Common grace has played a large role in Calvinist thinking about culture. For some, it is this general grace of God – His restraint of sin, His gifts of cultural skill to believers and unbelievers – that makes common culture possible. Special grace and special revelation are for the church; outside, common grace and general revelation rules.
The great Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper is largely responsible for the prominence of this notion in Reformed worldview thinking, but as described by James Bratt in his recent Abraham Kuyper biography Kuyper’s own thinking on this topic is more nuanced than that of “some of his acolytes” (202).
Bratt writes that Kuyper always dealt with special and common together, as “distinguished but not divided” works of the same God, “aimed at the self-same goal of re-creating the whole world until it finally reflected the glory of the divine image.” The church was destined to fill the world as the new humanity, but “common grace permitted the spoiled creation to stay in being while that development went forward,” with “significant achievements” of culture and political along the way.
Kuyper’s scheme was not a simple common-special binary, but a “four-part typology”: “At the two ends lay the two graces pure and simple. In lands not (yet) evangelized, common grace operated alone, with no small record of accomplishment but no hopeful goal in sight either. In the institutional church, purely reformed, particular grace operated safe from the corruptions of the world. In the two middle segments the two graces overlapped with complex results” (202-3).
Special grace, Kuyper argued, “strengthened and best realized the possibilities of common grace,” not because believers were necessarily “more gifted than unbelievers at science, art, technical skill, or political acumen.” Kuyper thought the opposite was more the case. Rather, “those endowed with the insights of the gospel knew the ultimate purposes and norms” for technical, artistic, and political gifts (203).
Besides, many of the common blessings of secular modernity were the “long-term residue of a once-dominant public faith.” The West was not a common-grace realm but reflected, in Kuyper’s words, “the life of non-confessors in a Christian country,” the word “Christian” in this context telling us “nothing about the spiritual state of the inhabitants of such a country but only [bearing] witness to the fact that public opinion, the general mindset, the ruling ideas, the moral norms, the laws and customs there clearly betoken the influence of the Christian faith” (203). Kuyper’s willingness to use “Christian” to describe a “country” shows his distance from some of his followers.
Kuyper gave most of his attention to this middle ground, where special and general mixed. I would only add that the middle ground is the only ground we have. Purely common-grace and purely special-grace communities are theoretical only. They have never actually existed for sons of Adam and Noah.