Blog 45: 2.2.12 - 2.2.17
Grace restores what it did not take away; the restoration, therefore, of the graces of love to God and neighbour, zeal for holiness and righteousness, implies the loss of them by original sin. These supernatural gifts were lost in the fall. But our natural endowments were also compromised, so that they are not focussed on the honour of God as they ought to be.
Our reason, for example, is a natural endowment, and cannot be taken from us. It belongs to us as human beings that we are rational beings. We are not brute beasts. There is an arena in which evidences of our nobility glitter, but they are shrouded in darkness.
One such arena is our understanding. Man searches out his environment, with a longing to establish truth. Yet it stumbles on in darkness, unwilling to embrace or recognise truth. This is what left Solomon's search for wisdom, divorced from God, to be 'vanity of vanities'.
Not that man is entirely without ability. Calvin mentions 'government, household management, mechanical skills and all liberal arts' (2.2.13) as areas in which man can achieve much - even in the darkness. He can frame civic laws and regulate civilised society. There are exceptions, of course, but, generally speaking, man is able to find his way around God's world, as one might find one's way round a darkened room.
What can account for man's natural ability in arts and science but 'the peculiar grace of God' (2.2.14)? Human competence in these areas is not merely to be attributed to God's grace but to the workings of God's Spirit. Only in believers does the Holy Spirit dwell as the Sanctifier; but, says Calvin, He 'fills, moves and quickens' unbelievers to develop genius in the arts and in sciences, and we ought to respect them for it. The difference is that God is not glorified in the pursuit of these natural gifts. Depravity does not mean that we can do nothing; but it does mean that what we can do is liable to be done without any deference to the honour of the Creator.
Whether we call this 'the general grace of God' or God's special grace 'in common nature' (2.2.17), it is evident that the natural endowments of fallen man evidence 'some remaining traces of the image of God'. Slaves we may be, but we noble ones. Human we certainly are, but we are in bondage to sin.