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Book Review: Once More, Dr. Richard J. Mouw on Common Grace

Book Review: Once More, Dr. Richard J. Mouw on Common Grace

All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020). 176 pages. Softcover $20.90, hardcover $22.06.

Reviewed by Prof. David J. Engelsma.

 

Introduction

In this new book, Reformed theologian Richard J. Mouw pursues the defense of a common grace of God that he began in 2001 with the publication of his book, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001). In the new book, as he did also in his preceding work, Mouw very much takes into account the rejection of the theory of common grace by the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). This, as well as his significant development of the theory of common grace, makes the book of great interest, if not of importance, to all thinking members of the PRC.

Indicating the importance of his subject to the former professor at Calvin College (now, University) and now retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary is that he addresses the book, not only to Reformed and Presbyterian Christians, but also to all evangelicals.

That aspect of common grace that is the concern of the book, as it was also the concern of his earlier book, is a favor of God towards and a power of God working good in the ungodly that enables them to perform good works, with which works God is pleased, in the sphere of culture. By culture, Mouw means, roughly, everyday life and especially the sphere of the arts and sciences, what we may call “high culture”—poetry, literature, music, sculpture, and the like. Mouw mentions such unbelievers as Hemingway, Emerson, and the painter, Picasso, the last of whom ought to have been omitted on strictly artistic grounds. There is even a reference to the exploits of a baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers (where a reference to the Cubs would have been less outrageous).

There are noble activities in history that are performed by the ungodly and there are impressive and useful (and, apparently, entertaining) accomplishments done by the wicked.  The explanation, according to Dr. Mouw, very much influenced by the theology of Abraham Kuyper, is a common grace of God.

Mouw’s concern, therefore, is not that aspect of the theory of common grace that is its most grievous error, namely, a well-meant offer, which is the teaching of universal, resistible, saving grace. Mouw’s interest is “cultural” grace. It is that aspect of the theory of common grace that occupied the Christian Reformed Church in all three of its three points of common grace with the exception of its confession of the well-meant offer in the first point. The subject of the book, therefore, is that aspect of common grace that is not the greatest concern of the PRC and to which the PRC have not paid the greatest attention in their polemic against that theory. One benefit of the book to the PRC will be the impetus to a more thorough examination of cultural common grace and a more carefully stated objection to it.

An Important Distinction

There is an important distinction between the work of the ungodly as the activity itself of the ungodly and the product of that activity. If the Dutch painter, Jacob van Ruisdael, was an unbeliever (which I do not know), his activity of painting the marvelous skyscape, The Storm, was sin on his part. This is not the eccentric judgment of the PRC. This is the creedal judgment of the Reformed confession in question and answer 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The only work, in the sense of activity, that is good is one that proceeds from a true faith, one that is done according to the law of God, and one that is done to the glory of God. As formerly a Reformed man, Dr. Mouw knows this and once subscribed it.

With this, the Presbyterian creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, is in full agreement, in chapter 16, section 7, and Dr. Mouw, now a Presbyterian, is bound by it. All deeds of the unregenerate “are therefore sinful, and cannot please God.” God has no delight in the acts, or deeds, or doings of Ernest Hemingway, or of Picasso (especially not those of Picasso), or of the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the contrary, he abominates them.

But this does not put the deeds themselves, that is, the products of the working of ungodly men and women off-limits to the Reformed Christian as though the painting itself, or the musical piece, or the poem were sinful. Sin, no more than grace, is not in things. Whereas the activity of the unbeliever, van Ruisdael (if he was an unbeliever), was sinful, inasmuch as he did not paint to the glory of God, the painting itself is lovely, and a Reformed believer may stand admiring it in the Louvre for a good half an hour, only then to move on to the Mona Lisa, and may wish that there were copies that could be hung in one’s home and study.

