John Calvin Against the Philosophers: Providence-Predestination vs Chance (Epicureanism) and Determinism (Stoicism)

The frequent attacks on Calvinism by non-Calvinists in the Web gives the impression that Calvinism is a pernicious Christian sect. The attacks often highlight predestination as a major problem with Calvinism. The Calvinist’s doctrine of predestination is regarded as a rigid and legalistic doctrine that violates our sense of justice. It also robs the believer of his assurance of salvation.

Critics assert that the Calvinist teaching of predestination owes more to alien philosophical arguments rather than the bible itself. This is ironic as Calvinists are often accused of relying on proof-texting and contestable exegesis when they are challenged to demonstrate the coherence of the doctrine.  The accusation that Calvinists rely more on philosophical arguments than the bible doesn’t quite match the observation that the majority of Christian philosophers are not Calvinists, but Arminians and Open Theists.

Calvinists are puzzled when critics charge them of relying more on philosophy than on biblical revelation. How can Calvinists be guilty of subordinating the bible to philosophy when they defend tenaciously two propositions which many philosophers instinctively regard as logically incompatible with one another – that God’s choice in predestination is unconditional but man is still held responsible for his decisions – because the bible says so. Obviously, Calvin’s conception of predestination is not defined within the limits of human rationality; in fact his doctrine is offensive to reason.

Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is not an a priori deductive doctrine; it is an a posteriori doctrine based on the Christian experience of salvation. Hence, Calvin locates the doctrine of predestination in the final edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion after his discussion on faith, regeneration, the Christian life and justification because predestination describes the will of God for human salvation as it is revealed in the bible. As Victor Monod keenly observes, “The Calvinistic predestination certainly did not come from an effort of logical and abstract systematization; it is for Calvin a point of arrival not a point of departure, a necessary hypothesis, not a principle of explication. The doctrine of election is the imperfect intellectual product of a humble and living faith.” [C&P, 139] As such, Calvin urges his readers to approach the doctrine with caution and humility.

The prima facie evidence is that Calvin (and his followers) arrived at the doctrine of predestination from his reading of the bible rather than from his reading of the dominant philosophies of his time. It is telling that critics have not concretely identified the alleged philosophical sources of Calvin’s understanding of predestination; much less have the critics demonstrated exactly how Calvin was influenced by these philosophies.

Undoubtedly, Epicureanism and Stoicism were dominant in discussions about human freedom and human destiny in Calvin’s times. An analysis of Calvin’s remarks on these philosophies would either validate or invalidate the assertion that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was influenced by these alien philosophies rather than the bible itself. Calvin’s writings confirm that he was critical, if not disparaging about both Epicureanism and Stoicism. The claim that he was influenced by these alien philosophies is therefore unfounded.

It should be noted that Calvin was first and foremost a bible commentator and not a philosopher. His Institutes was written to complement his bigger task of biblical commentary. In the final analysis, Calvin relied on biblical exegesis and their theological implications rather than philosophical arguments to settle the disputed issues of predestination. Indeed, Calvin repeatedly reminded his readers that philosophy reaches its limits when it analyses the doctrine of predestination; philosophy must admit it can probe no further and must humbly respect the mystery of God’s love and wisdom that underlie the doctrine of predestination.

Calvin’s Rejection of Philosophy as the Basis for Doctrine

a. The Epicureans
Epicureanism, like Stoicism, is a philosophy of salvation that seeks human happiness in a proper relation to the world. The Epicureans were (and are) popularly thought to teach that the world is randomly governed by fortune, thereby denying divine purpose and order. The Stoics were (and are) popularly understood to believe that the world is rigidly ruled by necessity, in effect denying human freedom and responsibility. Calvin opposes both views…

Against the Epicureans he insists that everything is governed by God. Against the Stoics, who insist that everything is governed by God, Calvin attacks their ignorance of God’s particular providence. According to Calvin, those who do not understand the providence of God are fools. Among these fools he places Aristotle and the Epicureans, as the following quote demonstrates.

We find that some of the greatest of philosophers were so mischievous as to devote their talents to obscure and conceal the providence of God, and, entirely overlooking his agency, ascribed all to secondary causes. At the head of these was Aristotle, a man of genius and learning; but being a heathen, whose heart was perverse and depraved, it was his constant aim to entangle and perplex God’s overruling providence by a variety of wild speculations; so much so, that it may with too much truth be said, that he employed his naturally acute powers of mind to extinguish all light. Besides, the prophet not only condemns the insensate Epicureans, whose sensibility was of the basest character, but he also informs us that a blindness, still greater and more detestable, was to be found among these great philosophers themselves. (Com. Ps. 107.43)…

