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Calvin on Providence as Paternal Governance

Much has been written on John Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence. He is typically, but wrongly, thought to be a sort of pioneer in this field, as if the doctrine of predestination were his trademark. We won’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can overturn this image, nor will we try to add much to the mountains of literature on the subject. For now a brief meditation on Calvin’s preferred emphasis will be all that we provide.

But first a reminder. Calvin has no problem with the concept of free agency. God’s self-existence, supremacy, and sovereignty over creation does no inherent violence to man’s will:

Therefore, God has provided the soul of man with intellect, by which he might discern good from evil, just from unjust, and might know what to follow or to shun, reason going before with her lamp; whence philosophers, in reference to her directing power, have called her τὸ ἑγεμονικόν. To this he has joined will, to which choice belongs. Man excelled in these noble endowments in his primitive condition, when reason, intelligence, prudence, and Judgment, not only sufficed for the government of his earthly life, but also enabled him to rise up to God and eternal happiness. Thereafter choice was added to direct the appetites, and temper all the organic motions; the will being thus perfectly submissive to the authority of reason. In this upright state, man possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life. It were here unseasonable to introduce the question concerning the secret predestination of God, because we are not considering what might or might not happen, but what the nature of man truly was. Adam, therefore, might have stood if he chose, since it was only by his own will that he fell; but it was because his will was pliable in either directions and he had not received constancy to persevere, that he so easily fell. Still he had a free choice of good and evil; and not only so, but in the mind and will there was the highest rectitude, and all the organic parts were duly framed to obedience, until man corrupted its good properties, and destroyed himself. (Inst. 1.15.8)

It is true that Calvin believes this reality to have been changed after fall, but the reason why the order is important is that Calvin’s rationale for the bondage of the will is not divine providence, but sin. Divine providence would have been true even with the free will, and it remains true and forceful in the life of believers, whose natures have been restored, even if still imperfectly.

Calvin is quite clear that divine providence is not mechanical causation:

For we do not with the Stoics imagine a necessity consisting of a perpetual chain of causes, and a kind of involved series contained in nature, but we hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things, – that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, he decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed. Hence we maintain, that by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined. (Inst. 1.16.8)

Providence is, for Calvin, God’s rule or decree over all of creation. He likens it to a father and a king. “God is deemed omnipotent, not because he can act though he may cease or be idle, or because by a general instinct he continues the order of nature previously appointed; but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel” (Inst. 1.16.3). God’s special care is “paternal favour,” and His chastisements are “curses” or “judgments” (Inst. 1.16.5). “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” (Inst. 1.16.4). For Calvin, divine providence is always active, involved, and personal.

Calvin does allow that objects in nature carry out certain specific functions, but still, these, being inanimate, can only do so as instruments of the intelligent Creator:

With regard to inanimate objects again we must hold that though each is possessed of its peculiar properties, yet all of them exert their force only in so far as directed by the immediate hand of God. Hence they are merely instruments, into which God constantly infuses what energy he sees meet, and turns and converts to any purpose at his pleasure. (Inst. 1.16.2)

Calvin goes on to cite the sun as such an object. Still, it does not always work in exact and uniform ways, and unless we are prepared to say that its variations are random, we must explain them by God’s choice. Similarly, Calvin does not object to natural laws, but rather explains that these then demand the concept of a law-giver, and that there must always be an explanation for the times in which they are not obeyed (Inst. 1.16.5).

Calvin admits that, from our perspective, things appear fortuitous, especially future things. We experience contingencies. Still, we are to call to mind the doctrine of providence. “What seems to us contingence, faith will recognise as the secret impulse of God. The reason is not always equally apparent, but we ought undoubtedly to hold that all the changes which take place in the world are produced by the secret agency of the hand of God” (Inst. 1.16.9).

And so, to summarize: Providence is not set against man’s agency. Nor is it a mere logical or mechanical necessity based upon a notion of a causal chain. For Calvin, divine providence is the way in which God rules all things. And if this God is a good and loving God, then such rule is a blessed thing. This is exactly the purpose Calvin finds in the doctrine.

