Cultural Apologetics: Common Grace and Antithesis

John Calvin is generally regarded as the originator of the concept of common grace. He was searching for an answer to the question of how unbelievers who are entirely corrupted by sin can be intellectually endowed and can contribute to art, science, and other social goods.

Calvin taught that art and science are excellent benefits given to every man by the Spirit of God as he wills for the common good of mankind. He anticipated the objection to the Spirit’s interaction with unbelievers when he said that God “fills, moves, and quickens all things by the power of the same Spirit, and does so according to the character that he bestowed upon each kind by the law of creation.”[1] As a result we can be helped in many scientific disciplines pursued by unbelievers, and we ought to use their assistance. The usefulness of unbelievers’ minds and talents reveals  “some remaining traces of the image of God, which distinguish the entire human race from the other creatures.”[2] Yet, said Calvin, at the same time we enjoy the fruits of common grace in the lives of unbelievers, we cannot forget that they are completely in darkness when it comes to spiritual truth. “For wherever the Spirit does not cast his light, all is darkness.”[3] The antithesis between the truth and the unbeliever’s rebellious and autonomous attempts at an alternative is absolute.

Understanding this theological truth helps us to assess the behavior of the unbeliever more accurately. Everything an unbeliever does, thinks and says either reveals his attempt to live as if God did not exist, or it reveals the truth of God that he cannot restrain. The cultural expressions of unbelievers, therefore, either reflect an obvious attempt to suppress the truth (which can serve as a display of the truth of the fallenness of man), or the cultural expressions reflect the unsuppressed image of God in man. In the latter case, the cultural expression accurately displays truth, even when the creator of it is not a believer.

This approach to culture, then, gives no carte blanche approval to any cultural expression (not even classical music and high art), since it also recognizes that even the best culture is produced by sinners. Every cultural expression must be evaluated by the criteria of to what degree does it reveal, obscure or deny the truth. Rather than a simplistic approach, then, a more nuanced (and I believe, biblical) approach is needed. Culture ought to be evaluated on how clearly it expresses the truth. Now, obviously there are limits to this. Scripture is clear that we are not to set our eyes on wicked or worthless things (Ps. 101:3; 119:37; 101:7). We are not to converse about those wicked things that are done in secret (Eph. 5:11-12). Displays of gratuitous violence and nudity, and anything that glorifies wickedness are strictly forbidden. However, this does not preclude appropriately accurate displays of the wickedness of evil, the destructive nature of sin, the ugliness of pride and greed.

In Part 4 we will look at specific examples of cultural expressions by unbelievers and how they can be used as apologetic tools in reaching unbelievers with the gospel.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill,  trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 2.2.16.

[2] Ibid., 2.2.17.

[3] Ibid., 2.2.21.

About Mark Farnham
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

2 Responses to Cultural Apologetics: Common Grace and Antithesis

  1. Pingback: What I Read Online – 07/26/2012 (p.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  2. Pingback: What I Read Online – 07/26/2012 (p.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

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