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The legacy of the Reformation:  21st century challenges and opportunities

As one of the keynote participants in The King’s University’s annual fall Interdisciplinary Studies Conference last month, Dr. Richard Mouw gave a public address, “Reformations Keep Happening: 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities,” (reviewed in the October 9 issue of Christian Courier). I sat down with Mouw after this lecture for an interview. Following is an abbreviated record of our conversation.

The legacy of the Reformation:  21st  century challenges and opportunities

An interview with Dr. Richard Mouw
Robert Bruinsma

As one of the keynote participants in The King’s University’s annual fall Interdisciplinary Studies Conference last month, Dr. Richard Mouw gave a public address, “Reformations Keep Happening: 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities,” (reviewed in the October 9 issue of Christian Courier). I sat down with Mouw after this lecture for an interview. Following is an abbreviated record of our conversation.  

Bob Bruinsma: You are encouraged by ecumenical conversations, especially between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Are these happening at “high” levels between theologians and church leaders, or are they really filtering down to the lay adherents of various faith traditions?
Dr. Richard Mouw:
Actually, in our tradition (broadly reformed evangelical) the dialogue hasn’t really been that much at this “high” level but much more at the congregational level.

It seems that Christian Reformed Churches are still predominantly rooted in a white, Dutch heritage with only a sprinkling of people of colour and other ethnicities.
That depends on what level we are thinking about. I’m thinking back to 1924 when the CRC issued the three points of common grace. Why did they do that? Because they had just recently moved to using the English language. World War I was a huge factor in this because Dutch CRC people didn’t want to be confused with Germans, so they started doing everything in English. The underlying issue is that ordinary Christian Reformed people started talking with their neighbours. The idea that we are the elect and those are the reprobates didn’t quite fit when you were talking to your Irish Catholic American neighbours across the fence.

Yes, but that was primarily the American experience, right?
Yes, I’m talking about Americans, but then when you get to the post WWII experience here (in Canada) it’s a similar thing. The original immigrant communities were very much over against. We’re going to maintain our separate organizations, separate schools, and the like.

Very much the Kuyperian notion of pillarization?
Yes, what we think of as antitheticalism. But much of the immigrant communities have begun to see the “other” in very different ways. And that drives the theological agenda.

So, throughout the history of the Christian Reformed communities, there have been these cultural shifts that have informed the agendas of the theologians, and given them permission and encouragement to engage in broad ecumenical discussions. We now work with people of all sorts of backgrounds and certainly our children are not nearly as hung up about interacting with the “other,” and are, in fact, demanding that we regard the “other” as having full value as human beings.

But what about us “old folk”?  Look at the slow progress that is being made between the CRC and the RCA (Reformed Church of America), who are practically siblings. If we aren’t even sure if we should be in ecumenical fellowship with the RCA, then it seems a long way off to being so with Lutherans or Mennonites or Catholics.
I agree that at institutional levels the progress is still painfully slow, but I think there is a growing ecumenical mindset especially among our children. With respect to Catholicism, the current pope has been such a breath of fresh air. Christians generally are beginning to realize that we Catholics and Protestants need each other in a largely secular world. I see that as a sign of hope.

Let’s talk about the growing globalization of the Christian faith – that Christians are found everywhere and of every tribe and nation. Especially in the South, Christianity is growing explosively. Yet we lament the decline of mainline church attendance in Europe and North America and perhaps feel that this church growth in the South is based largely on charismatic, feel-good Pentecostalism.
Yes, we still operate with those prejudices and pre-conceptions about charismatics.

There are Christian Reformed people who don’t like to be called evangelicals.
That’s true and there’s a history to that. Reformed people (including CRC, Lutherans and Mennonites) have always distinguished themselves from mainline traditions (e.g. Anglican, Presbyterian) and from evangelicals like Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. In Canada the Dutch Calvinists, especially those in the Kuyperian tradition, have always distanced themselves from a certain mysticism and pietism that existed in other forms of Dutch reformed traditions, which they then saw re-embodied in Canadian evangelicalism. The younger generation is attracted to a more vibrant worship tradition. In many ways, our Christian schools have moved very much towards a more pietistic emphasis and I’m concerned that they are not bringing into the system the dispositions that come from reformed theology. For example, my students at Fuller like Kuyper’s emphasis on social justice, but don’t care about the doctrine of the covenant or election.

