Posts Tagged ‘common grace’

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.

 

Common Grace, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to wrestle with as we seek to build a Christian philosophy of education is how much good, if any, is there in non-believers? This comes up for two reasons–

1) I want an approach to education that works not just for believing children and the children of believers but for all children. If we are going to educate such children, we need to know if they are even capable of recognizing and accepting what is good and true.

2) A lot of what passes for human knowledge comes to us through non-Christians. Can we accept such knowledge and if so, how? How are we to view things that seem good and true but come to us through fallen, unredeemed minds?

The underlying question behind both of these is: How do we reconcile that good that unredeemed men seem to do with the doctrine of total depravity? The answers which are usually given involve the phrase “common grace.”

I came to faith some 25 years ago and to a more reformed understanding maybe 5 to 7 years after that. Along the way I acquired some notion of “common grace” though I honestly can’t ever remember having specific teaching on the topic.  If you’d asked me anytime in the last 20 or so years, the first thing that would have come to mind is “rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (my half-remembered recollection of Matthew 5:45). Reformed theology always seemed to say: “Man is fallen and, apart from the saving faith which comes through grace, is incapable of choosing or doing good but common grace means that it is not really quite so.”  This is not a very satisfying explanation but somehow in those 20 or so years I never had cause to push farther and sort it all out. This is me pushing farther.

Among the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One of the many things I realized reading Van Til’s work is that there is probably a lot more to common grace than I realized:

“Common grace does not overlook ultimate differences  . . .  On the contrary, common grace helps to point out that things which look alike are not ultimately alike.” (Van Til, p. 191)

For Van Til, the goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator originally intended. Education works within that plan. Common grace also works within that plan.

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, p.91)

There are two aspects here to common grace: It is part of the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 1:20) and it is the outworking of God’s design for all creation. He uses the unsaved in this plan as He used Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), Pharaoh (Exod. 7:3), and Cyrus king of Persians (2 Chr. 36:22-23).

Philip Ryken makes a similar argument:

” . . .God accomplishes his gracious purpose in the world even through non-Christians. Their work, their science, and their artistry being some glory to God, even if that is not their explicit intention.” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006) p. 36

If this understanding of common grace is correct (and I will revisit it in part 2; these are somewhat provisional answers for now), how would this affect our answers to the two questions above? With regard to the latter — how we are to understand the truth and beauty which seem to come to us through non-Christians — the answer seems to be that they, like Cyrus, are capable of doing “good” insofar as God uses them within the larger framework of His plan. Like Joseph’s brothers, their intentions may not be good, and we know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11:6), but to the extent that their works are part of the divine plan they are good because they work to that end. Van Til acknowledges that in both the arts and sciences non-Christians can make real contributions.

The first question was: How can we educate the unredeemed? Is education effective without saving faith? The (again, provisional) answer seems to be that education, as it contributes to God’s overarching plan, is part of that call which goes out to the whole world. By itself, it cannot save, but, like the sower casting his seeds (Matt. 13:1-9), we are to spread it abroad and it is up to God where it shall take root.

I like both these answers. They feel true. But there are some ifs involved — if I am understanding Van Til correctly and if he is giving a reliable picture of mainstream reformed thought. So my next step in this — and what we will cover in part 2 — is to look at some other writers and to see if their take on common grace, and their answers to these questions, follow the same lines.

Until then,

Nebby

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