There is adventure ahead.
One of the most stimulating adventures on which a person can embark is to study all the “ins” and “outs” of some element of Christian truth and to follow such truth into all the paths of life and practical experience that it significantly touches.
It is our plan to enter upon such an adventure in a study of the doctrine of Common Grace. We invite our readers to join us in this intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage. We believe we have at least some awareness of the intricacy of some of the paths that lie ahead. There are dangers before us, we know. And we believe we are not insensitive to the fact of our own limitations. Minds abler than ours have wrestled with this matter.
Here are some of the interesting problems we will be dealing with. There are those, for example, who speak of an “area” or “sphere” of Common Grace. Is such language marked by accuracy? There are those who feel that the term Common Grace is a poor one to describe that which is intended by the use of the term. Such people feel that if we used different language much of the difficulty associated with the subject would disappear. Is this a valid approach to the problem? It would appear that to some people the notion of Common Grace means almost anything and everything—and consequently means nothing. Then there are those to whom also the term Common Grace means nothing, but for a different reason; they say there is no such thing as Common Grace.
The Time Is Ripe
We would enter upon this study with minds that are open to what the Scriptures teach relative to this doctrine, and also to what the Holy Spirit has led the church to confess and to declare. We hope to learn much ourselves as we proceed with our effort.
In our opinion the times are ripe for such a study. On this side of the Atlantic the subject is coming to the fore again among those committed to a Reformed confession. And conversely, we believe there is evidence to support the assertion that a church committed to a Reformed creed can ignore this significant subject only to its great peril. A great deal has been written on the subject of Common Grace in The Netherlands in the past twenty-five years. We hope to bring some of the fruits of that study to the attention of our readers in the course of the discussion.
On this side of the Atlantic a number of signs point to a growing need for renewed exploration of the subject. Prominent among these sign is a statement in the yearbook for 1953 of the Christian Reformed Church. J.H. Kromminga of Calvin Seminary, in writing about certain difference in the Christian Reformed Church, renders the following judgment: “In our opinion the general nature of the differences can be ascertained, although they are not easy to define in brief terms. They may be viewed from various angles, one of the most important of which is that of common grace” (italics inserted).
A hasty review of some of the things that have been written gives evidence of the increasing prominence of the subject of Common Grace in the focus of Reformed attention. In 1947 a noteworthy publication by C. Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary appeared under the title Common Grace.* In the January, 1948 issue of The Calvin Forum Harry R. Boer wrote an article entitled “Perspectives for Reformed Advance,” and said in pan: “Has the last word been spoken about Common Grace? Leading spirits in and out of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and America do not think so … Can we claim theological integrity if we avoid it?” In a pointed statement dated May 26, 1952, the faculty of Calvin College declared in part “that there is an inescapable and basic antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate and that the doctrine of common grace is no excuse for glorifying ‘worldIy culture.’” A number of articles have appeared in The Reformed Journal on the subject of Common Grace, especially from the pen of James Daane. Adam Persenaire wrote a challenging guest editorial in The Banner of March 20, 1953, on the subject “The Antithesis and Common Grace.” And recently William Masselink has produced an extensive book on the theme General Revelation and Common Grace.
What About 1924?
As we enter upon this study there will most likely be those who wonder about the advisability of the project. Such wonderment will probably spring from two quite different attitudes.
In the first place there will be those who remember the unpleasant aspects of the church split that followed the declarations on Common Grace made by the synod of 1924 of the Christian Reformed Church. Such people associate the term Common Grace with turmoil and bitterness, and are apprehensive of a repetition of such things. In other words, to such people Common Grace means trouble and they will have none of it.
We would not dismiss such feelings lightly or inconsiderately. How· ever, we do not think such feelings should affect the type of study we plan. We believe the church upheaval with its high passions that is associated with the events of 1924 h as now largely subsided into a fact in church history. We believe that by this time we can look at the doctrinal matter of Common Grace in a cool and dispassionate manner without prejudice of overwrought feelings and hostilities. Furthermore, it ought to be added that we have no right to eschew doctrinal discussion just because it may needle our comfortable and largely uncritical frame of mind on an issue. Christians should not put such a high price on being comfortable and undisturbed that they turn away from discussions of doctrinal matters and questions on which there may be some difference of opinion. Rather, Christians should welcome such discussions when they are carried on in the right spirit as a means of spiritual growth and enrichment.
