09 November, 2016

Another Look at Calvin and Common Grace

Prof. Ronald L. Cammenga

[The following was originally published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2008 --- PDF version HERE]


Proponents of common grace have long appealed to John Calvin in support of the teaching of common grace. This appeal to Calvin has been made by individuals as well as by church bod­ies. The argument is advanced that, although admittedly Calvin did not fully develop the teaching that later became known as common grace, the seeds of common grace can be found in his writings. Al­ready at the time of the Reformation, it is argued, Calvin articulated the basic principle of common grace, the notion of a general favor of God towards all men, and in a beginning sort of way made ap­plication of this principle to the life of the Christian in the world. All that later Reformed theologians did by way of the development of the teaching of common grace, they did by carrying forward the rudimentary work of Calvin. Until recently, there has been a general consensus among the proponents of common grace that John Calvin was the originator of this teaching.

The attempt to demonstrate that the doctrine of common grace can be traced back to Calvin is understandable. It is under­standable in light of the stature that Calvin has in Reformed and Pres­byterian churches. If it can be demonstrated that Calvin taught a certain doctrine, at the very least that teaching has a right to the claim that it is historically Reformed. This is simply due to the fact that so much of what came to be regarded as Reformed orthodoxy derives from and depends on Calvin.

The attempt to derive the teaching of common grace from Calvin is understandable from another point of view. Undoubtedly this effort also arises out of Reformed theology’s sensitivity to the importance of theological lineage. In distinction from Roman Ca­tholicism and various cults, Reformed theology maintains a view of the organic development of doctrine. What the church teaches today is only the further unfolding of what, in the main, the Protestant re­formers of the sixteenth century taught, and before them the early church fathers and the apostles. Development of doctrine is organic development, the acorn sprouting forth and growing into the mighty oak tree. Major doctrines are not at the present late date in human history for the first time discovered and articulated. But the main doctrines of the Reformed faith held in the twenty-first century are the flowering forth of the great doctrines of the Reformation. Be­cause of this view of the development of doctrine, the proponents of the teaching of common grace have been keen to derive the main elements of their teaching from the great reformer John Calvin.

This article will examine the merits of this endeavor. Can it in fact be demonstrated that Calvin was the originator of the teaching of common grace? Did he in his many writ­ings lay the theological foundation upon which the further development of common grace could be built? And would he approve of the later developments and applications of com­mon grace, particularly by nineteenth and twentieth century theologians? Or is the appeal to Calvin strained and wide of the mark? These are the main questions to which we will seek answers.

Appeal to Calvin

No one did more to develop the doctrine of common grace than the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). The crowning achievement of Kuyper’s articulating the doctrine was his three-volume work De Gemeene Gratie.1 Although there are sur­prisingly few references to Calvin throughout the 1,200 plus pages of this work on common grace, Kuyper makes clear that he consid­ers himself dependent on Calvin for his own understanding of the doctrine of common grace. In his view, Calvin gave clear expression to “the profound idea of this ‘common grace,’” by means of which he “explain(ed) the fact that the heathen and unbelievers so often excelled in great measure in integrity and noble sense.”2 Calvin “made mention of the restraint of sin” and “first emphatically pointed out [this teaching] upon which the entire doctrine of common grace is based.”3 Kuyper laments “the sad fact that ‘common grace,’ after being so definitely confessed by Calvin … nevertheless both in the Reformed confessions and in Reformed dogmatics is as good as en­tirely neglected [after Calvin] ...”4

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was Kuyper’s friend and co-laborer, as well as his successor as Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. Bavinck was as zealous an advocate of common grace as his colleague. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen lauds the contribution of Herman Bavinck to the development of common grace in the Dutch Reformed tradition. In the preface to his transla­tion of Bavinck’s 1894 rectorial address that appeared in the Calvin Theological Journal, Van Leeuwen writes:

One of the finest theological fruits of the Dutch Neo-Calvinist revival in the latter half of the nineteenth century was the rehabilitation and elaboration of the Re­formed doctrine of common grace, which to a large extent had lain dormant since Calvin. The chief agents of this renewed interest in common grace were Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). While Kuyper produced the most extensive treatment of the top­ic in his three-volume De Gemeene Gratie (1902-1904), Bavinck deserves the credit for first developing the doc­trine in a way that laid a theological basis for the broad cultural programs and concerns of the revival. He first broached the subject in his Catholicity of Christianity and Church (1888). But that thematic seed germinated to pro­duce a fuller treatment in his rectorial address at Kampen in December 1894, entitled De Gemeene Genade ...5

Like Kuyper, Bavinck traced the roots of common grace to the re­former from Geneva. He was of the opinion that the doctrine of common grace, which found no place in the Roman Catholic system, “was discovered in the Reformation, notably by Calvin ...”6 It is Calvin “in dependence upon and with an appeal to Scripture [who] comes to distinguish between general and special grace, between the working of the Spirit in all creation and the work of sanctification that belongs only to those who believe.”7

On the occasion of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin in 1909, Bavinck wrote an article entitled “Calvin and Common Grace.” In this article he reiterated his view that Calvin taught the doctrine of common grace.

