In Kuyper’s vision of a Calvinistic worldview, as we have seen, there was no place for the kind of Christian piety that withdraws from active involvement in the affairs of this world. Since God is the Creator of all things and the supreme Sovereign in every sphere, Christian believers are called to serve Him and to live in obedience to His ordinances in every area of life. Whether it be in the church, the school. the state, the family, the business-place, the labor union, the creation of art and culture — all of these areas are to be made captive to the obedience of Christ. All we do must be done under the lordship of Christ — “for the King.”
Within this rather positive and expansive vision of the Christian’s calling in the world, however, Kuyper also included a sober and biblically realistic view of the antithesis between faith and unbelief. Though Christian believers are called to serve their King in the world, they were not to do so as those who are of the world. Too intimate or close an association with those motivated by principles antithetical to the Christian faith would blur the lines of the antithesis and lead to fatal compromise with the world. For Kuyper, the Christian’s involvement in the world on behalf of the cause of Christ could not be permitted to become the occasion for accommodating unbiblical principles or practices. This involvement had always to be marked by a principled and antithetical stance over against unbelief. Following the well-known dictum of his mentor, Groen Van Prinsterer, Kuyper practiced the conviction that “in our isolation lies our strength” (in ons isolement ist onze kracht).
These twin emphases in Kuyper’s thought — the call to worldly engagement in the service of the Lord, and the insistence that this engagement not blur the lines of the antithesis posed a problem that he sought to answer by way of the doctrine of common grace, a doctrine he inherited from John Calvin but which he developed more fully.
That problem could be posed in the form of the question, How can Christians be engaged with the world in such diverse vocations as science, art, politics, education, and the like, when the corruption and rebellion of the non-regenerate human heart is as radical and total as the Bible teaches? Or, to put the question a little differently. How can the Christian believer “rub shoulders” with the world and be directly engaged in a variety of callings, when sin has so thoroughly and pervasively corrupted the hearts and lives of those who are in rebellion against Christ? Should not the principle of the antithesis give rise to such a radical separation between the Christian and non-Christian that the only appropriate policy is to disengage from worldly activity altogether? In Kuyper’s language, however, the latter policy would be a kind of pietistic withdrawal from life in this world, or an “Anabaptist” policy of world-flight.
Defining common grace
As with so many other key features of his worldview, Kuyper set forth his doctrine of common grace in a lengthy series of articles, first published in De Heraut from 1895–1901. These articles were then compiled and published in a three-volume study, De Gemeene Gratie (“Common Grace”).1 Written during the height of his political activity within the Anti-revolutionary Party — Kuyper was elected Prime Minister in 1901 these articles provide a broad and comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of common grace, one which by Kuyper’s own admission went beyond the earlier treatment of it within the Reformed tradition.
Early on in his development of the doctrine of common grace, Kuyper defines common grace, in distinction from “particular” or “saving” grace, as a manifestation of God’s power and goodness in restraining the effects of man’s fall into sin and the development of the principle of opposition to God’s lordship.
This manifestation of grace consisted in restraining, blocking, or redirecting the consequences that would otherwise have resulted from sin. It intercepts the natural outworking of the poison of sin and either diverts and alters it or opposes and destroys it. For that reason we must distinguish two dimensions in this manifestation of grace: 1. A saving grace, which in the end abolishes sin and completely undoes its consequences; and 2. a temporal restraining grace, which holds back and blocks the effect of sin. The former, that is saving grace, is in the nature of the case special and restricted to God’s elect. The second, common grace, is extended to the whole of our human life.2
Common grace does not destroy altogether the power of sin in human life, but it does hinder its progress and development. Though it does not completely undo the consequences of sin, as does particular grace, it does prevent the power of sin from ruining any possibility of life or blessedness within the created order.
According to Kuyper, common grace expresses the truth that Christ is the Mediator of creation and redemption. The redemption which is ours by grace through Christ does not bypass or occur without regard to the creation itself. Christ is not the Savior of the soul apart from the body; He is the Savior of body and soul, the Creator and Redeemer of the entire created order.
