A Neo-Calvinist Critique of Common Grace?

The following is an excerpt from the work Christ and Culture by Klaas Schilder (1890-1952), in which Schilder challenges the popular doctrine of “common grace” as developed by Abraham Kuyper. His logic is rather clever here, and it has consequences for our understanding of the Christian’s relationship to non-Christian culture. Is God’s restraint of his judgment against sinners a manifestation of “grace,” or is it merely the necessary consequence of the unfolding of nature through time (itself a necessary precondition for the fullness of God’s judgment against sinners)? Read for yourself:

As the foregoing implies, the mere fact that there is culture and that man performs cultural labour, cannot be classified under so called “common grace.”

This has indeed repeatedly been claimed. Taking the point of view of experience and at the same time making a “guided” effort to take biblical data into account, one then reasoned as follows: Because of the dreadful character of sin and guilt we, men, would have deserved to descend into hell immediately after the Fall. Such a descent, cutting off all development would have served us right. Yet we see before our eyes that the world has continued to exist after the Fall for thousands of years and that the potentialities given in the cosmos are being developed as yet. Is this not “grace”? The answer is then implied: It is indeed grace; it is God’s goodness which He does not owe to us. True, this grace does not redeem unto eternal salvation. Therefore it is called “common”. Yet, it is indeed “grace.” lt gives us the benefit of the restraining of sin. If sin were not restrained it would break out in the most flagrant, directly satanic outpouring of wickedness. However, God stems this wickedness by the “common” operation of His Spirit, even by the common “testimony” of the Spirit, which testimony provides man with certainty, the immediate assuredness concerning some clusters of central truths, this assuredness being pre-reflexive. In this way there falls upon the desert of this world the continually self-renewing dew of common grace, which makes life yet tolerable and even–– by virtue of the “progressive” operation which is peculiar to it–– creates oases in the midst of the desert cultural oases also.

However, in this train of thought there are several twists which weaken the conclusion that the term “common grace” is applicable here.

Certainly it is true that sin is being “restrained” and that the curse has not been fully poured out upon the world. However, the same thing can be said about the obedience which in Christ Jesus was again permitted to become a gift of God’s free grace and which by the power of Christ’s Spirit also was able to become a gift of this favour. Whoever calls the restraining of the curse “grace” should at least call the “restraining” of the blessing “judgment.” But neither of these terms would have a scientific basis. As best they could be used in a non-scientific description of concrete reality, but then next to one another. However, this casual usage in speaking about “common grace” as well as “common judgment” means in itself already a correction of the preference for the term “common grace.”

Certainly there is a withholding (2 Thessalonians 2:6). However, withholding is a feature peculiar to time. Where nothing is “withheld”, there is a possessio tota simul (a possession of life so that one always has the fullness of this possession simultaneously in his hands in full measure) OR a privatio tota simul (a matter of having been robbed a deprivation and then again in such a way that the fullness of this depravation is there totally at every “moment” in full measure). That is to say: wherever there is no withholding there is no temporal existence any longer; there “eternity” is found. For even in paradise there was a “withholding.” If the Spirit of God had been given to Adam without a withholding, then he would have been excluded from the possibility of falling into sin. “Development”–– or otherwise “corruption”–– is a feature peculiar to time. Development and corruption belong to time. The state of being developed and being corrupted (both pleromatically, according to the subject’s nature and capacity) belong to eternity. Consequently the fact that the gifts of creation show development is not grace but nature. There is a stirring “within them” within things, within people. It is something “in” man: the boisterous urge of one who, since he is himself “developing”, seeks to wrest corn and wine from the “developing” earth; that is the urge to “colere,” to cultivate the garden. However that which before the Fall was a religious work of love directed towards God as the Covenant God becomes after the Fall a deed of selfishness of self-preservation of zest for living (a la Pallieter [a Dutch novel whose main character glorifies bodily lusts]), not service to God but self-service. One so often hears about “nature” that one is left with the impression this is dead capital lying there to be used or not to be used by man (and the world). Then one jumps to the conclusion: this world of man deserved to die, namely, to die an eternal death, which as such takes away from all its objects the possibility of any use of capital; yet man is able to “use” “nature,” that is, to cause this dead capital still to yield interest; ergo, this is “grace.”

