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Uncommon Grace

Averagely scrumptious. Tolerably ravishing. Mediocrely luxurious. Do such phrases make sense you?

How about “common grace.” A bit oxymoronic, perhaps? Is grace ever common and ordinary?

As of late there has been much here on “The Twelve” about a possible merger between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. I hadn’t really intended this post to be part of that discussion, although it could almost be seen that way. As an RCA person, I hear my CRC friends toss around the phrase “common grace” as if were a staple of theological discussion. Interrupting them to say, “I’m not so sure about that phrase or idea” seems like an untoward disruption. 

I’ll let some expert out there correct me or sharpen my focus, but I especially associate common grace with Abraham Kuyper and his heirs. It is the idea that there is a sort of divine preservative floating through our broken world. Common grace keeps total chaos at bay. It explains why a pagan neighbor can be so kind, why an atheist artist can create such beauty. Functionally, we might say that to pietistic, world-wary Christians with a strong doctrine of sin, common grace allows for, even encourages, engagement and cooperation with the wider world. The world isn’t quite as scary and dark as expected. And if that is the commendable social function of common grace, then to raise questions about it can seem like an unnecessary, mind-numbing theological sideshow.

But can grace ever be common?—in the sense of unexceptional, not abundant. Grace by definition is amazing, energetic, and astonishing. Common grace suggests that there is something latent, passive remnants, inherent in all creation.  We find metaphors like an ember that hasn’t quite gone out, a cracked mirror that can still reflect light, if only dimly and with distortion. It suggests that God is interested in “holding patterns.” If my memory serves, Karl Barth, in his classic rejoinder to Emil Brunner, used the image of an “anteroom to hell” to poke fun of the notion that grace is ever about buying time, making slightly more bearable, or merely keeping evil at bay. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is always about moving toward the reconciliation and healing of the universe.

So how do we explain the goodness and truth that we find in all sorts of unexpected places? And why is an explanation other than common grace preferable? As we move toward the day of Pentecost, I would suggest that we look to the Holy Spirit, free and at work in all creation, as the dynamic source of the spontaneous outbursts of love and beauty, even in places and people where the name of Jesus is not known or not blessed. The Holy Spirit is uninhibited and impartial and afoot in the world.

Can you sense a difference between the image of occasionally stumbling upon an ember where you expected only ash, as opposed to being delighted as the Holy Spirit lights fires and brings illumination, far ahead of us, far beyond our comfort zones, here-there-and-everywhere, part of the ever-increasing movement of God’s Kingdom among us?

One is essentially static, “conservative”—the classical sense of that word, more likely to be a theology of “hold the line” and “hang on.” The other is curious, dynamic, expectant, filled with eschatological energy as the Holy Spirit draws us and all creation forward. I wonder too if these differences don’t affect the way we look at non-believing neighbors. Common grace could seem to attribute to them a sort of minimum daily requirement of decency. Even they can’t help themselves but sometimes do good, almost in spite of themselves. A more in-breaking, eschatological, perspective would look at our neighbors or new-to-us and strange cultures as places where should expect the Spirit to light. And while being “conducive to postmodernity” is hardly my highest theological criterion, common grace seems to have arisen from and be suited for modernity, looking for some lowest-common-denominator universal trait. In contrast, the Holy Spirit working ahead of us seems more episodic and peculiar.

Will conversations like this be part of any future RCA-CRC merger talks?  Probably not.  But then who knows where and how the Holy Spirit will strike next? 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • redcrosseknight says:

    I wonder if the static/dynamic distinction isn’t a bit unnecessary. Couldn’t we think of common (for everyone) grace (amazing, energetic, and astonishing) in the following manner? The Holy Spirit still broods over all creation, not just the “sacred” parts. The Holy Spirit is currently at work in civil governments bringing about systems of justice. The Holy Spirit nudges the human heart to recognize a semblance of right and wrong.

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