Common Grace: Historical Context (Part 2)

This is a short series on Common Grace in respect to Critical Race Theory. Part 1, Saving Grace Before Common Grace is HERE.

The term “common grace” as a formal designation is often believed to be a Reformed doctrine. Many attribute Abraham Kuyper (1837-1902) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), both Reformed theologians, to have been the most influential in its formal doctrinal development, with Bavinck stating that it is “based on Scripture and its main principle was discovered in the Reformation, notably with John Calvin“.1 However, it’s important to know that Calvin never actually used the term gratia communis (common grace) in his written work. There are four instances where Calvin connected the adjective communis with the noun gratia, two of those times when speaking specifically of saving grace.2 For the most part, Calvin’s overall contribution to the concept of common grace is evident in the way he expounded very basic general principles of God’s neutral favor towards unsaved people, neutral in the sense that it does not provide salvation, but not insignificantly neutral. The question that common grace conjures up is defining what exactly that favor entails.

Guido de Bres (1522-1567), a student of Calvin and itinerant Reformed pastor, wrote the Belgic Confession of Faith in 1561 with fellow pastors during a time when Reformed churches were being severely persecuted by Spain under Philip II’s rule. Their purpose in writing the confession was to prove to the Roman Catholic Church that they were law- abiding citizens and not rebels. Their only cause of rebellion was a desire to abide by biblical doctrine.3 The confession mainly explained their beliefs and included hints of the idea of common grace, particularly in Article 13 concerning divine providence, Article 14 in reference to some aspect of man’s goodness in spite of his total depravity and Article 36 in relation to obeying civic magistrates who enforced certain laws and policies to restrain man’s sin for the purpose of good order and decency in society.

Fifty-seven years after the Belgic Confession of Faith, in 1618-1619, the Canons of Dort were a response to Arminianism, an understanding of faith named after Jacob Arminius. Arminianism was a heretical theology that grew in popularity and taught 1) that God chooses people based on foreseen faith, 2) free will due to man’s partial depravity, 3) the universal merits of Christ, 4) man’s ability to resist God’s grace, and 5) the possibility for saved people to be unsaved.4 A Calvinism vs. Arminian conference was needed to settle the debate, which birthed the five points of Calvinism. These five canons or heads of doctrine, are not exhaustive of all that defines Reformed theology since they were simply a response to those specific Arminian points of controversy. Nevertheless, 19th and 20th century theologians have pointed out hints of common grace contained in them, 5 but again, the use of the term “common grace” or “natural light” or “light of nature” still differed from how modern theologians are using it today.

Charles Hodge, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, was the first to really explore common grace in his 1871 Systematic Theology.6 He wrote about common grace under his section titled “vocation” as it pertains to the work of the Holy Spirit or “that influence of the Spirit, which in a greater or less measure, is granted to all who hear the truth”.7 Common grace influenced by the Holy Spirit, according to Hodge, pertains to the rational, moral and religious spheres and works on the minds, consciences and hearts of men mediated through the truth of God.8 Interestingly, Hodge writes, “The experience of ages prove that the world by wisdom knows not God“. When looking at ancient and modern civilizations, civilized or not, he says that humanity has “failed by the light of nature (i.e., common grace) to solve any of the great problems of humanity. This is the testimony of history as well as of Scripture. Even where the light of revelation is enjoyed, it is found that those who reject its guidance, are led not only to the most contradictory conclusions, but to the adoption of principles, in most cases, destructive of domestic virtue, social order, and individual worth and happiness. The reason of man has led the great body of those who know no other guide, into what have been well called ‘the hell of pantheism'”.9

The Father of Modern Common Grace: Kuyper, Not Calvin

The principle of common grace was more or less left alone, meaning there was no formal doctrine to explain it other than the few references mentioned above, until Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian, pastor, politician, journalist and founder of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, developed it in what some call his “magnum opus,” a three volume work titled Common Grace. It was written during his time as prime minister at the age of 65, exposing his interpretation of history, man, and theology which had been forming his entire academic, political, and public life.

