Kuyper, Mouw, and Common Grace

More insights into this important biblical theme:

All three of the items featured in my title I have discussed before. The idea of common grace is simply that the goodness of God can be experienced by all, while special or saving grace of course only applies to the redeemed. It may best be summed up in one Bible verse, Matthew 5:45b: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

The Dutch theologian and Reformed Christian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) may be one of the best proponents of this teaching. And Richard Mouw (1940-) of Fuller Seminary may be one of the best popularisers of the thought of Kuyper, especially on the related themes of common grace and the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28).

As to a brief overview of Kuyper and his work, see this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/10/15/notable-christians-abraham-kuyper/

For an introductory look at common grace, see this article:  https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/08/on-common-grace/

As to a list of a number of books Mouw has penned on these themes, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/07/18/jordan-peterson-and-common-grace/

And a piece on the cultural mandate is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/07/19/on-the-cultural-mandate/

Here I want to simply offer some quotes from Mouw on Kuyper and common grace. And I do it from a set of works most of us will likely never own! I refer to the quite incredible 12-volume set on Abraham Kuyper: Collected Works in Public Theology, edited by Jordan J. Ballor and Melvin Flikkema.

The reasons why 99.99% of my readers will not own the set are because A) it is very expensive (around Aus $100 a volume); and B) it is very large, filling an entire shelf (all up totalling some 7000 pages!). Those wanting more information on the set can read this from Lexham Press: https://lexhampress.com/product/55067/abraham-kuyper-collected-works-in-public-theology

I have vol. 1 of the three-volume set on Common Grace. Even trying to superficially summarise what Kuyper says there would be a difficult task indeed. But the introduction by Mouw is a very good place to begin for most folks, so I will stick to quoting some of that for you.

Image of Common Grace (Volume 1): God's Gifts for a Fallen World (Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology)
Common Grace (Volume 1): God's Gifts for a Fallen World (Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology) by Kuyper, Abraham (Author), Ballor, Jordan J. (Editor), Flikkema, Melvin (Editor), Grabill, Stephen J. (Editor), Kloosterman, Nelson D. (Translator), van der Maas, Ed M. (Translator), Mouw, Richard J. (Introduction) Amazon logo

Given that some in the Reformed camp might have a somewhat dim view of Kuyper and his thoughts on common grace, including the notion that Kuyper might downplay things like total depravity, Mouw demurs and explains why. He argues that even Calvin himself offered us a more nuanced view of things in this regard:

In setting out to develop a detailed theology of common grace, Kuyper did not see himself as introducing something brand new into the Calvinist way of viewing things. John Calvin himself had already taken up the task. The reformer of Geneva had started in developing his theology at the point where we would expect any good Calvinist to start—with a low estimation of the capacities of the unregenerate mind. In his classic work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, Calvin tells us that while we may come across occasional “sparks” of the light of creation shining through an unredeemed person’s “perverted and degenerate nature,” that original light is so “choked with dense ignorance … that it cannot come forth effectively.” The efforts of sinful humanity to find the truth, says Calvin, amount to little more than a “groping in the darkness.”


Having set forth clearly his view of the implications of his teaching on the effects of the fall, however, Calvin was not content simply to leave it there without some modifications. He was motivated to take some further steps because of his experiences before his conversion as a student studying law. In those studies he had come to admire the writings of some of the ancient Graeco-Roman thinkers, especially Seneca. He was not inclined, after he had come to an evangelical faith in Christ, simply to change his assessment. This meant that he had to account for the fact that some of these unregenerate thinkers seemed capable of producing a little more than simply the occasional “spark” of truth.


So in the Institutes, Calvin admits that things are not quite as bleak as his straightforward affirmations of human depravity would suggest. God has not completely given the unredeemed human mind over to darkness. There are, he says, some “natural gifts” that are “by nature implanted in men” by God, and these gifts are “bestowed indiscriminately upon pious and impious’”—a bestowal, he argues, that should be seen as a “peculiar grace of God.”


Furthermore, this gift is so significant that when we come across a truth set forth by an unbeliever, “we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.”

He continues:

Subsequent Reformed theology continued to deal with these matters. Calvin’s followers devoted much attention to issues of natural theology, general revelation, the image of God, and similar ways of accounting for a more positive assessment of the deliverances of the unredeemed mind, in a way that did not simply abandon Calvin’s emphasis on the serious effects of human rebellion for human life and thought. In exploring these options, these thinkers attempted to be faithful to what they had learned from Calvin himself, who had insisted that whatever good we can get from our studies of pagan thinkers is not due to some area of their being that is untouched by sin. Rather, the positive contributions they continue to make are the result of divine “gifts,” offered by a kind of “peculiar grace of God.”


The ideas of “gifts” and “grace” in that kind of formulation are meant to highlight the fact of divine sovereignty. While our radical sinfulness poses a threat to the unfolding of God’s creating purposes, the Creator still loves his creation, and in his sovereign goodness he will not allow human rebellion to bring great harm to that which he loves. God has ways of exercising restraints on depravity—a fallenness that, if left unchecked, would lead to creation’s ruin. John Calvin put it this way: God keeps our sinful strivings in check “by throwing a bridle over them … that they may not break loose,” especially when the Lord deems doing so “to be expedient to preserve all that is.”


This picture of a God who continues to love the creation and who expedites the means to restrain and preserve in the midst of human fallenness—this is the picture that Abraham Kuyper fleshes out in this wonderful treatise….

