Monthly Archives: February 2015

Week 8 of 50 in the Institutes: The Unity of God’s Will

Toward the end of last week’s post I provided a link to a series of blogs by J. Todd Billings titled: Divine Providence: Occupying the Mysterious Middle. In the second installment Billings distanced himself from Calvin with regard to the active/permissive will of God, noting: “On this point, I disagree with John Calvin’s rejection of the ‘active/permissive’ will of God distinction – instead, I side with Reformed confessions such as the Belgic, Westminster, Dort, and others which affirm that broadly catholic distinction.)”

Billings’ comment was intriguing to me: is there a rift between Calvin and the Reformed confessions on the active/permissive will of God?  I was eager to take up this week’s assignment in the Institutes to find out.

Calvin leaves his reader in no doubt about his view on the subject.  In 1.18.3 Calvin repudiates any notion of disunity in anything God wills (emphasis added):

Their first objection—that if nothing happens without the will of God, he must have two contrary wills, decreeing by a secret counsel what he has openly forbidden in his law—is easily disposed of. But before I reply to it, I would again remind my readers, that this cavil is directed not against me, but against the Holy Spirit, who certainly dictated this confession to that holy man Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away,” when, after being plundered by robbers, he acknowledges that their injustice and mischief was a just chastisement from God. And what says the Scripture elsewhere? The sons of Eli “hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the Lord would slay them,” (1 Sam. 2:25). Another prophet also exclaims, “Our God is in the heavens: he has done whatsoever he has pleased,” (Ps. 115:3). I have already shown clearly enough that God is the author of all those things which, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. 45:7); that no evil happens which he has not done (Amos 3:6). Let them tell me whether God exercises his Judgments willingly or unwillingly. As Moses teaches that he who is accidentally killed by the blow of an axe, is delivered by God into the hand of him who smites him (Deut. 19:5), so the Gospel, by the mouth of Luke, declares, that Herod and Pontius Pilate conspired “to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done,” (Acts 4:28). And, in truth, if Christ was not crucified by the will of God, where is our redemption? Still, however, the will of God is not at variance with itself. It undergoes no change. He makes no pretence of not willing what he wills, but while in himself the will is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because, from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, he wills and wills not the very same thing.

Calvin avoids monocausal fatalism, however, in his affirmation that God’s providence does not relieve man from responsibility (1.17.3), nor does it excuse him from due prudence (1.17.4), nor does it excuse man’s sin (1.17.5), nor does it disregard intermediate or secondary causes (1.17.9), nor does it make God the author of evil (1.18.4).  I found myself agreeing with Calvin’s handling of the doctrine of providence, in that his Scripture proofs were undeniable.

So this left me wondering: where does Calvin’s view conflict with the Reformed confessions Billings mentioned (Belgic, Westiminster, Dort)?  Unfortunately, Billings didn’t cite any specific sections.  During my brief survey this afternoon, I wasn’t able to substantiate any such rift.

For example, in chapter 5 section 4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith which deals with providence, we read (emphasis added):

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendedth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men, and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends.”

Article 13 of the Belgic Confession dealing with divine providence affirms that God is not the author of evil, but there is no pronounced distinction between the active and permissive will of God such as Billings might lead one to expect.  Article 13 contends that great comfort is found in the knowledge that God “so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without His will and permission, they cannot hurt us.”

As for the Canons of Dort, the first head dealing with divine predestination, Article 18 sounded similar to Calvin in its citation of Rom. 9:20: To those who murmur at the free grace of election and just severity of reprobation, we answer with the apostle, ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’

There was no prominent distinguishing between the active/permissive will of God when dealing with reprobation in Article 15 either.  If anything, the positive decree of reprobation was underscored, all the while affirming that God is not the author of sin.