Kuyper’s schooling prepped him on all the liberal philosophical ideas of his day, 10, like modernism, embracing scientific discoveries as a source of “truth” as well as emphasizing reason over the authority of biblical doctrine, including Darwinism as a valid anthropological rational for humanity. He called himself a modernist but also attempted to merge Reformed Christianity and German Idealism.11

Swimming in the waters of a liberal education12left a deep imprint on Kuyper, which was still with him when he landed his first job as minister to a Dutch Reformed Church as a German Idealist and Modernist. He soon began to appreciate more orthodox theology, nevertheless, according to Dr. James Bratt, a Calvin College professor emeritus and author of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, Kuyper never denounced his love and deep adoration of liberal philosophy, evident in the way he described it after his conversion to an orthodox faith.

“People turned their gaze on the hieroglyphics of Kant’s oracular language, bathed in Jacobi’s streams of feeling, raved a while about Fichte’s Idealism of the Ego and Non-Ego, hoped for a moment to find firmer ground in Schelling’s gnosticism, and at last gaped at the dizzying mental gymnastics whereby Hegel won admiration as an athlete.”13

Kuyper was ambitious, and ministry would prove to be too limiting for his ambition.

  • In 1862, he began a pastorate of a small Dutch Reformed Church, but by 1867, he left his first parish for another. He was at his second parish until 1870, at which time he moved to Amsterdam.
  • In 1872, he founded his own newspaper, which laid the foundation for syncretizing Reformed theology with political public discourse, opinion and nationalistic influence.
  • In 1873, he was a candidate in the general election but lost, winning the next year.
  • In 1876, he wrote a program that led to the formation of the Anti-Revolutionary Party.
  • By 1877, burnt out, he left Parliament, only to return in 1878.
  • In 1879, he became a chairman of his Anti-Revolutionary Party.
  • In 1880, he founded a university and became a professor and senior official of the school
  • 1881, he began teaching literature as well.
  • By 1886, he had grown more orthodox than the Dutch Reformed Church, which held to his previous liberal views, motivating him to split from what previously had been the foremost Calvin shaped Protestant denomination.
  • By 1889, more than 200 congregations followed him.
  • In 1892, Kuyper merged with the Christian Reformed Church, forming the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
  • In 1894, he was re-elected and became chair of a parliamentary caucus.

Throughout his career, he continued writing for his own newspaper, and in 1898, he became chair of the Dutch Circle of Journalists. That same year he accepted B.B. Warfield’s invitation to speak at Princeton and delivered the Stone Lectures, receiving an honorary doctorate and becoming familiar with American’s religious circles, specifically the Dutch Reformed ones. In 1901, he was elected as Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which he held until 1905 and it was during these years that he wrote his three-volume work titled Common Grace. He continued to be fully engaged in the political arena and serve on many committees until his death in 1920.

All that to say, it is fair to deduce that Kuyper needed to justify his overzealous public life. Early in his career, he suffered a complete breakdown triggered by the agonies of ambition and pride.14 It seems that Kupyer needed to create a Calvinistic doctrine to baptize his public and political endeavors, which allowed him to merge ministry and politics. He was the modern day poster child for Christian nationalism by combining religious ideology with romantic nationalism, which is a secular orientation that assumes the will of God for human agents to purify the world of corruption for the purposes of historical progress.15 However, Kuyper’s nationalism was Calvinistic romantic nationalism and is most evident in his development of the doctrine of common grace and sphere sovereign ideology.

While claiming that the three fundamental relations of all human life is our relation to God, to man, and our relation to the world,16he also espoused what would be considered contemporary racist views under the umbrella of common grace via science appreciation.

