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Spiritual Antithesis: Common Grace, and Practical Theology

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   January 1, 2002   |  Type: Articles

I. The Paradox of Common Grace

“Why do good things happen through bad people?” This question, which virtually turns inside out the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s twenty-year-old best-seller, [1] expresses the real enigma that faces us when we try to interpret human experience in the light of the biblical doctrine of man. The problem is not that bad things happen to allegedly-good people, but that good things happen to and through people who are dead in sin, adamant in rebellion against their Creator. This is the “paradox of common grace,” described more elegantly by Professor John Murray in his 1942 essay:

. . . f we appreciate the implications of total depravity, then we are faced with a series of very insistent questions. How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts, and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? [2]

If we could dismiss the biblical doctrine of total depravity, we would have no trouble explaining non-Christians’ intellectual breakthroughs, cultural achievements, and even ethical qualities such as integrity, compassion, zeal for justice, and pursuit of truth. If our Fall into sin through Adam had not tainted every aspect of human personality, it would not be surprising to find a thousand points of light, radiating truth and goodness, among people who have never bowed the knee to King Jesus.

But Father Adam’s rebellion has spread its infection across the whole human race, and the malignancy has invaded every recess of our personalities. Sin spreads throughout the race: “There is none righteous, not even one, none who understands, none who seeks God . . . none who does kindness, not so much as one” (Rom 3:10-12). And sin permeates the individual, from his lying tongue, poisonous lips and cursing mouth, to his bloodthirsty feet and shameless eyes (3:13-18). No nook or cranny of our identity has survived uninfected by sin’s lethal spiritual virus. The only remedy to this race-encompassing, personality-pervading defilement is the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, giving new life to the spiritually dead.

Total depravity and our consequent need for regeneration are at the root of the sharp spiritual antithesis that cuts through the human race, separating those who have been reconciled to God through Christ from those who remain alienated from God and incapable of responding rightly to his truth. This antithesis has profound implications for our interaction with non-Christian thought, not only in theology but in every academic discipline, as Abraham Kuyper pointed out in his 1898 Stone Lectures, Kuyper spoke of a sharp “conflict of principles” between “those who cling to the confession of the Triune God and His Word, and those who seek the solution of the world-problem in Deism, Pantheism and Naturalism.”[3] Adherents to these two conflicting worldviews are not

relative opponents, walking together half way, and, further on, peaceably suffering one another to choose different paths, but they are both in earnest, disputing with one another the whole domain of life, and they cannot desist from the constant endeavor to pull down to the ground the entire edifice of their respective controverted assertions, all the supports included, upon which their assertions rest. . . .[4]

The non-Christian worldview and the Christian worldview “are two absolutely different starting points, which have nothing in common in their origin. Parallel lines never intersect. You have to choose either the one or the other.” [5]

If we believe in total depravity and spiritual antithesis, then, must we deny that non-Christians’ “qualities, gifts and accomplishments” are admirable in any sense? Is the apparent good that Murray cited merely illusion? Let us think specifically of the noetic effects of total depravity—sin’s distorting influence on our thinking and understanding: our presuppositions, perceptions, and processes of interpretation and reasoning. [6] Those who deny the living God of the Bible begin their thinking on the wrong foot, willfully blind to the most significant feature of every object in the universe and every event in history-the fact that every creature and its every action depend on the Creator and bear witness to the Creator. Should we assume, then, that non-Christians’ so-called “insights” into science, the arts, history, philosophy, human personality and society are inevitably, universally and thoroughly false, misled and misleading, to be contradicted at every point?

That is not the conclusion reached by our Reformed fathers, as they surveyed the cultural and intellectual achievements of non-Christians. John Calvin, for example, writes of the achievements of ancient pagan culture:

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. [7]

Abraham Kuyper, in the same lecture in which he traced the sharp antithesis between faith and unbelief, gushed in eloquent praise for the achievement of pagans who hated his God:

Sin places before us a riddle, which in itself is insoluble. If you view sin as a deadly poison, as enmity against God, as leading to everlasting condemnation, and if you represent a sinner as being “wholly incapable of doing any good, and prone to all evil,” and on this account salvable only if God by regeneration changes his heart, then it seems as if of necessity all unbelievers and unregenerate persons ought to be wicked and repulsive men. But this is far from being our experience in actual life. On the contrary the unbelieving world excels in many things. Precious treasures have come down to us from the old heathen civilization. In Plato you find pages which you devour. Cicero fascinates you and bears you along by his noble tone and stirs up in you holy sentiments. And if you consider . . . that which you derive from the studies and literary productions of professed infidels, how much there is which attracts you, with which you sympathize and which you admire. It is not exclusively the spark of genius or the splendor of talent, which excites your pleasure in the words and actions of unbelievers, but it is often their beauty of character, their zeal, their devotion, their love, their candor, their faithfulness and their sense of honesty. Yea . . . not unfrequently you entertain the desire that certain believers might have more of this attractiveness. . . .[8]

So we are placed on the horns of a dilemma, a paradox that, as Murray said, poses “very insistent questions,” a riddle that, as Kuyper said, seems “in itself insoluble.” We cannot deny what the Bible teaches about man’s total depravity and need for the Spirit’s regenerating power in order to submit to God’s truth. Therefore we cannot deny that a radical spiritual antithesis places Christian thought and non-Christian thought in diametrical opposition to each other. Yet we cannot dismiss the testimony, not only of our experience but also of Scripture itself, that people dead in sin in fact do good, love others, and know truth. [9]

If we deny or minimize the profound impact of the spiritual antithesis, we may uncritically accommodate our thought to non-Christian worldviews, naively adopting beliefs, attitudes, and methodologies that reflect their origin in the reductionism of unbelief and therefore distort our grasp of God’s truth. George Marsden’s research has documented how such naivete toward Enlightenment presuppositions on the part of Christian academics unwittingly fostered the American universities’ drift into secularism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [10] Joel Carpenter has warned of similar dangers confronting Reformed Christian colleges in the neo-Kuyperian tradition at the turn of the twenty-first century. [11]

On the other hand, if we deny or minimize the motif of common grace, we run the risk of intellectual arrogance, a defensive isolationism from the culture in general and the academy in particular. Such isolationism deprives Christian theologians (and Christian thinkers in other disciplines) of important resources for testing and correcting our own ideas and interpretations. A devaluation of God’s goodness in common grace may also foster an anti-intellectualism that despises God’s general revelation in the created order and his providential dealings in history. Spiritually, ignoring common grace may foster attitudes of suspicion, antipathy, and contempt toward non-Christians.

How we handle the intersection of the spiritual antithesis, on the one hand, and the influences of God’s common grace in the unregenerate, on the other, will therefore have profound implications not only for our relationships to non-Christians, but also for our reflection on Scripture and its application in the practice of ministry. To take a few examples from across the spectrum of the theological disciplines:

Can anything of value about the semantics of Biblical Hebrew be learned from grammars and lexica prepared by scholars who do not acknowledge Jesus as Messiah? Could our interpretation of Gen 1 and 2 be illumined by the findings of non-Christian astronomers, paleontologists, and biologists? Might our interpretation of other biblical texts be assisted by information discovered by non-Christian archaeologists researching the cultures of the Ancient Near East and the Graeco-Roman world?

