Friday, January 15, 2010

The view of "Restraint of Sin in Natural Man" (27)

Dear forum members,

The common grace doctrine of the restraint of sin originated with Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Prior to his work in this area little or nothing was ever said concerning such an evidence of common grace in the hearts of men. But the Christian Reformed Church, in 1924, took over this doctrine from Kuyper and included it in its official statement concerning common grace.

The history is briefly this. In 1834 a separation took place in the one National Church in the Netherlands called De Hervormde Kerk (The Reformed Church). A number of those who were a part of this otherwise sound, separating movement held to the doctrine of the gracious offer of the gospel. When immigrants from the Netherlands, who had belonged to the churches of the Separation (De Afscheiding), came to this country in the 19th century some of them took with them the idea of a gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel. These churches, when established in America, became the Christian Reformed Church.

Kuyper led another secession from the State Church, independent of the churches that had separated from the State Church (Hervormde Kerk) in 1834. His separation took place in 1886. People who were followers of Kuyper also came to America. But they came, not with the notions of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer, but with Kuyper’s version of common grace. Most of them also became a part of the Christian Reformed Church. They, under the spell of Kuyper, were excited about making America a Reformed country by permeating all the institutions of society with the Reformed faith.

Their presence in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) created strong divisions in the CRC between the older immigrants and the Neo-Kuyperians. When I was in Calvin College in the late Forties and early Fifties, I had a Dutch teacher who had lived through that conflict and who was still fighting that decades-old battle. He was a Neo-Kuyperian and had no use for the older immigrants who held only to a gracious offer of the gospel to all who heard it. He told us that the CRC came very close to a split at the time the controversy raged most fiercely.

The height of this controversy came about at the same time Herman Hoeksema was criticizing the whole idea of common grace. He had entered the ministry early in the first years of the controversy and, under the pressure of other circumstances, had paid close attention to the debate. He had come to the conclusion that Neo-Kuyperianism was contrary to the Scriptures, but that also the idea of a gracious offer of the gospel was a perilous introduction of Arminianism into the churches.

Hoeksema, a contributing editor of The Banner (the official church paper of the CRC), wrote against common grace, especially the Neo-Kuyperian brand. When he began his writings, no one took issue with him. But this changed when he was instrumental in forcing from his position a professor in the Seminary who openly taught higher critical views of the Bible (especially the Old Testament, his specialty) and did so on the grounds of Kuyperian common grace. While the professor (Dr. Ralph Janssen) was relieved of his position in the Seminary, the many followers of Janssen, some of whom Janssen had taught, were furious with Hoeksema for the role he had played in ousting Janssen. Their support of Janssen was, in large measure, rooted in their delight with Kuyper’s views on common grace. And so, imbued with these notions of common grace, they determined to drive Hoeksema from the denomination. They made common grace an issue in the church.

Other leaders in the church saw the controversy between Kuyper’s common grace and the older brand that emphasized a gracious gospel offer as a splendid opportunity to bring peace between the two warring factions. And so, when the case against Hoeksema for denying common grace came to the Synod of 1924, three doctrinal statements were drawn up, which, when adopted, included both the gracious gospel offer and Neo-Kuyperian common grace. The first point of the three points defines and officially states as Biblical and confessional doctrine the old ideas that date back to the Afscheiding (Separation) of 1834. It taught a general favor and love of God for all men made known especially in the gracious gospel offer. The second and third points define and claim as Biblical and confessional truth the restraint of sin in the hearts in the unregenerate and the subsequent good these unregenerate are now capable of doing because of the restraint of sin. So the 2nd and 3rd points brought Kuyper’s common grace into the official theology of the CRC.

The decisions in 1924 on common grace meant that the battle between these two viewpoints in the CRC was over and peace between the two camps was made – but at the cost of a serious and dangerous departure from the truth.

The second point of the three points, that deals with the restraint of sin, reads: “Relative to the second point, which is concerned with the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community, the synod declares that there is such a restraint of sin according to Scripture and the Confessions. This is evident from the citations from Scripture and from the Netherlands Confession, Arts. 13 and 36, which teach that God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remains possible, while it is also evident from the quotations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology, that from ancient times our Reformed fathers were of the same opinion.”

The decision, as I said, solved the problem of the violent disagreement within the CRC; but at a cost too high to pay. On the other hand, the subsequent deposition of Herman Hoeksema became the immediate occasion for the establishment of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC).

