Saturday, May 15, 2010

Protestant Reformed Position regarding Common Grace (35)

Dear Forum members,

I spent the last installment calling attention to two articles in the Reformed creeds, the Canons of Dordt and the Confession of Faith, which have been appealed to in support of common grace. Both articles deal with natural light: the Canons with “glimmerings of natural light” and the Confession of Faith with “a few remains” of those excellent gifts man received at man’s creation.

Setting aside for the moment the question of what is meant by glimmerings of natural light, it is interesting to note that these two articles refute Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s views in at least one respect. You will recall that when we were talking about Kuyper’s view of the fall, we noted that Kuyper’s idea was that if God had not intervened with his common grace, man would, after the fall, have become a beast or even a devil. But these articles teach emphatically that after the fall man remained man. He was just as much a man after the fall as he was before the fall. His essential character as a man did not change. He still possessed a body and soul, a mind and will. He still remained a rational and moral creature responsible for all he did.

But as both articles make clear, man’s spiritual character changed radically. Man lost the image of God, which the Confession of Faith describes as making man “good, righteous and holy.” But man, losing the image, became wicked, perverse and corrupt in all his ways, and all the light that was in him was changed into darkness” (Article 14). He became totally depraved.

What then are the few remains of which the Confession of Faith speaks? and the “glimmerings of natural light” of which the Canons speaks?

It is traditional in Reformed theology to speak of man as a rational and moral creature. That is, he was created with a mind and a will. Because he possessed a mind and a will, he could know God through God’s Word in the creation and worship and serve God as was his calling. His delight was in the Lord his God, and God’s will was his only joy.

Because he was a creature with a mind and will, he was also image bearer. But the image of God is a spiritual concept, in distinction from the natural gifts of Adam’s rational and moral being. The image of God in man included the true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness. Man reflected God’s infinite moral perfections in his own nature, although he did so in a creaturely way.

The Confessions teach that when man fell, he lost the image of God entirely. The Confession of Faith puts it this way: “We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will, agreeably to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin. . . . And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God. . . ” (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 588).

Those excellent gifts, which man lost are the image of God in man, namely, knowledge, righteousness and holiness, These are attributes that belong to God but which are given graciously to man at his creation. The Confession of Faith teaches that man lost the image in its entirety. Many defenders of common grace hold to the fact that man retained some remnants of the image because, so they say, the “remnants” and “glimmerings” of which the confessions speak are remnants and glimmerings of the image of God. It is also true that some have, as I said, included rationality and morality in the image of God, and thus refer to the fact that man retained some remnants and glimmerings of these attributes that make man a man. There is no objection to that view, but just as soon as one says that man, even after the fall, retained some elements of the image of God, he is bound to add that man retained some remnants of the knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness.

Scripture never says that rationality and morality belong to the image of God in man, and it is wrong to include them in the image.

So it is that Reformed theologians have sometimes distinguished between the image of God in man in the “broad” sense, and in the “narrow” sense. By the former is meant, in addition to knowledge, righteousness and holiness, also rationality, morality and sometimes, immortality. (See as an example, Louis Berkhof, Manual of Reformed Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1933] 129, 130) But our Confessions do not make that mistake, and there is no ground for such a distinction in Scripture (See Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10).

This does not mean that rationality and morality are not important. Rationality means that man is a thinking creature; morality means that man possess a will, which is finally decisive in man’s moral conduct; that is, in doing good or evil. Man can be an image bearer of God only because he has a rational, moral nature. A tree or an animal cannot be an image bearer. Rationality and morality, and thus the ability to be an image-bearer belong only to man.

When man fell, he lost God’s image. But that does not mean that he is no longer an image bearer; he is. The terrifying reality is that man, instead of bearing the image of God, now bears the image of Satan. The true knowledge with which he was endowed was changed into the lie, for Satan is a liar from the beginning. The righteousness of God in man was changed into unrighteousness, and his holiness into corruption. Jesus speaks of this when he tells the Pharisees, those model law-keepers: “Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him, When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar and the father of it.” (John 8:43, 44). Children bear the image of their father; children of Satan bear the image of Satan. The Pharisees were of their father the devil.

Our confessions, summing up the doctrines of Scripture on the fall of man teach that, although man lost the image of God, man remained man. Abraham Kuyper was terribly wrong when he denied that. The tragedy of the fall is that man fell and became a sinful and corrupt man. He is not a beast; he is not a devil; he is a man. There is no need for the introduction of a common grace in order to preserve his manness. As the devils, after they fell remain fallen angels, so man, after he fell, remains man.