Could we understand more about the dogmatic debates in church history by studying unbelieving scholars’ analyses of the development of western civilization, its cultural institutions, and its intellectual trends?

Can our missiology be enriched by anthropologists’ analyses of primitive cultures in the developing world, or by a book written by a Muslim scholar, presenting Islam as a system of belief and behavior? Can Christian homiletics learn from ancient pagan rhetoric (as Augustine assumed in citing Cicero with approval) [12] or from modern communications theory? Can Reformed counseling learn from non-Christian psychology? Can Christian hymnody learn from non-Christian poets and musicologists? Can pastors gain insight into cultural trends and the challenges they present to the church’s life and witness through the diagnoses of social scientists who hold diverse religious and philosophical positions?[13]

Our answers to such questions will affect the resources we employ and the ways that we employ them in our reflection on Scripture and its application in ministry. The answers we give must be theologically grounded, not pragmatically motivated. Is there a sound biblical and theological rationale for paying respectful and discerning attention to the perspectives of non-Christians as we work out our theology of the practice of ministry? To start construction on this rationale, in the rest of this lecture I will try to sketch answers to two foundational questions:

(1) What does Scripture reveal about the intersecting influences of spiritual antithesis and common grace in the thought of non-Christians?

(2) How should these scriptural principles influence our interaction with non-Christian resources in our own attempts to understand God’s Word and God’s world? To what extent, in what respect, and with what caveats should Christian scholars in general, and Christian theologians in particular, assess the value of insights offered by their non-Christian counterparts?

II. The Antithesis and the Noetic Effects of Common Grace: Four Biblical Themes

Four themes, distributed from Genesis through the New Testament epistles, introduce the biblical revelation concerning the intersection between the spiritual antithesis, on the one hand, and the effects of common grace on non- Christians’ thought, on the other.

1. The Persistent Imago Dei and the Development of Human Culture
Entailed in the creation of Man, male and female, in the image of God is the authority over the lower creatures that theologians refer to as the cultural mandate. Its classic expression is in Gen 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”[14] After the Fall into sin, frustration mars man’s exercise of dominion, but the cultural mandate is not repealed. The likeness of God in which Adam was created is transmitted to his descendants, even in a fallen world (Gen 5:1-3). As man’s identity as the image of God persists, so also does our authority and responsibility under the cultural mandate. Adam’s and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, exercise rule as a farmer and a shepherd, respectively (Gen 4:2). In them the antithesis, the conflict between the cursed seed of the serpent and the blessed seed of the woman, is clearly seen: Cain murders Abel and God sentences Cain to wander the earth as a vagabond, no longer able to grow crops from ground stained by his brother’s blood (Gen 4:8-14). Nevertheless in common grace God marks Cain, protecting him from the vengeance he deserves (Gen 4:15). It is in the line of Cain that cultural developments, entailing significant intellectual achievement, are noted in the Genesis record: Cain built a city and named it after his son Enoch (Gen 4:17). Although cities in a fallen world are infected by evil men and their violent actions, in the Bible’s perspective the city itself is not a negative thing, but a positive development. The city and the societal structure and cultural life within it constitute a refuge from the hostility and barrenness of the wilderness: “Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away” until the Lord “led them by a straight way to a city” (Ps 107:4-5, 7). For Cain to build a city, imposing order on what would otherwise be “trackless waste,” is to imitate the Creator, who imposed order on the “formless and empty” earth in the beginning, creating a habitat for humanity.[15]

Cain’s descendants distinguished themselves in animal husbandry, music, and metallurgy: Jabal fathered “those who live in tents and raise livestock, while Jubal “was the father of all who play the harp and flute” and Tubal-Cain “forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron” (Gen 4:20-21). Calvin elaborates on this in his Genesis commentary:

Moses now relates that, with the evils which proceeded from the family of Cain, some good had been blended. For the invention of arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and convenience of life, is a gift of God by no means to be despised, and a faculty worthy of commendation. It was truly wonderful, that this race, which had most deeply fallen from integrity, should have excelled the rest of the posterity of Adam in rare endowments. [16]

In a similar vein, but with a sharper emphasis on the spiritual antithesis that separates the line of Cain from the line of God’s covenant, Meredith G. Kline comments:

By virtue of God’s common grace, restraint was applied to curb the apostate spirit that was thus present in the city of man from the outset, lest its demonic potential escalate too quickly. In the brief biblical account of the history of this city the positive benefits provided in God’s grace are clearly in evidence. The city was a refuge within whose security the family of Cain was able to continue generation after generation (Gen. 4:17, 18). In it was found the stimulation and cooperative enterprise and the accumulation of knowledge, skill, and resources that proved conducive to notable progress in those industries and arts that minister to the physical and aesthetic needs and pleasures of man (Gen. 4:19-22). [17]

Thus we see interwoven into early human history the antithesis between the serpent’s seed and the woman’s seed, on the one hand, and, on the other, evidences of God’s undeserved favor to the rebellious and rejected line of Cain, manifested in the advance of civilization.[18]

2. Wisdom in Israel and the Ancient Near East
A second line of biblical evidence is the participation of Israel in the ongoing wisdom dialogue of the Ancient Near East. This participation flowers in the reign of King Solomon; but before and after Solomon Israelites distinguish themselves for wisdom in the courts of pagan monarchs. Joseph, though sold into slavery and unjustly imprisoned, nevertheless emerges from his woes to become the second-in-command to the Egyptian monarch. Joseph’s wisdom is shown in his foresight in devising a plan to manage the agricultural “boom and bust” foretold in Pharaoh’s dreams (Gen 41:33-43). Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s wisdom, and this recognition shows common grace at work in the intellect of a pagan ruler.

Moses participates in the life of the Egyptian court as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Jewish tradition reported that he was educated in the skills of leadership in the royal court.[19] This tradition receives canonical confirmation in the words of Stephen preserved in Acts 7:22: “And Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” Far from condemning such pagan education as evil, Stephen concurs with the Jewish tradition’s positive assessment of Moses’ intellectual engagement with pagan wisdom. Much later, at the time of the Exile, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah find themselves in the court of the king of Babylon, subjected to a reeducation program that includes replacing their Hebrew names, each containing a reference to their covenant God, with Chaldean names associated with pagan deities (Dan 1:6-7). The antithesis between allegiance to the Lord and compromise with powerful paganism could hardly be sharper than it was in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Yet God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge and understanding to learn the language and literature of the Babylonians (1:17). [20]

The flowering of Israel’s wisdom is identified with the reign of Solomon. [21] The author of Kings places Solomon in the context of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom. In 1 Kgs 4:29-34 Solomon’s wisdom is shown not only in the breadth of his achievement in literature and the arts (3,000 proverbs, 1,005 songs) and in the natural sciences (plant and animal life), but also by comparison with the famous sages of the East and of Egypt: “He was wiser than all men”—for example, the well-known “Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calcol and Darda, sons of Mahol” (4:30-31). No wonder his fame spread to the courts of foreign monarchs (4:34) and a sovereign from so far away as Sheba in Southern Arabia traveled to Jerusalem to test the king’s wisdom (10:1)! Derek Kidner observes:

The Bible often alludes to the wisdom and wise men of Israel’s neighbours, particularly those of Egypt . . . of Edom and Arabia . . . of Babylon . . . and of Phoenicia. . . . While the Old Testament scorns the magic and superstition which debased much of this thought . . . and the pride which inflated it . . . it can speak of the gentile sages with a respect it never shows towards their priests and prophets. Solomon outstripped them, but we are expected to be impressed by the fact. . . .[22]

The admiration that Solomon’s wisdom attracts from neighboring monarchs implies that sages in other nations also have a measure of genuine wisdom.

