Blog 38: 1.17.12 - 1.18.2

In this section, Calvin responds to an objection to and clears a misconception about the biblical doctrine of providence.

Calvin responds to those who say "that the plan of God does not stand firm and sure, but is subject to change in response to the disposition of things below" (1.17.12). They offer two reasons in support. First, they cite passages that speak of God's "repentance" (e.g. Gen 6:6, 1 Sam 15:11, Jer 18:8). Calvin, however, astutely observes from 1 Samuel that immediately after the Scripture speaks of God repenting (1 Sam 15:11), the Scripture says that God does not repent (1 Sam 15:29). He concludes from these passages that "the mode of accommodation is for [God] to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us" (1.17.13). "Repentance" applied to God means only the "change of action" that, in the world of human beings, often springs from human repentance. Because God's eternal and unchangeable decree, as it unfolds in time, appears to human eyes to be a sequence of "change with respect to [God's] actions," Scripture therefore speaks on occasion of God's "repentance" (ibid.). 

A second reason that some say that God's decree is contingent upon human action is that "the destruction which had once been pronounced upon the Ninevites [through Jonah] was remitted" (1.17.14). But, Calvin observes, "it is to be understood from the outcome" of the Ninevites' repentance that there was "a tacit condition" in the prophet's threatening of judgment upon the Ninevites (ibid.). "It pleased the Lord by such threats to arouse to repentance those whom he was terrifying, that they might escape the judgment they deserved for their sins" (ibid.).

One misconception many have about providence is that evil happens by the "bare permission" but not by the will of God. This, Calvin says, is to represent God as seated "in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments dependent upon human will" (1.18.1). God is no such spectator, Calvin argues. God decrees and commands the execution of all things - the calamities that befell Job; the lying spirit that entered Ahab's court prophets; the judgments of Israel and Judah by Assyria and Babylon; and crucifixion of Christ (ibid.). God's will is the "cause" even of the "hardening" of sinners (1.18.2). In summary, "since God's will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience" (ibid.).