The Christian and the World

(In our April 1955 issue Dr. Runner began his historical survey of this subject. The April installment began with a review of the thinking of “the second-century Apologists…the anti-gnostic Fathers and…the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries.” Dr. Runner concluded this phase of his discussion in the previous issue. Here our esteemed author turns his attention to the period of the Protestant Reformation and its significance for “the problem of the relation of the Church to the world of culture.”)

Calvin’s Higher Insight

That higher insight was the accomplishment of Calvin. Whereas Luther clung to the idea of a lower earthly sphere in which man is capable of doing much good, “Calvin’s logical mind,” as our colleague, Dr. Herman Kuiper, tells us in his doctoral dissertation, Calvin on Common Grace(13) “could not put up with this dualism. On the one hand, his deep insight into the terrible consequences of sin did not allow him to admit that fallen man, when left wholly to himself, could produce any good in any domain whatsoever and, on the other hand, he found it impossible to subscribe to the view of Zwingli, who virtually surrendered the absoluteness of Christianity by teaching that at least certain heathen philosophers who remained utter strangers to the Gospel of Christ participated in God’s saving grace. Calvin found the solution for the problem how we must account for the good found with unregenerate men in the concept of common grace. He was the first theologian who made a clear-cut distinction between common and saving grace, between the operations of the Spirit of God which are common to mankind at large and the sanctifying work of the same Spirit which is limited to God’s elect.”



In the present paper I do not propose to examine the nature of the data to be found in Calvin. You will recall that our intention here is to show how long it took the Church to come to a theoretical accounting of the problem of culture. For this occasion, therefore, it will suffice to point out,what the structure of the dissertation of Herman Kuiper also evidences, that Calvin’s thoughts on common grace -the term itself is not even used by him in a technical sense!(14)—are developed only incidentally: nowhere do they form a separate topic.(15) Abraham Kuyper is not guilty of minimizing the importance of Calvin’s insight but rather is simply reducing his accomplishment to its real proportions when he calls what he judges to be the clearest statement of the idea in the Institutes II iii 3 “the root of the doctrine of common grace.”(16) (Emphasis mine). Into theological soil a new root had been planted. It was not yet clear how wide the branches would extend or what fruits for the restoring and refreshment of the Kingdom of God would appear. But the root was there.

Kuyper, in the same place, points out that not only the root of the doctrine is found in Calvin, but also the explanation why it constitutes such an indispensable part of the Reformed confession. “It did not arise;” he writes there, “out of philosophical invention, but out of the confession of the mortal character of sin…But apparently this (confession) did not square with reality. There was in the sinful world, also outside the church, so much that was beautiful, so much to be respected, so much that provoked to envy. This placed (the formulators of the Reformed confession) before the dilemma; either to deny all this good, against their better knowledge, and thus to err with the Anabaptists; or to view man as not so deeply fallen, and thus to stray into the Arminian heresy. And placed before that choice, the Reformed confession has refused to travel either of those roads. We might not close our eyes to the good and beautiful outside the church, among unbelievers, in the world. This good was there and that had to be acknowledged. And just as little might the least bit be detracted from the total depravity of sinful nature. But herein lay the solution of this apparent contradiction, that also outside the church, among the heathen, in the midst of the world, grace was at work, grace not eternal, nor unto salvation, but temporal and for the stemming of the destruction that lurked in sin.”

