Review: General Revelation and Common Grace

“General Revelation and Common Grace”* is the title of a book written by Dr. William Masselink, professor at the. Reformed Bible Institute at Grand Rapids, Michigan. Much of the material in this book, however, had been previously published in mimeographed form in another volume, entitled Common Grace and Christian Education. While the latter purported to be “a Calvinistic philosophy of Science,” this present book is supposed to be “a Defense of the Historic Reformed Faith over against the Theology and Philosophy of the so-called ‘Reconstructionist’ movement.” Both volumes are suffering from much repetition which accounts for their undue length. The author seemingly considered this repetition necessary in order to make his meaning absolutely clear. At any rate, he is in dead ·earnest when he posits his views as a defense of the Reformed faith against what he considers a serious departure therefrom by the so-called “Reconstructionists,” among whom he lists particularly Dr. K. Schilder, professors Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd of the Free University of Amsterdam and Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. From the subtitle and also from certain passages in the book itself, one is given the impression that the Reformed faith is threatened at its very roots. Yet, when we realize the large amount of agreement between the views of the “Reconstructionists” and of those whom the author considers to be the champions of the old Reformed faith, then we must draw the conclusion that his battle against these so-called “Reconstructionists” is somewhat quixotic. This becomes even more evident when we find that the errors which he seems to discover in their views are often only imaginary.



A Serious Difference

Having stated all this, however, we should not conclude that the difference between Dr. Masselink and Dr. Van Til (whom he himself calls a moderate “Reconstructionist”) is not to be taken seriously. On the contrary, the present reviewer is convinced that they have a great bearing on the vital question of the Christian’s relationship to the world. But, rather than being planned about Van Til’s “departure” from the Reformed faith, he is more concerned about Masselink’s own weakening of the Reformed emphasis on the antithesis. Fact is, I am convinced that Masselink’s position on common grace has given the Rev. Herman Hoeksema some justification for his reaction toward the stand of the Christian Reformed Church. For, if the “three points of 1924” actually favored this position on common grace, as is developed in General Revelation and Common Grace, then Hoeksema may be right, when he claims that such views would lead to Arminianism and worldliness.

But I am persuaded that the Christian Reformed Church has never sanctioned the position. of Masselink, which he has taken over from his former teacher, the late Prof. Valentine Hepp. The fact is, this Church has not even officially adopted Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s views on common grace. But it has merely established, by means of these so-called “three points,” that it is unscriptural, unconfessional, and contrary to the writings of the theologians of the most florescent period of Reformed theology, to deny common grace. Certainly, we may and we should appreciate the monumental work of Dr. A. Kuyper, and we should have proper respect for all the other theologians, whom Masselink arrays against the “Reconstructionists,” such as Bavinck, Warfield, Hodge, Machen and Hepp. But this present reviewer cannot see why a slight dissent from their views, which is intended as an improvement of them, in the interest of a more consistent maintenance of their truly Reformed position, should be considered a serious departure from the Reformed faith. It may be that some of the men of the so-called “new movement” do have some novel conceptions, which are disconcerting and somewhat alarming because of their novelty. But certainly Van Til cannot be accused of radically departing from the Reformed faith. And I am happy to state that Masselink himself, also, in the introduction of his book regards these brethren as being basically Reformed.

The “New Movement”

In the first chapter of his book, which is introductory, the author gives an evaluation of what he calls the “new movement.” He finds in it some commendable characteristics, such as, a philosophical emphasis, high regard for Calvinism, and a rigId adherence to the infallibility of the Bible. But he also finds, especially, two features about it which are decidedly unfavorable, namely: 1. Depreciation of the historic Reformed Theology; 2. Tendencies toward a mild Biblicism.

