Common Grace, 3.11

Common Grace, 3.11 July 19, 2022

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

In the previous chapter, Kuyper examined the relationship between common grace and government. In this chapter, Kuyper is going to explore the relationship between government and the people. Does common grace come only through government? Or does it come from elsewhere as well?

These questions are important, for if common grace comes only from government,

“we consequently stand unresistingly and without any rights over against it [government]. In that case, we are nothing apart from it, and all good gifts must come to us through it. At that point, its rule over us, over our lives, and over our possessions must be absolute and unlimited. We then end up in the most extreme form of dictatorship.” (85)

Obviously this isn’t either the way reality works or what we want to see in the world. The problem is that some have argued for rights and freedom from “the basis of human need or the constitution of human nature.” (86) Both of these foundations ignore the depths of human depravity. Ignoring how far our sin goes leads towards the spirit behind the French Revolution. If depravity is indeed true (and it is), then “we must acknowledge the folly of granting civil rights and civil liberties to such people.” (87) Clearly this is also not true. But to go the other way and suggest that because of the “small sparks” of the Image of God that remain in human beings we should grant some rights and freedoms to people, we are basically “saying that the depravity of sin was not so comprehensive after all, and from this… it would follow that both the psalmist and Paul were exaggerating.” (87)

So rights and liberties must not be based on human nature. Instead, with an understanding of common grace as something from outside of human beings, we can be both depraved fully by nature and the recipients from God directly of “those rights and freedoms that are needed for civil society.” (87) In this view, society flows from grace, albeit unevenly, around the world.

Yet some demand “equality of conditions,” based on our equality of human nature. Yet if common grace is the source of rights and freedoms, our existence as human beings must be diverse (albeit evolving and developing!) Over time, common grace expands and matures. But again, does it come only through government? Kuyper gives us a resounding NO. Both post-fall and post-flood common grace pre-dates government, and “works fully apart from government” as we’ve seen extensively across the last two volumes. (88-89)

Government arrives within an existing society with a limited purpose:

“Government exists not to encompass all of human life, but only for the purpose of fulfilling a limited task in that life. Government thus emerges within existing conditions.” (89)

So we see a “contrast between state and society.” (89) Common grace works in both, not through the state on the people exclusively. Society exists in other spheres as well–family, agriculture, commerce, etc. These may even interact beyond politics with other nations…

The individual also has a sphere beyond government, as does the broader society. Therefore there must be strict limits on government. As common grace unfolds, rights and liberties expand–often leading to conflict between society and the government. This happens both because government tends to expand and because it tends not to want to let go.

At the end of the day, if people are basically good then we need no revelation and no grace. Human nature is sufficient and we need not consider God when thinking about the state-society relationship (and this even without bringing active rebellion into consideration). Without Scripture, we either end with “popular sovereignty” or “state sovereignty.” (91) Popular sovereignty (what we might think of as social contract theory) is clearly historically false and doesn’t explain why we can’t all just withdraw from the society. State sovereignty (we might think of this as a sort-of proto-nationalism) likewise falls apart as it tends to absorb all things into itself.

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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