THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD ACCORDING TO CALVIN
Note: During the academic year, 1957-1958, I attended Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and pursued special studies in the area of Christian Ethics, Liturgics, History of the Christian Reformed Church, and Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion.
THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD ACCORDING TO CALVIN
Bassam M. Madany
A Term Paper
S U M M A R Y
A. (I.16.1-5) The Providence of God in the Universe and in Nature:
The Christian faith contemplates the works of God not only in their origin but also in the present government and upholding of this world. Events, no matter what they are, reveal the providence of God. God governs and conducts everything; every creature is submitted to Him. Thus, we receive confidence and comfort. Providence is not foreknowledge; it even presides at the contingent affairs of nature.
B. (I.16.6,7) Special Providence Regarding Creatures:
Special providence is exercised in a sovereign way in the life and condition of every creature, and directs all the particular events of each creature. God Himself directs every flesh, and all creatures, both animate and inanimate, towards the ends which He proposes.
C. (I.16.8,9) This Doctrine Has Nothing to do With “Fate”:
As the Master and Moderator of all things, God executes by His power that which He determines. Even though the order, the reason, the end and the necessity of things escape us and remain very often fortuitous for us, and that future events are uncertain for us, it is very certain that everything comes from the secret movement of God’s hand. Distinction between absolute necessity and contingent necessity.
D. (I.17.1-5) The Meaning and Extent of Providence:
Even though the reason of what comes to pass is often hid from us, the will of God is the most just cause of everything which He does, and should be to us like reason, wisdom and law. But providence does not annihilate man’s responsibility:
a) He should on the contrary take care of the conduct of his life, and use the means which God gives to him for the preservation of his life, since they are the instruments of His providence.
b) Without speculating over the hidden will of God, which he is unaware of, he should always obey the revealed will of God in the Scriptures, which he knows of. Man is therefore responsible for his evil intentions, even though God will use them to execute His judgments.
E. (I.17.6-11) The Fruits of Providence Which God Uses For the Salvation of His Own:
Without denying the value of secondary causes, the believer knows that God, the principal cause, uses His providence for his salvation, and holds in check the hearts and thoughts of men, as well as the devil. In prosperity, he renders thanks to God, and in adversity he receives a spirit of patience, repentance and pardon. He also knows how to witness in gratitude towards those whom God used to do good unto him, considering his own responsibility, contemplating in the same act the justice of God and the iniquity of man, also making use of all means as legitimate instruments of providence; also confiding in God in all circumstance, without fear and distress, since nothing, neither any person nor Satan, can hurt him without the good pleasure of God.
F. (I.17.12-14) Refutation of Objections Taken From the Scriptures:
In what sense do the Scriptures speak of the “repentance” of God and of changes in His will? The language of Scripture accommodates itself to our weakness and to our usages. The threats of God are conditional.
G. (I.18.1-4) Refutation of Three Other Objections:
1. By working through unbelievers, does not God get some of the stains of their vices? Should we not distinguish in God between willing and permitting?
The answer is given through Biblical examples which show what is the providence of God, that God works internally in the hearts of men, and inspires both affections and movements, mainly in hardening the unbelievers, even though these do not cease to be guided by their own will. The Scriptures offer us mysteries to be believed, and not problems to be solved.
2. If God decides in His counsel about things which He defends in His Law, are there not in Him two contrary wills?
The will of God is one, but it seems to us both diverse and changing, but it appears to us thus because it is inaccessible to us. It is the quality of the will which qualifies the act, and God knows how to get good out of evil.
3. If God works through evil men, they are thus unjustly condemned.
If they are condemned, it is because they never had the intention to obey God; their evil willing renders them I inexcusable. We repeat another time: it is the intention which qualifies the act. Biblical examples.
CALVIN’S DOCTRINE OF THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD
According to A. Lecerf, “the task which confronted the Reformers of the sixteenth century was twofold. They had, first, to resist the invasion of the Church by the pagan spirit; and secondly, to restore to the believer the joy of salvation by Christ”.[i] This explains why both Luther and Calvin restated with utmost clarity the Biblical doctrines of Providence and justification by faith alone. They bequeathed a rich heritage to their followers thus enabling them to go through fiery trials with the assurance of their complete security. The doctrine of the Providence of God was very real in the life of all the Protestant reformers. They believed that God not only created the world, but that He remains its absolute Master, and that He intervened in the affairs of the world at every moment.
Calvin’s interest in the doctrine of Providence can be easily assessed in the place it occupies in his commentaries sermons and the Institutes. Chapters 16-18 of Book I deal exclusively with Providence. It is also taught in his Tracts, Against the Libertines (1545) and in the Consensus Genevensis known also as the Tract on Predestination (1552).