The former deals, particularly, wIth Van Til’s supposedly sharp disagreement with the theology of Amsterdam and old Princeton. For example, according to the writer, Van Til criticizes Kuyper for being Platonic, KantIan, Roman Catholic Aristotelian and Scholastic in his thinking. Bavinck is accused of having not altogether cut himself loose from non-Christian forms of thinking in his conception of the so-called “theistic proofs.” And Hepp is charged with making concessions to a Roman type of Natural Theology. Further, the WrIter finds evidences of a mild Biblicism in the new movement, such as, constantly passing by the confessions and employing it termInology which is in conflict with them. Quoting Hepp he states that underlying their Biblicism is their “acrobatic maneuvering which betrays the disease of originality.” Whether all this criticism is valid is questionable. It is true, Van Til does disagree with the theologians mentioned. But his differences are not as large as may appear from this book. Fundamentally he is in hearty agreement with Kuyper and Bavinck.

The Value of Sound Doctrine

In the second chapter the author defends the value and necessity of sound doctrine over against those who would belittle dogma and show opposition to Church creeds. The present reviewer considers this to be the best chapter, and, in general, can heartIly agree with brother Masselink’s statements. In these days when modern theological systems are seeking to undermine the historic Christian faith, and when Fundamentalism shows a lamentable disregard for the historic creeds, it is a tonic to read such a vigorous defense of dogma and creeds.

General Revelation

Beginning with the third chapter, entitled “General Revelation,” the writer digs into his subject proper. After he has disposed of various misconceptions concerning general revelation, he states that our view of this doctrine must be rooted in a right conception regarding the trinIty. H e states that general revelation is rooted in the ontological trinity, is related to the economic trinity, and revealed by the revealing trinity. This general revelation is found in creation and history. That it should be found also in the constitution of man is not stated, but rather denied. Yet it seems to be implied in the author’s statement on page 81: “Because of the Logos every creature, great or small, is the realization of a divine thought.” Perhaps it would have been better if the writer had clearly seen the import of this statement. For had he done so, he would not have criticized Van Til’s contention that conscience is also revelational of God.

For, if conscience is an aspect of the created consciousness of man, and everything created reveals God, then, in a broad sense, even conscience must be revelational of God. True, in a restricted sense, conscience is man’s reaction to God’s revelation but as Van Til rightly states, “without making all created reality revelational of God, the ethical reaction of man would take place in a vacuum” (A Letter on Common Grace, p. 39). Masselink further contends that in general revelation we must sharply distinguish between revelation as related directly to God (principium essendi) and revelation which is made known to man (principium cognoscendi). Regarding the latter he states that “the creation of man in the image of God is the basis for all knowledge of God” (p. 87) . This accounts for man’s disposition and capacity to receive general revelation, and since the image of God in a wider sense is still found in man after the fall, he is still capable of receiving knowledge of God and morality. In this connection it may be well to mention that Masselink claims that this capacity to receive general revelation is due to God’s common grace. For, according to him, although man has this disposition in virtue of his creation in the image of God, this does not yet mean that he also has actual knowledge of God.

In other words, the “seed of religion,” as Calvin calls it, which is still left in all men, does not imply any innate ideas about God and morality. But, corresponding to the Image of God is the testimony of the Holy Spirit through whom general revelation is communicated to men. AmI again, in this testimony of the Spirit we should distinguish between the general external testimony of the. SpIrIt and the general internal testimony of the Spirit. By the former is meant that God has manifested himself to man both in nature and in history. “This may be designated as the external call of God’s general revelation to man, by which he at least may know that God is” (p. 84). But to this general external testimony must be added the general internal testimony of the Holy SpirIt which witnesses within the heart of men, and truly causes him to know the general revelation. “Here the general internal testimony of the Holy Spirit not only testifies to a knowledge of God, but also to a knowledge of at least a kind of morality, since ‘the law was written in their hearts,’ and they even ‘do by nature the works of the law’” (p. 84). Yet the writer claims that in spite of this testimony of the Spirit, both external and internal, general revelation is insufficient, and that for a fourfold reason: (1) because. It comes to a corrupt disposition in man; (2) because it comes to us through the external media of nature and history; (3) because it teaches. us only to know something of ChrIst as the Logos of creation, but not as the Mediator of redemption; and (4) because neither nature nor history can be properly understood without the light of Scripture.

