Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Write-Up: Common Grace, volume I, by Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper.  Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World.  Volume I: The Historical Section.  Ed. Jordan J. Ballor and Stephen J. Grabill.  Transl. Nelson D. Kloosterman and Ed M. van der Maas.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch minister, a member of Parliament, and a prime minister.  He also founded the Free University in Amsterdam.  Many Christians have quoted his statement that “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

In this first volume of Common Grace: God’s Gifts for the Fallen World, Kuyper explains the Christian (albeit not held by all Christians) doctrine of Common Grace.  Common Grace asserts that God is not only at work in the lives and hearts of Christians, but in the lives and hearts of non-Christians, as well.

How is God involved in the lives and hearts of non-Christians, according to Kuyper?  First, God restrains them from being as bad as their fallen, depraved nature would lead them to be.  Second, Common Grace explains how the Fall has not completely defaced human intelligence or the ability to make cultural achievements, to live long and healthy lives, or to have some measure of virtue.  Third, Common Grace includes God’s preservation and blessing of the world.  As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, God sends rain to the just and the unjust alike.

Kuyper regards these as features of Common Grace, yet he does not treat Common Grace as an exact science.  Kuyper argues that Common Grace can be manifest in different ways, and that God can vary God’s approach in exercising Common Grace.  The people before the Flood lived for hundreds of years, which is a mark of Common Grace, yet they were exceedingly wicked.  According to Kuyper, God after the Flood restrained human wickedness more than God did prior to the Flood.  Kuyper states that there are people who may manifest intelligence or artistic ability, yet they live in moral turpitude.  Kuyper often notes that there are ambiguities without sufficiently accounting for them, but his notation of them attests to his thoughtfulness.

Why does Kuyper believe that God shows non-believers Common Grace?  One reason is that God wants a society in which God’s elect, the Christians in the church, can exist and thrive.  As far as Kuyper is concerned, the church cannot exist or thrive in a totally chaotic society, so God restrains human evil through Common Grace.  But Kuyper also stresses that God is concerned, not only for the church, but also for the world.  God called Abraham to bless the world, and the church can contribute positively to the larger society.  Moreover, the gifts that God provides to humans through Common Grace give God glory.  Kuyper also maintains that Common Grace somehow prepares the world for the eschaton: the return of Christ to rule.

Why should a person become a Christian, if God is already involved in a non-believer’s life and heart through Common Grace?  Kuyper distinguishes Common Grace from particular, saving grace.  According to Kuyper, God under Common Grace restrains evil in the heart of the non-believer; under particular grace, God defeats evil in the heart of the believer.  Kuyper also thinks that only particular grace can save a person from hell: Common Grace cannot do that, as far as Kuyper is concerned.

Why did Kuyper write this book, which was originally a series of newspaper articles?  Kuyper thought that Common Grace was an important concept that was underdeveloped and neglected.  Kuyper observes traces of the concept in the writings of John Calvin and other Reformed works, yet many Reformed people either focused on particular grace to the exclusion of Common Grace, or they were reluctant to acknowledge Common Grace as an act of divine grace, period.  Kuyper held that the concept of Common Grace was significant in terms of explaining how Christians should view and interact with the world.  Kuyper also was challenging other influential religious and political ideas, such as the tendency of Anabaptists to (in his eyes) withdraw from the world.

Kuyper’s views on the relationship between church and state have been noted by thinkers, and it will be interesting to read what Kuyper says about this topic in other works.  From this particular volume, I observe that Kuyper does believe that secular society should acknowledge God’s authority, on some level.  Kuyper says that society should practice the death penalty specifically because God mandated it in Genesis 9:6.  At the same time, I doubt that Kuyper believed that the state should force non-believers to think and behave like Christians.  My guess is that Kuyper thought that only the people God chose for redemption can think and behave in a regenerate manner, whereas the larger society should be held to a lower standard.  I am open to correction on this, though.

Kuyper in this book surveys biblical history and eschatology.  He thoughtfully engages a variety of questions: How were Adam and Eve like God in knowing good and evil after they ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3)?  What does it mean for humans to be created in God’s image?  (Interestingly, while Kuyper never says in this volume that God has a body, he does maintain that humans’ physical capabilities somehow reflect God’s nature.)  What does Genesis 9:6 mean when it says that whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed?  Is this referring to the death penalty, private vengeance, or what?  How were the people who built the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 expecting to make a name for themselves, when everyone was in that same location?  To whom would they make a name for themselves?  Kuyper thoughtfully engages different perspectives on these and other interpretive issues, even though he rarely identifies the thinkers with whom he is interacting.

The book could be rather scattered, perhaps because it was originally a series of newspaper articles.  I was not always clear about how certain discussions in the book even related to the topic of Common Grace.  There also seemed to be places in which Kuyper conflated, somewhat, God’s particular grace to Christians with God’s Common Grace.  That could be because the Bible sometimes appears to associate God’s love for the world with God’s particular grace towards Christians (i.e., John 3:16).  How (for Kuyper) Common Grace sets the stage for the second coming of Christ and the new heavens and the new earth is also unclear to me.  Kuyper, a la II Peter 3:10, holds that the cosmos will be destroyed in fire at Christ’s return.  Why would God preserve the world for Christ’s return, only to destroy it in fire?  Moreover, how can God love the world, yet condemn (or, for many Calvinists, predestine) so many people to hell?

My areas of confusion notwithstanding, I still found Kupyer in this book to be lucid, winsome, engaging, interesting, and thoughtful.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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