Because he remained a man, he also remained a rational and moral creature who is capable of being an image bearer – though now of Satan; but always one in whom the image of God can be restored. He is rational and he is moral. He has a mind and a will. He can know things and he can make choices. He is responsible before God for what he does because he is rational and moral.

Now the Confessions say, about man’s rationality and morality, that he retains a few glimmerings of these powers. Or, as the Canons put it, he retains glimmerings of natural light – note: not spiritual light, but natural light, light that belongs to his nature. Remnants and glimmerings are not much. One finds remnants when moths have spent a whole year in eating a fur coat and only a few drooping tatters are left. Glimmerings are like the flickering flame of a candle when compared to the sun. So, although man brags endlessly about his powers of intellect and will, he doesn’t possess much any more in comparison with what Adam possessed in Paradise. Even his natural powers are severely reduced till almost nothing is left.

Such devastating erosion of man’s natural powers is due to the curse on the creation and on man, and the total spiritual corruption of his nature, including mind and will. The consequences of man’s sin were dreadful indeed. Even learning, thinking, figuring things out, understanding the creation, penetrating the mysteries of God’s world, remembering what he learned, organizing his knowledge -- all these operations of the mind are performed with the utmost difficulty and with strenuous labor. He is prone to mistakes, easily deceived by appearances, led down wrong paths in his thinking, and only recovering after many trials. Man at his best is not much.

How true this is when men adopt the theory of evolution as an explanation of the origin of things. Evolutionism, on the surface, is ridiculous and unable to explain many obvious things in the creation. But men swear by it, promote it as absolute truth, explain all things by it and even hate those who oppose it.

The same is true of the powers of the will. Man has only “glimmerings.” He can choose between going to church and staying home to sleep; he can choose between buying a Volvo or a Kia. He can choose between eating radishes or a t-bone steak; he can choose between being a physicist or a brain surgeon. But that is about all. He cannot choose between doing good or doing evil, for his will is enslaved to sin. The will has lost its greatest power, the ability to choose for God and live in joyful and willing obedience to the Most High. Now his choices are limited, minor, insignificant matters, in no way of any importance either in the history of the world or in his own 70 or 80 years in the world. Because his will is no longer able to make the one important choice that makes all the difference in his life now and forever; all he possesses are “remnants.” Sin has chained his will in the service of Satan.

Even in a broader sense, his powers of will are limited. If he is a drunkard, his will is powerless to turn him to sobriety even if he knows that the path he takes is self-destructive. The drug addict is even in a worse condition. Homosexuality, though leading to sexual diseases, is preferred by him, even when he realizes the dreadful consequences of his life. These choices for sin in opposition to decent and healthier behavior are only natural choices. His will is weak. He does not have much will-power.

Nevertheless, his glimmerings of natural light are sufficient to give him “some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil.” He “discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” (Canons 3/3.4).

Let us look at that list of things he can know and do. According to Romans 1, he can know that there is a God and that that God alone is to be worshipped and served as the only true God – as we already noticed was taught in Romans 1:18ff. He can know some “natural things,” such as 2 + 2 = 4 and that a walnut tree produces a different kind of a nut than a pecan tree produces. According to Romans 2:14, 15, he can know the difference between good and evil: the difference between living all his life with one wife, never forsaking her, never marrying again if she should forsake him; the difference between putting money into the bank and robbing the bank. This knowledge of the difference between keeping the law and breaking the law is not the only difference between knowing what is good and what is evil. The unregenerated man knows what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing. He knows that he must worship God alone and that all idolatry is sin – even if he cannot and does not do what God commands. But even this knowledge he suppresses in unrighteousness.

The Confession of Faith (Art. 14) speaks of the fact that the unregenerated man by knowing these things is without excuse. He is judged righteously by God when he is consigned to everlasting darkness.

Does all this mean that man, apart from saving grace, can do good that is pleasing in the sight of God? It does not. When all that the natural man is capable of doing is evaluated by the Canons, the conclusion is: “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God” (Canons 3/4.4).

So we can only conclude that common grace is wrong, seriously wrong on two counts: it errs when it describes the effects of sin on man at the time of the fall and thus creates room for the intervention of common grace. It is wrong when it interprets the natural light of which the creeds speak as being spiritual light. It thus denies the truth of total depravity.

With its wrong interpretation of key concepts in Scripture, common grace paves the way for a thorough-going Arminianism. May God save us from that pernicious error.

With warmest regards,

Prof Herman Hanko

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