But of even greater significance is it that with Cal­vin reprobation does not mean the withholding of all grace. Although man through sin has been rendered blind to all the spiritual realities of the kingdom of God, so that a special revelation of God’s fatherly love in Christ and a specialis illuminatio by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the sinners here become necessary, nevertheless there exists alongside of these a generalis gratia which dispenses to all men various gifts.8

According to Bavinck, it was Calvin’s view that “…God immedi­ately after the Fall interposed, in order by His common grace to curb sin and to uphold in being the universitas rerum.”9 In Bavinck’s view, common grace becomes for Calvin the foundation for the Christian life and a reason for the rejection of Roman Catholic mo­nasticism, which was grounded in Rome’s dichotomy between nature and grace.10

Not only in the Netherlands, but also in North America, the defenders of common grace have often appealed to Calvin in an effort to demonstrate the noble bloodlines of the doctrine. This was espe­cially true in Dutch Reformed circles, where the teaching of common grace was hotly debated in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Christian Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was among those who traced the development of common grace to the sixteenth century reformer.

He [Calvin] firmly maintained that the natural man can of himself do no good work whatsoever and strongly insisted on the particular nature of saving grace. He de­veloped alongside of the doctrine of particular grace the doctrine of common grace. This is a grace which is com­munal, does not pardon nor purify human nature, and does not effect the salvation of sinners. It curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, dis­tributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and show­ers untold blessings upon the children of men. Since the days of Calvin the doctrine of common grace was gener­ally recognized in Reformed theology….11

H. Henry Meeter (1886-1963), a fellow Christian Reformed churchman with Berkhof, was equally insistent that the roots of com­mon grace go back to John Calvin. Meeter poses the question:

How shall we solve the problem of the bad which the Bible ascribes to unregenerate men and those ‘excellent’ deeds performed by these same unregenerate and pagan men? And we cannot say of these excellent deeds that they are splendid vices. We cannot call them the products of sin. Sin will not produce such good results.12

The solution, according to Meeter, is common grace, which Meeter traces back to Calvin.13

Yet another Christian Reformed theologian who advanced the position that Calvin is to be credited with being the first to set forth the doctrine of common grace was William Masselink (1897-1973). Masselink’s position was that “[t]he works of John Calvin already contained the doctrine of common grace, although it was not yet developed.”14 To Abraham Kuyper “… belongs the credit of gather­ing the historic material, especially from the works of John Calvin, arranging this material in a system, and showing its practical bearing upon everyday life.” Kuyper was only “the ‘copyist’ of John Cal­vin.” In building on Calvin, Kuyper gave “a brilliant example of how the old Reformed theology must be developed.”15

At the same time that the Dutch Reformed in North America were wrestling over common grace, Presbyterians on this continent began to pay increasing attention to the doctrine. Already before the controversy erupted in the Christian Reformed Church in the 1920s, several Presbyterian theologians wrote concerning common grace. The Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) devoted a fair­ly lengthy section—more than twenty pages—in the second volume of his three-volume Systematic Theology to a discussion of common grace. However, he made no mention of or direct reference to Cal­vin in the entire section.16 In his Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) made only passing reference to what he consid­ered to be Calvin’s distinction between common and special grace, without going into any detail concerning Calvin’s view of common grace itself.17

Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), the Presbyterian theologian whose roots were in the Dutch Reformed tradition, gave more atten­tion to the teaching of common grace. In a number of his writings he discusses common grace and develops the various aspects of the doc­trine. As is the case with other proponents of common grace, Van Til appeals to Calvin as the source of the doctrine in the churches of the Reformation. “Calvin [may be] called the originator, and Kuyper, the great modern exponent of the doctrine of common grace….”18 He speaks of the necessity that “any doctrine of common grace that is to be held by Reformed men” must not only be in accord with “the main body of Reformed doctrine,” but also with “Calvin’s doctrine of common grace.”19 Kuyper and Bavinck, in Van Til’s view, are only the “great modern exponents of Calvin’s views….”20

John Murray (1898-1975), Professor of Systematic Theolo­gy at Princeton Seminary and later at Westminster Theological Semi­nary, was an ardent defender of common grace. He too considered John Calvin to be the first great champion of the doctrine.

