Predestination and Providence
by Susan Schreiner

No doctrine has been more controversial in Calvin's theology than that of predestination. Before delving into his theology of predestination and providence, it is worth recalling that both doctrines were a traditional part of orthodox Western Christianity. The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned Pelagianism and the Council of Orange (529) declared the doctrine of predestination to be orthodox (although it did not affirm double predestination).The doctrine of divine providence had also been affirmed in early Christianity, especially in opposition to early Gnostic sects. The Parisian condemnations of 1270 and 1277 were both a reaction against determinism and a re-affirmation that God knows and governs singular events and people. In short, it was affirmed that God is not a distant divine being who set the world in motion but was too remote to exercise providence over his creation.

Theologians held various understandings regarding the nature of predestination. Consequently, when Calvin articulated his own understanding he did so by arguing against past views that he considered false. Calvin defined predestination and providence in the following passage:

We call "predestination" God's eternal plan by which He has determined what he wanted to do with each person.  For he did not create all in like condition, but ordains some to eternal life, others to eternal damnation, so according to the end for which a person is created, we say that he is predestined to death or to life.  The practice has been that one calls "providence" the order which God maintains in governing the world and in the conduct of all things.

 Immediately, questions arise. What about God's justice and goodness? Why would a just and loving God save some and not others? Does God save some because he foreknows that they will be good and condemn others because he foreknows that they will be evil? Does not a good life count for anything with regard to salvation? Moreover, if God really does govern all things, how do we account for the evil and the catastrophic events in human history?

Calvin discussed predestination first and wrote, "So in accordance with what Scripture clearly shows, we say that the Lord once established in his eternal and immutable counsel whom He would take to salvation and whom He would leave in destruction." Calvin understood predestination to be a biblical doctrine; to deny divine election would be to contradict or ignore biblical passages that demonstrate God's decision to choose some and not others. Like many theologians before him, Calvin simply did not see Scripture as teaching universal salvation. God chose Israel, not Canaan. God favored Jacob, not Esau—two of the biblical passages of particular importance for Calvin with regard to predestination. Ephesians 1:4 states that" God has elected us before the foundation of the world, according to the good pleasure of His will, in order that we might be holy, without stain and irreproachable before His face" (Calvin's translation).  Romans 9:11-13 refers to the story of Jacob and Esau: "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might remain, not because of works but because of his call, [Rebecca] was told, 'the elder shall serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'"

For Calvin, these verses proved that God's predestination was not the result of any good or evil deeds on the part of human beings.  "Before the foundation of the world" God chose some to be saved through Christ and others to be damned. Calvin emphasized the fact that predestination takes place only through Christ at the beginning of the section on predestination by saying "Now the covenant of life is not equally preached to the whole world, and even where it is preached, it is not equally received by all: in this diversity there is evident an amazing secret of God's judgment." The reference to God's "secret judgment" is important. Calvin went to great length to deny that predestination can be explained by means of God's foreknowledge of who would merit salvation or damnation in the course of one's life. He made clear that God does not predestine someone because he or she is "justified;" rather, the reverse is true. We are justified by faith because of God's preceding choice to predestinate us to salvation. Therefore, he wrote, "the foundation of predestination does not rest on works." When Scripture tells us that God "hardens or gives mercy according to His pleasure, it is to warn us not to seek any cause outside His will." God's choice is his "secret judgment" which does not correspond to human reason.

Calvin had three answers to the dilemma regarding God's justice. First, he explained that we are all born into the world with a corrupt nature so that, in actuality, we are all worthy of damnation. If God were to act only according to his "equity" or justice, then everyone would be damned. Thus, "Adam's children," born in sin, cannot complain that they are unjustly predestined to death. In fact, this would be our natural condition were it not for God's merciful choice to some people. Secondly, whatever God wills is, by definition, just. No cause can precede God's will as if God had to act according to something higher than His own "good pleasure." As Calvin said, "for God's will is the supreme and sovereign rule of righteousness such that all he wants we must consider righteous because He wants it." Third, the "cause" of God's good pleasure is "hidden in God Himself." This means that Scripture reveals the fact of predestination but not the "secret judgment" or the reason why God chooses as He does. Since we cannot go beyond the bounds of Scripture, we must be content to stop at the answer, "It is God's will."

One of the most controversial issues in the history of the doctrine of predestination is whether Scripture teaches "double predestination." Does God deliberately save some but "permit" others to go on their way to damnation because He does not give them grace? Or does God equally will the salvation of some and the damnation of others? Calvin was a double predestinarian. He refused to say that God simply permits some to be damned. His insistence that God purposely chooses some to be saved and others to be damned is significant both for his view of predestination and his understanding of providence.

According to Calvin, God actively orders and governs every event and every action in the world. As he argued, "Now we must deal with God's providence, which extends to the government of the whole world." God "foreknows" all things only because He wills them to happen: "For as it pertains to His wisdom to have the foreknowledge of all future things, it also pertains to His power to rule and govern everything by His hand."  To make this point as clear as possible, Calvin affirmed that God even willed Adam's fall. Why would Calvin be so determined to teach that God wills everything, including the human fall into sin? Calvin explicitly rejected the teaching that ascribes to God a type government that is "confused" and "general" but that does not grant that God "directs the actions of each creature." Calvin admitted that things seem to be fortuitous to us, but that is only because "the order, reason, end, and necessity of the things which happen is most often hidden in God's plan and cannot be grasped by the human view."Although we cannot foresee future happenings and they seem uncertain to us, "Nevertheless let it remain resolved in our heart that nothing will happen which God has not ordained."  As creatures we must take account of "secondary causes" which we do understand. We must, however, never grant them any independence from God's will.

Calvin insisted on this strict definition of providence because he sought, above all, for a reliable God. This meant that God had to be powerful enough and caring enough to govern all events. Without this kind of providence or governance, nature and history would fall into chaos and evil. A God who is remote or idle would not be able to protect his creation and his people. Therefore, Calvin perceives this doctrine of providence to be a comforting doctrine in Christianity. God governs all of creation but takes "special care toward us." For Calvin this view of providence provided for "a singular happiness of the faithful." He articulated this by explaining that "human life is surrounded and practically besieged by countless miseries."All things present us with dangers that threaten to overwhelm us. These dangers would, indeed, destroy us if God did not hold all things in his control. To return to the question of Adam's fall we can see that if God did not will the fall, then the major event of human history was out of God's control. This would, for Calvin, leave us in an unbearable world where we would constantly be susceptible to "trembling and anxiety." If God were not governing all things, we would be left to chance or the "capriciousness of fortune." This would mean that God had abandoned us. However, because the divine will does rule over all things, we are able "to dare boldly to entrust ourselves to God." But we can only trust a God who is reliable. Consequently, Calvin asked, "From where does the faithful person get such an assurance which can never be taken away, except that, there where it seems that the world is capriciously turned upside down, he believes that God is working to lead him, God whose works he expects are all salvific and wholesome for him?"

In conclusion, we can see that the same themes and concerns permeate Calvin's teachings on both predestination and providence. Not surprisingly, he connected the two topics in the 1541 Institutes. God's will has to be supreme in all things—including salvation, damnation, and history—in order that the world be secure under God's plan. Without predestination, no one would be saved. Without providence, the world would be unlivable. Calvin rejected any compromise that lessens the sovereignty of God because only that sovereignty enables us to have faith in the promise of God to fulfill His purpose and to secure the faithful.           

Susan Schreiner