The Reformed paradigm has suffered no damage greater than its deficient development of the doctrine of common grace.
The cause for this deficiency was the struggle to preserve its hard-won position, a tireless battle with pen and sword. Wrestling to dislodge the ecclesiastical monopoly of Rome required such incredible effort in France, the Netherlands, and Scotland. In addition, the Anabaptist movement arose in Western Europe, while Northern and Eastern Europe periodically faced the extremely hostile opposition of Lutheranism, as well as Arminian and Erastian agitation in our own land.
This is how, already in its earliest decades, Reformed ecclesiastical, political, and intellectual life came under severe pressure after its remarkably quick blossoming. When finally, by their stout resistance, Reformed people in the Netherlands and in Scotland had secured their freedom of existence, their robust strength was exhausted. Along with their success came a sense of ease that enervated them and diluted any ardor for pursuing the ideal. This explains why all their doctrinal energy was initially concentrated on endless polemic, leading ultimately to endless repetition of doctrinal platitudes.
After 1650, little doctrinal development occurred, either in Switzerland, the Netherlands, or Scotland. After the earliest flowering of Reformed life, not one original talent blossomed in the doctrinal field. The stream of Reformed thinking that had once flowed so freshly across the plains of religious thought dried up. What had begun earlier with breadth and vastness withered into narrow-minded, truly byzantine investigation, the kind of inspection that lacks even the resilience to go back to the root of the Reformed idea. With their narrowness, people were simply repristinating their well-worn polemic against Arminianism, hardly noticing any of the new challenges that have arisen. In this way the connection with the past was lost, and people became isolated from the ethos of their own time. This explains why there has been hardly any influence on the present era. People have quarantined themselves within their own circle, positioning themselves beyond reach of the forces driving cultural life. All the while, the barrenness of hairsplitting within their own ranks has awakened a reaction within their hearts. In various quarters the opposition toward all such intellectualistic biblical learnedness could no longer be averted, and resulted in disjoining what, in the sixteenth century, had been unified.
At the present time a change has occurred in this regard, among us at least. Historical investigation into the Reformed foundation has been reawakened, with the result that people have discovered this memorable truth: initially Reformed people had emphasized various principles that they had developed broadly and logically, looking very much like an all-embracing worldview, one that possessed enough flexibility to determine our own internal attitude amid the contemporary generation in this century.
What had seemed initially to offer merely historical value acquired significance as being intensely relevant for today. In addition, the pressing question arose concerning the relationship between the Christian life, as we understood it, and the life of the world in all of its manifestation and diversity. How could we restore our influence on this common life, an influence that at one time had extended so widely but regrettably had later been lost? The answer to that question would not arise from a process of give-and-take, but had to be derived from the Reformed paradigm itself. An investigation had to be launched regarding what creative idea had originally governed Reformed people in their relationship to the non-Christian world, a study every bit as practical as it was theoretical.
Every Anabaptist sect had systematically isolated itself from the world. In opposition to this, Reformed people had chosen as their guiding principle the apostolic notion that “all things are yours … and you are Christ’s” (1 Cor 3:21, 23), and had self-consciously invested themselves, with unusual talent and surpassing resilience, into the full range of human living amid the tumult of the nations. This defining character trait, standing out prominently in the history of all of Western Europe, could not have been accidental. The explanation for this character trait was to be found in its comprehensive and dominant foundational conviction. Accordingly, the identity of this governing foundational idea had to be investigated.
This investigation showed with immediate and indisputable clarity that this foundational idea consisted in the doctrine of common grace, an idea deduced directly from the sovereignty of the Lord, a doctrine that is and remains the root conviction for all Reformed people. If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit. The non-Christian world has not been handed over to Satan, nor surrendered to fallen humanity, nor consigned to fate. God’s sovereignty is great and all-dominating in the life of that unbaptized world as well. Therefore Christ’s church on earth and God’s children cannot simply retreat from this life. If the believer’s God is at work in this world, then in this world the believer’s hand must take hold of the plow, and the name of the Lord must be glorified in that activity as well.
Therefore everything came down to resuscitating the rich foundational idea embodied in the doctrine of common grace.
Precise formulation of this doctrine could occur only after all the historical and doctrinal material relevant to this doctrine had first been carefully assembled and organized in terms of the Reformed paradigm. I have tried to the best of my ability to perform such a task in this work on common grace, offered in these volumes to Reformed churches around the world. A comprehensive and well-ordered presentation of the material was most important in this regard. What needed to become apparent was just how extensive this Reformed foundational conviction is, extending across the whole of human living.
Therefore I have divided the material into three sections. In the first section, common grace in its origin and operation must be objectively demonstrated. In the second section, theological reflection must focus on this subject, so that what has earlier been identified in its substance needs now to be illuminated doctrinally. Finally, in the third or practical section, we must bring to light the significance of this doctrine for living.
Spiritual isolation and ecclesiastical isolation are equally anti-Reformed. This work will have achieved the goal I have envisioned only when it ends such isolation without, God forbid, tempting believers to lose themselves in that world, a world that may not hold dominion over us, but rather a world within which we in the power of God must exercise dominion.
Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World: The Historical Section