In this field of inquiry no name deserves more credit than that of the renowned reformer, John Calvin. No one was more deeply persuaded of the complete depravation of human nature by sin and of the consequent inability of unaided human nature to bring forth anything good, and so he explained the existence of good outside the sphere of God’s special and saving grace by the presence of a grace that is common to all, yet enjoyed by some in spe­cial degree…. On this question Calvin not only opened a new vista but also a new era in theological formulation.21

A contemporary Presbyterian proponent of common grace is the Christian Reconstructionist Gary North. In his book Dominion and Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress, North grounds the Christian Reconstructionist political and social agenda that aims at Christianizing the world in the teaching of common grace. At the outset he expresses the view that “[t]he concept [of common grace] goes back at least to John Calvin’s writings.”22 The use that North and the Christian Reconstructionists make of common grace is, in their view, only the outworking of the groundbreaking work done by John Calvin.

Besides the appeal made to Calvin by various individual theologians, at least one church assembly grounded its pronounce­ments concerning common grace in the teaching of the great church reformer. This appeal to Calvin was made by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. In defense of the “First Point” of common grace, the teaching that there is a favorable attitude of God towards all men and not just towards the elect, and the “Second Point,” the teaching of a restraint of sin in the ungodly, the synod cit­ed three passages out of Calvin’s Institutes.23 Clearly the synod was of the opinion that its definition and description of common grace found support in the theology of John Calvin.

Herman Kuiper’s Calvin on Common Grace

Although the defenders of common grace have generally appealed to Calvin, the most extensive effort to discover in Calvin support for the teaching was made by the Christian Reformed theolo­gian Herman Kuiper (1889-1963). Kuiper’s work entitled Calvin on Common Grace, published in 1928, endures as the only book-length treatment of the subject. In the book, which extends to over 250 pag­es, Kuiper carefully examines Calvin’s Institutes and his commentar­ies in order to collate the reformer’s teaching on common grace. The book contains a virtual catalogue of citations found in the Institutes and in the commentaries that, in Kuiper’s judgment, indicate Cal­vin’s unqualified support for the teaching of common grace. It is no exaggeration to say that Kuiper finds references to common grace throughout the writings of Calvin. He sees Calvin referring to com­mon grace often and in many different contexts. Although Kuiper concedes that “Calvin does not employ the term gratia communis a single time,” and that “in Calvin’s writings there is not a single one which gives something like a comprehensive view of the whole subject,”24 he nevertheless is convinced that Calvin “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.”25 He regarded Calvin as the “father of Reformed theology” and “the acknowledged discoverer of the doctrine of common grace; all the later theologians who have written on common grace have borrowed largely from him.”26 In Kuiper’s view,

… Calvin teaches that God bestows grace not merely upon the elect but also upon men who never attain to sal­vation, yea upon all creatures. Surely he who runs may read that our author [Calvin] holds that all creatures and especially all men are the recipients of countless favors, be it that the great majority remain strangers to that divine grace which makes men participants of life eternal.27

A careful assessment of Kuiper’s book, however, raises seri­ous questions about his argument that Calvin is the father of common grace. Altogether apart from the anachronistic consideration—that common grace was not an issue in Calvin’s day, and was not therefore a matter to which he addressed himself forthrightly—there are other concerns. In spite of the extended argument and the array of cita­tions from Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries, in the end Kuiper’s argument that there can be found in Calvin convincing support for the teaching of common grace is strained, at best, and a failure, at worst.

For one thing, over and over again Kuiper relies on what he judges to be implications of what Calvin teaches. Repeatedly he speaks of what a passage in Calvin “implies,” or, “seems to imply.”28 Similarly, he speaks of the “inference” that can be drawn from Cal­vin, or the “inference that lies at hand.”29 He speaks of what Calvin has written as “suggesting”30 the idea of common grace or providing “some reason to think”31 that Calvin had common grace in mind, or that he “seems to intimate”32 the teaching of common grace.

It is one thing to draw legitimate implications from a theo­logian’s express teaching. But that the main support regarding a po­sition he is alleged to have held relies so heavily on implications and inferences, rather than on his express teaching, certainly makes suspect an appeal to that theologian for support. In the absence of express teaching, the supposed implications and inferences cannot be considered decisive. Besides, implications validly drawn are one thing; arguments from silence are quite another. Too often the impli­cations that Kuiper draws are in reality arguments from silence.33

In the second place, what further weakens the support for common grace that Kuiper finds in Calvin is his frequent confusion of gifts and grace. This confusion appears often in the long list of citations that Kuiper assembles from Calvin. Over and over again he calls attention to statements in Calvin that make reference to God’s bestowing good gifts upon reprobate ungodly men. From these cita­tions, Kuiper draws the unwarranted conclusion that Calvin taught common grace. The underlying assumption that Kuiper makes is that gifts presuppose grace. If God bestows good gifts on the wicked, this implies that He must also be gracious to them. Divine grace is the source out of which the gifts proceed. So goes the argument.

