A Response to Richard J. Mouw’s He Shines in All That’s Fair<
David J. Engelsma
Grandville: MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2003
ISBN 0 916206 81 5; pbk, xii + 100pp.
John Frame in his article on Machen’s warrior children identifies 21 areas that they disagreed upon. Surprisingly, common grace is not mentioned. And yet in 1924 it split a church denomination. Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) took exception to the three points of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church. The result was that Hoeksema formed the Protestant Reformed Church. David Engelsma is a professor of Dogmatics at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Church.
This book, as the subtitle shows, is a response to Mouw’s excellent little book He Shines in All That’s Fair. This book started as a series of editorials in The Standard Bearer, Mouw and Engelsma that debated the topic in September 2003 (see below). Despite their differences Mouw and Engelsma treat each other with respect and civility. There are no ad hominems here.
Engelsma focuses on Mouw’s approach, but does look at Kuyper and Bavinck who he sees as the originators rather than Calvin. Calvin he maintains is “not a main theme in the theology of John Calvin. It is not even a theme. It is barely mentioned” (p. 15).
Engelsma argues that common grace is not in Calvin, not in the scriptures and not in the Reformed creeds.
He identifies three reasons for the acceptance of common grace by Mouw:
The seemingly good deeds of justice, kindness and mercy of the non-Christian (Ch 5);
Mouw’s empathy for the ungodly (Ch 6); and
The “power and warrant of the Christian’s earthy life in the world” (Ch 7)Engelsma also dislikes the term culture: “it is not a biblical term” (p. 53) (but then neither is the Trinity); it is he claims "ambiguous and unhelpful” (p. 54).
There are three issues that common grace help address these are: “the continuing existence of the earth after the fall” (p. 54); an account for “the Christian’s life in society as well as in neighbourhood” (p. 55); and “the justification for the Christian’s use and enjoyment of the interventions and products of the wicked” (p. 55). However, for Engelsma, God’s providence rather than common grace accounts for these points. It is the confusion of common grace and providence that is the fundamental error of those who adhere to common grace.
Engelsma has highlighted a number of key issues that can arise out of a (misuse) of common grace doctrine. He highlights some consequences of common grace, these though are misuses of the doctrine. He is concerned that common grace may lead to worldliness. This is an important point that we need to be aware of. Common grace rightly understood and not misused does not negate the antithesis. It does not have to lead to universal saving grace – despite Engelsma’s protestations. Kuyper held to both common grace, particular grace and the antithesis without the contradictions and tensions Engelsma seems to imply would be there.
His replacement of providence with common grace doesn’t quite work. There is much overlap between providence and common grace; though at times the terms as used in Engelsma’s book can be exchanged without any change in meaning. I welcome Englesma’s book – even if I don’t agree with its main premises – it does provide a warning about what may arise out of the misuse of common grace. But as often been said the corrective to misuse is not disuse (or denial) but right use.