Common Grace: From the Ivory Tower to the Tractor Company

From the Ivory Tower to the Tractor Company image

By Richard J. Mouw

This post is excerpted from “Getting the trophies ready: serving God in the business world,” an essay which first appeared in the Journal of Markets and Morality Spring 2015 issue. In this essay, Mouw discusses three “Kuyperian spheres” of service: academia, business and the church.

Most of the time, most of us make the linguistic transitions in our daily lives quite smoothly. We work alongside our colleagues, stop at the grocery store to make a purchase, go home to a family meal and then relax in front of our TV sets as spectators in the world of athletics. In all of that, we encounter different languages. How we talk at the workplace differs from our meal table conversations, and the vocabulary of the commentators on ESPN is yet another pattern of speech. We typically navigate all of that with no awareness that we have successfully made our way through a variety of Kuyperian spheres.

Sometimes, though, the boundaries between spheres are crossed only with great linguistic difficulty. This has certainly been true often in encounters among scholars in the academy and practitioners in the business world. As an academic who has often done some traveling between those two spheres, I can testify to the fact that communication between inhabitants of the two spheres has not always been easy. Sometimes it is simply a problem of understanding each other’s language, but frequently the difficulties are rooted in deeper problems.


Bridging the Conversation

I can testify, wearing my academic hat, that we often have had difficulty talking to and about business practitioners because of a suspicion about what we think is really going on in the marketplace. Sometimes the suspicion has to do with a discomfort in the presence of wealth. Many of us have started our academic careers with significant financial debt, and we see ourselves as awkward financial managers. Sometimes the suspicion is more ideological in nature: To be trained in the academy is often to hear quite a bit of anticapitalist rhetoric, embodied in oversimplifications of what competition and profit-making are all about. Understandably, then, leaders in the business community often avoid any kind of dialogue about business practices with the “left wing” intellectuals who inhabit their “ivory towers.”

Where those antagonisms prevail, it can be tough on the people who teach business in colleges and universities. Either they occupy some kind of uncomfortable middle space, or they are forced to move in one or the other polarized direction. There has been much in our presentations and dialogues about how best to work in engaging in this complex task together, and my assignment is not to add more content to what we have already received but to tie things together by reflecting a bit on what we have witnessed here, as well as to encourage us all to keep at the important task of kingdom witness in these important areas of human interaction.

Some of the most productive conversations I have had on the subject of common grace were with Bob Lane during his ten-year stint as the CEO of the John Deere company. Bob got in touch with me shortly after he read my book on common grace. Several times I traveled at his invitation to the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois, for some engaging theological discussion about the relevance of Kuyperian thought to the selling of tractors, combines, and other farm equipment. Bob had found in the theology of common grace a helpful fleshing out of a key insight he had learned in Arthur Holmes’ philosophy class at Wheaton College—the profound claim that Holmes also chose as the title for one of his books: “All truth is God’s truth.”

As the CEO of a large international company, Bob worked with a team of key managers who represented a wide variety of religious and worldview perspectives: Muslims, Hindus, Confucians, Christians, Jews, persons who claimed no religious faith at all, and many others. The theology of common grace allowed Bob to see this not simply as a diversity to be tolerated but as a positive blessing from the Lord. If that sounds a bit too optimistic to some of our theological ears, it is important to be reminded of John Calvin’s own perspective on these matters.


Calvin and Common Grace

Many of you know that the doctrine of common grace has been much debated in the world of Dutch Calvinism. Those of us who defend the doctrine insist on going back to Calvin himself as the source of this important teaching. Even though the great Reformer had established himself as a defender of the doctrine of the “total depravity” of fallen humanity, he managed to express appreciation on many occasions for the contributions of non-Christian thinkers.

Before his evangelical conversion, Calvin had studied law, and he never lost his respect for the ideas he had gleaned from the writings of various Greek and Roman writers, especially Seneca. In his Institutes, Calvin observed that there is an “admirable light of truth shining” in the thoughts of pagan thinkers. This means, he said, that “the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness,” can still be “clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.” Indeed, he insisted, to refuse to accept the truth produced by such minds is “to dishonor the Spirit of God.” For a punch line that we defenders of common grace especially like to quote, Calvin says that there is “a universal apprehension of reason and understanding [that] is by nature implanted in men,” and when we see this ability to understand important things correctly at work in unbelievers, we should celebrate this as a “peculiar grace of God.”

This goes well beyond the kinds of things that are usually associated with the idea of common grace: things like the fact that God sends rain to nurture the crops of both believing and unbelieving farmers, and that even very wicked governments often manage to do some things that promote human flourishing. All of that can be explained simply by the work of divine providence—God’s use of bent sticks to draw a few straight lines.

Calvin sees this common grace operating inside unbelievers. They actually think some correct thoughts and are—at least in some areas of human inquiry—lovers of truth. Kuyper nails down this idea of the inside dimensions of common grace in this wonderful passage: In addition to the purely external operations, he says, common grace is at work “wherever civic virtue, a sense of domesticity, natural love, the practice of human virtue, the improvement of the public conscience, integrity, mutual loyalty among people, and a feeling for piety leaven life.”


Common Grace for All

In the business world, then, we need to recognize that we can discover insights into truth, stewardship, promotion of human good, healthy employee practices, and the like from those who do not name the name of Jesus Christ. Kuyper’s important emphasis is also affirmed by his younger colleague Herman Bavinck, who wrote that because of common grace there is “[s]ometimes a remarkable sagacity . . . given to [unbelievers] whereby they are not only able to learn certain things, but also to make important inventions and discoveries, and to put these to practical use in life.”

That wonderful insistence on the reality of common grace, as a favorable disposition of God toward all human beings, is a blessing received from the Reformed tradition—although we can also find variations on our common grace theology in other theological traditions as well. For those of us who endorse the Reformed doctrine of common grace, however, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that it is not enough to approach the kinds of issues we have been wrestling with here as if we are the only ones who have access to the truth about the practical concerns and challenges of the human condition.

Originally published in Religion & Liberty