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 the doctrine of providence as some might think, he does devote a significant section of Book I of the Institutes to it, defends it in a number of special treatises, and addresses it all throughout the commentaries. One particular passage on Job 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 (cf. Commentary on Genesis 3:1), 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 would try to 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 cleanly 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, and power 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 have for years gone back and forth between a more deterministic compatibilism, Molinism, and something else I’ve never really had a name for.
What Calvin does in this passage is ensure that whatever your 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
I’ve found in responding to these issues of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the more emotional the subject being examined in light of these, the more we tend to want to back off on saying God’s will was being done here in some sense. The problem is that we don’t get to pick and choose what things God willed or was actively permissive about. At the end of the day, i think we need to simply confess that we don;t know all the reasons why something happened or didn’t happen while always reaffirming that God is absolutely in control.
Yeah, getting caught up in the specifics, especially in the midst of tragedy is a fool’s errand sometimes. We are not God and we simply don’t know.
These are some good insights. I came through the same material to the same insights; however I didn’t think Calvin would be on board, at all, with the idea of ‘permission’, even the active sort. However, despite Calvin’s perhaps distaste for the word (and his chapter on how it is such a wicked(!) idea), there is a sort of “active permission”. I can’t think of a better phrase to contain the idea.
Like you say though, this is no case-closed kind of answer, we just can’t understand the scope and breadth of a Divine Will (if we can even call it such). We have to let it hang.
Yet, this can tend to rejection or fear at such a prospect. Despite Augustine and Calvin’s protestations, this sure sounds like fatalism. However, when doing some study on the topic of election, I found Athanasius describe Christ as the living will of God. I think this upends both Fortune, or Fate, and rightfully so, but also places hope within the hands of our kindly and good king. This Christocentric reading escapes the terror of a faceless, passionless, First Mover god of the philosophers.
Good 2 cents. I think that last bit is surely something Calvin would commend–election and providence always need to be read through the Christ. Looking at Jesus you can know that God’s rule of history is good.
I am not a Calvinist (though I did read the Institutes). I’m uncomfortable when people try to confine God to their ‘image’ of a good God. Yet, I find difficulty in “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. I find difficulty in Job. Where was God during the Holocaust? A common Jewish answer is that God cried alongside the Jewish people. (Why they fail to include the Russians, Poles and other innocents saddens me.)
I find difficulty in a God whose heart is not saddened by the sins of man. You say that it might be a fool’s errand to wrestle with this, and you may well be correct. I hear the God of Job, and He tells me that I cannot possibly understand Him. I surely do not. I am grateful for His love and for His son. But if I am to worship Him, if I am to love and follow Him, I can’t just brush aside the God of the OT. If I tell others of Him, I need to have a better answer to the question of evil than, “I have no idea,” even if the good news is Jesus Christ.
That section of the Institutes is a great glimpse into Calvin’s approach to this matter, though his more mature presentation can be found in a lesser-known treatise of his called “The Secret Providence of God” (1558). This was a dispute with Sebastian Castellio where Calvin responds to a fourteen-point accusation made against his teachings on providence and explains in much greater depth his distinction between “bare permission” and “willing permission”. For anyone interested in a more robust treatment of this topic from Calvin, I’d suggest starting here. Thanks for the post!
Thanks for the suggestion. Yeah, I want to get my hands on that piece. I saw it in the store the other day, but then forgot to add it to my amazon list. I think I was trying to find a pdf copy online. 😉