The intellectual interchange between the royal court of Israel and those of Israel’s Ancient Near Eastern neighbors is reflected in the striking parallels between the Book of Proverbs and sayings preserved in non-Israelite wisdom literature. [23] Old Testament scholars find such correspondences too striking to be coincidental, although it remains debatable whether Israel’s wisdom influenced her powerful neighbors or vice versa. [24] In either case, non-Israelite wisdom literature expresses observations and inferences that correspond to those inscribed by Israel’s sages into Holy Scripture—another evidence of the noetic effect of common grace.

Nevertheless, the Book of Proverbs places every observation about human life and society into a context that discloses the fundamental antithesis between the Lord and the idols, between faith and unbelief. Tremper Longman points out that the contrast between two women, Wisdom and Folly, in Prov. 9 provides the theological setting for all the aphorisms and analogies to follow. Both Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly locate their houses on the “highest point of the city” (9:3, 14)—the site of the city’s dominant deity: “In the ancient Near East, only one person had the right to dwell on the highest point in the city, the god of that city.” Hence Wisdom stands for the Lord himself, and Folly for “all of the deities of the ancient Near East who stand over against Yahweh. . . . The reader is thus confronted with a decision. Both women are calling him to come to them to dine, to share intimacy, and unpacking the metaphor, to worship them. Will it be Wisdom or Folly? Will it be Yahweh or Baal?’’[25] Even where the counsel that Proverbs offers concerning riches or discipline or honesty seems most like the wisdom of Israel’s neighbors, the antithesis between serving the Lord and serving his rivals is kept in view.

3. The Intellectual Component of Non-Christians’ Ethical Decisions
When Jesus speaks of non-Christians “loving” and “doing good” to others (Matt 5:46; Luke 6:32-33), his choice of words implies a positive moral assessment of these actions. This is true even though the pagans’ love for each other falls short of the love for enemies that God, who is kind even to “the ungrateful and the wicked, expects from his children (Luke 6:35). Jesus’ commendation of the love and the good performed by “sinners” toward their own therefore implies that, to some degree, such unbelievers recognize that such love and good deeds are morally preferable to their opposite.

Likewise, Jesus commends Jewish scribes as true teachers of the Torah, even though their behavior is unworthy of imitation. Because the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, invested with official authority, Jesus instructs his disciples to heed their instruction and obey their commands (Matt 23:2-3). This is all the more striking, since in the following discourse Jesus exposes these teachers’ hypocrisy, calling them blind guides and a brood of vipers (vv. 16, 33). In God’s common grace even such teachers, whose conduct contradicts the divine Torah that they are teaching, must be heeded.

The ethical insight and sensitivity of even the lawless pagans is cited by the Apostle Paul in order to shame the Corinthian Christians for their libertine tolerance of incest: “Immorality is actually heard among you—and immorality of a kind which is not even among the Gentiles: someone has his father’s wife. And you are inflated with pride!” (1 Cor. 5:1-2a). The Corinthian believers’ twisted understanding of Christian liberty has blinded them to obvious ethical norms that even the pagans recognize! In appealing to the pagans’ sense of ethical appropriateness Paul has by no means lost sight of the antithesis between faith and unbelief. It is the antithesis that makes the Corinthian Christians’ pride in tolerating immorality so shockingly shameful!

One more line of thought further attests the way in which God, in his common grace, grants ethical insight and sensitivity even to the unregenerate. Scholars and theologians have hotly debated the identity or condition of the “speaker” in Rom. 7, who expresses his frustration and impotence to perform the good that he approves, the good as defined by God’s “holy, righteous, and good” commandment (Rom. 7:12). Is this moral paralysis the experience of Paul the Christian, not yet set free from his mortal body? Is it the experience of Paul the carnal Christian, unyielded to the Spirit; or of Paul the almost Christian, under conviction of sin but not yet converted? Or is it the experience of Paul the conscientious Jew, who boasted in the law and even achieved a certain law-defined righteousness (Rom. 2:17-18; Phil. 3:6) yet found his strongest flesh-based will-power helpless to obey God’s command from the heart? In view of Paul’s use the slavery/emancipation metaphor in Rom. 6 and in 7:1-6, it is hard to imagine Paul describing Christians with the slavery metaphor “sold under sin,” as the speaker describes his plight in 7:14. Then again, in view of Paul’s earlier discussion of the universal sinfulness of humankind, Jew and Gentile alike, it is hard to imagine his portraying an unregenerate person as confessing, “I do not perform the good that I want, but rather the evil that I do not want—this I practice” (Rom. 7:18). Then again, is such moral frustration really utterly foreign to the experience of non-Christians? Ovid places these words into the mouth of the Princess Medea, when her father has forbidden her love for Jason: “Ah, if I could, I should be more myself. But some strange power draws me against my will. Desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.” [26] The conflict between one’s actions and the ethical standard to which one’s conscience bears witness is not an experience unique to regenerate persons, as even the despairing regret of the traitor Judas demonstrates (Matt. 27:3-4). The fact that those dead in sins ever experience pangs of conscience and regret that their actions violate their principles is further demonstration of God’s common grace casting its beams of light even into those who prefer the cloak of utter darkness.

4. Apostolic Endorsement of Pagans’ Theological and Ethical Pronouncements
Finally, we consider the most explicit biblical evidence that God’s common grace enables non-Christians to perceive and articulate truths: two New Testament passages in which statements explicitly attributed to their non-Christian sources are affirmed as true. In Acts 17:28 Paul is introducing Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to the God whom they do not know, as the Athenians themselves have acknowledged in their shrine “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). He marshals arguments from the Greek intellectual tradition to show the futility of pagan idolatry. First Paul quotes a poem of Epimenides of Crete: “in you we live and move and have our being.”[27] Then he cites “your own poets” as confessing “we are his offspring”—alluding to statements made about the Logos by such Stoic authors as Cleanthes and Aratus of Soli.28 Although the Stoic concept of the Logos is an inadequate reflection of the God who reveals himself in Scripture, Paul hears in such pagan thinkers echoes of truth about the nature of God that are accurate and clear enough to expose the folly of pagan idolatry. The survival of such echoes amid the static of popular paganism is the fruit of God’s common grace.

