Some believers are far too hostile to Peterson and common grace:
I penned a piece the other day on Jordan Peterson’s spiritual pilgrimage. I said that I am not sure if he is a Christian as yet, and that he may not know either. As in my previous articles on the man, I urged believers to pray for him. Yet I knew that this would fall on deaf ears for many, and the Christian critics would come out to make a stink again.
Plenty of them seem convinced that we should ignore Peterson or even regard him as dangerous. They think that because he has not yet given us a clear-cut Christian testimony of his salvation, he is doing more harm than good. So people have been complaining about my articles and those of others which seek to cut him some slack. As I recently said in reply to this:
Thanks guys. Having posted links to this article on the social media, a fair amount of discussion has ensued there. Let me say a few things in reply to some of the comments that have come my way:
One: the MAIN point of my article was that we pray for Peterson. I wonder how many people who have argued so far about this or that concerning Peterson have not prayed. If that is the case, you have completely missed the point of my article!
Two: IF he is not yet a Christian, then it would be a bit foolish of us to expect him to fully think, talk and act like one! All the more reason to keep praying.
Three. Yes he has been rather weak on things like homosexuality and Islam. But that is true of most people who ARE actual Christians as well! So first and foremost let’s pray that he becomes a real deal follower of Christ, and then pray he gets some of these other key issues straightened out. OK?
Four. Some have complained that anyone who becomes a Christian should be celebrated, not just the celebs. That is exactly what I said in my article, but as is often the case, many folks will comment without bothering to read the article first!
I want to comment on these issues further. Christians will continue to discuss and debate how we are to understand JP and whether we should be thankful to God for people like him, or condemn him as someone leading many astray. Yes, Christian opinion can be that divided and polarised about him.
My take is that he has done much good, even as a non-believer, just as so many other non-Christians have over the centuries. And I also believe he is capable of speaking some truth as a non-believer, just as so many others have. This is because of what Christians refer to as common grace (more on that in a moment).
A short and sweet version of how pagans can do good and speak truth would go something like this: If Joe Pagan sees an old grannie being mugged, and rushes to her defence, scaring away the mugger and retrieving her purse, guess what? That WAS a good thing.
Sure, there might be any number of reasons or motivations for why he did this, and I am NOT saying that this action somewhere contributes to his salvation. But some things are good, and we should not be so dismissive of them. If a pagan sets up a clinic in some remote part of Africa to help people with their medical needs (again, regardless of whatever motive he might have), that too is a good thing. It is certainly good for those getting that much-needed medical care.
And if Joe Pagan says something that is true, that is of value as well. And yes, pagans can and do say true things. If Hitler or Stalin had said that 2+2=4, they were speaking truth, and I can accept that particular truth. All truth is God’s truth. And fallen men and women who are still unregenerate are made in God’s image and can speak truth. Such truth remains true, regardless of who is speaking it.
This is all part of what we mean by common grace. And JP can also speak truth, and also help others. But of course there are some Christians who seem to abhor the notion of common grace just as much as they seem to abhor JP. In which case, there is little that I can say to them. They seem to have their minds made up already. But for the rest of my readers who may be more open to some reasoned discussion about this, let me take it all a bit further.
In addition to the critics I have encountered when writing about JP, I am aware of various other critics who have been attacking believers who have dared to even cautiously affirm and promote JP. And I am speaking about Christian critics here.
As but one example, a conservative Christian website recently featured a piece more or less tearing into JP and those who would countenance defending him somewhat. He noted one other Christian who had done so, and admitted that he was gracious in doing this. But this critic certainly was not gracious.
Indeed, I thought it was a rather bad piece, so I really do not want to give it much airtime. His big gripe is that JP is not preaching the biblical gospel. Um, as I said above, if he is not yet a Christian and does not yet embrace the biblical gospel, then of course he is not proclaiming it!
But he actually thinks JP and others like him (eg., Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative commentator) are really dangerous and to be avoided like the plague. He says this about JP for example: “Peterson is hailed as a saviour by many Christians horrified at the demonic turn Western culture has taken in recent years.” Um no, I do NOT hail him as a saviour and I am not aware of any intelligent and biblical Christian who does.
I HAVE said it is great that he is taking on so many woke and PC shibboleths – more power to him. As I have stated often, if Christians will not speak out on some of these core issues, then God is able to raise up stones to speak. JP, Shapiro and others are stones God is using to get certain vital truths out in the public arena.
