If anybody knows anything about Calvin, it is that he believes God to be the ultimate author of history, good or bad, with all of its twists and turns. Though not obsessed with it as some might think, he does devote a significant section of Book I of the Institutes to the doctrine of providence, defends it in a number of special treatises, and addresses it all throughout the commentaries. One particular passage grabbed my attention when I first read through the Institutes, though, when I was yet early on in developing my Reformedish tendencies.
Theologians, especially those concerned that God not be considered the author of evil, tend to make the distinction between God causing a thing to come to pass directly, or merely “permitting” it to come to pass. While elsewhere Calvin seems affirm a proper place for this distinction, he’s not too keen on those who would try to rob God of his sovereign governorship over all things by using the doctrine of permission to get God off the hook for human wickedness. Although they are fully responsible for their choices (Institutes I.17.2-3), not being compelled by some Stoic fate (ibid, I.16.8), men and women make the choices they make according to the “secret plan of God.” Calvin’s beef is with a permission that teaches “that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence.” God’s providence does not admit of a passive permission in which he simply lets things happen, but rather it is active permission according to his own secret plan, for his own good will.
Calvin backs this up with a battery of scriptural examples and texts, but he opens with the story of Job:
From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 ]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments.
-Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.18.1
The reason this passage was so fascinating to me was that it called my attention to a single instance where three wills were at work, each a key component in the action, and all for different purposes. At the human level we see the Sabaeans out of a simple human lust and wickedness pillaging and looting in order to satisfy their own desires. Satan was at work as well, goading the Sabaeans in order to afflict Job and cause him to curse God, thereby proving him wrong. God actively permitted Satan to goad the Sabaeans in order to, well, we don’t have the full reasons, but at the very least, prove Satan’s accusations wrong and vindicate the righteousness of his servant Job. The same event is the result of God’s good divine will and the two wicked wills, demonic and human. God is just in his determinations, and yet Satan and the Sabaeans are utterly wicked in theirs.
This is not the way we’re used to thinking about things. Regularly we’d try and figure out, “Well, who’s really responsible here? Who caused it? It’s either God, or the devil, or humans, so which is it?” Or we’d try and parse it out and say that this part was God, this part was Satan, and this part was humans. That’s not what we see in the text, though. Instead, it seems to point us to God working out his own will through wicked demonic and human wills at the very same time.
Calvin moves on to cite the stories of the lying spirit and King Ahab (1 Kings 22:20-22), Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate and wicked men by the plan of God (Acts 2:23, 4:28), Jeremiah’s declaration that the Chaldean’s cruel invasion was God’s own work (Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25), and a half-dozen other instances where human wickedness is also credited to God’s good purposes in history. As Calvin says, “Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies.”
I’ve wrestled myself for a number of years as to just how God’s sovereignty and our real, human freedom play out. Of course, the Scriptures don’t resolve this tension for us, nor does Calvin; they just let the it hang there. The conclusion I’ve come to is that both are in the Bible and any solution that too heavily pits the one against the other–either minimizing or limiting God’s control, foreknowledge, & so forth, or those hyper-Calvinists who would call all human freedom a chimera–are reading against the grain of the text. None of this is an answer, of course. I still go back and forth between a more deterministic conception of compatibilism, Molinism, and something I don’t think I really have a name for.
What Calvin does is ensure that whatever our answer, it must be one that reckons with the fact that there are no runaway wills in God’s world; his “permission” is an active one, and he does not stand idly by, wringing his hands in distress, or waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. Again, this is the God of the Gospel who didn’t just stand by and let his Son be crucified by wicked men, but purposed according to his own plan and foreknowledge to save the world through these things.
Soli Deo Gloria