Calvin’s Fragile Doctrine of Divine Sovereignty

King’s College London

When I started my doctoral work at King’s College London, I was a Calvinist. When I finished my doctoral work, I was not. My transition away from Calvinism was largely a result of reading the primary sources, looking at what Calvin himself wrote as opposed to simply reading the writings of Calvinists. Since contemporary reformed thinkers tend to present a sanitized version of Calvin’s thought, it can be a real eye-opener to spend some time in his own writings.

Elsewhere I have written about some of the specific theological issues at stake in my journey away from Calvinism. What I wanted to share in the present article, however, is an irony I encountered regarding Calvin’s doctrine of divine sovereignty. One of the main surprises I found when reading historical theology at King’s is that Calvin actually presents us with an acutely fragile profile of divine sovereignty.

Within the context of Calvin’s monergistic soteriology, freedom and nature must negotiate with Providence for the same space, and because it is the latter that must always win out, any synergy between the two must be left to die the death of a thousand qualifications. By setting the ‘Godness’ of God up at the expense of creation, monergistic soteriology becomes not merely true, but true necessarily, for on this scheme of things it is no more possible for God to create a non-monergistic universe while remaining fully sovereign than it is possible for Him to cease being God. As such, Calvin’s monergistic soteriology followed the theological deposit left by Augustine who, wanting to liberate the divine will from all bondage to a priori necessity, ended up merely substituting another form of necessitarianism. As David Bradshaw explained,

“…the Augustinian interpretation of predestination is not only true but is necessarily true, since God could not create creatures who are capable in any way of affecting His judgments regarding salvation and damnation….Yet the Augustinian position began precisely as the attempt to exalt the divine will over all necessity.” David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies,” Philosophy and Theology 18, no. 1 (2006): 117–18.

Within Calvin’s theological metaphysics, God’s sovereignty suffers from a similar fragility, constantly threatened by anything that might undermine the creational and soteriological monergism on which it precariously hinged. The result is that instead of God and nature being related analogically, there is a univocal freedom and a univocal glory that must be partitioned out between God and creatures. A concomitant of this nominalist dialectic is that meaning and teleology no longer reside in things themselves but are imposed from outside in ways that involve explicit incongruities. The incongruities arise at the point in which the divine will-acts, now broken down into separate modes, offer a competing teleology to the same object simultaneously. For example, the distinction between God’s revealed will and His hidden will forced Calvin to set in opposition the teleology that is normative for an object with the teleology that God ultimately wills for the same object. With respect to God’s revealed will, the telos of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to God’s hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. (And by the way, this dual-telos is a necessary consequence of Calvin’s system regardless of whether one maintains he was a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian, and regardless of whether one holds that Calvin believed in single predestination or double predestination.) However, since God reveals Himself to humankind in terms of the first mode while relating to humankind in terms of the second, a radical discontinuity is set up between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him, between appearance and reality. Accordingly, the telos that is universally normative for all persons (i.e., that the final end of all men is to be united with Him) achieves its normativity purely through God naming it to be such, even though this naming-activity remains dislocated from the actual telos of God’s hidden will (i.e. that it is not the final end of all persons, but only some, to be united with Him). However, since Calvin could not completely abandon the quest for teleological unity, the hidden generally takes precedent over the revealed will, with the latter being reduced to mere accommodatio. (I have discussed the existential and devotional problems that this dual teleology creates in my article ‘Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 3): Calvinism Dislocates God From our Experience of Him.’)

It is undisputed that for men like Theodore Beza God’s hidden will takes precedent over His revealed will. However, Hans Boersma convincingly demonstrated that even in Calvin, the overarching emphasis remains fixed on God’s hidden will, with His revealed will being in some sense subordinate. The reduction of revealed truths to divine accommodation creates more than merely a quantitative distinction between appearance and reality, but throws into question any qualitative connection between divine revelation and ultimate reality. Any qualitative connection between grace and nature is also severed: divine grace proceeds out of the hidden will (the perspective of God), which remains distinct from, and in some cases at complete odds with, the revealed will by which God accommodates Himself to humankind in the realm of nature (the perspective of humankind). Further information about this dual-perspective can be found in Mary P. Engel’s John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology. The end result of dislocating God as He is with God as He is revealed to us, is essentially a hidden God. Under the influence of what Susan Schreiner identified as “Scotist-nominalist categories”, Calvin essentially “posits a God hidden outside of nature, history, and Christ.” Boersma summarizes the basic problem that emerged:

“Whereas God’s revealed will is communal (with God wanting everyone to follow his law), his hidden will concerns the outcomes of the lives of specific individuals. Whereas the external preaching of the Word extends to many (though not all), the inward working of the Spirit is limited to those who have been chosen from eternity. Whereas the outward call merely leads to a general adoption and thus remains impersonal, adopting through the gift of faith means an intimate and mystical union with Christ. Finally, whereas the preaching of God’s revealed will is always accompanied by the demand of faith, God’s electing will is unconditional and absolutely certain, so that all who have been granted the special grace of God’s Spirit will persevere till the end.”

