Not Anabaptist but Reformed*: Chapter III. Calvin and Kuyper On Common Grace (1)

* Not Anabaptist, but Reformed was a pamphlet written by Danhof and Hoeksema in 1923 as a “Provisional Response to Rev. Jan Karel Van Baalen Concerning the Denial of Common Grace.” Translated here from the Dutch by seminarian Daniel Holstege. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2008, p. 223.

As Rev. Van Baalen next proceeds to judge our view in the light of Reformed theology, he says first of all that he will limit himself to Reformed theologians of the last half century. The reason that he gives for this is that we are dealing here “with an immense field.” Now if this should mean that the field of Reformed theology as such is immense, then that can be relatively agreed upon. But we do not see the sense of these words in this connection. The author clearly wants to give the impression that before half a century ago there was already so much written about common grace that it would be impossible to get through it if one would begin to draw this doctrine up out of Reformed theology. This is all new to us. And if it is truly the conviction of Rev. Van Baalen that there are still a whole bunch of little flowers to be plucked in this immense field in support of the doctrine of common grace, then he could really do a service to Reformed theology, which no one has yet done, and we would ask that he get to work. Kuyper laments the fact that this doctrine was so poorly developed by Reformed theology. And he went all the way back to Calvin.

Therefore what Rev. Van Baalen unearths from Reformed theology of the last half century is almost not worth the trouble, except of course for Kuyper and Bavinck. Surely even brother Van Baalen does not concur with Hodge’s view. The quotation from Gravemeyer is preposterous. And what Rev. Van Baalen cites from Van Andel does not even relate to the present question among us. We deny neither the longsuffering of God nor the glimmerings of natural light. And the fact that Rev. Van Baalen cites these passages demonstrates that, although he has certainly searched diligently, he has been able to find only very little on common grace outside of Kuyper and Bavinck.

Then Rev. Van Baalen again begins to attack us over what we wrote against Dr. Janssen. This continually recurring phenomenon is typical. “Ex ungue leonem“: From the claw one knows the lion. Rev. Van Baalen is of the opinion that we have dragged Dr. Janssen’s good name through the mud. We disagree with the brother on that point as well. We continue to be of the opinion that we have done the churches a service by calling their attention to the dangerous instruction of Dr. Janssen. Rev. Van Baalen should be thankful for that. He has, however, not one word of appreciation for us. He condemns everything we have done. And thereby he also condemns the Church. It is simply absurd to assume that Rev. Hoeksema, who has not even once served on the Janssen committee at Synod, could alone have effected Dr. Janssen’s deposition and our churches’ condemnation of his teaching as un-Reformed. Rev. Van Baalen, who certainly has the right to protest a synodical decision, here gives the whole Church a slap in the face.

But this now aside, we ask, on what basis does he claim that we have dragged Dr. Janssen’s good name through the mud in this context? Simply on the fact that we wrote, “One cannot but be speechless at the audacity of the claim that the doctrine of common grace is one of the most prominent doctrines that Calvin distinguished.” We still hold to this position, and in a moment we will also show the reason. But we also want to add here that we are speechless at the way brother Van Baalen argues in this connection: We drag Dr. Janssen’s good name in the mud here, and we should not write like that. Why not (according to Van Baalen)? Because in the claim that the doctrine of common grace is one of Calvin’s most prominent doctrines, Dr. Janssen has simply followed Dr. Kuyper and quoted Dr. Bavinck. Therefore, we should not say that the claim was audacious and that we were speechless! Well then, brother, here is our explanation. This time we have purposely scoured Calvin. We have read over hisInstitutes, and on that basis we have come to the conviction that Dr. Janssen’s claim mentioned above was audacious. And now we want to demonstrate that further.

It would be worth the trouble to produce a separate brochure on the question what Calvin actually taught about common grace. Determining what Calvin taught is not all that easy, especially taking into consideration that the meaning attached to a specific term at a certain time is sometimes entirely different from the meaning given to a term later on. Still, we must attempt to state briefly what his view is in all this. It is our conviction that, with regard to the essential point, Calvin’s view is fundamentally different from that of Kuyper. The difference comes down to this: Calvin as well as Kuyper and Bavinck teach that God gives good gifts to all men in this life. We agree with this. Gifts of understanding and reason, of artistic talent and sense, of rain and sunshine, of money and goods, houses and fields, love and merriment are all good gifts of God. God is good and His gifts are always good. He always treats all His creatures well. But the great difference lies in this, that Calvin always holds to the position that natural man with all his gifts can never will or do good before God, but always remains wicked, whereas Kuyper supposes that natural man by the power of common grace is in a condition that is inclined unto good. Calvin does also teach, as we shall soon see, that the fact that natural man does not always fall into the most dreadful sins is to be attributed to a restraint of sin by God. We believe that we have found another explanation for this phenomenon in the organic development of things. But Calvin never permits any good to come forth from that restraint. Kuyper does. Let us try to make this clear with quotations from both writers.

