The will of Calvin’s God – Can God be trusted?
By Paul Helm–
‘How very minute a portion of divine wisdom is given to us in the present life’ – Inst. III.2.20
Despite attempts to set the record straight it is still alleged that according to Calvin (and perhaps according to Reformed theology more generally) God’s will arbitrarily establishes what is right and wrong both as regards what he decrees, and what he commands. People find it hard to rid their minds of Alasdair Macintyre’s caricature, ‘As with Luther, so with Calvin, we have to hope for grace that we may be justified and forgiven for our inability to obey the arbitrary fiats of a cosmic despot.’ (A Short History of Ethics, London 1967, 123)
We need to have in mind a couple of passages, bits of which are often used to fasten this view of divine sovereignty upon Calvin.
While discussing election and reprobation Calvin says:
Foolish men contend with God in many ways, as though they held him liable to their accusations. They first ask, therefore, by what right the Lord becomes angry at his creatures who have not provoked him by any previous offense; for to devote to destruction whomever he pleases is more like the caprice of a tyrant than the lawful sentence of a judge. It therefore seems to them that men have reason to expostulate with God if they are predestined to eternal death solely by his decision, apart from their own merit. If thoughts of this kind ever occur to pious men, they will be sufficiently armed to break their force by the one consideration that it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. (Inst. III.23 2 Italics added)
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. Let men’s rashness, then, restrain itself, and not seek what does not exist. (Inst. III. 23. 2 Italics added).
Here Calvin is both acutely aware of the strength and attractiveness of a particular objection to the doctrine of election and reprobation, and he also appears to silence it by one piece of advice – ‘Don’t pry into the actions of a tyrant’. But also there’s the strange claim that there are no reasons for what God does. God acts because he wills so: end of story.
So Calvin may appear to be arguing as follows:
(a) There are no causes for what God’s wills
(b) Therefore, it is no use looking for the reasons God has for doing what he does because there aren’t any.
(c) Therefore, God’s will is purely arbitrary, and whimsical; he is more like a tyrant than a lawful judge.
(d) God’s will is right simply because he wills it.
(e) Therefore the correct attitude is to submit unquestioningly to God’s will however outrageous it is.
The idea behind this interpretation is that Calvin’s basic view of God’s mind is that it operates voluntaristically. Indeed, strictly speaking God does not have a mind, but only a will. Voluntarism is sometimes misunderstood. That God is able to choose between A and B does not give us a ‘voluntaristic’ God. Voluntarism has to do with the absence of grounds or reasons for any such choice, leaving the choosing to an arbitrary (ungrounded or reasonless) volition. If for God there are no reasons for acting or commanding as he does, what he does is an act of will alone, and this is voluntarism.
But is this a correct understanding of Calvin’s position? We need to note a number of pieces of further evidence, and to try to understand these.
First, Calvin himself demurs from a voluntaristic interpretation .
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…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’. (Inst. III.23.2)
So whatever understanding we have of Calvin’s view it must be consistent with his denial that God is a tyrant.
Second, Calvin adheres to the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God’s nature does not consist of parts which compose it. (Inst. I.13.2) No parts are antecedent to God himself. He exists a se, independently and in an absolutely underived sense. So his will is ‘bound’ to his nature, for it is, strictly speaking, not a separate ‘part’ of it. God necessarily acts in accordance with it.
The will of God
Nevertheless, Calvin denies that we are competent judges of what God does. Why does he think this?
We might at first imagine that Calvin is simply appealing to the regress of explanation. Of anything anyone does, including God, we may ask ‘Why?’ Jones does X for reason R. What reason does he have for accepting R? He has reason S. What reason does he have for accepting reason S? He has reason T. And so on ad infinitum. Of course at some point in the regress we must recognize that although we can go on asking why, like small children do, there is no point in doing so. There comes a place when we must be satisfied with the answer ‘He just does; accept T as a reason’.
All this is true. It is not, however, Calvin’s point. Calvin is not saying (I think) that the regress of explanation of any contingent state of affairs, even those ordained by God, knows no stopping place. Rather, Calvin’s position has to do with the respective positions of the Creator and his creatures. It is not that there is no stopping point to the regress, but that in God’s case explanations never get going.
Or at least, that they don’t get very far. For it is not strictly true that God does not give us any reasons for acting as he does in election and reprobation. He deals with Jacob and Esau as he does partly, at least, to show that election is not ‘because of works but because of his call’. (Rom. 9.11), a thought which Paul elaborates in I Cor. 1. Election depends wholly on God, ‘who has mercy on whomever he wills’ (Rom. 9.18) The reasons God has for election and reprobation have nothing to do with human merit. Nevertheless it is true that Calvin thinks that we are not provided with any positive reasons why Jacob is preferred to Esau.