The second passage is from Paul’s pen, citing the same Cretan poet, Epimenides, to whose words he had alluded in Athens. In Tit. 1:12-13a Paul underscores the importance of appointing qualified elders for the churches of Crete, in view of the unruliness characteristic of the island’s residents: “One of their own prophets said: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’”[29] The apostle immediately comments: “This testimony is true.” Although Cretans are “always liars,” here is one Cretan prophet who has seen and spoken truth about their societal degeneracy. Therefore the Apostle Paul, an inspired author of Holy Scripture, acknowledges the truth of a moral judgment pronounced by a pagan who belonged to a culture notorious for deception. [30]

These four biblical themes illustrate the variety of ways in which God weaves strands of common grace into the fabric of human depravity. The spiritual antithesis between faith and unbelief is ever present, and the only bridge from death and alienation to life and reconciliation is the grace of God in Christ. [31] Yet notice the breadth of the intellectual benefits that God lavishes on his enemies: skills in agriculture, architecture, political organization and societal fabric, arts such as music, sciences such as metallurgy, wisdom, and even ethical sensitivity and theological insight.

What, then, are the implications for our interaction with non-Christian thought in the theological enterprise, and particularly in the study of practical theology?

III. Developing the Theology of Ministry at the Intersection of Antithesis and Common Grace

1. Recognize the Complexity of the Issue
A great spiritual antithesis divides humanity into two camps, those born anew and those still dead in sin. Common grace, on the other hand, unites believers and unbelievers as recipients who share various gifts of the Creator’s undeserved benevolence, preeminently the honor of being the creatures made in God’s image. The antithesis and the common grace exert opposing influences on human beings’ intellectual activities, and the intersection of these two forces creates a mixed and complex situation.

The situation is complex because neither Christians nor non-Christians think in strict consistency with their respective presuppositional commitments. Non-Christians have a fundamental, dispositional commitment to suppress the truth of God at all costs, but in actual experience God’s common grace and the undeniable reality of general revelation hold them back from contradicting the truth at every point. By contrast, through God’s special, saving grace Christians have been given a fundamental, dispositional commitment to embrace God’s truth; yet in our actual experience the lingering effects of sin hinder us from consistently thinking God’s thoughts after him. Cornelius Van Til points out that everybody, believer and unbeliever alike, lives inconsistently: the sinful “old man” persists in Christians, keeping our thought from conforming fully to God’s truth, whereas non-Christians’ legacy as creatures in God’s image also persists, keeping their thought from conforming fully to Satan’s lie. Van Til concludes:
The actual situation is therefore always a mixture of truth with error. Being “without God in the world” the natural man yet knows God, and, in spite of himself, to some extent recognizes God. By virtue of their creation in God’s image, by virtue of the ineradicable sense of deity within them and by virtue of God’s restraining general grace, those who hate God, yet in a restricted sense know God, and do good. [32]

This mixed situation is complicated further by the fact that sinful people, whether Christians and non-Christians, react to God’s truth in various and unpredictable ways. John Frame comments:

Sinners fight the truth in many ways. They (a) simply deny it (Gen 3:4; John 5:38; Acts 19:9), (b) ignore it (2 Pet 3:5), (c) psychologically repress it, (d) acknowledge the truth with the lips but deny it in deed (Matt 23:2f.), (e) put the truth into a misleading context (Gen 3:5, 12, 13; Matt 4:6), and (f ) use the truth to oppose God. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that all sinners always use the same strategy. They do not always deny the truth in word or repress it into their subconscious. [33]

This is as true of educated, articulate sinners in the academy as it is of every other brand of sinner. Sinful people who devote themselves to research and reflection, no less than others, try to protect themselves from the convicting light of God’s truth not in a single way but with a range of strategies. This means that we cannot count on non-Christian scholars always to be 100% incorrect in everything they affirm. Nor can we assume that Christians’ observations and interpretations always accurately reflect reality, simply because our starting point is correct.

It would be nice if we could reduce the complexity to more manageable dimensions by distinguishing two distinct spheres of thought: one in which common grace is more dominant, counteracting the intellectual effects of sin in the unregenerate and minimizing the impact of the antithesis; and the other in which the antithesis between faith and unbelief is more dominant. In the first sphere, we would expect that Christians and non-Christians would encounter few worldview-related conflicts, and that Christians could accept the insights of non-Christians with little suspicion. In the second, where the spiritual antithesis is dominant, we would expect that non-Christians’ antipathy to God would taint virtually everything they do and think, so that Christians must be on their guard about any idea or evidence stemming from an unbelieving source.

This bifurcation would correspond roughly to Nature and Grace in Thomistic epistemology, but Reformed thinkers as well have thought in such terms. Peter Heslam summarizes the attempt by Abraham Kuyper, for example, to trace the boundary between these two spheres:

[InKuyper’s Encyclopaedia of 1894] he devoted considerable space to pointing out areas that were common to both forms of science [one rooted in Christian presuppositions, and the other grounded in deism, pantheism, and naturalism]. These included those aspects of both the natural and the human sciences that were chiefly concerned with empirical investigation by means of measurement and observation. These stood at the lower levels of science, in which there were no essential differences between the scientific reasoning of the regenerate and the unregenerate. But as soon as science ventured into areas that dealt with impalpables, palingenesis [regeneration] exerted its influence and science developed along two separate paths. [34]

So Kuyper distinguishes lower levels of disciplined investigation (“science” in the broad sense), which focus on the physical and in which the antithesis between Christian faith and unbelief has minimal effect, on the one hand, from those disciplines that discuss “impalpables,” on the other, in which Christian and non-Christian intellectual enterprises share no common ground.

This distinction has prima facie plausibility. It certainly seems more likely that Christian and non-Christian will be in greater agreement in their observations about a chemistry experiment than they will on the nature of God. Yet Van Til critiques this bifurcation of human research into a lower, physical, common grace sphere and a higher, “impalpable” sphere, in which the antithesis is dominant:

Weighing and measuring and formal reasoning are but aspects of one unified act of interpretation. It is either the would-be autonomous man, who weighs and measures what he thinks of as brute or bare facts by the help of what he thinks of as abstract impersonal principles, or it is the believer, knowing himself to be a creature of God, who weighs and measures what he thinks of as God-created facts by what he thinks of as God-created laws. [35]

We must not underestimate the influence of antitheistic presuppositions on the non-Christian’s processing of even the most apparently objective aspects of the scientific enterprise. Moreover, the biblical themes that we surveyed showed that we must not underestimate the intellectual effects of common grace on unregenerate persons, even when they are thinking about “impalpable” topics such as ethical norms, wise conduct, the nature of man, and the existence of God. Even in such areas as morality, anthropology, and theology, common grace operates alongside the spiritual antithesis, enabling unregenerate persons to arrive at insights as valid as those of some (inconsistent) Christians.

