Common Grace, Part 2

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find them all here.

In part 1 of this post, we began to look at the idea of “common grace” as it relates to education. The questions before us are:

  1. Can non-Christians be educated? Are they capable of receiving what is good and true?
  2. Can we learn from non-Christians? How are we to view the seemingly good and true things which they communicate to us?

In part 1, I looked at Cornelius Van Til’s definition of common grace in Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and  Reformed Publishing, 1974). I didn’t want to rely on Van Til alone, however, so I sought out other sources on the topic of common grace. The goal for today is to see if Van Til’s depiction (or perhaps just my understanding of it) is in line with general reformed thought and if there are any further conclusions we can draw with regard to education.

The primary source I am relying on for this post is Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (The Ephesians Four Group, 2017; originally pub. 1932). While Van Til’s work was on education and common grace came into it incidentally, Berkhof’s is from the start a systematic theology. He is a well-known and, as far as I know, a well-respected name. Plus he gives a good introduction to the subject including background material and some discussion of the different views and thoughts.  I will summarize what he has to say and then return at the end to a few of my own thoughts.

Common Grace, a la Berkhof

The doctrine of common grace is one of those which does not arise by name in the Scriptures (a fact which we can not necessarily hold against it as even the Trinity is not named as such). Rather it arises as the solution to a seeming inconsistency:

“The question arose, How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? . . . How can we account for it that sinful man still ‘retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior’? . . . How can the unregenerate still speak the truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives?” (Berkhof, Kindle loc. 10291)

Augustine did not teach common grace. His concern was to show that the “so-called virtues [of heathens] were sins, because they did not spring from faith . . . He denies that such deeds are the fruit of any natural goodness in man” (Berkhof, loc. 10300; cf. Heb. 11:6).

Luther made a distinction between the earthly and heavenly spheres, arguing that unregenerate man can do good in the former but not the latter (loc. 10320).

Calvin, though he does not use the term in the sense we now do (loc. 10340), is the first formulator of the doctrine of common grace as we know it. With Augustine, and against Luther, Calvin “firmly maintained that the natural man can of himself do no good work whatsoever” (loc. 10331). But he did argue for a grace which “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”(loc. 10331).

As we understand it today, common grace is not a separate act of God (loc. 10362) but refers to “(a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him” (loc. 10382).  Berkhof later goes on to list specific outworkings of common grace (loc. 10517) which are:

  • The full brunt of the punishment for sin is delayed.
  • Man’s sinful nature is restrained. At times, we see that God gives the unregenerate over to their evil desires (Rom. 1:24ff) so that we may conclude that other times He does not do so but restrains sin from its full range. 
  • Man retains some sense of the good, true and beautiful. Included in this is man’s natural inclination towards some form of religion.
  • Man performs what is called “civil good.” These are not actual good works as they do not stem from right motives and therefore cannot please God. Nonetheless they are in harmony with the law of God. Common grace does not produce any good in the unbeliever (cf. loc. 10401) but merely restrains evil so that we can agree with Augustine that they are incapable of true good. 
  • Man receives natural “blessings.” This is where the sun and the rain come in (cf. Matt. 5:45). I put “blessings” in quotes, because, though Berkhof uses the word, he is careful to note that God does not bless the unrighteous as such.

Common grace does not change the hearts of men and is not saving. Berkhof ties it to God’s creative work, as opposed to His redemptive work (loc. 10275), while yet arguing that common grace would not be possible without the redemptive work of Christ (loc. 10436). Common grace is “subservient to the execution of the plan of God in the life of the elect and in the development of the Church. But in addition to that it also serves an independent purpose, namely, to bring to light and to harness for the service of man the hidden forces of nature, and to develop the powers and talents that are latent in the human race, in order that man may ever-increasingly exercise dominion over the lower creation, to the glory of God the Creator” (loc. 10466).

Berkhof goes further and gives us some specifics regarding the means of common grace (loc. 10496). They are:

  • God’s general revelation. He includes under this heading man’s conscience.
  • Civil governments which maintain order, promote good and discourage evil.
  • Public opinion. Which is to say that men care what other men think and will alter their behavior to seek approval or avoid disapproval.
  • Just consequences. Actions often have natural consequences. The child who returns a lost item is rewarded. The teen who engages in bad behavior gets a nasty disease.

