Divine Sovereignty, Evil, Mystery, and “Calvinism” (1)

Recently, a well-meaning “New Calvinist” (more on this nomenclature in part 2) posted some very blunt language on Twitter about the relationship between divine sovereignty and various ways in which people suffer in this world. He wrote that if you experienced X trauma (fill in the blank) God ordained it. Predictably and understandably, this provoked a strong reaction.

There are several threads here that should be unwound and addressed separately. First, the problem of evil is great and amateur (i.e., lay) “Reformed” Twitter is perhaps not the best place to learn how to think about it. Second, the Scriptures do teach divine sovereignty and providence but they also teach human agency and the relationship between the two (providence and human agency) is more mysterious than the provocative tweet allowed. Third, much of what passes for “Reformed” on social media is not. This point is significant because, in our age, for reasons that I will explain in part 2, many assume that anyone who affirms divine sovereignty represents Reformed theology and the Reformed churches. That is simply not the case. Fourth, there are important pastoral issues when dealing with the problem of evil, divine sovereignty, and human agency. Here Psalm 73 (and many other places in Scripture help us). In this first part I will address the first two of these issues.

Why is evil a “problem”? Why is it improper to speak the way the way our predestinarian Twitter friend spoke? For one thing, Scripture typically speaks rather differently. God is never presented as the “author of sin.” In 1561, Belgic Confession art. 13 the Reformed churches spoke to this problem directly:

We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.

Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.

We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.

This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.

In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.

For that reason we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God involves himself in nothing and leaves everything to chance (emphasis added).

The Reformed churches confess that the relationship between God and evil is a mystery. We reject any attempt to resolve the mystery. We are not rationalists. We refuse to go beyond what Scripture says. We affirm both that God is sovereign and nothing happens outside his fatherly care and that human beings are morally responsible agents who, within God’s providence, choose without coercion (any external force) to do what they do. They are culpable for those choices. We also reject the pagan notion that the world is random and chaotic. We speak of God permitting certain things.

During the Arminian controversy, the Remonstrants (who objected to the doctrine of the Belgic Confession but who wished to remain in the Reformed churches) caricatured Reformed theology in order to criticize it. They consistently ignored the view held by most of the churches and theologians, namely, that Scripture presents God as electing and passing by created and fallen humans. This view is known as “infralapsarianism” because the decrees of election and reprobation (passing by) are considered within (infra) the fall. The minority view, “supralapsarianism” held that the elect and reprobate are considered as potentials, not as created and not as fallen. The Synod of Dort confessed the infralapsarian view.

Often, however, when evangelicals encounter a doctrine of divine sovereignty it is not in the context of the Reformed church. Increasingly it is online and it is from, to put it bluntly, amateurs, who quite unaware of the history, theology, and grammar of the Reformed churches. These amateurs are not aware of the distinction between supra- and infralapsarianism. They are unaware of the language of divine permission. They are unaware of the Reformed doctrine of second causes, e.g., that of Westminster Confession 3.1, where we confess

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

We confess that the liberty (freedom from coercion) and contingency (might happen, might not happen) relative to human choice is real. This liberty and contingency is “established” by divine providence—the world is not “chaos and old night” (Milton, Paradise Lost)—but God operates, mysteriously by what Christian theologians have called “concursus,” or a working together of the divine and human agencies.

The Reformed churches and orthodox Reformed theologians (as distinct from the so-called “New Calvinists” or the Young, Restless, and Reformed) speak this way because Scripture speaks this way. Consider the lament of Asaph in Psalm 73. The Psalm is in five parts: blessing, complaint, lament, confession, and doxology It begins by blessing God, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” Asaph turns quickly, however, to his complaint that the wicked do not merely seem to prosper in this world. They actually do prosper. In the wealthy West, most of us have so much food that we have to fight the battle of the bulge. In the ancient world, however, it was not so. There was not much of what we know as the “middle class.” There were wealthy people who could afford to eat enough to become fat and everyone else. Too often, according to Asaph, the wicked were fat and happy. They were getting away with abuse and corruption. They live easily and no one does anything about it. Injustice is real.

So, it seemed to Asaph that godliness and righteousness seems futile. What good does it do to keep one’s heart clean and to obey God’s law? He is “stricken and smitten” every morning. He confesses that his feet almost “slipped” (v. 2).

Suddenly, however, Asaph had a turning point and it was not where we might suspect. His perspective on the reality of the suffering of the righteous did not come when he engineered a social justice movement within Israel. His perspective changed when he entered the “sanctuary of God.” It was in corporate worship that he saw a more ultimate reality, the one behind the reality that the evil get away with it in this life. He saw the end of the wicked. He saw that where they were standing—in contrast to where Asaph stands—is slippery, that they will be destroyed. They will be terrified when the Lord “rouses” himself, as it were—Asaph speaks existentially, using an anthropomorphism, a literary device, a figure of speech whereby human qualities (sleeping, awakening) are imputed to God to make a point.

At that moment the evil were not changed but Asaph was. His heart was pierced. He realized that he had been thinking not like a believer but like an animal. He wanted animal (“brutish”—ESV) revenge on the wicked in this life. He confesses his ignorance of God. He lifts his eyes to heaven and says the most remarkable thing: “I am continually with you, you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me to glory” (vv. 23–24; ESV). Do not let the liberals and the critics tell you that the Old Testament believers had no idea of heaven or eternal life. They most certainly did.

Indeed, in the last section of the Psalm, Asaph has turned his eyes entirely to the Lord, where he finds real help.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works (vv. 25–28; ESV).

Asaph freely acknowledges three truths: God is sovereign and governs all things; that his ways are mysterious to us; that human agency is real. The wicked choose freely, without compulsion to do what they do to the innocent and they are morally responsible before God for their free choices and acts. God is in charge of it all. That is why Asaph complains and laments. His underlying assumption is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:16) could have arranged things differently.

When he came face to face with God, in worship, he also realized his finitude. The Reformed have a saying, “the finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non capax infiniti). It means that God is God and we are but creatures. It means, as the Lord revealed to Isaiah, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9; ESV).

If we follow Scripture, we recognize that it was we and not God who sinned. We, not God, plunged humanity into death and corruption. Therefor we rightly hold sinful humans accountable for their wickedness but we humbly submit to God’s mysterious providence and turn our minds to him and to the judgment where he shall make all things right. Until then, we recognize that human justice is, at best, imperfect and that, until then, too often the wicked really do prosper in this world.

Next time: Who speaks for “the Calvinists”?

—R. Scott Clark, Escondido

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  1. Good response. As to the sovreignty of God, despite human culpability and the truth of secondary causes, because of Romans 8:28 & 29 and other passages of scripture, I have absolute confidence that all of the evil that has befallen me will be used by God to further conform me to the image of Christ, and came into my life by God’s permission and ordination. This statement by no means indicates I don’t believe the perpetrators of evil aren’t responsible for their choices. I often wonder, when we come to the presence of God at the end of our lives, whether we will understand how all these principles work together, or if we will have such implicit trust in The Father we won’t even be asking the question. d

    My husband didn’t come to the Lord till the age of 73, and prior to that our marriage was so difficult. He passed away at age 76. I momentarily asked why God didn’t allow us longer to enjoy the transformatiion this brought to our marriage, but in short order I dropped the question. It doesn’t matter why. It fit His purpose for both of us, and for whatever else would have been affected by a different outcome. God used that to build trust in my heart, and I rarely ask “why” anymore. I just trust that whatever comes, He will use it to further conform me to the image of Christ, which is the “good” referred to in Romans 8:28, as we find out in verse 29. Praise our Holy God!!

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