The biblical teaching on common grace is related to yet somewhat distinct from other issues, such as the cultural mandate, general revelation, and natural theology. The long and short of it is that what Paul teaches us in Romans 1-2 is that we have enough revelation in creation and conscience to condemn us for not believing in God, but not enough to save us. Special revelation and the Spirit of God is needed for us to move from darkness to light. But we can still praise God that all people can have SOME insight and understanding of the good gifts God has bestowed upon us.
While not popular in some quarters, I am a firm believer in the doctrine of common grace. The simplest biblical passage on this would be Matthew 5:45: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” See my introductory piece on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/08/on-common-grace/
The doctrine is especially found in Calvinist/Reformed circles. Before turning to Calvin himself, let me mention just one Reformed writer and literature professor who I had mentioned yesterday in my piece on Christians and fiction: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/12/09/christians-and-fiction/
Leland Ryken in his chapter on “Calvinism and Literature” (found in Calvin and Culture edited by David Hall and Marvin Padgett (P&R, 2010) says this:
As with the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of common grace represents a distinctive contribution of Calvinism to literary theory. Whereas the doctrine of creation speaks particularly to the production of works of literature, common grace relates more to the reading and study of works already composed. Nearly all of the writing on common grace has been produced by theologians in the Calvinistic (and even Dutch) tradition – Calvin himself and names such as Hodge, Berkhof, Kuyper, Van Til, and Osterhaven. The doctrine of common grace holds that God endows all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, with a capacity for the true, the good, the beautiful. Calvin himself is the best starting point…
Before looking at what he said, let me point out that some (certainly Calvin critics) might try to argue that given his views on total depravity, there would be no room for such a thing as common grace. But that is to misunderstand what he said on this. Total depravity does not mean we are all as bad as we can possibly be, but that sin has affected every area of our lives.
Calvin had written about common grace in various places, including in his commentaries. Here I will confine myself to his Institutes. The whole second chapter of Book 2 could be offered here, but I will feature just some relevant quotes from sections 14 to 17:
- Next come manual and liberal arts, in learning which, as all have some degree of aptitude, the full force of human acuteness is displayed. But though all are not equally able to learn all the arts, we have sufficient evidence of a common capacity in the fact, that there is scarcely an individual who does not display intelligence in some particular art. And this capacity extends not merely to the learning of the art, but to the devising of something new, or the improving of what had been previously learned. . . . Though natural to all, it is so in such a sense that it ought to be regarded as a gratuitous gift of his beneficence to each. Moreover, the invention, the methodical arrangement, and the more thorough and superior knowledge of the arts, being confined to a few individuals cannot be regarded as a solid proof of common shrewdness. Still, however, as they are bestowed indiscriminately on the good and the bad, they are justly classed among natural endowments.
- Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity?