Divine Sovereignty, Evil, Mystery, and “Calvinism” (2)

In part 1 we looked at the what of the problem of evil and at the way Psalm 73 talks about it. Now we want to think about who is talking about the problem of evil in our time.

The number of those in the world who subscribe a Reformed confession (e.g., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, or the Westminster Standards) is relatively few. In North America there are probably not more than 500,000 people who either subscribe such ecclesiastical documents or who belong to congregations that do. Outside the North America there are rather more. In Nigeria, the Church of Christ in the Sudan Among the Tiv (NKST) reports one million members. There are millions of confessing Presbyterian and Reformed Christians in South Korea. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil has more than one million members, many of whom heartily confess the Westminster Standards. Still, in North America, where evangelical Christianity has been dominated by revivalism, Pentecostalism, and Arminianism for most of the two centuries, the Reformed theology, piety, and practice is largely unknown.

When evangelicals and fundamentalists do encounter Reformed theology, it is usually the doctrines of grace, i.e., the doctrines of unconditional election and particular redemption that they meet. These are widely described as “Calvinism.” Virtually anyone in North America who espouses unconditional election is immediately called (or calls himself) “a Calvinist.” The assumption seems to be held widely that these doctrines (with perhaps the perseverance of the saints) are Calvinism. It seems to be widely assumed that Calvin himself invented these doctrines in the 16th century and that they were unknown to the church prior to Calvin. Some might know about the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints) but relatively few seem to know that the TULIP acrostic was a late 19th-century invention and that the five points were really the Five Heads of Doctrine or the five Canons, rulings, of the Synod of Dort (1618–19) in the Netherlands, in response to the (1610) five points of the Remonstrants (Arminians).

In other words, the so-called Five Points were a reply by the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles to a particular challenge on a limited number of doctrines. They were never intended to be taken as the summary of the entire Reformed faith. All the churches who sent delegates to Synod already had confessions of faith. The Dutch Churches at Synod already confessed the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The Swiss Churches already confessed the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). The English Churches already confessed the Anglican Articles (1571). The French Churches had the Gallic Confession (1559). The Genevan Church had Genevan Confession (1537) and a sizable catechism (1541). The Palatinate Church confessed the Heidelberg Catechism. In short, all the churches represented at Dort (or, in the case of the French, who were not allowed by the French crown to attend but who adopted the Canons after Synod) came to Synod already confessing much more than the Five Points.

For example, these churches all confessed

  1. Sola Scriptura (e.g., they were cessationists);
  2. A Trinitarian doctrine of God and his sovereign providence;
  3. A certain doctrine of humanity (image, fall etc), a certain Christology (e.g., the Calvnistic extra);
  4. The Protestant doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and that there are two kinds of words in Scripture, law and gospel;
  5. A certain doctrine of the church and sacraments. Every single one of them confessed infant baptism and a certain view of the Lord’s Supper;
  6. They all agreed that there is, in redemptive history, one covenant of grace with multiple administrations.

There is much more that could be said but this is enough to illustrate the considerable gap between much of what is called “Calvinism” as practiced by the so-called “New Calvinists” or the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement(s). The New Calvinists/YRR affirm some of these things but flatly reject others. As I have been saying since the publication of Recovering the Reformed Confession few of the leaders of these movements, who have been so widely identified with “Calvinism” in print and online would have been permitted to attend a Reformed synod or even to attend a 16th or 17th century Reformed congregation. Few of them would have been permitted to participate in the Lord’s Supper under the Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort, the same synod which gave us the Canons. Article 51 of the Church Order of Dort restricted admission to the table to those who “profess the Reformed Religion,” i.e., one of the confessions listed above.

The New Calvinist movement has created something like Dr Frankenstein’s monster. It has taken a piece from this body (e.g., Charismatic piety) and from that body (e.g., predestination), sewn it together and plugged it in (to an amplifier) and sought to present it to the world as “Reformed” or “Calvinist.”

Like Frankenstein’s creature, this hybrid is neither one thing or the other. One cannot say “sola Scriptura,” the heart of which is the finality and sufficiency of Scripture and affirm continuing, extra-canonical revelation. Thomas Muuml;ntzer and John Calvin had two very distinct views of Scripture and revelation. They cannot be welded together. To be a Calvinist properly is to affirm and practice sola Scriptura.