Yet, according to the author, general revelation is of great value. The fact is, if supplemented by common grace, it can give even the natural man some light and true knowledge of God, and some fragments of true morality (p. 116). More than that, general revelation, as it comes to man through the testimony of the Spirit, external and internal, can give man objective certainty. It is on the basis of this that there can be a common territory without qualification for the Christian and the non-Christian. This, according to Masselink, also accounts for the so-called unity of science, which unity is the same for the believing and the unbelieving scientist. Science need not then be based on specifically Christian foundations, as Kuyper maintained; but it can be developed on the basis of a common reason, a common methodology, and a common general faith. The fact is, according to Hepp, whom Masselink follows in all things, due to the general testimony of the Holy Spirit, Christians and non-Christians share certain so-called “central truths” about God, man, and the world. For example, in regard to God, Christians and non-Christians can develop the “theistic proofs” for God’s existence.

“Reconstructionist” Views

After having given his positive views on general revelation, the writer then takes issues with the views of the “Reconstructionists.” He claims that they reject with emphasis the historic Reformed view of general revelation, and that they specifically “den y the general external and internal testimony of the Holy Spirit as well as the working of God’s common grace” (p. 107). Van Til ,claims that the knowledge of God is due to the remnants of the image of God left in man. Sin has not been able to efface all the revelation of God, which man has, both as a result of the original positive revelation of God to mankind, and the natural revelation that still surrounds him in nature and history, as well as that which is found in his own rational ,and moral constitution. Natural man has a knowledge of God; not merely a disposition to receive knowledge, but actual knowledge. In regard to this matter, Masselink states that Van Til confuses the objective and the subjective in general revelation. While he admits the objective :revelation in creation, history and lEan’s constitution, he fails to see the necessity of the twofold testimony of the Spirit, whereby the revelation in nature and history is subjectivized for man. This, he claims, is overlooked by Van Til (p. 141).

We may note that there is, indeed, a sharp difference between Masselink and Van Til on this point. To state it succinctly: Van Til does not believe that general revelation is inadequate, in the sense that it does not give true knowledge of God; and that therefore a general internal testimony of the Holy Spirit should be added to give men some God-consciousness and moral consciousness. Masselink contends that, since man’s creatural characteristics, or the image of God in the wider sense, is left in man, this is due to common grace. All this Van Til rejects. According to him all the facts of the universe, including those of nature, history, and man’s own constitution, are revelational of God. And, therefore, all men unavoidably know God and themselves as creatures of God. General revelation is perspicuous; and this revelation which the Spirit impresses upon man is infallible. All that God reveals of himself, whether in nature or in Scripture, is objectively true and certainly true. No so-called internal testimony of the Spirit is needed to make it true.