Contrary to the Epicurean view, the world is governed by God and in God’s governance is our hope and consolation…The believer “permits every part of his life to be governed by God’s will” and does not complain of his lot. There are “many chance happenings to which we are subject,” such as disease, plague, war, storm, poverty, but whatever happens is ordained by God. Although these calamities are declared “chance happenings,” Calvin concludes, “Especially let that foolish and most miserable consolation of the pagans be far away from the breast of the Christian man; to strengthen their minds against adversities, they charged these to fortune…. On the contrary, the rule of piety is that God’s hand alone is the judge and governor of fortune, good or bad, [and] with most orderly justice deals out good as well as ill to us” (Inst. 3.7.10)… ) [TJC, 109-111]

Calvin has nothing but scorn for the Epicurean view of chance. While men may think that chance governs events, they are actually governed by the hand of God. Thus Calvin objects, “Let Epicurus answer what concourse of atoms cooks food and drink, turns part of it into excrement, part into blood and begets such industry in the several members to carry out their tasks….” Not only is it obvious that the world is governed by God, but in its governance is true consolation to be found. Thus Calvin writes,

Especially let that foolish and most miserable consolation of the pagans be far away from the breast of the Christian man; to strengthen their minds against adversities, they charged these to fortune. Against fortune they considered it foolish to be angry because she was blind and unthinking with unseeing eyes wounding the deserving and undeserving at the same time. On the contrary, the rule of piety is that God’s hand alone is the judge and governor of fortune, good and bad, and that it does not rush about with heedless force, but with most orderly justice deals out good as well as ill to us.

Calvin summarizes his objections to the Epicurean materialism, theology, ethics, psychology, and view of providence in the following comment:

Although, briefly, they [The Epicurean] admitted that there were gods, yet they imagined them to be idle in heaven and to be applying to magnificence of living, and that their blessing consisted in idleness alone. As they used to deny that the world was divinely created, as I have just said, so they supposed human affairs are turned by chance, and are not governed by the providence of heaven. To them the greatest good was pleasure, not obscene and unbridled pleasure indeed, but yet such as by its attractions more and more ruined men already naturally inclined to the indulgence of the flesh. The immortality of souls was like a fairy tale to them, so that the result was that they freely allowed the indulgence of their bodies.

Calvin opposes the Epicurean doctrine of God’s unconcern, their view of necessity which denies responsibility, and their view of chance which denies causality. Calvin objects to the denial of God’s providence on the part of both Aristotle and the Epicureans, but his relative neglect of Aristotle contrasts with his total and vigorous repudiation of the Epicureans. Indeed the closest Calvin comes to a positive comment on an idea resembling an Epicurean doctrine is his affirmation that God does not need our service. [C&P 102-104]

b. The Stoics
Stoic thought as a whole is an austere philosophical quest for salvation. In order to relate properly to the final goal of life, Stoicism posits a ground of being which is variously called God, Nature, Providence, Fate, or Necessity. Not consistent in terminology or conception, the Stoics hold that God is identical with nature, but they also maintain that God knows, governs, loves mankind, and desires our good. Theoretical reason concerning the nature of things issues in the conviction of a unity governed by fate (εἱμαρμένη, eimarmene) or necessity (ἀνάγκη anankē) and ruled by mind (νοῦς, nous) or reason (λόγος, logos), but the primary Stoic emphasis is on practical reason, on virtue for virtue’s sake and fulfilling the requirements of duty. In living according to nature, the Stoics renounce the world by adopting the role of apathy (ἀπάθεια, apatheia) through which the wise man refuses to be diverted from following the course of wisdom and truth. According to the Stoics, man’s only freedom is to be found in freely accepting the necessity of things. [C&P, p. 116]

It is not surprising that Calvin approves of certain Stoic doctrines. Calvin approves of the Stoic belief in the existence and sovereignty of God, their praise of nature, and their view of man’s rational and social nature… (C&P, 120]

Calvin’s doctrine of providence or predestination is often charged with being a Christian version of the Stoic view of necessity that all things happen in an inexorable nexus of causes and effects. Calvin complains that those who say his view of providence is the same as the Stoic dogma of fate attack him falsely and maliciously. Fate, he insists, is a concept that oppresses God’s truth. Calvin distinguishes his doctrine of providence from the Stoic doctrine of fate by insisting as follows:

We do not, with the Stoics, contrive a necessity out of the perpetual connection and intimately related series of causes, which is contained in nature; but we make God the ruler and governor of all things, who in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do, and now by his might carries out what he has decreed. From this we declare that not only heaven and earth and the inanimate creatures, but also the plans and intentions of men, are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end. (Inst. 1.16.8)

In his fine article P. H. Reardon demonstrates that the young Calvin was at home in the world of Stoic thought on providence but not preoccupied with it. Reardon correctly notes that the “Christocentricity of God’s Providence in Calvin’s thinking is not to be overlooked” and concludes “that Calvin, in spite of certain similarities with the Stoic view of Providence, was moved by a different spirit and directed by another insight. [Calvin’s view] was inspired by the biblical belief in God’s action in history” [TJC, 112]

Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination is Derived From Scripture