Already in his Dedication to the King of France (in the Institutes*) Calvin wrote: “For what is more consistent with faith than to acknowledge ourselves naked of all virtue, that we may be clothed by God; empty of all good, that we may be filled by him; slaves to sin, that we may be liberated by him; blind, that we may be enlightened by him; lame, that we may be guided; weak, that we may be supported by him; to divest ourselves of all ground of glorying, that he alone may be eminently glorious, and that we may glory in him? When we advance these and similar sentiments, they interrupt us with complaints that this is the way to overturn, I know not what blind light of nature, pretended preparations, free will and works meritorious of eternal salvation, together with all their supererogations.”1 Especially this last part is significant. One may hear the same complaint against the total depravity of natural man also in our day.

Concerning the natural knowledge of God in the sinner, Calvin writes: “That seed, which it is impossible to eradicate, a sense of the existence of a Deity, yet remains; but so corrupted as to produce only the worst of fruits.” And then: “Yet this is a further proof of what I now contend for, that an idea of God is naturally engraved on the hearts of men, since necessity extorts a confession of it, even from reprobates themselves. In the moment of tranquility, they facetiously mock the Divine Being, and with loquacious impertinence derogate from his power. But if any despair oppress them, it stimulates them to seek him, and dictates concise prayers, which prove that they are not altogether ignorant of God, but that what ought to have appeared before had been suppressed by obstinacy.”2 The short summary of all this is that there is a knowledge of God engraved in natural man, which, however, never produces anything in him but exceedingly wicked fruits. He is not thereby induced to honor God, but only to make use of Him as his instrument in times of need and anguish. It needs no explanation that this is something entirely different from that which Dr. Janssen wished to force upon us, who wanted to put us above Scripture with this natural knowledge of God.

Concerning this natural understanding over against the general revelation of God in nature and in history, Calvin writes, “But, notwithstanding the clear representations given by God in the mirror of his works, both of himself and of his everlasting dominion, such is our stupidity, that, always inattentive to these obvious testimonies, we derive no advantage from them.”3

And concerning the philosophies of the heathen world, he writes, “In proportion to the vigour of his natural genius, and the polish acquired by art and science, each of them seemed to give the more specious colouring to his own opinion; but, on a close inspection, you will find them all fading colours.”4

And once again concerning general revelation, he writes, “Vain, therefore, is the light afforded us in the formation of the world to illustrate the glory of its Author, which, though its rays be diffused all around us, is insufficient to conduct us into the right way. Some sparks, indeed, are kindled, but smothered before they have emitted any great degree of light.”5 This language is in agreement with our Reformed confessions. But we [i.e., the CRC] have by no means followed this route with our doctrine of common grace. On the contrary, we have so fanned those sparks that they are spreading a blaze of light in the enlightened world around them in which even the believer may bathe himself! It is true that Dr. Kuyper has not dared to follow this through consistently. But those who, apart from common grace, do not need much of Kuyper, who abhor and hate the antithesis, and want to build almost entirely on his common grace, surely do this. Thus, we are led into the midst of the world. And so also Dr. Janssen arrives at his notion that man naturally seeks after truth.

In Institutes II.2.12-17, Calvin deals with the natural gifts that remain in man after the Fall. It would require too much space to copy this entire passage here. We will reproduce the thought and cite the sharpest sections. One must also understand that Calvin does not speak of these natural gifts as one of his most prominent doctrines. He never does this. He treats them in connection with the depravity of man, and among them he dedicates a few paragraphs to the natural gifts. He begins by saying, “And, indeed, I much approve of that common observation which has been borrowed from Augustine, that the natural talents in man have been corrupted by sin, but that of the supernatural ones he has been wholly deprived.” Among these last, supernatural gifts, Calvin then names the love of God, the love of the neighbor, and the exercise of holiness and righteousness. He says that these were destroyed in man by sin. Nevertheless, there have remained in man a few natural gifts of the understanding and will. But even natural reason has been so corrupted that it seems to be in unsightly ruins.

Further, Calvin then deals with a few things that are brought about by these natural gifts, such as civil justice, beautiful works of art, perception and reasoning. And he attributes all those gifts to the Holy Spirit, who distributes them to everyone as He wills. He even calls this something in which we have to recognize God’s particular grace; particular not in the same sense that we now use that word, but in the sense of distinction. For there are indeed also men who are deprived of these gifts, such as those who are insane. And he concludes this consideration by saying, “For the sentiment of Augustine…is strictly true—that as the gratuitous or supernatural gifts were taken away from man after the fall, so these natural ones which remained have been corrupted;not that they can be defiled in themselves as proceeding from God, but because they have ceased to be pure to polluted man, so that he can obtain no praise from them.” Take notice also that here again is the same thought. Man does receive good gifts from God. But they are unclean to him. He pollutes them. And this pertains to the natural gifts.

* Translator’s note: The authors use the Dutch translation of Corsmanus. I have inserted that of John Allen.

1. Calvin, Institutes, Dedication, pp. 23-24.

2. Calvin, Institutes, I.4.4.

3. Calvin, Institutes, I.5.11.

4. Calvin, Institutes, I.5.12.

5. Calvin, Institutes, I.5.14.