The Protestant Reformed Churches reject the common grace worldview proposed by Abraham Kuyper because this worldview has failed. For some 100 years, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have practiced Kuyper’s (and, I may add, Herman Bavinck’s) worldview. The result has been not only that Dutch culture has not been “Christianized” but also that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, with the Free University associated with these churches, have become thoroughly worldly. Common grace has been a bridge by which the world has invaded and destroyed these churches.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America threw up the bridge of the common grace worldview a little later. It did this by its synodical adoption of the “three points of common grace” in 1924. The Christian Reformed Church made Kuyper’s theory of common grace official church dogma. The purpose of the Christian Reformed Church was to establish a worldview by which she and her members could live in all areas of life and influence society.
The result has been the same as in the Netherlands. North American society has not become Calvinistic or Christian; Grand Rapids, Michigan has not become Calvinistic. But the Christian Reformed Church, with her schools, has become worldly. She has become worldly in doctrine, e.g., the nature of Scripture, origins, and the extent of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and in life, e.g., Sabbath observance, marriage, the headship of the husband in home and church, and the dance. In a number of instances, the Christian Reformed Church has explicitly appealed to common grace in support of its abandonment of the historic Christian and Reformed position.
The disastrous failure of Kuyperian common grace is evident also in other churches and, especially, in many non-Reformed but Christian colleges. In the nature of the case, Christian schools espouse and teach a worldview. As the writings of Bernard Ramm, Arthur Holmes, and others show, evangelical colleges too have embraced the common grace worldview of Abraham Kuyper. Not one is holding out against the mind and ways of the ungodly world, whether as regards the doctrine of Scripture, the truth of creation, feminism, or sexual morality.
The reason why the worldview of common grace corrupts the churches and schools is that this worldview breaches the antithesis. The antithesis (for a long time now an unfamiliar and unpopular word in Reformed and evangelical circles) is the spiritual separation and warfare that God Himself has established between His holy people and the unholy world of men and women outside of Jesus Christ. From the very beginning, in the first proclamation of the gospel, Jehovah God put enmity between Christ and all those who are His, on the one hand, and the children of the devil, on the other hand (Gen. 3:15). God effectually calls all the members of Christ’s church out of the world (I Pet. 2:9). The urgent exhortation to believers and their children in all ages is, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” (II Cor. 6:14-18). This separation has its source and foundation in God’s decree of election by which God eternally separated the church from the reprobate, ungodly world (Deut. 7:6; John 15:19).
Such is the importance of the antithesis that it constitutes the salvation of the church. Nothing less. The blessing of Israel by the Old Testament Mediator was this: “Israel then shall dwell in safety alone” (Deut. 33:28). It was exactly the purpose and power of the cross of Christ that it “deliver us” not only from the guilt of sin but also “from this present evil world” (Gal. 1:4). The warning to the saints is that to dally with the world in communion and cooperation is to perish with the world. Positively, the saints escape the world’s sins and plagues only in the way of separating from the world. “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4).
It is appalling that by his common grace worldview Abraham Kuyper played fast and loose with the antithesis in the interests of political power and cultural influence. It is more appalling still (and inexcusable) that Reformed churches, schools, and theologians continue to play fast and loose with the antithesis by maintaining the worldview of common grace in the face of the testimony of history that this worldview wreaks havoc with the antithesis.
Peter S. Heslam has recently called attention to the fact that Kuyper’s theory of common grace contradicts the biblical truth of the antithesis, which truth Kuyper also advocated. In his analysis of Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, the speeches at Princeton University in 1898 that proposed the worldview of common grace, Heslam observes:
That Kuyper was able to display a positive approach to the arts was largely due to his doctrine of common grace, which in this lecture, in contrast to his lecture on science, is emphasized at the expense of his doctrine of the antithesis, which plays no significant role. This discrepancy is one of the clearest indications of what is perhaps the central tension in Kuyper’s thought between the antithesis and corresponding isolation on the one hand, and common grace and corresponding engagement and accommodation on the other. It was a tension Kuyper never resolved, and a comparison of his Stone Lecture on art with that on science demonstrates how it led to flaws in the overall coherence of his thought.
Heslam goes on to speak of
the fundamental tension in Kuyper’s thought—a recurrent theme throughout this book, and expressed at its most basic level in the dichotomy between his ideas of antithesis and of common grace. The final passage of the Stone Lectures is added evidence that this was a tension Kuyper himself was unable to resolve (Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 222, 249).
