Kuyper Review

Richard J Mouw The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2012; Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2011; George Harinck (ed) Kuyper in America: “This is Where I was Meant to be” Dordt College Press, Sioux Center  2012.

Richard Mouw (1940 – ) has been speaking and writing about “the challenges of cultural discipleship” for at least forty years. From 1968 until 1985 he was professor of Christian philosophy at Calvin College (1968-1985). Since 1985 he has served as president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Wikipedia tells us he had intended to retire in 2013. By his own account, he was a confused evangelical student who overcame a “faith crisis” after reading Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. His two recent publications, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship and Abraham Kuyper when read together can help us understand the “line” Mouw takes with respect to “Abraham the Mighty” (Abraham de Geweldige), the Dutch Christian “multitasker”.

[Kuyper] founded a newspaper, a university, a political party, and a denomination.… During his career …he regularly wrote articles for his newspaper; he taught theology at the Free University; he led his party both as a member of the Dutch parliament and, for a few years, as Prime Minister. And … [he contributed] by writing major theological books and essays (Abraham Kuyper p. x).

Mouw views Kuyper and the Kuyperian perspective in terms of his own calling to promote “cultural discipleship”. This is also why these two volumes are best read together, particularly by readers who have not read Mouw before. The larger volume helps us understand Mouw’s view of the denominational, philosophical and higher educational context in which he has tried to promote what he calls Kuyper’s “theology of culture”, while clearly trying to avoid what he has experienced as the unhelpful constraints of the American-Dutch-reformed sub-culture. He calls the collection the “back story” of his many “cultural discipleship” publications. The shorter volume is another example of “his efforts to make the thought of … Abraham Kuyper accessible to average Christians”, a series of reflections that takes its starting point from “Kuyper’s robust Calvinism”. He tells us that Kuyper’s Lectures provided:

… 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 (p. ix).

Kuyper’s famous L. P. Stone Lectures were delivered at Princeton University in 1898. They have since been reprinted innumerable times, along with many of his other works. Some questions immediately arise for the reviewer of these two books, which should also arise for the culturally sensitive reader: why should it be necessary to make Kuyper “accessible to average Christians”? Kuyper in his own country was the renowned leader of the Calvinistic working class, the “little people”. So why is he so inaccessible to American Christians? There is not any direct attempt to explain this situation and its cultural dimensions in these two volumes. But could it be that Kuyper has been made inaccessible to North Americans by the very same attempts that have tried to commend his “world-view”? And if that be so, why should Mouw think his latest efforts “in the line of Abraham Kuyper” should fare any better? Could it be that all the disputes and arguments that have preoccupied American Kuyperians, which Mouw extensively covers in his larger work, are part of the problem of Kuyper’s inaccessibility? Clearly Mouw wants to avoid disputes but he has also been called upon to make a contribution in that complex sub-cultural context. And so that is why I tend to interpret his two works as evidence of his arrière pensée about the Kuyperian perspective. His books presuppose that Kuyper continues to be inaccessible. And that, I guess, is this reviewer’s attempt to identify the “back story” to Mouw’s larger volume “back story”.

Challenges can be read as Mouw’s notes from his long-term “ethnographic field work” within the sub-culture of North American Dutch reformed churches and educational ventures. In that sense his “back-story” writings function as explanations to fellow North American evangelicals, and particularly those disposed to a “reformed perspective”, why Kuyper’s “world-view”, for all its liberating potential, is embroiled in complex controversies that mean that his valuable insights, and even Mouw’s own “take” on them, don’t always “grip the rails”.

Mouw wants to help readers face up to the challenges of cultural discipleship. I would have thought that the next step “in the line of Abraham Kuyper” would have been to examine this inaccessibility in terms of Kuyper’s own “world-view”. Could it be that Kuyper’s world-view has been captured by the very cultural context in which it is now being made available? This matter needs to be investigated with utmost urgency.

To take Kuyper’s “world-view” seriously means reckoning with the fact that the appropriation of any Christian thinker’s contribution must always take place in the context of an ongoing spiritual struggle, between “two world-views … wrestling with one another, in mortal combat”. Kuyper’s understanding of the “antithesis” is clearly a late 19th early 20th century reformed update of Augustine’s view of the battle between two cities?

Cultural-discipleship means a willingness to ask difficult questions even if that challenges American confidence in its own civil-religious piety and its assumption that the US seed-bed of inclusive democratic civility is where any Kuyperian seeds are destined to germinate. It means broaching the question of whether Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism been received within the US because they imply a neo-Calvinistic commendation of America’s Calvinistic character? And this is not simply to refer to Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s professor of jurisprudence at the time Kuyper was granted an honorary doctor of laws in 1898. It is also to refer to President George W Bush’s 2005 Calvin College commencement address in which he presented his own vision of society’s autonomous self-creating power “in the line of Abraham Kuyper”. I jest not. That made the front pages of The New York Times. And the Grand Rapids gathering applauded warmly. Nor am I descending to cynicism. Indeed Mouw’s efforts to subvert the widespread cultural cynicism within his own country and polity by promoting Christian discipleship needs to be strongly affirmed.

But, questions remain, and the question that Mouw doesn’t really address is this: was it Kuyper’s theology, even his “theology of culture” that he (Mouw) received when he first read Kuyper’s Lectures? As a theological student Mouw may very quickly have come to the conclusion that what he had to do by way of response as an erstwhile theologian, was to develop his own “theology of culture”. And that he has sought to do “in Kuyper’s line”. But Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism are about Calvinism as a “worldview”. The equation which Mouw seems to be making between “world-view” and “theology of culture” is not self-evident and it is not sufficiently explained by Mouw in his book. [Is it just an oversight? Mouw’s diagrammatic picture of this “world-view”, at Abraham Kuyper p.41, inexplicably leaves out any indication of God’s rule over His church!]