To put it in a nutshell, shall we imagine that all we need is a Reconciler of our soul or continue to confess that the Christ of God is the Savior of both soul and body and is the Re-creator not only of things in the invisible world but also of things that are visible and before our eyes? Does Christ have significance only for the spiritual realm or also for the natural and visible domain? Does the fact that he has overcome the world [John 16:33] mean that he will one day toss the world back into nothingness in order to keep alive only the souls of the elect, or does it mean that the world too will be his conquest, the trophy of his glory?3
The preservation and maintenance of the created order, the prevention of the power of sin in human life from coming to unrestricted expression — these dimensions of the operation of common grace reflect the truth that Christ does not redeem His people in order to release them from their appropriate callings within the different spheres of creation. Redemption occurs within the context of a creation preserved from the effects of unrestrained sin. Redemption, furthermore, occurs in order that the redeemed creature might be restored to a place of fitting service to the God of creation.
In this connection, Kuyper frequently trumpeted his disapproval of what he termed an “Anabaptist” policy of world-denial or world-flight. People fall into one-sidedness in the opposite direction if, reflecting on the Christ, they think exclusively of the blood shed in atonement and refuse to take account of the significance of Christ for the body, for the visible world, and for the outcome of world history. Consider carefully: by taking this tack you run the danger of isolating Christ for your soul, and you view life in and for the world as something that exists alongside your Christian religion, not controlled by it. Then the word “Christian” seems appropriate to you only when it concerns certain matters of faith or things directly connected with the faith your church, your school, missions and the like — but all the remaining spheres of life fall for you outside the Christ. In the world you conduct yourself as others do; that is less holy, almost unholy, territory which must somehow take care of itself. You only have to take a small step more before landing in the Anabaptist position which concentrated all sanctity in the human soul and dug a deep chasm between the inward-looking spirituality and life all around.4
Such a policy of world-denial was, for Kuyper, incompatible with the confession of Christ’s kingship and claim upon all of life.
But if it is true that Christ our Savior has to do not only with our soul but also with our body, that all things in the world belong to Christ and are claimed by him, that one day he will triumph over every enemy in that world, and that in the end Christ will not gather a few separated souls around him, as is the case now, but will rule as king on a new earth under a new heaven then, of course, everything is different.5
Common grace, then, serves to preserve the creation and the human race from falling into utter ruin and sinful rebellion. By preserving His creation and hindering the development of sinful opposition to His dominion, Christ as Mediator of creation prepares the way for His redeeming work as Mediator of redemption. This work of redemption, furthermore, gives new impetus to the creation’s purpose in bringing glory to the Creator.Because Christ as Mediator of the creation preserves and maintains the created order, those whom Christ as Mediator of redemption saves are encouraged to enter the precincts of creation without fear that they are entering “enemy territory” or embarking upon a labor that is in vain.
The relation between common and particular grace
One of the more difficult aspects of Kuyper’s development of the doctrine of common grace concerns the relation between common and particular grace. In his consideration of this relation, Kuyper alternated between an emphasis upon their independence on the one hand, and upon their close inter-relation on the other.
There were two ways especially in which Kuyper affirmed the independence of common and particular grace. In the first place, he opposed the understanding of common grace that limited its purpose merely to providing an occasion for God’s purpose of redemption to proceed. Though Kuyper readily acknowledged that common grace — because of its restraint upon sin and provision for the continued existence and development of the creation and the human race — was a kind of necessary precondition for the working of God’s particular grace, he rejected the idea that this was its sale purpose. Of course, without the working and manifestation of common grace, there would be no possibility for the continued development and unfolding of the creation’s richness and diversity. There would also be no possibility for the continued existence of the fallen human race, deserving as it was of the curse of destruction and absolute separation from fellowship with God. In these respects, particular grace works within the setting of a world whose continued existence depends upon God’s common grace. However, such an understanding of common grace was in Kuyper’s view inadequate. It is an understanding that suggests that all things exist solely for the sake of the church, when in fact all things exist to bring glory and praise to God and are therefore accomplished for the sake of Christ.