Settled in 1924?
In the second place we consider another possible Christian Reformed attitude toward the synod of 1924 and its decisions regarding Common Grace. This attitude expresses itself in terms like the following: “Why do you open up that subject again? That was settled by the synod of 1924.”
What do we say in reply to such an assertion? Our answer is that such a statement fails seriously to do justice to the facts.
It would be highly profItable for all concerned to review rather care· fully the decisions of 1924 regarding the question of Common Grace. Most likely many people who might render opinions on this subject have never read the “Acta der Synode 1924.” And no doubt others have forgotten some very significant elements in the picture as it was then drawn.
With regard to the decisions of the synod of 1924 On Common Grace there are at least four important considerations that deserve to be care· fully noted. We look briefly at each in turn.
1. Why the “Three Points”?
The Christian Reformed synod of 1924 expressed itself on three points in the matter of Common Grace. These three points are:
(1) That God has an attitude of favor toward all men and not just toward the elect. (See Ps. 145:9, Mt. 5:44–45, Luke 6:35–36, Acts 14:16–17, I Tim. 4:10, Rom. 2:4 ; also the Canons of Dort II, 5 and Ill–IV, 8 and 9.)
(2) That sin is restrained in the life of the individual person and also in society. (See Gen. 6:3, Ps. 81:12–13, Acts 7:42, Rom. 1:24, 26, 28, II Thess. 2:6–7; and the Belgic Confession Articles 13 and 36.)
(3) That the unregenerate perform so-called civic righteousness. (See II Kings 10:29–30, II Kings 12:2, II Kings 14:3, Luke 6:33, Rom. 2:14; also the Canons of Dort lII–IV. 3 and 4, and the Belgic Confession Article 36.)***
Why were these three points chosen? Manifestly they are important points in the whole matter of Common Grace. But we must ask if these three points were chosen because an exhaustive study convinced synod that these three points constituted the sum and substance of the doctrine of Common Grace.
An examination of the process by which synod came to express itself on the celebrated three points is most instructive. In a thorough report to synod the committee of pre-advice indicated that it had discovered eleven points of disagreement in the documents bearing on the controversy over the views of two ministers in the denomination, H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema. Of these eleven points the committee decided it could deal with only three. The reasons for the decision to deal only with these three points were given as follows:
(a) Because the two ministers involved have taken a stand on these points with propositions for which they have made themselves answerable and which they have defended.
(b) Because these are points on which the Confessions of the church speak plainly.
(c) Because it is highly necessary for the peace of the church that synod adopt a definite stand on these points.
These three reasons given by the committee of pre-advice in no wise minimize the importance of the three points. It does seem clear, however, that in the judgment of the committee no definitive or full statement of the doctrine of Common Grace was in the making. This significant point becomes more evident as we bring up our second observation with regard to the action of the synod of 1924.
2. Not a full statement of the doctrine.
Synod in 1924 was not of a mind to render a declaration on the full meaning and sweep of the doctrine of Common Grace. The following significant paragraph in the decision speaks for itself. Synod decided
That at the present time no pronouncement be made relative to the standpoint of the Church regarding the doctrine of general of common grace (algemeene penade of gemeene gratie) in every detail and all its implications (geledingen). Such a pronouncement would presuppose that this doctrine had been thoroughly thought through and developed in all its details, which certainly is least of all the case. The basic, preparatory study (voorstudie) necessary to such a pronouncement is almost entirely lacking. Consequently, there is in the Reformed churches as yet no unanimity of opinion (“communis opinio”) in this matter. (Cf. Acta der Synode, 1924, p. 149, IV, a.).
3. Dangers in the misuse of the doctrine.
Synod in 1924 recognized grave dangers in the misuse of the doctrine of Common Grace. It was decided to deliver the following TESTIMONY (Getuigenis) to the churches as a sharp warning of these dangers. This important TESTIMONY is as follows:
Now that Synod has expressed itself with respect to a trio of points that were at stake in the denial of Common Grace, and thereby condemned the entire disregard of this truth, at the same time Synod feels constrained to warn our churches and especially our leaders earnestly against all one-sided emphasis on and therefore misuse of the doctrine of Common Grace. It cannot be denied that there exists a real danger in this respect. When Dr. Kuyper wrote his monumental work on this subject he revealed that he was not unconscious of the fact that some would be seduced by it so as to lose themselves in the world. And history has already shown that this danger is more than imaginary. Also Dr. Bavinck reminded us of this danger in his Dogmatics.
