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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s