In his extended series of articles on common grace, published in three volumes as De Gemeene Gratie, [36] Kuyper proposed another way to untangle the intertwined influences of total depravity and common grace: a chronological schema for tracing the relative prominence of spiritual antithesis and common grace as influences in human life and society. He proposed that, since all of history must have a direction planned by God to move toward a positive goal, it is reasonable to expect that the influence of common grace will expand throughout history:
Though it pass through periods of deepening darkness, this change [throughout history] has to ignite ever more light, consistently enrich human life, and so bear the character of perpetual development from less to more, a progressively fuller unfolding of life. If one pictures the distance that exists even now between the life of a Hottentot in his kraal and the life of a highly refined European society, one can measure the progress in the blink of an eye. . . . The tendency in devout circles to oppose that progress and perpetual development of human life was therefore quite misguided. [37]

At a later point, however, he nuanced this progressive optimism regarding the expanding light of common grace for the benefit of mankind:

Naturally here too we have to distinguish between the two very distinct operations of common grace. Though ‘‘common grace’’ impacts the whole of our human life, it does not impact all aspects of this life in the same way. One common grace aims at the interior, another at the exterior part of our existence. The former is operative wherever civic virtue, a sense of domesticity, natural love, the practice of human virtue, the improvement of the public conscience, integrity, mutual loyalty among people, and a feeling for piety leaven life. The latter is in evidence when human power over nature increases, when invention upon invention enriches life, when international communication is improved, the arts flourish, the sciences increase our understanding, the conveniences and joys of life multiply, all expressions of life become more vital and radiant, forms become more refined, and the general image of life becomes more winsome. But in the end it will not be these two operations which flourish to perfection in “Babylon the great” [of Revelation—the culmination of rebellious human civilization]. The glory of the world power which collapses in the time of judgment will consist solely of the second kind of development. Enrichment of the exterior life will go hand-in-hand with the impoverishment of the interior. [38]

According to this more nuanced historical model, as history advances the physical blessings of common grace—scientific discovery, technological advance, rising economic standard of living, etc.—increase. At the same time the spiritual and moral blessings of common grace-natural love, virtue, justice, integrity, etc.—diminish. As Kuyper looked back over the nineteenth century, he discerned the change in these two aspects of common grace at work: scientific, technological, economic, and material advance, accompanied by spiritual, ethical, and interpersonal decay. As we look back over the twentieth, we may feel that this nuanced paradigm—“exterior” advancement with “interior” decline—has been even more strongly confirmed, at least in western culture.

Cornelius Van Til, focusing on the “interior” dimension, presents common grace as earlier grace rather than lower grace—belonging to earlier ages of redemptive history, rather than to “lower” spheres of human experience and thought. Before Adam’s fall, “at the very first stage of history there is much common grace. There is a common good nature under the common favor of God.” After the fall, differentiation begins as the elect are distinguished through history from the non-elect through the responses of each group to the conditionality of the covenant. ‘‘God increases His attitude of wrath upon the reprobate as time goes on, until at the end of time, at the great consummation of history. Their condition has caught up with their state.” [39] Common grace will be no more.

Kuyper’s and Van Til’s respective notions of a gradual retraction of the “interior” or spiritual–ethical expressions of God’s common grace toward unbelievers throughout history also have a certain prima facie plausibility. Particularly as we think of history’s end-point, the consummation that will bring the complete sanctification and glorification of the elect and the final condemnation of the reprobate, the description of common grace as “earlier” grace is apropos: on that day the patient waiting of God, his restraint of his just wrath and of human evil from their fullest expressions, will lie in the past. Then the common grace that allowed tares to grow alongside wheat in the field of God’s world will cease at the final harvest that issues in the gathering of the wheat and the burning of the tares.

At the consummation of history the spiritual antithesis between believers and unbelievers will be maximized, and common grace will be minimized to the vanishing point. Does this, however, logically entail a paradigm in which the operation of divine providence in the history leading up to the consummation effects a progressively increasing polarization between believers and unbelievers—a gradual magnification of the antithesis and a gradual retraction of common grace, as though they could be traced as an ascending straight line and a descending straight line on a chart, crossing each other at some “equilibrium” point in world history? To be specific, does this paradigm of common grace as “earlier” grace provide a biblically and theologically persuasive rationale for believing that ancient Egyptian sages, Stoic poets, and Cretan “prophets” were more reliable guides in matters of religion and morality than are twenty-first century non-Christians, simply because those sages, poets, and prophets lived at an earlier point in history, when common grace supposedly had greater influence on the (“inner”) thought of the unregenerate? Is not providence more mysterious than this paradigm suggests? Is not the history of the cultures, west and east, and of Christians’ interaction with their learned non-believing neighbors more complex than this paradigm can explain? [40]

So there seems to be no “neat” and theologically-convincing way to mark a boundary between subject matter in which non-Christian thought is really dangerous (because of its origin in antitheistic presuppositions) and areas in which non-Christian thought is more benign (because common grace holds sway).We have no formula for anticipating at the outset how a particular scholar’s rebellion against God’s truth will manifest itself in his scholarship, or how it may be restrained from error by God’s common grace. In this complex situation, kneejerk rejection of ideas, perspectives, arguments, or evidence simply because their source is non-Christian is not a mark of Reformed and Van Tillian presuppositional vigilance. It may rather be a symptom of intellectual laziness or insecure defensiveness, seeking an easy escape from the arduous and sometimes puzzling task of exercising biblical discernment.

2. Cultivate a Christian Mind
In the absence of a formula, what we need is wisdom from above. Cultivating a Christian mind is not merely a matter of mastering biblical concepts and appropriating a coherent theological system, although these mental disciplines are essential. Biblical wisdom is more than intellectual skill and savvy. It is a gift of God’s Spirit and is bestowed in response to our urgent, dependent prayer. “The Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). The wisdom that distinguished Solomon among the sages of the Ancient Near East was, after all, the “discerning heart... to distinguish between right and wrong’’ for which he had asked God early in his reign (1 Kings 3:7-9). James invites and instructs us to ask God for wisdom, later describing this wisdom from above as “first pure, then peaceable, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (Jas 1:5; 3:17). How striking! We might assume that to navigate these treacherous waters we need a wisdom that is intellectually tough—and we do! But the wisdom that God gives, the discernment that we need, is also interpersonally tender, humbled by grace and teachable.

Teachability is good, but gullibility is deadly. So with our humility we need discernment. We have the mind of Christ to be able to exercise judicious, Scripture-informed discernment (1 Cor. 2:15-16).We need to develop that mind with discipline. Wherever glimpses of truth are found, through whomever they come, they must be situated within the context of the living God, Creator and Redeemer, and his covenantal dealings with humanity. Every claim to truth must be tested as to its consistency with the teachings of God’s Word, in the whole and in each part. Does it cohere with the whole, rich worldview revealed in Scripture, as well as with the specific teaching of the relevant biblical texts? This demands a deepening and disciplined life-long study of Scripture in all of its rich detail. Only by committing ourselves to becoming “specialists in Scripture,” as J. Gresham Machen called us to be, can we cultivate the Christian mind that engages non-Christian thought discerningly.