Prof. Berkouwer and Natural Law

The fundamental importance of this answer of Calvin’s to the question how culture is possible in a world of totally depraved men will be recognized wherever a serious investigation is undertaken into what Calvin has written. A recent illustration of this is afforded by Prof. Berkouwer’s discussion of natural law in his book De Algemene Openbaring, ( 17 ) where it is pointed out how different Calvin’s conception of natural law is from that of the schoolmen. While their theory is grounded in the rational nature of man, which, according to Rome, must always—with the necessity that attaches to being—strive after the good, nothing of that is found in the former. Calvin sees as central the corruption of human nature directed against the good will of God in hostility and disobedience. “For Calvin the natural man does not live from what remains of real, ontological(18) goodness within the ordinances of God, but he moves within the witnessing force and the evidence of the divinely ordained good as revelation of His holy wiII. The predominating aspect in Calvin is not the goodness of human nature, but the goodness of the law and the ordinances of God. Calvin’s doctrine of common grace does not arise out of the inclination to remove anything from the corruption of human nature, but out of the certitude that this total corruption is taught by the Scripture.(19) (Two pages earlier we read:) The total depravity of man is indeed present, according to Calvin, but that is, for him, not equivalent to the absence of all God’s gift to human nature. For Calvin is convinced that man can manifest his total depravity with his gifts and in the functioning of those gifts. A profound view of sin is the background of Calvin’s thought: one could say, a total existential view, which is religious in character and is governed by the question of the attitude of the heart of man towards God. The absence of the true, religious obedience of man towards God does not exclude it that man, with the gifts left to him, functions in the world, where he is still assigned a place. (Going back to p. 170, we read: ) “We find ourselves here in the area of the activity of God in preserving and governing. Therein lies the possibility of the connection between so-called ‘natural law’ and…corruptio naturae…It is indeed a strange tiling, that in the radical aversion of human life from God and His holy will, in its inability to subject itself to the law of God (the “natural” man!), there is nevertheless still present a championing of right and justice, a punishing of evil and a rewarding of good, a valuing of community with one another and of limits set for man in that community, a seeking of truth and science…Every man stirs and moves within the superior power of the works of God and of the preservation of his blessing-bestowing law…and in his actions, in his conscience, in his judgment with regard to others and in his protest against complete anarchy he manifests the superior power of the work and the law of God…To acknowledge this “—here Berkouwer comes to the heart of the matter—” does not therefore involve an optimistic estimate of man. For this man, in the total direction of his existence, is turned away from God, and moreover can also in his concrete deeds progress continually farther along the road of manifest degeneration. In Romans 2 Paul is not speaking of a constant quality of the heathen (the doing of that which is contained in the law). The process of sin can also so burst forth that there remain only minimal remnants of the power to distinguish. The eye of man can be increasingly darkened with respect to the goodness of God’s ordinances, so that he finally has an eye only for the “law” that is pleasing to himself and that protects his own life. Life can develop as Paul predicts it for the last days, viz. in almost complete and uncompromising opposition to what the law of God still makes valuable in life. Those are days in which man will even be without natural love. Therein can be manifested the judgment of God, as it already was revealed in the divine “giving over,” of which Paul makes mention in Romans 1….This proves that one cannot describe the history of humanity”—we might add, or of human culture—“from the point of view of human ‘nature’ and its ‘natural light’. The relation between the general revelation of God, common restraining grace and human life is not a static one, but a dynamic relation, which is completely and utterly tied up with the development of history and with the process of sin. One will never be able to write about general revelation and about common grace without also paying attention to that judgment of God which is already manifest in history.”

Calvin’s Radically New Explanation

I have devoted considerable time to Prof. Berkouwer’s analysis in order, by following closely one instance of Calvin’s treatment of cultural questions, to set in a clear light the radical novelty of Calvin’s explanation of culture. How superior his explanation is will appear to one who compares what has just been written with the embarrassment Augustine faced in attempting to explain the enlargement and long life of the Roman state. Note particularly the oneness of Calvin’s approach to culture with his whole presentation: the centrality of God, theocentricity. There is no longer any need for the vacillation of a Tertullian or the near duplicity of a Jerome.

In thus following Berkouwer’s account we have been enjoying, one could say, a foretaste of the admirable faithfulness which, as later developments were to show, marks Calvin’s solution of the problem of culture and of the Christian’s relation to the world. I said, a foretaste. For in Calvin’s day, unfortunately, it never got beyond that. We must not forget that what Berkouwer has here given us is the result of later scientific (theological) reflection upon Calvin’s utterances. Calvin’s own writings are more prophetic, more religious than scientific. The germs of later theory lie scattered throughout his writings, but they would have to be fertilized by the hovering over them of the scientific mind, before their inherent worth and their eminent practicability could be shown.

