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: