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Calvin on Interpreting the Meaning of God’s Providence

18 July, 2008

Calvin’s introduction to “How we may apply this doctrine [providence] to our greatest benefit (Institutes, 1.17.1):

The meaning of God’s ways

Moreover, as men’s dispositions are inclined to vain subtleties, any who do not hold fast to a good and right use of this doctrine can hardly avoid entangling themselves in inscrutable difficulties. Therefore it is expedient here to discuss briefly to what end Scripture teaches that all things are divinely ordained.

Three things, indeed, are to be noted. First, God’s providence must be considered with regard to the future as well as the past. Secondly, it is the determinitive principle of all things in such a way that sometimes it works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary. Finally, it strives to the end that God may reveal his concern for the whole human race, but especially his vigilance in ruling the church, which he deigns to watch more closely.

Now this, also, ought to be added, that although either fatherly favor and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence, nevertheless sometimes the causes of events are hidden. So the thought creeps in that human affairs turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune; or the flesh incites us to contradiction, as if God were making sport of men by throwing them about like balls. It is, indeed, true that if we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan: either to instruct his own people in patience, or to correct their wicked affections and tame their lust, or to subjugate them to self-denial, or to arouse them from sluggishness; again, to bring low the proud, to shatter the cunning of the impious and to overthrow their devices.

Yet however hidden and fugitive from our point of view the causes may be, we must hold that are surely laid up with him, and hence we must exclaim with David:

Great, O God, are the wondrous deeds that thou hast done, and thy thoughts toward us cannot be reckoned; if I try to speak, they would be more than can be told. (Ps 40:5)

For even though in our miseries our sins ought always to come to mind, that punishment itself may incite us to repentance, yet we see how Christ claims for the Father’s secret plan a broader justice than simply punishing each one as he deserves. For concerning the man born blind he says:

Neither he nor his parents sinned, but that God’s glory may be manifested in him. (John 9:3)

For here our nature cries out, when calamity comes before birth itself, as if God with so little mercy thus punished the undeserving. Yet Christ testifies that in this miracle the glory of his Father shines, provided our eyes be pure.

But we must so cherish moderation that we do not try to make God render account to us, but so reverence his secret judgments as to consider his will the truly just cause of all things. When dense clouds darken the sky, and a violent tempest arises, because a gloomy mist is cast over our eyes, thunder strikes our ears and all our senses are benumbed with fright, everything seems to us to be confused and mixed up; but all the while a constant quiet and serenity ever remain in heaven. So must we infer that, while the disturbances in the world deprive us of judgment, God out of the pure light of his justice and wisdom tempers and directs these very movements in the best-conceived order to a right end.

And surely on this point it is sheer folly that many dare with greater license to call God’s works to account, and to examine his secret plans, and to pass as rash a sentence on matters unknown as they would on the deeds of mortal men. For what is more absurd than to use this moderation toward our equals, that we prefer to suspend judgment rather than be charged with rashness; yet haughtily revile the hidden judgments of God, which we ought to hold in reverence?

One Comment
  1. 19 July, 2008 7:59 am

    Thank you very much! This is a very important article. I think we are so “man-centered” in considering God’s Providence a/k/a His actions that we have difficult making sense of God’s actions which appear to only adversely affect us. However, Jesus corrected such man-centered questioning about why the man was blind when he answered, as you state: “Neither he nor his parents sinned, but that God’s glory may be manifested in him. (John 9:3)”.

    Likewise, in Dr. Joel R. Beeke’s recent article “Calvin on Piety – Part Two”, at his web site on located at , Dr. Beeke writes: ““Piety’s Supreme Goal: Soli Deo Gloria

    The goal of piety, as well as the entire Christian life, is the glory of God — glory that shines in God’s attributes, in the structure of the world, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Glorifying God supersedes personal salvation for every truly pious person.”

    In my (Bill’s) words in conclusion, we should view Providence a/k/a His actions with an understanding that God wants to demonstrate, and does in fact demonstrate, His lovingkindness, justice and righteousness, so that He may be glorified. For example, some wrongly think that God just wants to save everyone and show His lovingkindness. This is wrong and “man-centered”. God also wants to show His justice and His righteousness. God shows His justice even in the salvation of His beloved Elect. If ever there was a time for God to refrain from justice, it was when Christ was on the cross. But, God perfectly demonstrated His justice by even punishing Christ who took on the sins of the Elect. God also demonstrated His righteousness by imputing the righteousness of Christ to the Elect and by sanctifying the Elect, causing them to be slaves of righteousness.

    This is a proper “God-centered” understanding of His Providence. “Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches;
    but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 9: 23-24.

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