3. Seriously Engage All Relevant Disciplines and Responsible Thinkers
A Christian mind also engages general revelation seriously. In order to apply Scripture to all of life, we need not only to understand Scripture thoroughly but also to interact at a serious level with those disciplines and thinkers that analyze the situations into which God’s Word speaks. Even perspectives that originate in worldview commitments contrary to God’s Word may stimulate God’s servants to discover in the Word new riches and resources for ministry. The Marxist ideology that animates some social scientists reduces all human experience to economics and class struggle. It may nevertheless stimulate Christian theologians to pay attention to how the Gospel itself addresses issues of economic and social justice. Without such a stimulus, we could lapse into a different kind of reductionism, a docetic or intellectualistic Christianity that ignores Christ’s compassion for whole persons who have bodies as well as minds.

Ancient Greek rhetoric could be manipulative and ego serving. By its standards the Apostle Paul fell short. His delivery was judged inept, and his content was offensive—the message of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:18-25; 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 10:10). Yet Paul’s epistles exhibit a natural (and intentional) eloquence, and those called to proclaim the Gospel do well to notice the strategies that he employed to communicate God’s truth effectively. Moreover, Paul’s writings reveal a mind fully engaged with the intellectual trends of his time, and equipped to bring God’s truth to bear on those trends with informed insight.

Serious engagement with both Scripture and culture demands collaboration and community. We, who have the privilege of study in the seminary setting, know that even here we lack the time and expertise to do justice both to Scripture and to the diverse disciplines that could be consulted to enrich our theology of ministry. Who of us, as individuals, can hope to “seriously engage all relevant disciplines and responsible thinkers”? Much less does the busy pastorate, for which we are training candidates, afford the leisure to gain expertise in the broad spectrum of the humanities and sciences. This is why Christians in the academy and in the church need to be intentional about teaching each other and learning from each other. Christian academics in the liberal arts and sciences need the deepened biblical perspectives that theologians have to offer, and theologians and pastors need to learn from brothers and sisters with expertise in other fields of study. To navigate the intellectual and spiritual rip tides at the intersections of common grace and spiritual antithesis, the church needs to have its leaders and thinkers working together, speaking and listening to one another.

4. Engage without Compromise
A minority community, marginalized by a hostile dominant culture, can preserve itself through isolation or join the mainstream through assimilation. At the dawn of the third millennium Christ’s church increasingly sees itself as a marginalized minority in Western culture, and evangelical scholarship certainly wrestles with its role in the academy. Is there a third alternative, besides isolation and assimilation? I believe there is—but it is harder than either of the others.

Earlier I mentioned the Jewish exiles Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in Babylon. Their presence in Nebuchadnezzar’s court was involuntary, of course. They were in exile from their own land, forcibly removed from a cultural setting that had been influenced by God’s Law. Their exile experience is paradigmatic of the church’s situation in this time between Christ’s comings; for we are called to live in the world as strangers and aliens, dispersed from our heavenly homeland (1 Pet 1:1-4).

What strikes me about Daniel and his friends is the wisdom by which they engaged that pagan culture, without compromise of their primary allegiance to the God of Israel. They were immersed in Babylonian letters and literature, and they excelled in them. Yet they knew where to draw the line: they would not bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar’s graven image, or cease praying toward the temple site in Jerusalem, or even risk violating the Torah’s demand of dietary purity (Dan 2, 6, 1).
Isolation from the unbelieving world might seem the spiritually safe course of action; but it is not an option for God’s exiles, whom God has dispersed as a light to the nations, bringing news of salvation to the ends of the earth (Acts 13:47; Isa. 49:6). Plunged into contact with a dominant culture of disbelief, God’s exiles face the allure of assimilation, the temptation to smudge the sharp line of antithesis that separates loyalty to the Lord from loyalty to his rivals. But God’s exiles are called to follow the risky path of engagement without compromise.

Daniel and his friends foreshadow the final, fully faithful Servant of the Lord, Jesus, God’s Holy One who submitted to the discipline of flawed parents and shared table fellowship with sinners, and even commended the instruction of Israel’s Torah teachers, despite their hypocrisy (Matt. 23:2-3). The strength to engage non-Christian culture without compromise does not come from trying to follow Daniel’s example of courage, but from dependence on Jesus’ grace— special grace, saving grace—by which he was numbered with us transgressors, engaging his fallen, guilty creatures in compassion, while maintaining the uncompromising integrity that qualified him to merit blessing on our behalf, and to endure cursing in our place.

5. Worship Gratefully
When we grasp what grace is about, it not only makes us humble. It also makes us grateful. This is true not only of the special, saving grace that God lavishes on his elect in Christ, but also of the common, forbearing grace that God lavishes— yes, lavishes—on reprobate rebels. No less than “civic righteousness,” the common grace of intellectual integrity exhibited by many non-Christians displays the Lord’s patience, holding humanity back from the brink of destruction. God and God alone deserves all the credit for every wise proverb uttered by a sage, every breakthrough achieved by a scientist, every just verdict issued by a judge, every act of compassion, every kept promise, and every lasting marriage throughout all of human history.

But the greatest riches of common grace pale beside the radiance of God’s saving grace, which embraces all those, from all the earth’s peoples, whom the Father gave to his beloved Son before they created the universe. The divine patience of common grace, which makes a brief life on this cursed earth tolerable and sometimes even pleasant, deserves our thanks and praise. Yet who can begin to imagine the endless, limitless thanksgiving our Redeemer deserves from us who have received his special, saving grace—at the cost of his own life blood? In common grace he deferred our judgment; in redemptive grace, he endured our judgment. His be the glory.

1. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken,

2. John Murray, ‘‘Common Grace,’’ in Collected Writings of John Murray (4 vols.;
Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:93. Originally published in WTJ 5 (1942).

3. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 130-31.

4. Ibid., 133 (emphasis original).

5. Ibid., 134.

6. Under the general category of “common grace” theologians group the various
expressions of the Creator’s benevolence to his creation in general and to fallen humanity in particular, of which Scripture speaks. Herman Kuiper sums up his foundational study of Calvin on Common Grace (Goes, The Netherlands: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1928) by placing the comments on common grace strewn throughout Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries, and published lectures into one of three categories: (1) Universal common grace “which touches absolutely all creatures” and consists preeminently in “the preservation of the various creatures” (181). (2) General common grace toward mankind in general, exhibited in such physical gifts as the rain that falls on just and unjust (Matt. 5:44), such civil gifts as governmental restraint on injustice, and such intellectual gifts as “the light of intelligence with which He adorns men,” despite the impairment of our reason as a result of the Fall (183). (3) Covenant common grace, “a grace which is common to God’s elect and all those who live in the covenant sphere and are members of the covenant of grace taken in its widest significance”— including such blessings as the proclamation of the Word of God (192, 197). Our focus for the rest of this lecture will be on God’s “general common grace” to all humanity, the elect and the reprobate, even those who have never had contact with the Scriptures. Within that category we will focus not on such external common grace benefits as seasonal variation, rainfall and sunshine (Acts 14:17), but on the operation of common grace within the fallen human nature of the unregenerate—on what Murray calls “the paradox of common grace,” namely that on the one hand Scripture asserts that “there is none righteous, no not one” and that on the other genuine (although relative) “good is attributed to unregenerate men” in Scripture (Murray, “Common Grace,” 106 n. 1). Within the subcategory of good attributed to non-Christians we will focus more narrowly on common grace’s intellectual or noetic effects in unbelievers, enabling them to perceive truths about the Creator and his creation despite their antipathy toward the God who is the source and standard of truth.

