This past week I found myself reading an interview of Richard Mouw, Distinguished Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Seminary. The interviewer was James K.A. (Jamie) Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and author of my current read Desiring the Kingdom. The interview largely focused on the differences (tensions?) between the Neo-Calvinist and Anabaptist views of cultural engagement.
You may justifiably label me Neo-Calvinist, even Kuyperian. But I always appreciate the insight and correction that comes from those outside my circles. For that reason, I was intrigued by the names Mouw, a Neo-Calvinist, repeatedly referred to as representative of the Anabaptist perspective: John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. I had read both of them before, but at a time when I didn’t really have the framework to understand what they were saying and how it contrasted with anything else.
Coincidentally, as I was digesting the interview I had a few tweets come across my feed linking to the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas. I also discovered that some Christian thinkers I had recently followed aligned with Anabaptist perspectives. It was like one of those moments when a song you haven’t heard in twenty years suddenly comes on the radio, then appears on a television commercial, then inexplicably gets referenced in conversation. I’ve decided that when this happens in relation to theology or church practice I would spend some time chasing down the subject, especially if I don’t feel fully informed. So I’ve spent some time over the last week or so following links and tangents, even revisiting some things I’d read before.
An interesting dialog emerged between the things I was reading, works that span over a hundred years: Kuyper’s Stone Lectures from 1898, A John Howard Yoder paper from 1977, a paper that Yoder and Mouw wrote together in 1989, Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens from 1989, Mouw’s biography of Kuyper from 2011, and the recent interview from 2013. Obviously there are other important works missing from the dialog. But I’m not claiming this to be comprehensive in any way, just food for thought and maybe, a primer on the conversation. Below you will find some passages that I found interesting in relation to each other.
Yoder and Mouw (joint), on abandoning hostility and moving forward together:
- Suffice it to say here that we are both convinced that the idea that there is a strict polarity between the Anabaptist and Reformed ethical perspectives is both confused and confusing…an abandonment of the polarity idea is crucial to the health of the evangelical ethical quest. Any view of the relationship between the two historic communities is false which assumes that the identity of each is fully defined by their having been adversaries at the time of their beginnings. Yoder and Mouw – Evangelical Ethics and the Anabaptist-Reformed Dialogue (1989)
Yoder and Mouw (joint), on how the schism emerged:
- When the real differences between the two communities were taken up by polemicists whose arguments were shaped but he struggle for political domination, the commonalities began to recede to the background. Calvinist systematicians accused the Anabaptists of rejecting “the cultural mandate,” of breaching the unity of Christ’s body, and of showing disrespect for the revelation of God’s will in creation. Nor did their position of being ostracized and persecuted help the underdog Anabaptists to render a more nuanced account of the schism. They simply accused the Reformed of not following through with the initial commitment to a biblically oriented renewal of the Church. Each of these ways of projecting presuppositions behind the differences possesses a shade of credibility from a partisan standpoint…The distortion gets even worse when the historians lift out of history the “pure types” with which they hope to make sense out of confusion. Yoder and Mouw – Evangelical Ethics and the Anabaptist-Reformed Dialogue (1989)
Mouw, explaining the “cultural-mandate”:
- When we use the word “culture” to apply to human realities, we are referring to the ways in which we human beings cultivate patterns and processes that give meaning to our collective interactions, as well as the things that we “grow” as a result of those interactions. The Cultural Mandate For Kuyper, God cares deeply about culture and its development – so deeply that the divine desire that human beings engage in cultural activity was a central motive for God’s creating the world. In the narrative of Genesis 1, immediately after creating human beings in God’s own image, God gives them instructions about how to behave in the garden. In the three-part mandate of Genesis 1:28, the first thing God tells them is to “be fruitful and multiply.” That is about reproduction. He wants them to procreate, to have children. But when the Lord immediately goes on to tell them to “fill the earth,” that is a different assignment. This “filling” mandate, as viewed by Kuyper and others in the Reformed tradition, is a call to cultural activity – “the cultural mandate.” The first humans are placed in a garden – the raw nature of plants, animals, soil, and rocks – and they are instructed to introduce something new into that garden: the processes and products of human culture. When the Creator goes on to stipulate that they are to “have dominion” over the garden, that means they must manage – rule over – these patterns and processes of culture in obedience to God’s will. In the well-known formulation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, our “chief end” as created human beings “is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” – and at the heart of this glorifying our Maker is our obedient service as God’s designated caretakers in the cultural aspects of created life. Our true “enjoyment” includes our flourishing in the kind of participation in created life that God intends for us. Mouw – Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (2011)
Kuyper, on the all-encompassing nature of the “cultural-mandate”:
- God is present in all life, with the influence of His omnipresent and almighty power, and no sphere of human life is conceivable in which religion does not maintain its demands that God shall be praised, that God’s ordinances shall be observed, and that every labora shall be permeated with its ora in fervent and ceaseless prayer. Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God, he is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God. Consequently, it is impossible for a Calvinist to confine religion to a single group, or to some circles among men. Religion concerns the whole of our human race. Abraham Kuyper: The Stone Lectures (1898)
Kuyper, on how Calvinists and Anabaptists differ in relation to the “cultural-mandate”:
- The avoidance of the world has never been the Calvinistic mark, but the shibboleth of the Anabaptist. The specific, anabaptistical dogma of “avoidance” proves this. According to this dogma, the Anabaptists, announcing themselves as “saints,” were severed from the world. They stood in opposition to it. They refused to take the oath; they abhorred all military service; they condemned the holding of public offices. Here already, they shaped a new world, in the midst of this world of sin, which however had nothing to do with this our present existence. They rejected all obligation and responsibility towards the old world, and they avoided it systematically, for fear of contamination, and contagion. But this is just what the Calvinist always disputed and denied. It is not true that there are two worlds, a bad one and a good, which are fitted into each other. It is one and the same person whom God created perfect and who afterwards fell, and became a sinner—and it is this same “ego” of the old sinner who is born again, and who enters into eternal life. So, also, it is one and the same world which once exhibited all the glory of Paradise, which was afterwards smitten with the curse, and which, since the Fall, is upheld by common grace; which has now been redeemed and saved by Christ, in its center, and which shall pass through the horror of the judgment into the state of glory. For this very reason the Calvinist cannot shut himself up in his church and abandon the world to its fate. He feels, rather, his high calling to push the development of this world to an even higher stage, and to do this in constant accordance with God’s ordinance, for the sake of God, upholding, in the midst of so much painful corruption, everything that is honorable, lovely, and of good report among men. Abraham Kuyper: The Stone Lectures (1898)
Yoder, in response:
- That the Anabaptists reject all concern for the civil order is not a fact of history but rather a defamatory statement in the reformed confessions. In what other area is the historian still ready to take at face value the description of dissenters as stated by their persecutors?
- Mouw thinks affirming the “cultural mandate” is an argument against me. This only makes sense if that mandate’s content is univocally (one meaning or interpretation) that which I refuse to do. This is very obvious in the classical discussion of Richard Niebuhr. The single sentence in Christ and Culture which refers to the Mennonites says that they “are opposed to culture because they operate their own schools”. But it would not occur to you to say that the Calvinists are opposed to culture because they operate their own schools. To be doing something different about education is still to be doing something about education and not negating it.
- To be consistent you must be against it all or for it all, in dialectical tension with it all or to transforming it all. It is therefore, according to this understanding of the cultural mandate, an offense in logic and perhaps even in morality when the Anabaptist is willing to take more responsibility for some elements of culture than for others, especially desirous of being creative and self-sustaining in some, desirous of cooperating with the non-Christian neighbor in others, and willing to leave still others in the hands of non-Christian neighbors. I would see that ethical selectivity as the essence of responsibility for limited resources in a diaspora situation, my Calvinist brother sees it as culpable inconsistency.
- On the one hand I am told that I am wrong because my position implies a systematic dualism and total withdrawal from the social struggle, and it is wrong to withdraw from the social struggle. But then when I say I also consider if wrong to withdraw from social struggle, because Jesus was politically involved, I get two contradictory answers. One is that I am cheating logically because I ought to want to withdraw according to their image of what my position implies. I do not defend their image of what I ought to believe. Instead of seeing that as a challenge to the accuracy of their image, they challenge my representativity. The other is that they wish I would withdraw , because they do not want my Jesus and me in the real arena with real alternatives. They want me to affirm the irrelevance which is their a prior pigeonhole for me. My acceptance of withdrawal as the price of my faithfulness is needed for them to explain lesser-evil calculations as the price of their responsible involvement. John Howard Yoder – The Apriori Difficulty of “Reformed-Anabaptist Conversation” (1977)
- …In saying, “The church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy,” we are attempting to indicate an alternative way of looking at the political, social significance of the church. The church need not feel caught between the false Niebuhrian dilemma of whether to be in or out of the world, politically responsible or introspectively irresponsible. The church is not out of the world. There is no other place for the church to be than here. In the sixties, it became fashionable to speak of the need for the church to be “in” the world, serving the world. We think that we could argue that being in the world, serving the world, has never been a great problem for the church. Alas, our greatest tragedies occurred because the church was all too willing to serve the world. The church need not worry about whether to be in the world. The church’s only concern is how to be in the world, in what form, for what purpose.