… God dispenses certain gifts of grace which are common to the elect and non-elect. And these latter gifts are called common grace.34

Each individual must regard the intellectual endow­ments which are granted him as an evidence of God’s peculiar grace shown him personally. And it is to be re­garded a manifestation of God’s special grace when some receive more excellent gifts than the bulk of humanity. In all these instances God grants grace indiscriminately to believers and non-believers ...35

… the inference lies at hand that God sometimes be­stows these excellent gifts on men who remain strangers to saving grace.36

… the inference lies at hand that he [Calvin] would have us consider all men recipients of such divine gifts, that is, of grace.37

But that Calvin teaches that God bestows good gifts on the reprobate wicked does not necessarily imply, much less require, the teaching of common grace. The fact that God bestows good gifts on those other than the elect in Christ is not at all the issue. Rather the issue is whether God’s act of bestowing good gifts proceeds from an attitude of favor on God’s part. No one can possibly dispute that Calvin, in line with Scripture, teaches that it is God who gives to the reprobate wicked their life and breath and every earthly thing. This is simply what is included in a robust, which is to say, biblical, confession of the truth of God’s providence. It is quite another thing to teach that behind the good gifts of God stands a certain love and grace of God towards the reprobate wicked who are the recipients of his gifts. Calvin taught the former. That he taught the former is no proof that he taught the latter.

In the third place, Kuiper’s appeal to Calvin in support of the teaching of common grace is weakened by the fact that his argument often begs the question. Kuiper contends that many times when Cal­vin teaches that God loves only the elect in Christ, he is referring not to God’s love absolutely, but only to his salvific love.

Calvin sometimes declares that God loves only the elect believers who are one with Christ. (See e.g. III, 2, 32) At first sight such declarations appear to be flat con­tradictions of what he teaches in other passages to the ef­fect that God also loves men who do not belong to the circle of the elect. (See e.g. II, 16, 3 and 4; Gen. 9:6; Ps. 78:17; 92:10-12; Is. 27:4; 48:14; Lament. 3:33; Jon. 1:13-14; Mal. 1:2-6; Mark 10:21; 2 Pet. 3:9). A little study of the context of these passages will, however, soon make it clear to us that Calvin has reference to the re­deeming love of God with which He embraces only the elect when he declares that God loves no man apart from Christ, and that he speaks in the other passages of a more general and a lesser love with which God favors non-elect men. Besides, there need be no cause for wonder that Calvin sometimes writes as though only the elect are the object of God’s love. For that love which God manifests towards the believers exclusively so far surpasses the love which God bestows on non-elect men that, when the two are compared, it hardly seems proper to term the latter love.38

Kuiper grants that Calvin very often speaks of God’s love for only the elect in Christ. He cites, although he does not quote, a number of passages from the Institutes and commentaries. His explanation is that in these passages Calvin is referring to the saving love of God for the elect alone, not to the general love of God for all men. But this begs the question. This presumes exactly what must be demon­strated, namely, that Calvin makes such a distinction with respect to the love of God. Kuiper presupposes that Calvin consciously distin­guishes between the love of God in these two senses, and that, de­pending on his purpose and the context in which he is writing, refers to the one and not to the other. But this is the very thing that needs proving, whether in fact Calvin makes such a clear-cut distinction, so that when he speaks of God’s love only for the elect in Christ, this does not take away from the fact that he believes that God in another sense loves all men. The fact is that in the passages that Kuiper cites, it does not appear that Calvin would allow such a distinction. Rather, it seems that he precludes the possibility of making such a distinc­tion in as much as he affirms that God loves only His elect people in Christ. God loves “none but his children”;39 God has “clearly mani­fested the greatness of his love towards the children of Abraham...;40 and Scripture “expresses the incredible warmth of love which the Lord bears towards his people….”41 To contend that Calvin is refer­ring only to God’s saving love for the elect, in distinction from which He also maintains a certain love for those who are not His elect, does not do justice to the force of Calvin’s statements. It qualifies Calvin in a way in which Calvin did not qualify himself.

In the fourth place, Kuiper hardly does justice to the many times that Calvin repudiates any notion of a gracious attitude of God towards the ungodly. Kuiper does refer to especially two such statements in Calvin. In dealing with Calvin’s commentary on the prophecy of Isaiah, Kuiper quotes Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 65:20.

