The End of Book 1
Ok, we have finished Book 1. I’m going to need some serious help from my Calvinist brothers after these last three chapters.
Chapters 15 to 18 are heavy on divine providence. Chapter 15 looks at how Adam and Eve were originally created — bearing God’s image, righteous, with free will, but without perseverance. In chapter 16, Calvin explores God’s providence over the world; even though humanity has fallen, God continues to care for and protect creation. Here in 16, Calvin begins to put “providence” alongside “pleasure”, “will”, and lots and lots of “secret”/“hidden”/“incomprehensible”. God’s sovereignty begins to take on a whole bunch of hints that make my not-Calvin-trained mind and heart nervous. Starting in 16, it’s clear to me that we’re getting toward the heart of the pieces of his theology that make Calvin controversial. This discussion of divine providence will continue in chapters 17 and 18, where Calvin will defend his understanding of providence against various objections, including: that God doesn’t really rule the world by his secret counsel; that Calvin’s understanding removes responsibility for evil from human actors; that Scripture suggests that God changes his mind; that Scripture suggests that some of what God wills does not come about; that God allows but does not will evil; that there are two (perhaps contradictory) wills within God; that Calvin has made God the author of evil.
I’ll confess that I found these chapters confusing and at times contradictory. Probably I’m not understanding the subtlety of Calvin’s language, and it’s possible that my translation is not helping me here. But I would also guess that my defenses are up when I get to a discussion like this from a guy like Calvin and I’m just having a hard time hearing what it is that he’s trying to get at. For a few examples: 1. How is God not the author of evil (1.18.4) when He wills it (1.17.5), is sovereign over every action (1.16.3 and on), and human actors carry out His will in their doing evil (1.17.5)? 2. And what point is Calvin making in 1.18.3 by rejecting the argument that God has two potentially contradictory wills within Himself, when Calvin himself has been consistently making the point that God’s secret counsel may seem contradictory to us? These seem to me to be unnecessary distinctions with no real difference. 3. I get the concept that God might authorize an action for which I still bear responsibility, but I am uncertain about the ways that Calvin argues his way there.
Take God’s “secret will”. Calvin claims that God’s will is very very sovereign — even the cause of our evil actions — then claims that we are still responsible for our own evil actions and that we shouldn’t look too deeply into trying to understand what God has left inscrutable to us, that is, His will. Well, okay, but Calvin himself has opened up a number of these questions regarding God’s will and comprehensibility. Is God’s will demonstrably good, or is it “secret”? Is God faithful to Himself as manifest in Scripture and the person of Christ, or is He appearing to be good while also authoring evil? Is there some contradiction between God’s secret counsel and His revealed will, or is He really and truly trustworthy? Calvin’s answers so far feel insufficient, both pastorally and theologically. As a pastoral matter, I would prefer that he just maintain that God is in charge and that we are guilty before Him, rather than naming His secret will as the cause. And as a theological matter, pointing to God’s secret will leaves me with more questions and problems than solutions. If God’s secret will causes evil, then how is God not the author of evil? We are clearly in the air of mystery, yes, but these answers are leading me into more anxiety and defensiveness than insight, and Calvin is not providing answers that strike me as either pastorally or theologically satisfying. Maybe this is just my experience. I’d love your feedback and answers for me.