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‘Here I raise my Ebenezer’

The uncommon fidelity of Richard Mouw

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What does today’s theological landscape look like? Who is influencing modern churches? This is the third of five in our series on contemporary Christian theologians. Each piece will introduce a major figure in the theological world and explore his or her sphere of influence, most well-known works and most helpful insight on God’s word.

Not long ago, Dr. Richard Mouw, long-time president (now emeritus) of Fuller Theological Seminary in California and former professor of philosophy at Calvin College, was, in my humble opinion, stunningly good as a guest of Krista Tippitt on National Public Radio’s On Being. But I’m probably incapable of objective evaluation when, on air, a talk-show guest claims Abraham Kuyper as his hero and quotes freely from John Calvin, as Mouw did.

Mouw’s particular branding across the culture these days is attributable to the argument of his ninth book, Uncommon Decency, first published in 1992 but reworked in 2010.

Every decade features its own putrid examples of “common indecency,” but the tally of such offenses in the last 10 years make Mouw’s Uncommon Decency seem more prophetic than it may have been when first published almost a quarter century ago. Today polarization in political and religious arenas seems a way of life.

Tippett asked Mouw specifically about the questionable behaviour of some American evangelicals, a legitimate question given that he was president of the largest evangelical seminary in the world. Mouw conceded what everyone knows: many well-meaning evangelicals are scared and mad and pushy and sometimes, these days, uncommonly indecent. Sadly enough, some Christians have given the word evangelical a political definition more recognizable than its spiritual origin.

Richard Mouw, who grew up in a Dutch-American community in New Jersey, told Ms. Tippitt that throughout his life he’s seen believers create enemies, evildoers, even anti-Christs. He remembers his own people hating Catholics and communists with similarly unbridled intensity. Today, he said, that level of hate has descended on Muslims, making him wonder whether Christians simply are not happy without arch-enemies.

He cited Calvin’s “civility.” Calvin urged restraint from those believers going to war. He wanted his people to respect enemies because they too were image-bearers, God’s own workmanship.

The essential canon
Mouw has spent a goodly chunk of his professional life reconditioning Reformed classics. His Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport (2004) reviews and updates ye olde acronym T-U-L-I-P in a fashion which pulls no punches but also makes perfectly clear that, with some necessary modification, he wouldn’t drop a tenet of a formula created by a Dutch synod 400 years ago.

Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (2011) refreshes us all on why Kuyper is so often heralded these days, even if and when so many of the descendants of his Dutch followers have seemingly assumed his irrelevancy.

In those books and others, Mouw doesn’t simply genuflect. Kuyper had warts and more, visible to all. What Mouw does is outline Kuyper’s major ideas in a fashion that makes those ideas both understandable and compelling, even today, in our post-modern mix, most especially to those who don’t know him. Praying at Burger King (2007) includes personal essays that are as warm-hearted as they are thoughtful, reflections on the very common, even elemental ways in which faith meets day-to-day culture.

Still, it’s his thinking about civility, on bringing Christians together, that has given him a significant national presence. No single event in anyone’s life can ever, on its own, create character and personality; but I wonder whether his father’s conversion experience, even though it happened before son Richard was born, isn’t central. It’s a story he uses as a springboard in The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (2000). “My father, who didn’t have a strong Christian upbringing, had experienced a dramatic conversion in his late teens at the Star of Hope Mission, a fundamentalist inner-city ministry in Paterson, New Jersey,” he says, a conversion which soon had his father “preaching on street corners, in prisons and in county medical care facilities.”

When, later, his father entered Western Theological Seminary to become a preacher in the Reformed Church in America, he didn’t walk away from the embrace of that Star of Hope conversion; and that’s why his son, as a child, walked down so many “sawdust trails” at missions and retreats and out-and-out revivals. His father’s fundamentalist stirrings may have been somewhat unusual in RCA ministerial circles in the post-war era; but Rev. Mouw nurtured those stirrings, not only in himself but also in his children, so that when Dr. Richard Mouw talks about sawdust the way he does in many of his books, he’s on ground near and dear to his own history and experience. Throughout his professional life, Mouw’s personal history has allowed him to feel just as much at home in, say, some downtown street mission as Princeton Theological Seminary.

To some Calvinists, Mouw’s leaving Calvin College may well have looked like theological treason. But he took the position at Fuller and eventually became its President, an office which likely put him into a position to practice his own “uncommon decency” when advocates of a variety of theologies do battle – as we always do.

His latest book, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (2012), puts to practice what he elsewhere preaches, sharing with readers what common ground he believes evangelical Christians can find with members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. He wants to dull the quick-tempered criticism evangelicals train on “Mormonism,” as if a fellowship of 15 million people and almost 90,000 missionaries is little more than another Kool-Aid cult. He wants us to talk. He’s trying to make peace – a tall order, but it’s something he’s been working at for years.

Right now, peace-keeping may headline his contribution to Christian thought especially, but he’s also blessed the Christian Reformed Church in particular. In the lecture he gave at the 150th birthday of the CRC, Mouw lamented, in passing, the way the denomination’s alteration of the text of “Come, Thou Fount” removed the word Ebenezer (“Here I raise my Ebenezer”), an allusion to the monument Samuel used to celebrate the Lord’s victory over the Philistines (I Sam. 7). Mouw explained his fondness this way: “In that ceremony, Samuel was both looking to the past and to the future. As he considered what had happened in Israel “hitherto” – thus far – he saw only the grace of God: it is the Lord who has helped us up to this point, he said. And as he looked forward he set up a stone of hope in the confidence that this same grace of God would continue to bless the life and mission of Israel.”

Many an old CRC church has etched the word Ebenezer into its cornerstone, he said, because church members were just as determined as Samuel to testify to the timeless sense of the word “hitherto:” as he has done in the past, hitherto he will do in the future.

Much of the Mouw canon practices the dedicatory intent of the word “Ebenezer.” He has blessed his readers, especially his Reformed readers, with the kind of commemorative promise forsworn in the word “hitherto.” So much of what he’s written reopens the blessings of a rich theological heritage he believes should not seem as close to forgotten as it does. Much of his work hitherto testifies to faithfulness as both a legacy and a promise.

As he has been since the publication of his first book in 1978, Mouw will, hitherto, be rare and invaluable reading also and maybe most especially to those of us who value the Reformed faith.

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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