Saturday, March 14, 2009

Now We Come to Providence...

Having been reading John Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion for almost three months now, I finally get to his treatment of God's Providence in chapter XVI of the first book. One would think, from Calvinism's reputation, that this would be the Very First Topic about which Calvin wrote. But he carefully and systematically treated the whole of the Christian Religion, with no unbalanced focus on any one aspect. Only now, 500 years later, do we think of Election and Predestination as being his areas of specialty, since these ideas seem to have been lost, or at least muted, to the wider church. John Calvin was not alone in teaching the doctrines of election or predestination, but his name has endured down the ages in relation to them.

So, without further ado, here are some of the highlights from Chapter XVI that jumped off the pages for me.

In opening this chapter Calvin begins;
..."to make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from profane men especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception."
Nice place to begin- lay a foundation upon which to build. And so:

"But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude that he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver - not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow [Matt. 10:29]."

After carefully explaining that there is no such thing as "fortune" or "chance", Calvin moves to the heart of God's providential governance of all:

"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."
..."governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation. For when, in the Psalms, it is said that "he does whatever he wills", [Ps. 115:3; Ps. 113:3] a certain and deliberate will is meant. times of adversity believers comfort themselves with the solace that they suffer nothing except by God's ordinance and command, for they are under his hand."

"Let (us) ...ever remember that there is no erratic power, or action, or motion in creatures, but that they are governed by God's secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him."

Having dealt in a previous chapter with "free will", (which I am not smart enough or inclined to sum up on my own here) Calvin now briefly relates the Providence of God to the actions of men and natural occurrences:

" is moved by God according to the inclination of his nature, but he (God) himself turns that motion whither he pleases. is clear that the prophet and Solomon ascribe to God not only might but also choice and determination...
[Prov. 16:1, 9]."

Now, to make clear that the belief in providence is no Stoic belief in fate:

"...we make God the ruler and governor of all things, who 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."

"...nothing is more absurd than that anything should happen without God's ordaining it, because it would then happen without any cause."

So how do we apply this doctrine to our greatest benefit? Understanding that there is much mystery in God's ways being so very far above our own ways, therefore...

"... we must so cherish moderation that we do not try to make God render account to us, but so reverence his secret judgments as to consider his will the truly just cause of all things. When dense clouds darken the sky, and a violent tempest arises, because a gloomy mist is cast over our eyes, thunder strikes our ears and all our senses are benumbed with fright, everything seems to us to be confused and mixed up; but all the while a constant and quiet serenity ever remain in heaven. So we must infer that, while the disturbances of the world deprive us of our judgment, God out of the pure light of his justice and wisdom tempers and directs these very movements in the best-conceived order to a right end."

For those who wish to argue and explain away events without giving God his place as Sovereign over all that happens, Calvin answers:

"...they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves."
(Hence, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", and other such explanations.)

I'll end with these thoughts on the happiness of recognizing God's hand in the acts of providence.

"Therefore the Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by God's plan, and that nothing takes place by chance, will ever look to him as the principle cause of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place. Then the heart will not doubt that God's singular providence keeps watch to preserve it, and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to its good and salvation."

"Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge."

"...when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. For 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 insofar 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 he will 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' [Ps. 91:3-6; Ps. 90: 3-6]."

"...ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it."

This is good stuff; stay tuned, there's more to come!

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