Divine Sovereignty, Evil, Mystery, and “Calvinism”

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.

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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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