All That God Cares About
Common Grace and Divine Delight
- ISBN: 9781587434754
- Published By: Brazos Press
- Published: June 2020
If the frequency with which Richard Mouw writes on “commonness” is any indication, it is safe to say that it is the central theme of his work. In fact, Mouw tells us as much in the opening pages of his 2016 memoir. All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight is his second book that deals specifically with the Christian doctrine of common grace. It is his personal aggiornamento, or updating, of this central theme.
A theologian and philosopher in the Reformed tradition, Mouw has a knack for translating the obscure, intramural debates of Dutch Calvinism for a broader audience. That is precisely what he does in this book as he examines the doctrine of common grace and its development in the neo-Calvinist tradition. Mouw sees his neo-Calvinist stream of the Reformed tradition as embodying an approach to culture that he labels as “creative engagement,” as opposed to the “theological protectionism” evident in other parts of the tradition. These sorts of pithy distinctions are found throughout the book (and all of Mouw’s work), and they help to crystallize the issues surrounding otherwise obscure debates.
By giving careful attention to theological controversies between Dutch theologians in the 19th and 20th centuries and sustained in the 20th and 21st centuries by Dutch immigrants in North America, Mouw seeks to articulate an understanding of common grace that can encourage a robustly shared public life between those inside and those outside the church. The book charts two competing emphases in the neo-Calvinist tradition, the “antithesis” and “common grace.” Pointing to theologians like Cornelius Van Til and Herman Hoeksema, Mouw identifies a stream of the tradition that stresses the antithesis—the dividing line between believer and unbeliever—to the point of practically denying any common or shared values. It is tempting to dismiss such a radical pitting of the religious against the non-religious as backwards fundamentalism.
And yet, if we consider the radically polarized character of our public and political discourse, and how little common ground or shared values there seem to be on the social issues that matter most to people, it might be wise to pause and reflect deeply on this mindset. Even as Mouw treats the concerns of the “antithesis” party seriously, he looks back to Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck for examples of Dutch theologians who maintained a creative tension between antithesis and common grace. There has been a flood of English translations of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s works in recent years (thanks to the Abraham Kuyper and the Dutch Reformed Translation Society), and Mouw mines these resources effectively to discern a doctrine of common grace that can equip the broader evangelical world to appreciate and participate in the Spirit’s work outside the walls of the church.
The core question of the book is this: Is God’s work of common grace a gift of restraint or one of delight. That is, does God’s grace manifest itself to unbelievers by simply restraining the worst consequences of human depravity, or does God truly delight in the lives, work, and communities of those outside the church? Mouw attends carefully to Calvinistic perspectives that would see the doctrine of original sin as all but destroying any basis for valuing the contributions of non-Christians. While treating their concerns seriously, Mouw comes to a drastically different understanding of the relationship between original sin and common grace. As an example, he points to eggshell pottery, “paper-thin porcelain vases that were delicately crafted with intricate designs,” by Chinese artists around three millennia ago (64). Here is a cultural product produced with no possibility of contact with the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, and yet Mouw insists that “the Lord took delight in the talents of the artists themselves in crafting this pottery and wants us to delight in them as well” (64). He applies this insight to “low” culture as well as “high” culture. As with things produced, so with the people that produce them. Common grace affirms that God delights in the virtues of all human beings, whether they are found inside or outside the church. At a moment when North American evangelicals are quick to denounce any social or political viewpoint that is not explicitly Christian (think of the derisive use of the terms “social justice warrior,” “critical race theory,” “Marxist,” etc.), it is an insight that is sadly necessary. Mouw’s version of common grace gives a Christian rationale for valuing and celebrating the lives, concerns, work, and viewpoints of all people.
I’ll note one final area of concern for Mouw, relating to the topic of divine generosity. Reaffirming what he wrote in his 2000 Stob Lectures on the topic, he takes pains to preserve the distinction between common grace and saving grace. Mouw states decisively, “I am not a universalist” (146). Even while making room for the Spirit to work positively through non-Christian religions (and appealing to John Calvin for support), his vision of neo-Calvinism does not see all religions as equally salvific. This is one area where some readers will be justifiably disappointed with Mouw’s aggiornamento project. The universalism that he rejects is not well defined, and it does not account for recent Christian discussions of universalism—or to employ the term used by David Bentley Hart, “universal reconciliation”—that take seriously the distinctive truth claims of different religions while still making room for the possibility that redemption’s reach will be universal in the final count.
Mouw’s mastery of the debated doctrine of common grace is thorough, and his proposals are offered with clarity and in a spirit of unfeigned generosity. His affirmation of God’s delight in diverse cultures and ideologies stands in stark contrast to so much evangelical public engagement. However, those convinced of some version of universalism will surely wish that Mouw’s emphasis on divine generosity would have been enlarged rather than qualified.
Andrew C. Stout is the Public Services librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary.Andrew StoutDate Of Review:July 29, 2022