Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seminar Series "Common Grace" and General Revelation: Post #1

Last Monday was a wonderful discussion and debate about G.C. Berkouwer's book General Revelation. First off I must say that although I do not agree with Berkouwer on many points, he is an excellent scholar and theologian. He also did a very nice job interpreting Barth, and he did so quite fairly. Berkouwer's book starts with an introduction and background to General Revelation and then moves on to Barth's offensive against Emil Brunner and Natural theology and then to Brunner and Althaus's reaction to Barth. He examines the "Nature Psalms," discusses the ideas related to revelation and knowledge, revelation and the law, revelation and illumination, article II of the Belgic confession, and finally Universality and particularity in relation to revelation. This is a very thorough book that I would recommend to anyone interested in studying General Revelation, "Common Grace," and for a better understanding of the critique of Barth and Barth's argument.
        In my seminar this last Monday we discussed Berkouwer and the relationship between revelation and grace. I am coming from a Barthian background, and the rest of my colleagues and Dr. Mouw are all Neo-Calvinist's and for the most part Kuyperian's. I am widely out numbered. But, as I suspected we had a fruitful conversation and discovered that we do indeed have many similarities. Once again the crux of our theological engagement is mostly do to the use of language. Primarily the use of the words "grace" and "revelation." For Barth these two words are not only inseparable, but also unique in there relationship to each other and to Christ. For Barth "grace" involves "revelation" and vice versa. What makes these two unique is there direct relationship to Jesus Christ. For Barth grace is salvific and has been uniquely revealed in the revelation of his own being in the person of Jesus Christ. So, revelation has to necessarily include grace and the revelation of God himself. Christ is not just the giver of grace, he is grace itself, he is not just the one who imparts revelation, he is revelation itself.
"Only in the incarnation God himself comes to us and that we, therefore, only in this respect are dealing with real, actual revelation. 1" As you can see our problem has to do with language. For Berkouwer and the Neo-Calvinist school, grace does not exclusively have to do with Jesus Christ in the sense that Christ saves us, but there are also "good" things in creation which are also graces. What they mean here is not that grace is salvific in the created order, but that God's good gifts are abundant and made evident. Grace in this sense, is the act of God sustaining, preserving, and providing within creation. The problem for Barth and Barthians alike, is the word "grace." Grace is unique to Jesus Christ and therefore cannot be applied to another. Also, grace is in direct relation to revelation. Therefore, the idea of General revelation assumes grace, and the idea of "common grace" assumes revelation. This is problematic because it does not ontologically ground revelation and grace exclusively in Jesus Christ. This implies, as does natural theology, that creation, on its own, has the capacity for revelation and its reception in itself. We cannot ground revelation or grace in creation and its foundation cannot be anthropological, rather it must be Christological. Because of this distinction Barth is often considered a "christo-monist." Although this term can be a bit overstated, Barth and Barthian's alike are content with the centrality, and even exclusivity, of Jesus Christ as the "one" Word of God, and therefore one grace and one revelation.
           Now, if we were to take away the word "grace" from "common grace" and "revelation" away from "general revelation," there would not be a blockade between these two traditions. In Barthian terms "common grace" is the good things that are common between the believer and the heathen. This is on account of the grace of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. "Common grace" is the active work of the resurrected Jesus Christ in creation. It is the rain that falls on the unjust and the just to produce crops, it is gifts received in any manner by all people, it is simply things that God created to be good. But, these things are good and are upheld only because of Christ. Without Christ they would not be good because they would not be attainable. What we have here is not grace, but "common good" and "common witness" created by Christ for Christ and bearing witness on account of Christ to Christ. In General Revelation, we do not have revelation, but witness and testimony. General revelation imparts no knowledge of God's being and character, but testifies and bears witness to Christ' saving act. This witness and testimony is not revelation of grace, "It is at most the herald of the King, but not the King itself. 2" "Common grace" and "General revelation" in Neo-Calvinist terms are not in fact "grace" and "revelation" in Barth's terms.
        My conclusion to this whole conversation is that, maybe we cannot agree on the use of these terms, but that we can agree that these "things" are on account of the work of the living Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. So, for Barth this testimony, witness, and goodness in creation are possibly because of Christ and instituted in creation by the Holy Spirit. In this we cannot separate the eternal work of Christ from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is, we can not abstract Christ's actions from his being. Therefore we must attribute both Old and New Testament witness and present and future witness to the work of Christ by means of the Holy Spirit on account of the grace of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Old Testament witness bore testimony to the act of Jesus Christ, the New Testament proclaimed it, and the present and future witness recall and remember it. These things are possible because of Christ and are not "grace" and not "revelation," but witness and testimony actualized by the Holy Spirit. This directly links all "grace" all "revelation," and witness and testimony directly to the work of Christ. So, we really do have much in common, it's merely a matter of how we state things. Finally I would officially restate "common grace" as "commonness," that which is common and good for the the believer and unbeliever, and "general revelation" as "general witness," that which bears witness to the saving act of Christ and is done by the power of the Holy Spirit. I hope this was helpful and informative. Please feel free to comment.

1. G.C. Berkouwer, Generarl Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955) 101
2. G.C. Berkouwer, 25