Calvinism and Sewage

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Calvinism and Sewage

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!

 

6 Comments »

  1. Rich,
    Would you be willing to post the Kuyper lectures. Any scholarship that demonstrates the “practical” nature of Reformed theology–whether for cleaning up sewers or session meetings–would be helpful indeed for many, I’d guess.

    Thanks.

    Comment by Tod Bolsinger — March 26, 2007 @ 7:28 pm


  2. […] Blogge Augustinian Reflections « AAR/West Mouw reflects on Calvinism and Sewage March 27th, 2007 Richard Mouw reflects a bit on an address he will be giving at Princeton.He’s had to cut back on a section that I think would be very interesting: 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. […]

    Pingback by Mouw reflects on Calvinism and Sewage « Tolle, Blogge — March 27, 2007 @ 6:19 pm


  3. […] The FV discussion continues on unabated. Matt Colvin has some very good thoughts on the debate here (makes sure that you read the comments). Lane Keister suggests that ego is the main thing standing in the way of FV people repenting of their errors. The huge number of comments that follow his post make interesting reading. Meanwhile, the Presbyteer posts an overheard comment. ***Mark Goodacre and Dr Jim West continue to discuss the value of Wikipedia. ***Richard Mouw writes on Calvinism and sewage [HT: Prosthesis]. ***Paul Duggan (who really needs to sort out his permalinks) puts forward the following statements for discussion: 1. Some Christians, because of their great faith or piety, are more effective than other Christians in begging God’s favors, say for healing the sick. […]

    Pingback by alastair.adversaria » Links — April 1, 2007 @ 4:35 pm


  4. By practical, do you mean easy? I think much of Kuypers “Lectures on Calvinism” lacks any deep ecclesiology, say like a Yoder or a Hauerwas. In my reading it seems that the Kuyperian reformed approach understands the Gospel as a means to make the social orders “Christian”. Which I think the Niebuhr’s picked up, perhaps not from Kuyper.

    I like what Hauerwas said once. Be a lawyer, but not a lawyer who happens to be a Christian…be a Christian who happens to be a lawyer. Lawyers “of the world” will practice law a certain way. And perhaps Jesus is saying to those who are following him and happen to be lawyers, “not so among you”.

    Maybe this is why the church in America has been turned into a fortune 500 corporate venture complete with “crystal cathedrals”. When we assume the way of Jesus just “practically” fits into life in the world, we have not heard the call of Christ. Its a call the disorients and then reorients us to live the way of Jesus in the world. There is not 5-7-9 step program for this, just the openness to subversive living.

    Comment by student — April 3, 2007 @ 1:37 am


  5. The Abraham Kuyper Consultation at Princeton 2007 Podcasts are HERE.

    http://libweb.ptsem.edu/collections/kuyper/conferences/podcasts.aspx
    Includes Mouw’s lecture in mp3.

    HERE is a condensed version in print.
    http://www.wrf.ca/comment/article.cfm?ID=259

    Comment by Baus — July 22, 2007 @ 12:29 pm


  6. I have recently added Kuyper’s Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology to audio and is available for free download at:

    http://reformedaudio.org/kuyper.html

    I hope you find this of interest.

    Blessings!

    Comment by Ryan — August 12, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

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