7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. J. T. McNeill; trans. F. L. Battles; 2
vols.; LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:273-74.

8. Kuyper, Lectures, 121-22. See also Herman Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” in
E´mile Doumergue et al., Calvin and the Reformation: Four Studies (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1909), 119: “Sometimes a remarkable sagacity is given to men whereby they are not only able to learn certain things, but also to make important inventions and discoveries, and to put these to practical use in life. Owing to all this, not only is an orderly civil society made possible among men, but arts and sciences develop, which are not to be despised. For these should be considered gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is true the Holy Spirit as a spirit of sanctification dwells in believers only, but as a spirit of life, of wisdom and of power He works also in those who do not believe. No Christian, therefore, should despise these gifts; on the contrary, he should honor art and science, music and philosophy and various other products of the human minds as praestantissima Spiritus dona, and make the most of them for his own personal use. Accordingly, in the moral sphere also distinctions are to be recognized between some men and others. While all are corrupt, not all are fallen to an equal depth; there are sins of ignorance and sins of malice.”

9. The Canons of Dort, III/IV.4, affirm the reality of the knowledge of God imparted to
fallen man through general revelation and common grace, while also stressing the inadequacy of such knowledge in itself to lead to salvation: “There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In so doing he renders himself without excuse before God” (Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions [Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988], 133). In Reformed circles, however, both the doctrine of God’s common grace to humanity in general (elect and non-elect alike) and the beneficial effects of such grace in the moral and intellectual behavior of the non-elect have been challenged. Note especially the controversy in the Christian Reformed Church that culminated in the “Three Points” of the 1924 Synod of Kalamazoo and the subsequent departure of the Rev. Herman Hoeksema and his allies. That watershed Synod reaffirmed the teaching of Scripture and our Reformed confessional heritage that God shows a “favorable attitude toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect” (first point), and that this gracious disposition is manifested both in God’s ‘‘restraint of sin in the life of the individual and in society” (second point) and in God’s enabling of the unregenerate to perform “so-called civic righteousness” (third point) (Christian Reformed Church, Acta der Synode 1924 [Grand Rapids: CRC, 1924], 145-46). Cf. John Bolt, “Common Grace and the Christian Reformed Synod of Kalamazoo (1924): A Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Retrospective,” CTJ 35 (2000): 7-36; H. J. Kuiper, The Three Points of Common Grace: Three Sermons with Footnotes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1925); Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1947), 23-33. English translations of the “Three Points,” which were formulated and adopted in Dutch by the Synod, are found in Bolt, “Common Grace and Kalamazoo,” 7-8; and H. J. Kuiper, The Three Points, 2, 18, 30. As the rest of this article will show, I believe that the Synod of Kalamazoo had sound grounds for claiming that Scripture and the Reformed confessional tradition support its “Three Points” affirming God’s common grace and its influences in human experience and culture.

10. George A. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant
Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

11. Joel A. Carpenter, “The Perils of Prosperity: Neo-Calvinism and the Future of
Religious Colleges,” paper presented at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government conference on “The Future of Religious Colleges,” Cambridge, Mass., 6–7 October, 2000.

12. Note especially Book 4 of On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana), on which translator R. P. H. Green observes: “The Ciceronian framework is clear, and numerous details show how well Augustine knew the relevant writings. . . . But a catalogue of his allusions would be a poor guide. Augustine is far from accepting Ciceronian theory unreservedly. Just as he heavily adapted the rhetorical notion of ‘discovery’ when outlining his programme, so here he treats Cicero as he sees fit. Indeed, a modern reader might well ask why he relies so much on Cicero in the first place. The answer is not that Augustine is eager to show his learning or the effectiveness with which he can deconstruct a pagan classic—as may be the case in other works—but that Cicero was the embodiment, imperfect but by far the best available, of the divinely instituted truths of rhetoric. Some of what Cicero said is as immovable for Augustine as the truths of logic or mathematics; some is open to modification.” (Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching [trans. R. P. H. Green; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997], xviii [emphasis added]). In a similar vein J. N.D.Kelly highlights the training in rhetoric that John Chrysostom received from the adamantly-pagan Libanios during the former’s early education in Antioch: “. . . [John’s] earlier writings reveal that he had gained at school a first-rate working knowledge of the most admired authors of the classical period and regularly looked to them as models. . . .This legacy of his boyhood is all the more striking in view of the deeply critical attitude which, as we shall discover, he was to develop towards Hellenistic culture” ( J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom—Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], 8).

13. In homiletics courses I suggest that pastors can keep their finger on the pulse of the culture by subscribing to the Mars Hill Audio Journal, a bimonthly taped interviewed series developed and hosted by Ken Myers. The purpose of Myers’s audio journal is “seeking a better understanding of contemporary culture from the vantage point of Christian conviction.” Yet he interviews experts from a variety of backgrounds, and he sees no need to identify for his hearers the faith commitment, if any, of these guests. In January–February 2001 (volume #48), for example, Myers interviews such scholars as historian Jon Butler of Yale University, Sociologist Gary Cross of Pennsylvania State University, and Sociologist Richard Stivers of Illinois State University on such cultural trends as secularism, consumerism, and technology. He assumes that Christian listeners do not need to know the presuppositional starting point of each expert in order to assess their credibility, but can evaluate the observations and diagnoses themselves in light of the biblical worldview. Another recent example of a Reformed appreciation for the fruit of common grace in a non-Christian appears in the February 2001 issue of New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which reprints a message delivered by David Feddes on the Back to God Hour, entitled “Learning from Dr. Laura” (David Feddes, “Learning from Dr. Laura,” New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 22, no. 2 [February 2001]: 8-10, 20). Rev. Feddes expresses appreciation for many of the positions taken by Jewish psychologist Dr. Laura Schlessinger on her radio broadcast, while pointing out that her message falls short of the saving, reconciling, transforming power of the Gospel of Christ.

14. In the Tyndale Old Testament Lecture for 1967 D. J. A. Clines argued that “image of God” against the background of the Ancient Near East should be understood as referring to man’s royal function as divine vicegerent, rather than to the personal attributes that makes man, of all the creatures, resemble his Creator (Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 [1968]: 53-103). Although Clines overstated his case, the royal overtones of the “image” language in Genesis and the related concept of sonship (see Gen. 5:1-2) should be recognized, alongside the traditional emphasis on human resemblance to God—as well as the priestly and prophetic motifs explored by M.G. Kline in Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).