The fact is that there were many in the CRC who did not agree with either the gracious gospel offer or with the common grace of the Neo-Kuyperians. They were solid and staunch defenders of the sovereign and particular grace of God, given only to God’s elect. Some, if not a majority, were followers of the Kuyper of particular grace and wanted no part of the Kuyper of general grace. And so, while the decisions adopting common grace brought unity to the warring factions in the CRC, these decisions also had the beneficial consequence, in the wonderful providence of God, to unite the orthodox under Hoeksema’s teachings, so that a new denomination could be formed that held to the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace.

* * * *
We turn now to Kuyper’s teaching concerning common or general grace. (These teachings can be best studied in English in Henry Van Till, The Calvinist Concept of Culture [Baker Book House, 1959], Henry Meeter, The Basic Idea of Calvinism, 6th edition, revised by Paul A. Marshall [Baker, 1990]; Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Stone Foundation Lectures [Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company] 1943.)

Kuyper began with the fall of Adam and Eve. It was his judgment that the common grace of God became manifested immediately after the fall. He claimed that the consequences of the curse upon Adam and upon the creation would have been so dreadful that, if it had not been for common grace, this world would have been uninhabitable and man would have become a beast or a devil. Hoeksema describes Kuyper’s view in these words – a summary of Kuyper’s teachings on this point in Kuyper’s work, De Gemeene Gratie (General Grace) : “He (Kuyper) explains that such a restraining, checking, preserving operation took place upon the nature of man from the moment of the fall in Paradise. If there had not been such a restraining operation of common grace, immediately after the fall or concomitant with the fall of Adam and Eve, man’s nature would have been totally corrupted there and then. Adam would have turned into a sort of a devil and the earth would have been changed into hell. The life and development of human society would have become an utter impossibility. But the Spirit intervened at once by his restraining grace. He did not permit human nature to become wholly corrupt. He left a seed of his original goodness in man’s nature. He stemmed the tide of corruption in man’s heart. Man did not become wholly darkness. He did not fully die. Some light was left him. Some life remained in him. And thus it is to be explained that in things natural and civil man lives a relatively good world-life that he strives for truth, justice and righteousness. He is able to do good in this present life” (Herman Hoeksema, A Triple Breach: in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth. A Critical Analysis of the “Three Points,” adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 [Grand Rapids: The Reformed Free Publishing Association; reprinted, 1942] 53, 54).

In a footnote to the paragraph quoted above, Hoeksema writes: “Dr. Kuyper employs here the well-known figure of a person that swallowed a dose of Prussian blue and whom (sic) is given an antidote. When God said in Paradise; ‘the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,’ this must not be understood as a threat and announcement of judgment, but as a friendly warning. Man, however, eats of the tree. Now, as someone gives his friend, whom he warned, but who nevertheless swallowed the Prussian blue, an antidote to save his life, so the Lord gave man the antidote of common grace, so that he partly vomited out the corruption of sin and death and did not become wholly depraved” (Idem).

An interesting question is: Where in Scripture is such a dire description of the consequences of the fall found? Without common grace, man turning to a devil? Without common grace this earth becoming a hell? But that must wait for a later discussion.

Louis Berkhof, one of the authors of the three points of common grace, wrote shortly after the controversy a paragraph explaining what was meant by the restraint of sin. He writes: “In the restraint of sin the general operations of the Holy Spirit are fundamental in importance. They (fallen men) maintain the glimmerings of natural light, that remain in man since the fall and through which he retains ‘some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. They cause the seed of external righteousness to bear fruit, but do not implant into the heart the seed of regeneration. This operation of the Spirit is not a creative operation but assumes the character of moral suasion. It makes man to a certain extent receptive for the truth in as far as it (the truth) still influences him from his own consciousness. It presents motives to the will, impresses his conscience, makes use of inclinations and desires that are present in the soul, and causes the outward good that is still remaining to come to development” (This quotation is from Louis Berkhof, De Drie Punten . . . page 37. I am using the translation found in Hoeksema, The Triple Breach . . . , page 49, 50).

It is worth noting that, according to Berkhof, the work of the Holy Spirit in His restraint of sin, also works some positive good things in the nature of the sinner – although never regenerating him.

But we will come back to this in the next letter.

With warmest greetings,
Prof Hanko

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