Editorial note: This reflection from Richard Mouw is part of a curated discussion on “Christian Perspectives in Higher Learning.” See David Hoekema’s introduction to that discussion here.
I need to begin by saying how pleased I am to be on the platform with these fellow panelists, who are also cherished friends. The other three presenters are actually the persons who drew me to the Calvin College faculty in the late 1960s. Al Plantinga had been my teacher at the University of Chicago, when he taught a seminar there as a visiting professor. Nick Wolterstorff had not only influenced me by his writings in the Reformed Journal, but I also had attended sessions where he presented papers at the American Philosophical Association. And I can still remember reading in my graduate school days an article that greatly impressed me in Christianity Today by George Marsden, and thinking about how great it would be to work alongside a person with his insights into the evangelical movement. Joining the Calvin community, then, was for me a dream come true, and the dream kept going for the 17 years of my time on the faculty here.
This is a good occasion also to explain publicly why I left Calvin to join the Fuller Seminary faculty in the mid-1980s. The truth is, I had no intention of leaving, but I entertained Fuller’s offer only to use as a bargaining chip with the Calvin administration. At a certain point President Diekema called me into his office, and said that he heard I was thinking about moving to Fuller. “What can I do to keep you at Calvin?” he asked. My well-considered reply was that I would stay at Calvin if he would appoint me as head coach of the men’s basketball team. His immediate reply shocked me into the realization that I had overplayed my hand. Without a moment’s pause he said: “Go to Fuller!” The rest is history.
In all seriousness, my clear sense in leaving Calvin was that the Lord had given me the gift of working closely with an amazing community of colleagues and students, and now he was saying to some of us, “Take what you have learned here into new areas of service.” Within the span of a few short years, then, Al went to Notre Dame, Nick went to Yale, George went to Duke, and then on to Notre Dame, and I departed for Fuller. And there were others also who joined our diaspora during that same period. To name a couple of obvious examples, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen moved to Eastern University, Steve Monsma to Pepperdine, Dale Van Kley to Ohio State, and Paul Henry to the United States Congress. We all went with a sense of a mission to bring the vision that had inspired us here to other important academic contexts.
For me the context was theological education, where Fuller Seminary was—and is—seen as a highly influential center for theological scholarship. Lew Smedes had moved from Calvin to Fuller at the time I arrived in Grand Rapids, and as he was nearing retirement he made it clear that he saw me as stepping into his role as the representative of Calvin College Kuyperianism on Fuller’s faculty. In part, this meant for me that I would keep teaching at Fuller much of the same material that I had taught at Calvin. For example, I regularly assigned Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism to my Fuller students. I will never forget a response to that assignment, from an African American student in one of the first courses I taught at the seminary. “I love what this Kuyper says,” she told me. “Not that I agree with all of his Calvinism” – she was a Pentecostal – “but what he gives me is a Jesus who shed his blood for my sins and who also cares about justice.”
Her testimony expressed a more general longing that was beginning to be articulated in new ways in the evangelicalism of the final decades of the 20th century. Many Pentecostals, Baptists, Wesleyans, conservative students from mainline denominations, people in university campus ministries, the large numbers who were flocking to new-style “emergent” congregations – they were looking for a robust evangelicalism that embraced a Gospel of saving grace that spoke to all of life: the arts, politics, economic systems, the sciences, a concern for the marginalized.
For those of us representing the Kuyperian world and life view in those settings, the challenge has been to respect the theological diversity of evangelicalism while finding ways to mine the specific traditions for Kuyperian-like themes that can enrich the more general patterns of present-day discipleship. A case in point: during the past two years I have been invited on several occasions to address audiences in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition about how they can articulate within their own framework the kind of emphasis on Christ’s cosmic Lordship that Kuyper gave expression to in his “every square inch of creation” manifesto. I have reflected with them on John Wesley’s oft-quoted statement that “the world is my parish.” Too often that has been distorted into a church-restricted sense of Christ’s rule, as in “my parish is my world.” But another way to understand Wesley is as insisting that the fullness of creation is a kind of “parish” – a rich and complex expanse in which Christ calls us to serve the cause of his Kingdom.
The first time I met Dr. William Spoelhof – another of the heroes in my life – was when I was interviewed as a potential faculty member at Calvin. I had gone through the process up to the point where the College’s final decision about me depended on whether I received the president’s approval. Those were days when persons from non-CRC backgrounds were a rarity on the Calvin faculty – my memory is that the only colleagues in that category were Charlie Miller, Don Wilson and George. To make matters worse, I had been raised in the Reformed Church in America, which made me more suspect than someone who, like George, had been Orthodox Presbyterian and a graduate of Westminster Seminary.
Dr. Spoelhof focused on two issues in our conversation. One was whether I was willing to support the Christian school system. I receive high grades on that one when I told him I had attended Riverside Christian School in Paterson – also his alma mater. The other issue was my fit with the college’s vision for liberal arts education. Spoelhof made his point forcefully and memorably. To put it in stark terms, he said, if on one evening the college’s worshiping space was burnt to the ground at the same time as the entire Religion faculty died, Calvin would be as Christian the next morning as it had been the previous morning. “What makes this a Christian college,” he said, “is what we teach in chemistry, sociology, literature and all the other disciplines.”
My guess is that Dr. Spoelhof’s formulation was starker than what he really believed, but his basic point was clear and profound. Christian liberal arts education isn’t just about attaching worship activities to a generic conception of the world of ideas. Nor is it just about required theology courses. To make that point in those days was to state something about the uniqueness of our Reformed understanding of higher education within the larger Christian movement. Today, that point is widely accepted in the evangelical academy. And those of us – like the four of us here on this panel – who have been “out there” seeing that vision take hold in new ways, can do so with a profound gratitude for what we were able to be a part of “in here.”
In expressing my gratitude for the formative time I spent with these colleagues on this campus, I must add one observation. We were able to be shaped in profound ways by the Calvin community because it has been a community that has understood that the broad world and life view that Kuyper and others articulated so well has to be grounded in a deep commitment to the details of a Reformed theological perspective in which a central emphasis is placed on our desperate need as lost sinners for a salvation that could only be made available to us by sovereign grace.
Al and I were both present one evening in the 1970s at Calvin Christian Reformed Church when the great Henry Stob preached a marvelous sermon on John 3:16. Stob was an eloquent articulator of the kind of vision set forth in John 3:17, that the Son came into the cosmos – the fullness of the creation – not to condemn the creation but that the cosmos in its rich complexity might be saved through his redeeming work. But in his sermon that evening, Stob made it clear that his wonderful “every square inch” vision was inextricably linked to God’s unmerited love for sinners like us. I thank God for the privilege of having served, with these colleagues, in an academic community wherein we were absolutely clear about that link.