In the arcana of God’s all-wise providence three frustrating, three debilitating centuries were to elapse before men were to see the fruition of Calvin’s work as it relates to the problem of culture. Perhaps partly because Calvin did not, with sufficient clarity of statement and fulness of presentation, distinguish, in his treatment of such cultural subjects as natural law, his own wholly biblical view from the traditional (Greco-Roman, scholastic) one which was everywhere present in the learned world of his day. Berkouwer himself makes the remark, (20) “The term ‘natural law’ will always and again get us on a wrong track, because it naturally creates the impression that everything arises out of the nature of man, whom one then begins automatically to shield against the confession of total depravity.”

August Lang, “The Reformation and Natural Law”

However that may be, in general it is true that the Reformation leaders, in failing to come to grips with the problem of culture in its broadest scope, made a considerable contribution, humanly speaking, to their own undoing. Years ago there appeared in the pages of the Princeton Theological Review an article by August Lang entitled “The Reformation and Natural Law,” which, with three other studies, was shortly thereafter republished in book form(21) as a contribution to the celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Although in his article Lang addresses himself directly to the problem of natural law, his concern is with the whole cultural question. Permit me to quote him.

Students of recent history have long been agreed that the close of the seventeenth century, the conclusion of the religious wars, marks the beginning of a new epoch in Church history…The peculiarity of the new period is, expressed in one word, what is called…‘modernism’, or ‘the modern spirit.’ But if the division is a real one, there arises the question, embarrassing to every evangelical Christian, How is the modem spirit, which since the seventeenth century…has been unfolding itself with ever-increasing vigor, related to the Gospel of the Reformation? How could the age of the Reformation with its conflicts of faith be followed so suddenly by an age whose views about historical criticism and natural science, about politics and social life, are in part directly opposed to the Reformation conception of the world? What forces of the Gospel had a part in the development of the new way of thinking? What other, unevangelical, tendencies intruded themselves, and therefore, because they arose, for example, in Catholicism (and hence in false belief), or in an unbelieving and therefore pernicious development of civilization, must be combatted and eliminated?(22)

After thus showing the wide range of his interest, Lang expresses the desire to make a contribution by “examining the relation between the Reformation and Natural Law,” and he motivates his choice of topic by pointing out that “natural law was one of the principal historical factors in the formation of the modem spirit…it became also the starting-point for ‘natural theology’, the broad religious basis of the religion of the ‘Enlightenment.’ “How,” he asks, “could this natural law spring.up on the ground of the Reformation, take such deep root and put forth such wide-spreading branches?” Later (23) he asks the more specific question, “how did it happen that it was precisely decided Calvinists who, first among the men of evangelical faith, and so early as the sixteenth century, not merely developed natural law theoretically, but at the same time, as political publicists, made it a weapon in the conflicts of the time?”

We cannot take the time here to enter into the absorbing details of Mr. Lang’s argument. In another place I have attempted to relate the baleful influence that Melanchton, the praeceptor Germaniae, had upon the cultural outlook of the Reformation party. The conclusions of Lang are in harmony with what I there presented. Here is his final result:(24)