It is true that he is interested in logical consistency, the integrity of the divine attributes, and the glory of God. Still, these are not the primary purposes Calvin highlights. Instead, he sees the doctrine of providence as a pastoral doctrine, granting assurance and security to the pious:

Those who attribute due praise to the omnipotence of God thereby derive a double benefit. He to whom heaven and earth belong, and whose nod all creatures must obey, is fully able to reward the homage which they pay to him, and they can rest secure in the protection of Him to whose control everything that could do them harm is subject, by whose authority, Satan, with all his furies and engines, is curbed as with a bridle, and on whose will everything adverse to our safety depends. In this way, and in no other, can the immoderate and superstitious fears, excited by the dangers to which we are exposed, be calmed or subdued. I say superstitious fears. For such they are, as often as the dangers threatened by any created objects inspire us with such terror, that we tremble as if they had in themselves a power to hurt us, or could hurt at random or by chance; or as if we had not in God a sufficient protection against them. For example, Jeremiah forbids the children of God “to be dismayed at the signs of heaven, as the heathen are dismayed at them,” (Jer. 10:2). He does not, indeed, condemn every kind of fear. But as unbelievers transfer the government of the world from God to the stars, imagining that happiness or misery depends on their decrees or presages, and not on the Divine will, the consequence is, that their fear, which ought to have reference to him only, is diverted to stars and comets. Let him, therefore, who would beware of such unbelief, always bear in mind, that there is no random power, or agency, or motion in the creatures, who are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed. (Inst. 1.16.3)

And also:

But when once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power – so governs them at will by his nod – so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favour, and entrusted to the care of his angels neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit. For thus sings the Psalm, “Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday” &c. (Ps. 91:2–6). Hence the exulting confidence of the saints, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me.” “Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Ps. 118:6; 27:3; 23:4).

How comes it, I ask, that their confidence never fails, but just that while the world apparently revolves at random, they know that God is every where at work, and feel assured that his work will be their safety? When assailed by the devil and wicked men, were they not confirmed by remembering and meditating on Providence, they should, of necessity, forthwith despond. But when they call to mind that the devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as he commands; that they are not only bound by his fetters, but are even forced to do him service, – when the godly think of all these things they have ample sources of consolation. For, as it belongs to the lord to arm the fury of such foes and turn and destine it at pleasure, so it is his also to determine the measure and the end, so as to prevent them from breaking loose and wantoning as they list. Supported by this conviction, Paul, who had said in one place that his journey was hindered by Satan (1 Thess. 2:18), in another resolves, with the permission of God, to undertake it (1 Cor. 16:7). If he had only said that Satan was the obstacle, he might have seemed to give him too much power, as if he were able even to overturn the counsels of God; but now, when he makes God the disposer, on whose permission all journies depend, he shows, that however Satan may contrive, he can accomplish nothing except in so far as He pleases to give the word. For the same reason, David, considering the various turns which human life undergoes as it rolls, and in a manner whirls around, retakes himself to this asylum, “My times are in thy hand,” (Ps. 31:15). He might have said the course of life or time in the singular number, but by times he meant to express, that how unstable soever the condition of man may be, the vicissitudes which are ever and anon taking place are under divine regulation. Hence Rezin and the king of Israel, after they had joined their forces for the destruction of Israel, and seemed torches which had been kindled to destroy and consume the land, are termed by the prophet “smoking fire brands.” They could only emit a little smoke (Is. 7:4). So Pharaoh, when he was an object of dread to all by his wealth and strength, and the multitude of his troops, is compared to the largest of beasts, while his troops are compared to fishes; and God declares that he will take both leader and army with his hooks, and drag them whither he pleases (Ezek. 29:4). In one word, not to dwell longer on this, give heed, and you will at once perceive that ignorance of Providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness. (Inst. 1.17.11)

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.