Sunday, February 22, 2009

Grappling with Calvin's View of Providence

As I read through the Institutes, I'm trying to get a handle on Calvin's understanding of providence. I'm trying to understand his point-of-view, even though I may not come to agree with it.

But just understanding it has proven difficult at one critical point. It's the point where Calvin asserts that man's actions and choices are determined by God, and at the same time man is responsible for his actions and choices.

Calvin goes to great lengths to demonstrate that God's providence is not just a "general" providence or a "universal" providence, but one that extends down to the minutia of events on earth; further, it extends to the choices and actions of men (1.16.2-9).

What I don't understand then is how man can be responsible if God determines what he will do. How can Calvin rail against those who rail against providence? Are they railing of their own free will or not?

"Hence it happens that today so many dogs assail this doctrine [of providence] with their venomous bitings, or at least with barking ..." (1.17.2)

But how can they not "assail" and "bark"? If they do so, hasn't God so ordered it? Though he states otherwise, Calvin seems to everywhere assume that at some point man has the freedom and the will to choose.

In another place he illustrates God's providential use of evil by picturing the sun's rays heating a corpse so that its stench is stirred up. It is the rays that stir up the stench, but it is not the rays which stink. In the same way God stirs up the evil within some to accomplish his purposes (1.17.5).

Understandable. But if we look back further we ask, Where did the evil in man come from in the first place? In Calvin's view, did not God effectively ordain for the evil to be in man?

How can God so rule man that man can do no other but nonetheless be responsible for his actions?

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