Kuyper on Church and State II

The Doctrine of Common Grace

Rev. C. A. Lingbeek
This article originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Kerk, no. 1844, February 7th, 1924

We have now come to the entirely newly conceived doctrine of Dr. Kuyper, which he was accustomed to refer to by the name of the doctrine of common grace. We say again: the entirely newly conceived doctrine of Dr. Kuyper.

Now Kuyper does indeed refer to one or two lines of Calvin’s Institutes where he wishes to free up a place for it in the old Reformed doctrine. But if one now considers that Calvin’s Institutes is a thick folio of, in our Dutch translation, almost 900 pages, and that all that Dr. Kuyper has found in it that hints at his doctrine of common grace is contained in two lines; and when one considers that everything Calvin has taught in those other 900 pages minus those few lines, runs in a completely different direction than the direction Dr. Kuyper started and which he finds indicated in those two lines of Calvin, then it is obvious for the impartial person to say: Dr. Kuyper searched through Calvin’s work with a magnifying glass to find something in it that could palliate or justify his deviation from Calvin’s teaching. And then we might safely speak of the doctrine of Common Grace as Kuyper’s doctrine.

Of course we do not discuss this doctrine of Common Grace here in itself or in its entirety, but only insofar as it relates to our present subject: the relation of Church and State.

We begin, then, by remarking that no one will deny that there are two kinds of things in the life of man, especially of the Christian man; things pertaining to the natural life, and things pertaining to the life of grace. In the first place the things of natural life, such as food and drink, work and rest, civil government with police and administration of justice, and many other things besides. These things are accounted to natural life because they have their existence apart from the saving grace of God.

In the second place we mentioned the things of the life of grace, and among them we name the church, indeed the entire Christian religion, with all that essentially belongs to it. And we call them things pertaining to the life of grace, because without saving grace they would not be.

In the second place, it is manifest that there is also a twofold revelation or self-communication of God; a general, as it is called, and a special revelation. General revelation is that revelation which God the Lord gives in some measure to all men; inwardly, through an innate sense of the God-existence, which is proper to all nations, even to the pagans; outwardly, by what nature itself teaches to men, for the heavens declare to us the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork; Day unto day utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19). And the prophet exhorts us to lift our heads up high, and look there, not only to see that marvelous starry sky, but also to see Him who made all these things, who brings forth their host in number, who calls them all by name (Isaiah 40).

Special revelation, on the other hand, is that revelation of God which is given in the Holy Scriptures; this is the portion only of those who live under the Word.

Thirdly, there are also two kinds of goodness or gracious disposition of God; there is a general goodness which the Lord God shows to all men without distinction, for He is good to all, it says, and His goodness is over all His works. He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and rains on the just and the unjust. He opens His hand and satisfies every living thing according to His good pleasure. And it is not only material gifts which He gives in His general goodness. Has he not, even among the pagans, given many beautiful gifts, both of understanding and heart, of which even we may yet learn, and which may refresh and shame us?

Indeed, if God were to withdraw His hand wholly from our humanity, only then would we realize how much we now owe to His general goodness for body and soul, for house and country and people.

We often thoughtlessly sing that dreadful word in the psalm: The wicked people are turned almost to ashes; It shall be in His sight as wax, that melteth before embers [Psalm 68, verse 1, rhymed version of 1773].

Well, how is it that the whole world, with all that is in it, with all its sins, that we too are not yet turned to ashes, neither are we melted as wax, but that we dwell in our houses, and that flowers still bloom before our feet, that along with all sin there is still friendship and love among men, and art and science and so many other good things? The prophet gives this answer: “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed” [Lamentations 3:22].

There is therefore a general goodness of God!

But now, in addition to that general goodness, there is a special goodness or gracious disposition of God. It is that grace which moved Him to give His beloved Son as one and only Redeemer, and whereby He gathers to Himself out of the sinful world a people that in Him finds forgiveness of guilt and redemption from the power of sin, yea, in him finds the Father of all mercies, and his Father, and all that is really glorious. The apostle speaks of it in the finest words of “glory and honor,” and “the end, eternal life.”

In short, then, once again: there is a triple twofold.

1. There is in our lives an area of natural things and an area of spiritual things.

2. There is a general revelation of God and there is a special revelation.

3. With our God there is a general goodness which He shows to all people in greater or lesser degree; and there is a special grace which He only shows to those He wishes to bring to the knowledge of Him, to communion with Him, to service for Him, and also truly does so. And in this, to salvation.

And now for us, this is the question: how do these things so distinguished relate to each other?

