Calvin is perhaps best known for his teaching about predestination, free will and providence. We’ve reached the final chapters (16-18) of Book I of his Institutes, which provide us with his treatment of providence. (Free will is bound near the start of Book II, while predestination, at the end of Book III, brings us into the church, which is the theme of Book IV.)
Last time I described Calvin’s approach to the subject of angels and devils as scriptural and pastoral. I think the same headings will be appropriate here.
First, Calvin’s doctrine of providence is scriptural. It is difficult to deny that the Scriptures plainly teach concerning God that ‘nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination’ (I.xvi.6). That’s not to say it’s impossible to deny: many people have tried! But it’s certainly not easy to dismiss Calvin when he backs up his claims with verses such as these (quotes from the NIV):
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth (Ps 33:6, see I.xvi.1).
For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28, see I.xvi.1, 4).
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Mt 10:29-30, see I.xvi.1, 2, 5).
All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time (Ps 104:27, see I.xvi.1).
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him (Ps 115:3, see I.xvi.3).
I will send you rain in its season (Lev 26:4, see I.xvi.5)
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish (Dt 28:22, see I.xvi.5).
Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own;
it is not for them to direct their steps (Jer 10:23, see I.xvi.6).
To humans belong the plans of the heart,
but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue. …
In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps (Pr 16:1, 9, see I.xvi.6, xvii.4).
Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, … (Ex 21:12-13, see I.xvi.6).
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord (Pr 16:33, see I.xvi.6).
No one from the east or the west
or from the desert can exalt themselves.
It is God who judges:
he brings one down, he exalts another (Ps 75:6-7, see I.xvi.6).
Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea (Num 11:31, see I.xvi.7).
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up (Jon 1:4, see I.xvi.7).
Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him (Ps 127:3, see I.xvi.7).
Give us today our daily bread (Mt 6:11, see I.xvi.7).
He gives food to every creature (Ps 136:25, see I.xvi.7).
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away (Job 1:21, see I.xviii.1).
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 4:27-28, see I.xviii.1).
Given those verses, and many more like them, it is difficult to think of anything over which God is not sovereign.
Second, Calvin’s doctrine of providence is pastoral. In Calvin’s eyes, there is nothing remotely cold, harsh or unattractive about providence. Instead he derives great comfort from it. Providence leaves us not as slaves to Fate’s blind, pitiless indifference (to borrow a phrase), but places us firmly under the care of our loving heavenly Father:
What else can we wish for ourselves, if not even one hair can fall from our head without his will? (I.xvii.6)
Being aware of this gives us great assurance in all circumstances:
Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow from this knowledge (I.xvii.7).
Of course, this doesn’t mean we always understand why God has brought about any particular set of circumstances, which may appear random and meaningless to us. Quoting Augustine,
[P]erhaps … we call a ‘chance occurrence’ only that of which the reason and cause are secret (I.xvi.8).
I’ve certainly found this doctrine to be immensely comforting for me personally, and I commend Calvin’s words to you:
In short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it (I.xvii.11).
Much more could be said. Calvin addresses various difficult questions (such as how God can decree that Judas will act sinfully by betraying Jesus, and still hold him accountable for his actions), but, both in the interest of space, and also because I don’t feel I’ve sufficiently ‘tuned in’ to Calvin’s wavelength to be able to summarise what he says, I will, providentially, detain you no longer.