Ninth Annual Abraham Kuyper Prize Lecture: Dr. Richard J. Mouw

Note: The below are my notes from Dr. Mouw’s lecture. Hopefully they are an accurate representation, but I’m sure that I have shaped the content a bit with my reception. I hope that you find the material stimulating. For more information on the Kuyper Consultation going on today and tomorrow here at PTS, check out the Kuyper Center website.

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Princeton Theological Seminary, Miller Chapel - Thursday, March 29, 2007 at 7:30 PM

“Culture, Church, and Civil Society: Kuyper for the New Century”

David Novak compared Barth to those who want Christianity to retreat into sectarian enclaves, and sees this as a weakness in Barth. He wished Barth had read Abraham Kuyper and learned from him, although Novak admits that Kuyper wasn’t in Barth’s theological league, witch is true. But there are other theological leagues, and Kuyper stands out as a giant in the league of public theology. Most of his output was produced on the run and his theological work was done closely with his public work in government and denominational controversy.

Two key themes that Kuyper held in tension: (1) radical antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought, and (2) common grace. This antithesis was a vital part of his politics, using the first to rally his base and the second to urge support for political alliances.

Kuyper’s understanding of God’s lawful ordering of the universe was a very dynamic sort. Barth may not have gotten much out of this. Kuyper’s God is ever-present to his creation. These emphases are grounded in a robust theology of creation and a theology of redemption that takes seriously the notion of ‘creation regained.’ Christ’s mission is a kind of cleaning operation that concerned the full range of cultural reality.

Mouw is interested in a ‘Neo-Calvinist aggiornamento.’ We ought to work to appropriate the ‘Kuyperian impulse.’ We cannot forget that culture, civil society, government provide many valuable and life-supporting services that we cannot simply disregard. There is a difference between saying ‘fallen, but created’ (Kuyper) and ‘created, but fallen.’ God has not given up, even in the midst of a fallen world, on restoring creation. Christians work as agents in this restorative program. It is true that we run risks of becoming to intertwined with the broken systems of the world and of past church / state relationships, but at the same time, we cannot forget about God’s purposes for the whole world, including the state. Is the proper response in light of past errors to wash our hands of all engagement with civil society and government?

For Kuyper, even politics is grounded in God’s creative purposes and that it is not simply a remedial measure after the Fall. Though the family is the basic civil unit for Kuyper, he thought that this was intended to naturally extend into a broader hierarchical pattern, although one without sin. Some sort of collective decision-making would have been necessary for the advancement of a large group of people. Which side of the road would be driven on? When might one practice the tuba without fear of disturbing those who take a nap? God wants to give order by government.

‘Sphere Sovereignty’ needs some reworking but maintenance of two themes: (1) God has programmed the creature to display a marvelously complex diversity including a complex array of spheres of human interact, and (2) especially in sinful conditions we need to pay attention to the differences between these spheres.

‘Multiformity’ was necessary for creative life to flourish, as per Kuyper. In Genesis God wills that all life should multiple in keeping with its kind, and thus, the diversity of nature is to be upheld. This is part of God’s generosity. A healthy, God-honoring culture will be characterized by diversity, as well as diverse mediating structures that can nurture social identity and interaction between the individual and the state. These are a safe-guard both against individualism and a state-ism. Mediating structures, however, are not merely to be valued for their function, but God built these patterns into the very fabric of creation. The plurality of the spheres is ordained by God.

But, we must keep clear about the boundaries of these diverse spheres. One occupies different places in terms of authority or status and relationship in the various spheres, and relates to other people in those spheres in light of that status and relationship. But, these should be kept distinct, that is, one relates differently to you sibling in a business and a church than one does at home. At home, one must love and care for one’s sibling, but at church, one may need to excommunicate them. However, when one sphere is severely weakened, the others must fill in the gap and seek to repair the floundering sphere. For instance, in industrializing China and in our own culture these days, the church should take seriously the need to fill in for some of the functions of the family.

Some of Kuyper’s view on the family needs some rethinking. In Kuyper’s day, there were a handful of thick, coherent worldviews upon which families were based. In our day, worldviews are falling apart. Coherence and consistency seem not to be valued traits, especially in terms of worldview. People think that it is appropriate to move in and out between the various worldviews, holding to many and none at the same time, and switching frequently. Church-shopping is part of this problem. Whereas Kuyper put emphasis on parental choice to establish children in these various ‘pillars’ (worldviews), this breaks down in our day of fractured families. We should focus on fundamental issues. We are experiencing sphere-shrinkage and worldview deterioration. What we need is sphere-repair and worldview nurturing. This will require a lot of concerted engagement with society in terms especially of educational policy.

We must ask three question: (1) What is God doing in the world? (2) What must the church do to align itself with what God is doing in the world? (3) What must the church’s schools do to align themselves with the church who aligns itself with what God is doing in the world?

How can theological schools equip the church, which should equip its people, which should equip society? The church must compensate for the weakness of the family sphere at the moment, as it must with reference to other spheres and areas of concerns that are not strictly speaking items in the church’s original sphere responsibility. The problem is not simply that the church was too closely aligned to the state, but with the ecclesiology that enabled it. It was an assumption that the church could only express itself in one form and one institution. Thus, it was necessary to break the church into many fragments. For all the problems caused by a divided Christianity, Kuyper thought it necessary for the vitality of Christian life and societal life. In this form, each group engages from its own strength. It also helps to ensure that the church does not become too powerful. Keeping with this, Kuyper wanted the theological schools to be independent of both state and ecclesial structures.

What Kuyper understood to be the ecclesial sphere is remarkably weak today. Those Christians these days who seem to be Christian leaders are not church leaders – what body has commissioned them? There is room to strengthen ecclesial structures in our society. Lacking Christian social groups and political parties, the church can pick up some of the slack in this area. The church should take on an intentional sphere-spanning ministry of nurture. There is not now a solid base of those who knows what it means to be a Christian on which other Christian social organizations to draw upon, and it is the task of the church to address this. Much of our ecclesial work must be concerned with spiritual formation.

Kuyper recognizes that we cannot function in the various spheres as Christian without a sense of nearness to God that is grounded in the nurturing life of the local church.

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