Now, if we without thinking let ourselves be seduced by the sounds, we would immediately be ready with our answer and say: Well, that’s simple! To the area of natural life belongs also the light of nature or General Revelation, both of which spring from the General Goodness of God. And to the area of the life of grace belongs Special Revelation, and both of these spring from the Special Grace of God.

One might put it like this: In God the Lord

there is a General Goodness to all men. By virtue of that universal goodness He endows all with the light of General Revelation. That light of General Revelation shines upon the area of natural life.there is a special grace to His elect unto salvation. By virtue of that special grace He endows only His known people with the light of His Word. That light of God’s Word sheds its light over the area of the life of grace.

I say: one might thoughtlessly, led by the sounds, arrive at such a construction of things.

In that case it would be simple to determine the relation between those things. But …. one would be getting it completely wrong.

For, just to mention one thing: to saving grace, which God the Lord alone bestows upon his children, pertains not only the revealed Word but also the light of nature, for as our confession teaches, we know God from nature and from Scripture. And to the general goodness of God, which He more or less demonstrates to all, pertains not only the light of the natural knowledge of God, but in many cases the Word as well. For the Word is to some a savor of life unto life, but to others a savor of death unto death. And furthermore: to those whom it has been given, that Word of God sheds light not only on the area of the life of grace but also on the area of natural life as well. What kind of Bible would that be that we could close when it came to natural things? Then it would justly be: pious in the church, godless in life! As if godliness were not profitable for all things! [1 Timothy 4:8]

We see, then, that the above conception of the mutual relation of these things is quite wrong. What there lies separated by a line, is in reality intertwined, like this:

In God the Lord

there is a Special Goodness to His people. That Special Goodness endows the known of the Lord with the Word and with the light of nature, and thereby brings them to the true knowledge and fear of the Lord. That Word which leads them to saving faith is theirs for faith and life, for things spiritual and natural, a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path.there is a General Goodness to all. That General Goodness endows all who live under the Word with the Word, and them and others with the light of nature as well. That Word, though it does not lead them to salvation, yet plainly makes known to them God’s will, both in salvation and in the things of natural life.

If we now run through that list, we see that civil government belongs to God’s general gifts of grace, but that it is by no means given natural light exclusively. Civil government belongs to the area of natural life, but in that area are both the children of God and the children of this world, and the authority of the Word of the Lord God applies for that area as well, and not just natural light.

That is what all the old Reformed teachers taught! In contrast, what does Dr. Kuyper teach? As we saw: Dr. Kuyper does not start from the Word that applies to all who hear it. No, he assumes the rebirth. Only when a man is born again does the Word speak. That is why he now also releases the government as such from the bond of the Word, for, so he always said: civil government is not born again and therefore has no organ for the things revealed in God’s Word. That government therefore remains in the twilight of natural light (see Our Program, § 51).

Naturally, this brings Dr. Kuyper into difficulties.

If he acted like the Anabaptists, he would treat all civil government as an institution of Satan which he would seek to overthrow, or which, like the Anabaptists, he would avoid. But no, he is too practical and too political for that; he with his people would very much like to have a seat in government.

But …. according to him, civil government only has the natural light. And the Christian has his Bible. His Bible, which (Dr. Kuyper does not deny) was given to him as a light, both for natural life and the life of grace.

How then can the Christian faithfully before God administer the office of civil government?

And now comes this solution: civil government indeed only has the natural light, but the persons who are invested with government office, if they are Christians, have to conform to the light of God’s Word.

In other words, for them as government only the natural light pertains.

But for them as Christian persons, the Word pertains.

And so, even if the Word does not officially apply to civil government, government persons, if they are born again, remain bound to the Word in their conscience (Our Program, § 51, articles 3ff.).

We therefore believe that we can graphically represent Dr. Kuyper’s opinions as follows:

In God the Lord

there is a general goodness (common grace). This general goodness gives the sinful person natural life. For that natural life, man is now given the light of natural knowledge of God.there is a special goodness (saving grace). That special grace bestows upon the elect sinner the life of grace of the rebirth. For that life of grace the regenerate is given the light of God’s Word, to which, however, he is also bound for the field of natural life, albeit not officially but only in his conscience.

Here we clearly see the Anabaptist trait: natural life and what belongs to it, detached from religion and thus from the official authority of God’s Word. And afterwards, since one does not wish to give up the world and authority completely, the greatest possible power and influence is to be captured for the born-again.

God’s Word is not to rule directly over all; nay, the born-again must rule over the pagans. Here is yet the savor of Thomas Münzer and Jan van Leyden!

The next installment will compare Neocalvinism with the Independency of John Owen.