In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof discusses the customary usage of the “permissive” will of God, but notes how even that customary usage is not passive:

“It is customary to speak of the decree of God respective moral evil as permissive.  By His decree God rendered the sinful actions of man infallibly certain without deciding to effectuate them by acting immediately upon and in the finite will.  This means that God does not positively work in man ‘both to will and to do,’ when man goes contrary to His revealed will.  It should be carefully noted, however, that this permissive decree does not imply a passive permission of something which is not under the control of the divine will.  It is a decree which renders the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result of this sinful self-determination.”

So after a brief survey, it seems to me that the rift Billings has referenced between Calvin and the Reformed confessions with respect to the permissive will of God is nonexistent.  But I don’t think it is necessary to establish such a rift in order to avoid monocausal fatalism.  Calvin avoided it by his careful handling of Scripture, seeking to go no farther than the text warrants, but humbly accepting what it clearly teaches.  Calvin could also agree with Billings that God hates sin.  Calvin had a high regard and great appreciation for the Psalms, such that he could pray them right along with Billings in the midst of any number of troubling and afflictive providences.

When I asked an older and wiser friend about this purported rift between Calvin and the Reformed confessions, he astutely observed that “the perfect reflection of monocausal fatalism is not to be found in any branch of Reformed or Puritan thought, but rather in the theology of Islam.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Feb. 23:  1.17.3 – 1.17.7

Feb. 24:  1.17.8 – 1.17.11

Feb. 25:  1.17.12 – 1.18.2

Feb. 26:  1.18.3 – 1.18.4

Feb. 27:  2.1.1 – 2.1.4

Leave a comment

Filed under Calvin's Institutes

Week 7 of 50 in the Institutes: Theism, Providence, and the Abyss

I remember listening to a talk given by R. C. Sproul wherein he recounted an occasion when he was asked to speak to a certain group, which was apparently eager to seize upon any bit of Reformed theology he might present in order to call it into question.  Interestingly enough, Sproul put forward chapter three section one of the Westminster Confession of Faith for their consideration:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Sproul then asked his audience if they believed that statement.  After some exchange he went on to say that the opening phrase (God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass) is a statement of theism, and not a special doctrine of Reformed theology.  While few if any, in that particular group, wanted to be considered Reformed in any way, all considered themselves to be theists, as opposed to atheists.

The God of the Bible is not presented as a local deity, unlike those of pagan mythology which had limited realms (sun, sea, fertility, thunderbolt, etc.). The God of the Bible is declared to be the creator of the heavens and the earth.  As such, he reigns with absolute authority over everything, such that he has unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.  In other words, reality is what God has ordained it to be, and not any man perceives it to be.

Providence comes from the Latin, prōvidēre, which, taking the word roots, yields “to see beforehand”.  Calvin pointed out that this is not what is meant by the term, however, in that God does not look down through time and see in advance what will happen and put his approval on it like a spectator.  Rather, providence refers to God’s active governing of the universe (1.16.4, Beveridge’s translation, available online):

First, then, let the reader remember that the providence we mean is not one by which the Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world, but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and overrules all events. Hence his providence extends not less to the hand than to the eye.  When Abraham said to his son, God will provide (Gen. 22:8), he meant not merely to assert that the future event was foreknown to Gods but to resign the management of an unknown business to the will of Him whose province it is to bring perplexed and dubious matters to a happy result. Hence it appears that providence consists in action.

The WCF echoes Calvin’s view of God’s absolute rule over all things.  And Calvin calls for humility and adoration in 1.17.2 as one considers what Battles translated as the “abyss” where Calvin referred to the secret things of God (Beveridge rendered it as “deep”):

It is true, indeed, that in the law and the gospel are comprehended mysteries which far transcend the measure of our sense; but since God, to enable his people to understand those mysteries which he has deigned to reveal in his word, enlightens their minds with a spirit of understanding, they are now no longer a deep, but a path in which they can walk safely—a lamp to guide their feet—a light of life—a school of clear and certain truth. But the admirable method of governing the world is justly called a deep, because, while it lies hid from us, it is to be reverently adored.

