The antithesis and common grace dance

Three years before I entered Calvin College as a freshman in 1955, the campus was abuzz with lively if not heated discussions about a significant controversy. It actually played itself out mostly in Calvin Seminary, where at least several professors took opposing stances. The fire was fed by seven Calvin Seminary students, who were derisively referred to as “the sacred seven.” These seven seminary students complained about the unbiblical approach several college professors took when it came to teaching worldly literature. The seven complained that the antithesis was not properly upheld, but that, instead, professors stressed the value of common grace.

When I was a student, we were taught about these two positions in dealing with secular culture. We learned that Abraham Kuyper of the Netherlands believed that God extends his grace to all human beings regardless of their belief in him – that everyone can know truth and do good. This he called “common grace.” As a result we can learn from unbelievers and their writings. On the other hand, Kuyper also stressed that there is an unbridgeable gap between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light – between the special indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of believers and the unregenerate heart and mind of the unbeliever. This he called “the antithesis.” Using these two concepts as tools can be helpful in understanding the culture around us.

The upshot of this controversy at the seminary was that four professors were let go, two of them who stressed common grace and two who put the emphasis on the antithesis. The atmosphere had become too toxic. I read about this conflict recently in former Calvin Professor Henry Stob’s memoir Summoning Up Remembrance, in which he details the struggle that developed around him at that time.

I was at first unaware of all this when I set foot on the old Franklin campus in 1955. And even when I heard about it, I certainly did not expect that the embers of this fire would start a new fire some 15 years later in my own neck of the woods at Toronto District Christian High School in Woodbridge. What happened was that two of “the sacred seven” ended up pastoring churches in our area. In fact, one of them became my pastor. This spelled trouble for those of us whose views differed from his.

For example, I experienced opposition when I taught a secular novel in 1968 at TDCH, which included objectionable language that reflected the spirit of the times we lived in. Although we did not discuss the issue of antithesis and common grace with the board at that time, now that I have read Stob’s account of the Calvin conflict in the early 1950s, I realize that, according to the views of the pastor who opposed me, I must have strayed into the wilderness of common grace. Yet I had tried to uphold the tension that exists between the acknowledgement of the antithesis when dealing with literature as well as the reality of God’s grace poured out over all human beings, also over those who in all integrity try to view their world in ways that put some pressure on my own belief system.

There were other issues at play at that time, such as the influence of the Institute for Christian Studies in Christian education as well as contract issues between the staff at the Toronto District Christian High School and the board. But for the purposes of this editorial, I want to highlight the issue of the antithesis and common grace.

(The crisis at TDCH is extensively dealt with in Adrian Guldemond’s book Inspired by Vision . . . Constrained by Tradition, reviewed in this issue on page 9.)

Today I wonder what role the concepts of the antithesis and common grace play in Christian education in the 21st century. Looking back, I think that the duality of the antithesis and common grace is something we cannot really escape as we teach in Christian schools. But a friend of mine writes: “The antithesis – common grace tension worked in an early-twentieth-century Reformed Western context, but now the world is a different place and we need, I think, new metaphors that speak to a postmodern generation.” Another friend thinks along the same lines when he calls my position “a ‘conservative alert’ to the community.” Are they right?

Do the words of Jesus still guide us today when he said, “[the Father] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” a text we often quoted in explaining what Kuyper called “common grace.” And what about the teachings by Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven standing in stark contrast to the kingdom of Satan, which point to the irreconcilable difference between the regenerate work of the Spirit and the self-preserving work of the human spirit, a difference we identified as the antithesis.

Something in me says that keeping the awareness of the antitheses and of common grace in healthy tension is still important today. It’s not easy to do, I realize. But whether we use other terminology or metaphors, we still face the dilemma of either avoiding worldly literature because we want to stay pure or we indulge in an overly comfortable adoption of secular values.

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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