Reigning Omnipotent in Every Place

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When--in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.15.1)--John Calvin turned his attention to the creation of mankind, he did so with a view to further elaborate his assertion that we cannot have a clear and complete knowledge God unless we have a corresponding knowledge of ourselves. Calvin did not have in view here some sort of an introspective, therapeutic journey of self-discovery. He meant knowing humanity as created and fallen. We can't properly appreciate man as created without understanding man as fallen, and we need to understand man as fallen in light of what he was when originally created.

One reason this is important is because we have a tendency to blame God for our own evil - excusing our sin with "I'm only human" or "To err is human." But this is to place our sin at God's feet. So, Calvin said: "Since, then, we see the flesh panting for every subterfuge by which it thinks that the blame for its own evils may in any way be diverted from itself to another, we must diligently oppose this evil intent. Therefore we must so deal with the calamity of mankind that we may cut off every shift, and may vindicate God's justice from every accusation" (1.15.1, Battles trans.)

Calvin (1.15.2) flatly asserted the obviousness of man as body and soul (theologians call this view of humanity "dichotomy," as opposed to "trichotomy" which holds that we are made up of "body, soul and spirit" differentiating the latter two). He then proceeded to argue for the immortality of the soul from 1. Our conscience's perception of right and wrong, dread of guilt and fear of punishment for evil. 2. The "many pre-eminent gifts of the human mind, superior to that of animals. 3. Our ability to conceive of God and the supernatural, and to discern what is right, just and honorable. 4. Our mental activity when asleep, in which we sometimes conceive of things that have never happened, or that will happen in the future. 5. Copious arguments from specific texts of Scripture.

Finally, in 1.15.3, he appealed to man's creation in the image of God as the strongest proof of the immortality of the soul. Calvin says: "although God's glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul" (Battles).

Having introduced the subject of our creation in the image of God in 1.15.3, Calvin went on to argue that we learn what the image of God entails not only by studying man as originally created (Genesis 1-2), but by studying what Scripture says about the image of God as it is renewed in Christ. Calvin wrote: "a full definition of 'image'...can be nowhere better recognized than from the restoration of his corrupted nature" (1.15.4, Battles).

It should be noted that Calvin used the terms regeneration and renewal here a little more broadly than do modern Reformed systematics. The Shorter Catechism, however, perfectly mirrors Calvin's statements in 1.15.4 on the image (Q. 10. How did God create man? A. God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, with dominion over the creatures).

Calvin proceded to hammer on Andreas Osiander (1.15.4), a Germn Lutheran theologian, who was also criticized by Calvin's Lutheran friend Philip Melanchthon. Calvin also rejected Augustine's speculation on the soul's reflection of the trinity, then takes aim at the Manichaeans (1.15.5, their idea that the soul is derived from God's substance), Servetus (his resurrection of the old Manichaean error), and "the philosophers" (1.15.6, praising only Plato) in their views on the powers and faculties of the soul. While conceding that the philosophers may indeed say some true and helpful things about the soul, the main thing that Calvin wants to assert is that "the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding and will" (1.15.7).

Institutes 1.15.8 is a "rock your world" important passage in the Institutes. In it, Calvin explained a fundamental source of confusion in the quest for "free will.""The Philosophers," says Calvin, by discussing the question of free will apart from understanding the consequences of the fall "were seeking in a ruin for a building, and in scattered fragments for a well-knit structure." Christians who follow the philosophers in failing to take into account the gravity of the fall when discussing human free choice are  "playing the fool." This section shows how crucial the doctrine of the fall is to Calvin's understanding of humanity.

Those interested in Calvin's apologetic views will be fascinated by two comments in 1.16.1 - "the minds of the impious too are compelled by merely looking upon earth and heaven to rise up to the Creator..." and "the wisdom, power, and goodness" of God revealed in creation "are self-evident, and even force themselves upon the unwilling." But the main thing Calvin wants to assert in this section is that creation and providence are inseparably connected, and that by his providence God "sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made."Consequently, there is no such thing a luck, fortune or chance (1.16.2).

Asserting again God's universal providence in 1.16.3, Calvin puts the truth to pastoral use immediately: "they may safely rest in the protection of him to whose will are subject all the harmful things which, whatever their source, we may fear; whose authority curbs Satan with all his furies and his whole equipage; and upon whose nod depends whatever opposes our welfare."

For Calvin, providence meant God governing, not merely watching, his creation (1.16.4). Calvin sought to emphasize that providence entails more than "bare foreknowledge." It involves God's will, and his acts. Nor is it merely a general control, but a specific direction. Indeed, Calvin asserted that God "directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end."

In 1.16.5, Calvin adduced biblical evidence for God's general providence. Calvin says: "not one drop of rain falls without God's sure command." In 1.16.6, Calvin considers God's more particular governance over mankind. Again he complies biblical testimony to show that "Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him." In 1.16.7 he considers what might be called God's providence over "natural" occurrences (things that seem to be part of what is just the normal course of event - the wind blowing, women having babies, etc.) and even here Calvin says that "particular events are generally testimonies of the character of God's singular providence."

In 1.16.8, Calvin both rejected the accusation that his doctrine of providence is a Stoic doctrine of fate (determinism or fatalism), and at the same time repudiated the ideas of fortune and chance (approving Basil the Great's [AD 330-379, one of the Cappadocian fathers] strictures against and Augustine's retractions of his earlier use of this terminology).

Calvin reminded in 1.16.9 that though all things are ordained by God's plan yet the events of our lives and world often look to us as if they are random and fortuitous. As Calvin says "the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose." This is a hugely important pastoral point. Consequently, the believer must realize that events will happen in this life that are simultaneously seemingly senseless and fortuitous and yet also part of God's perfect plan. Thus, in our hearts, we must be fixed on the truth that nothing happens that the Lord has not decreed and foreseen.

Calvin began a sustained application of this truth in 1.17.1. He first announced four things (though he says he's going to give three!) that we need to remember when we are considering God's providence: "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 determinative 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, [fourthly!] 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 the events are hidden." The echoes of this in the Westminster Confession, chapter 5, are not difficult to hear.

Consequently, no mature believer will weigh the matter of God's providence without assuming a posture of reverence, awe and humility (1.17.2). This is important, Calvin says, because "it happens that today so many dogs assail this doctrine with their venomous bitings, or at least with barking: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves."


*This post originally ran as a number of posts in the "Blogging the Institutes" series, published in February of 2009. You can find the original posts here

Posted November 29, 2018 @ 7:43 AM by Ligon Duncan

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