Mike Wagenman has recently published a book: The Power Of The Church: The Ecclesiology Of Abraham Kuyper. He has taken time to respond to some of my questions about the book and his research. Mike is also author of Together for the World: The Book of Acts
Hi Mike, could you begin by saying something about your story? Who you are and what you do?
I was born and raised in a US Baptist megachurch. The pastor was Calvinistic in his preaching so I grew up understanding the sovereignty of God, the lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, sin and grace. But I wondered how it all fit together and how it made a public contribution beyond evangelism and personal piety. So when I stumbled across the Reformed tradition while in university I felt like I had come “home” theologically. That lead me to study at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and enter the pastoral ministry of the Christian Reformed Church. For the last 12 years, I have been the CRC chaplain at Western University in London Ontario Canada. I also teach New Testament courses at Redeemer University College and theology and religious studies courses at Western’s School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.
Who or what have been your main influences?
I got to know Craig Bartholomew while he was teaching at Redeemer, just over an hour drive from where I’m serving, and I found in Craig many of the same interests and influences as I have in my life. Theologically, I have been strongly influenced by Kuyper across the whole scope of my theological orientation. I am very interested in the Reformed-Roman Catholic interface so post-Vatican II scholars such as John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, Avery Dulles, and Karl Rahner figure strongly in my thinking. When it comes to my evangelical influences, people like Leith Anderson, John Stott, Rene Padilla, and Eugene Peterson come to mind. A number of Anglican scholars have influenced how my theological outlook interfaces with public life, like William Stringfellow and C. S. Lewis in particular. And there’s a heavy dose of Jacques Ellul in everything also.
How did you get introduced to a Kuyperian perspective?
While studying at Calvin Seminary I discerned that Abraham Kuyper and the Kuyperian tradition were either loved or hated (that’s overstating it but you get the picture). I sensed that there was a general national divide to this: Canadians more often embraced Kuyper than Americans who tended more toward the pietistic or evangelical wing of the Reformed tradition. This intrigued me and drew me to the primary sources to discover this man for myself. What I found in Kuyper was a Christian who didn’t want his faith locked up in the private enclave of the church but on full public display and fully engaged to make a constructive contribution to the social and cultural debates of the day. Of course, Kuyper was not a perfect person or Christian – something that I relate to because of my own struggles with Christian piety. But I deeply appreciated his unwillingness to cave into the privatization of Christian faith or the church as a cultural institution in the Modern era. I deeply resonated with Kuyper (as he resonated with the Apostle Paul) that Christ is Lord of all things, not just my “heart.”
You studied for your PhD in Bristol. That a long way for a Canadian to travel! How did that come about?
There are two separate answers I could give to this question. The first would be this: I had gotten to know Craig Bartholomew and one day over a hamburger together he suggested that my ministry questions needed rigorous academic study if I were to be satisfied with myself. And since Craig was adjunct faculty at Trinity College Bristol, the decision was made. I knew I wanted to study with Craig so I went where I had to in order for it to happen. And, it didn’t hurt that a close family friend of ours had studied for his PhD at Trinity College Bristol as well. Trinity was such a positive community to spend time with that it holds a dear place in my heart now.
But the other answer is more difficult. Being an American-Canadian, going to the UK to study offered me a certain distance from my setting from which to reflect on my own ministry experiences and theological questions. I have served for almost 15 years in the CRC and in that time I have come to know many fine Christians and many who want to bring the Kuyperian tradition to bear in captivating ways on our broken but beautiful world. But I have also experienced outright harassment and abuse at the hands of church leaders animated by destructive conceptions of power. So by going to the UK to study Kuyper’s thought on the power of the church, I was able to achieve a measure of healing and insight that I don’t think I would have found staying “at home.”
What were the highs and lows in studying for a PhD on Kuyper? What advice would you give to prospective PhD students?