When we examine the direction in whi.ch the spiritual currents of our time develop round about us, it cannot be denied that much more danger lies in the direction of worldly-mindedness than of world-flight. The liberal theology of the present time actually obliterates the distinction between Church and world. It is increasingly emphasized by many that the prime significance of the Church lies in her influence on social life. The consciousness of a spiritual-ethical antithesis is becoming increasingly vague in the minds of many to make room for an indefinite notion of a general brotherhood. Preaching concerns itself largely with the periphery of life and does not penetrate into the spiritual center. The doctrine of particular grace in Christ is more and more pushed into the background. There is a strong tendency to bring theology into harmony with a science that stands in the service of unbelief. By means of the press and all sorts of inventions and discoveries which in themselves are certainly to be appreciated as gifts of God, the sinful world is to a great extent brought into our Christian homes.
Because of all these and other similar influences, exerted upon us from every side. it is imperatively necessary that the Church keep guard over the fundamental principles; and that also as she clings to the above mentioned three points she maintain the spiritual-ethical antithesis tooth and nail. May she never allow her preaching to degenerate into mere social treatises or literary productions. Let her be vigilant that Christ crucified and resurrected always remain the heart of the preaching. Increasingly she must hold fast the principle that the people of God are a peculiar people, living from their peculiar root, the root of faith. With holy zeal she must constantly, in preaching and in writing, send forth to our people, especially our youth, the cry: And be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. This under God’s blessing will keep our churches from a worldly-mindedness that extinguishes the flame of spiritual ardor and robs the Church at her power and beauty. (Cf. Acta der Synode, 1924, pp. 147–149)
4. An appeal for study.
Synod in 1924 concluded its decisions in the matter of Common Grace with an earnest appeal for study of this doctrine. The appeal was not for just some circumscribed study on the part of a few, but rather for extensive study on the part of many. This part of the decision is also worthy of restatement. Synod decided
. . . to urge the leaders of our people, both ministers and professors, to make further study of the doctrine of Common Grace; and that in sermons, lectures, and published articles they think penetratively and precisely about the problems that present themselves in such study. It is highly desirable that not a single individual or a small number of persons set themselves to this task, but that many participate in it.
(1) This will in a most natural way be conducive to a fruitful discussion of the doctrine of Common Grace, and such an exchange of opinion is the indispensable condition for the development of this truth:
(2) It will concentrate the attention of our people upon this doctrine, will serve to clarify their conception of it and cause them to feel its significance, so that they become increasingly conscious of this part of the contents of their faith;
(3) In the course of a few years it will undoubtedly lead to a unanimity of opinion (“communis opinio”) in this matter, and thus make ready the way in our Church for a united confession with respect to Common Grace. (Cf. Acta de Synode, 1924, p. 150, c.)
As We Proceed
From the above presentation of the decisions of Synod in 1921, it is clear that the study we plan is certainly not out of order or uncalled for. Indeed, it seems to us that studies of this type are long overdue. Especially we who hold office therein have been very slow to carry out on the broad scale what is virtually a mandate from the broadcast assembly of the Christian Reformed Church. We proceed, therefore, in the confidence that our project is worthy of setting forth even though we are certain that it will have many imperfections, and in sincere prayer that God may use this study in some measure for the edification of his Church and for the glory of his holy Name.
We have outlined a four-step program in this projected study. These four steps are as follows:
1. SYMPOSIUM – several articles written by various representative thinkers giving different points of view on the subject. The views expressed in these articles may or may not be in harmony with the editorial position of this magazine.
2. EXEGESIS – a study of the pertinent biblical passages bearing on the subject of Common Grace.
3. FORMULATION – an effort to formulate in some detail the doctrine of Common Grace.
4. APPLICATION – the doctrine of Common Grace applied to various problems and fields of human interest and study.* In this work Dr. Van Til presents a summary of the leading features of the Common Grace discussion up to 1947. **The citations from Scripture and Creed are taken from the Synodical decisions.
Common Grace Commission
Edward Heerema, Chairman
John H. Piersma