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In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion he spends a great deal of time expounding his doctrine of God’s Divine providence in all of creation. He explains not only how God continually governs the laws of nature, but also how God governs man’s actions and intentions to bring about His own Divine Will. Calvin believes that God’s providence is so encompassing in creation that even a man’s own actions, in many ways, are decreed by God. Because of this belief there arises the question, “Does Calvin leave room for the free will of man?”

At the outset I must make clear that Calvin defines Providence as this: “providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events.” (Calvin 202) Calvin does not believe, like many, that God after creating all things sits back and allows creation to run. For him terms such as “fortune” and “chance” are pagan terms and not fit for use by Christians. He believes that these are ideas for those who either do not or cannot believe that God is in control of all things. Which is iterated in Calvin’s statement, “anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered [Matt. 10:30] will look farther afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan.” (Calvin 199) Likewise, Calvin in many places distinguishes between what he calls “carnal sense” and “faith”. “Carnal sense” seems to be that which is understandable to man, or what man can see or comprehend. Such as fortune, chance, natural orders, etc. Whereas, “faith” looks deeper into what God tells us is true. I.e. that He is omnipotent and controls all things.

For Calvin, God’s Divine control spreads all throughout nature. He believes that God’s act of creation did not stop after He created man, but continues all throughout the past, present and future. Calvin not only believes that God cares for all of man and animals, but directs the weather and excersises His power over inanimate objects. Calvin even goes so far as to argue that the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets is continued by God’s power and not by some energy that was given to them at the beginning of creation, which “carnal sense” would tell us (Calvin 197). He does not believe that God sits back and watches or allows things in nature to happen, but actually causes them to happen. For example, if there was a drought one summer it was caused by God, possibly part of His vengeance or wrath. Or, if the crops flourished the next summer it was also His plan. Likewise, let us say per chance (no pun intended) a man is walking along a mountain pass and some rocks fall and kill him. For Calvin this was not an accident, but a determination and the Will of God. Calvin’s ideology of God’s Providence in nature is summed up in this quote:

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence – not the empty, idle, and almost unconscious sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. Not, indeed, an omnipotence that is only a general principle of confused motion, as if he were to command a river to flow through its once-appointed channels, but one that is directed toward individual and particular motions. For he is deemed omnipotent, not because he can indeed act, yet sometimes ceases and sits in idleness, or continues by a general impulse that order of nature which he previously appointed; but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation. (Calvin 200)

Calvin not only teaches that God governs all of nature but that He also governs the plans and intentions of man. Calvin believes that God has a set and appointed plan for all of creation. A plan that He has decreed since the beginning of eternity and uses His Divine providence to bring about. Because of this, as I said before, there is no room for what many call “fortune” or “chance”. In Calvin’s theology God has a reason for everything and if any action was not ordained by Him, then it would happen without a cause, which to Calvin is absurd. This is why Calvin argues that not only a man’s position in life is appointed, but all things that may happen to him, and even a man’s actions are decreed by God. Which is iterated on page 207, where Calvin states that God “in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do, and now by his might carries out what he has decreed. From this we declare that not only heaven and earth and the inanimate creatures, but also the plans and intentions of men, are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end.” (Calvin 207) Calvin believes that man can accomplish nothing apart from God. It is pointless for man to say “I will do this” or “I will do that” because only what God has decreed by His “secret command” will be done (Calvin 229). For example, it is absurd to say, “I will become rich” if God has decreed that you will be poor. Calvin also argues that God controls many of man’s thoughts and actions. He states through Biblical references that God, “removes speech from the truthful, and prudence from the old men”, “smites them with dizziness, makes them drunk with the spirit of drowsiness, casts madness upon them, [and] hardens their hearts” (Calvin 231). Which raises the question, “if God does these things to man, how can man be held accountable?” To which Calvin argues that although “God’s will is posited as the cause of hardening … man … at the same time himself acts!” (Calvin 231).

This brings us to the question of man’s “free”, or as Calvin would call it, “unfree” will. Many philosophers and theologians throughout history have tried to explain the connection between “original sin” and “free will”. Almost all men would like to believe that they have free will and can choose to make any decision they want. That they can either choose to do what is right or what is wrong and as Calvin would say, this is what their “carnal sense” tells them. However, the Bible tells us that because of Adam we were given over to a sinful nature and are sinful by nature. Here Calvin argues that Adam was given free will, however, since he misused it all have lost it. Calvin addresses this argument and tells us his belief by saying:

They, as professed disciples of Christ, are obviously playing the fool when, by compromising between the opinions of the philosophers and heavenly doctrine, so that these touch neither heaven nor earth, in man – who is lost and sunk down into spiritual destruction – they still seek after free choice … man was far different at the first creation from his whole posterity, who, deriving their origin from him in his corrupted state, have contracted from him a hereditary taint (Calvin 196). Likewise, man, when he was created, received great powers of free will, but lost them by sinning (Calvin 265).

Calvin argues that because of Adam’s choice all men after him have received this “hereditary taint” which has caused them to be “shorn or supernatural gifts” (Calvin 260). Also because of this taint and the resulting lose of their gifts, man’s will is to sin. Calvin believes that men are all completely sinful in their wills, and that they are slaves to sin. Hence, man has no choice but to sin. Calvin uses St. Augustine’s words to describe this: “when the will was conquered by the vice into which it had fallen, human nature began to lose its freedom. Again, man, using free will badly, has lost both himself and his will. Again, the free will has been so enslaved that it can have no power for righteousness.” (Calvin 265) However, there is one exception, namely God’s elect. Calvin argues that only the elect who have been “regenerated” by the Spirit of God according to His grace have the ability to choose to do good. Nothing good can come from man because man is wholly sinful. Therefore only by the grace of God can man be healed in order to do God’s will. I can find no better words then those which Calvin has quoted from St. Augustine: “We ought to glory in nothing, because nothing is ours” (Calvin 266). Likewise, “God has anticipated you in all things; now do you yourself – while you may – anticipate his wrath. How? Confess that you have all these things from God: whatever good you have is from him; whatever evil, from yourself … Nothing is ours but sin” (Calvin 288-289).

As we have seen Calvin believes in the all-encompassing and omnipotent providence of God. He believes that God governs and cares for all of creation, all of the time. He guides not only the path of man’s life, but also many of his thoughts and actions. Because of this everything in life has a reason. Every thunderstorm, every earthquake, every sunrise, and every sunset. Every action and every occurrence has a set purpose. Also, man has no free will because he has no choice but to sin, his entire being has succumb to sin. He is a slave to sin and only by the grace of God can he escape from that slavery. However this is only for the elect. Those whom God has chosen. And for those elect Calvin has this to say:

His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion. Thus indeed the psalm sings: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. Under his wings will he protect you, and in his pinions you will have assurance; his truth will be your shield. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the flying arrow by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at midday” (Calvin 224).


John Calvin. institutes of the christian religion.


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