By “tension,” the British scholar means irreconcilable contradiction so that where common grace rules, the antithesis is driven out.
The most ardent disciples of the Kuyper of common grace (there was another Kuyper) themselves have been forced to acknowledge and lament the bitter fruits of common grace.
In May, 1952, Dr. Cornelius Van Til told a full house of Calvin Seminary and College faculty and students that if the common grace doctrine of the Christian Reformed Church prevailed one might as well blow up the science building of Calvin College with an atom bomb. This remark mightily irked the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church. It has always puzzled me—not the statement but that Van Til made it. For all his hedging and qualifying, Van Til held the same doctrine of common grace that Kuyper taught in his Lectures on Calvinism and that the Christian Reformed Church adopted in its decretals of 1924.
In any case, that was the science building that has given the Christian Reformed Church Howard Van Till’s denial of creation, Davis Young’s denial of the flood, and the 1991 report on creation and science that affirmed full-blown theistic evolution.
The Rev. H. J. Kuiper, sworn foe that he was of the Protestant Reformed confession of the antithesis, felt compelled to draw up and circulate a petition in which he and his allies charged that the professors at Calvin College “give instruction which is more or less colorless and neutral…. They stress common grace far more than the antithesis…. There is no pronounced spiritual atmosphere in our college.” This petition, signed by 147 persons, was presented to the Christian Reformed synod of 1952 (see Henry Stob, Summing Up Remembrance, Eerdmans, 1955, pp. 318, 319).
In the fascinating speech that Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorff gave earlier this year at a conference commemorating the centennial of Kuyper’s Stone Lectures (to which I referred in the previous editorials), the Christian Reformed philosopher and teacher offered the judgment that the sad decline of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and of the Free University was due to their stress on common grace at the expense of the antithesis. To my delight (and surprise), Prof. Wolterstorff reminded his largely Christian Reformed audience that for Kuyper there was another doctrine in addition to common grace that is basic to the life of the Christian in the world. That doctrine, according to Wolterstorff, is the antithesis.
The trouble is that Wolterstorff supposes that common grace and the antithesis can and must be held “in balance.” This is impossible. Biblically, theologically, and logically, they are contraries. History has proved that they cannot and will not share the field of thought and conduct. When in the question-period Wolterstorff was asked for guidelines to hold common grace and the antithesis “in balance,” he frankly admitted that he could not give any.
The common grace worldview has failed. Even its advocates at the end of the 20th century have remarked the failure.
It has failed because it is the contradiction and destruction of the antithesis.
God has judged the common grace worldview in history. In its utter failure to influence the world, and in the worldliness of the churches and schools that embraced it, God has written upon it His “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”
Reformed people must not then celebrate the anniversary of the formal propounding of that worldview. How bizarre! As though those oppressed by the system of Marx and Engels were, after the collapse of Communism, to celebrate the anniversary of the writing of Das Kapital.
There should rather be a day, or a week, of repentance with fasting and mourning.
There ought to be, at the very least, a critical reexamination of Kuyper’s worldview.
Why in all the commemoration of Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, from Princeton in the East to Escondido in the West, is there never so much as one small spot on the platform or one secondary place in the program for a man who is critical of the worldview of common grace? Critical, on behalf of the Reformed churches, on behalf of Reformed education, and, yes, on behalf of a truly Reformed worldview.
There is one other reason why the Protestant Reformed Churches reject Kuyper’s worldview of common grace. It is unhistorical. Kuyper intended that with this worldview Calvinism would have a powerful impact upon nations, societies, and cultures. He had particularly in mind his own Netherlands and the United States.
This is not, in fact, how Calvinism has ever influenced nations and cultures. Calvinism has certainly had an impact on nations and cultures, a tremendous impact. Think of Germany, of Scotland, of the Netherlands, of the United States. Just as Christianity has affected nations and cultures.
But Calvinism never made this impact by means of some innocuous, feeble “common grace.” Wherever it went, in those earlier, glorious days, it went as the gospel of sovereign, particular grace and as the judgment upon man and all his works of total depravity. It affected nations and cultures exactly as a worldview of the one, special grace of God in Jesus Christ. This aroused the opposition that convulsed the nation. This saved the elect who then lived the antithetical, holy life that had real impact upon the life of the nation. Ask the secular historians.
And I dare say that should God yet will that Calvinism—the Reformed faith— powerfully affect nations and civilizations, this would, and could only, take place by a bold gospel of particular grace that establishes and calls for the antithesis.
Not by lectures on common grace.