God may have a reason and yet that reason not be available to us. Perhaps this is true of all the particular things that God ordains. Why was Esau the twin of Jacob and not, say, Izzy (or Lizzy)? Or why were there not triplets, Jacob, Esau and Izzy? It may seem arbitrary of God to bring into existence these two, and not some other two, or some three. We may presume that Calvin might say there is a reason for this, but that the reason has not been disclosed to us. There are multitudes of reasons for multitudes of states of affairs, perhaps none of which we can give the reason for. Maybe the reason for this irritating fact is that the will of God is not concerned with separately-identifiable situations, but with whole ensembles, with worlds. That is, maybe we ought to be asking not, why not Izzy? But, Why a world in which there is no Izzy? However, we find, naturally enough, that whether we ask ‘Why not a world with Izzy?’ we do not have a reason for that, though we have fewer questions to ask. Perhaps the reason can be given, and appreciated, only when the world is over, when this passing world is done.
Such general considerations have some value, I think, in helping us to understand what for Calvin is the significance of the point of view of the Creator and that of the creature.
The right to know
But how are we to understand what Calvin says about there being no reason for what God does, that such a reason (he says) ‘does not exist’? Clearly enough, in such passages one idea that Calvin is keen to head off is that God’s will has a cause or reason which arises distinct from the mind of God and which provides the reason why God does X and not Y. In the last quotation of those given earlier, according to Calvin ‘what does not exist’ is a reason that is greater or higher than the will of God itself (bearing in mind that the will of God here is not a reasonless, arbitrary volition but the will of God which is (as we a forced to say even though we are trying to articulate the richness of God’s simple nature) an aspect or part of the supreme, simple essence which is God.)
And part of the reason why it is ‘very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will’ is not that God has no reasons, but that it is impious to look somewhere other than to God himself for the reasons or grounds that he has for what he does. The regress of explanation is, after all, stoppable, and not at some arbitrary place, for it is grounded in the very goodness of God himself. However, Calvin says, we must resist the urge to demand that God specifies what that reason is, because if we do ask we shall be frustrated by the silence that follows.
Further, if God is not an arbitrary tyrant, and so has reasons for what he does, grounded in his own nature, presumably there must be a reason why we have not been given these precise reasons. We have already noted one such possible explanation for this – that God has reasons for the world he has ordained, but not separate reasons for every separate part of the world he has ordained.
One can think up other sorts of considerations why the reasons are presently hidden, reasons to do with prudence, or appropriateness, or the fact that it is none of our business, or otherwise not in our interests to know them. In modern society there is the problem of balancing the disclosing of information with the right to privacy. In respect of the reasons for the election of one and the reprobation of another Calvin asserts God’s right to privacy, as Paul does in Romans 11.33f. The sources of election etc. are ‘secret’, as Calvin often says.
Perhaps, as Jesus once said of his own disciples, there are reasons that we presently cannot bear. Perhaps because we would necessarily misconstrue these reasons, or make a bad use of them. In any case why, if God has a reason for doing X or not doing it, do we have an overriding entitlement to know what that reason is? As Alvin Plantinga asked, in a rather different context, Why should we be the first to know? Different attitudes to this question mark deep religious differences.
The ground covered in the previous paragraphs supposes that the human mind is wired to receive God’s reasons, and that the question is merely, why are we not given any? But maybe Calvin is implying that there are reasons that we are not wired to receive, or that we are not presently wired to receive. So our inability is not a mere contingent epistemic inability, a lack of information or insight which might easily be satisfied if God chose to satisfy it, or when the conditions are right, but one that we are not presently capable of making sense of. Perhaps knowing as we are known requires not only more data but also an additional bit of circuitry to make sense of them, or to ‘bear’ them. Perhaps it’s the same problem that we have of not knowing what heaven will be like: we are not yet wired up for that.
The moral slippery slope
Nevertheless, if God of elects and reprobates not according to merit, but won’t tell us any more, does this not show that he is someone who is pretty low on the moral scale. Why should we trust a God who is capable of acting like that?
This question turns out to be a bit of a teaser. For it only arises because we already do trust God. Scripture clearly enough narrates God’s differential attitude to Jacob and Esau. Christians believe this because of the trustworthiness of his word. That’s why there’s a problem about election and reprobation in the first place, for Paul and for Calvin and for us. For it is only as a result of trusting God’s word, or at least taking it seriously, that someone may raise the problem of whether or not God’s word is to be trusted. Not to trust God about anything, including what he tells us about the fates of Jacob and Esau, is a perfectly consistent attitude, but it is not the Christian way.
So why do we go on trusting God? What is it that prevents God breaking his promises, or from suddenly announcing to us that he now allows us to torture babies just for fun? Answer: just the goodness of God’s nature, which makes it impossible for him to deny himself, or to enunciate laws that permit one human being selfishly to hate another. The goodness of that nature is also expressed in the careers of Jacob and Esau, but presently we cannot see how.
We must leave it at that.
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.