Christians around the English-speaking world will attest to the fact that the “Kuyper-publishing industry” is alive and well. Moreover, it should also be noted that following a Princeton Seminary celebratory conference marking the 100th anniversary of Kuyper’s Stone lectures, the Seminary has established “The Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology”. This too should also be kept in mind as we read these two books by Fuller Seminary’s President. Fuller and Princeton seem set to maintain their respective association with the name of Kuyper.

The other volume in this review, Kuyper in America,is a collection of letters written by Kuyper to his wife and children during his two-month trip to the United States in 1898. It is a pertinent addition to the literature. The 84-page volume tells us that for all his “cultural discipleship”, for all his “multi-tasking”, for all his stature, prominence and reputation, Kuyper was an “average Christian” husband and father. His weaknesses, fears about gossip, enthusiasm, self-understanding, Dutch arrogance, worries and loneliness, are all on display.

The volume might have been improved if letters and post-cards Kuyper received from “back home” during this time were included. But, in their own way, Kuyper’s letters are the occasion for his confession that in life and in death he belonged to His Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is not to “take” these letters as mini-theological treatises; we leave them as they are – everyday letters of everyday discipleship. They confirm his earnest longings as husband and father, and tell us of his not inconsiderable irritations when so far away (When are you going to write to me? Surely it’s not that difficult to pick up a pen and write me a few lines!). He was in the US to receive an honorary doctorate and to deliver the prestigious Stone Lectures at Princeton University. The letters tell us how he interpreted everyday life in the US and confirm his positive view of America’s “Calvinistic” character, an attitude we can also find clearly affirmed in his Lectures. These were days before the US took on its “exceptional” global mission as formulated by President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). But at that time near the turn of the century, Wilson was, as I have said, Professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and Kuyper was awarded the honorary doctorate of laws. This is all significant for deepening an appreciation for how Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism has been received in North America.

In Kuyper in America there is a photograph of a news report from the Holland Daily Sentinel of 29 October 1898 reporting on Kuyper’s lecture to Third Reformed Church in Holland Michigan. “Be Americanized: Was Kuyper’s Advice to Hollanders Here  – A Masterly Address”. Perhaps Mouw’s “Abraham Kuyper” could have given more attention to Kuyper’s view of the American way of life as an expression of the Calvinistic world-view. He might have drawn attention to the fact that Kuyper had called upon American-Hollanders to “yank the hyphen” a decade or so before Wilson had made that call as American troops were sent off to Europe in April 1916.

Mouw might also have given more attention to the fact that the Kuyperian perspective these days, for all its “robust Calvinism”, has to deal with the ongoing, relentless spiritual secularisation of the American way of life including its own understanding of its Calvinistic past. And though American Kuyperians like Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have been very adept at critically distancing themselves from alleged Eurocentric tendencies in the neo-Calvinistic world-view and philosophical contribution, they have not seemed so eager to identify and distance themselves from America-centric tendencies found in “Abraham the Mighty”. This is a curious lack of self-criticism and it raises some urgent questions. Because of their “antithetical” spiritual character, such questions may well sound to many Americans as lacking in “civic virtue”. But they have to be asked. Is not the honour of the Person confessed to be Lord and Master at stake here?

Could reformed and evangelical Americans like Richard Mouw embrace Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism because of Kuyper’s evident tendency to interpret their “land of the free and home of the brave” as a Christian nation? Could that be part of the reason why the North American Kuyper publishing industry has been promoting Kuyper? And could such a “take” on Kuyper, reading his contribution in terms of a “theology of culture” or a “public theology”, have the unanticipated consequence of facilitating a secularised Kuyper for the masses, as with President Bush’s Calvin College “line”? The jury may still be out on that, but at the very least we would have to say that the results of North American Kuyper publishing efforts have not always subjected the emergent American way of life to the kind of self-critical scholarly investigation that one would expect from those adhering to the “world-view” set forth in Lectures on Calvinism.

Here we can give no detailed historical account of the trials and tribulations of 20th century presbyterian and reformed efforts to commend Kuyper’s “world-view” to North Americans. Some of that is covered, indirectly, in Mouw’s larger volume. Bur we can say that these three works indicate there has been no let up. Kuyper still evokes interest. The Kuyper publishing industry seems alive and well. These works, when read with that context in mind, will suggest that despite all the commendation Kuyper’s work is receiving, despite Fuller and Princeton joining Calvin and other Christian Colleges in promoting Kuyperian virtues, US evangelicals still find it difficult to take hold of Kuyper’s world-view without Americanising it.

These books lead us to ask: Has the failure of Kuyper’s world-view to “take hold” among North American evangelical and reformed Christians anything to do with the traditional tendency, endorsed ambiguously by Richard Mouw, that a “Christian world-view” is primarily a matter of theology? Does Kuyper’s exposition of a Calvinistic world-view actually provide guidance to help those wanting to understand why his views have not really caught on?

This review was initially published in Zadok Perspectives 120 Spring 2013 pp. 23-25.

Plataforma C
Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics, is an initiative that aims to promote the participation of Christians in Politics and the development of public policy based on biblical principles and the teachings of Jesus. Plataforma C, la Plataforma para la Política Cristiana, es una iniciativa que tiene por objetivo promover la participación de Cristianos en la Política y el desarrollo de una Política basada en los principios bíblicos y en las enseñanzas de Jesús.

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