“Few people would argue that the world of science only has to do with the intellectual realm. Even when it is surely true that the manner in which God’s thoughts, based on creation, are refracted on our human consciousness is reason enough for ascribing honor to God’s name, this level of knowledge nevertheless does not reside beyond the realm of daily living. In the ordination of God’s common grace, science is one of the most powerful means for combating sin as well as the error and misery that flow from sin. Yet even a science that is motivated to honor God and functions as an antidote to the poison of sin could never possess the power to move a person’s soul from death to life. The instrument that God has ordained for that kind of transformation is faith, and this saving faith can arise only from the re-creation of a person’s soul, namely, through regeneration, which God himself imparts within the secrecy of the soul apart from us and without any instrument. For that reason, science does not belong to particular grace; rather, it occupies its own place in the glorious work of common grace that restrains sin, error, and misery in their outward manifestations. To be convinced of this, one need only compare human life as it is found among the dark-skinned tribes of Africa with life as it is experienced by people in European countries, where the torch of science has shone its light for a long time. The ravages of superstition, including those that still appear among us only sporadically, continue to dominate all of life in Africa. It would be difficult to identify one system of law worthy of that name by which order and the rule of law might be introduced among those tribes. No one has ever heard of the freedoms and rights of the people having replaced the arbitrariness of tribal chieftains. Women endure lives of denigration and humiliation. There is no concept of nurturing children in any refined sense. People lack every capacity to resist the ravaging power of nature. Diseases and epidemics leave destruction in their path, with no thought given to any hygienic measures. Care for the poor or the needy does not exist there. A higher development of the human spirit is entirely unknown there; people do not even know how to read. The notions of honesty and fidelity appear at a very low level. Human life has no value and is not respected. And the most scandalous sensuality dominates there without shame and without restraint“.17

Furthermore, he writes

“…it is undeniable that human society among Europeans bears a far nobler and elevated character, not only among Christians but among unbelievers as well. That this is due to common grace was argued earlier in sufficient detail and thus need not be repeated here. But in this context, the remarkable contribution made by science to this elevation of public life needs to be mentioned”.18

It is clear that Kuyper fully subscribed to contemporary European race theory but then added biblical imagery19 to legitimize his views as godly wisdom. In Common Grace: Volume 1, Kuyper reinforces the Ham curse when he writes,

The fact that now for the first time the actual history of our human race gets underway is expressed in the prophecy that the Holy Spirit placed on Noah’s lips. It led him to sketch out the lines along which the history of the world would unfold, in his full blessing for Shem, his partial blessing for Japheth, and his curse on Ham. Within that prophecy lay embedded the concise program of all of world history; the disappointing experience with blacks, the enduring significance of the Jews and Muslims as Shem’s offspring, and the great significance Japheth has currently achieved, provide us to this day with the key for explaining world history. So in the changed order of affairs that was introduced after the flood there is indeed revealed an act of general grace or of common grace that is all encompassing, governing all of history, decisive for our situation, and extending into the farthest future. This common grace must be gratefully accepted. Our confession must take account of common grace, and our perspective of life and of the entire situation of the world must be formed on the basis of common grace. Whoever ignores or underestimates this powerful act of God’s grace, and thereby also his common grace, distorts his view on life, ends up with a false dualism, and easily runs the risk of allowing his Christian religion to deviate from the Reformed track, that is, from the correct track“.20

Later in the book, he adds, “…the fact that Noah had only three sons absolutely does not by itself preclude the possibility that the world of humanity became divided into nine or even more groups or races. It remains striking in this context that from of old the more direct descendants of Shem and Japheth have dominated the history of our human race, and that Ham’s descendants never could achieve significance, whereas the other races outside the main groups, with the exception of the Mongols, either languish or disappear.”21

Since Kuyper developed the doctrine of common grace, his ideas about science, race and theology that did not align with biblical views of humanity got swallowed up under his own doctrine. Most alarming was his refusal to denounce the very Hegelian development and advancement of the history of man’s mind that “constituted the essence of history“. 22 However, for Kuyper, it was the Dutch mind that he elevated and is most noticeable in how he folded the philosophical view that science determined truth and in his fascination with the history of man’s progress in his work Common Grace.

Bratt writes “In the United States and his native land (Netherlands), Kuyper applauded ‘commingling of blood’ as the fount of social progress and cultural vitality. But in South Africa he praised the Boers’ (Dutch immigrants who had settled in South Africa) absolute ban on ‘race mixture’ as their highest mark of morality and their only hope for the future“.23 He was an advocate of intermarriage due to having Swiss and German blood, but he seemed to have limits to that ‘commingling of blood,’ preferably with those who had made more sophisticated, cultural and historical progress.

