[This post is part of a roundtable discussion on a new collection of essays on grace by Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper called Wisdom & Wonder. For more conversation, visit the Patheos Book Club here.]
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) is one of the primary modern interpreters of Reformed theology. Following John Calvin, Kuyper sees the universe as the “theater of God’s glory.” The world is the reflection of God’s common, preserving and orderly work in creation. Despite the tragic impact of human sin, God still acts to preserve the world of family life, politics, science, and art. These realms of existence can be perceived and utilized in godly ways because of God’s activity within them. Still, as Vincent Bacote says in his Introduction to Wonder and Wisdom, “this is not a saving, regenerating, or electing grace, but a preserving grace extended to the world God has made, and is seen in the human inclination to serve one’s neighbor through work, pursue shalom in broken situations, and defend equity in all forms of interaction.” Such common grace will not save us, Kuyper and the Calvinist tradition believes, but it makes this lifetime livable and advances science, culture, and the arts. Only a special grace, like a search light illuminating God’s elect (those God whom chooses) can save us in this life and the next.
While Kuyper’s view opens the door to Christian involvement in politics, art, and science, his differentiation between general and special revelation – a corollary of the theological doctrine of the doctrine of election – leads to a dualism which ultimately diminishes the value of our social and political involvements. If politics and culture are not truly part of God’s vision of salvation and contribute nothing to our ultimate relationship with God, they are optional rather than necessary aspects of the Christian’s vocation.
Implied in Kuyper’s viewpoint is the recognition that while improving the social order and advancing science are helpful to our fellow citizens, they make absolutely no difference to the salvation of the non-elect, whose destiny is damnation, regardless of their intellectual growth, physical well-being, or creativity in this lifetime.
I see divine omnipresence and omniscience as holistic rather than dualistic. I believe that common grace – God’s revealing in and through the world – is also saving grace and is available to everyone everywhere. Grace has but one tier, and is aimed at abundant life – period – whether we focus on this lifetime or our eternal destinies. The political and cultural worlds are not only essential to sustaining life (God’s sustaining providence) but to saving souls. Salvation is of one piece and everything we do contributes to, or detracts from, the spiritual well-being of our neighbors. If we carry our personal identities into the afterlife, our personal and political involvements today play a significant role in creating our eschatological experiences. Negative environments can threaten the quality of this life and the next, despite God’s overwhelming care for each person and God’s quest for abundant life in individual and corporate existence. As Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the parents of the social gospel, said of one of New York’s worst neighborhoods, “Hell’s Kitchen is not a safe place for saved souls.”
I see revelation always as both universal and special. God reveals Godself everywhere, but this revelation is both broad and intimate in focus. God has a vision for creation and the human enterprise, but it is embodied in the unique and evolving experiences of God’s creatures. God’s quest for abundant life is not for some, but for all, and this is where I part company with the Calvinist understanding of election and its separation of saved and unsaved as a result of God’s primordial decision with regard to every person. At the end of the day, general revelation and common revelation are ultimately of little consequence unless they contribute to the process of salvation of everyone. The impact of providing a good education or medical care or appreciating music or art is ultimately a sham, if it has no impact on the eternal destiny of humankind. While I affirm the importance of this moment, I equally affirm the everlasting significance of every moment in the evolution of human life, our planet, the universe, and God’s own experience.
Common grace must be universal in changing lives for the good today, tomorrow, and always. To say otherwise is to re-write Jesus’ own mission statement from “I have come that they may have life in all its abundance” to “I have come that some might have abundant life” or “I have come that they may have life in its abundance – but this concern ends when the non-elect die.” A truly graceful understanding of revelation – one that enables us to bring spirit to secularity – must be all-inclusive and all-encompassing in joining this world and everlasting life.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and pastor, and the author of 22 books, including God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Ministry of Jesus; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed; and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He may be contacted for lectures, seminars, and consultations at email@example.com.