Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I started a fracas (yes, a fracas) on my Facebook page. It concerns our old friend, the phrase "common grace" in Reformed theology. This is one of the most problematic ideas anywhere in theology. It's not like "actual grace" in Catholic theology, a grace that moves a person toward sanctifying [that is, justifying] grace. In fact, if you were one of the "vessels prepared in advance for destruction," this would be horrible, because in Reformed theology, common grace doesn't of necessity lead to saving grace. In fact, I don't think there's a connection at all. This strikes me as the divine equivalent of healing Westley so he's strong enough to be started on "The Machine." There's a huge difference between being beneficent and providential toward those who hate you, and being gracious in the systematic sense. God is either giving utterly useless graces on purpose to the damned (if that Reformed predestination hoo-ha is true) or grace can be resisted. And another thing, Reformed theology: it's pretty dumb to call the gifts and talents of natural people the fruit of "common grace" because you'd be indirectly saying that grace was necessary to recover the image of God in people, which would make us not human, forget saved. But this confusion happens when you conflate natural and supernatural.


Timothy R. Butler said...

As I noted on your FB profile, the Reformed usage makes sense given the range of the word "grace" in the English language. Not the least offense intended, but the problem you are running into is trying to import a Catholic definition of grace into the English word grace (and/or Reformed word translated grace). The English word is not so narrow. The OED defines it broadly, and, like I said, there is no better authority on what a word means in our rather fluid language than the Oxford English Dictionary (since we have no direct equivalent to l'Académie française).

I again return to my point that many of the issues we discuss are ultimately about semantics and I think we need to be very cautious there. The words don't matter -- the meaning behind the words matter. The Bard nailed it: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..."

Example: say you hang your hat on why one should reject Protestant tradition on a set of words that appear mangled in English. And then you end up a Jesuit missionary to the Congo (yeah, I know, but just imagine) -- and their words don't work that way... Then what?

Perhaps the Reformed world would be better off calling Common Grace something else, say, "ecarg nommoc." But, having changed the word does nothing to the meaning. The bigger question: does God work only through supernatural means or, as the first cause, does all the natural workings of the world also depend on his providence? And, if they do, what shall we call those natural workings upheld by God's will?

Jason said...


My concern is why there is a "Reformed world" at all, if we may find our differences largely semantic and linguistic. But this is not the case. Our forefathers did not regard the distinctions as minor differences in words. What we must forthrightly ask (in addition to the question of whether they were right) is whether the stakes are high enough to sustain a protest whose positions we cannot reasonably vindicate.

Timothy R. Butler said...

Hi, JK,

Well, I do think we can vindicate our forefathers' positions (and I continue to maintain the responsibility for schism falls upon the corrupt, not those who depart under moral compulsion). But, my semantic point is this: our differences exist, but are smaller than the language suggests. Common grace is a case in point. If you reject the idea because grace is a saving act, and common grace does not save, your rejection is based on a narrower use of the term "grace" than the English language's standard usage (and, I would content, the Reformer's usage). Now, whether the underlying idea of God's providential care needs to be debated is another matter. But, I think recognizing the linguistic and semantic issues are important, because otherwise we spend our time as a divided church debating using (effectively) different languages. It is much better if we figure out how we might "translate" each other and then discuss the substantive differences.

I.e. it is better to debate the signified than the signifier.

Principium Unitatis said...


The problem with the term 'common grace' is that it conflates nature and grace, by treating what is of nature, as though it is of grace. Even if referring to homosexual unions as 'marriage' becomes common, that won't make it marriage. The term 'marriage' will, in that case, be being misused. Likewise, the use of the term 'common grace' to refer to nature, is a misuse of the term 'grace,' because it does not correspond to reality, but misrepresents reality.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Timothy R. Butler said...

But again, we must ask what we mean by grace. The English word is not by any means the opposite of nature. (Nor should it be, I suspect.) As Mat 5.44-45 notes, both the sun's light and rain come by God's provision. Nevertheless, we would not deny these are natural phenomena. As Hamlet says, "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow."

I think the problem, again, is a lexical one. Hence, why I refer back to the OED, which is far more of an authority on English than you or I. Now, if marriage were changed as a term, we would be forced to find a new term, but we could hardly say the term was being misused. Words throughout history have come and gone. Now if someone says a Biblical view of marriage includes homosexual marriage, that is a different matter.

But, if God's providential care preserves our natural world, is that not grace? I posted a short quote about this on my blog earlier, before I saw your reply, incidentally.

The peace of Christ be with you also.