Calvin’s constant dichotomizing between the hidden will and the revealed will, between the outward and the inward, between the external and the internal, between the visible and the invisible, between the communal and the individual, between appearance and reality, left him without the categories for an organic integration between grace and nature, and rendered him unable to affirm any qualitative connection between God as He is versus God as men and women experience Him. A consistent corollary to Calvin’s dislocation of reality and appearance is that the world yields no insight into God as He really is; as such, the world becomes fundamentally mysterious. All that human beings have access to is the results of God’s will, which often disguises rather than reveals the true contours of divine intentionality.

By ordering the world according to a web of rigid dichotomies, Calvin was forced to deny that God’s interactions with the world actually yielded significant insight into His nature. The Ockhamists had been committed to a similar denial as a result of a voluntarism which objected to God’s will-acts having any antecedents; for Calvin, this denial arose as a corollary to the opposition he set up between God’s revealed will and His hidden will. In both cases there is a particular dialectic between God and creation in which the latter becomes detached from any intrinsic ordering. Order is derived from isolated will acts which themselves suggest no antecedent normative structures. Calvin made this explicit in his Institutes, where he reserved some of his harshest language for those who would suggest causes to the will of God. Indeed, the only way Calvin could be assured that God’s sovereignty remained intact was by removing the divine will from the province of rationality and appealing to a raw fideism. As Calvin wrote,

“…it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are…. For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.” (Institutes, 3.32.2).

In making God’s will-acts the final standard of justice, Calvin severely limited any sense in which one may speak of God’s choices flowing out of His nature. God’s will, not God’s nature, is what Calvin called “the necessity of all things.” But if the divine nature does not create the context for the divine will, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that God’s will is purely arbitrary. Hans Boersma suggested that nominalist moves like this were made necessary once Calvin moved divine violence out of the realm of history and located it in the heart of God’s character. The concept of hidden justice, which is closely situated within the nominalist dialectic, functioned as a mechanism for precluding objections among those who might find it difficult to worship such a God. This contrasts sharply with Calvin’s arch-nemesis, Aquinas, who had posited a congruence between human and divine understandings of ethics. By recognizing no standard outside the divine will, Calvin precludes objections from those who might find it difficult to worship such a God. “God appears to will things not because they are just,” observed Boersma about Calvin’s God, “but they are just because God wills them. It is difficult to escape the idea that god stands outside the law (ex lex).” As grace comes to be associated with God’s hidden will, while nature remains the province of the divine accommodatio, there ceases to be the categories for any organic integration between grace and nature, or between appearance and existence.

In Book III of The Institutes Calvin used the concept of hidden justice as a moral antiseptic to clean up any ethical contamination that might have been left by his teaching on double predestination. Having argued that “eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others” and “as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death” and “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision”, and “the Lord has created those whom he unquestionably foreknew would go to destruction…because he so willed”, Calvin then proceeded to argue that the justice of this plan is completely secret:

“we must always at last return to the sole decision of God”s will, the cause of which is hidden in him…. For if predestination is nothing but the meting out of divine justice—secret, indeed, but blameless—because it is certain that they were not unworthy to be predestined to this condition, it is equally certain that the destruction they undergo by predestination is also most just…. The reprobate wish to be considered excusable in sinning, on the ground that they cannot avoid the necessity of sinning, especially since this sort of necessity is cast upon them by God’s ordaining. But we deny that they are duly excused, because the ordinance of God, by which they complain that they are destined to destruction, has its own equity—unknown, indeed, to us but very sure.” Institutes 3.21.5–3.23.9.

Calvin did not go to the same lengths as his medieval predecessors in itemizing all the horrendous actions God might have performed while still remaining good, but he did argue, in his sermons on Job, that God might have condemned even the unfallen angels and this would be just purely because He is God. In suggesting that it would be just for God to give the unfallen angels a share of common creaturely justice, Calvin appealed to the great gulf between the finite and the infinite. In Calvin’s thinking, the fact that angels are not God was itself sufficient grounds for their just condemnation. In the process of developing this argument, Calvin made the secret justice of God so far above human conceptions of justice that its coherence is ultimately hidden from view. As Susan Schreiner observed,

“In Job’s story, Calvin sees a God who holds sovereign sway over nature, history, and Satan. He revels in descriptions of creation and exhorts his congregation to contemplate the divine glory evident everywhere in the cosmos. But he also finds confessions that the wisdom, providence, goodness, and justice of God are often inscrutable and far beyond the distorted perception of fallen human beings. In Job’s story, Calvin finds a God who ‘hides his face.’ …Calvin is speaking…of a hiddenness that darkens history, threatens faith, and tempts one to despair. As he progresses through his line-by-line exposition of the text, Calvin struggles more and more intensely with the hidden and darker side of the divine nature.”