‘Here it must also be observed that blessings of soul or of body are found only in the Kingdom of Christ, that is, in the Church, outside of which there is nothing but curse. Hence it follows that all those who are strangers to that kingdom are wretched and unhappy; and however flourishing and vigorous they may seem, they are never­theless in the sight of God rotten and loathsome corpses.’

Kuiper’s response to what Calvin writes here is that “[i]t must be ad­mitted that this statement taken by itself would seem to indicate that Calvin leaves no room for common grace.”42 That is all that Kuiper says in response to what is in Calvin, the alleged father of common grace, a repudiation of common grace. In a similar vein Kuiper later writes:

In explaining [Galatians] 5:22 Calvin states that all virtues, all proper and well-regulated affections, proceed from the Spirit, that is, from the grace of God and the reno­vation which we derive from Christ. Paul here says, as it were, that nothing but what is evil comes from man and that there is no good except it come from the Holy Spirit. For although illustrious examples of gentleness, faithful­ness, temperance and generosity have often been seen in unregenerate men, yet it is certain that these were but de­ceptive masks. Curius and Fabricius were distinguished for courage, Cato for temperance, Scipio for kindness and gen­erosity, Fabius for patience; but it was only in the sight of men and with respect to the valuation placed upon them as members of civil society, that they were thus distinguished. But in the sight of God nothing is pure, but what proceeds from the Fountain of all purity.

To which Kuiper’s response is:

Here Calvin seems to contradict flatly what he has elsewhere taught concerning the virtues of the heathen as products of the grace of the Spirit.43

In fact, Calvin does not merely “seem” to contradict the notion of a grace of God towards the ungodly; he does actually contradict it. The “seeming” contradiction in Kuiper’s mind arises out of his misread­ing of Calvin, a misreading that mistakenly attributes to Calvin the teaching of common grace. Then there is in Calvin not “seeming” contradiction, but very real contradiction.

There are many passages in Calvin, besides those quoted by Kuiper, in which he flatly contradicts the teaching of common grace. Commenting on Psalm 1:1, Calvin says:

The greater part of mankind being accustomed to de­ride the conduct of the saints as mere simplicity, and to re­gard their labour as entirely thrown away, it was of impor­tance that the righteous should be confirmed in the way of holiness, by the consideration of the miserable condition of all men without the blessing of God, and the conviction that God is favourable to none but those who zealously devote themselves to the study of divine truth.44

Calvin also has some significant things to say regarding any possible favor on the part of God towards the ungodly in his comments on Psalm 73. In connection with verse 3 of the Psalm he says:

In the same way, the prosperity of the wicked is taken as an encouragement to commit sin; for we are ready to imagine, that, since God grants them so much of the good things of this life, they are the objects of his approbation and favour.45

Calvin explicitly rejects the thinking that God’s good gifts bestowed on the wicked are an indication of His favor towards them, which is exactly the teaching of common grace. In connection with verse 17 of the same Psalm he cautions:

If, on the contrary, we do not perceive any punish­ment inflicted on them [the ungodly] in this world, let us beware of thinking that they have escaped, or that they are the objects of the Divine favour and approbation; but let us rather suspend our judgment, since the end or the last day has not yet arrived.46

Calvin insists that in evaluating the prosperity of the ungodly, we must beware of the thinking that concludes that “they are the objects of the Divine favour….” He could hardly be clearer in his rejection of the thinking of common grace.

In connection with his comments on Psalm 92:11, Calvin ex­horts the children of God:

When staggered in our faith at any time by the pros­perity of the wicked, we should learn by his [the psalm­ist’s] example to rise in our contemplations to a God in heaven, and the conviction will immediately follow in our minds that his enemies cannot long continue to tri­umph.47

It happens, says Calvin, that the believer staggers in his faith at the prosperity of the wicked. Especially is he susceptible to staggering spiritually when the prosperity of the wicked is coupled with the be­liever’s own experience of distress, loss, and persecution. He stag­gers in his faith because he supposes that God is favorable to the wicked, the prosperity of the wicked being the evidence of God’s favor toward them. But when the believer is inclined thus to stagger, Calvin exhorts, he must never lose sight of the fact that the wicked are God‘s enemies, and that those who are God’s enemies “cannot long continue to triumph.”

Kuiper offers an explanation for what he considers to be a clear contradiction in Calvin’s teaching, that whereas sometimes Cal­vin insists that God is gracious only to the elect in Christ, at other times he speaks of God’s grace for the non-elect.

