Memoir of a Kuyperian saint

“I desire to have both heaven and hell ever in my eye, while I stand on this isthmus of life, between two boundless oceans. And I verily think the daily consideration of both highly becomes all men of reason and religion.” I begin with this 1747 John Wesley quote because in this intellectual memoir, Richard Mouw identifies himself as a Kuyperian pietist, giving credence to Wesley’s conversion experience of having “a heart strangely warmed.” The main theme of the book is the common ground of human existence, the nexus where heaven and hell – and their theological counter-parts of common grace and the antithesis – play out their competing narratives.

This is not a memoir of Mouw’s embodied life – there is no mention of his wife, his descendants, the congregational disputes he weathered or his travels across the globe. The book is most deliberately an investigation of a theological theme that runs through his whole academic career: a passion to find common ground with those outside the church. More specifically, what that means is an enduring inquiry in the Kuyperian notion of common grace – divine favour directed to all humans, regardless of their final salvific status. Heaven permeates earth beyond the church.

In his quest, Mouw lives up to the title. He recounts his engagements with the work of Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes, as well as his debates with Anabaptist Yoder and the detractors of Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture. Mouw’s approach is gentle, always charitably “on the one hand” and then “on the other hand,” and never disrespectful or cynical about his critics. He is a little defensive at points where he feels he was misrepresented by others and he wants to set the record straight, although he states in the beginning he wanted to avoid such recounting. Such is the life of a public intellectual – a title he accepts but attributes to a few “lucky breaks” in his career.

Mouw is a Reformed Evangelical, stating that a “thin” generic evangelicalism requires support from “thick” confessional streams and their ecclesiology. He insists Kuyperian movements need to retain Kuyper’s pietism – the heart-felt experience of God’s love. Mouw recognizes that pietists can be anti-intellectual, escapist and sectarian. Yet he maintains that if our culture-transforming and ecumenical efforts are to flourish, they must be “guided by a personal and communal godliness, by hearts that desire the kind of holiness without which none shall see the Lord.”

I appreciate Mouw’s humility in two respects. For one, he states from the beginning: “I continue to worry a bit about my heavy reliance on commonness.” While his experience of church conflict and evangelical aggression turned him to pursue the virtue of civility, he recognizes that a new more tolerant generation may have the opposite challenge: they need to be encouraged to have resilient convictions. He worries: “my own preachments about civility could easily be encouraging serious theological decline.” Ever wary of the brow-beating orthodox evangelist, Mouw still recognizes that the lines between civility, tolerance and indifference can get pretty thin. Hell on earth – to which the antithesis draws our attention – still calls for our on-going vigilance, in our neighbours’ tradition and in our own hearts. The devil never sleeps.

Mouw’s common grace worries are complimented by an appreciation for uncertainty. At the start, he declares theology to be what a Catholic professor called “a mystery discerning enterprise.” At the end of the book, Mouw reflects a little on his ecumenical adventures in dialogue with Catholics, Anabaptists and Mormons and his practice of “bracketing” the apologetic and soteriological issues. These mostly positive experiences have got him wondering if common grace “may in the end time be revealed to be saving grace.” He’s got in some hot water for saying that, and he quickly admits it’s a hunch, not a biblical surety. He concludes with Deut. 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.”

This book is a chronicle of an intellectual journey that includes insight into Reformed and evangelical cultural dynamics through the last 50 years. Although Mouw’s canonization as a Reformed saint is still pending, this is a gem of a book. It’s a beautiful academic memoir of a key Reformed public intellectual who has modelled with his mind and heart the depth, applicability, winsomeness and grace of a Christian world and life view.  

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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