I have been putting the finishing touches on the Kuyper Lecture that I will be giving at Princeton Seminary this week. In the end, a good part of the editing process has meant cutting out some things in order to stay within the time limit for delivering the lecture. One of the sections I had to cut back on a bit had to do with offering examples of the ways in which Kuyper’s theology of culture has provided practical guidance to “ordinary” Christians in their daily pursuits of their callings. I have never, for example, come across anyone who has testified that Karl Barth’s theology was a real help to them in understanding how to serve the Lord in the insurance business, or in teaching English literature, or in selling cars. But I can offer dozens of examples of that kind of testimony with reference to Kuyper’s thought.
I consider this to be a theological strength, one that Kuyper exhibited in obvious ways, but which is also an emphasis that shows up regularly in Calvinism more generally. Here is an example I had to cut out of my earlier lecture draft. There was a time when the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and I engaged in an ongoing debate about the differences between Reformed and Anabapist thought on political-cultural issues–focusing both on the disagreements between our two traditions in the sixteenth century, as well as on the sort of updating of those traditonal perspectives that we were both working on.
During that period I spoke on many Mennonite campuses and at other gatherings, sometimes for a public dialogue with Yoder, but also often for solo appearances. On one of the latter occasions I was quite puzzled about the topic I was asked to address. A rural Mennonite congregation asked me to give a series of talks about “guidelines for Christian political action.”
This was not the sort of thing I was usually asked to talk about in those contexts; typically my hosts wanted to hear about why I disagreed with the classic Anabaptist refusal to work within the political structures of what they viewed as a thoroughly fallen social order. When I met the person who had issued this particular invitation, I asked him about the unusual twist.
His response was very telling. “Well,” he said, “Yoder wants to talk in very abstract terms about political engagement. But we here–especially my wife and I–think much more practically. My wife is a member of the local school board and I happen to be the county drain commissioner. We were both elected to our positions. Yoder doesn’t say very helpful things for folks like us.”
He was pointing to an important challenge for Anabaptist thought. When the early Mennonites insisted that it was not proper for disciples of Jesus Christ to take on the obligations of citizenship in the larger society, they frowned not only on military service, but on any sort of direct involvement within the political structures–and they did so in a time when it was fairly easy to figure out how to avoid the demands of “citizenship.” But in present-day democracies, we are all a part of “the body politic,” whether we like it or not. As my Mennonite inviters were well aware, you can’t opt out of responsibility for public education or sewage systems simply by claiming that you have separated yourself from the “sinful structures.”
What pleases me especially about the Mennonite drain commissioner’s asking a Calvinist for advice is the connection to Calvin’s leadership in the city of Geneva. When Calvin finally gained significant clout in that city, he used his influence on the local politicians to design and install a new sewage system–a project motivated by Calvin’s concern about good sanitation in the city. I don’t think my Mennonite drain commissioner knew about that historical fact. But perhaps insitinctively he sensed that we Calvinists specialized in cleaning up sewers–not only in the spiritual sense, but sometimes also quite literally!