Most PhD students or graduates would never say this but, for me, working on my PhD on Kuyper was one of the most healing and life-giving things in my life. It was an encouragement to identify and use my gifts. And as I mentioned above, it was the means God used to bring healing to me after a series of traumatic events. I know we all have different gifts and experiences but, for me, spending three years immersing myself in Kuyper and his world and thought was a great joy.
Of course, that doesn’t mean every step of the way was a walk in the sunshine. If you don’t know Dutch, like I didn’t (though I had studied German before, which was a help), you simply have to embrace that particular challenge. There were also the academic differences between the US and UK post-graduate educational systems. I was not prepared for the rigour of UK comprehensive exams or the focus on research and original thought or argument compared to the US where I had done all my previous education. And while I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful scholars who were a great help to my work I also had to endure scholars whose personalities leave much to be desired. So in these ways, I was stretched.
The advice I would give to prospective PhD students would be threefold: 1) Make sure you know why you’re doing a PhD because there are all kinds of reasons, including pride. I worked on my PhD simply to pursue an academic topic I was interested in. I didn’t do it to get a job at a college, university, or seminary – which would have been silly in this job market. 2) Study with the right supervisor, not necessarily a “big name” at “the right” institution. I understand education to be about the formation of the person, not the credentialing of a consumer. Doing a PhD shapes you in profound ways so you need to study with someone who will shape you in the way you want to be shaped. I know many PhD graduates who are “misshapen.” 3) Once you’ve applied and been accepted, throw yourself into it with a sense of vocation. Working on a PhD dredges up a lot of unfinished personal work in the student and calls from the student things that the student will be convinced they don’t have. So in the midst of the fog that often descends, a student needs to be committed to seeing the project through as a way of serving Christ with all of who they are.
How did your recently published book, The Power of the Church, come about?
The publishing world is crazy today. Since finishing the project over two years ago now, many have asked me for a copy of the dissertation because it works on an area of Kuyper’s thought that hasn’t been explored before. But after pursuing a number of different publishers with the manuscript, and hearing back time and again that publishers needed to go with projects that would sell because of the celebrity status of the author or the easy answers of the book, I put mine on the shelf for a while. But the requests kept coming in. Thankfully today there are many avenues outside of the traditional mainstream publishing routes and I simply wanted to get it “out there” to respond to the requests.
The published version of the manuscript is identical in almost every way to my dissertation except for the relocating of an appendix to a chapter in the overall progression of the argument. Because of a word limit for the dissertation, I had to put the historical chapter on power into an appendix (which wasn’t counted in the word limit). But in published form, I returned it to its place in the chapter sequence so that readers get both an overview of Kuyper’s ecclesiology and an overview on philosophical and theological reflections on power before diving into the more constructive part of the book.
Who should read it - and why?
Obviously, I think everyone should read it! 😊 But here’s my more serious reply. We live in a #MeToo age, where people are legitimately asking questions about the abuse of power in a variety of cultural institutions. We also live in an age where Christianity and the church are being ever-more culturally marginalised. Christians no longer live in a Christendom society where faith and church are obvious moral and civic forces. And, in addition, the media are reporting regularly on instances where even Christians or the church as an institution abuse people. It is into this nexus that this book enters because it seeks to ask a number of important questions: 1) What is the nature of the church as a civic institution (even in a post-Christendom era)? 2) What is the nature of power and particularly what is the unique cultural power that the church has? And 3) How can we stretch our traditional thinking about the church and power to respond to these important questions? These are all questions that Kuyper was pushed to reflect on to some degree and this book, I think, can contribute to important conversations about these topics in meaningful ways.
What do you think is the strength of Kuyper's ecclesiology?
