An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Common Grace Revisited by Engelsma

Common Grace Revisited
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.


Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh said...

Without entering into the debate over a distinction between "providence" and "common grace", the following extract from Calvin has certainly had a lasting impact on me over the years:

"Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the giver. How then can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules of discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry on our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term ‘carnal’ are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding its having been despoiled of the true good....
Nor is there any ground for asking what concourse the Spirit can have with the ungodly, who are altogether alienated from God. For what is said as to the Spirit dwelling in believers only, is to be understood of the Spirit of holiness, by which we are consecrated to God as temples. Notwithstanding this, he fills, moves and invigorates all things by virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (Institutes 2:2:15-16).

Elisha Mullins said...
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