15. The Hebrew word translated “formless” (tohu) in Gen 1:2 (NIV) is elsewhere applied to the “disorder” of the uninhabited wilderness—hence it is rendered “trackless waste” in Ps 107:40 (cf. Deut 32:10). The combination “formless and empty” (tohu webohu) is repeated in Jer. 4:23 to describe the effects of military invasion and exile: a land devoid of people and birds, its fruitful land turned to desert and its towns reduced to ruins (Jer. 4:25-26).

16. John Calvin, A Commentary on Genesis (London: Banner of Truth, 1965), 217.

17. Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (South Hamilton, Mass.: by the author, 1991), 113.

18. The tension between the antithesis and God’s common favor embracing even reprobate humanity appears after the flood in the days of Noah as well. God repeats and elaborates upon the cultural mandate (Gen 9:1-5), again linking it closely to man’s identity and calling as the image of God. In fact, man’s creation in the image of God not only continues to be his distinguishing feature, but it does so in a fallen context in which not only sin but even murder is present: “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6).

As the first creation was followed by a fall, and in the next generation a curse that separated the serpent’s seed from the line of God’s covenant, so also after the flood. Noah’s son Ham responds wickedly to his father’s drunken nakedness, resulting in a curse on his own son Canaan, ancestor of the tribes that Israel would later displace in the conquest under Joshua (Gen 9:20-27). As was the line of Cain after the fall, so it is the rejected line of Ham after the flood that is noteworthy for cultural advancement—but now the signs of civic development are clouded by dark foreshadowings of divine judgments to come. The Hamite Nimrod is singled out both as a mighty hunter “before the Lord” and a world-ruler associated with major Mesopotamian urban centers: Babel, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in Shinar (see 11:2), then Nineveh, Rehoboth, Ir, Calah, and Resen in Assyria (10:10-12). Nimrod’s association with Babel, the site of the soon-to-be-described, aborted attempt by rebellious humanity to “make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:1-9), underscores the antipathy toward the Creator that stained Nimrod’s politico-military achievement. Nevertheless, although the building was aborted by divine intervention, the ziggurat abandoned on the plain of Shinar testifies to the intellectual gifts, including architectural technology and language itself, that still characterize rebellious humanity as image of God.

19. Philo, Life of Moses, 1.20-24 (Colson, LCL), recounts concerning Moses: “Teachers at once arrived from different parts, some unbidden from the neighboring countries and the provinces of Egypt, others summoned from Greece under promise of high reward. But in a short time he advanced beyond their capacities. . . . Arithmetic, geometry, the lore of metre, rhythm and harmony, and the whole subject of music as shown by the use of instruments or in textbooks and treatises of a more special character, were imparted to him by learned Egyptians. These further instructed him in the philosophy conveyed in symbols, as displayed in so-called holy inscriptions and in the regard paid to animals to which they even pay divine honours. He had Greeks to teach him the rest of the regular school course, and the inhabitants of the neighbouring countries for Assyrian letters and the Chaldean science of the heavenly bodies. This he also acquired from Egyptians, who give special attention to astrology.”

20. Derek Kidner even observes: “Daniel excelled the wise men of Babylon as one who stood at the head of their own profession (Dn. 5:11, 12)” (The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1964], 17).

21. In the previous generation Ahithophel the sage seems to provide a noteworthy example of God’s common grace to an unbeliever. Although counselor to King David, he joined the rebellion instigated and led by David’s son Absalom, gave strategic military counsel to Absalom, the enemy of the Lord’s anointed, and committed suicide when his advice was rejected (2 Sam 16:12; 16:15–17:14, 23). No action attributed to Ahithophel in Scripture suggests faith or faithfulness toward God. Nevertheless his wisdom was so extraordinary that David and others justifiably considered his advice to be as reliable as direct revelation from God (2 Sam 16:23; cf. 1 Sam 28:6).

22. Kidner, Proverbs, 16-17.

23. Consider, for example, the following proverb: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Prov. 23:4-5). So says the Israelite sage in inspired Scripture. Now consider this, from the Egyptian document, the Instruction of Amenemopet: “Do not cast your heart in pursuit of riches. Do not place your heart on externals. . . . Riches make for themselves wings like geese and fly away to the heavens” (excerpted from ch. 8 of Amenemopet; cited in Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], 241). For more examples, see J. B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, vol. 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, 234-49).

24. Dillard and Longman, Introduction, 240-41.

25. Ibid., 243.

26. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7.18-21 (trans. Frank J. Miller; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 343. Cf. Euripides, Medea, 1078-80 (trans. Arthur S.Way; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912), 366-67: “Now, now, I learn what horrors I intend: but passion overmastereth sober thought, and this is cause of direst ills to men.” (“Sober thought” might be more accurately translated “my better purposes”
Hence, Medea experiences the conflict of her ‘‘passion’’ qumÒj against her more rational and noble desires, and expects passion to gain the upper hand.) A similar statement by Epictetus (Discourses, 2.26.4) is also cited by commentators, but in context its parallel with Paul’s thought is more formal than substantive.

27. Cited in F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 359.
28. Cleanthes, Fragment, l. 5, cited in C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (rev. ed.; San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 67; Aratus, Phaenomena, 5.

29. The citation is from Epimenides, de oraculis/

30. Another example of an inspired author’s affirmation of a nonbeliever’s theological pronouncement is John 11:49-52, in which the Evangelist records the statement of the high priest Caiaphas, “You do not take account of the fact that it is expedient for you that one man die for the sake of the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” The Evangelist comments that Caiaphas, in his office as high priest, was inadvertently prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation (Israel)— and for all the scattered children of God throughout the world. This prophecy announced by an unbelieving “prophet” is indeed an instance of common grace, but it does not indicate that Caiaphas had even a partial understanding of the real truth he had articulated. Rather, while Caiaphas’ mind was focused on political expediency in relation to Rome, God was sovereignly formulating Caiaphas’s words to create a double entendre by which the priest unknowingly announced the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

31. Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 16.7: “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.”

32. Van Til, Introduction, 27. See also Cornelius Van Til, A Letter on Common Grace (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Louis Grotenhuis, n.d.), 25: “For this reason then we must not hesitate to say that God has a common attitude of favor to all mankind as a generality... we must not fear to assert in the case of the reprobate that though they are ultimately vessels of wrath they yet can be in history, in a sense, the objects of the favor of God. The case is similar with respect to the knowledge of unbelievers and their ability to do that which is relatively good. The fact [is] that they are in principle opposed to God and would destroy the very foundation of knowledge and ethics, yet, in spite of this, because of God’s common grace they can discover much truth and do much good.”

33. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987), 58.

34. Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 182 (emphasis added).

35. Van Til, Common Grace, 44.

36. Amsterdam, 1902–4. Now excerpted and translated into English in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 165-201.

37. Kuyper, ‘‘Common Grace,’’ in Bratt, Kuyper, 174-75.

38. Ibid., 181.

39. Van Til, Common Grace, 83.

40. See John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995), 226-27.

First published in Westminster Theological Journal. Volume 63, 2002.

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