Neither Scripture nor the Old Reformed writers know of such an “immediate testimony” of the Holy Spirit, as Hepp conceived of it. This was his own invention. Hepp himself admitted that Bavinck did come near to such an idea of the general internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, but did not quite attain to it. Van Til avers, however, that this idea of Hepp “is out of analogy with the revelation of Scripture and the special internal testimony of the Holy Spirit witnessing to the truth of Scripture; this in spite of the fact that Hepp seeks to carry through the analogy. Calvin’s doctrine of the internal testimony of the Spirit does not presuppose a lack of certainty in the revelation given in Scripture. On the contrary, for Calvin all revelation is objectively true and certainly true. But the sinner does not want to believe that which is in itself certain and as clear as day. So the Holy Spirit in regenerating and converting man enables him to accept that which as unregenerated and unconverted he could not accept” (A Letter on Common Grace, p. 43). Moreover, Van Til states, in opposition to the idea of Hepp regarding a geneml internal testimony of the Spirit the following: “Even the ‘immediate testimony’ of the Holy Spirit has, at last, to terminate upon men. It has to be mediated to man through man’s consciousness. The human mind must think upon it and reconstruct for itself the objective revelation given to it, whether through Scripture or through nature” (ibid) . Finally, Van Til differs with Masselink on the function of common grace in connection with general revelation. He does not believe that common grace is needed to maintain the metaphysical status quo, as if man would have ceased to be an image bearer in the wider sense, and would have become irrational and amoral without that grace. He considers this to be analogous to the Roman Catholic position which posits a grace of God which is necessary to maintain man’s creatural reality. Masselink here confuses man’s metaphysical and ethical aspects. Metaphysically man remains man regardless of sin. He remains rational and moral. But ethically he is by nature wholly corrupt or totally depraved; and it is only through common grace that, in spite of his corrupt nature, he can still have some true knowledge “after a fashion,” and can do good “after a fashion.”

General Revelation and Apologetics

In the fourth chapter the author discusses “General Revelation and Apologetics.” First, he compares the apologetics of Old Princeton with those of Amsterdam; and takes position for the latter. Apologetics does not have for its object, as Warfield states, “the laying of the foundation on which the temple of theology is built, and by which the whole structure of theology is determined.” Masselink agrees with Kuyper, who holds that apologetics does not come before, but after dogmatics as a defense of that which has been established thetically on the basis of Scripture. Therefore, he also rejects Machen’s views regarding the relationship between natural theology and faith. “Machen bases the Christian Faith upon the ‘Theistic Proofs’ of God, which can be derived from Natural Theology” (p. 175). But he does agree with Hepp, who declares that “because of the Spirit’s testimony our certainty for the existence of God is not subjective, but objective, and, therefore, far more conclusive than any arguments advanced by reason” (ibid.) . Yet, strange as it may seem, when the writer considers the apologetics of Van Til and Schilder, he takes them to task, not merely for going contrary to the Amsterdam-type of apologetics, but also to the Princeton-type, as if the two were identical. Then he waxes eloquent about Old Princeton as a “bulwark of faith” and about Machen as a “defender of the faith.” And then Van Til is accused of being too philosophic and speculative in his reasoning. And when Van Til avers that there is no common ground without qualification between the Christian and the non-Christian, then Masselink claims that he thereby eliminates all rational argumentation with the non-Christian, and destroys the very basis for apologetics. T hen he writes: “Because of general revelation and common grace, Machen, Warfield, and other Reformed Apologists have presented rational grounds against the empty arguments of the ungodly.” And in connection with this Van Til is accused of rejecting the “theistic proofs” as being without value of any kind.

But again, we ask, Is this criticism warranted? That Van Til’s writings are often philosophic and speculative may be admitted. Sometimes he could write more clearly. But Van Til would not admit that the Christian and the non-Christian have nothing in common, or that the “theistic proofs” have no value at all. On the contrary, Van Til claims that metaphysically the Christian and non-Christian have everything in common. Only from an epistemological point of view we must reckon with the absolute ethical antithesis between them. Therefore, there is no inch of territory which is neutral. There is no commonness without qualification. So, too, the theistic proofs are only without validity, if they are constructed upon a non-Christian or neutral basis. But when these same theistic proofs are constructed upon Christian presuppositions then they are not only valid, but also real proofs for the existence of God. Then we do not say, as Hepp does, that they merely establish the probability of God’s existence, which needs to be made certain by the general internal testimony of the Spirit; but then we say that these proofs, so constructed are absolutely valid.