To be sure, we do come across a number of contra­dictions which are more apparent than real. And in so far as we meet with real contradictions, these are contradic­tions which bear the character of paradoxes which Calvin himself acknowledges, paradoxes which, in our author’s view, are involved in the teaching of the Scriptures which he sought to expound.48

A bit later, Kuiper writes:

With regard to these contradictions we readily ac­knowledge that they are not merely seeming contradic­tions. They are real contradictions. We may as well try to budge a mountain of solid granite with our finger than endeavor to harmonize these declarations. There is noth­ing left for us but to agree that Calvin’s writings contain irreconcilable paradoxes.49

Paradox—this is Kuiper’s explanation for the contradictions he perceives in Calvin. Calvin, whose “logical mind” Kuiper praises at the beginning of his book, a “logical mind [that] could not put up with a dualism between nature and grace…,” could rest in flatly con­tradictory statements with regard to God’s attitude toward reprobate wicked men. It is not, says Kuiper, that Calvin spoke imprecisely or unadvisedly at times. It is not that Calvin did not always express himself in a consistent manner over the span of years of his active ministry and throughout his voluminous writings. But Calvin spoke paradoxically. He was content to maintain what he knew to be con­tradictory positions and deliberately held these contradictory posi­tions in tension with each other, according to Kuiper. One wonders how satisfying, even to Kuiper, this explanation could have been. It certainly does not seem possible that this would have been satisfying to John Calvin.

But what raises further doubts about the strength of the sup­port for the teaching of common grace that Kuiper finds in Calvin is the question of how such a doctrine squares with the overall teaching of Calvin. The issue is not merely what Calvin says in a particular place and in a given context. But the greater issue is the overall teaching of Calvin. The question is: Does the teaching of common grace fit comfortably within the contours of the main teachings of Calvin? That issue Kuiper does not face in his book Calvin on Com­mon Grace. How, for instance, can the teaching of common grace be squared with Calvin’s insistence on the sovereignty of grace? How can it be squared with his insistence on sovereign predestination, the will of God that makes distinction between men from eternity and for eternity? How can it be squared with the immutability of God? How can it be squared with the total depravity of man? How can it be squared with a definite atonement, the scope of which and the benefits of which are for the elect alone? These important issues are not addressed in any significant way by Kuiper in his overview of Calvin’s teaching. Because he does not fit his view of Calvin’s teach­ing on common grace into the larger scheme of Calvin’s overarching theology, Kuiper’s argument that Calvin teaches common grace is exaggerated and forced. In the end, it raises more questions than it answers.

The Contemporary Assessment

A number of contemporary scholars, some of them propo­nents of the teaching of common grace, acknowledge the slender support for the doctrine that can be found in the great reformer John Calvin. It may even be said that there is an emerging consensus that the teaching of common grace, at least the common grace of Abraham Kuyper and of Reformed theology after Kuyper, cannot be rooted securely in the teaching of Calvin. And there is growing recognition of the fact that the main tenets of Calvin’s theology are at odds with various aspects of the teaching of common grace.

Hendrikus Berkhof (1914-1995) has been a very influential contemporary theologian in the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, serv­ing for many years as a Professor of Theology at the University of Leiden. Assessing the theology of Abraham Kuyper, Berkhof has written that “[i]n theology—apart from his broad development of the doctrine of common grace—Kuyper closely followed the Calvinistic tradition, even in its scholastic form.”50 Notice that it is Berkhof’s judgment that in his development of the doctrine of common grace, Kuyper was not strictly following the Calvinistic tradition, that is, he was not following Calvin. Kuyper’s development of common grace was not a flowering forth of seeds planted by Calvin, nor an outwork­ing of principles clearly articulated by Calvin.

In 1898 Dr. Abraham Kuyper lectured at Princeton Theologi­cal Seminary under the auspices of the L. P. Stone Foundation. His six lectures—the “Stone Lectures,” as they are commonly referred to—were subsequently published in book form under the title Lec­tures on Calvinism.51 The centennial of the Stone Lectures brought a spate of articles and books reflecting on Kuyper’s lectures, as well as his contributions to Reformed theology generally. One of these books was Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, by Peter S. Heslam. Regarding the Stone Lectures, Heslam notes that “[a]lthough the doctrine of election, or predestination as Kuyper preferred to call it, is often considered to be the most characteristic element of Calvinistic theology, Kuyper gave no special attention to it in his exposition of Calvinism in the Stone Lectures.”52 What received emphasis in the Stone Lectures was the doctrine of common grace and the application of the doctrine of com­mon grace.

The theologians at Princeton Seminary would have been familiar with the traditional teachings of the Reformed faith. Kuyper aimed to challenge them to regard these teachings not as dogmas to be defended, preserved, and contained within the confines of the institutional church, but as dynamic principles which, once released into the world, had the power to trans­form it.

