Common Grace Revisited

With the passing of time, the common grace question takes on new aspects.  Especially is this true as regards the attitudes of the young people.  Those born within the past twenty years simply do not share with their parents the fervent feelings produced by personal involvement in the Battle of ‘24.  For the most part, the youth have the same convictions as their parents and these convictions are deeply rooted, but the less rational characteristics such as personal bitternesses and touchy tempers pass away with time.  This is inevitable and desirable.

The result of this for Protestant Reformed young people is two fold.  Firstly, they attempt to purge their elders of the violent passions which obscure the conflict between the Protestant and Christian Reformed Churches.  In this the young people are not overly successful and in the process usually get for themselves such endearing adjectives as “liberal” or “junior heretic.”  Secondly, the young people turn to the Christian Reformed students, fully expecting that mutual concern will lead at least to a profitable discussion.  And, as idealistic youth will, they even dare to suppose that cool, Biblical reasoning will reveal beyond dispute the error of common grace so that Christian Reformed history may be changed.  Here also, P.R. youth are disappointed.  Gone are the days when common grace was a burning question in the minds of C.R. people.  This may come as a shock to some who imagine that the sole reason for separate Protestant Reformed high schools is that Christian Reformed teachers and students line up in their zeal to subvert the P.R. students.  It has been my experience that the offensive is taken by the P.R. students, at least as regards the explicit doctrine of common grace.  By far the most effort at outright conversion (or subversion if you are Christian Reformed) is expended by the P.R. students against the C.R. students.

Once a discussion has begun, it soon becomes evident that the problem of the P.R. in the 1960’s is not the same as that of the P.R. in the 1920’s.  In former times, both sides attached a great deal of importance to the acceptance or denial of common grace.  That the C.R. did is plain from the fact that they evicted from fellowship those who denied it.  But today the attitude is that common grace does not matter.  For this reason Christian Reformed students are not very well informed about the common grace issue.  An extreme example of this ignorance took place when a college student was asked what he thought about the issue.  His reply was long in coming but finally he remarked, “Common grace, oh yes, that’s the reason why Hoeksema kicked out the Christian Reformed Church.”

The belief that common grace is an unimportant matter, ranking with decrees on movie attendance and card playing, is the belief by which the De Wolf people intend to enter the Christian Reformed Church.  This view has been fostered by C.R. authorities and is a cause of despair to the P.R. youth.  To argue a cause which both parties regard as important is one thing.  To argue a cause only to be told that although your arguments are good, the entire matter is trivial is another thing.  Especially if there is irrefutable historical proof that your opponents should think the matter important.


There is evidence that the Christian Reformed Church is on the verge of recalling common grace from the Limbo of Trivia.  What they will do with it will probably not be agreeable to the standards of the P.R. Churches but they shall have destroyed the nonsense that “common grace does not matter.”  I have special reference to an article written by Dennis Hoekstra in the December 1960 issue of Stromata, the paper of the C.R. Seminary.  Hoekstra’s thesis is that the development of theology is similar to the development of science in that both proceed logically and systematically from certain “basic realities.”  When in the course of the development one runs stuck, that is, when certain conclusions seem to conflict with the basic reality from which one started, it may be necessary to revise one’s conception of the basic reality.  The example in science is the switch of man from a belief in the centrality of the earth to a belief in the centrality of the sun.  Hoekstra applies this to the common grace problem.  Theology in the C.R. Church began with the doctrine of God and worked out until the logically consistent denial of common grace resulted.   Now logical consistency is a desired characteristic in theology.  Yet the Christian Reformed Church rejected Rev. Hoeksema’s position.  So Hoekstra says, “The former position (namely common grace is untenable in Reformed theology – DE) is more in line with the demands for logical consistency with which we as well as Rev. Hoeksema pride ourselves.  It seems, then, that if theology as a science demands logical coherence, Hoeksema’s position is logically superior to that officially espoused by the Christian Reformed Church.”  Nor is Hoekstra enthusiastic about the method which the C.R. Church has used to defend its apparent weakness.  Commenting on the fact that for forty years, the C.R. Church has been accusing the P.R. Churches of being too logical, Hoekstra remarks.  “We must recognize, then, that ‘don’t-be-too-logical’ can hardly be respectable even as temporary, and certainly not as a definitive, theological answer to the common-grace problem.”  Hoekstra suggests that in order to reconcile the “basic reality” – the doctrine of God – with the doctrine of common grace, the C.R. Church should “return to the very center circle of our theological system to re-examine our scientific formulation of the doctrine of God?”

The conclusions I wish to draw are as follows.  First, common grace makes a difference.  Any doctrine which makes it necessary to revamp the Reformed conception of God, and thus the entire theology, can by no exercise of fantasy be called unimportant.  If the C.R. intelligentia can be made to see this, as Hoekstra evidently does, fruitful discussion between our Churches can again become a reality.  Secondly, common grace is the Achilles heel of the Christian Reformed Church.  If, as in my opinion, Dr. James Daane is putting into application that for which Hoekstra gives the theory, the very originators of the dogma of common grace strongly oppose its wholly consistent consequence, viz., the radical change of the God-concept.  I should predict that a new generation of Christian Reformed students will value intellectual honesty above “orthodox caution.”  Then the traditional view of the Sovereignty of God and the doctrine of common grace will no longer be allowed to hang in sanctified tension, at the loss, of course, of the traditional doctrine of God.  The Achilles heel is losing its protective covering.