Sunday, February 28, 2010

Calvin's tightrope act

Calvin carefully navigates a tightrope in the conclusion to book 1.  Through both sections of today's reading, he comes so close to attributing wicked acts to God, but then turns around and says that God is not the author of evil.  I often had a hard time following Calvin's logic in these two sections (maybe I should have gone for a second cup of Kona Blend), but here are some of the things that I did get out of it.

He speaks of people who agree with him that nothing happens apart from God's will but against him think that God must have two contrary wills because in "his secret will he decrees what he has openly forbidden by his law."  Calvin obviously believes that God has a single secret will which is unchangeable.  He writes, "But even though his will is one and simple in him, it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp out in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place."

A huge chunk of this section is an illustration from Augustine speaking of the will of God and human will.  In this example, there is a man whose father is getting ready to die.  A good son would will that his father live even though God wills the father to die.  A bad son would will that his father die which is also what God wills.  The will of the good son is more consistent with God's good will even though the bad son's will happens to be the same as God's.  "There is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God, and to what end the will of each is directed, so that it be either approved or disapproved.  For through bad wills of evil men God fulfills what he righteously wills."  In another place Augustine writes, "For it would not be done if he did not permit it; yet he does not unwillingly permit it, but willingly; nor would he, being good, allow evil to be done, unless being also almighty he could make good even out of evil."  I whole-heartedly agree that God does make good come out of evil.  I have seen it with my own eyes and experienced it in my own life.

In the final section of chapter 18, Calvin clears God's name for any evil that happens even though God willed it.  He uses the story in II Samuel 16 to show how God uses evil acts to punish evil acts.  David has committed adultery.  God had Absalom (David's son) sleep with David's concubines.  David recognized earlier that he deserved punishment from God and Absalom was acting according to God's will when in verses 11-12 he said, "My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to. It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today."  Calvin says about these evil acts, "We ought, indeed, to hold fast by this: while God accomplishes through the wicked what he has decreed by his secret judgment, they are not excusable, as if they had obeyed his precept which out of their own lust they deliberately break."

The penultimate sentence of this book may be the most important, not just relating to this difficult topic but in general as we approach Scripture.  Calvin writes, "For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture."

Tomorrow's reading: 2.1.1-2.1.4

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