By Craig Bartholomew
It may seem laughable in our present media-dominated context to imagine that a long, three-volume exposition of doctrine, written by a thoroughly orthodox Reformed theologian in another place and time, might hold vital clues for life today. Indeed, Common Grace was written as newspaper articles, published week by week over six years in [Kuyper’s] newspaper, De Heraut, and some perseverance is required to work through them.
But this says far more about our context, dominated as it is by tweets and short attention spans, than it does about Kuyper’s thought. Nevertheless, Common Grace makes for compelling reading […]. As Kuyper synthesizes the biblical data doctrinally, volume 2 [in the collection] becomes, in many ways, the heart of Common Grace.
A robust doctrine of common grace was needed in Kuyper’s day. He lived when modernism was sweeping across Europe, and he recognized that its comprehensive vision could only be met by a correspondingly comprehensive Christian vision. Central to such a vision for Kuyper was a theology of common grace.
Kuyper’s writing manifests what we might call a contextual sense of doctrine. He recognized that different times call for different emphases doctrinally. Though he had no interest in adjusting doctrine to the zeitgeist of his day, neither did he have any interest in a petrified Reformed Christianity stuck in the sixteenth century. Kuyper sought to preserve the heart of the Reformed tradition while taking semper reformanda seriously.
Doctrine and the glory of God
While Kuyper never confuses doctrine with a living relationship with the Creator, he takes doctrine—what we believe about God and God’s relationship to his world—with the utmost seriousness and rightly believes that it can direct us in our lives and in our complex, modern societies. In his words, “Dogmas, after all, are not the result of clever arguments, but doctrines that provide an explanation concerning the mighty issues at the foundation of our human existence that impinge irresistibly upon anyone who thinks and reflects and refuses to close his or her eyes to reality.” He does not lose sight of the glory of God as the focus of all of life and creation, and in keeping with that vision, he clearly articulates the characteristic Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of the triune God. Romans 11:36, which reads “From him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen,” could easily serve as an epigraph for the work of Kuyper. Creation finds its meaning in the glory of God, and as this is taken seriously, creation is illumined so that we can see God working through his handiwork.
To rightly understand creation, however, special revelation is necessary. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the light of the world. As Kuyper writes, “Everything in all of creation that lives or breathes is placed in service to the self-glorification of the triune God.” He was well aware that much in life will remain mysterious, but he still devoted considerable energy toward allowing the light of Christ to shine as fully and intensely as possible on the world around him. In the second volume of Common Grace, he brings every major locus of doctrine into play, relating all of these to the titular topic.
Yet he also regularly slips into application. One gets a sense of Christ and Scripture as a floodlight illuminating the entire field of creation. Thus it is natural that Kuyper can’t stay away from practical application. Indeed, there are discussions of topics ranging from education, art, clothing, to insurance and—surprisingly—smallpox vaccinations!
Kuyper holds fast to Christian doctrine in his writing and unpacks it critically in relation to modernism. Thus, Christ and culture are integrally related in his work. Kuyper also develops a Christian, pluralist societal philosophy that resists secularization; yet it is one markedly different from Islam. Kuyper does all this by journeying at length through the doctrine of common grace.
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This post is adapted from Craig Bartholomew’s introduction to Common Grace, volume 2 by Abraham Kuyper.