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The Table Video

Richard Mouw

Civility, Arguing Theology, Disagreement, Formation, Courage - Laura Smit & Rich Mouw

President Emeritus and Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
July 13, 2017

Laura Smit and Richard Mouw discuss Civility, Arguing Theology, Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue, Courage.


So, I wanted to start by just acknowledging to everybody that you guys actually have a friendship that goes back quite a way.

Yes, it goes back back to the classroom actually.

Yeah, which is so wonderful to have you both here now and I wanted to ask, put you on the spot a little bit, what is something that you each have learned from the other? ‘Cause I know that you have come into contact, even in later years, and I wanted to ask about what you’ve learned form each other but also about the process of practicing that sort of hospitality. Sort of taking in lessons from other people. Do you have any ideas about that? Some reflections?

Well, what I’ve learned form Laura Smith? Oh gee. There’s a story I’d often tell, a wonderful occasion. Laura graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary, was allowed to appear before the senate of the Christian Reformed Church, which did not ordain women at the time, to make her case why she as the best preacher at the seminary and all the rest should be ordained. And they did two things. They gave her a standing ovation and they voted against her. [audience laughs] So then she sought ordination in the Presbyterian in the PCUSA. But many years later we were at a conference in Alabama at Beeson Divinity School.


And it was on ecumenism but it was a rather conservative group. They were all Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics ’cause Father Richard Newhouse was one of the key speakers and people from the Presbyterian Church in America, the PCA, which does not ordain women as well. And I was one of the speakers, Father Newhouse and Laura. Laura was invited by Timothy George, the dean there, to talk about the question of the ordination of women as an ecumenically divisive issue. She was standing before a rather hostile crowd, or at least a crowd that was negative and I will never forget the wonderful talk that she gave.

She said, “I wanna tell you I believe I’m called by God to be an ordained. Many of you will disagree with that, but that’s a secondary theological issue and we can argue about that and I’d be glad to argue and I’ll argue about it as long as you wanna argue about it. But here are the primary theological issues. The full Divinity of Jesus Christ, the full authority of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ, the second coming of Christ. Those are non-negotiables for me. And if we can agree on those things, then we can talk about who should be ordained under the authority of God’s Word and under the authority of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” I just thought first of all, that was a wonderful thing to say to that crowd and secondly, I was so proud of her and I learned something about making your case.

That’s the one thing that I got so many years ago from John Perkins as well. He made room for white evangelicals and he stuck with us. He was willing to argue with us but is was all under the authority of God’s word and if we were gonna defend practices that had clear touches of racism and injustice, we had to make our case in the light of God’s word. And I’m so grateful for Laura and John Perkins and others in my life who’ve taught me what it’s like to disagree under the authority of God’s word and in the service of being a representative of the Word of God.

Thank you.


I’ve got several Rich stories. I’m trying to pick one. I think that I’ve been especially impressed by how Richard’s been involved in the Mormon-Christian dialogue and the generosity that you showed to Mormons while still being really clear about what’s what. And it’s changed how I think about interactions with Mormons. Because of Rich I went to a conference and represented Presbyterianism at Brigham Young University at a conference about the atonement. You got me into that I think. And so I started to get to know some of the same people that he gets to know.

There’s a conversation that needs to happen there and I had not been very open to that conversation before.


Richard, you brought up a term, ecumenism. In that concept of finding common ground, I wanted to ask you, there is an ecumenical mission within Christianity and then there’s this broader vision, right? And I just want to ask, when it comes to hospitality and being hospitable to those we disagree with within the church, what can we focus on as commonalities and what are some common core elements? Clearly there’s this doctrinal issues that are just non-negotiable, but some of the other, you might say handles, to hang on to and then the same beyond the church when we’re in conversation with those that we would still need to have some level of unity, some level of co-operation with.

I think as we debate within the church on one of the most controversial issues of the day, sexuality issues. I talked to a Presbyterian pastor a number of years ago and we got into an argument because he and I disagreed on same sex issues of ordination and marriage, and I said, “Well how do you interpret Romans 1?” And he said, “Well I don’t even read Romans 1. “I can’t stand Paul, I never preach on Paul. “Paul is wrong about a lot of things.” That’s very different. Then I mentioned my good friend, Barbara Wheeler, with whom I’ve had debates all over the Presbyterian denomination on this. If I ask her, “What do you do with Romans 1?” She’ll say, “Let’s open the Scriptures “and look at it.”