In the second place, Kuyper insisted upon a positive purpose for common grace that was not directly linked to God’s purpose of redemption. Common grace had the positive purpose or end of enabling the human race to fulfill its calling in exercising dominion over the creation and bringing the creation to more full development, thereby bringing praise and glory to the Triune Creator. According to Kuyper, all of God’s works, whether in creation or redemption, serve the great goal of bringing praise to and magnifying the glory of God. To suggest that the redemption of the elect is the sale or ultimate purpose of God is too man-centered and limited a perspective upon God’s purposes. Everything, including the creation’s development under the provisions of God’s common grace, serves to glorify God. In a remarkably frank expression of this dimension of the aim of common grace, Kuyper was even prepared to speak of common grace working “independently” of particular grace:
At the same time “common grace” will thereby achieve a purpose of its own. It will not only serve to bring about the emergence of the human race, to bring to birth the full number of the elect, and to arm us increasingly and more effectively against human suffering, but also independently to bring about in all its dimensions and in defiance of Satanic opposition and human sin the full emergence of what God had in mind when he planted those nuclei of higher development in our race…The fundamental creation ordinance given before the fall, that humans would achieve dominion over all of nature thanks to “common grace,” is still realized after the fall. Only in this way, in the light of the Word of God, can the history of our race, the long unfolding of the centuries as well as the high significance of the world’s development, make substantial sense to us.6
Lest this independence of common and particular grace be misunderstood, Kuyper also maintained that there is a close and intimate connection between them. The independence of common and particular grace is a relative one, since they both have their origin in the work of the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, and fulfill the purposes of the Triune God.
To express the inter-relation between common and particular grace, Kuyper recognized the legitimacy of teaching that the provisions of common grace are. within the purpose of God, subservient to the working of particular grace in the redemption of the elect. This kind of view is certainly true, according to Kuyper, so long as “it is understood that special grace is by no means exhausted in the salvation of the elect but has its ultimate end in the Son’s glorification of the Father’s love, and so in the aggrandizement of the perfections of our God.”7 So long as it is maintained that all of the works of God serve to bring glory to God, Kuyper allowed that the prevention and hindrance of sin through the working of common grace provided the kind of protection and provision for the church’s ministry of the gospel that is so necessary. No absolute separation between common and particular grace is permitted. Common grace provides an opening and platform for the redemption of God’s people.
Next to this emphasis upon common grace as providing an opening for particular grace, Kuyper also emphasized the importance of particular grace to the engagement of the believing community within the world where God’s common grace is also present and working.
Therefore, common grace must have a formative impact on special grace and vice versa. All separation of the two must be vigorously opposed. Temporal and eternal life, our life in the world and our life in church, religion and civil life, church and state, and so much more must go hand in hand. They may not be separated.8
Not only does common grace make it possible for the Christian to be engaged in a variety of callings and tasks—by virtue of its preservation and provision for the development and unfolding of the created orderbut special grace also serves to equip the Christian for a distinctive and renewing engagement with the created order. Just as special grace re-creates and renews the believer in the way of obedience and service to God, so it equips the believer for a sanctifying and leavening labor within the various spheres of life.
Something of the complexity of Kuyper’s conception of the relation between common and particular grace is evident from the following passage in which Kuyper distinguishes “four terrains”:
We must be careful to distinguish four terrains. First, the terrain of common grace that has not yet undergone any influence of special grace. Second, the terrain of the institutional church that as such arises totally and exclusively from special grace. Third, the terrain of common grace that is illumined by the light emitted by the lamp of special grace. Fourth, the term of special grace that has utilized the data of common grace.9
For our purpose, the third of the terrains is most important. By this terrain, Kuyper has in mind the way in which Christian believers can exercise a leavening and reforming influence when they engage in a wide range of vocations. Believers do not need to flee the world and its various callings. These are preserved and sanctified by Christ Himself who is the Mediator of creation and redemption. Nor should believers engage in these vocations without the enlightenment and wisdom provided through the working of God’s special grace. Precisely because of the working of God’s special grace, believers have a particular calling and distinctive task to be like leaven and salt in the earth.
