Common Grace for Culture


Wherever common grace is defended, the main reason is “culture.” Common grace is necessary to account for culture. Common grace is necessary to explain the political, scientific, technological, medical, and artistic developments of the world of the ungodly. Common grace is necessary to justify a Christian’s use of the cultural products of the ungodly world. Common grace is necessary as the power and warrant of the Christian’s earthly life in the world.

Culture was the driving force behind Abraham Kuyper’s (and Herman Bavinck’s) elaborate development of and strong emphasis on common grace. In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper made common grace fundamental to the believer’s relation to the world.

The third fundamental relation which decides the interpretation of life is the relation which you bear to the world. As previously stated, there are three principal elements with which you come into touch: viz., God, man and the world. The relation to God and to man into which Calvinism places you being thus reviewed, the third and last fundamental relation is in order: viz., your attitude toward the world…. In this also … [Calvinism] has … honored … the world as a Divine creation, and has at once placed to the front the great principle that there is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator (Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1953, pp. 28-30).

Kuyper scored opponents of his common grace theory as guilty of “turning their back on ordinary human life in spiritual one-sidedness and presumptuous pride” (“Common Grace,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt, Eerdmans, 1998, p. 190).

Similarly, Herman Bavinck presented common grace as the solution to the problem of “religion and culture.” According to Bavinck, “The entirety of the rich life of nature and society exists thanks to God’s common grace” (“Common Grace,” tr. Raymond C. Van Leewen, Calvin Theological Journal 24, no. 1 [April 1989]: 56, 60).

Culture was at the bottom of the Christian Reformed Church’s adoption of the three points of common grace in 1924. The evidence was its stinging criticism of those who objected to common grace as world-fleeing Anabaptists.

Culture is also the main ground in Dr. Richard Mouw’s defense of common grace, He Shines in All That’s Fair (Eerdmans, 2001). The third, last, and most important reason why Mouw advocates common grace is culture. The subtitle of the book makes this plain: Culture and Common Grace.

Mouw expresses his cultural concern at the outset.

In these pages I will reflect on the notion of “common grace,” as it has been debated by thinkers in the Calvinist tradition. What is it that Christians can assume they have in common with people who have not experienced the saving grace that draws a sinner into a restored relationship with God? (p. 3).

We need to search for the proper grounds of commonness. But it is important to search carefully. On what basis do we posit a commonality between those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ and those who have not done so? This question has particular importance as we try to articulate a biblical perspective for Christian involvement in public life in our contemporary context (p. 6).

My specific focus will be on the relevance of teachings about common grace for our understanding of culture in our contemporary context. Is there a non-saving grace that is at work in the broader reaches of human cultural interaction, a grace that expedites a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, elect and non-elect alike—blessings that provide the basis for Christians to cooperate with, and learn from, non-Christians? (p. 14; the emphasis is Mouw’s)

“Culture,” an Unhelpful Term

The term “culture” is singularly unhelpful for the discussion that Mouw raises in He Shines, as it has been singularly unhelpful in the entire controversy over common grace. Culture is not a biblical term. It does not occur in the Reformed confessions. There is no single, specific, standard understanding of the term.

The term is ambiguous. It can mean the entire, distinctive way of life of a certain people, race, or nation. Thus, we speak of Dutch culture.

The word “culture” is also used to refer to everyday earthly life in the various ordinances established by the Creator: marriage and family; labor; and civil government.

Culture often means the development, use, and enjoyment of education, art, and science. If a woman has graduated from university, preferably an Ivy League school, reads a little Shakespeare, and attends the symphony now and then, she is popularly thought to be cultured. Closely associated with this understanding of culture is the awed use of the word by many college professors, Christians among them, to refer to “the glory that was Greece.”

Although most defenders of common grace are loath to admit it, not only the Reformed tradition in the days of its strength but also the Christian tradition in the days of its purity consigned culture to the abyss. They had in mind the lawless, shameless way of life of a nation or a society that was well-developed in godlessness. Culture in this sense comes very close to the meaning of “world” in I John 2:15-17: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”

What sometimes happens when the issue of common grace and culture is discussed and debated in these terms is that the defender of common grace speaks well of culture in one or all of the first three senses of the term as outlined above, whereas the opponent of common grace condemns culture in the fourth sense of the term. Or, as is more often the case, the opponent of common grace repudiates common grace as approving culture in the fourth sense—the wicked way of life of the ungodly world—whereupon the defenders of common grace make him out to be an anti-cultural barbarian or, what seemingly is worse, an Anabaptist, as though he rejected culture in the first three senses.