And she and I have different interpretations but it’s an interpretation under the authority of God’s word and when it’s an argument about whether there is a word from God that is supreme authority on our lives, that’s a very different argument within the Christian community than the argument about how we understand the Word of God. The Mormon case is an interesting case, as we move outside of traditional Christianity because if we had begun 15 years ago, we’ve just finished 15 years of very frequent and lengthy dialogue. If we had begun by just saying to them, “What about Joseph Smith?” and arguing that he plagiarized the book of Mormon or something. But instead we decided to focus on the question, “How does a human being get right with God “and what’s the world view there?”

Mormons have this strange thing that they say, that God and man, this is their language, God and man are of the same species. I find that deeply offensive as a traditional Christian, certainly as a Calvinist. You know, the great gap between Creator and creature, the gap to being, which they deny. But the more we talked about it, the more I came to realize that Mormonism comes out of a reaction to New England Communism. At the same time as you have Ralph Waldo Emerson talking about transcendentalism, you had Mary Baker Eddy talking about God and human beings are all part of some grand mind, spirit and in each case, they were trying to bring God closer to us.

Against the background of our Calvinism, with whom I’d agree deeply on fundamentals, but it was a Calvinism that often had such a distant God and had such a huge gap. These folks were trying to bridge the gap ontologically but they were pointing to the fact that we had created a gap spiritually between ourselves and God. And once we give in to that, it’s a very different conversation and it’s a very productive conversation because we’re talking about what it means to have a proper relationship with the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world and that’s an important conversation to have.

Yeah, not doubt, having conversations like that, long, lengthy ones. For people who aren’t used to that kind of thing, it can be a scenario where there’s a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, a lot of insecurity around that. We don’t normally gravitate to conflict like that. And fear came up in some of what you were saying, Laura and the idea of inviting these foreign ideas, strangers, foreigners so to speak, into one’s home and create some space for them, that has the feeling of just heaping danger on yourself. I just wanted to ask you both to comment on that. Maybe Laura you could start.

Well, there is sometimes real danger. If you’re a pastor and you start reaching out to your Mormon neighbors in a way that looks like you’re “soft” on Mormonism, you might pay for that in your church. I think you’ve probably paid for it, I’m sure you have in your setting. So there’s often this sense that people will think I’m not a serious Christian. People out there are going to judge me and maybe it will hurt me in my job and maybe it will hurt me in my role in the church and sometimes it will. So, those fears are not always irrational and yet, Jesus tells us that perfect love cast out fear and that to work from a place of self protection, that’s not following in the path of Christ at all, is it? So I don’t speak as somebody who has mastered that.

I think I’m often quite fearful but at least we have to confess that that sort of fear is sinful and that courage is a virtue that every Christian is called to. I think I used to believe that only some people were called to be courageous. You know, that it was like being physically strong. Some people have this quality of courage, but some of us get to be cowardly wisses and that’s okay, it’s just a personality trait. But no, everybody is required to demonstrate courage and a part of our call to courage, is being willing to do frightening things like encounter people who are different.

Yeah, Rich, you have any comments on that?

Well, I agree with Laura and I think we’re all called to courage. I think the call comes to different people in different ways. I was once in a group with the great sociologist, Peter Berger, in my early days of evangelicals for social justice. I made this comment that every Christian is called to work actively for peace and justice in the world. And Peter Berger, really a kind of brilliant Lutheran, turned to me and said, “Let me tell you about “one of my aunts who lives in a retirement village and she has problems controlling her bladder. “And every day it takes great courage for her “to decide to go in for lunch because she’s afraid “that she will embarrass herself in the cafeteria line. “And you want her, what did you want her to do? “Work actively for peace and justice in the world? “She may be more courageous in her commitment to Christ “than a lot of you types who are always working “for peace and justice in the world.” And I was chasten by that. That’s a very important thing and so sometimes, it’s just simply going over and introducing yourself to your Muslim neighbor.


It may not be engaging in dialogue, but it might be bringing them a coffee cake or asking them something about how they’re doing. Courage can take different forms and for different people with different talents and different callings, I think. But each of us, I think, needs to think about what God is calling us to be courageous about doing as Christians.

I hear some formational language in there and that we can ease into it in some ways. Or if ease into it’s the wrong word, we need to be trained in some way and contextualized. Laura, I want to bring it back to you. So you described great spiritedness or magnanimity as, “the sustained, disciplined love for what is good.” So I wanna ask, how is that taught? How is a love for the good, and in this context that I have now empirical evidence that children do not come into the world with sustained and disciplined love for the good.

He’s gonna be a Calvinist too.

I want to know how to form, not just for children of course, but how is that love formed?