The so-called “New Calvinists” may be predestinarian but they are not “Reformed.” Of course, there have been many predestinarians before and after Calvin who were not Reformed. Augustine became a high predestinarian who taught both unconditional election and (arguably) reprobation (passing by). Gottschalk of Orbais taught most of the Five Points of Dort 700 years before Dort. Thomas Aquinas patently taught unconditional election and reprobation in the 13th century. Thomas Bradwardine was a high predestinarian in the 14th century. Just before the Reformation there was an outbreak of Augustinianism. There were high Predestinarian French Roman Catholics in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jansenists, who sought to return to Augustine’s view of God and salvation (as distinct from Rome’s semi-Pelagian soteriology confessed at Trent). In other words, being a predestinarian does not make one either Calvinist or Reformed. The Particular Baptists recognized this in the 1640s and despite their sympathies with aspects of Reformed theology and Calvinism they refrained from calling themselves Reformed. They called themselves Particular Baptists (as distinct from the General Baptists).

Even the adjective “Calvinist” is problematic. It has become a synonym for Reformed but it was originally a Lutheran epithet. The early Reformed churches did not call themselves “Calvinist.” They called themselves “Reformed.” It stands to reason that if one is going to be a Calvinist, then one should largely agree with Calvin on the topics listed above but, again, few of the “New Calvinists” actually agree with Calvin.

In this particular case, the way our New Calvinist friend spoke about the relations between providence and evil is not the way the Reformed churches have spoken about it. Last time I quoted Belgic Confession art. 13. Let us look at just part of it again:

For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what he does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ….

We affirm that God is working through (concurcus) every circumstance and uncoerced choice that humans make. Through them he “executes” his work and yet those who do evil, are “devils and wicked men.” We affirm that there is great mystery here. We cannot say exactly how the two relate only that they do relate. Humans are responsible for their evil acts and intentions. God is sovereign and working out his good purposes.

We see the same language in Heidelberg Catechism 26. Part of what we mean when we say, in the Apostles’ Creed (the Reformed churches confess the ancient ecumenical creeds—do the New Calvinist congregations say the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed etc?) “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” is that the “eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…upholds and governs” his creation and we trust the “that whatever evil He sends upon me in this vale of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.” We understand and confess his providence is the

almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.

Just as the Belgic Confession affirmed the comfort that comes from this careful doctrine of divine providence so too in the Heidelberg we say that from it we learn to be

patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

The God who sovereignly ordains all and even permits evil is working through it all to accomplish his mysterious purposes. He has earned our trust by sending his only begotten Son. He is our Father for Christ’s sake alone.

This gets us to the pastoral issue. To say, “If you experienced X, God decreed it” baldly, without the qualifications confessed by the Reformed churches, without the affirmation of the agency and responsibility of the evildoer, lacks pastoral wisdom and grace. The Heidelberg and the Belgic were confessed to and by folk who suffered grievously. The Dutch Reformed Christians were murdered by Spanish Papists by the thousands in the 1560s and 70s. The Reformed pastors had to bury women and infants who died in childbirth. They had to comfort the grieving and minister to entire villages threatened by the plague. In other words, they adopted their way of speaking because of how they read Scripture but they also adopted their way of speaking about evil, human agency, and divine sovereignty in the midst of the practical, pastoral needs of the congregations.

They put the problem of evil in the context of the cross. The God who loved us became incarnate. He is not remote from our sufferings. Scripture says,

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:14–18; ESV).

Whoever wrote Hebrews, we may be sure that he was a pastor who had sat with the grieving, the widowed, and the dying.

This is why the Westminster Divines cautioned us to handle these truths with care: “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care…” (WCF 3.8). Indeed.

These doctrines are best handled with grace and wisdom, in light of the cross, and in the communion of the saints, with prayer, fellowship, in the midst of suffering. They are best handled where the Reformed faith is confessed in its fulness and not where the Reformed faith has been amputated or where parts have been sewn on, as it were, to other bodies.

—R. Scott Clark, Escondido

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for these distinctions that assure us our God is Good and ‘works all things together for our Salvation.’ HC 1.3. Romans 8:28

    ‘The God who sovereignly ordains all and even permits evil is working through it all to accomplish his mysterious purposes. He has earned our trust by sending his only begotten Son. He is our Father for Christ’s sake alone.’

  2. I would be grateful if you would name names – perhaps in reply to my email address and not to the wide world. Increasingly, I find some familiar and respected voices suspect, for example, with the concept of the eternal submission of Jesus Christ to the Father and with those who hold and teach a biblically unfaithful understanding of justification sola gratia and sola fide. That doesn’t sum up those departing from orthodoxy (I’m thinking now of the misreading of the immutability and impassability of God among those who claim to be Reformed). For those of us in the laity, concerned for the purity of the church and therefore the peace of the church but not steeped in vocabulary and church history, it would be helpful to have :quicksand, rough roads, and dead ends” identified.

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