Do you think church as institution can survive in its present denominational forms?
I’m not sure, and maybe that’s not so important, even though I regret the lack of theological and doctrinal literacy among lay folk. It’s inevitable that churches will reflect the social and cultural realities of their settings. The important thing, really, is that Christ is being preached and that lives are still being changed by the Gospel.

You see a sign of hopefulness and reformation in the modern improvement in race relations. You told a story of a black couple who were denied service in a fast-food restaurant in Montana in the 1950s and that that just wouldn’t happen anymore today.  What about the rise of Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, “them and us,” etc.?  While at a legal level we have more laws against overt racism and discriminatory practices, do you really believe there is a growing willingness to respect and understand the “other”?
No. Let’s be clear: since the 1950s and 1960s we have seen legislative gains against racial injustice, but these are very fragile because they must be ungirded by the sense of the common good. And the sense of the common good is threatened these days by such things as “America first” and Canadian nationalism. Economic concerns feed those things: immigrants taking my job or flooding the schools so my kids won’t get a good education, etc.

Is there really a sense of greater social justice in the U.S. and Canada now than 60 years ago?
I think we have a different mentality than that waitress who wouldn’t serve a cheeseburger to a black couple, but it’s fragile and now the reformation needs to proceed by getting these things into people’s hearts. I have a Muslim friend who fears for her children when they walk to school because they will be bullied and taunted because they are Muslim. That’s wrong. No mother or her children should have to deal with that. This mother is not a terrorist. Unless we as Christians learn to love our neighbours concretely in such situations, no amount of legal progress will make a real difference. We need a spiritual commitment to honour the wellbeing of our neighbours and we’re not very good at that yet.

One of the ongoing reformations you note is that of our increasing awareness of gender issues, including the role of women and sexual orientation. Would you agree that it’s largely the world outside of the church that has pushed these issues to the foreground? When I identify myself as a Christian in secular settings, I am met with raised eyebrows and questions such as: How can you identify with an exclusionary, homophobic movement that fails to embrace those of other than traditional heterosexual mores? Have we confronted these issues as a church?
81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and yet at least half of their children who are not yet of voting age say they wouldn’t have voted for him. So we have a generational issue. Even in the most conservative churches in America, young people have gay friends and it’s not a big deal for them. I’m Presbyterian now and pretty conservative, but we have been inexcusably cruel to people on this issue. Recently, I was sitting with a couple in a very conservative PCA church and they praised me for my stance on gender issues. I said, “Thank you, but we haven’t done a very good job of dealing with this issue in our congregations.” There was this long silence, and then the woman said, “Thank you for saying that. Our son is gay and he has a partner and we pray for them. We can’t tell our congregation, but we sat down and talked with them and said, ‘You know where we stand on this, but we’ll mention it just this once and anytime you want to come home together, you’re welcome. We love you.’”And then she started to cry and said, “You know our son and his partner came home for Christmas and they came to church with us and my son said, ‘Mom I’m so glad we came to church with you.’” So here are people in a conservative church who are struggling with this in the deep places of their hearts and I think that pastorally we’ve got to do more. I’m still not at the point where I’m ready to say that we are created for same-sex intimacy, but at the same time, pastorally we fail families, we fail young people.

If you ultimately believe that same sex relationships are anormative, you can be as pastoral as you want, but finally you’re saying, “It’s wrong.” The person you are trying to be pastoral with will say, “Yeah, sure, but basically you’re saying I’m a reprobate.”
I take my cue from a Catholic theologian friend who says it’s natural not to want to be alone and so the bonds of friendship that exist in a homosexual relationship should not be minimized. We all need a sense of belonging and love and somehow the church needs to say, “Here is where you can belong.”

About the Author
The legacy of the Reformation:  21st  century challenges and opportunities

Robert Bruinsma, COLUMNIST

Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 43 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and two little grandsons.