Embodying Convicted Civility

Steve Bouma-Prediger

Rich Mouw is widely regarded as one of the most well-known and influential Christian scholars of his generation. A philosopher by training but widely read in many other fields, Rich taught philosophy at Calvin College for seventeen years before moving in 1985 to Fuller Theological Seminary as professor of Christian philosophy and ethics. In 1989 he became provost and in 1993 became Fuller’s president. Richard Mouw This summer he retires after two decades at the helm of one of the flagship Christian seminaries in the world. In this issue we celebrate the work of this well-respected and much-loved member of the Reformed community.

At last count Rich has written nineteen books on a range of topics, mostly in political philosophy, ethics, and evangelical and Reformed history. However, with titles such as Calvinism at the Las Vegas Airport and Praying at Burger King, Rich’s books defy simple categorization, for they include insightful interdisciplinary discussions of important cultural issues. Also, for many years—from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s—Rich was on the board of editors of the Reformed Journal—a predecessor of sorts to this journal.

Jon Pott leads off with personal remembrances of Rich. The long-time editor-in-chief of the old Reformed Journal and current editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Publishing Company, Jon recalls his first meetings with this “noisy, seemingly unpedigreed character” and explains how this “outsider” became the “consummate insider.” Jon also describes how Rich has combined his evangelical piety with his Reformed sensibilities. Above all, Jon emphasizes how over his entire career Rich has been a builder of bridges between people.

Next, distinguished philosopher Nick Wolterstorff offers reflections on Rich’s career as a writer. Nick and Rich not only were colleagues for many years in the philosophy department at Calvin College, but were on the editorial board of the old Reformed Journal. In Rich’s many writings Nick perceptively discerns a common theme, namely, the calling of Christians to cultural engagement, and a near universal characteristic, that is, a disposition to the concrete. This helps explain, Nick argues, three features of Rich’s writing: his whimsy, his frequent use of anecdote, and his conversational style. Not surprising to anyone who knows Rich or his writing, Nick also notes the towering influence of Abraham Kuyper.

Finally, prominent American church historian George Marsden offers reflections on Rich’s role in the world of American evangelicalism. Calling Rich “a fundamentalist with a sense of humor,” George emphasizes Rich’s evangelical piety and how his ability to see things in new and unexpected ways feeds his keen sense of humor. George also comments on how Rich has been able to distinguish between what in the Christian tradition is essential and what is peripheral. And like Jon and Nick, George highlights how Rich has been an indefatigable builder of bridges among people and groups, both in and outside the church.

I first met Rich when I was an M.Div. student at Fuller Seminary in the mid-1980s. When Rich joined the Fuller faculty, I was one of his first teaching and research assistants. It is a great understatement to say that I learned a tremendous amount from him. What struck me most was his skill in communicating complicated ideas in nuanced (and often funny) ways and his unfailing generosity of spirit. Combined in one person were a careful thinker and a caring person—the embodiment of what I aspired to be as a fledging Christian scholar. It was very clear that here was a gracious human being who modeled the very best of Christian scholarship.

It is perhaps this last quality that stands out most clearly about Rich—careful thinking rooted in the gospel tethered to a generous capacity to genuinely see the merit of opposing points of view. It is the rare gift of embodying, to use Rich’s words, convicted civility—a convicted civility seasoned by his delightful sense of humor and seeming inability to get through any sermon or lecture without reference to at least one evangelical hymn. May this edition of Perspectives serve as a humble tribute to the lifework of Rich Mouw, mentor and friend.

Steve Bouma-Prediger is professor of religion and associate dean for teaching and learning at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is a former member of the Perspectives board of editors and served as guest editor for this issue.