Thus, for Kuyper the doctrine of common grace, especially in terms of its relation to special grace, served a kind of double function. On the one hand, it explained how believers could approach the world without viewing it as unrelievedly wicked and sinful. Because God faithfully maintains His creation and preserves it against the unrestrained development of sin, believers can view the creation, not as the domain of the evil one, but as a proper place of Christian labor and service. Furthermore, because God’s special grace aims to restore the fallen sinner to renewed obedience and service, the believer has the duty to bring every area of life into self-conscious service of Christ as King. The doctrine of common grace, then, served to ward off two parallel errors: the error of world-flight on the one hand, and the error of world-conformity on the other. In relation to special grace, it provided Kuyper with an answer to the question, How can the child of God be actively engaged In worldly vocations without becoming conformed to the world?
Common grace and science
In order to complete this summary of Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, I would like to include a comment or two on Kuyper’s discussion of the relation between common grace and science. In a previous article, I noted that one of Kuyper’s distinctive emphases was that of the antithesis. There is a sharp line of distinction to be drawn between faith and unbelief, an antithesis that cuts through every area of life and every legitimate human endeavor. For this reason, Kuyper was insistent that Christians were obligated to serve Christ as King all along the line, in every area of life, and always in sharp distinction from those whose service was not performed in obedience to Christ. In the particular area that now concerns us, the area of science and scholarship, Kuyper similarly maintained that there is a twofold development of science. In the area of science, as in every area of life there is no room for a posture of neutrality or indifference with respect to the claims of Christ. One either seeks to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. or one pursues the work of science in a manner that does not give Christ His due.
In his treatment of common grace and science, Kuyper sought to balance this emphasis upon the antithesis in science with a genuine appreciation for science as a fruit and consequence of the working of common grace. Defining science in general as the knowledge of the created order, in which, man as God’s image-bearer seeks to reflect in his thinking the truth of creation in all its richness and diversity, Kuyper insisted that the cultural mandate continues to include the work of science. All of humanity remains under the obligation to explore and to understand the creation, an obligation that not only remains after the fall into sin but is able to be carried out due to the working of God’s common grace. In the fulfillment of this obligation and mandate, sinful and even non-regenerate people are enabled, b?th by God’s preservation of the creatIon and restraint upon the sinful rebellion of the human heart, to discover and know much that is true and commendable.
Thus, just as Kuyper emphasized the connection between the doctrine of common grace and a biblical emphasis upon the goodness of creation so in the field of science Kuyper emphasized the connection between common grace and humankind’s continued duty and capacity for interpreting the working of creation.
Without common grace the descent of science outside the enlightenment of the spirit would have become absolute. Left to itself, sin goes from bad to worse. It makes you slide down a slope on which no one can remain standing. Those who do not reckon with common grace must conclude. therefore, that all science outside holy precincts is fraud and self-deception and will mislead anyone who listens to its voice. But the evidence shows this is not true. The Greeks. completely deprived of the light of Scripture, developed a science that surprises us still by the true and beautiful substance it has to offer. The names of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have constantly been honored by Christian thinkers. We do not exaggerate in saying that Aristotle’s thinking was a most powerful means of bringing Christians to deeper reflection. And no one can deny that these days a rich science is blooming in the fields of astronomy, botany, zoology and physics. Although conducted almost exclusively by people who are strangers to the fear of the Lord, this science has produced a treasure of knowledge that we as Christians admire and gratefully use.10
Kuyper’s emphasis upon the fruit of common grace in the area of science and its progress might appear, at first glance, as contrary to his emphasis upon the antithesis and the corresponding twofold development of science. However, two observations are necessary to a full understanding and appreciation of Kuyper’s position.
