Common Grace, 2.89

Common Grace, 2.89 April 5, 2022

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

Particular grace, so Kuyper claims, directly benefits common grace–as we see in Europe’s history and where missionaries work. With this as his starting point, Kuyper breaks humanity up into four categories of “contemporary life” (i.e. end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century):

  1. “African”, or the “lowest level of human development.” Common grace is at work here, albeit in a “very limited sense.” Cannibalism and paganism are still prominent and there is little literature, and so forth. (760)
  2. “Asian” (specifically East/South Asia–and formerly including Central/South America as well), where there is much ommon grace, but ony to a point. On contact with higher civilizations they must either adapt or be dominated, as we see with Japan (adapt) and China (being dominated).
    These first two demonstrate little or no influence beyond their own borders. (760-761)
  3. “Levantine” (from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, where first the Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations ruled, then Christianity under Byzantium, then Islam). Common grace is powerfully at work here, especially in the past (though “Islam certainly still has vitality.”) (761)
  4. Europe and America, where civilization has advanced most–especially as it has moved its center from Southern to Northern Europe. (761-762) This is because of the influence of the church, though of course there are other causes as well (the “aptitude of the peoples” for example). The church expands capacities in all of life and raises us to a “better and higher social order.” (762-763)

So what we see here [well, what Kuyper sees here–it should go without saying that this breakdown of civilizations hasn’t aged well; and I suspect towards the end of his life as World War 1 tore through Europe Kuyper would have seen some of his errors] is that particular grace is “the means to bring common grace to its most powerful manifestation.” (763) But how does this work? We talk about “Christian” culture [and we shouldn’t, but that’s an argument I’ve got with Kuyper that should be held until another time] We talk about Christian culture, but this is a problem of terminology. A “Christian society” is a contrast with “pagan” or “Islamic” society. The problem here is that sometimes we mean “Christian” in contrast simply with “unbelieving.” The former use of the term (i.e. ‘Christian culture’) simply means “European” generally, while the latter means a specific confessional group of people. When we say “a Christian civilization,” we mean only to speak of common grace–albeit a common grace influenced and “permeated by the Gospel.” When we say “a Christian school” we mean regenerate folks (particular grace) in the midst of a common grace life.

So one can live in a “Christian civilization” without being a Christian personally–one can even lead such a society. But one cannot be a “Christian teacher” without “personally confessing Christ.” (764) Yet, we have confused the term “Christian” to the point where it means little relative to either particular grace or common grace. We must being to think clearly about the different uses of the term, else we’ll never have “clear insight.” (764-765)

Of course we can also distinguish between kinds of Christians and the different Christian societies they live in. [Kuyper himself would do some of that in his Lectures on Calvinism, and Dooyeweerd would do yet more in his own writings.]

But how does particular grace affect common grace?

  1. The call of a confessing church “works on the conscience.”
  2. “Believers elevate domestic and societal life to a higher level through their example.”
  3. Believers speak the truth publicly.

And so common grace resists sin all the more. Obviously this is not to say that believers are perfect! We still privately sin, even as we affect the publicly “ethos.” (765-766) So the “moral life” of the nation is elevated from the center as the government partly aligns with these calls by believers. What’s more, God blesses these nations and makes them wealthy. [ugh]

“In summary, we may express it in this way: common grace intends a twofold restraint, the restraint of sin and the restraint of the curse. Particular grace helps to raise the activity of common grace to the highest level in terms of both. In connection with the arresting of sin, we see the moral influence of particular grace, and in connection with the arresting of the curse, we see the providential influence of particular grace.” (766)

As should be clear, this chapter contains some of Kuypers best and worst reflections on common grace. Certainly all his national and racial arrogance is on full display, while at the same time his clear delineation of the distinction between “Christian” in its different uses is critical. Likewise he overly mixes the effects of particular and common grace (culminating with the idea that nations are directly materially blessed as particular grace spreads) while at the same time articulating clearly just how believers should strive to live well in our world as common grace operates. I’m obviously going to have to think more about how to keep what’s good here while skimming off what’s in desperate need of skimming.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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