The chief and head of the modern problem with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is his confession that “Man falls according as God’s providence ordains, but he falls by his own fault” (Inst. 3.23.8). Thinkers today are not only puzzled but offended by this profession. Calvin nevertheless affirms that the cause behind the elect is God. The real and remote cause behind the reprobate is also God, but the real and proximate cause of reprobation is the self. Calvin credits God with ordaining the fall and the resulting reprobation for which mankind, not God, is to blame. Although this juxtaposition of ideas mightily discomfits some, they reside side by side in Calvin’s mind because he finds them in Scripture. [TJC 241]

Calvin maintained that his exposition of election was scriptural, true to God’s mystery and therefore necessary and profitable to be taught to the comfort of the company of faithful relying entirely on God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. In his most-often-cited short definition, Calvin writes, “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death” (Inst. 3.21.5). These words read in isolation and without attention to modifying contexts are quite objectionable to modern sensibilities. Among mental dispositions today, eternal decrees, unequal creations, foreordination to life or death are not readily acceptable. However, not sufficiently noticed is that modern sensibilities in their turn are also not without difficulties. [TJC 242]

Predestination, shortly defined as God’s unfailing and unflagging care for his chosen, is a mystery of divine love confessed, not to drive toward despair or fruitless speculation, but to exalt the grace of God by denying the saving efficacy of human merit. Calvin thinks predestination “builds up faith soundly, trains us to humility, devotes us to admiration of the immense goodness of God towards us, and excites us to praise this goodness. Predestination is part of the confession of the range ad intensity of God’s care for his faithful people…

In Calvin, eternal election is properly an attempt from the believer’s perspective to understand God’s love for those whom God chooses. According to Westminster the doctrine is an attempt, from God’s perspective, to explain the eternal choice of those whom God will love. Put another way, predestination in Calvin deals with our experience of God’s grace; in Westminster it deals with God’s bestowal of grace. We can understand something of the former, but we can only guess about the latter. Doubtless, eternal love for the elect and eternal election of the loved are united in God, but Calvin is often wrongly regarded as one who knew and taught a great deal about God’s eternal election and nothing of God’s eternal love. In fact, the doctrine of predestination is about God’s love.

In the popular mind Calvin and predestination are inextricably linked. With this doctrine, according to Hunter’s striking phrase, Calvin brought upon himself and his system “cataracts of horrified abuse.” More carefully considered, predestination is neither a logical deduction nor the central doctrine. Niesel correctly observes, “All mere thinking about eternal predestination as an idea in itself leads us into uncertainty and despair.” Calvin agrees: “They are mad who seek their own or others’ salvation in the labyrinth of predestination” (Com. Jn. 6:40). Niesel continues, Calvin’s theology is not “a system of thoughts about God and man proceeding from the one thought of the utter dependence of man on God. Metaphysical speculation about the ground of the world and its relation to the creature, however powerful and impressive, and revelational theology of which the only aim is to lead us to the Lord, are nevertheless mutually exclusive.” Calvin declares, “Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already difficult in itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel” (Inst. 3.21.1). “The predestination of God is truly a labyrinth from which the mind of man is wholly incapable of extracting itself” (Com. Rom. 9:14). [TJC 243-244]

…there are two ways of thinking about God in Calvin. The first, and most dominant, descends “upon the world from a conception of God which might find support in Christ but which did not start from Him; in the other he ascended from Christ to God or rather with Christ to God.” The latter means the “God whom he posited was not the fruit of the speculation which was his peculiar abhorrence, but a Being not merely depicted in Scripture but reflected in life and religious experience.” [TJC 246]

Predestination is not a theoretical exposition of God’s power but a practical understanding of God’s providence applied to the chosen ones. Predestination is an affirmation of the ultimate victory of God’s irresistible love. The confession that God’s love for God’s elect is unfailing and unflagging raises many problems for the understanding, among them the correct relation between God’s sovereign holy will and our sinful human wills, but also between the chosen and not chosen. The result produces not steps of logic but moments of confession, which include both the assurance of pardon and the certainty of one’s salvation.

Calvin understands there are those who wish to avoid all mention of predestination, but he believes that in the Word of the Lord “we have a sure rule for the understanding. For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress” (Inst. 3.21.3). This means, “We should not investigate what the Lord has left hidden in secret, [but also] we should not neglect what he has brought into the open, so that we may not be convicted of excessive curiosity on the one hand, or of excessive ingratitude on the other” (Inst. 3.21.4). Calvin concludes, “Let this, therefore, first of all be before our eyes: to seek any other knowledge of predestination than what the Word of God discloses is not less insane than if one should purpose to walk in a pathless waste [c.f. Job 12.24], or to see in darkness. And let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter, wherein there is a certain learned ignorance” (Inst. 3.21.2). In short, Calvin believed his doctrine of predestination was biblical in origin and mysterious in conceptualization. [TJC 251]

Recommended Reading
C&P: Charles Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (E.J. Brill, 1977, rpt. WJK, 2005).
TJC: Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (WJK, 2008).

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Sovereign Grace, Regeneration and Humble Calvinism