I’m interested in coming to Calvin’s treatment of the active/passive will of God.  J. Todd Billings recently posted a related blog on the Reformation 21 website which you may find interesting, wherein he wades out a little into the abyss.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Feb. 16:  1.15.1 – 1.15.3

Feb. 17:  1.15.4 – 1.15.7

Feb. 18:  1.15.8 – 1.16.3

Feb. 19:  1.16.4 – 1.16.8

Feb. 20:  1.16.9 – 1.17.2

Leave a comment

Filed under Calvin's Institutes

Week 6 of 50 in the Institutes: The Chicken or the Egg?

As point man in our reading group, I stay a week ahead of the daily assignments so as to provide my reflections in advance.

The following passage in 1.14.1 reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago (emphasis added):

In fine, let us remember that that invisible God, whose wisdom, power, and justice, are incomprehensible, is set before us in the history of Moses as in a mirror, in which his living image is reflected. For as an eye, either dimmed by age or weakened by any other cause, sees nothing distinctly without the aid of glasses, so (such is our imbecility) if Scripture does not direct us in our inquiries after God, we immediately turn vain in our imaginations. Those who now indulge their petulance, and refuse to take warning, will learn, when too late, how much better it had been reverently to regard the secret counsels of God, than to belch forth blasphemies which pollute the face of heaven. Justly does Augustine complain that God is insulted whenever any higher reason than his will is demanded. He also in another place wisely reminds us that it is just as improper to raise questions about infinite periods of time as about infinite space.

I was having a conversation with a chemical engineer on staff at a chemical company where I was working as a summer intern during college.  He wasn’t a believer, and we were discussing the age of the universe.  We were considering the account given in Genesis 1-2 which, on the face of it, doesn’t allude to eons of time involved in creation.  This engineer pointed out how the vastness of the universe itself was prime evidence that everything began billions of years ago, because, after all, we know that the nearest star is over four light years away, and the diameter of the universe is (now) believed to be 93 billion light years.  He further contended that, if God had created the universe and it in fact wasn’t as old as it appeared to be, then such a “god” was deceptive, and a deceiver himself.

That assertion is an insult to God, as Calvin pointed out in 1.14.1 (highlighted above), in that it seeks to subject God’s will to man’s, and requires God to limit his ways to man’s.  Besides this, my friend’s assertion was fallacious on two accounts.  In the first instance, if God cannot make anything except by natural means, he cannot create anything, since the first law of thermodynamics is that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.  But if God is God, he can suspend natural, physical laws (even before they exist) to create the universe and everything in it however he may desire.  My friend was saying, in a sense, God can’t create a full grown chicken, only the egg (or less), because if he creates a full grown chicken, he is a deceiver because it will appear that the chicken is older than it really is.

And this brings up the second fallacy of my friend’s contention.  God hasn’t been deceptive in any way about his creation, because of special revelation.  In addition to the heavens declaring his glory, he has spoken in his Word and revealed “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.  Bible scholars disagree about what fits into that account (days are ages, etc.,), and many seek to read into it long eons of time.  Calvin went the other direction, rightly noting that God could have created the entire universe in a moment, if he so desired (1.14.22):

Moreover, as I lately observed, the Lord himself, by the very order of creation, has demonstrated that he created all things for the sake of man. Nor is it unimportant to observe, that he divided the formation of the world into six days, though it had been in no respect more difficult to complete the whole work, in all its parts, in one moment than by a gradual progression. But he was pleased to display his providence and paternal care towards us in this, that before he formed man, he provided whatever he foresaw would be useful and salutary to him.

