Common Grace, 2.17

Common Grace, 2.17 January 5, 2021

This post is part of a series walking through the second volume of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace.


When we think about Christ’s life, we see a solid line drawn between the Incarnation on the one hand, which was utter miracle, and His “dwelling among us”, which was shaped by the regular operation of common grace. We must not either overemphasize or deny either of these.

Believers are especially prone to elevate the miraculous over the mundane, to the point of ignoring Christ’s human life. This tendency makes some passages of Scripture (such as Luke 2:52) impenetrable. Unbelievers go the other direction and de-emphasize (or outright deny) the miraculous in favor of the human. Jesus, to them, is just another historical figure to be portrayed in biography–or even in historical fiction. In responding to these unbelievers, some have tried to use the tools of biography to uphold the miraculous. The problem is that the supernatural doesn’t work that way and instead of “the beauty of unity” we get weak historical apologetics. Weak apologetics, in turn, always fails because it tries to take its stand on the enemy’s ground. (151)

“…this must go totally wrong when this approach [through historical biography] tries to apply its method to him who was the image of the Father; he cannot be explained on the basis of our human community, because he did not arise from our human race and human life. Whoever wants to explain him on this basis is in fact denying his mission to the world. It is not we who can explain him. He explains us.” (151)

This doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us to do and no way to explain anything. Common grace opens the door for us to explore “Christ’s dwelling among us.” (152) Particular grace doesn’t apply to Christ–only to us sinners. Common grace, however, does apply to him and means that there are things we can say and understand about his experiences that are based in the normal operations of the world.

For that matter, the same is true of angels. Common grace defines the environment in which they act (Sodom or Bethlehem, e.g.). This affects their work, just as it did the work of Jesus.

And I think everything Kuyper has said here is true, but then he makes a statement that I don’t think follows from his previous arguments and that is particularly jarring in the 21st century:

“Imagine our Savior appearing among a tribe where cannibalism was still practiced: the emergence of the church of the new covenant would simply have been unthinkable.” (153)

We’ve seen before and undoubtedly will continue to see Kuyper’s very-turn-of-the-century-Dutch views on other cultures. And I think that had someone given him some pushback even as a citizen of his own time and place he would have been willing to modify this statement. It is in fact “unthinkable” to have Christ appear or the church begin anywhere other than where it did, not because of an inherent cultural superiority of the Jews as subjects of Rome at the turn of the millennium, but because God had spent more than a millennium preparing a time and place through both common grace and the spread of His Word. Over and over for centuries a people had seen a sacrifice made for their sins while being told that this sacrifice was made not because they deserved it, but because God loved them. (Deuteronomy 9 and, well, basically everywhere else in the Bible). Why did God choose the Jews and that particular geographic location rather than whatever tribe of cannibals it was that Kuyper had in mind? I don’t know. But I do know that it was God’s choice, and not the result of an inherent moral distinction between one people and another. Again, there are cultural conversations to be had about the relative merits of different practices (though maybe less so with cannibalism), but in confusing those conversations with his broader theological point Kuyper misfires and ultimately distracts us from the good thing he is otherwise trying to get across.

Okay, end tangent and back to the main point. Particular grace targets individuals and the gathering of God’s people, but common grace benefits everyone even apart from sin–as was the case with Jesus. Common grace brings with it general blessings, not just personal ones. The life of Jesus was a life that was planned and prepared (as were all of our lives) in a specific cultural setting, time, and place. None of the influences that shaped him were accidental or happenstance.

Common grace orders and directs history, intentionally creating the conditions in which Christ worked as Savior. That is to say, the conditions were prepared for the work; the work was not adapted to fit the conditions in which Christ just happened to find himself. What’s more, there is no such thing as a “general human situation… [or] community,.” (155) Though Jesus saves the world, he did so from within a particular culture and place. He “dwelt among us” in a special way in a specific time and place which shaped him in ways that were planned to best facilitate his work of salvation. (155)

More on Christ’s upbringing in the next post.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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