We may divide Calvin’s treatment of this doctrine into three parts:
A. The Nature and Extent of Providence (I.16.1 – I.17.5);
B. The Fruits of the Doctrine of Providence (I.1.6-11);
C. The Refutation of Objections to the Doctrine of Providence (I.1.12 – I.18.4).
A. The Nature and Extent of Providence:
Calvin begins this part of the Institutes by saying: “It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed his work once for all, and then left it. Here especially, we must dissent from the profane and maintain that the presence of the divine power is conspicuous, not less in the perpetual condition of the world than in is first creation.”[ii] Thus Calvin insists that the Christian faith contemplates the works of God not only in their origin but also in the present upholding and government of the world. Events, no matter what they are, reveal the Providence of God. He governs and guides everything; every creature is under His submission. “First, then, let the reader remember that the Providence we mean is not one by which they Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks at what is happening in the world, but one by which He, as it were, beholds the helm and overrules all events.” [iii]
Providence should not be thought of as foreknowledge or prescience. On the contrary “Providence consists in action.”[iv] The laws of nature do not function on their own, they have no separate or autonomous existence, they have their God-ordained place. He normally works through these laws, but sometimes He may suspend them or even work against them. There is but one Sovereign in the Universe: He is God the Creator and Sustainer of everything.
F. Wendell has this to say regarding the different aspects of the doctrine of Providence according to Calvin:
“In 1545, when Calvin wrote his Tract Against the Libertines, he distinguished three aspects of Providence which were not maintained with the same care in his later writings, especially in the Institutes. First, Calvin mentions the “Natural Order” according to which God directs all creatures in accordance with the conditions and properties which He Himself had impressed on His creation. To this “universal operation” Calvin opposes “special Providence” by which God operates in His creatures and causes them to serve His goodness, justice and judgment, according to whether He wishes to come to the aid of His servants, or punish the wicked, or prove the patience of His servants or chastise them in a fatherly manner. Thus, special Providence concerns man particularly, and the constant intervention of God in his life. There is no doubt that God uses second causes, Satan and the wicked included, but they are nothing but means by which He accomplishes His purposes. But even here (i.e. in special Providence) we have only the external action of God with respect to man. The third aspect of Providence consists on the other hand in that God ‘governs His faithful, living and reigning in them by His Holy spirit’ which means that it is practically identical to the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. We may rightly see God’s saving grace in this aspect of Providence. By this grace, God transforms and regenerates the elect who are made in a certain fashion the beneficiaries of a new creation. Thus placed under the mastery of the natural order, of special Providence and of the internal operation of the Holy Spirit, the believer finds himself in a complete and absolute dependence on God.” [v]
Calvin insists that they doctrine has nothing to do with “Fate”. “Those who would cast obloquy on this doctrine, calumniate it, as the dogma of the Stoics concerning fate. . . . We do not admit the term Fate, both because it is of the class which Paul teaches us to shun, as profane novelties (I. Tim.6:20), and also because it is attempted, by means of an odious term, to fix a stigma on the truth of God.”[vi] Calvin wants us to submit to the Scriptural truth that even though the order, reason, and necessity of things may escape us and remain very often fortuitous for us, and that future events are for us uncertain, yet we should be convinced that everything comes to us from the hand of God.
Providence does not annihilate man’s responsibility. On the contrary, it establishes it as an integral part of the created order of things. Calvin had to fight on two fronts in order to safeguard the biblical doctrine of Providence. It was not only the mechanistic determinism of the Stoics that he had to contend with, but there was also another danger and a more subtle foe. “Irreconcilable also with this doctrine is the Pantheism of the ‘Libertines’ who taught that there was only one cause, i.e. God, the first cause, translating His will in the individual wills of men, these wills not being at all causes but merely effects.”[vii]
Calvin’s originality in this matter centered in this fact: by God’s creation, conservation and government, He “constituted real creatures which are irreducible to Himself. Among these spontaneous causes, there are some which are moral (i.e. capable of determining themselves in their choices by virtue of a judgment of value) and whose actions bring into being the moral value and the condition of each personality.” [viii]
Calvin’s doctrine of Providence yields therefore two important principles: 1) Man should take care of his life and use all the means which God gives him for the preservation of his life. These means are the very instruments of Divine Providence. “God has been pleased to conceal from us all future events that we may prepare for them as doubtful, and cease not to apply the provided remedies until they have either been overcome, or have proved too much for all our care. Hence, I formerly observed that the Providence of God does not interpose simply; but, by employing means assumes, as it were, a visible form.”[ix]