Common Grace

In the fifth chapter the author first develops his own views on common grace, which he claims are in harmony with those of traditional Reformed theology. The source of common grace he finds also in the ontological trinity. “All God’s qualities (attributes) as they are revealed in creation and mankind can be traced back to the same qualities as they exist in the absolute sense in the ontological trinity. There is a qualitative difference between the qualities as they exist in the Trinity and the faint similitude of these same qualities as they are revealed in creation and the social world-order” (pp. 190, 191). Moreover, as in God we may distinguish between his logical, ethical, and aesthetic qualities, so, too, a similitude of all these various types of qualities is also found in creation and in man. But according to the author, this also brings us to the heart of the subject of common grace. It is due to this grace that the similitude of all God’s qualities is found even in sinful humanity and creation at present.

Again, common grace is said to be related to Christ. Although the covenant of Noah is its solid historical starting-point, Christ is related to this covenant of common grace, both as the Mediator of creation and of redemption.

As to its nature, common grace is supposed to curb sin, while special grace purges it. Common grace causes the small remnants of the image of God in man to develop; special grace causes the small principle of the new life to grow. Therefore, common grace consists of two parts:

(1) the negative element or the restraint of sin, which takes place through the restraining influence on man’s evil disposition, through conscience and through government;

(2) the positive element or God’s favorable attitude towards creation and mankind, evident from the good that God bestows upon all his creatures, even upon the ungodly, and from the influence of the Spirit upon and his testimony to the unregenerate, whereby they still have a God and moral-consciousness and are enabled to do some good.

Much of what the author has stated is acceptable. But, when he contrasts the so-called “Reconstructionist” view with his own, then he draws conclusions which are rather far-reaching, and which, to this reviewer, go far beyond those which can legitImately be made from Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s views on common grace. In passing we may state that it would be interesting to present Van Til’s views in this connection.1 But, lacking space, let us single out some of Masselink’s far-reaching, and unwarranted, conclusions from the doctrine of common grace.

The first of these, is his denial of the absolute ethical antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate. He seems to think that, if Van Til holds to such an absolute antithesis he should also believe in the absolute depravity of man and consequently, deny that there are any traces of the image of God left in man. Now the reason for this criticism must be found in Masselink’s contention that common grace was necessary to maintain man’s metaphysical status quo. Masselink’s own position, however, seriously jeopardizes the Reformed doctrine of man’s total depravity. For although he often states that there is a qualitative difference between the knowledge of God and of morality, possessed by the regenerate and the unregenerate; yet at times he gives the impression as if this difference is only one of degree. For, he claims the unregenerate by common grace also have true knowledge of God and true morality, yet the Christian has more of this, because of regeneration and special grace.

By maintaining the absolute ethical antithesis, however, we do not say that man has no knowledge of God at all, nor any morality. On the contrary, Van Til would say that due to God’s restraining grace man is not yet wholly “epistemologically self-conscious,” and therefore, too, can have some knowledge of God and can do some good. But this is so in spite of the evil principle of his fallen nature. By nature he is always inclined to suppress the revelation of God, so that, although, in a sense, he knows God, and cannot help knowing him (Romans 1:19–21), on the other hand, he does “not retain God in his knowledge, but changes the truth of God into a lie, and worships and serves the creature more than the creator” (Romans 1:25, 28).

Another unwarranted conclusion which Masselink draws from the doctrine of common grace, is his positing of a so-called common or neutral field of operation for the Christian and the non-Christian. Over against this Van Til maintains that there is no common territory without qualification. Masselink criticizes those who are said to hold to a “two terrain philosophy.” The fact is, however, that he himself is constantly speaking about two spheres: a sphere of special grace and a sphere of common grace. He claims these two spheres may never be wholly separated, but are interwoven, and the Christian dwells in both spheres. He alone operates in the sphere of special grace; but besides that, he also, in conjunction with the non-Christian and on common ground, operates in the sphere of common grace.

The Christian Lives by Special Grace!