I think that, most fundamentally, the Holy Spirit awakens it in us, right? I use the prayer book of the Church of England and every day, we pray, “Holy Spirit, “kindle in us today the fire of Your love.” Because I don’t assume that I can just love on my own. But I do think that it’s a community work and it’s something that gets passed on in community. And of the things that Lewis is doing in the Abolition of man, is showing that every culture has some of these kinds of values that do in fact get passed down.

When an entire culture is in agreement that the family is at the heart of the culture, then people tend to grow up believing the family is at the heart of the culture. When an entire culture believes that the most valuable thing you can do in your life, is to lay down your life for your country, people tend to grow up believing that and then they act on that belief. So what are the beliefs that we as the church should be inculcating in our children and in each other? And they’re not exactly the same values as the world around us.

So for us, frankly, the family is not the heart of the community. We’ve kind of bought that idea of family as the heart of everything from the world around us but now the church, the family of God, is the heart of our community and our identity as brothers and sisters together. So there are all sorts of values that are specific to us that we should be raising children up with from the beginning. But we need to do it together.

Interviewer: Yeah, Rich?

I think some of the things Mike was saying earlier about judgment in the church, I think, is so important. I think we have failed as the church certainly an evangelical community. We failed at what we think of as catachresis and that it’s not enough just to preach some good sermons, but there’s a nurture, there’s a formation that has to take place. It can be a very simple thing but it has to be intentional. I’ve been hearing a lot of Islamophobia lately.

You know, “These Muslims…” Its simply a fact, I know this has been true in the past, but I’m gonna guarantee you this, that in the last month, little kids, little Muslim kids, in Orange County, California, got beat up on the way home from school by kids who didn’t like Muslims. There was a group of nuns right after 9/11, in Orange County, who went and walked Muslim kids home from school. That ought to be said in churches, that whatever you think about Islamic terrorism and the like, it’s just terrible that little Muslim kids in California get beat up because they’re Muslims.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful for Christians to stand at their side. To go to you Muslim mother neighbor and just say, “How are your kids doing? “This must be a difficult time for them at school.” It takes courage, but there are those opportunities. The human audacia of the suffering of Muslim children, is something that aught to be talked about, prayed about in churches. And there’s a kind of cataclasis in those things and the kind of thing that Christina was talking about. I mean, you hear so much stupid stuff being said about Ferguson and related issues.

If you can’t do anything else, pray for the mothers of those boys. They must be fearful and worried. And the families of young, black men who are in prison. Can’t we at least find some way of humanizing that and creating empathy. And I think there are obvious ways in which you can do that, that really do reach into people’s hearts.

Interviewer: Yeah, you say humanizing. That simple act, even of it’s just a metaphor for ideas, but inviting someone into your home has a way of personalizing them and humanizing them and yet I’m wondering, in this conversation, are there lines to draw? What things should we be more hospitable to in a person and what should we be less hospitable to? Or is that even a meaningful distinction?

I would say this, I mean if I had a chance in say, 1942, to spend an hour with Adolf Hitler, I wouldn’t say, “Hey, give me some feelings “about your anger towards Jews.” Since I’m not a Pacifist, I would probably think about ways to kill him for the horrible things that he was doing.

There are times, and the dangers of civility line, since I’ve written on that, kept get through to me tonight, but there are times that civility just is not enough. There are times that we simply need to go beyond civility. But it is one thing to not want to pay Adolf Hitler the honor of engaging him in dialogue. It’s another thing to talk about how we evangelize Neo-Nazi kids. Kids that are attracted to those racist ideas, those horrible ideological themes and there I do think we need to think about what it means to present Jesus Christ as the One who can respond better than Nazi ideology or Ku Klux Klan ideology to the deeper yearnings of the human spirit. Because in many ways, what racist and what Nazis are longing for, is to be, in a very distorted and perverse sort of way, a chosen race, a chosen nation and we consider them, boy, do we have a nation for you, do we have a kingdom for you.

That you can find true unity in Jesus Christ and true human flourishing in Jesus Christ. I think we need to have that kind of discernment but there are a lot of ideas that I don’t know what to do with in terms of dialogue.

It’s come up several times tonight, the idea of separating the person from their ideas. I just wanted to ask what are some of the ways that you try to do that? Are there things you actually do to remind yourself? Are there habits, modes of being that you bring to conversations to remember that the person before me is not just the sum total of their ideas?

