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Keeping Kuyper Current

By July 1, 2013 No Comments

James D. Bratt

In 1985, Richard Mouw left his teaching post at Calvin College for Fuller Theological Seminary, where he has taught ever since and for the past twenty years has served as president. Though leaving the heartland of the Dutch Reformed, he still intended to hone “a neo-Calvinist perspective” that was both “indigenous [and] ecumenically enriched” for contemporary American application. This collection of fourteen previously published essays testifies that Mouw has been faithful to that call and that taking this enterprise to fresh territory was a good decision. Cover Working more on the technical side of the subject than the author’s Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (2011), this volume gives someone who wants to catch up a good index to the state of the tradition as set out by a moderate, congenial, and above all hopeful and pastoral thinker. At the same time it prompts veteran practitioners in the field to ref lect on what is most useful, and what most spent, in the line of Kuyper so far as the North American context is concerned.

Animating Mouw’s project has been the conviction that the Kuyperian tradition offers “a compelling alternative to other schemes for dealing with key questions of church and culture.” Autobiographically, Mouw relates that Kuyper’s famous statement about Christ’s sovereignty over “every square inch” of human endeavor reconciled the evangelical pietism of his youth to the “nonnegotiable biblical mandate” that the faithful should “work for justice and peace in the larger human community,” which became so compelling in the 1960s. He also does a lot of work updating and affirming the good sense of neo-Calvinism’s spheresovereignty theme. A third Kuyperian classic, the one involving criticalrealist epistemology and the integration of faith and learning, he mostly leaves to the side.

The “ecumenically enriched” aspect of Mouw’s project is clearly on view in the first seven articles in the collection, above all in “Creational Politics: Some Calvinist Amendments.” This piece ref lects Mouw’s longstanding engagement with Anabaptist thinkers, chief among them John Howard Yoder. After reviewing traditional Kuyperian terms that make for some uneasy shifting in one’s chair—all that rhetoric of “dominion,” “obedience,” and “order”—Mouw lets in a bracing dose of Yoder’s politics of Jesus. “Given the arrival of Jesus in our midst,” Mouw concludes, “we can never again be content simply to guide our lives with reference to creational ordinances or revealed laws.” If neo-Calvinist traditionalists think that gives away too much of the store, Mouw holds out for the superior distinctiveness of sphere sovereignty over against contemporary concepts of mediating structures on the one hand and Roman Catholic subsidiarity theory on the other. Indeed, from this record of his thinking, especially given his critique of attempts to mesh classic Calvinism with natural-law thinking, Mouw has found dialogue with Anabaptists more helpful than with Roman Catholics.

The second, indigenizing aspect of his project brings up a major problem for Kuyperianism on the current scene. As Mouw points out here more than once, social spheres are suffering “shrinkage,” holistic confessionally coherent communities are thin to the point of disappearing, and the systemic consistency needed for proper worldview thinking is out of vogue across the nation. Rather, postmodern bricolage and “religious grazing” characterize North American Christians fully as much as their non- or other-believing neighbors. With believer as marketsavvy shopper, such classic Kuyperian remedies as a fully state-funded pluralistic school system would likely leave the tradition’s equal concerns for the common good and justice for the oppressed out of the picture. Instead, Mouw suggests that the institutional church expand its roles, even at the risk of committing sphere violations, so as to become the “schools of public virtue” required to build responsible citizenship.

The positive contribution that the church can perform for others is a persistent chord in these essays, an emphasis that Mouw pushes up against the “resident aliens” motif characterizing the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair McIntrye. In contrast to their resolute concern that the church regain its integrity as a clear and distinctive site of membership in postmodern society, Mouw is more hopeful for the possibilities of a common good stretching across all sorts of divides. No apocalyptic here, Right or Left. That makes room for the generosity of spirit which Mouw also deploys toward sectarian fragments in the Dutch Reformed heritage. The essays in this dialogue deal with the particulars of ecclesiology, baptism, the doctrine of regeneration, and other loci classici of Dutch Calvinist quarreling. It cannot be said that Mouw breaks these stalemates, although he does excavate the conundrums within the Kuyperian stance therein. His best contribution is to quarrel with the notion of “stance” per se, a posture unsuited, he points out, to Reformed Christians as pilgrim people discovering new things about their venture as they mix with other parties along the way. Occasionally the game strikes me as not worth the candle, as when the author invokes the scattered hints and speculative possibilities in the work of Klaas Schilder for the makings of a Reformed political theology fit to our parlous times.

The better move might be to return to the work of Kuyper himself and revive a theme that is just as strong therein as notions of sphere sovereignty. That is, Kuyper’s keen and recurrent perceptions about and prescriptions for the realities of power within politics and society. I propose that we give the “square inch” citation from Kuyper’s “Sphere Sovereignty” oration a rest for twenty years; we get it already—evangelicals can/must engage this world in all its dimensions, though perhaps they should do so more intelligently, even biblically. Let’s concentrate instead on another line, from the heart of that speech: “It cannot be said often enough: money creates power for the one who gives over the one who receives.” American society, the self-professed Christians not least or last among them, has utterly surrendered separate spheres to market hegemony and donor command—in politics, education, art, and religion. It’s past time to count the costs of that acquiescence and start thinking seriously about some remedies. That’s the way forward for a productive Kuyperian social ethics.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin University, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. He is the author of several books including Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, widely considered the definitive Kuyper biography.