Many years prior to the writing of Common Grace, when Kuyper visited America, in his Lectures on Calvinism, he makes it clear that he considered those who lived in the interior of Africa as “lower forms of existence24 and interpreted history as a unified evolutionary development25. Kuyper was theologically adept enough to outright deny Darwinian biological ideology at face value for religious fidelity, but instead of seeing those who lived on the African continent as image bearers of God who needed to hear the Gospel, in lack of humility, he saw them as lower manifestations of humanity, in comparison to those in the Middle East via Western Europe to the American West, describing these latter cultures as “broad, fresh and offering a promise of the future“.26

Bratt writes, “Kuyper rejected social Darwinism for a social version of Mendelian genetics, crossing a materialistic theory of selection with an idealist theory of election. The South African case illustrated Kuyper’s more general theory of peoples and group relations in light of the theology he was concurrently elaborating in Common Grace.27

Interestingly, the Stone Lectures Kuyper delivered at Princeton mentioned very little of Calvin’s theology. He argued that reformed theology overemphasized the doctrine of election, 28 which was his rational for not incorporating or even citing Calvin’s actual theology. He wanted an “updated” or modern Calvinism, not one from a confessional or denominational standpoint, but from a political one.29 It is a well known fact among Reformed theologians that Kuyper’s Calvinism was not Calvin’s Calvinism, but rather than calling attention to that discrepancy, theologians have described Kuyper’s Calvinism as following the “spirit of Calvin”. In spite of that discrepancy, many have promoted Kuyper’s work, specifically for his doctrine of common grace, which they put forth as a legitimate evolution of historical progress believed to be passed down from Augustine to Calvin under the banner of “appreciating secular philosophy” as if to declare “all truth is God’s truth”, which they believe finally bloomed in Kuyper’s doctrine.

Kuyper used Calvinism as a life system or worldview (Weltanschauung) by which to view all spheres of life. Kuyper seemed to want to mimic Rome’s religion under another name in order to compete with German’s philosophical pantheism and push back on modernism, for the sake of creating an all embracing “unity of life system of principles rooted in the past in order to strengthen in the present and fill us with confidence of the future“. 30 Kuyper wanted a Calvinist system to do what only Christ can do for Christians, but he wanted that redemption in the public and political square and proposed a “Calvinist,” or rather a neo-Calvinist worldview to accomplish it, christening it with a doctrine he developed – common grace.

Under Kuyper’s common grace, he was able to merge Reformed Christianity with modern philosophy with the hopes of taking the “spirit” of Calvin’s doctrine out of the church, move it beyond personal salvific relevance and have a central doctrine by which to respond to political, social, intellectual and church changes, even if those responses were strictly Kuyper’s, not Calvin’s. 31 What Kuyper was advocating in his lectures at Princeton was not Calvin’s Calvinism, but the doctrine of common grace of his own making.

In 1911, Kuyper was arrested for “pacing back and forth stark naked” in front of an open window of a fourth flood hotel room facing the street 32. Since he embraced a wholesale appreciation of science under the banner of his own doctrine, he stated he was taking the advice of his doctor who suggested that exercising naked would help the body “breathe” better. This leads us back to asking questions concerning how much “science” should Christians be wholly embracing at the expense of personal discernment guided by the Holy Spirit and plain old common sense.

God told man to have dominion over creation, not analyze and categorize fellow image bearers of God to determine who is more advanced for hierarchical purposes. Thankfully, not all in the reformed world have wholeheartedly embraced Kuyper’s common grace. David R. Van Drunen, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, said,

Common grace is a doctrine in Kuyper’s theology that finds no exact precedent in the Reformed tradition. Although earlier Reformed theologians spoke of God’s sustaining the world in general and his preservation and blessing of civil society in particular, they did not use common grace as a distinct and organizing category33

Ronald Commenga, a professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament Studies at Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary writes this:

