EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
THIRD AND FOURTH HEADS OF DOCTRINE
OF THE CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION TO GOD, AND THE MANNER THEREOF
Article 4. There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.
Again we find fault with our English version of this article. For even though it may be granted that there is nothing in the translation that essentially changes the meaning of the fathers, yet there are certain fine distinctions which are lost in this translation, and which surely may be classed as inaccuracies without running the risk of being called hypercritical and technical. We can perhaps best call attention to these inaccuracies by presenting our own translation of the Latin and leaving it to the reader to make a comparison of the two. Our translation here follows:
There is indeed in man after the fall a residual light of nature, by benefit of which he retains a kind of knowledge (probably better: some ideas, concepts. The Latin here is the plural quasdam notitias, in distinction from the cognitionem used later in the article, both of’ which arc translated “knowledge” in the English and “kennis” in the Dutch) concerning God, concerning things natural, and concerning the difference between things honorable 2nd base, and shows a kind of regard (Latin: stadium) for virtue and external order (Latin:disciplina). But so far is he from being able by this light of nature to arrive at a saving knowledge (cognitionem) of God and to convert himself to Him, that not even in things natural and civil does he use it aright, yea much rather, such as it is even, he in various ways contaminates it wholly, and holds it under in unrighteousness, which while he does, he is rendered inexcusable before the face of God.
It is from more than one point of view strange and surpassing reason that such an article as this should be cited in support of the theory of common grace. To borrow an expression from Calvin, a man “must be utterly beside himself” to find any support for that theory in this paragraph of our Canons. For in the first place, it is exactly against the Arminians’ common grace theory, according to which they considered this light of nature as common grace and according to which they made the right use of this light of nature (so-called common grace) a condition unto gaining a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. Cf. III, IV, B, 5. But in the second place, common grace and a so-called civil good are not mentioned with so much as a breath in this article. And not only are they not mentioned, but the entire article militates against any such false conception. This can be made abundantly clear,—so clear that any honest study of the teaching of the fathers in this paragraph must needs lead either ‘to a rejection of the theory of common grace or to a rejection of the fathers.
And yet it seems to be a rather common thing that the subject of common grace is broached in this connection, and that the attempt is made to find the common grace theory in this utterance of the Great Synod. It is well-known, of course, that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 sought to support the Third Point of Common Grace by citing only the first sentence of this article, i.e., up to the ‘But . . .”. But there are others also, who, while they do not argue from this article to prove the theory of common grace, nevertheless look at the article through the spectacles of common grace, and who evidently feel while they do so the impossibility of the common grace theory in the light of this article. Thus, for example, Ds. J.G. Feenstra, in his “De Dordtse Leerregelen Toegelicht,” begins his commentary on this article (p. 125) as follows: “We komen nu tot een moeilijke kwestie, waarover heel wat geschreven en gezegd is. Daarom willen wij ons strikt houden aan wat door de belijdenis, op grond van Gods Woord, wordt gezegd.” Personally we cannot see anything so moeilijk, difficult, about this question. And if only the author had held himself to what is, said by the confession upon the basis of God’s Word, as is his announced intention, all difficulty would be avoided. But it is not long before he leaves that course, and makes a conclusion that is warranted neither by the confession nor by the Word of God, when, writing about this light of nature, he concludes: “Die overblijfselen zijn dus resten van Gods beeld. We hebben het beeld God verloren, maar overblijfselen behouden.” We call this an unwarranted conclusion. For Ds. Feenstra speaks of remnants of the image of God, while neither Scripture nor the confession does this. Our fathers do not speak of the image of God in this connection whatsoever. They speak of the “light of nature.” And the statement quoted above is based on the false premise that the light of nature is the same as the image of God. And while this author does not speak explicitly of common grace, he nevertheless, before he reaches the end of his comments about this article, speaks of these remnants of natural light as “voorrechten privileges“: “Dat licht der natuur, die overblijfselen, resten van het beeld Gods, zijn voorrechten, die God de mens gegeven heeft. Helaas maakt de natuurlijke mens daar schandelijk misbruik van.” (idem, p. 127) Ds. T. Bos in his commentary on this article was also under the influence of the common grace theory, as is evident from his opening comments:
“In den laatsten tijd is het leerstuk der algemeene genade: ‘Gemeene gratie’ meer breedvoerig behandeld dan vroeger. Daarin is ook sprake van hetgeen in den mensch na den val nog overbleef van het beeld Gods, in ruimeren zin genomen. Bij de behandeling van dat onderwerp wordt door sommigen, in remonstrantschen zin, het wezenlijk onderscheid tusschen de ‘algemeene’ en ‘bijzondere’ genade weggeredeneerd, en de algemeene genade wordt verheven tot den grond en wortel der bijzondere genade, zoo dat de ontwikkeling van het eene tot het andere mogelijk wordt geacht.