He goes on to show how this understanding of common grace differs from other notions:

The good things that come forth from the unredeemed portion of humankind, then, are not to be attributed to a capacity in fallen human beings to produce meritorious works on their own. They flow from God’s own sovereign choices to fulfill his purpose for creation. This is why Kuyper’s common grace has to be clearly distinguished from the notion of prevenient grace that shows up in a number of traditions, particularly Wesleyanism and Roman Catholicism. From Kuyper’s perspective, prevenient grace is a way of downplaying the extent of human depravity by positing a kind of automatic universal upgrade of those dimensions of human nature that have been corrupted by sin. To put it much too simply, the goal of prevenient grace is the upgrade; it is to raise the deeply wounded human capacities to a level where some measure of freedom to choose or reject obedience to God is made possible. Common grace, on the other hand, is for Kuyper a divine strategy for bringing the cultural designs of God to completion. Common grace operates mysteriously in the life of, say, a Chinese government official or an unbelieving artist to harness their created talents to prepare the creation for the full coming of the kingdom. In this sense, the operations of common grace—unlike those of prevenient grace—always have a goal-directed ad hoc character.

One final quote. We need to bear in mind that Kuyper was no armchair theologian. He sought to make a real difference in the Netherlands and beyond. As such, he was a newspaper editor, a university founder and professor, an educator, a pastor, a politician and even a Prime Minister. Says Mouw:

Kuyper was an activist who often did his theology on the run, with an eye to the very real practical challenges that he faced as a Christian leader in public life. That is one of the strengths of this book. While Kuyper probes some theological issues quite deeply, it is always out of an urgent concern to promote the cause of Christ’s kingdom.


If some Christians in the English-speaking world only know one thing about Kuyper, it is likely his oft-quoted manifesto: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign cover all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” That simple but profound affirmation of Christ’s supreme lordship over all of creation—including what human beings are commissioned by God to add to the creation in their cultural engagements—has to be seen as what undergirds Kuyper’s theology of common grace Christ rules over all—that is basic. But we also need the theology of common grace as a practical fleshing out of how we can best understand the implications of our affirmation of Christ’s lordship.


What Kuyper offers us in these volumes is a perspective that can equip present-day Christians to engage in our own on the run involvements in daily life, with an overall perspective that is solidly grounded in God’s revealed Word. Not all Christians today, of course, will have the patience or the technical understanding to make their way through the pages of this book or the volumes that follow. It needs to be interpreted in terms that are accessible to ordinary Christians, by teachers, pastors, and other leaders in the faith community. The encouragement and inspiration for doing so can come from the example of Kuyper himself. He was well known in his day as a much-admired champion of “the little people” (in Dutch, de kleine luyden) in the Christian community. Those folks had not mastered the texts he had authored, but they did catch his vision, putting it into practice in farming, labor, business, politics, education, family life, and the arts.


That is the kind of putting into practice that is much needed in our own time.

Amen to that. I for one am so very thankful for the life and work of Abraham Kuyper.

[1743 words]

4 Replies to “Kuyper, Mouw, and Common Grace”

  1. Here’s another inspiring Abraham Kuyper quotation for your readers:

    “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”

  2. Thanks Bill, for this exposition of Mouw, of whom I was not aware.
    However, having been within the Dutch Reformed community for a considerable part of my adult life, I am all too familiar with the teachings of Kuyper, and their effect on that community. It is fair to say that within that community Kuyper is, in effect, its patron saint, and one only has to read the biography of Kuyper by Frank Vandenberg to see how this unbridled hero-worship tends to confirm this impression. Yet Kuyper taught a number of serious errors, which have had quite detrimental results for the Reformed community in Holland. I will not trouble to go into those errors here.
    As to common grace, it needs first to pointed out that not all Reformed Christians in the Netherlands, nor Dutch Reformed churches in America, accept it, at least not in its Kuyperian version. Such groups as the Protestant Reformed church, and the Christelijk Reformeerde Kerk (I think I have the spelling right) reject it. For my own part I can accept it up to a point: common grace makes life liveable in a fallen world, and stops man from becoming an absolute beast. I have a private opinion that the “restraining influence” of 2 Thess 2:6-7 is God’s common grace: that will be removed prior to the End, when Satan is let loose to do his worst (Rev 20:7-10).
    However, the notion of a “cultural mandate” a la Kuyper I cannot accept. I find it nowhere in the New Testament, and the stance of the NT in regard to social evils (e.g. slavery) would seem to militate against it.
    We have the Great Commission—that is clear, and the mandate to plant churches which will be witnesses to the transforming power of Christ and His Gospel, but a “culture mandate” I had never heard of until I encountered the Dutch Reformed community. Endemic to the outlook and rhetoric of that community is its profoundly anti-evangelical stance, and its allegation that evangelicals are “pietistic” (for them the worst of theological sins), and have no vision for a Christianised world. However, I suspect that all that they mean by that is that e.g. evangelical missions don’t Christianise “their way”, i.e. the Kuyperian way!
    One other point: many Kuyperians (e.g. Cornelius van Til) on one hand insist on “Christianity in all spheres of life” (the Kuyperian mantra), but on the other are happy to embrace evolution and millions of years, the outlook of the secularists! This does not seem consistent to me.
    In short, we have as I said, the Great Commission, and its issue in manifold good works; we should not be inventing mandates and missions which the Lord has never heard of.

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