It Ain’t Necessarily So: Calvin and the Will of God
By Paul Helm –
In “The Systematic Place of Reformed Scholasticism: Concerning the Reception of Calvin’s thought,” Antonie Vos has a discussion of Calvin’s attitude to necessity, and especially to God’s own relation to it. He claims that Calvin argued that necessity is consistent with the absence of coercion, and that God does what he does necessarily by nature. So for Calvin, God is not forced and cannot be compelled to be good. He is so ‘internally’ by virtue of his nature. Similarly by necessity God acts voluntarily; if he is good, he cannot want other than to be good. Vos goes on to argue that for Calvin the primary essential meaning of necessity is that it is impossible for God to be different and alleges that ‘a stronger meaning of “necessary“ is impossible’. Calvin expresses his own understanding of necessity, Vos thinks, in such passages as these taken from his The Bondage and Liberation of the Will.
But if his [God’s] goodness is necessary, why am I not permitted to deduce from this that he wills the good as necessary as he does it? Indeed since he continues unchanging in this respect, he is in a certain sense a necessity to himself, he is not coerced by another, nor however does he coerce himself, but of his own accord and voluntarily he tends to that which he does of necessity.
Does this mean that everything that occurs does so of absolute necessity? There is no need for speculation about the answer to this, for Calvin provides us with instances of such possibilities. For example, in the Institutes Calvin writes about the spread of the gospel, and about it being possible that God should will that the Gospel be promoted in one country and not in another, or in both countries together. In his treatment of the atonement, he claims that while in fact God has redeemed through the oblation of Christ, ‘God could have saved us by a word.’ So that ‘saving us by a word’ is a possibility, one that God does not make actual, but which, according to Calvin, he could have. Nonetheless the word that he could have saved us by is a state of affairs fully in accord with his good nature, and capable of being spontaneously and willingly promulgated.
Besides providing such particular examples as these, Calvin also makes the point in general terms, as a matter of theological principle.
The astrologers of today imitate the Stoics, for they hold that an absolute necessity for all things originates from the position of the stars. Let the Stoics have their fate; for us the free will of God disposes all things. Yet it seems absurd to remove contingency from the world….What necessarily happens is what God decrees, and is therefore is not of itself necessary by nature.
And what he concludes about natural necessity is true about the will of God.
What God decrees is necessary by a hypothetical or conditional necessity. It is because he has freely decreed that p that p is necessary, not otherwise. Consistently with this Calvin goes on to indicate that he is prepared to accept the ‘received forms of speech’ that is, the distinction between absolute and consequential [or hypothetical] necessity. There are similar passages in the Institutes.
We ought undoubtedly to hold that whatever changes are discerned in the world are produced from the secret stirring of God’s hand. But what God has determined must necessarily so take place, even though it is neither unconditionally, nor of its own peculiar nature, necessary….Whence again we see that distinctions concerning relative and absolute necessity, likewise of consequent and consequence, were not recklessly invented in schools, when God subjected the fragility the bones of his Son which he had exempted from being broken, and thus restricted to the necessity of his own plan what could have happened naturally.
As all future events are uncertain to us, so we hold them in suspense, as if they might incline to one side or the other. Yet in our hearts it nonetheless remains fixed that nothing will take place that the Lord has not previously foreseen.
God foresees it by his will. And whatever God wills, He is not compelled to will. So it does not follow that the spread of the gospel in a particular way in a country, or in its denial to a country, is necessitated other than by what God in his wisdom wills. Such a will is a choice, and a choice necessarily implies selection from a set of alternatives. Nothing is forced upon God. So Calvin invites us to think of alternative things that God could will, that he might perfectly consistently have willed, each alternative being in accordance with his necessarily good nature. This is not to say that he provides us with a transparent reason for what he does, only that his will is the uncased cause of all things. Calvin makes this clear in a number of places, for example, in this passage of the Institutes:
For his [God’s] will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are. For if it has any cause, something must precede it, to which it is, as it were, bound; this is unlawful to imagine. 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 asking for something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.
Calvin is clearly thinking of the will of God as an aspect of his simple essence; it is essentially righteous, Calvin says. And God wills whatever he wills for a reason.
But since the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God’s purpose, and are not apprehended by human opinion, those things, which it is certain take place by God’s will are in a sense fortuitous.
Presumably this reason for willing as he does must be as specific as the character of what he wills. If what he wills has feature F then God has a reason for what he wills having feature F. ‘For the will of God is ‘the highest rule of perfection,’ and even the law of all laws. But we deny that he is liable to render an account; we also deny that we are competent judges to pronounce judgment in this cause according to our own understanding’. God has the highest reason for willing as he does but he has no obligation to disclose that reason, and in any case were he to do so we would not be competent to pass judgment on it. So that God has a reason does not amount an explanation (in the epistemic sense) for us. God has a reason that is transparent to his own mind, but what that reason is may be shielded from us.
It is fundamental to Calvin’s view of divine action that God has a reason for what he wills. For his will is not capricious, a rootless volition, nor is God a tyrant, but his will is intrinsically and essentially related to his character. For each of his willings, therefore, we are to reckon that God has a reason. But Calvin never speculates over whether the reason God has is ‘the best of all possible reasons’ or an ‘overriding reason’ or some such.
One reason why we can refer to God’s will as ‘indifferent’ is because what God wills is not the outcome of some prior reason, nor of any prior cause, but is formed by God’s essence, and exercised sovereignly and independently, in accordance with God’s aseitas.
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.