Because the term “culture” is ambiguous and unhelpful, I want to address Dr. Mouw’s deepest concerns in his defense of common grace without using the term.

The Deepest Concerns of Richard Mouw

In general, Mouw’s concern is what Abraham Kuyper described as the Christian’s relation to the world, in distinction from his relation to God and his relation to man.

Specifically, Mouw, like Kuyper before him, has three concerns. First, we must explain the continuing existence of the earthly creation after the fall of Adam. Particularly, we must account for the existence and development of ungodly men and women, especially as regards their grand civilizations and their notable achievements in politics, science, medicine, technology, and art.

Second, we must account for the Christian’s life in society, nation as well as neighborhood. On what ground does the Christian live earthly life to the full? More pointedly still, on what ground does he freely associate and cooperate with unbelievers in all areas of everyday earthly life? What is the basis for his working with the ungodly every day on the job? On what basis does the Christian woman cooperate with her non-Christian neighbors in a garage sale, or in a neighborhood watch against kidnappers of children and burglars? With what right do Reformed citizens participate in national life with those who are members of false churches, members of other religions, and avowed atheists, by voting in elections, by serving in the armed forces, and even by running for political office?

In short, why does not, and why may not, the Reformed Christian physically withdraw from ungodly society as the old Anabaptists did in Munster and the contemporary Hutterites are doing in North Dakota?

Third, we must justify the Christian’s use and enjoyment of the inventions and products of the wicked. On what ground may a Christian student read, and benefit from, idolater Plato? On what ground may a Christian minister listen to, and benefit from, a lecture by a heretical theologian? On what ground may a Christian enjoy classical music written by ungodly Mozart and performed by a mostly unbelieving symphony orchestra under the direction of a worldly conductor? On what ground may Richard Mouw, when he is not hard at work occasioning editorials in the Standard Bearer by writing apologies for common grace, relax by watching Tiger Woods play golf, and even take pleasure in Woods’ putting ability?

Can We Live Rightly in the World Without Common Grace?

In every case, the explanation is common grace, says Richard Mouw, and most Reformed and Presbyterian churches agree. Common grace accounts for the continuing existence of the fallen earthly creation, especially the development of the ungodly world in history. Common grace is the warrant and power of the Christian’s earthly life in society. Common grace justifies the Christian’s use of the world’s (and here I allow myself the use of the term I have banned) “cultural products.”

Further, charge the champions of common grace, whoever has the audacity to deny common grace cannot explain the continuing existence of creation. Neither can the one who denies common grace account for the grand civilizations of ungodly nations with their remarkable achievements in politics, art, and science.

Most serious of all, to deny common grace is to shut oneself up to recommending that Christians withdraw as much as possible from life in society, avoiding contact with unbelievers and renouncing the music, art, literature, medicine, science, and technology of the wicked world. At the very least, one who denies common grace has no positive, principled ground for full, active life in this world. If he must work with unbelievers in the factory or office, he tries not to talk with them. If a Christian student reads Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot, he does so in secret and with a guilty conscience. If a Reformed woman attends the symphony, she skulks, hoping that no one sees her there.

The alternative to common grace, as regards this vitally important aspect of the doctrine, is Anabaptist world-flight.

It was Abraham Kuyper who first attempted to crush all opposition to his theory of common grace by this demeaning, damning indictment.

The Christian Reformed Church enthusiastically followed Kuyper’s lead in its calculated campaign against the foes of common grace in 1924 and the years that followed as it drummed Herman Hoeksema out of the Church and the Protestant Reformed Churches out of the realm of Reformed orthodoxy.

Richard Mouw publicly dissents from this unjust condemnation of the Protestant Reformed objection against common grace. Bless him! He declares that the Protestant Reformed stance toward the world, which is basically that of the antithesis, is biblically, confessionally, and historically defensible. He finds puzzling on the face of it the passion “with which many of the defenders of common grace have rejected the views of Hoeksema and other critics of their position” (p. 20).

But Dr. Mouw himself does think, and argue, that common grace is the best, if not the only, explanation and ground of the Christian’s involvement in (let me use the dubious term once more) culture.

In the next installment of this series of editorials on a subject whose importance cannot be overemphasized, I will propose and explain another ground for the Christian’s life in the world.

The alternatives are not common grace and world-flight.