In his day, Kuyper sought to navigate an ecclesiological pathway between two camps that still remain with us today to some degree. The one camp is “cultural Christianity” – a form of Christian faith and church life that seeks the romanticised past when the church was culturally central and Christian faith obvious, with a bunker-like mentality against the evils of the present until the past can be retrieved. The other camp is what I call “modernist Christianity” – a form of Christian faith that has been unhooked from its central theological convictions, immanentised, and accommodated to the “scientific” and “technological” promises of Modernity. Kuyper recognised that both camps made the church irrelevant. The cultural Christian approach removes the church from the public realm in an effort to retain the purity of faith. But the modernist Christian approach also contributes to the invisibility of the church in the public realm because it sees God working at our point in history through the scientific technologies of the State instead of the church. It’s so obvious but needs pointing out: We all instinctively know today in “the West” that our deepest hopes and dreams for the world will be achieved when the right political candidate/party is finally voted into government! Kuyper’s ecclesiology charted a way for the church to remain publicly engaged while at the same time retaining its orthodox confession of faith. In these ways, Kuyper is a precursor to many of the conversations happening these days about “principled pluralism” and can have an enormous impact in helping Christians enter the diverse public square with conviction measured with hospitality and humility.
And what are the weaknesses?
The weaknesses of Kuyper’s ecclesiology depend on what you think of its strengths. Many people find Kuyper’s ecclesiology strikingly absent of piety. Even Kuyper himself withdrew from public worship in church to attend to his other (more important?) public engagements. My Baptist friends are right to point out that while Kuyper’s ecclesiology has a lot to say about the church as a cultural institution what seems to be missing is the role of personal evangelism. It’s one thing for the church to offer its moral principles to society but at some point the church should be the place that equips people to invite others to place their ultimate loyalty in Jesus Christ. In these ways, Kuyper’s ecclesiology can come across as overly intellectualist or “top down.” Personally, I think much has been done to address these questions since Kuyper’s day but one can still observe the confessional or moral drift in many “Kuyperian institutions.” I think this just points to the work that still needs to be done to truly understand Kuyper and retrieve his thought for today.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
I have a book coming out in 2018 on Kuyper with Lexham Press. I think it will serve as an introduction of sorts to Kuyper and his life and thought, a companion to the large translation project that is bringing many of Kuyper’s works to fresh English translation. Basically, in the book, each chapter identifies an area of Kuyper’s cultural work and then teases out Kuyper’s thinking that animated him in each endeavour with some concluding thoughts about how this might all relate to us today. The challenge with a project like this is that each day seems to present a new challenge of how to apply Christian faith to our diverse world. But I hope that it will introduce Kuyper’s dynamic life and thought to a new generation and spark further reflection on what it means for Christ to be lord of all. I sit in many different churches and often hear the Gospel summarized as Jesus being Lord of “our hearts” – and I keep thinking, “What a demotion!” I hope this book will spark us to think more biblically about Christ’s comprehensive sovereignty and lordship as well as Christ’s call to go into “all the world” as his ambassadors.
In the long range, I have been sketching out a book on prayer and another on biblical hermeneutics. Both would be more popular level works that would seek to bring the most recent scholarship to the level of everyday Christian faith. This description I’ve jotted down sounds a little boring but I envision both of them being addressed to those for whom the “easy answers” of contemporary North American evangelicalism haven’t rung true to life. I’m also working on a chapter for a book on how Scripture can relate to the lives and academic pursuits of Christian students studying at the contemporary secular research university. How do you study, as a Christian, in a way that goes beyond just citing Bible verses for your argument (in a time when the Bible is anything but an authority on campus)?
What do you like to do for fun?
Besides the fun of journeying with students at university or engaging in my academic work, I enjoy being outdoors with my wife and our dog. Movies, concerts, and travelling to see our university-aged children takes up most of the rest of the time.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
My work and life continue to be sustained by some of my favourite artists like The National, The Hold Steady, Mumford & Sons, The Tragically Hip, Passenger, and U2. But some new artists who have found their way into my playlist are Kaleo, The Lumineers, Alana Yorke, Bobbi Bazini, Brett Dennen, Daughter, Iron and Wine, and Old Man Luedecke.