So it is not with glee but rather with appreciation of Calvin’s sense of humor that I close with his reference to Augustine’s Confessions, in 1.14.1:

It was a shrewd saying of a good old man, who when some one pertly asked in derision what God did before the world was created, answered he made a hell for the inquisitive (August. Confess., lib. 11 c. 12). This reproof, not less weighty than severe, should repress the tickling wantonness which urges many to indulge in vicious and hurtful speculation.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Feb. 9:  1.13.26 – 1.13.29

Feb. 10:  1.14.1 – 1.14.5 

Feb. 11:  1.14.6 –  1.14.11

Feb. 12:  1.14.12 – 1.14.18

Feb. 13:  1.14.19 – 1.14.22

Leave a comment

Filed under Calvin's Institutes

Week 5 of 50 in the Institutes: Pondering the Trinity with Calvin and Morris

I have misplaced my file with notes from a book by Henry Morris which contained the best illustration of the Trinity I have ever encountered.  Most illustrations get a failing grade in that they either separate the essence of the three Persons, or they maintain the common essence but obliterate any distinction, but Morris’ use of the universe seems safe enough.

Let’s begin with Calvin’s very succinct summary of the doctrine of the Trinity in 1.13.4 (emphasis added):

Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence.

Further in 1.13.5 we read similarly:

Say, that there is a Trinity of Persons in one Divine essence, you will only express in one word what the Scriptures say, and stop his empty prattle.

So at the risk of providing what Calvin described as an occasion “of calumny to the malicious, or of delusion to the unlearned” (1.13.18), I’m going to share my recollection of the way Henry Morris thought the universe itself functions as the best illustration of the Trinity (see his book, Studies in the Bible and Science, for the full treatment, and forgive any misstatements on my part if you have the pleasure of locating a copy of the book, since I’m going by memory).

Morris observed that everything in the universe consists of three aspects: space, time, and matter. Space he related primarily to the Father, time primarily to the Spirit, and matter primarily to the Son. But he didn’t stop there, because in each one he found a trinity of trinities. Space has three dimensions of length, width, and height. Time consists of past, present, and future. Matter consists of energy in motion manifested by phenomena (the hardest one to explain).

Now I need to interject a bit of Calvin’s Institutes here, where he characterized the distinctions expressed in Scripture in regard to the persons of the Trinity (1.13.18):

This distinction is, that to the Father is attributed the beginning of action, the fountain and source of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and arrangement in action, while the energy and efficacy of action is assigned to the Spirit.

Combining Morris’ illustration with Calvin’s distinctions, we may consider the trinity of trinities in the universe. Space (Father) is the beginning of action, where all matter (Son) is arranged, and experienced through time (Spirit). And yet space consists of three dimensions: length, width, and height. Just as no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18), so no man has seen a line at any time (having only length but no width), even so the Son of God has declared him (length plus width), and this manifestation includes depth or height (by the Spirit). Morris applied the formula for volume here, noting that 1 ft x 1 ft x 1 ft = 1 cubic foot, not three (not three gods).

Morris associated time with the Holy Spirit in that we experience the universe over time. The Father he related to the unseen future, the source of all time. The present, where the unseen future becomes manifest moment by moment, he related to the Son. The past is our cumulative experience of time, which he related to the Holy Spirit. One second in the future equals one second in the present and one second in the past, so here again we have one essence with distinctions.

Matter is the hardest one to explain, but why should we be surprised when it relates to the second person of the Trinity! He employed Einstein’s theory of relativity to show the relationship between energy (Father) and matter (Son) through phenomena (Spirit).

By now, if you can’t appreciate the remark Sinclair Ferguson’s then middle-school-aged son made when learning about the Trinity (“Daddy, this makes my head hurt”), you haven’t been paying attention.  I’m glad Rick Phillips included that little tidbit in his blog!

Follow this link for more on Morris’ illustration, but still lacking the detail found in the book (if I could only find my notes!).

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: (all by Rick Phillips this week)

Feb. 2:  1.13.4 – 1.13.7

Feb. 3:  1.13.8 – 1.13.12

Feb. 4:  1.13.13 – 1.13.17 

Feb. 5:  1.13.18 – 1.13.22

Feb. 6:  1.13.23 – 1.13.25

Leave a comment

Filed under Calvin's Institutes