Monday, May 20, 2013

Honoring Dr. Richard Mouw

Last night I attended a gala celebration honoring Dr. Richard Mouw, retiring president of Fuller Theological Seminary. It was great fun, and the love and appreciation that was poured out to the Mouws was delightful. People who know Dr. Mouw enjoyed teasing him publicly about his commitment to Calvinism, but also celebrated him as a generous Calvinist who had a deep love for the whole church and for people of faith in general.

My early church upbringing was in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. My understanding of that tradition was more about not being other things—not being Catholic, not being Pentecostal, and (heaven and unbridled free will help us all) not being Calvinist—than it was about actually being something in particular. I left that tradition in my early thirties, but found that my bones remained Wesleyan-Arminian.

I took those bones with me when I became a student at Fuller in my early 40s. I took at course from Dr. Mouw and later, after I graduated, participated in a number of seminars that he led over the years when I was a pastor. I’ve worked at Fuller for over seven years now, and Dr. Mouw’s influence on me has continued.

People like Richard Mouw periodically get in trouble now and again with the general Evangelical populace. The trouble comes from their willingness to engage with people that we Evangelicals don’t typically see as appropriate conversation partners. Dr. Mouw has engaged in dialogue with Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, not seeking to syncretize systems of belief, but to look for common ground upon which to begin in discussion and relationship. It is a conversation that can only be had among people who are deeply committed to their own faith. Dr. Mouw comes to the table as a Christian, first and last, and a Calvinist one at that. A lot of listening and new understanding has come from that work.

I was once in a pastors’ seminar with Dr. Mouw, and the topic was the Atonement. Many of the pastors in the room (including me), were reacting against the dominance of the penal substitutionary mode of defining the Atonement, and the way the theory seems to have limited the theological imagination of the Evangelical church. Things were getting pretty rowdy when Dr. Mouw took the microphone and told us, with a bit of consternation in his voice, “I still believe in substitution, but not when it pits the Father against the Son.” Those words stopped us and changed us. I know they changed me. Our perspective grew, and I’m glad for that.

After all these years, I still, for the most part, have Wesleyan-Arminian bones. I understand a bit more about that now, and my skin is comfortable adhering to that rickety theological skeleton. But there’s something new in that anatomical mix, and it’s that I now have some Calvinist cartilage.

I thank Dr. Mouw for that. If he’s an example of what it means to be a Calvinist, then it’s got to be a good thing.

(Dr. Mouw also wrote the foreward to my book, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist. I’ll always be grateful for his kind contribution.)

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