doesn’t quite allow me to match. We do have our differences.

Bearing the myriad administrative responsibilities of a seminary president does not seem to have loosened his scholarly grasp in the slightest, though it may have kept him thus far from the sustained scholarly work he may someday wish to do. The material is surely there in shorter forms, some on specific theological issues, like baptism and the church, but much of it, at least, about the very warrant—indeed, mandate—for scholarship itself. Rich will need to weigh, of course, at what cost to the pulpit, the pew, and the public square a contribution to the scholarly library will come. Then again, there is that many-splendored paradigm who was Abraham Kuyper.

Either way—or both—I will always look forward to the next e-mail or phone call from Rich, kibitzing about the latest goings-on in some square inch of our shared world and announcing yet another proposal or manuscript on the way. The party, I fondly hope, will go on.

Jon Pott is editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Publishing Company and a former editor-in-chief of the Reformed Journal.