2. The second principle is this: Man should always obey the reveled will of God in the Scriptures rather than speculate about the hidden will of God of which he is ignorant. Man is therefore held responsible for his evil intentions—as measured by the will of God—even though God will use them to execute his judgments. “The will declared by His word is, therefore, that we must keep in view in acting. God requires of us nothing but what he enjoins. If we design anything contrary to His precept, it is not obedience but contumacy and transgression. But if He did not will it, we could not do it. I admit this. But do we act wickedly for the purpose of yielding obedience to Him? This assuredly He does not command.”[x]
Calvin knew nothing of mere theoretical or speculative doctrines. He was eminently practical. The title which he gives to Chapter 17 of Book I is quite revealing: “USE TO BE MADE OF THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE”. In the French version the title is: “WHAT IS THE AIM OF THIS DOCTRINE IN ORDER THT WE MAY PROFIT FROM IT”. This brings us to the second part of our paper:
B. The Fruits of the Doctrine of Providence:
Calvin devotes paragraphs 6-11 of Chapter 17 (Book I) to show the profit that is ours in taking to heart the doctrine of Providence. He asks us to mediate on this doctrine “that we may thence derive the best and sweetest fruit”. Without denying the value of secondary causes, the believer should realize how that God, Who is the principal cause, uses His providence for his salvation, and holds in check the hearts and thoughts of men as well as of the devil. “The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eyes to Him as the principal cause of events, at the same time playing due regard to the inferior causes in their place”. [xi]
Both prosperity and adversity are in the hands of God. The believer thus learns how to show his gratitude in times of prosperity and how to manifest a spirit of patience and repentance in times of adversity. Calvin notes several well-known passages of Scripture in support of this view and makes the pertinent remark that “the chief aim of the historical books of Scripture4 is to show that the ways of His saints are so carefully guarded by the Lord, as to prevent them even from dashing their foot against a stone”.[xii]
This fact was taken to heart by all the Reformed martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. They applied Calvin’s teachings on Providence in all their severe trials. Their seal for the reformation of the Church was always tempered by their resignation to the will of God. One cannot but admire their heroic struggles and their readiness to die for the Christian faith. “When unjustly assailed by men, overlooking their malice (which could only aggravate our grief, and whet our mind for vengeance), let us remember to ascend to God, and learn to hold it for certain that whatever an enemy wickedly committed against us was permitted, and sent by His righteous dispensation. Paul in order to suppress our desire to retaliate injuries, wisely reminds us that we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but our spiritual enemy the devil, that we may prepare for the contest (Eph. 4:12).”[xiii]
At all times, therefore, the believer is called upon to hold fast to the Biblical doctrine of Providence so as to be delivered from all fear and anxiety. For just as the believer would shudder at the idea of living under “fate” or “chance”, so would he rejoice in the fact that “he can confidently commit himself to God.” Calvin lists a number of the hazards of life in his days—which could be augmented tremendously in our ultra-civilized age—and shows how miserable a man would feel “were he placed under the dominion of chance.”[xiv] Finally, Calvin summarizes the practical issues of this doctrine in the last paragraph of I.17.11: “In one word, not to dwell longer on this, give heed, and you will at once perceive that ignorance of Providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness.”
C. The Refutation of Objections to the Doctrine of Providence:
Calvin ends his treatment of the doctrine of Providence by facing the standard objections which were as old as the life of the Church. In the last three paragraphs of Chapter 17 (Book I) he deals with the objections which are superficially based on Scripture, whereas Chapter 18 is devoted entirely to the refutation of the objections of “natural” reason.
Among those who objected to the way Calvin elaborated his doctrine of Providence, there were some who alluded to the passages of Scripture which spoke of the “repentance” of God, e.g. Gen. 6:6, I Sam. 15:11 and Jer.18:8. These passages as well as others seem to indicate that God did not decree from eternity what He should do with men, but rather He seems to ordain day by day, even hour by hour, what He knows to be good and just according to the personal merit of each individual. But this is not actually true. God in Himself does not change, and whatever He causes to pass—which might appear as completely new, He had already ordained from eternity. “What then is meant by the term repentance? The very same that is meant by the other forms of expression, by which God is described to us humanly. Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of Him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible.”[xv] God accommodates His revelation to our finite nature and to our present sinful condition, and by doing so, He uses words which superficially imply “repentance” and change of mind.
Another aspect of the difficulty would disappear, if we remember that the threatening of God are conditional. They are not to be taken in an absolute fashion. Many times the very threatenings of God manifest His desire for the salvation of men. “Why did the Lord send Jonah to the Ninevites to predict the overthrow of their city? Why did He by Isaiah give Hezekiah intimation of his death? He might have destroyed both them and him without a message to announce the disaster. He had something else in view than to give them a warning of death, which might let them see it at a distance before it came. It was because He did not wish them destroyed but reformed, and thereby saved from destruction.”[xvi]
We should turn now to consider the objections which are mentioned in Chapter 18. We may formulate the first one as follows: By working through unbelievers, does not God acquire some of the stains of their vices? Should we not therefore distinguish in God between willing and permitting?
