A straight line with a crooked stick

Book I Chapter XVIII Section 1-4

If God controls all things and directs them according to His plan and purpose, including even the actions of Satan himself, then how can He also be free from all blame as well? This is the most common objection to the doctrine of providence and it is to this that Calvin applies himself in this chapter. He  tries to understand the issue by laying out some proposed solutions:

1. God permits evil but does not will it. This is the idea that God sits back and does nothing when evil occurs, He allows it to happen but does not want it to. The question here is if God “permits” things to happen does He do so willingly or unwillingly? Does He turn a blind eye as a passive spectator or does He in some sense will these things to happen? We know that God cannot be completely in control of all creation, and yet not also be completely in control of evil events occurring in that creation. God Himself testifies in His word that He is in control of events, whether good or evil (e.g. Isaiah 45.7, Amos 3.6). So if we agree that in some sense He is willing, or controlling, these events, that are against His declared will written in the law, does that mean He has two wills?…

2. There are two contrary wills in God. This tries to address the question of how God can decree by a “secret counsel” what He openly prohibits in His law. In Himself His will “is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, He wills and wills not the very same thing”.

Calvin uses the example of the death of Christ as an event which was against the precept of God (“thou shalt not murder”) but at the same time it was willed by God to happen (Acts 4.28). Augustine puts it this way when speaking of that which is done contrary to His law “nor does He permit it unwillingly, but willingly; nor would He who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil”. Or as Luther put it, “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line” or as Dr David Calhoun says in lecture 6 of his lectures on the Institutes: “we do not know how God wills to take place what He forbids to be done”.

3. God is the author of sin. If we agree that God uses the agency of the wicked but also governs their “counsels and affections” for His own purposes then are not the wicked unjustly punished for only doing what He wanted? Is He not complicit in their crimes? But Calvin argues we are confusing God’s will with His precept. for while evil men “act against the will of God, His will is accomplished in them”. He argues that these men are following the evil desires of their hearts and that “they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precepts, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust”. Each is responsible for his own sin, irrespective of how God overrules the outcome.

Response

Confused? That’s probably a good sign, my head hurts. Well does Calvin say “the feebleness of our intellect” in understanding such deep truth. This is a hard teaching and at this point its important not to react by throwing our hands up in the air and saying its impossible to understand any of this so why bother. Calvin recognises this danger and warns against discarding a truth revealed in scripture just because it exceeds our capability to understand it!

He also reminds us that if these truths were not useful to be known God would never have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach them. Even though we cannot understand how God accomplishes His will through evil instruments we cannot deny that this is what the scriptures teach. How should we deal with these hard truths? “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures have delivered”.

“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Isaiah 45.7

Father, once again we have reached the end of human wisdom. Help us to trust in Your wisdom and gracious loving care. As a child trusts their father to do right, we trust you even when we can’t understand you. We are the creatures, you are the Creator. You are infinite, we are finite. Bring us all to the place of clearly understanding what the scriptures teach, and there may we stop and gaze, lost in wonder and adoration at Your infinite wisdom. Amen.

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