“He Shines in All That’s Fair (and Curses All That’s Foul)

“He Shines in All That’s Fair” is a lovely line in the well-known hymn, “This is My Father’s World.”

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,

The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.

This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;

In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;

He speaks to me everywhere.

Dr. Richard J. Mouw has lifted this line from the hymn and made it the title of his recent book (Eerdmans, 2001). The book is of great interest to readers of the Standard Bearer. It is also of importance, as Mouw rightly suggests, not only for the entire Reformed community, but also for the wider circles of evangelicalism and even “segments of mainstream Protestantism”: “the underlying issues here are of broad contemporary Christian concern,” important for “the larger Christian theological world” (pp. 3, 4, 8).

This explains the first part of the title of this editorial. The explanation of the second, parenthetical part will become evident in due course.

Common Grace Revisited—by a Non-PR

The book is a reappraisal of certain issues involved in the common grace controversy in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in the early 1920s. The sub-title is “Culture and Common Grace.” The sub-title makes plain that the interest of Dr. Mouw is that aspect of common grace that consists of a non-saving love of God for the reprobate wicked in this life. In His common grace love for the non-elect, God is thought to desire their earthly good, to bless them with temporal blessings, to pity them in their earthly woes, and to give them His Holy Spirit, keeping them from being totally depraved and enabling them to perform good works in society. Common grace accounts for the seeming good in unregenerated unbelievers, about whom the Reformed faith confesses in Q. and A. 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism that they are “so corrupt that [they] are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness.” Common grace also becomes the basis of friendship between Christian and non-Christian. Especially is common grace put forward as the basis of cooperation between believers and unbelievers in working together for a good culture.

In short, Mouw’s interest, in He Shines in All That’s Fair, is the doctrine of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924, exclusive of the “well-meant offer of the gospel.” Basically, this was the theory of common grace that was taught by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck: a non-saving favor of God to all humans; an operation of the Holy Spirit within the reprobate which, without regenerating them, restrains sin in them so that they are only partially depraved; and the ability of unbelievers, by virtue of this grace of the Holy Spirit, to do good works, especially on behalf of a culture which is truly, though not ultimately, good.

“My special focus,” writes Mouw, early on in the book

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 co-operate with, and learn from, non-Christians? (p. 14)

Significant Issues for the Entire Christian Community

It is Mouw’s judgment, and experience, that the controversy over common grace in the CRC was of great importance. “The issues relating to the idea of common grace and the battles that have been waged over those issues have long fascinated me. In a sense, questions about common grace have formed the underlying issues in my own intellectual pilgrimage” (p. vii). Nor are these issues important only for Mouw personally. “The underlying issues here are of broad contemporary Christian concern” (p. 3). Indeed, Mouw is convinced that “much important content in these Calvinist debates has been hidden too long from the larger Christian theological world. My efforts here, then, are an attempt to give Dutch Reformed deliberations about common grace some broader ecumenical exposure” (p. 8)

The Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) are likewise convinced of the vital importance of the issues involved in their controversy with the CRC, and now most of the Reformed world, over common grace. We are delighted that a man of the theological stature of a Richard Mouw opens up a public discussion of these issues. Mouw is a leading figure, not only in Reformed circles but also in the wider evangelical sphere. For many years, he taught philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At present, he is president of the huge and influential Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Dr. Mouw’s revisiting of the common grace controversy in the early 1920s resulting in the formation of the PRC comes hard on the heels of the reexamination of that doctrinal struggle in several articles in the Calvin Theological Journal of April and November, 2000. The PRC welcome these fresh analyses and hope for continuing discussion of the issues by these writers and by others.

Civility in Theological Discourse

Richard Mouw is a fair and honest controversialist. He is winsome in debate, practicing the civility that he preaches. Mouw treats the position on common grace of Herman Hoeksema and the PRC at length. In fact, the book is both occasioned by the historical controversy over common grace between the CRC and Herman Hoeksema and structured by Mouw’s interaction with the rejection of common grace by Hoeksema and the PRC. He Shines in All That’s Fair is Richard Mouw’s defense and development of common grace on behalf of good culture against the rejection of common grace by Herman Hoeksema. It is amusing that what purported to be a review of the book in a recent issue of Christian Renewal managed to avoid mentioning the name of Herman Hoeksema while listing any number of others who are bit players in the book. That reviewer could review Melville’s great novel without mentioning Moby Dick.

Mouw is respectful of the position on common grace of its great adversary, Herman Hoeksema. Mouw admits that common grace is difficult to grasp and describe. Like old Foppe Ten Hoor, Mouw himself is “not very clear about what it is” (p. 13). Mouw freely acknowledges that rejection of common grace would seem to follow from the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and the antithesis. In fact, Mouw puzzles over the passion with which defenders of common grace opposed Hoeksema.