- It seeks to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and can never be, lacking the gift of faith and vision, which is ours in Christ. The confessing church seeks the visible church, a place, clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world.
Mouw, Kuyper, then Yoder on the Fall’s effect on the “cultural-madate”:
- …That was what God intended for the unfallen creation: that human beings would “fill the earth” by working with the stuff of nature to produce culture. Unfortunately, though, things did not go smoothly. Human beings rebelled against God and disrupted the original design for the creation and for their role in it. What is important for Kuyper’s account, though, is that the fact of our fallenness does not in anyway diminish either the reality or the importance of cultural formation. What human rebellion against the will of God does introduce into the picture is that now we have two very different patterns of cultural formation in the world: cultural disobedience as well as cultural obedience. …To put it mildly, all of this has had very serious effects on cultural activity. Prior to the Fall, the processes and products of culture were directed toward glorifying God; the human pair were managing their cultural activity in obedience to God. After the Fall, the cultural mandate of “filling the earth” underwent a serious change. Sin certainly does not put an end to cultural activity, but it does pervert it…But now all of this cultural activity is scarred by sinful rebellion. While technology, for example, was originally meant to facilitate service to God as a means of managing and enjoying the created order, soon rebellious humans defiantly attempted to “build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens,” so as “to make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). These distortions of cultural activity brought about by sin, however, have not irreparably damaged the good creation. The situation is not one of a total obliteration of God’s original designs.Kuyper would enthusiastically endorse what H. Richard Niebuhr said about the “transforming culture” theme in his classic Christ and Culture book. Culture, says Niebuhr, has been become distorted and perverted because of human sin. But the corruption that we see, he also insists, “is all corrupted order rather than order for corruption…. It is perverted good, not evil; or it is evil as perversion and not as badness of being.”‘ Mouw – Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (2011)
- Henceforth the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life. To praise God in the Church and serve Him in the world became the inspiring impulse, and, in the Church, strength was to be gathered by which to resist temptation and sin in the world. Thus puritanic sobriety went hand in hand with the reconquest of the entire life of the world, and Calvinism gave the impulse to that new development which dared to face the world…although never allowing itself to be intoxicated by its poisonous cup. Especially in its antithesis to Anabaptism, Calvinism exhibits itself in bold relief…and proclaimed that the Church must withdraw again within its spiritual domain, and that in the world we should realize the potencies of God’s common grace. Abraham Kuyper: The Stone Lectures (1898)
- The Fall makes a difference in the empirical order of society which is no longer wholesome and mutually supporting as it was. To the extent to which the order of nature is an order which can be perceived within the structures of nature, this knowability is lost. Secondly, the human mind in its capacity to know the truth, however that truth be understood (special revelation, empirical nature, speculative nature) is distorted by the fall. My capacity and desire to know the truth are distorted by my desire to use the truth for my own purposes and my desire to avoid those parts of the truth with which I disagree. Even if some sense it could be held that the truth remains essentially unconfused despite the Fall, and and my ability to receive it is not radically destroyed, there still remains the flaw in my will which no longer desires to obey but prefers to use the arena of history to act out my rebelliousness, my will to power, and my hostility to my brother. Even if despite all that has been said my will were unfallen and my knowledge were unfallen, my ability to control the course of events would no longer be whole. The chain of causation, the structures of the social order, communication and decision making are fallen as well…Clear that a level of trust in reason and nature are being affirmed which fit poorly with what is said about human reason at other points in the reformed system, or with what is said about depravity with regard to the mind and the will of fallen man. John Howard Yoder – The Apriori Difficulty of “Reformed-Anabaptist Conversation” (1977)
Hauerwas, on Neibhur’s Christ and Culture:
- We have come to believe that few books have been a greater hindrance to an accurate assessment of our situation than Christ and Culture. Niebuhr rightly saw that our politics determines our theology. He was right that Christians cannot reject “culture.” But his call to Christians to accept “culture” (where is this monolithic “culture” Niebuhr describes?) and politics in the name of the unity of God’s creating and redeeming activity had the effect of endorsing a Constantinian social strategy. “Culture” became a blanket term to underwrite Christian involvement with the world without providing any discriminating modes for discerning how Christians should see the good or the bad in “culture.” Hauerwas – Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (1989)
Yoder, on the argument that the Fall necessitates “the sword” in fulfilling the cultural-mandate:
- I observed above the mixture of appeals in Reformed views of the state. That there must be order is a created mandate; but that it must wield the sword is not. The fusion of creation and Fall is not merely an imprecision. It is a logical illegitimate move whereby a number of substantial questions are passed ever, or (to say it another way) a number of substantial assumptions are smuggled in without examination. John Howard Yoder – The Apriori Difficulty of “Reformed-Anabaptist Conversation” (1977)
Kuyper, then Yoder, on whether the cultural mandate applies to all people:
- Can we imagine that at one time God willed to rule things in a certain moral order, but that now, in Christ, He wills to rule it otherwise? As though He were not the Eternal, the Unchangeable, Who, from the very hour of creation, even unto all eternity, had willed, wills, and shall will and maintain, one and the same firm moral world-order! Verily Christ has swept away the dust with which man’s sinful limitations had covered up this world-order, and has made it glitter again in its original brilliancy…. [T]he world-order remains just what it was from the beginning. It lays full claim, not only to the believer (as though less were required from the unbeliever), but to every human being and to all human relationships.’ Abraham Kuyper: The Stone Lectures (1898)
- When we speak seriously of the moral obligation derived from creation we can assume the univocality of the divine will. God ‘s purpose is the same for all men because they all are in the same situation with the same potential and the same function. After the fall and especially after the conditional divine interventions classically referred to as the covenant with Adam and the covenant with Noah (situation still further complicated by further covenants between then and now) that univocality is gone by definition. There is no self evident reason to assume that the will of God has the same meaning for a Jew as for a Gentile in the age of Moses, when tabernacle worship and circumcision are not expected of the nations . There is no self-evident reason to assume that the obligations of Christians and non-Christians are the same in the New Testament when one decides and acts within the reestablished covenant of grace and the other does not. There is no reason to have to assume that the moral performance which God expects of the regenerate he equally expects of the unregenerate. Of course, on some much more elevated level of abstraction, our minds demand that we project an unique and univocal ultimate or ideal will of God. But it is precisely nature of his patience with fallen humanity that God condescends to deal with us on other levels. The well-intentioned but uninformed heathen, the informed but rebellious child of the believer, the regenerate but ignorant, the educated victim of heretical teaching, the teacher, and the bearer of a distinct charisma all stand in different moral positions. For our purposes the importance of this observation is that we are called to exercise patience in the recognition of the possible good intentions of the person whose concrete ethics are different from ours. Recognizing this kind of pluralism may make us less brittle in the face of the Anabaptist who says (in the position of being persecuted) that there is no place for him in government, without asking the same withdrawal in other times and place. John Howard Yoder – The Apriori Difficulty of “Reformed-Anabaptist Conversation” (1977)
Mouw, on the appeal of Anabaptism:
- A lot of the new Anabaptist thing is represented by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s Resident Aliens. They’ve been picked up by a number of really fine thinkers in the evangelical world and the ethics programs in a lot of colleges and seminaries of evangelicalism have been determined more by the Hauerwasian idea of community and character and virtue and the need for a community that nurtures those virtues and the kind of character that allows us to stand over against the prevailing principalities-and-powers-shaped culture that we’re a part of. Right now, one of the problems in Neo-Calvinism is that we’ve never really developed an ethics. We have politics and we have a good economic theory and a lot of other things. But how do you live your life? We really don’t have the kind of Calvinist ethics that can stand alongside of a Hauerwasian ethics…You knew what sphere you were in when you were doing politics or law or other . . . but it wasn’t quite clear where ethics fit into things. So it ended up being very law-oriented. I’m all in favour of that; I think the lawful ordering of creation is a very profound insight of Neo-Calvinism. But if all we have is a lawful ordering of creation, I don’t think we’d always have very nice people. [Laughing] Richard Mouw – Cardus Interview (2013)
Mouw, again, on Anabaptist sectarianism vs. Neo-Calvinist engagement:
- One of the weaknesses of an Anabaptist ethic is that there isn’t really a lot of room for talking about commonness, about public vocabulary for talking about justice and peace and loving relationships; whereas in the Neo-Calvinist tradition, there’s already some impulse in that direction that we need to be working on. Richard Mouw – Cardus Interview (2013)
The first quote calls for an abandonment of the “polarity idea” in pursuit of common ground from which to discuss Christian ethics and cultural engagement. Yoder and Mouw, representative of their camps, do find a bit of that common ground, at least in 1989. United against the private, individualistic faith that plagues much of modern evangelicalism, both traditions emphasize the corporate witness of the church to a fallen world.
- …For both traditions “following Jesus” has an inescapably corporate dimension to it. And the corporateness here is not fully contained within the “internal” patterns of Christian community. The church serves in turn as a paradigmatic society – an eschatological sign of God’s communal designs for the New Creation. Yoder and Mouw – Evangelical Ethics and the Anabaptist-Reformed Dialogue (1989)