The answer is given through Biblical examples which show the nature of Providence, and how God works internally in the hearts of men, and inspires both their affections and movements, especially by hardening the unbelievers, even though they do not cease to be guided by their own will.
Calvin refers to the first chapter of Job where “we learn that Satan appears in the presence of God to receive his orders, just as do the angels who obey spontaneously. The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is that he cannot attempt anything without the will of God.”[xvii] Calvin also alludes to the crucifixion of our Lord where we see how that God “had determined what the Jews had executed.” The actions of the good as well as of the wicked are included in the Providence of God. “He not only exerts His power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do Him service.”[xviii] Calvin is aware that many would object to his explanation. Some would plead ignorance of this whole matter and say: “I think otherwise.” Others would say: “I would not have this subject touched”[xix] But we should realize that we are dealing here with one of the mysterious subjects, that of the relationship of the Infinite God and His Providence to finite creatures. Here as well as in other instances, “the Scriptures offer us mysteries to believe, and not problems to be solved.”[xx]
The second objection is: If God determines in His counsel about things we He prohibits in His Law, are there not therefore two contrary wills in God?
Calvin believes that the solution of this problem is in a sense not difficult. In fact he does not regard this objection as directed primarily against himself so much as against the Holy Spirit “Who dictated this confession that holy man Job, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’ when after being plundered by robbers, he acknowledges that their injustice and mischief was a just chastisement from God.”[xxi] Here Calvin does not claim originality, but relies on St. Augustine’s explanation which he deems worthy to be accepted by all pious and modest men. “. . . in a manner wondrous and ineffable, that is not done without His will which is done contrary to it, because it could not be done if He did not permit; nor does He permit unwillingly but willingly; nor would He Who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil.” (Augustin. In Ps.111.2)[xxii]
According to Calvin, ultimately God has but one will. This will appears to us both diverse and changing, but this is so because its essence is inaccessible to us. As far as man is concerned, it is the quality of his will which qualifies his acts. God being omnipotent knows how to get good out of evil.
The last objection which Calvin mentions is: If God works through evil men, and thus accomplishes His purposes, are they not unjustly condemned?
Calvin points to the election of Jeroboam. In a sense it was not God’s will that the ten tribes would revolt against the royal line of David. “And yet we know it was God’s will that Jeroboam should be anointed.”[xxiii] The apparent contradiction is to be solved in this way: “The people could not revolt from the family of David without shaking off a yoke divinely imposed on them, and yet god Himself was not deprived of the power of thus punishing the ingratitude of Solomon.”[xxiv]
Thus if the wicked are condemned, it is because they never intended to obey God. Their evil willing renders them inexcusable in the sight of God. If we still fail to understand the subject we should not be too disturbed. It is taught by Scripture, and this should settle the matter for our perturbed minds. No amount of speculation will help. Therefore, here as well as in the other mysteries of our faith, we may take to heart the advice of the Genevan Reformer by which the first Book of the Institutes is ended: “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy scriptures have delivered. Those who indulge their petulance, a petulance directed against God, are undeserving of a longer refutation.”[xxv]
[i] A. Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Lutterworth, London, 1949, p. 13.
[ii] J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Beveridge), I.16.1.
[iii] Ibid. I.16.4.
[iv] Ibid. I.16.4.
[v] F. Wendel, CALVIN; Sources et Evolution de sa Pensee Religieuse, Paris, 1950. Second part, 4th section on Providence”.
[vi] Institutes, I.16.8
[vii] A. Lecerf, Etudes Calvinistes, Neuchâtel, 1949, « Souveraineté divine et liberté créée » (1932).
[viii] Ibid. p. 17.
[ix] Institutes, I.17.4.
[x] Ibid., I.17.5
[xi] Ibid., I.17.6.
[xii] Ibid., I.17.6.
[xiii] Ibid., I.17.8.
[xiv] Ibid., I.17.10.
[xv] Ibid., I.17.13.
[xvi] Ibid., I.17.14.
[xvii] Ibid., I.18.1.
[xviii] Ibid., I.18.2.
[xix] Ibid., I.18.3.
[xx] J. Calvin, Institution de la Religion Chrétienne, Labor et Fides, Geneve 1955 Prefatory note by editors, p. 178.
[xxi] Institutes, I.16.3.
[xxii] Ibid., I.18.3.
[xxiii] Ibid., I.18.4.
[xxiv] Ibid., I.18.4.
[xxv] Ibid., I.18.4.