This distinction between deed as the activity of the unbeliever and deed as the product of the activity is one that must be clear in the minds of all those who consider the theory of cultural common grace. It is a distinction that the opponents of the PRC ought to keep in mind. In their rejection of cultural common grace, the PRC are not world-fleeing Anabaptists. They are not grunting primitives. It is a distinction that the PRC themselves must keep in mind. Condemning all the working of the unbeliever as sinful, we do not despise and reject the cultural products themselves: van Ruisdael’s painting; Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; Housman’s poems (I choose him deliberately); the preservation of a society of liberty by a few courageous statesmen, for example, Winston Churchill, and the like. Mouw’s book should serve to the end that this important distinction lives in the theological minds of all Reformed and, it could be hoped, evangelical Christians.

Grace or Providence

The explanation of these lovely, instructive, rousing accomplishments of the ungodly is fundamental in the controversy over common grace that Mouw carries on. For Mouw and his numerous cohorts, the explanation is a common grace of God. The explanation is grace. For the PRC and their spiritual allies (may their tribe increase), the explanation is creation and providence. God created the human race with many (cultural) abilities. In the fall, humans lost most of these abilities. Some few remain. By the working of providence, which is God’s upholding and governing of the human race, various humans retain and develop certain of these gifts and abilities. The explanation is providence.

This aspect of the controversy over common grace also is not the odd thinking of the PRC, which other Reformed thinkers may dismiss out-of-hand. It is the creedal Reformed theology of the Canons of Dordt in heads 3 and 4, article 4. There remain in fallen mankind “glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge…of natural things,” for example, how to paint The Storm. Mouw refers to this first part of the article of the Canons of Dordt. But he overlooked the last part of the article. There the article concludes, decisively with regard to the controversy over cultural common grace: “This light, such as it is (note this ‘such as it is’: the Reformed faith does not get overly excited about van Ruisdael and Beethoven, much less over Picasso, or even about the entirety of high culture—DJE), man in various ways renders wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”

Not the PRC, but the Reformed creed rules common grace out of the realm of the culture of ungodly man and society.

Common Grace and the PRC

Of special interest to the Protestant Reformed reader is Mouw’s reference to the PRC and their theologians with regard to the issue of cultural common grace. In addition to the references, he states their position honestly as the concern for the antithesis. He frankly states that he takes Herman Hoeksema “seriously.” An honest and honorable man, as many of the foes of the PRC are not, either by ignoring the PRC altogether in their discussion of common grace (I predict that the men of the United Reformed Churches will be able to review Mouw’s book without any mention of the PRC) or by misrepresenting them as Anabaptists (which slander Mouw expressly repudiates), Mouw acknowledges the real threat to common grace of worldliness. He instances the example of Dr. Quirinus Breen, whom the common grace of the Christian Reformed Church of 1924 carried away into the world. Mouw is frank that the sorry history of Breen “does serve as a significant reminder to me personally about what can happen when the neo-Calvinist theology of common grace comes to be disconnected from the doctrine of the antithesis.” He tells us that he deliberately reads the Protestant Reformed men in order to maintain the antithesis in his own thinking.

Of great importance with regard to Mouw’s development of the theory of common grace is his finding this grace in what he describes as God’s drawing near to all humans in the covenant. Now common grace is rooted in the covenant. Mouw has the covenant right—God’s closeness, or fellowship. But does he not perceive that this makes common grace a saving grace? God’s covenant is established with Christ and humans who are in Christ (Gal. 3). Determined as one may be to distinguish common grace from saving grace, grace is grace, and grace is divine delight in Christ, in those who are washed in his blood, and in the works that are done to glorify God. Cultural common grace cannot avoid taking form as universal saving grace.

The controversy over common grace continues, develops, and sharpens.

The PRC continue to have a high calling with regard to this controversy, which, contrary to the thinking of some, is far from dead.

Dr. Mouw is not reviving a moribund issue. He is bringing a doctrinal and ethical reality that is thriving in the darkness into the light.

 

_____________________________________

Prof. Engelsma's book Common Grace Revisited was written in response to Dr. Mouw's He Shines in All That's Fair.






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