Common grace in business: putting these four words together implies a link between theology and enterprise, the existence of which is barely evident from the output of most theologians and business writers. The long-standing paucity of engagement between these groups reinforces the widespread perception that trying to mix commerce and religion is like trying to mix oil and water.
Against such a bleak background, it is timely for an anthology on business and economics to appear made up of writings by Kuyper. This is especially the case given that he is increasingly known around the world as the theologian of common grace. In an era in which the sphere of business has risen in significance for human beings worldwide, this reputation raises the question of how Kuyper saw that grace at work in business.
Common grace was, in fact, a means Kuyper used to break the stranglehold that was keeping business and theology separate. Judging by his critiques, this bifurcation was as much a feature of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Netherlands as it is today in many parts of the world. He railed against forms of Christianity that made no difference to the way people operated in the workplace, leaving the work of Christians indistinguishable from that of non-Christians. Misconduct in business and in the handling of money served only to show believers to be hypocrites. For Christians to restrict their faith to matters of the soul allowed business to be regarded as an unholy distraction rather than as a dignified profession.
Kuyper’s positive view of business includes his ideas about economic freedom and the role of regulation, organized labor and the role of guilds, the eternal value of earthly work, stewardship and philanthropy, economic globalization, business as a “mediating institution” between the individual and the state, the workings of God’s grace in business, the social function of money, and the calling of business.
Common Grace at Work
In business, Kuyper explained, giftedness works as God raises up exceptional leaders who grow their operations in accordance with their talents and with the opportunities they perceive. Such people stand out from their contemporaries in having “clearer insight, a greater practicality, a more powerful will, and a greater degree of entrepreneurial courage.” In exercising these gifts, they help others flourish and ensure that their ideas and inventions outlive them in society. All this, Kuyper insisted, is the result of common grace, which works in a specific way in the sphere of commerce, just as it works in a specific way in other spheres: “Common grace extends over our entire human life, in all its manifestations. … There is a common grace that shines in the development of science and art; there is a common grace that enriches a nation through inventiveness in enterprise and commerce.” As these forms of common grace take effect, they raise the standard of social life; enrich human knowledge and skill; and make life “easier, more enjoyable, freer, and through all this our power and dominion over nature keeps increasing.” While these developments inevitably provide additional opportunities for sin, common grace has raised human achievement to new heights through the invention of tools and machines, the division of labor, and the harnessing of nature to generate steam power and electricity.
In the light of what is now known about the impact of carbon-intensive industrialization on the natural environment, Kuyper’s appreciation of human power over nature appears to be insufficiently nuanced, revealing him as a child of his times. It is clear from the context of his words, however, that foremost in his mind is the centuries-long progress human beings have made in procuring such basic goods as food, shelter, energy, transport, and health. In terms, by contrast, that sound well ahead of his times, he averred that the potency of common grace to foster such progress, and the cultural development it facilitates, lay in the fact that humans are made in the image of a God whose essence, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is diverse and relational. This imago Dei acts as a “seed” within diverse human beings that only germinates through their social relationships. It thereby permeates culture, including “all kinds of business undertakings and industry.” Clearly, for Kuyper, business joined all other aspects of culture in reflecting God’s creation of human beings in the divine likeness, an act that fills these beings with awesome potential.
Particular Grace at Work
If the image of God in human beings is not restricted to Christians, and one of its effects is that it helps business flourish, what role did Kuyper reserve for particular grace within the commercial sphere? Here the distinction he made between the church as institution and the church as organism is of special relevance.
Kuyper taught that the institutional form of the church is found in its statutes, laws, offices, and registers, all of which facilitate the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and acts of charity. Closely associated to this form of church is its rich organic form that finds expression in wider society, including in families, businesses, science, and the arts as believers live and work in those spheres. A Christian, he taught, is not merely a church member but a parent, a citizen, an employer, or an employee. As such, they “bring to bear the powers of the kingdom in their family life, in their education, in their business, in all dealings with people, and also as citizens in society.” Whereas the church as institution is distinct from society, the church as organism “impacts the life of the world, changes it, gives it a different form, elevates it and sanctifies it.” This is especially the case when the life of the institutional church is most vibrant.
As an example of this occurring in practice, Kuyper highlighted the Dutch Republic (1581–1795), a period in the history of the Netherlands often associated with the heyday both of Calvinism and of commerce. Not only were Dutch farmers at this time the most advanced in Europe, Kuyper maintained, but Dutch merchants were renowned for their honesty and integrity. He attributed these characteristics to the power of the Word of God and of divine ordinances that were widely preached and shared in their midst.
This power put Christian nations at an advantage and helped account for the contribution they had made to human development: “a rich development of the life of the soul arising from regeneration joined with a rich development proceeding from the life of common grace.” The potency of this mix of graces was not only demonstrated in these nations by their high level of care for the poor and the elevation of women but also by a highly developed business sphere. The attributes of such countries derive from particular grace but operate in the sphere of common grace. Despite his readiness to admit that impressive business development had been achieved outside the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Kuyper was clearly of the view that business’ best prospects were served when the workings of particular grace and common grace converge.
This post was adapted from Peter S. Heslam’s volume introduction to On Business & Economics by Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press, 2020).