The Secret Providence of God,
John Calvin, Edited by Paul Helm,
Crossway Books, 2010, 125pp
Sebastian Castellio was once a friend and supporter of John Calvin. For a time the two men worked together in Geneva. But they drifted apart both in terms of their friendship and also theologically. Castellio especially came to dislike Calvin's teaching on the absolute sovereignty of God. He released an open letter criticising what Calvin had written on the subject. The letter took the form of fourteen articles on predestination supposedly drawn from Calvin's works, together with a point-by-point rebuttal of the Reformer's views. Calvin was stung into action on reading Castellio's manuscript. He entered the fray to defend his teaching on the providence of God. This work offers a fresh translation of Castellio's missive and John Calvin's response.
Calvin argues his case with vigour and clarity, constantly appealing to the teaching of Scripture in support of his views. Calvin's position was not idiosyncratic. The Reformer saw the issues clearly because he stood on the shoulders of Augustine. He repeatedly cites the views of the Church Father over and against his opponent. Accordingly, Calvin insists on both the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man for his sin. He makes a distinction between the revealed will of God, which man is bound to obey and his secret will by which God governs even the sinful actions of men (Deuteronomy 29:29). But this does not mean that God is conflicted, as in all things he decrees that which is wise, just and good.
The Reformer takes no prisoners when it comes to denouncing Castellio's disingenuous calumnies, "Now you see, you dog, what you accomplish by your violent barking (p. 64). He raises the matter of Castellio's alleged theft of firewood when he lived in Geneva to illustrate that when people sin they do so willingly and are therefore responsible for their actions (p. 112). He concludes by likening Castellio to Shimei who cursed David when he was on the run from Absalom. Like David, Calvin could only bear up under Catellio's onslaught by taking refuge in the secret providence of God. Calvin wrote with such passion partly because he was irked by Castellio's deliberate caricaturing of his views, but his great concern was to vindicate the sovereignty of God as attested in Holy Scripture.
Readers might wonder what exactly is the relevance of this long-forgotten theological spat to our situation today. Well, the views similar to those somewhat crudely advocated by Castellio have not gone away. He reasoned that if God is absolutely sovereign, with his will governing all things, then he must be responsible for the sinful conduct of men. He summarises Calvin's teaching under Article 4, as saying, All the crimes that have been accomplished by any man are the good and just works of God (p.43). Castellio would have it that God permits sin in deference to man's freedom, but not that he willingly permits sin for his own secret and wise purposes. The calumniator's views anticipate the teaching of Jacob Arminius. The seeds he planted find their fruition in Open Theism, which has been finding inroads in contemporary Evangelical circles. Calvin's robust response to Castellio will put iron into the veins of today's theologically anaemic Evangelicalism.