by Steve Bishop
The Reformed paradigm has suffered no damage greater than its deficient development of the doctrine of common grace. – Abraham Kuyper
Common grace is usually associated with the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Henry Van Til even described him as the theologian of common grace. Yet it was Herman Bavinck who first to developed the doctrine theologically. Kuyper later produced three volumes on it (1904 onwards). But Bavinck, in his rectoral address at Kampen University in 1894, was the catalyst for this Dutch revival of a doctrine that was implicit but undeveloped in Calvin.
In the following, I will briefly explore Bavinck’s and Kuyper’s view of common grace. As Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology states: “Up to the present Kuyper and Bavinck did more than anyone else for the development of common grace” (p. 434)
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)
Bavinck deals with common grace primarily in two places (Bavinck, 1894; 1909). For Bavinck common grace is based upon the Scriptures. He maintained the Roman Catholic system has no place for it and that the principle of common grace was (re)discovered in the Reformation by Calvin.
He makes a distinction between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is not single and undivided. It is split into common grace and special grace. Common grace is seen in God’s dealings with Cain. He killed his brother and yet still lives – he experienced grace instead of judgment. Bavinck also cites James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above”, and John 1:9: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” These he suggests are examples of grace common to all. And he notes that there is a rich revelation of God among the heathen:
There is … a rich revelation of God even among the heathen – not only in nature but also in the heart and conscience, in their life and history, among the best statesman and artists, the philosophers and reformers. There exists no reason at all to denigrate or diminish this divine revelation. Nor is it to be limited to so-called natural revelation. – Herman Bavinck
Bavinck’s starting point for common grace was that Christianity was one the one true religion and yet other religions have produced such have a rich and vibrant culture – why is this? This he explained is because of God’s common grace. Similarly, Kuyper posed the question: “Why does the world turn out to be better than expected and the church worse than expected?” Again, the answer was common grace.
Thus, for both Bavinck and Kuyper common grace was not an excuse for cultural activity, but rather an attempt to explain why things were as they were.
Bavinck argues that common grace is different from saving grace. He makes an insightful observation, all religion rests on revelation: “there is no religion without revelation”. It may be “real or supposed revelation”. The difference between Christianity and all other religions is that in other religions humans are seeking God – it may be through asceticism, penance, mysticism, poverty, obedience, chastity, charity and so on; whereas in Christianity it is God who is seeking us. In other religions it is “always up to man [sic] to accomplish his own redemption.”
As Bavinck (1894) observes:
The Reformation could not deny many good things accomplished by the natural man. … Thus it is Calvin, in dependence upon and with an appeal to scripture, comes to distinguish between general and special grace, between the working of the spirit and all creation and the work of sanctification that belongs only to those who believe. God not leave sin alone to do its destructive work. He had and, after the fall, continued to have a purpose for his creation …
Natural life was not sinful. Family life, marriage, the State, science, the arts, scholarship, farming, philosophy could be seen as “divine institutions and as divine gifts …It was possible for the first Christians to do this because of the firm conviction that God is the creator of heaven and earth, who in times past has never left himself without witness to the heathen.”
In his “Calvin and Common Grace,” (1909), he provides a good summary of common grace:
Sometimes a remarkable sagacity is given to men [sic] whereby they are not only able to learn certain things, but also to make important inventions and discoveries, and to put these to practical use in life. Owing to all this, not only is an orderly civil society made possible among men, but arts and sciences develop, which are not to be despised. For these should be considered gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is true the Holy Spirit as a spirit of sanctification dwells in believers only, but as a spirit of life, of wisdom and of power He works also in those who do not believe. No Christian, therefore, should despise these gifts; on the contrary, he should honor art and science, music and philosophy and various other products of the human minds as praestantissima Spiritus dona, and make the most of them for his own personal use. Accordingly, in the moral sphere also distinctions are to be recognized between some men and others. While all are corrupt, not all are fallen to an equal depth; there are sins of ignorance and sins of malice.
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)
Kuyper wrote a series of articles in his Dutch newspaper De Heraut which were later published as De Gemeene Gratie. These are now available in English as Common Grace volumes 1-3. Kuyper made a clear distinction between common and particular grace. Particular, or saving grace, brings salvation; common grace extends to all of creation.
Kuyper continually stressed that there was a clear distinction between particular and common grace. The first abolishes and undoes the consequences of sin completely for the saved; the second does not cause conversion but extends to the whole of humankind. For Kuyper there is a close relationship between the two and separation “must be vigorously opposed”. He uses the illustration of two intertwined branches of a tree with the same root system. The root system is Christ, the first-born of all creation. Kuyper’s position on special and common grace is centred on Christ; he writes: “… there is… no doubt whatever that common grace and special grace come most intimately connected from their origin, and this connection lies in Christ”.
Special grace, he argues, “assumes common grace”. Common grace is only an emanation of special grace and all its fruit flows into special grace. Common grace must have a formative impact on special grace and vice versa. In Common Grace Volume 1 he writes of the interrelationship of particular and common grace: “… the glory of common grace would never have sparkled in its springtime if particular grace had not brought it fully into bloom … particular grace already presupposes common grace; and without common grace any functioning of particular grace would be unthinkable.”
Common grace means that the creation ordinances of dominion and stewardship over creation, given in the cultural mandate before the fall, are not abolished after the fall.
Common grace, on the one hand, curbs the effects of sin and restrains the deeds of fallen humanity; on the other, it upholds the ordinances of creation and provides the basis for Christian cultural involvement. Common grace provides the foundation for culture. The cultural mandate to develop and fill the earth has not been rescinded after the fall into sin. Therefore, cultural withdrawal is not an option for Christians.
It is also important to state what common grace does not imply. It is not saving grace. It is not a denial of total depravity or of limited atonement – Kuyper was an advocate of both. It does not blur the distinction (antithesis) between the regenerate and the unregenerate, between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between the church and the world. It does not mean that all things are permissible.
Common grace does not nullify the antithesis – they are both important aspects of Kuyper’s thought. Though how he holds them together is open to debate. It is important to notice that, for Kuyper, common grace and the antithesis should be kept together.
Kuyper makes it clear that preparation for heaven is not the ultimate goal of life on earth, but rather it is the glorification of God’s name. We are therefore not to withdraw from the world, because we are to bear witness to the world, and to manifest the power of kingdom in the life of the world. In this the working together of particular and common grace is required: “And indeed the working of the one can never reach its ultimate goal without the working of the other” (Common Grace, Vol. 2).
Bavinck, H. 1909. “Calvin & Common Grace.” Translated by Geerhardus Vos. The Princeton Theological Review, 7(3), pp. 437-465.
Bavinck, H. 1989 . “Common Grace”. Translated by R. C. Van Leeuwen. Calvin Theological Journal 24, no. 1 (1989), pp. 35–65.
Kuyper, A. 2011. Wisdom and Wonder. Grand Rapids, MI.: Christian’s Library Press.
Kuyper, A. 2016, 2019, 2020. Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World: Volume 1-3. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Steve Bishop is an independent researcher based in Wales, UK. He maintains the neo-Calvinist website www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk. He is a trustee of Thinking Faith Network and an Associate Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology. He earned his doctorate at the North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa (2019), supervised by Renato Coletto. He is the co-editor of On Kuyper: A Collection of Readings on the Life, Work & Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Dordt Press, 2013).
 Some of this section draws upon Bishop, S. 2020. Abraham Kuyper: Cultural Transformer. Foundations, 79 (Autumn): Online: https://www.affinity.org.uk/foundations-issues/issue-79-article-4-abraham-kuyper-cultural-transformer