Now it is exactly this construction to which we do not subscribe. There are not two terrains, nor two spheres. The Christian always lives by special grace, or at least he should do so; and, therefore, he cannot help but claim all of life for Christ, his King. In government, in society, in economics, in literature, in art, yes, in everything he can never be satisfied with a so-called “common righteousness” or a “common ideal.” But in all things he is seeking the righteousness of God and the honor of Christ. All must be brought under the rule of Christ. True, because of common grace, the non-Christian can also develop the sciences for the benefit of the Christian, and can produce such products of art and literature from which the Christian may gain some profit. But the reason for this is, that both the Christian and the non-Christian have the metaphysical situation in common, and both have the “common mandate” which God had given to mankind originally at the creation. This mandate has never been withdrawn, no more as the covenant of works has been abrogated. As man is still responsible for the law of God, even though by nature he can no longer fulfill the law, even so the natural man must fulfill the mandate of God, and may be used by God’s common grace to furnish materials for the service of God and the benefit of his people. As Van Til states: “The earth and the fulness thereof belong to the Lord and to those to whom in his sovereign grace he gives it. To them, therefore, belong all the common gifts of God to mankind. Yet that it may be the earth and the fulness thereof that is developed, the covenant keepers will make use of the works of the covenant breakers which these have been able and compelled to perform in spite of themselves. As Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon, the products of the rain and sunshine that had come to covenant breakers, and as he used the skill of these very covenant breakers, for the building of the temple of God, so also I’hose who through the Spirit of God have believed in Christ may and must use all the gifts of all men everywhere in order by means of them to perform the cultural task of mankind” (Particularism and Common Grace, p. 15).

As your reviewer has stated elsewhere, the Christian cannot live a twofold life. For that is a divided life. At one time he would be living antithetically, apart from the world; but then again, he would live thetically on the basis of a so-called “common grace,” which would allow cf common cause with the world. If this were permissible, all attempts to apply our Christian principles to the whole of life would be doomed from the start. Then Barth is right, when he severely criticized our brethren in Holland for attempting to have a Christian political party, Christian labor unions, Christian schools and all other types of Christian activities. Is it, perhaps, due to this view of common grace, that there are those in our circles today who openly oppose the C.L.A. and say that Christians should join the neutral unions? But then, how about the Christian school? and how about Calvin College? Is not education and the development of science also supposed to be in the sphere of “common grace” and therefore common and neutral? Why not have one common educational system, and work for the Bible in the public school?2 Dr. Kuyper wrote once: “Therefore the Kingship of God’s Only Begotten Son cannot be anything else but a Kingship in the full sense over the whole human realm” (Pro Rege I, 322). How then can there be a neutral realm which confessors and deniers of Christ have in common? Therefore, cooperation between Christians and non-Christians must always be on an “as if” basis only. A Christian may cooperate as long as he may remain different. There is commonness with qualification, as well as difference with qualification.


Herewith I close the critical analysis of Dr. MasseIink’s book. I enjoyed reading it. It confirmed me in my conviction and my position regarding the antithesis and common grace as being in harmony with the Reformed Faith. There are three more chapters in the book, which have not been reviewed. But two of these have been treated somewhat in what has been written, while chapter seven, which deals with the doctrine of the soul, as propounded by the “Reconstructionists,” this reviewer was not able to evaluate properly, since he lacks the original source materials which would make this possible. Although this review may seem rather severely critical in places, yet the author maybe assured that he has done a piece of work which must be recognized by all those who are wrestling with the same problems he was dealing with. They are knotty problems, both intellectually and practically. But this reviewer is convinced that the solution must be found rather in line with Van Til’s position than that of Hepp and Masselink. In these days, when everything is being made relative, we, as Christians, should maintain the antithesis. It will become increasingly difficult to do so, but “faith is the victory that overcomes the world.”

*Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1953.

1. These may be found in brief form in his pamphlet entitled Particularism and Common Grace.

2. This has nothing to do with “parochialism” as Dr. Masselink seems to think, according to the last chapter of his book.