To which he immediately adds:

The one exception to this pattern was the doctrine of common grace, which was not normally considered one of the essential or fundamental doctrines of Calvinism, and does not occupy a prominent position in Calvin’s the­ology. In arguing for the centrality of this doctrine in the Calvinistic worldview, Kuyper was making explicit an element that was implicit in Calvin’s thought.53

Throughout his book, Heslam minimizes, and even brings into ques­tion, the strength of the support that Kuyper found for his teaching of common grace in Calvin.

Although Calvin’s ideas thus provided Kuyper with a solution to the problem of the value of non-Christian sci­ence, they did not do so by means of a fully fledged doctrine of common grace, as Kuyper’s appeal to Calvin implies.54

Thus the doctrine of common grace, which is not a major element in traditional Calvinistic theology, became, under the influence of Kuyper’s objectives, a doctrine of overriding and central importance. His insistence on the centrality of this doctrine in the Calvinistic worldview was an attempt to make explicit an element that was im­plicit in Calvin’s thought, and to give systematic expres­sion to an aspect of Calvin’s theology that had none of the coherence Kuyper ascribed to it.55

This partly accounts for the fact that some of the se­verest criticisms to be unleashed against Kuyper’s program from within Reformed circles were that he had broken with traditional Calvinism [in his development of common grace], despite his assurances that he aimed to modernize only the application of Calvin’s theology, not its contents. The result of this modernization may justifiably be called ‘neo-Calvinism’ and cannot be taken as an accurate and re­liable guide to the theology of John Calvin.56

James D. Bratt indicates the same sort of uneasiness over Kuyper’s appeal to Calvin and the early Reformed tradition in sup­port of his teaching of common grace.

Kuyper’s farthest-reaching work in this vein was doubtless his elaboration of the Reformed doctrine of com­mon grace. His conservative opponents complained that his was more ‘invention’ than elaboration, for Kuyper by his own admission greatly expanded and systematized what earlier Reformed theologians had left as hints and pieces.57

Richard J. Mouw is an enthusiastic contemporary proponent of common grace. In the fall of 2000, Mouw presented the annual Stob Lectures on the campus of Calvin College and Calvin Theologi­cal Seminary. His lectures were later published as He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace. Mouw argues that “[i]t is certainly possible to find comments in his [Calvin’s] writings that could encourage the development of a doctrine of common grace.”58 In spite of this, it is Mouw’s opinion that the opponents of common grace “can legitimately claim nonetheless to be working within the general contours of Calvin’s thought.”59

David R. Van Drunen, Professor of Sys­tematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary Cal­ifornia, has recently voiced the judgment that:

Common grace is a doctrine in Kuyper’s theology that finds no exact precedent in the Reformed tradition. Although earlier Reformed theologians spoke of God’s sustaining the world in general and his preservation and blessing of civil society in particular, they did not use common grace as a distinct and organizing category.60

If Kuyper’s common grace theology finds no exact precedent in the Reformed tradition, then his attempt, as well as later theologians’ determined attempts, to trace the teaching back to the great reformer of Geneva is certainly discredited.


The effort to establish a clear line of development of the doctrine of common grace from John Calvin to Abraham Kuyper and the contemporary proponents of the doctrine of common grace is unsuccessful. It must be admitted, of course, that from time to time Calvin does speak of a “peculiar grace” of God towards the ungodly, a “peculiar grace” of God that accounts especially for the outstanding natural abilities that certain ungodly persons possess, and the noble virtues that they frequently exhibit. Along with this is Calvin’s confusion sometimes of providence and grace. What Calvin at times describes as a fruit of the grace of God working in the heathen is really a fruit of God’s providence. Calvin did not al­ways carefully distinguish these two things, and thus did not always clearly distinguish between gifts and grace. “Evidence clearly tes­tifies,” says Calvin, “to a universal apprehension of reason and un­derstanding by nature implanted in men.” In this, he goes on to say, “every man ought to recognize…the peculiar grace of God.”61 And a bit later he writes:

Some men excel in keenness; others are superior in judgment; still others have a readier wit to learn this or that art. In this variety God commends his grace to us, lest anyone should claim as his own what flowed from the sheer bounty of God.62

But that Calvin expressed himself somewhat ambiguously and imprecisely at times is not yet to say that Calvin intentionally established the foundation for the doctrine of common grace, laying the groundwork on which later theologians would erect the imposing structure of common grace. He did not. One cannot find in Calvin a love of God for all men in general, a love that includes also the repro­bate wicked. One cannot find in Calvin a grace of God that mitigates the depravity of the natural man. One cannot find in Calvin a grace of God for mankind generally resulting in the creation of a God-glo­rifying culture. One cannot find in Calvin a grace of God towards all men that is the basis for friendship between and cooperation of the believer and the unbeliever, the church and the world. This is not John Calvin. But this is Abraham Kuyper, the father of common grace in the Reformed churches. Kuyper and those who followed him cannot legitimately appeal to Calvin for support of their doctrine of common grace. On the contrary, Calvin may be rightly appealed to in opposi­tion to the teaching of common grace. Indeed, Calvin may be appealed to in order to establish common grace’s fundamental break with the Reformed tradition.