First, Kuyper did not believe that the sinful rebellion of the human heart ever came to absolute expression in any area, including the area of science. Not only does God maintain the integrity of His creation, but He also provides for real progress and understanding of the creation through the scientific labors of His image-bearers. Not to recognize orappreciate the real contributions and advancesof science, in some casesamong non-Christianswhose scientific laborssurpass anything witnessed within the-Christian community, wouldrepresent a failure to recognize the work of God in the course of history, including the history of science. Second, Kuyper alsowanted to encourage Christian believers to pursue the cultural mandate in the area of science, as in all other legitimate human callings. Rather than fleeing the field of science, Christian believers ought to be at the forefront in pursuing rigorous and careful scholarship. Having been freed in principle from the sinful tendency to suppress the truth and pursue the study of creation from principles antithetical to the Christian faith. Christian believers must pursue science as a proper service to the God of creation.
In these respects. Kuyper’s presentation of the doctrine of common grace in relation to science paralleled his presentation of the doctrine in other areas. By means of the doctrine of common grace, Kuyper argued, we are able to affirm the propriety of Christian service in the various spheres of life. Because God’s common grace restrains the development of sin in human life and preserves the integrity of the created order, Christian believers need not flee engagement with the world but may pursue every legitimate calling in the service of Christ as King of all creation.
With this consideration of Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, we come to an end of our summary of Kuyper’s understanding of the worldview of Calvinism. In a subsequent article, I hope to consider some of the questions and criticisms that have often been raised regarding Kuyper’s position. I will resist the temptation here, however, to begin to offer an evaluation of his position. What should be apparent from our treatment of Kuyper’s worldview is that there was a close fit between Kuyper’s life and his convictions regarding the Christian’s calling in the world. That Kuyper found himself variously engaged in such activities as preaching the gospel, seeking the reformation of the church, articulating a political party’s platform, running for political office and serving as prime-minister, editing a daily newspaper, founding a Christian university should not surprise us. These various engagements were as much the fruit of his worldview as they were the expression of his many gifts and talents.
Kuyper’s life confirmed in many ways his convictions about the church, the principle of sphere-sovereignty, the antithesis and the doctrine of common grace. Kuyper viewed the reformation of the church, not as an end in itself, but as the means to call into existence and equip for service the people of God. Because the church ministers the gospel of the kingdom, it calls the people of God to acknowledge Christ as King in every area of life. The Christ of the gospel is the Mediator of creation and redemption, the Sovereign King whose crown rights in every area of life were to be honored and served. Therefore, no area of life falls outside the embrace of Christ’s kingship; no legitimate area of human calling and service is exempt from being enlisted in the service of God. And, though the antithesis between faith and unbelief cuts through all aspects of life, requiring distinctively Christian efforts in the various life-spheres, this antithesis could not be the occasion for any pattern of fleeing our calling within the world. Because of the working of God’s common grace, it remains possible to affirm the goodness of creation and the validity of cultural and scientific labor to the praise and glory of God.
1. In the following, I will be quoting from selections of this study in Bratt’s anthology in a chapter entitled, “Common Grace.” I will also be citing an excerpt from another study (DeGemeene Gratie in Wetenscap en Kunst [Amsterdam: Hoeveker & Wormser, 1905]) entitled in Bratt’s anthology, “Common Grace in Science.”
2. “Common Grace,” p. 168. It is important to note that Kuyper deliberately chose the term gratie rather than genade (“grace”) when speaking of the subject of common grace Though the English translation of these two terms is the same, Kuyper wanted to keep clearly before his readers the distinction between a general favor or grace that God manifests toward all His creatures and that special grace (particular and electing) that He shows to His people alone.
3. “Common Grace,” p. 171.
4. “Common Grace,” p. 172.
5. “Common Grace,” p. 173.
6. “Common Grace,” p. 179.
7. “Common Grace,” p. 170–171
8. “Common Grace,” p. 185–186
9. “Common Grace,” p. 199.
10. “Common Grace and Science,” p. 448.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.