Reading Secular Literature through the lens of …Common Grace?!

GuidetoClassics-LRykenAs we continue working our way slowly through Leland Ryken’s book, A Christian Guide to the Classics (Crossway, 2015), we are up chapter 9, where he treats “secular classics” (pp.80-90).

Of late we have examined the section where he considers “how not to read a secular classic.” He made some valuable points and we benefited from his thoughts.

The next section takes on the positive side of this –  “How to Read a Secular Classic,” and the author’s opening  paragraphs will be of interest to our PR readers – and we hope, to others too. The reason being that Ryken introduces the doctrine of common grace here, a doctrine the PRC rejects, and for good reasons (for more on that, read the material on common grace on the PRC website, such as on this page).

But, first, let’s allow Ryken to explain why he thinks we need the doctrine of common grace in order to properly read a secular classic:

My first piece of advice may surprise some of my readers, but it is a settled conviction based on years of experience. To read secular classics we need to be thoroughly convinced of the doctrine of common grace. This doctrine is explicitly (though not abundantly) stated in the Bible and has been championed by the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition. The doctrine of common grace holds that God endows all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, with a capacity for the true, the good, and the beautiful.

At this point, the author states that he does not want to try and prove the doctrine from the Bible, but he does quote Calvin to the effect that “the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts,” and “all truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”

Now, I might pause right there and say that Calvin is not talking about common grace. He doesn’t use the term, for he understood that grace puts one in the camp of salvation (and the work of Jesus Christ, God’s Savior), and that’s anything but common; it’s particular, reserved for those to whom God sovereignly wills to show and give His saving grace (cf. Romans 9 and Eph.2 for starters). Calvin speaks of “gifts,” and with that we fully agree. Don’t confuse God’s “gifts” with “grace” and call it common, because grace is always highly special and limited in its scope, while also being efficacious – it saves those on whom it is bestowed.

But, yes, of course, God is the source of all the wicked’s talents and abilities too. His mind, his skills, his ability to write good stories that reflect real life, even with its bitter taste of sin in all its dimensions and consequences, are gifts from God, bestowed through God’s general providence, not through His particular grace.

There is much more that could be said in that connection – about why God gives the wicked these gifts and what purpose they serve, both for them and for believers. But we stop here for now, and let Ryken have the “last word” – at least for now:

The importance of common grace for the literary enterprise is immense. It means first that we do not need to inquire into the religious orthodoxy of an author before we can affirm what is worthy in an author’s work. Wherever we find the true , the good, or the beautiful, we can applaud it. This is far from universally accepted by Christians. Among earnest believers I often sense an uneasiness, if not outright hostility, toward works of literature authored by non-Christians. The doctrine of common grace leads us to conclude that we can and should spend time reading secular literature as well as Christian literature for our edification and delight [pp.86-87].