One cannot find in Calvin a love of God for all men in general, a love that includes also the repro­bate wicked. One cannot find in Calvin a grace of God that mitigates the depravity of the natural man. One cannot find in Calvin a grace of God for mankind generally resulting in the creation of a God-glo­rifying culture. One cannot find in Calvin a grace of God towards all men that is the basis for friendship between and cooperation of the believer and the unbeliever, the church and the world. This is not John Calvin. But this is Abraham Kuyper, the father of common grace. Kuyper and those who followed him cannot legitimately appeal to Calvin for support of their doctrine of common grace. On the contrary, Calvin may be rightly appealed to in opposi­tion to the teaching of common grace. Indeed, Calvin may be appealed to in order to establish common grace’s fundamental break with the Reformed tradition. It is undoubtedly the case that those on both sides of the issue of common grace will continue to claim authority for their respective posi­tions in John Calvin. And there will continue to be disagreement over whether or not support for the teaching can be derived from Calvin. This state of affairs is not likely to change. What ought to be clear, however, is that the strong support for common grace that is sometimes alleged in Calvin is lacking. And what ought to be clear is that the common grace of Abraham Kuyper and his disciples cannot justifiably be considered to be the explicit setting forth of that which was implicit in Calvin. Calvin would not only have been uneasy with various aspects of Kuyper’s com­mon grace, he would have repudiated them“.34

Reformed theology does not need Kuyper’s common grace. We can acknowledge that the rain and sun blesses both the saved and unsaved. We can acknowledge that God in his providence includes blessing the unsaved with certain inherent human qualities, like intellectual expediency, technological innovation and the many aspects of medicine, due to all of humanity being made in and reflecting His image. Many of these qualities originate in the unsaved but they also bless the saved in many ways. However, Christians should never play theological gymnastics to make innovative or culturally relevant doctrine fit with Scripture. Interestingly, Christian proponents of Critical Race Theory are using the doctrine of common grace to make allowances for it in the church. Kuyper’s wholesale affirmation of science and secular historical philosophy opened the door for Critical Race Theory to infiltrate the church, yet he espoused those very negative views that many came to believe about image bearers with darker skin as lower forms of existence due to “scientific” empirical observations. Kuyper merged science and philosophy with Scripture in the same way churches are using Critical Race Theory concepts with Scripture to explain the history of man’s progress and failures. History does not belong to science, philosophy or race theorists. History belongs to God alone.

  1. Bavinck, Herman. 1989. De algemeene genade, rede bij de overdracht van het rectoraat aan de theologische school te kampen op 6 december 1894 (kampen: Zalsman, 1894); ET: “Herman Bavinck’s ‘Common grace,’ ” trans. R. C. van leeuwen. Calvin Theological Journal
  2. Kuiper, H. (1928). Calvin on Common grace. Oosterbaan & Le Cointre
  5. Raymond Van Leeuwen, in his introduction to the 1894 translation of Herman Bavinck’s essay on Common Grace, cites that the Reformed Creeds do not deal with common grace outright but in several of creed’s pronouncements, as it pertains to sin/virtue, the loss of the imago Dei and the authority of the state, he assumes they presuppose common grace; see Canons of Dort 2.5-6 and 3/4.4
  6. Masselink, W. (1953). General Revelation and Common Grace. W.B. Eerdman.
  7. Berkhof, L. (2018). Systematic Theology: Complete Edition. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  8. Hodge, C. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes in Four Parts. GLH Publishing Kindle Version.
  9. Ibid
  10. Mouw, R. J. (2011) Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction. William B. Eerdmans
  11. Bratt, J. D. (2013). Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. (Library of Religious Biography)William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Bratt, J. D. (2013). Abraham Kuyper: modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  15. Baskwell, P. (2006). Kuyper and Apartheid: A Revisiting. HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 62(4)
  16. Kuyper, A. (2013). Lectures on Calvinism
  17. Kuyper, A., Ballor, J. J., Charles, J. D., Kloosterman, N. D., M., V. der M. E., & Bacote, V. E. (2020). Common Grace: God’s Gifts For a Fallen World, Volume 3: The Practical Section. Lexham Press
  18. Ibid
  19. Bratt, J. D. (2013). Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  20. Kuyper, Abraham. Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, Volume 1 Lexham Press
  21. Ibid
  22. Bratt, J. D. (2013). Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  23. Ibid
  24. Kuyper, A. (2013). Lectures on Calvinism.
  25. .Bratt, J. D. (2013). Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  26. Ibid
  27. Ibid
  28. Heslam, P. S. (1998). Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. W.B. Eerdmans.
  29. Ibid
  30. Kuyper, A. (2013). Lectures on Calvinism.
  31. Heslam, P. S., & Kuyper, A. (1998). Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. W.B. Eerdmans
  32. Bratt, J. D. (2013). Abraham Kuyper: modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

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