Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
It was, by virtually any standard, a remarkable evening. There was the remarkable debate between Dr. Richard Mouw and Prof. David Engelsma on the subject of common grace.
Dr. Mouw himself had generated some renewed interest in the subject when he lectured on the subject at Calvin College. Later the lectures were placed in book form and titled: He Shines in All That’s Fair. Likely the book would not have attracted much attention—except that Prof. David Engelsma examined the book and answered its arguments in a series of editorials (“He Shines in All That’s Fair—and Curses All That’s Foul.”) in the Standard Bearer. More recently, these editorials also were published in book form, Common Grace Revisited.
The Evangelism Committee of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church contacted these two men and asked them to debate publicly on the subject. Both agreed. A time and place were determined: September 12 at Sunshine Community (Christian Reformed) Church.
The committee announced this debate in church bulletins for an extended length of time. They advertised it in the Grand Rapids Press. And the Press itself had a lengthy write-up of the coming event. The debate was advertised as well on the Reformed Witness Hour radio broadcast.
Surely, it would seem, the evangelism committee was aiming far too high. The subject, though of great importance, is not one that commonly generates much interest, except perhaps in Protestant Reformed circles. The generation that went through the period of controversy in 1924 has almost entirely departed this earthly scene. A second generation, which has heard of the controversy directly from their parents, is also aging and many have departed to glory. The current generation views the issue as a matter of ancient history and often cannot get too enthusiastic about that sort of subject. Within the Christian Reformed Church mention is made of the controversy in their church history books, but most hardly know about the subject or of that ancient debate. So possibly a few of the older, gray heads, would attend—but hardly would one expect the youth or middle-aged individuals to show much interest.
The format of debate also would hardly seem the way to generate interest. Debates have gone out of style many years ago. Who would come out to hear an old-fashioned debate?
The selected location, Sunshine Community Church, also seemed to be an unwise choice. That church seats 2,291 people! Surely in the whole of Grand Rapids one could not find sufficient interested people to begin filling an auditorium of that size! Then there were also other gatherings of that evening: sporting events, weddings, and more that would further reduce the size of the audience.
What a surprise, then, it was to see the auditorium first filling rather slowly—then ever more rapidly until it was filled to overflowing. Chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the last arrivals!
If any came believing that the subject was “dated” and really irrelevant for our own time, the two speakers convincingly showed that this was not true. It is a relevant subject, worthy of debate and further discussion. The attention of those assembled demonstrated that the subject was truly interesting and deserving of study.
At the conclusion of the evening the moderator pointed out that there were a large number of young people present. This, too, was encouraging. It showed that even the youth considered it profitable to assemble to hear what the debaters had to say about the subject.
It was pleasant, too, to see the number of people from Calvin College and from the Christian Reformed Church (and other denominations as well). Certainly the debate gave them opportunity to examine anew this subject for themselves. Perhaps, just perhaps, the evening will generate an interest that will lead to further study and discussion.
The format for the evening was nicely designed. Each debater was given 30 minutes to present his case on the subject. After the intermission, each speaker was given 15 minutes’ time for rebuttal. This was followed by three questions each (presented in advance) submitted to the opposing speaker. Finally, questions from the audience were answered. From the many questions submitted, each debater was allowed to select those that would be given to the opposing debater. Significant questions were asked and answered. Though the program lasted about three hours, none seemed bored or impatient. It was truly a fascinating evening.
The moderator, Mr. Rick Noorman, did an excellent job mixing a little humor as he introduced speakers and subject. And he carefully adhered to the announced format.
The debaters commendably presented their differing positions on the subject. Dr. Richard Mouw mentioned at the outset, as he also did in his book, that the subject of common grace deserved continued study and discussion. He acknowledged that the subject had been largely ignored in Christian Reformed circles in past years. He, both in his book and through this debate, intended to bring up this significant subject for further consideration.
Prof. David Engelsma, on his part, expressed great appreciation that Dr. Mouw in his book and in the debate was willing to treat this subject publicly. Because of this willingness of Dr. Mouw to write and speak on the subject, it was being brought again to the attention of those outside of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
A frequently asked question after this remarkable evening was, “Who won the debate?” It would be difficult to answer that question. What standards would one use to judge? And who would do the judging? I would assume that those who came to listen, and were already convinced of the error of common grace, would insist that Prof. Engelsma was clearly the “winner.” On the other hand, some of those who held to the teaching of a common grace of God were heard saying (quietly) “Amen” to the arguments of Dr. Mouw.
Briefly, I would personally judge that Dr. Mouw eloquently defended the teaching of a common grace of God on the basis of “feeling.” He mentioned examples of horrific crimes of rape and murder of Muslims. He emphasized that he, and any Christian, felt deep pity toward such people and great revulsion toward the perpetrators of this violence. He spoke of his (and any normal person’s) admiration towards the skill of a Tiger Woods in executing a perfect putt in a golf tournament. He could admire a skilled baseball team that became world champions. He mentioned the great musical compositions of the unbeliever that are enjoyed also by many believers—Protestant Reformed believers too. Our feelings towards those who suffer, as well as feelings of pleasure because of those who have great talents, must be a reflection of God’s good feelings towards these unbelievers. How can God condemn those who have such great talent? How can He not pity those unbelievers who often are treated so shamefully?
Dr. Mouw indicated that the Protestant Reformed denial of common grace leads to a separation from the affairs of society and an isolationism contrary to the mandates of Scripture.
Though Dr. Mouw did mention a few portions from the confessions and Scripture, it seemed to this listener that these references did not defend the proposition of the debate: “Is Common Grace Reformed?”
Prof. Engelsma adhered to the subject of the debate. He pointed out from the Reformed creeds those passages that contradict the idea of a “common grace.” He showed that the one reference in the creeds to a “common grace” was when it was condemned as used by the Arminians. He pointed to relevant passages of Scripture upon which the teachings of the confessions rest. He reminded Dr. Mouw that common grace leads to the destruction of the antithesis and ultimately to universalism.
But each ought to evaluate the arguments on his own—and in light of Scripture and the confessions. Audiocassettes and videos are available ($3.00 for a cassette and $12.50 for a video). As of September 25 there were 201 audiocassettes ordered and 213 videos. Doubtless that number will have increased by the time the reader sees this report. Those who would still wish to obtain cassettes or videos should write: Evangelism Committee, Southeast Protestant Reformed Church, 1535 Cambridge Ave., SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506. Or one can order from Joel Dykstra at 616-878-1218 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.