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Common Grace and Race

By March 29, 2014 No Comments

Well, I was going to finish up my trilogy in response to Jessica Bratt’s worries about the corrosive side of academia, but Daniel José Camacho’s important post about common grace and race in the work of Abraham Kuyper, and readers’ responses to it, naturally caught my attention. So attend to it I shall.

My colleague David Crump suggests throwing out the doctrine post haste as hopelessly flawed in its understandings of creation and the image of God. We’ll get back to the image of God in a minute, but if there’s a problem with common grace theologically, I suspect it’s not in Kuyper’s doctrine of creation, which is as robustly positive as it’s possible to be. I suspect it’s in the anthropology and soteriology that Kuyper shared with his orthodox Reformed audience, which amplified total depravity, rained suspicion upon the slightest hint of Arminian notions of natural ability, and so had a hard time crediting good as good among the unregenerate, while simultaneously fostering tendencies toward world flight among believers—not without, we might add, countenancing regularly despoiling the Egyptians in every-day material pursuits. If common grace needs to be repaired or excised, the functions Kuyper assigned to it might find a place in a generous understanding of divine providence (maybe that’s what David is suggesting under the rubric of creation) and in recovering the interesting resources Kuyper supplies in this regard in his doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

But to common grace and racism. (If you want a more detailed explication of what follows, you can find it on pp. 197-204 in my recent biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.) Daniel is fair in connecting Kuyper’s articulation of the doctrine to a racial hierarchy which, narrativized, amounts to a stark heliotropic (“westward the course of history….”) concept of world history. Only, close by the pages in volume II of Common Grace where Kuyper draws that connection comes as sweet and egalitarian an articulation of the merits of diversity—also racial diversity—as one might hope to find in a late 19th-century text. Better yet, this articulation is tied exactly to the image of God. Certainly each of us as individuals bears that image, Kuyper says, but the full image of God can only be captured collectively, in and by the human race as a whole. And in that regard, Kuyper adds, every hue and culture, every people in every place and age has a contribution to make. Each and every people as a people is necessary to show forth the fullness of ideal humanity as bearing forth the image of God.

How can we understand these two quite different valuations side by side? I’m tempted to ascribe it to intellectual influence and throw the bad Kuyper onto the big broad back of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose words about pools and lakes and eddies and mainstreams and backwaters in the course of civilization is replicated in Kuyper down to, not incidentally, their mutual and terrible disparagement of sub-Saharan Africans. Good Kuyper, for its part, can be traced to Johann Gottfried Herder, at the source of Romantic poetics and sociology, with his notion of the folk-soul—and his tributes to the uniqueness and value of each of these as they are expressed among the sundry peoples of the world.

Logically, however, do the concepts of common grace and heliotropic history require each other? Does common grace dictate white superiority? Not in the abstract, nor in Kuyper’s first pastoral application of the theme. Kuyper brought out the doctrine of common grace to solve the mystery (remember that strict soteriology) of the virtue of the heathen that John Calvin himself talked about. To deny the reality of that virtue is nonsense, said Kuyper, and does not reflect well on the virtue of the Calvinists making that judgment. Even more, common grace underscores the fact, and can help explain how and why it is, that God’s purposes in directing the history of the cosmos include much more than just bringing forth the full number of the elect. In short, Kuyper from the start issues common grace as a double reproof to the pride of the regenerate. Most immediately, to the very white and Western Dutch Calvinists in his readership.

Now the divine purposes that Kuyper had in view in the late 1890s as he wrote Common Grace included ample portions of theories of progress as Europeans and white Americans dilated upon them at that high tide of imperial swagger. But that association is not logically necessary to the doctrine. Common grace teaches, at bottom, that God continues to exercise a gracious restraint of sin and evil in the world via the maintenance of order in nature and society; that God furthermore brings out in and from all people noble achievements in personal behavior and cultural production irrespective of their regenerate or unregenerate status. Therefore, “the saved” should honor the gracious effects of God’s care in all peoples and can, with proper discernment, cooperate with others not of their own faith in working toward the common good. That cooperation must aim, in civil society, toward the norm of justice. And Kuyper was the first in his own time to see that those most in need of justice in his country were precisely the “little people” that made up his train.

If those little people have come into some pretty plush earthly kingdoms today, there’s all the more reason, Kuyperianly speaking, to grow alliances with and for the marginalized and neglected on the current scene. It is one of God’s most pointed ironies with respect to Kuyper’s legacy that the church today is nowhere more vibrant or faster growing than among the sub-Saharan Africans whom he disparaged. Or that the boldest witness for the Christian faith that issued from “mixed race” America in the 20th century came from the ranks of African Americans wanting to end the policies of racial segregation that kept them out of that mix. It is against the cunning of history, not heliotropic fantasies and the hierarchies they project, that we ought to measure the value and ventures of common grace.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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