Book 1 - Chapter 17 (Parts 1-2)
HOW WE MAY APPLY THIS DOCTRINE TO OUR GREATEST BENEFIT
Chapter 17 applies Calvin’s doctrine of providence, meaning God being in control of the world and everything in it, to a variety of topics. In many ways this chapter defines what it means to be Calvinistic; that nothing happens without the direct action of God.
Summary: Calvin opens this chapter with three observations (pg. 210); that God’s providence needs to be considered as working in the future as well as in the past; that God can work directly or through secondary causes to bring about God’s desired outcome; and that providence shows God’s concern for the entire human race, and especially for the church. These observations are necessary according to Calvin because people assume that they have freedom to determine outcomes because God’s control of people and events is often hidden. (pg. 211) We are also to rest assured that even in the most difficult of times and events when “everything seems confused and mixed up” (pg. 211) that “God, out of the pure light of his justice and wisdom tempers and directs these movements in the best conceived order to right end.” (pg. 211) In other words, God’s control will assure us that all things will turn out according to God’s plan, which means the best outcome for humanity.
At this point Calvin has to deal with one of the most difficult aspects of his doctrine of Providence and that is, the issue of human responsibility. The dilemma is, if everything happens exactly as God declares it will happen, how can human beings be held responsible for their actions? Calvin begins by saying that those who believe in God’s providence will neither “murmur against God on account of their adversities in time past, nor lay blame for their own wickedness upon him…” (pg. 214) Even so he knows that people have implied that the doctrine of providence nullifies prayer (God will do what God is going to do regardless of prayers), allows humans to commit or ignore evil (people do what God makes them do) or to ignore planning for the future (again because God has everything already planned). (pg. 215)
Calvin’s deals with these issues in two ways. First he states that “…he who set limits to our life has at the same time entrusted us with its care.” (pg. 216) This means that somehow even though all that happens, happens according to God’s plan, that we as human beings still have a part to play. We are to plan for the future. We are to be careful rather than foolish. He writes, “…the Lord inspired in men the arts of taking counsel and caution, by which to comply with his providence in the preservation of life itself.” (pg. 216)
Second Calvin implies that while God controls human actions, human beings control the intent of those actions, which is what makes them culpable. He states, “…yet he (God) by no means commands us to do them (evil things); rather we rush headlong, without thinking what he requires, but so raging in our unbridled lust that we deliberately strive against him.” (pg. 217) And even though God uses evil to accomplish good, Calvin intones that “…we shall not say that one who is motivated by an evil inclination, by only obeying his own wicked desire, renders service to God.” (pg. 217) The key is motivation. A Biblical example would be Babylon. Even though Babylon was doing what God wanted (conquering Judah), they had the wrong motivation (power) in so doing and so were guilty of sin.
Reflection: From my perspective, Calvin’s argument does not work. It does not work because there are some actions (human trafficking, the Holocaust, etc.) which are evil in and of themselves. To attribute them to God in any way, shape or form violates all that Jesus taught, lived and died for. They also do an injustice to the loving, covenant faithfulness of God and God’s compassion for the poor and marginalized. In my opinion either God allows some freedom or is the author of sin. I choose freedom.
In the first half of this chapter Calvin defends his belief that while everything that happens, happens according to God’s direct will, God is not responsible for sin or evil. This is possible according to Calvin, because God’s motivations (always for the good) are not human motivations (often for sinful purposes). Calvin expands on his view of providence in the second half of the chapter.
Summary: Calvin now begins to offer reasons why his view of providence is not only right but ought to be welcomed by Christians. The first is that providence teaches us that God cares for Christians. “Then the heart (of Christians) will not doubt God’s singular providence keeps watch to preserve it (the heart), and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to its good and salvation.” (pg. 218) He then offers a series of Biblical verse that show that “There are many and very clear promises that testify that God’s singular providence watches over the welfare of believers…indeed, the principle purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of the saints with such diligence that they do not even stumble over a stone (Psalm 91:12).” (pg. 218)
Calvin believed that this recognition of God’s providential care, should give believers “patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future…” (pg. 219) Believers can find this patience by remembering that “…when we are unjustly wounded by men …(we should)…remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation.” In other words, even when bad things happen, God is still in charge and all that happens, happens because it is part of God’s will and plan. Thus we can be sustained through any adversity.
At the same time, this belief does not discharge human beings from doing their best in life. Calvin’s example is of a person who is responsible for caring for another individual. Even though the person being cared for might be close to the end of their life, and thus is ready for God to take them home, the person doing the caring must still do their duty in caring for their charge. (pg. 222) In addition when someone is offered help that is needed, they are to take it. “Therefore he (an individual) will neither cease to take counsel, nor be sluggish in beseeching the assistance of those whom he sees have the means to help him; but considering that whatever creatures are capable of furnishing anything to him are offered by the Lord into his hand, he will put them to use as lawful instruments of divine providence.” (pg. 222)
For Calvin, a life without this belief in providence would be unbearable. In a world filled with “the evils that beset human life;” we as human beings are in need of some assurance that life is more than a series of random events. (pg. 223) Thus “when the light of divine providence has once shown upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly fears fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God.” (pg. 224)
Reflection: The struggle with being human is that we live in a world we cannot control. Whether it is natural forces (earthquakes, tornados, etc.) or merely our own emotions, there are factors which control us rather than us controlling them. This can, as Calvin pointed out, cause us to despair. In order to deal with this despair we often turn to the language of, “God has a plan”; meaning that all of life is under God’s control (just as did Calvin). The problem with this view is that it negates human agency, meaning we have no real freedom of choice in our lives. Our challenge then is finding a meaningful balance of God’s loving care and our human freedom.