Common Grace and Education

When we looked at Van Til on common grace, I drew two  (provisional) conclusions:

  • That one aspect of common grace is the call which goes out, through general revelation, to all mankind and that education functions within this call.
  • That the unregenerate, while not able to do good in the sense of pleasing God, do nonetheless make real contributions to the cause of truth and beauty. God uses what they do, often in spite of themselves, to further His ultimate end.

Neither of these is at odds with Berkhof’s conception of common grace as well. Berkhof’s common grace may be more than this, but it is not less. He speaks both of the call of general revelation (loc. 10485, 10600) and of the role of common grace in working out God’s greater plan (loc. 10466). Berkhof does not refer to education as such. My inclination is to place education under “general revelation” in his list of the means of common grace [1]. Education is largely how we know about general revelation.

I began with two questions. I feel that we have gone a long way towards answering the second — there is real truth and beauty that can come to us through non-Christians sources because God uses them as a part of His larger plan. This is not inherent goodness on their part as without faith they are unable to please God. They may often be unaware or unwitting cogs in His plan. I think we will need to talk more about when and how and if to use non-Christian resources when we get to some of the more practical details of education. For now I am willing to say that we should not reject outright all things that come to us through non-believers but that we must approach them with caution, testing them as we would any new teacher (1 John 4:1-6; for a little introduction to this topic, check out this sermon).

The other question was about our students — Can we present what is good and true to them if they are unregenerate? Are they able to receive what we present and to be educated in any way? We have part of the answer to this — education is subsumed under the call that goes out to all the earth and as such we can and should present it, without prejudice, to all children (indeed, all people), not just to those we know to be saved.

But that it only half an answer; it does not tell us if they are able to receive any of what we present. Of course, we do not know who is among the elect. That is why I say we present education without prejudice — we must not assume this child is saved and that one is not.  That is up to God and does not rely on us or our efforts.

But does education have a beneficial effect, does it make any headway, even among the non-elect? The doctrine of common grace, as Berkhof presents it, would seem to tell us it does. Not that it can produce true goodness but that it can be one of the means God uses to restrain evil.

I have some level of discomfort in saying this. I don’t want us to think that we can educate anyone into being virtuous. If we make virtue our goal — and it is the goal of classical education —  we will go astray. To the extent that education may restrain evil in the non-elect it is not producing real good. That is impossible without saving grace and that it not something we can educate into children.  We desire far more than the appearance of goodness. Ultimately, we desire their salvation and their sanctification. In education, we present God’s general revelation (which is not to say that we don’t also teach the Scriptures of course). There may be some good than comes from this even without saving grace as evil is restrained, but whether that call is effective is beyond us; it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make it take root or not.

Nebby

[1]  Education, especially the education of children, is closely linked with discipline which may in turn be tied to that means which I have called “just consequences.” Parental justice — i.e. discipline — is often the immediate means of divine justice.

 

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cindi on June 3, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    I wanted to quote Brandy Vencel in her recent AfterThoughts “Thoroughly Christian — CM’s 20th Principle.” She’s dealing with parents concerned with their children learning mythology and magic in fairy tales, and whether there is wisdom to be found in Plato and Plutarch, etc., but I think the quote is appropriate to your blog post here, and I am just quoting the last part of it: “. . .we fail to see that God has always and ever been upon the throne, and that every word of wisdom echoes His great thoughts, regardless of whether the person speaking them ever recognizes the fact or not.”

    Reply

  2. […] we have been discussing common grace as affects our understanding of education (see this post and this one). Specifically, I have spent some time trying to answer the question: How shall we educate […]

    Reply

  3. […] A related topic has to do with the sources of knowledge.  On this there is much more agreement. The standard reformed position is that God reveals Himself to mankind in two ways, through the Scriptures and through His Creation.  This really is the justification for education; it is the reason why we bother to study anything other than the Bible. Another implication is that these two sources of God’s revelation cannot ultimately contradict one another, though we may be mistaken in our interpretation of either one. This also justifies the use of non-Christian sources, as I discussed here. […]

    Reply

  4. […] our own is a point which requires some insight. As I have discussed on a number of occasions (see this post), as reformed people we do believe that there is some measure of truth which is revealed to […]

    Reply

  5. […] to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has revealed. (Common Grace, Part 2) […]

    Reply

  6. […] to save. In the life of the unbeliever, common grace ultimately serves only to further condemn (see this earlier post). For a good discussion of prevenient grace and the similarities and differences between […]

    Reply

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