Calvin, Culture and Common Grace

While not popular in some quarters, I am a firm believer in the doctrine of common grace. The simplest biblical passage on this would be Matthew 5:45: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” See my introductory piece on this here.

The doctrine is especially found in Calvinist/Reformed circles. Before turning to Calvin himself, let me mention just one Reformed writer and literature professor who I had mentioned before in my piece on Christians and fiction.

Leland Ryken in his chapter on “Calvinism and Literature” (found in Calvin and Culture edited by David Hall and Marvin Padgett (P&R, 2010) says this:

As with the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of common grace represents a distinctive contribution of Calvinism to literary theory. Whereas the doctrine of creation speaks particularly to the production of works of literature, common grace relates more to the reading and study of works already composed. Nearly all of the writing on common grace has been produced by theologians in the Calvinistic (and even Dutch) tradition – Calvin himself and names such as Hodge, Berkhof, Kuyper, Van Til, and Osterhaven. The doctrine of common grace holds that God endows all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, with a capacity for the true, the good, the beautiful. Calvin himself is the best starting point…

Before looking at what he said, let me point out that some (certainly Calvin critics) might try to argue that given his views on total depravity, there would be no room for such a thing as common grace. But that is to misunderstand what he said on this. Total depravity does not mean we are all as bad as we can possibly be, but that sin has affected every area of our lives.

Calvin had written about common grace in various places, including in his commentaries. Here I will confine myself to his Institutes. The whole second chapter of Book 2 could be offered here, but I will feature just some relevant quotes from sections 14 to 17:

Next come manual and liberal arts, in learning which, as all have some degree of aptitude, the full force of human acuteness is displayed. But though all are not equally able to learn all the arts, we have sufficient evidence of a common capacity in the fact, that there is scarcely an individual who does not display intelligence in some particular art. And this capacity extends not merely to the learning of the art, but to the devising of something new, or the improving of what had been previously learned. . . . Though natural to all, it is so in such a sense that it ought to be regarded as a gratuitous gift of his beneficence to each. Moreover, the invention, the methodical arrangement, and the more thorough and superior knowledge of the arts, being confined to a few individuals cannot be regarded as a solid proof of common shrewdness. Still, however, as they are bestowed indiscriminately on the good and the bad, they are justly classed among natural endowments.

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.

Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind. For if the skill and knowledge required for the construction of the Tabernacle behaved to be imparted to Bezaleel and Aholiab, by the Spirit of God (Exod. 31:2; 35:30), it is not strange that the knowledge of those things which are of the highest excellence in human life is said to be communicated to us by the Spirit. Nor is there any ground for asking what concourse the Spirit can have with the ungodly, who are altogether alienated from God? For what is said as to the Spirit dwelling in believers only, is to be understood of the Spirit of holiness by which we are consecrated to God as temples. Notwithstanding of this, He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. Lest any one, however, should imagine a man to be very happy merely because, with reference to the elements of this world, he has been endued with great talents for the investigation of truth, we ought to add, that the whole power of intellect thus bestowed is, in the sight of God, fleeting and vain whenever it is not based on a solid foundation of truth. Augustine (supra, sec. 4 and 12), to whom, as we have observed, the Master of Sentences (lib. 2 Dist. 25), and the Schoolmen, are forced to subscribe, says most correctly that as the gratuitous gifts bestowed on man were withdrawn, so the natural gifts which remained were corrupted after the fall. Not that they can be polluted in themselves in so far as they proceed from God, but that they have ceased to be pure to polluted man, lest he should by their means obtain any praise.

The sum of the whole is this: From a general survey of the human race, it appears that one of the essential properties of our nature is reason, which distinguishes us from the lower animals, just as these by means of sense are distinguished from inanimate objects. For although some individuals are born without reason, that defect does not impair the general kindness of God, but rather serves to remind us, that whatever we retain ought justly to be ascribed to the Divine indulgence. Had God not so spared us, our revolt would have carried along with it the entire destruction of nature. In that some excel in acuteness, and some in judgment, while others have greater readiness in learning some peculiar art, God, by this variety commends his favour toward us, lest any one should presume to arrogate to himself that which flows from His mere liberality…

The biblical teaching on common grace is related to yet somewhat distinct from other issues, such as the cultural mandate, general revelation, and natural theology. The long and short of it is that what Paul teaches us in Romans 1-2 is that we have enough revelation in creation and conscience to condemn us for not believing in God, but not enough to save us.

Special revelation and the Spirit of God are needed for us to move from darkness to light. But we can still praise God that all people can have SOME insight and understanding of the good gifts God has bestowed upon us. And the practical application of this should be obvious. I for one am happy that real truth and quite helpful ideas can be found even among non-Christians.

If Balaam’s ass can speak truth, then we can expect to find at least some truth spoken by folks like Jordan Peterson and others. On him, see more here.

And getting back to the piece on literature I penned yesterday, let me end with another quote from Ryken, again on the matter of truth and the non-Christian writer:

“The importance of common grace for the literary enterprise is immense. It means first that we do not need to inquire into the religious orthodoxy of an author before we can affirm what is worthy in an author’s work. Wherever we find the true, the good, or the beautiful, we can applaud it.”