Calvin buffered himself against the startling implications of this position (namely, that God might be unpredictable, unreliable, untrustworthy and unknowable) by appealing to a pact between God and creation by which God agreed to bring His hidden justice into alignment with the creaturely justice revealed in the law. But Calvin left his followers with no guarantee of any ultimate congruence between God’s revelation in the law, on the one hand, and God’s hidden justice, on the other. As Calvin explained, in an insight he attributed to Job:

“The Law is not so perfect or exquisite as is that infinite justice [iustice infinie] of God…according to which he could find iniquity in his angels and the sun would be unclean before him. See, then, how there is a justice more perfect than the Law. If one accomplished everything in the Law, he could still be condemned if God wanted to use this justice. True, the Lord does not wish to use it since he accommodates himself to us and receives and accepts that justice which he has commanded.”

It is true that Calvin repudiated the idea of “absolute might”, adding shortly after the passage already quoted from Institutes 3.32.2 that “we do not advocate the fiction of ‘absolute might’; because this is profane, it ought rightly to be hateful to us. We fancy no lawless God who is a law unto himself. …the will of God is not only free of all fault but is the highest rule of perfection, and even the law of all laws.” (3.23.3.) Calvin seemed to have been concerned that affirming God’s “absolute power” would render Him unreliable in His relation to the world, while undermining the pact between God and creation. However, this concern simply shows that Calvin misunderstood the medieval distinction between absolute power and ordained power, since the latter functioned precisely as a mechanism for preserving consistency in God’s relation to the world. Some scholars who argue that Calvin misunderstood the scholastic distinction between the two powers, include:

David Steinmetz summarizes the matter succinctly:

“in treating the scholastic distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God, Calvin misstated what the scholastics meant by the use of this distinction, restated what he regarded as the correct answer (which was, more or less, what the scholastics taught when they drew the distinction), and concluded, quite wrongly, that he and the scholastics were worlds apart.”

One of the reasons Calvin may have tried to distance himself from scholastic Nominalism is because of his aversion to the hypothetical questions associated with the “absolute power” school of thought. The scholastic notion that God’s omnipotence included the ability to do all things that are logically possible had led to a series of speculations on what was logically possible for God to do (e.g. was it logically possible for God to incarnate Himself as a woman or a donkey but not logically possible for Him to undo the past?). Calvin’s horror of metaphysical speculation together with his deep distaste for too much creaturely inquisitiveness meant that such abstractions could only be “profane” and “hateful” to him. In his sermons on Job, Calvin used even stronger language when speaking against absolute power, in the context of warning against those who would separate God’s power from His attributes: ‘What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in Hell.” Given what Calvin took to be the absolute power position, for God to use “absolute power” would be to act in a disordered fashion as an arbitrary tyrant, thus violating the lower justice by which Calvin’s God accommodated Himself to the world. But this lower justice was still conceived in essentially voluntarist terms, as Anna Case-Winters explained:

“It is the divine will that determines what is possible, not metaphysical necessitates. Calvin was unwilling to admit metaphysical limitations to divine power. God’s personal will defines God’s power… He rejected the idea of “absolute power” because it was an abstraction. One could not speak of divine power apart from divine willing. For Calvin, God’s power is coterminous with God’s will…. It is the divine will that determines what is possible, not metaphysical necessities. Calvin is unwilling to admit any metaphysical limitation to the exercise of divine power.”

Calvin replaced the network of metaphysical abstractions associated with the absolute power position with a personalism that liberated God from all necessity, locating the divine sovereignty entirely in the divine will. As Calvin put it, citing Augustine, “the will of God is the necessity of things”. (sec. 3.23.8.) This voluntarist understanding is essentially what Scotus had also espoused. (On the similarities between Duns Scotus and John Calvin, see HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.) In urging that “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness” so that “whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous” (Institutes, 3.32.2) Calvin could almost be said to be quoting Scotus, who had also asserted that

“The divine will…is the first rule of all works and of all acts, and the activity of the divine will, of which the first rule consists, is the first principle of righteousness. For from the fact that something is suitable to the divine will, it is right, and whatever action God could perform, is right absolutely.”

For Calvin, this voluntarist posture seemed to amplify God’s freedom and sovereignty precisely by unloosing Him from the physical world, thus preserving His supreme otherness. God became so far removed from the world that the integration of the physical and the spiritual became highly qualified if not completely untenable. The partition Calvin drew between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him left God hidden from view, thus raising questions about the ultimate reliability of God’s revelation to humankind. When Calvin’s God revealed Himself to mankind, His self-descriptions were true only in a nominal sense, since predicates such as “good” and “loving” were mere names through which the Almighty chose to reveal himself and not necessarily substantive descriptions of His actual nature.

The above post is extracted from a much larger article I wrote which can be read HERE.

Further Reading