The Reformation at its very beginning found itself in the presence of problems and exigencies of indefinite range, first of all, conflicts of purely religious and theological character—doctrinal, liturgical, and constitutional conflicts. What an amount of spiritual strength was consumed even by these conflicts I How much there was which went wrong! What unrest, what losses these conflicts produced! And yet the problem which then appeared could be settled by reference to the fundamental religious principle of Protestantism, and on the whole were in fact settled in a truly Protestant way. Much more difficult and dangerous, however, was a second adjustment, which lay more on the periphery of religious truth and yet was no less necessary—namely the adjustment to the general ethical, political and social problems, to science and art. This adjustment, I say, was unavoidable, for if Protestantism, over against the medieval-Catholic world, involves a new world-view, then there must necessarily be a Protestant science of politics, a Protestant philosophy and science, a Protestant art. For such an adjustment, however, in the very ‘ nature of things, time is required; it cannot be accomplished by one man or by one generation. It was, indeed, a thank-worthy undertaking, when Calvin in his lnstitutio did not entirely ignore politics, but the results were of such a kind that they did not give satisfaction even negatively, on the question of the obedience of subjects and the right of resistance, much less positively. But now the tasks and problems of culture came upon the young evangelical Church in a storm . • . The Reformed . . were obliged to fight the hardest battles for existence; then. after the final victory, they had new states to found both at home and in the wilderness; above all, they had to settle the question of tolerance between the different parties that had arisen in their own camp. But he tasks were met by the will to accomplish them. Calvin had inspired in his disciples that energy of piety which abhors all half-way measures, which boldly endeavors to make all the affairs of life subject to Christ, the Head and Lord…But what was needed … (the) firm principles about the relation of the Reformation to the forces of culture—to the state, science and art—was lacking, and how could it be attained all at once in the midst of all the unrest of the time? Regarded in this way, we believe. the appearance of natural law becomes comprehensible. A doctrine of the state constructed on evangelical principles was not in existence. But such a doctrine was imperatively demanded by the need of the time. Men needed to have clearness about the relation of the ruler to the subjects, about the problem of Church and State, about the relation between different churches in the same country. No wonder that in the lack of a conception of the state revised in the light of fundamental evangelical ideas, men had recourse to the political theory taught in the traditional jurisprudence, without heeding the fact that that theory had an origin foreign to the Reformation and involved tendencies and consequences which would lead away from the Reformation. These tendencies, of course, became apparent later in slowly-developing after-effects, and then, especially after the spiritual enervation sustained in the protracted religious wars, they could not fail gradually to dissipate and destroy the Reformation’s basis of faith…Unless all indications are deceptive, the progress of events was similar in the case of other cultural questions. The desire for knowledge, the desire for activity, which was experienced by the individual after he had been liberated through the Reformation, plunged itself into all problems of the spiritual life of man, became absorbed in the traditional manner of their treatment, and was all too quickly satisfied with solutions which were not in agreement with the fundamental ethico-religous factors of the practical religious life of the Reformation. The reaction did not remain absent. The evangelical life of faith became shallower, instead of deepening itself and developing in all directions…If it is true that the religious spirit of the Reformation in passing through Deism, the ‘Enlightenment’ and Rationalism, was moving on a downward path, the reason for its deterioration was that the adjustment between the Reformation and culture was neither brought to a satisfactory conclusion nor even earnestly enough attempted. Nevertheless, we hope that such an adjustment may yet be accomplished; the better it succeeds,…the more completely will the difficulties of our present religious situation disappear.

(Continued in September issue)

(13) p. 2

(14) S.J. Ridderbos, De Theologische Cultuurbeschouwing van Abraham Kuyper, Kok, 1947, p. 18 cf. H. Kuiper, op.cit. p. 177

(15) The fullest expression in the Institutes is found in II iii 3, Abraham Kuyper, but compare II ii 15–16.

(16) De Gemeene Gratie I (1902), p. 7. Hereafter this work will be cited as G.G.

(17) Pp. 157–181, esp. 166–174. My quotations are from 168–173.

(18) I should prefer to use the word “ontic” here instead of “ontological”; reference is made to (a supposed) real something (ont-ic) not to a theory about reality (onto-log-ic).

(19) Here (footnote 116 on p. 170) Berkouwer refers to Calvin’s view as expressed in the passage already cited, vis. Institutes II iii 3, and points out that Abraham Kuyper, in laying the basis for common grace, attached himself to this whole picture.

(20) Op.cit., p. 171.

(21) Calvin and the Reformation, Revell, 1909, pp. 56–98, My quotations are from the article as published in this book.

(22) Op.cit., p. 57 f.

(23) Idem, p. 72.