In this connection, Mouw deplores the tactic of the defenders of common grace of smearing Hoeksema with the epithet “Anabaptist,” as though Hoeksema’s rejection of common grace amounted to “world flight.” This was an extremely effective tactic at the time of the controversy, and one that is still effectively used against the PRC by the impassioned defenders of common grace.

Mouw quotes approvingly from a letter that Prof. William Heyns of the CRC seminary sent to Rev. J. K. Van Baalen, the most energetic practitioner of the tactic, chiding Van Baalen for calling Hoeksema and his colleagues Anabaptists. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that this letter has surfaced in the literature of the controversy in the CRC over common grace. Heretofore, William Heyns has not received good press in the PRC. Heyns is regarded as the father of the conditional covenant in the CRC and, thus, indirectly, of the “well-meant offer.” Because of his reprimand of Van Baalen in the heat of the battle in the letter from which Mouw quotes, Heyns rises in my estimation. Contending that it was, and is, unfair to label Hoeksema an Anabaptist for his rejection of common grace, Mouw writes:

Calvin Seminary professor William Heyns made a similar point … in a 1922 letter to Christian Reformed minister J. K. Van Baalen, who had just written a rather inflammatory pamphlet depicting Hoeksema and his associates as Anabaptists. Heyns endorsed the general thrust of Van Baalen’s critique, but he chided him for his rhetoric, instructing Van Baalen that he “would have done better to leave out that epithet ‘Anabaptist,’ which here can serve only as a scornful word.” Surely, Heyns wrote, Van Baalen was not ignorant of the fact “that all of the same things” he found in Hoeksema’s thinking could “also be said of the old theologians of Reformed scholasticism” (p. 23).

Mouw does justice to Hoeksema’s spiritual, practical concern in the controversy over common grace.

At the heart of Herman Hoeksema’s sustained critique of common grace theology lies a very practical concern about the life of the church. The commonality emphasis in common grace theology, Hoeksema insists, will inevitably result in the “obliteration of the distinction between the Church and the world, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, righteousness and unrighteousness.” Of course, no common grace defender would simply advocate the “obliteration” of the distinctions listed by Hoeksema. But it does seem to be essential to common grace thinking that the distinction between “church and world” is not exactly the same distinction as that which holds between “light and darkness, Christ and Belial, righteousness and unrighteousness” (p. 24).

Mouw even calls attention to the judgment of the present editor of the Standard Bearer upon the worldview of common grace, that “the worldview of common grace has proved to be a colossal failure.” Although Mouw thinks that there is another, more favorable judgment that can and should be made, he agrees that

The [the editor of the SB] is right to insist that we take an honest look at the failure of common grace thought to stem the tide of wickedness so obvious in places like the Netherlands and North America. If we are to judge common grace teachings by looking for fruits of righteousness in the larger culture—surely a fair test, given the triumphalist tones in which these teachings have often been proclaimed—then we must admit to some serious shortcomings (p. 27).

Mouw points out, correctly, that occasionally Calvin refers to certain natural abilities in the unregenerated as a “peculiar grace of God.” Nevertheless, on the basis of Calvin’s overall doctrine concerning the total depravity of the ungodly, a depravity that “sullies” all their “virtues” and renders them “worthless,” Mouw concludes that opponents of common grace teachings “can legitimately claim nonetheless to be working within the general contours of Calvin’s thought” (p. 18).

A More Aggressive Practice of Common Grace

On his part, however, Dr. Mouw comes down firmly on the side of common grace. Although Mouw holds the doctrine of predestination set forth in the Canons of Dordt, he believes that God has a non-saving love for all humans. In this love, He blesses all humans with many gifts, including a gracious work of the Holy Spirit within them that restrains their depravity and produces a certain goodness in them and in their works. Richard Mouw sees much in the life of many ungodly people that is fair. All this goodness, truth, and beauty is the shining of God Himself in the lives of the ungodly in His common grace. “He shines in all that’s fair.” This shining of God in His common grace is the basis of legitimate friendship between believer and unbeliever, as it is the basis of cooperation between believer and unbeliever to work for a good culture.

In fact, Mouw faults the three points of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924 for their passivity. Mouw calls Christians aggressively to act upon and implement common grace by promoting friendships with the ungodly and cooperative cultural endeavor.

The Christian Reformed Church’s Three Points of 1924 certainly seem designed to encourage cultural passivity. They come across as instructions for Christians who are mere observers of the larger world. Of course, we cannot help being largely passive when it comes to the “natural blessings”—such as sunshine and rain—that are bestowed upon the elect and non-elect alike. But the second and third areas are different. We should not just stand back and watch for signs that God is restraining sin in the world, or hope that we might witness acts of civic righteousness popping up here and there in the lives of the unredeemed. We ought to look for ways God can use us to restrain the power of sin in the larger human community, and to perform our own works of civic good (p. 81).

Dr. Mouw’s reasons for espousing common grace are characteristically candid. They are also interesting. We will look at them in the next issue, God willing.