But this reasoning is altogether faulty as long as “nature” is understood as temporal nature. As long as time exists, mobility, pregnancy and birth, begetting and conceiving, belong to nature. “Dead” capital–– this is here too playful a terminology because it is not relevant to nature-in-time and because it only serves naively to distort the problem in order to be able to conclude that the term “common grace” is indeed applicable.

The problem under consideration, then, is fundamentally a matter of evaluating “time.” It is wrong to think that the prolongation of time after the Fall is a matter of “grace.” One then refers us to the seriousness of sin, arguing that “we” deserved, immediately after the Fall, to be cast into the “lake of fire.” This did not happen; ergo, it is grace. However, one forgets that the first sentence of this argument offers no more than a fable. If fallen man had been cast into the “lake of fire” immediately after the Fall, then “we” would not be there. Then only two people would have been condemned, and no more, no mankind, the subject of the just mentioned hypothetical judgment.

Consequently a great mystery has been revealed precisely in the prolongation of time after the Fall. This prolongation is no grace. It is simple enough to “prove” this: Suppose God had intended to punish only as many people as he will indeed punish eternally, should these people then not have been born first, even successively, the one from the other? So God would have had to prolong time already for the purpose of casting into hell as many objects of His wrath as there will one day be. And not only this. During this time marriages would have had to be contracted; at any rate, the copulation of men and women would have had to occur. Therefore, e.g., an economic equilibrium would have been essential. Culture would have been necessary. Culture is the presupposition of all the works of God, even with respect to hell.

Praise be to God because we know more than only that there will be a hell. A heaven, too, is on the programme of divine action. In order to populate it with as many as God shall call thereunto, prolongation of time is needed, the bearing of children is essential, and consequently labour, in an economic as well as climatological equilibrium, is necessary. But precisely for that reason it is a serious error to designate the prolongation of time and the cultural development of the cosmos as (common) grace.

This prolongation and development are no grace. Nor are they curse or condemnation. That is to say, if one wants to use these terms in a serious way.

They are the conditio sine qua non of both, the substratum of both.

In so far as the urge to develop creation is natural, and in so far as the opening of any womb, even of that of mother earth, is natural, culture is a natural thing. It is the substratum of two extremes: the acquittal of as many as have been predestinated unto this acquittal or the banishment of those who have been foreordained to this banishment.

Grace is not inherent in culture (colere) as such. Nor is grace inherent in eating and drinking as such, or in breathing, or in the begetting of children. Grace, if there is grace, would be inherent only in God fearing colere, eating and drinking, and begetting of children not as dead but as living people.

And the curse does not lie in culture (colere) as such. Nor does it lie in eating and drinking as such, or in breathing, or in the begetting of children. The curse, if there is a curse, would lie only in ungodly colere, ungodly eating, drinking, and begetting of children–– not as living but as dead people.

Within the framework of time after the Fall, the antithesis was inevitable not in nature but in the use of nature, and hence in culture. This is the antithesis between cultural activity in faith and in unbelief.

There is indeed “common” grace in culture (grace for more than one person). But there is no universal (or general) grace for all men. Therefore Abraham Kuyper’s construction was wrong.

There is indeed also a “common” curse in cultural life (a curse shared by more than one person). But there is no universal (or general) curse.

“Common” can sometimes be the same as universal, but it is not necessarily always so. Something can be common to all people, but it can also be common to more than one person, not to all.

In the present scheme “common” is intended to mean: shared by many, not by all people.

There is a common (not: universal) grace in culture, as far as the redeeming work of Christ is shared by all those who are His–– which grace has an effect upon their cultural achievements.

But all the others lie under the common curse. It has been given to the Man of Acts 17:31 to pronounce judgment over them. [pp. 60-64]

So what do you think? Is Schilders’s argument here persuasive? Is it time for neo-Calvinists to give up on common grace?

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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