“Neemt onderschatting van de ‘gemeene gratie’ het verband tusschen schepping en herschepping weg,overschatting miskent de noodzakelijkheid der wedergeboorte, om tot wezenlijke herstelling te komen.”
Here evidently the theory of common grace is maintained, but a warning is sounded against using “common grace” in the Arminian sense, as though it can be the root and ground of “special grace.”
A little farther on this, same author writes, still evidently with the theory of common grace in mind: “Toch is dat licht der natuur, in den mensch nog overgebleven, een weldaad Gods, en het maakt den mensch schuldig voor Hem, als hij het door ongerechtigheid te onderhoudt, zoodat het zich niet in hart en wandel openbaart. Het is oorzaak dat de mensch onnatuurlijk wordt en zich tot het dierlijke verlaagt.
“Onschuldig voor God is geen mensch. Heel de wereld is verdoemelijk, voor God. Wat op zichzelf een zegen was, wordt in een vloek gekeerd door moedwillig het licht dat in den mensch nog is, te verdonkeren of uit te blusschen, niet hoorende naar het geweten, dat in hem nog spreekt.”
Here we find a bit of philosophy,—for philosophy it is, not Scripture,—to explain the fact that the object of common grace nevertheless falls under condemnation. The light of nature, even the residue of it, is a “weldaad Gods.” It is “op zichzelf een zegen, by itself a blessing.” But man changes this “blessing” into a curse by willfully blotting out this light of nature and by not listening to his conscience, that still speaks within him. We learn then also that common grace is a kind of grace of God too that is resistible, for though God blesses, man can change that blessing into a curse.
Because of this common tendency to subvert this light of nature into a common grace of God, therefore, it is necessary that we consider this article thoroughly.
First of all, then, we face the question: what is this natural light?
The article, while it does not furnish us a formal definition of it, does give us a rather thorough description of its content. It tells us that by virtue of this natural light, or, better, light of nature, man retains some idea of and acquaintance with things concerning God, things natural, and with the difference between things honorable and things base, and shows a certain regard for virtue and external order. It tells us; in the second place, that man has but a residue of this light after the fall. This is worthy of note. The word “glimmerings,” while scarcely a literal rendering of the Latin residuum, is a rather apt expression in this connection. We are instructed not to think too highly of this natural light that is left in man after the fall, such as it is. The description of the article certainly does not leave the impression that man’s natural light has only been marred a little, that it has been somewhat impeded, while he has retained by far the biggest part of it. The description of our Canons, on the contrary, leaves the impression that through the fall man has been stripped of even his light’ of nature for the most part, and has kept only a very small remnant of it,—a residue. If, then, we are inclined to think highly of those things that are accomplished by men by virtue of this little remnant of the light of nature after the fall, how tremendous must have been the light which man possessed in the state of rectitude! If we speak sometimes of “intellectual giants” who have after all only a residue of the light of nature, what a light of intellect must the first man have had in paradise! And what a flood of understanding shall enlighten us anew in the world that is to come!
As far as the idea and the contents of this light of nature are concerned, we may say, first of all, that it is by virtue of this remnant of natural light that man remains a rational, moral being even after the fall. He is a creature that can still think and will. He remains a man. His natural, human gifts, the light that he had by virtue of the fact that his nature as a creature was a human nature,—that light did not remain unaffected by the fall. But it was not lost either: he retained a residue of it. If he did not have that residue, he would not be able to act as a responsible, rational, moral creature in relation to God and man. He could not sin, for sin implies a creature that knows what he ought to do, a creature that is responsible, capable of a moral response. He could not be subject to punishment, for that is impossible in the case of a non-responsible creature. Hence, he has kept something of that light of nature. He has kept enough of it that he remains a human being,—a rational, moral, responsible creature. Although his nature was seriously affected through sin, it remained a human nature. Man did not become through the fall an irrational beast.
We must notice, however, already here that this is no question of grace or lack of grace. In fact, the truth of the matter is that those very glimmerings of natural light are a constant testimony of the wrath of God. For it was the wrath of God against sin that so consumed man that, it even extended to his very nature and stripped him of a large part of his original natural gifts. And, as becomes evident in the last part of the article, the wrath of God left man with just sufficient natural light that he might be left inexcusable and might, thus become the object of more divine wrath. Nay, from this point of view it might have been better if man had been totally stripped of his natural gifts. Then, at least, he would no longer have been a morally responsible creature. Then, at least, he could not become subject to a further visitation of wrath. But now he is indeed born a child of wrath. (to be continued)