I find it’s very helpful to pray for people. If there’s someone I’m tempted to demonize, someone I’m tempted to just see as other who’s giving me trouble, to pray God’s blessing on that person. Not just to pray that God will change his mind, but to actually pray that God will bless and keep him. Just to keep myself from remembering that this too is someone made by God in His image, no matter how upset I may be. I think that voicing some of the feelings that I have, can also be helpful. I have a brother who doesn’t believe women should be ministers and we actually get along really well. One reason that we get along pretty well, is that we don’t hide any of that from each other. He’s very forthright about what he thinks. I’m very forthright about what I think and then we can kind of laugh about it and move on and I think if we weren’t allowed to talk about it, it would be a lot more complicated.

I just want to say, I find Psalm 139, which is my favorite Psalm. The Psalmist gets to a point where he says, “Lord I hate your enemies with a perfect hatred. “So you and I are on the same side, God. “You can count on me, I hate them too.” And the very next thing he says, “Lord search me and know my thoughts “and see if there be any wicked way in me.” I think there’s an oops in the middle of that, you know. “Oh oh, what did I just say? “Lord search me and know my thoughts.” To me that’s self reflection and looking at the person with whom I disagree and just asking the question, “What might they want to say to me “on the witness stand, under the authority “of God’s word.”

Laura, you really are calling for more disagreement in a way. That we need to engage in more disagreement and I wanted to give you a chance to unwrap that a little bit, unpack it. Especially in the light of what we commonly hear as call to arms for the church. It’s sort of pick up the weapons of truth and then wield the ways, engaging in a battle for the Truth and I wanted–

That’s not really what I’m thinking of, no. We all stand in a particular context, right. My context is Calvin College, hot bed of Kuyperianism and if you don’t know what that means, it’s a way of thinking about the world, that’s very this world affirming. So we talk all the time about Abraham Kuyper’s famous saying, “There’s not one square inch “of all creation over which Jesus Christ “does not say mine.” We send our students out there to claim it. Claim the world for Jesus. Claim the film industry for Jesus. I think it is often–

Get to the bad part now.

Well it’s a triumphalistic way of thinking. Often that’s the dark side of it and it often has the unintended consequence of making us completely assimilated. Because there’s nothing we’re gonna stay away from. So I have students, 18 years old, who say to me, “Well, maybe my 15 year old brother or sister “shouldn’t go to that movie, “but I can be discerning when I go.” And I just want to say no. The older I get and the more mature I’m getting in Christ, the more I think, “There are things I just shouldn’t see. “There are things Jesus would prefer I not watch.” The more I think there should be more distinctions between the way I live and the way my non-Christian neighbors live.

Not because I want to separate from my non-Christian neighbors, I still need to be in dialogue with them, but I’m supposed to be an ambassador of a different Kingdom. My citizenship is not here. My citizenship is in the Kingdom of Light, the Kingdom the Son. I have already been transferred there and I should be living like that. And that ought to make more difference than having a fish sticker on my bumper. It ought to be a significant difference in, and I’m not saying that I do live this different live, but I’m very aware that I don’t. That my spending patterns and my clothing choices, that my entertainment options are not significantly different than lots and lots of other people of my age and class and education level all across the United States. And I don’t feel as if I live a sufficiently distinctive life.

I live with the rule of thumb that if Elisa Wilkinson says I can see the movie, it’s okay.

And we’ll hear from Elisa tomorrow.

Okay, forget about it, I shouldn’t have used the movie example, sorry.

I think you’re absolutely right.

Rich, I’ve heard you speak about the presence of a battle metaphor and I wanted to see if you’d comment on that. The battle metaphor for waging war over ideas, so to speak.

Well I just want to say I gave the Kuyper lecture at Amsterdam last week–

You have to defend Abraham Kuyper.

It was a moment of repentance for me on behalf of Kuyper, because I wrote a chapter in one of my books, called Abraham Kuyper, meet Mother Theresa. Because Mother Theresa also believed that every square inch of creation belongs to Jesus and she saw lepers in Calcutta as out on those square inches and conquering those square inches, meant going in and saying words of love to dying lepers in the gutters of Calcutta. But it was very interesting, that in a speech that Kuyper gave in 1891, that I’ve just read in preparation for my lecture.

He talks about going out into politics and other areas of culture in the name of the Compassionate One who did not withdraw from touching leper’s flesh. I think he was a little closer to Abraham Kuyper. I think a lot of evangelicals who had picked up that kind of thing, certainly on the religious ride in recent years, you know, “Let’s go conquer it all, “reclaim America for Jesus” and that kind of thing. I think, going out and listening to angry people in Ferguson and going out and whispering words of love, the love of Jesus, to dying lepers, may be the best way of claiming the square inches in His Name.

I like that.

Thank you so much both of you for being with us.