I’ve just finished reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes, his book on knowledge of God the Creator. In some of the concluding sections he discusses predestination. Although perhaps I’m passing over far too much in saying this, what was most interesting to me is a word he does not use anywhere in his discussion: sovereignty. (This word, in fact, is rarely used in the Institutes and seems more often used in polemics against Rome than in descriptions of God). Calvin’s first treatment of predestination occurs in the context of a larger section on the providence of God and it is this concept, rather than that of sovereignty, that dominates his analysis.

Therefore, since God assumes to himself the right (unknown to us) to rule the universe, let our law of soberness and moderation be to assent to his supreme authority, that his will may be for us the sole rule of righteousness, and the truly just cause of all things. Not, indeed, that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power — but Providence, that determinative principle of all things, from which flows nothing but right, although the reasons have been hidden from us.   (I.XVII.2)

‘Supreme authority’ is somehow sovereignty, but it is interesting how Calvin steers away from bald accounts of power and toward something else.

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence — not the empty, idle sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. (I.XVI.3)

Towards identifying the ‘Sophists’ my footnotes provide this:

What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in hell. (Sermons on Job, Job 23:1-7)*

I can’t pretend to have a full understanding of what Providence is for Calvin, but it is clear that it is tied to a constant and sustaining engagement of God in the world, that it is directed to the eventual good of the world, that its understanding is tied to a life of piety and should encourage and direct the pious. It is the working of God towards His good plan and the Scriptural incidents through which Calvin discusses it are all placed within a larger understanding of the work of God as just and righteous.

By contrast, compare the approach of a modern apologist for predestination, R.C. Sproul. In his popular defense of predestination, Chosen By God, he moves straight past a consideration of Providence to sovereignty (cf. p. 23), which becomes the predominant consideration in his approach. This is the sovereignty which seems to hang on the question of whether there is anywhere in the universe a “maverick molecule” running around free of the sovereignty of God which might frustrate His plans.

It seems to me that Sproul has reversed Calvin’s approach. Sovereignty becomes the guarantor of God’s plan; for Calvin, God’s plan and Providence are determinative — an account of power over molecules or else plays a role of secondary importance. 

I apologize to all committed Calvinists out there if I am procuring a straw man from the world of contemporary Calvinism. But I find this comparison interesting and instructive against an approach that trades on sovereignty, omnipotence, etc. as concepts ready to be plugged in to a logical argument abstracted from the larger account of God’s Providence within which Calvin sets his argument.

File this under my improving impression of Calvin, confirming my suspicion that some of his later apologists do not do him nearly enough justice. But, lest I give the impression that there is nothing to butt heads against in the Institutes or that Calvin is ever-congenial here’s how he closes the sections on Providence and predestination:

Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture. Those who too insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation. (I.XVIII.4)


* Ockham, Gabriel Biel and Duns Scotus are cited as Calvin’s chief opponents here by my version of Institutes.

4 Responses to “Providence”

  1. 1 ichsteh April 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I’m still not sure what the difference is between providence and sovereignty. Sproul and Calvinists who are obsessed with pre-destination focus on a particular aspect of God’s providence, but I think they would admit that that’s what they’re doing.

  2. 2 withastone April 20, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I think Calvin is right on the mark to critique a separation of justice from God’s power. I think providence lends itself to combining these two in a way sovereignty does not. Eg. the provident God has to be the God who creates, sustains and saves, as well as the God who can’t be thwarted. I see little in the concept of sovereignty (and nothing in the little bits of Sproul’s use of it that I’ve seen) that forces that same combination.

    Do you think focusing on sovereignty even as a particular aspect of providence is a good way to approach predestination?

  3. 3 ichsteh April 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Sorry, I still can’t wrap my mind around the difference you’re getting at between sovereignty and providence; I’ve always thought of them as synonyms.
    I definitely think we should emphasize that God creates, sustains, and saves, rather than seeing him as this uninvolved being that put a mark for or against on people before the beginning of time and then sat back (which I think is maybe what you’re reacting against?), but I don’t think Sproul or any other sovereignty-pusher would ever deny the former.

    In fact I think the creating, sustaining, and saving functions are covered by Preservation of the Saints, the which just so happens to be the 5th point of TULIP. I really don’t have an agenda here, though. 🙂 Maybe this old dog just can’t learn new theological tricks.

  4. 4 withastone April 23, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Maybe I’m pushing too hard on making a distinction between the two. I can’t imagine a God who creates, sustains, saves and is not sovereign (in some sense, I think the “maverick molecule” sense Sproul talks about is not useful). I can imagine a god who is sovereign but doesn’t sustain or save. Does this mark a distinction?

    Whatever the precise relation of these two ideas (in your mind, mine, Calvin’s or Sproul’s), I think the question of what happens when the discussion of God’s action (pre-destination, e.g.) moves from using “Providence” to “sovereignty” is still important. Why make this move? Historical question: when did the word sovereignty acquire a more marked role? Sproul would not deny what Calvin says about Providence, but what changes when he uses sovereignty instead? I’m suggesting something might: for example, the commitment to hold justice alongside power that Calvin mentions is no longer emphasized. Also, Sproul’s arguments always remind me more of proofs than Calvin’s and I wonder if the change in terminology encourages a change in argument style.

    I wish I knew more about how this is discussed in Calvinist circles. What can you say about this from your seminary days?

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