It is undoubtedly the case that those on both sides of the issue of common grace will continue to claim authority for their respective posi­tions in John Calvin. And there will continue to be disagreement over whether or not support for the teaching can be derived from Calvin. This state of affairs is not likely to change. What ought to be clear, however, is that the strong support for common grace that is sometimes alleged in Calvin is lacking. And what ought to be clear is that the common grace of Abraham Kuyper and his disciples cannot justifiably be considered to be the explicit setting forth of that which was implicit in Calvin. Calvin would not only have been uneasy with various aspects of Kuyper’s com­mon grace, he would have repudiated them. For, according to Calvin, “Those most certainly are the farthest from glorifying the grace of God, who declare that it is indeed common to all men….”63


1 Abraham Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, 3 vols. (Amsterdam: Hovek­er & Wormser, 1902-1905). This set has not been translated from the Dutch into English. All translations of the Dutch are mine.

2 Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, 1:6.

3 Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, 1:248.

4 Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, 2:97.

5 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Translator’s Introduction.” This introduc­tion is a preface to Van Leeuwen’s translation of Bavinck’s rectorial address. The translation appears under the title “Common Grace,” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 24, no. 1, April 1989. The above quotation appears on p. 35.

6 Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 39.

7 Bavinck, “Common Grace,” 51.

8 Herman Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” trans. Geerhardus Vos and included in Calvin and the Reformation: Four Studies by Emile Doumergue, August Lang, Herman Bavinck, Benjamin B. Warfield (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1909), 117.

9 Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” 118.

10 Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” 120ff.

11 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, repr. 1996), 434.

12 H. Henry Meeter, Calvinism: An Interpretation of Its Basic Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), 70.

13 Meeter, Calvinism, 69, 71.

14 William Masselink, General Revelation and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), 187.

15 Masselink, General Revelation, 187f.

16 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, repr. 1970), pp. 654-675.

17 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Phillipsburg: P & R Pub­lishing, 3rd edition, 2003), 361.

18 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley: Presby­terian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1977), 12.

19 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyte­rian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), 177.

20 Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 182.

21 John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Mur­ray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 2:94.

22 Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), 4.

23 Acts of Synod 1924 of the Christian Reformed Church, trans. Hen­ry De Mots (Grand Rapids: Archives of the Christian Reformed Church, 2000), 127

24 Herman Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace (Oosterbaan & Le Coin­tre, Goes, Netherlands and Smitter Book Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1928), 177.

25 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 2.

26 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 1.

27 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 177.

28 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 3, 6, 8, 18, 29, and many others.

29 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 13, 18, and others.

30 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 20, 23.

31 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 29.

32 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 172.

33 Instances of this would be Kuiper’s contention that Calvin’s com­ments on Ephesians 1:22 imply that as the Head of the church, Christ is the administrator of common grace (Calvin on Common Grace, 166), or that the apostle’s command in I Timothy 4:3 that meats are to be received with thanksgiving imply that the very worst men are fed by God’s blessing (Cal­vin on Common Grace, 168).

34 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 179.

35 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 18.

36 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 7.

37 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 16.

38 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 215.

39 John Calvin, A Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, repr. 1957), 2:399.

40 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James An­derson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, repr. 1963), 3:242.

41 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 2:250.

42 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 100.

43 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 165.

44 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James An­derson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, repr. 1963), 1:2.

45 Calvin, Psalms, 3:126.

46 Calvin, Psalms, 3:143.

47 Calvin, Psalms, 3:502.

48 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 215.

49 Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace, 223.

50 Hendrikus Berkhof, Two Hundred Years of Theology: Report of a Personal Journey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), 109. The italics in the quotation are mine.

51 Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., repr. 1975).

52 Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 116.

53 Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, 140.

54 Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, 178.

55 Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, 259.

56 Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview, 260.

57 James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 165.

58 Richard J. Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Com­mon Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 15.

59 Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair, 18.

60 David M. Van Drunen, “Abraham Kuyper and the Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Tradition,” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 42, November 2007, 299.

61 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mc­Neill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2.2.14.

62 Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.17.

63 John Calvin, Calvin’s Calvinism: Treatises on the Eternal Predesti­nation of God and the Secret Providence of God, transl. Henry Cole (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, repr. 1987), 30.

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