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What Is Common about the Common Good?

John Calvin, reflecting on the truths found in “secular writers,” concluded that “the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts” (Institutes, ii.2.15). Richard Mouw, in He Shines in All That's Fair (the text of his 2000 Stob Lectures), exhorts us to take hold of this insight, lest we miss in this world signs of God's common grace.

Mouw begins with the question, “What is it that Christians can assume they have in common with people who have not experienced the saving grace that draws a sinner into a restored relationship with God?” Answering this question of commonality is of “particular importance” for discerning the form of “Christian involvement in public life in our contemporary context”—that is, for establishing the criteria upon which Christians can engage a pluralistic public square. To address this question, Mouw turns to the “underlying issues” of the often rancorous Dutch Calvinist debates of the early twentieth century. While these debates are little known to the larger Christian community, he believes that they remain of “broad contemporary Christian concern” and can aid evangelicals in fleshing out an approach to cultural engagement.

The Imperative of the Antithesis

Mouw begins with the Christian Reformed Church's 1924 synodical decision, which insisted that, in Mouw's summary,

there is indeed a kind of non-salvific attitude of divine favor toward all human beings, manifested in three ways: (1) the bestowal of natural gifts, such as rain and sunshine, upon creatures in general, (2) the restraining of sin in human affairs, so that the unredeemed do not produce all of the evil that their depraved natures might otherwise bring about, and (3) the ability of unbelievers to perform acts of civic good.

This decision, and the controversial debate it engendered, precipitated the departure from the Christian Reformed Church of the Reverend Herman Hoeksema, a staunch opponent of the concept of common grace, and the establishment of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1925. Why revive seventy-five-year-old debates? Because, Mouw explains, it is a “helpful exercise” that will aid our seeing “what relevance they might have for our current efforts to understand the church's relationship to the broader culture.” Indeed, Hoeksema becomes Mouw's primary foil.

Yet Mouw affirms that there are “good reasons to pay close attention to the dissenters.” Dutch Reformed dissenters such as Hoeksema emphasize “the antithesis,” which Mouw defines as “the radical opposition that characterizes, in Stob's words, the 'real and uncompromising, although uneven, contest between God and Satan, between Christ and antichrist, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, between the church and the world.'” Mouw explains that Hoeksema is critical of the concept of common grace for obliterating these important distinctions. Hoeksema's error, according to Mouw, is that he draws these distinctions between “specific classes of people as such: elect and reprobate, regenerate and unregenerate, believer and unbeliever.” Rather, “the antithesis is not an opposition that holds between the church and the world as such, but between that cause of God and the cause of Satan, each of which can be seen at work in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike.” In truth, “the antithesis, at bottom, is between sin and grace,” and a fully formed doctrine of common grace will remain in healthy tension with the idea of the antithesis.

Grace and the Common Good

But what is the nature of this “grace” in the concept of common grace? More precisely, in Mouw's words,

when our theology of grace focuses on a central way on the marvelous display of unmerited favor that occurred at Calvary, when we fix our sights on the wondrously incomprehensible event of, in Spurgeon's words, “the just ruler dying for the unjust rebel,” do we really want also to use the term “grace” to describe the power that holds molecules together, that superintends the cycles of the seasons, that plants in unredeemed hearts the capacity for composing pleasant melodies, and that fosters in unredeemed people a disposition to live peaceably with their neighbors?

Such a criticism against the idea of common grace was leveled by Hoeksema, who considered the appellation of grace to acts of apparent divine favor upon the unregenerate as tantamount to “using the term 'blessing' to describe the experience of someone who is enjoying 'a nice sleigh-ride on a beautifully smooth and slippery road that ends in a deep precipice.'” Mouw does think we ought to be careful how we describe the “grace” in common grace, yet such use is appropriate. “It is meaningful to describe, for example, the very act of creating the world as a work of grace,” he writes. “All that exists owes its reality to the fact that God looks favorably upon its existence.” Such a divine attitude of non-salvific favor is indeed “a kind of 'grace.'”

The consequences of common grace flowers, for Mouw, when Christians engage their broader culture to promote the common good. “Christians must actively work for the well-being of the larger societies in which we have been providentially placed,” Mouw writes. What is more, “sanctified living should manifest those subjective attitudes and dispositions—those virtues, if you wish—that will motivate us in our efforts to promote societal health.” Applying the concept of common grace alongside these two principles should result in Christians participating in what Mouw terms “common grace ministries,” his shorthand for all the ways in which Christians actively promote God's designs for, and reflect his favorable attitude toward, his creation. In Mouw's example, Christians ought to be concerned about, and may participate in, the reconciliation between estranged non-Christian spouses because such reflects God's intentions for marriage.

A Sufficiently Stable Scaffold?

Early in his lectures, Mouw describes the response of Professor Foppe Ten Hoor, who, while an “elder statesman in the Christian Reformed Church during the common grace controversy of the 1920s,” hesitated to join the debate, stating that “he had studied the problem for forty years, that he felt quite sure that there was such a thing as common grace, but that he did not know what it was.” At the close of his lectures, Mouw confesses that he has reached the same point. The concept of common grace can provide a guide for how Christians can engage their culture to promote God's purposes in the world, but only in an “ad hoc” manner that yields a measure of necessary “messiness.” Indeed, there is a “shroud of mystery over the operations of grace,” common and saving alike.

The difficulty of defining the concept raises an important question: Will such an ad hoc approach yield a sufficiently stable scaffold of principles from which to engage in the important work of cultural engagement? Further, Mouw's embrace of the messiness of common grace leads him to a curious rejection of other traditional concepts promoting cultural engagement: general revelation, natural law, and natural theology. Surely he is correct to caution against an undiscerning appropriation of these concepts, as they do raise important theological issues. Calvinists, he writes, “are nervous about giving the impression that there is something carte blanche about these assessments, or something 'automatic' about the unregenerate person's ability to think good thoughts or to perform laudable deeds.” Thus, we should employ not a “hermeneutic of outright suspicion“ but a ”hermeneutic of caution.” In Mouw's words, “we must proceed with caution, not wanting to miss the true and the good, but realizing that not all that glitters is the kind of ornamentation John Calvin wanted us to see.”

That seems right, but Mouw's reservations toward natural law are confusing, curious, and unfortunate. They are confusing because Mouw never really describes the type of natural-law approach that concerns him; it would have been helpful, though perhaps beyond the scope of his lectures, to provide a natural-law defender with which to interact, as he admirably does with Hoeksema's position against common grace. Further, Mouw's rejection of natural law is curious, for there are resources within the Reformed tradition—most notably in the thought of Calvin, Luther, and their Orthodox successors—to develop a specifically Protestant natural-law doctrine, and Mouw's silence on this point is disappointing. Finally, his rejection of natural law is unfortunate, for a robust and Reformed natural-law theory could have provided a less ad hoc—and more stable—scaffold for the kinds of common grace ministries so dear to his heart and so necessary in our current cultural climate.

Nevertheless, Mouw has done a good job in presenting to the larger Christian world the fruits of a century's exploration of common grace by Dutch Reformed Christians. If Mouw is correct—as I think he is—to state that “contemporary challenges present us with a good opportunity for a broad-ranging, friendly discussion of these various theological resources,” he has presented an excellent introductory contribution to this conversation of catholic concern.