But this critic claims these folks share a harmful mixed message: some truth with some error. Well of course they are going to present a mix – they are NOT Christians. To accuse these folks of being false prophets and leading the church to ruin is simply foolish. JP does NOT claim to be a Christian prophet.
It is altogether a different story when those who DO claim to be Christian leaders and pastors push on the flock self-help nonsense, New Age mumbo jumbo, and therapeutic humanism. They SHOULD be called out. They ARE wolves in sheep’s clothing. But folks like JP are not making any such claims.
So this guy’s article really seems to be so much hot air, and is missing the point. And of course the real giveaway for me is this: not once in this entire article do we hear one word about praying for JP that he does become a real Christian. This guy is far too intent on railing against JP and any believer who dares to suggest he might have at least SOME truth and might actually be helping SOME people.
As I have said before, JP will only fully and finally be able to offer the help people most need when he becomes a believer. So I pray to that end – every day. But I am also thankful that JP is doing some good now, and speaking some truth now.
Reformed theology and common grace
The issue of common grace is a massive topic filled with theological complexity and nuance which I cannot do much more than introduce here in a very brief and outline fashion. Those not familiar with this subject are advised to look at my earlier articles on it. In one piece I said this:
John Murray’s much-repeated definition of common grace as “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God” is well worth running with here. And the classic passage to illustrate this is 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.” God’s general grace – as opposed to his redemptive grace – falls on all people – both Christian and non-Christian. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/08/on-common-grace/
While Christians of all stripes have to wrestle with the matters raised by this topic, it has especially been a hot-potato topic among Calvinists in general and the Dutch Reformed in particular. While one can go back to Calvin of course on this, a major work that sparked much interest and discussion was the three-volume set by Abraham Kuyper, De Gemene Gratie (Common Grace) written in 1902–1905. Indeed, much of the discussion about common grace follows on from the work of Abraham Kuyper. As I wrote some 8 years ago:
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was an amazing figure in so many ways. He was Dutch Calvinist theologian, pastor, politician, newspaper editor, statesman, journalist, educator, and Christian leader. Historian Richard Lovelace called him the greatest evangelical thinker since Jonathan Edwards. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/10/15/notable-christians-abraham-kuyper/
Debate has been ongoing for quite a while concerning this matter. Cornelius Van Til for example has written often about it. Unlike some in the Reformed camp, he did not reject common grace out of hand, but offered his own understanding of it. See these volumes for more on this:
Common Grace (pamphlet, 1947)
Particularism and Common Grace (pamphlet, 1951)
Common Grace and Witness-Bearing (pamphlet, 1956)
All three of the above are found in: Common Grace and the Gospel (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972)
And Richard Mouw has been eager to promote common grace for decades now. Those who know about this theologian and philosopher from Fuller Theological Seminary will know that much of his work has been on this topic. Five of his books that I want to draw to your attention are these:
Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP, 1992, 2010)
He Shines In All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001)
Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011)
The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship (Eerdmans, 2012)
All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight (Brazos, 2020)
Another writer on this that you should be aware of is Jochem Douma. His PhD thesis is now in book-form in English: Common Grace in Kuyper, Schilder, and Calvin: Exposition, Comparison, and Evaluation (Lucerna, 1974, 2017).
As indicated, a somewhat major internecine war had been brewing in Reformed circles over the matter of common grace for quite some time now. As should be clear by now, I am more or less on the side of Kuyper, Mouw and others on this. But I am aware of the various pros and cons in the debate, and I am aware of the various criticisms levelled against common grace teaching.
All this will have to be covered in more detail in future articles. But let me conclude this way: I believe that Scripture teaches a form of common grace thought, and I think it helps us to understand how non-Christians can offer us both limited amounts of true truth, and offer us limited amounts of goodness and service to others (again, regardless of their motivations).
These bits of truth and these works of help and kindness do NOT lead to anyone’s salvation, and they are not necessarily evidence of saving faith. Only Christ saves, not good works. But we can nonetheless be thankful when someone not truly part of God’s family speaks some truth (think of Balaam – and his ass! – in Numbers 22-24, or Caiaphas in John 11:45-53), or when a pagan does some really good actions (think of Rahab here: Hebrews 11:31).
Fallen people are fallen indeed – and that includes all of us. But because we are all made in God’s image, and because of God’s common grace, non-Christians can have some genuine truth and do some genuine good. I am thankful for both.