Calvin and that Awful Doctrine
If there is one teaching that the name of John Calvin invokes, it is that of predestination. When even Wikipedia, certainly no theological publication, begins its definition of predestination by mentioning only one name right at the beginning, saying, “John Calvin interpreted biblical predestination to mean…,” then the association of his name with the teaching is sealed. You hear predestination, and you think John Calvin.
In this short post, I cannot begin to develop fully his teaching on it. There are volumes of books that do that. But I would like to focus on the following three clarifications regarding it.
Understanding Calvin’s Own Definition of Predestination
Often people speaking against Calvinism misrepresent Calvin’s own definition. So let us see how he defined it and what Biblical support he gives for this teaching. In Book 3 of The Institutes of the Christian Religion in chapter 21, Calvin says, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” (21:5)*
To give you a summary of Calvin’s Scriptural support for this definition, in this chapter of The Institutes note that Calvin traced the development of this doctrine through the increasing revelation of the Bible.
- He begins with Abraham, showing how the Lord chose this man to be His special representative out of all the people of the world. Most Christians do not struggle with accepting the truth that Abraham was chosen by God.
- Consequently, Israel, who descended from Abraham, was also then chosen by God. Calvin quotes verses such as Deuteronomy 7:7-8 which says, “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people: for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you.”
- Calvin then goes on to speak of a deeper dimension of predestination, that in the Old Testament we see a more special election still of God saving certain ones out of the nation of Israel. Calvin says that we must see how “the grace of God was displayed in a more special form, when of the same family of Abraham God rejected some,” and then he refers to Malachi 1:2-3 which explicitly states, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.” (21:6)
- Finally, Calvin brings us into the New Testament, and shows how the Apostle Paul in Romans quotes this very text from Malachi to substantiate predestination. He then quotes from Romans 9:15, itself another quote from the Old Testament: “For he (the Lord) saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Calvin then later asks, “And what pray, does this mean? It is just a clear declaration by the Lord that he finds nothing in men themselves to induce him to show kindness, that it is owing entirely to his own mercy, and, accordingly, that their salvation is his own work. Since God places your salvation in himself alone, why should you descend to yourself?” (22:6)
So important was it to Calvin to believe this doctrine he said,“We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election.” (21:1) Yet even though he saw eternal election this way, Calvin also stressed a need for caution in the use of this doctrine. Here then is the second clarification.
Heeding Calvin’s Caution Regarding Predestination
John Calvin was far more careful with this doctrine than his critics were and are. Calvin understood men would react strongly against this doctrine. “The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance (i.e. tantrums), but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet” (23:1). Hearts do war against this teaching. People who hear his teachings rarely remain unaffected by them. Their hearts become inflamed either with these teachings or against them. So Calvin offers many cautions with respect to the doctrine of predestination, of which I will mention three.
1) Calvin cautions those who would make anything else but God’s will their ultimate trust. “The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, ‘Because he pleased.’ But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found.” (23:2) God’s will is to be our ultimate resting place.
2) He cautions those trying to go beyond the limit of their understanding. When men hear of election, they immediately want to ask, “Why would God choose some, and not others?” To this Calvin replied: “When they inquire into predestination, let then remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in (an) inextricable labyrinth.” God’s thoughts are higher than ours, and we will be trapped in a mental maze if we try to understand things that are beyond our human comprehension. (Especially remember this when you hear the ending story of this post.)
Calvin goes on to say, “Let it, therefore, be our first principle that to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the word of God, is to be no less infatuated (or crazed) than to walk where there is no path, or to seek light in darkness.” (21:2). For Biblical support, he quoted Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children for ever.” (21:3)
3) A third caution I would mention Calvin gives is the mistaken notion that election removes human responsibility. Many today associate John Calvin with an aberration of his teaching called Hyper-Calvinism, which is a doctrine that emphasizes divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility. Among other things, Hyper-Calvinism would deny:
- that gospel invitations are to be delivered to all people without exception;
- that men can be urged to come to Christ;
- that God has a universal love.
To Calvin these teachings were monstrous distortions of truth. “Another argument which they employ to overthrow predestination is that if it stand, all care and study of well-doing must cease. For what man can hear (say they) that life and death are fixed by an eternal and immutable decree of God, without immediately concluding that it is of no consequence how he acts, since no work of his can either hinder or further the predestination of God?” (23:12) What was his answer? He reminds us what the predestinated are predestined to do! He points out what the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 1:4, where he reminds us that the end for which we are elected is “that we should be holy, and without blame before him.” “If the end of election is holiness of life, it ought to arouse and stimulate us strenuously to aspire to it, instead of serving as a pretext for sloth.” (23:12) Predestination should lead us to fear God all the more, and consequently should both comfort us and spur us on even in the worst of times.
It is precisely here that we see Calvin at his best, when he is using the doctrine of predestination in a pastoral manner. This brings the final clarification.
Observing Calvin’s Pastoral Use of This Doctrine
Calvin patterned his pastoral use of this doctrine after Christ and the apostles. Christ and the apostles used this doctrine in two chief ways – to humble the proud, and to comfort the humble. It is this latter use or application by Calvin I want to show you in conclusion.**
In Volume 4 of John Calvin’s Tracts and Letters, a letter written by Calvin in April of 1541 can be found. It is a fairly lengthy letter written to Monsieur de Richebourg because his son Louis, a young man, had recently died. Louis had been a student of Calvin at the Academy in Geneva, and the impact of his young friend’s death can be heard at the beginning of this letter to the deceased’s father:
“When I first received the intelligence of the death…of your son Louis, I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve…I was somehow upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith he sustains our souls in affliction, …however, I was almost a nonentity.”
Then listen to how Calvin uses the doctrine of predestination to minister to this grieving father:
There is nothing which is more dispiriting to us than while we vex and annoy ourselves with this sort of question – Why is it not otherwise with us? Why has it so happened that we came to this place? [In other words, why has God allowed this to happen to us?] …It is God, therefore, who has sought back from you your son, whom he committed to you to be educated, on the condition, that he might always be his own. And therefore, he took him away, because it was both of an advantage to him to leave this world, and by this bereavement to humble you, or to make trial of your patience. If you do not understand the advantage of this, without delay, first of all, set aside every other object of consideration, and ask of God that he may show you. Should it be his will to exercise you still further, by concealing it from you, submit to that will, that you may become the wiser than the weakness of your own understanding can ever attain to.”
Calvin knew that this father, like anyone in a tragic situation, was going to ask the age-old question “Why has this happened to me?” Rather than backing away from viewing this as coming from God’s hand, Calvin declares it to be so. He then reassured de Richebourg that what would be viewed as his son’s “untimely” death came at the time God had appointed. He goes on to encourage him to seek God by asking the Lord to show him what he is to learn at this time, though Calvin is very careful not to try to offer his own interpretation of this hard providence. Then notice how Calvin concludes.
Can you hear what Calvin is saying in that last sentence? “Should it be his will to exercise you still further, by concealing it from you, submit to that will, that you may become the wiser than the weakness of your own understanding can ever attain to.” How much wisdom and comfort can be found, when our human reasoning has been exhausted, in submitting to God’s divine will. We are to trust the Lord, regardless of how much of His will He reveals unto us. Here again Calvin shows that he was far more careful, cautious, and pastoral with this doctrine than his antagonists who deny this Biblical teaching.
*These references and the ones that follow are found in Book 3 of The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
**I am indebted to Robert Godfrey’s article “The Counselor to the Afflicted” in the book John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology for this section.