In a forthcoming issue of First Things, I review a fine book by Michael McVicar, who teaches at Florida State University. His subject is the “Christian Reconstructionism” of the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, a perspective on Christianity and social-political-economic-legal thought and practice that makes much of the continuing relevance of Old Testament civil lawincluding the sanctions tied to specific laws and practices.
Reading his book evoked some memories of a rather intense personal encounter that I had in the past with the Reconstructionist movement. I never met Rushdoony personally, but I did spend a couple of days in 1978 with two persons who were articulate defenders of Reconstructionism: Gary North and Greg Bahnsen. The occasion was an invitation from Reformed Theological Seminary in Mississippi. North was also invited, and each of us was asked to address the same subjectsthe Bible and economics, the relationship of New Testament thought to the civil order in ancient Israel, church-state relationsrepresenting our two different perspectives on the application of Calvinism to societal life.
The bad experience I had in my encounter with Gary North began when we arrived at the airport. I was met by two students and I waited with them for several minutes for North’s arrival. When he appeared, he shook hands with the students, and one of them said, “Dr. North, I would like you to meet Dr. Mouw.” He responded, “Yes, I’m sure you would,” and he turned away to walk toward the baggage claim. Even though we stayed in the same campus guest center for two daysand I did try several times simply to initiate an exchange of pleasantrieswe had no one-on-one conversations during our time together.
One of the students reported to me, during my stay on the campus, that he had said to Gary North that he was looking forward to North’s dialogue with me. He was taken aback by North’s response: “I am not here for dialogue. Richard Mouw and I are engaging in a battle for hearts and minds in this seminary community!”
Fortunately, I actually did engage in some pleasant dialogue with a representative of Reconstructionism during that visit. The lecture series was arranged by Greg Bahnsen, a faculty member at Reformed Seminary at the time. Bahnsen’s views were substantially the same as North’snot too long after my visit Bahnsen was not reappointed to his faculty position, largely because he was seen by his colleagues as too confrontational. Those negative assessments of his controversial relations are narrated in McVicar’s book, where Bahnsen does not come off as an attractive figure. In my brief visit to Reformed Seminary, however, I found him a congenial host. I had read his major study, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, and we had some stimulating conversations about our disagreements on key matters. We occasionally corresponded after that. Bahnsen had chronic heart problems, and when he once mentioned in a letter that he was not doing well, I wrote to tell him I would be praying for him. I was saddened to hear about his death in the mid-1990s.
Well, all of that serves in part simply to report some significant memories stirred up by reading McVicar’s book. But it is also to recall an important lesson that I learned about exploring differences with people with whom I differ on important matters. I certainly find much in Reconstructionism to disagree with. Indeed, many of the specifics of that perspective I consider to be deeply offensive. But wrestling with those viewpoints was productive for me. It would have been even more helpful if North had been willing to engage in the give-and-take of respectful “dialogue”which is what I did in fact experience with Bahnsen.
One even more basic lesson that I took away from that encounter, though, was a felt need to wrestle with issues of what it means to be in a “battle for hearts and minds.” I certainly do not want to abandon the notion of “battle” as such. C. S. Lewis was right to point out in his “Learning in Wartime”a chapel talk to students who had family members on the World War II battlefieldsthat all Christian teaching and scholarship occurs in a warfare context. The tragedies of our times, Lewis observed, are a part of a much larger cosmic struggle going on between righteousness and unrighteousness. By engaging in careful study of important topics, he insisted, we are doing our part to contribute to the final victory.
The real issue for me has to do with the proper weapons for intellectual warfare. As a participant in many dialoguesecumenical and interfaithI have often encountered criticisms from fellow evangelicals who tell me that we do not have the leisure for the “niceties” of polite discussion with people with whom we disagree. Not infrequently I have been told that we have to get on with the urgent “battle for the truth.” What I find ironic about those preachments is that if we are genuinely contending for the truth, then we must pay careful attention to whether we are being truthful in our characterizations of people with whom we disagree. It seems odd to be willing to distort the truth out of a concern to score points in a contest for truthfulness!
This has important implications for the kind of situation Gary North and I were engaged in at Reformed Theological Seminary. As I entered into that encounter, I was fully prepared to acknowledge that my position on this or that topic under consideration might have been poorly thought through, or maybe even dead wrong. That kind of willingness to admit to being wrong strikes me as essential to the scholarly life. But Gary North did not seem open to those sorts of concessions. He was a leader in a movement, and his followers would feel cheated if he had to back off on a strongly held position.
I have thought much since then about what it means to represent a movement in a dialogue. During my twenty-year presidency at Fuller Seminary, I was consciously aware that I was speaking for a “movement” of sortsthe kind of broad evangelical spirit that Fuller has taken it as an important part of its mission to model. My own formula for modeling this is a term I borrowed from Martin Marty“convicted civility.” As I have advocated for that in the evangelical movement, I have been conscious of the fact that we evangelicals have often been strong on conviction and a bit weak on civility. On that point, Gary North’s behavior toward me was a clear example of uncivil conviction.
My formula, however, does point in both directions. Conviction-less civility is also a bad thing. There are times, of course, when we simply need to draw lines in the sand. There come points in our lives when, as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof put it when he realized that he could not proceed with “on the other hand” in a family crisis: “No, there is no other hand!”
For those of us who care about our movements and what they stand for, Tevye’s conclusion must always be an option. But we ought not to arrive at it prematurely. St. Peter tells us that we should always be ready to give a reason for our deepest convictions, but he immediately adds that we should try to do so “with gentleness and reverence.” Gary North and Greg Bahnsen each saw my version of Calvinism as dangerous. But unlike North, Bahnsen made a genuine attempt to avoid irreverence in dealing with me, with a willingness to be the one who initiated the handshake when we met in Mississippi.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.