Is God the Author of Evil? (vs. John Calvin)

Is God the Author of Evil? (vs. John Calvin) June 27, 2020

[excerpt from my book, A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (Oct. 2012, 178p), pp. 13-22. Follow the link for content and purchase information]

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I’ll be using, the (public domain) translation of Institutes of the Christian Religion by Henry Beveridge, produced for the Calvin Translation Society in 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; reprinted by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1995, and available online at the wonderful Christian Classics Ethereal Library site. My own Bible passages are from RSV. Calvin’s words will be in blue.

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From other passages, in which God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to his will, a more difficult question arises. For the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend how, when acting by their means, he contracts no taint from their impurity, nay, how, in a common operation, he is exempt from all guilt, and can justly condemn his own ministers. Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his Judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture. What we formerly quoted from the Psalms, to the effect that he does whatever pleases him, certainly extends to all the actions of men. (I, 18:1)

I have already shown clearly enough that God is the author of all those things which, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. 45:7); that no evil happens which he has not done (Amos 3:6). (I, 18:3)

By a cross-comparison of passages, it is clear that indeed, God allows or permits things that He does not decree. Human beings have a free will to do as they please, and once they do something sinful, God can nevertheless use it in His providence for His purposes, bringing good out of it (more on this aspect below). This is the sense in which Scripture says that God “did” something, pertaining to evil. It’s only in “a manner of speaking.”

This is plainly seen in, for example, the motif of “hardening of the heart” (a metaphor for refusing to do what one should do, or rebellion against God). In many passages, we see that human being freely hardened their own hearts:

Exodus 8:15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them; as the LORD had said.

Exodus 8:32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.

Exodus 9:34  But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again, and hardened his heart, he and his servants.

1 Samuel 6:6 Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? . . .

2 Chronicles 36:13 . . . he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD, the God of Israel.

Psalm 95:8 Harden not your hearts, as at Mer’ibah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

Proverbs 28:14 Blessed is the man who fears the LORD always; but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.

Hebrews 3:8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, (cf. 3:15; 4:7)

Other times, the text informs us that God hardened a heart (sometimes about the same situation, as in the above passages):

Exodus 4:21 . . . I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Exodus 7:3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart . . . (cf. 8:15, 32 above)

Exodus 9:12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh . . .

Exodus 9:35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened . . . (cf. 9:34 above)

Exodus 10:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants . . . (cf. 14:17 and 9:34; 1 Sam 6:6 above)

Exodus 10:20 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . . (cf. 10:27)

Exodus 11:10 . . . the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .

Exodus 14:4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart . . . (cf. 14:8)

Joshua 11:20 For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts . . .

Isaiah 63:17 O LORD, why dost thou make us err from thy ways and harden our heart, so that we fear thee not?

Romans 9:18 So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.

Harmonizing both, it seems clear that when we are told that God hardened a heart, what it means (in light of the human free will passages and the presumption of a non-contradictory, because divinely inspired, Bible) is that God permitted a person to harden his own heart, and proceeded to use this for His purposes, as He does all things. Accordingly, elsewhere we see the discrepancy between the will of God and that of man:

Genesis 50:20 As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

Proverbs 19:21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established.

Acts 14:16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways;

Calvin responded to this very argument:

He is said to have hardened the heart of Pharaoh, to have hardened it yet more, and confirmed it. Some evade these forms of expression by a silly cavil, because Pharaoh is elsewhere said to have hardened his own heart, thus making his will the cause of hardening it; as if the two things did not perfectly agree with each other, though in different senses—viz. that man, though acted upon by God, at the same time also acts. But I retort the objection on those who make it. If to harden means only bare permission, the contumacy will not properly belong to Pharaoh. Now, could any thing be more feeble and insipid than to interpret as if Pharaoh had only allowed himself to be hardened? We may add, that Scripture cuts off all handle for such cavils: “I,” saith the Lord, “will harden his heart,” (Exod. 4:21). So also, Moses says of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, that they went forth to battle because the Lord had hardened their hearts (Josh. 11:20). The same thing is repeated by another prophet, “He turned their hearts to hate his people,” (Psalm 105:25). (I, 18:2)

This is classic sophistical argumentative tactics from Calvin: picking and choosing what is agreeable to him and ignoring other relevant passages. He mentions in passing (only to deride the thought) that Scripture (no verse given) also says that Pharaoh “hardened his own heart.” Then he cites three specific passages where God is said to have hardened or turned hearts.

I, on the other hand, have provided readers with a full systematic biblical theology of “hardening” by citing eight passages (and two-cross references) of the former sense, and eleven of the latter.

It’s true that it is logically possible that Calvin’s scenario could be the truth of the matter (“man, though acted upon by God, at the same time also acts”). This is certainly the case in matters of doing righteousness, or what is called “synergy” (see 1 Cor 3:9-10; 15:10; 2 Cor 6:1; Phil 2:13; 2 Pet 1:10). But Catholics argue that in cases of evil a different dynamic is at work, with the sin or evil originating in fallen man, not God.

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It’s just as likely, prima facie, that man originates the sin and the language about God “hardening” is a manner of speaking with regard to His providence (a form of anthropomorphism), as it is that God originates it and man cooperates with it, like some kind of automaton. Calvin merely assumes that his view is correct (a non-compelling piece of circular reasoning on his part)

Moreover, we need not merely speculate and choose between the two options without scriptural warrant (nor evasively beg the question, as Calvin does), for there are explicit passages that indicate the dynamic of men choosing wickedness and God then “giving them up” to it: plain scenarios where men bring it about and God ceases to send His grace to them, and/or starts judging them, since they have made their choice against Him:

Romans 1:18-28 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. [19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [20] Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; [21] for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. [22] Claiming to be wise, they became fools, [23] and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. [24] Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, [25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. [26] For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, [27] and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. [28] And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.

Note the insistence that man sins and rebels, then God gives them up to their own devices. The text repeats this four times (see my added italics above: “Therefore / because / For this reason / since”).

It’s the exact opposite of Calvin’s causal order of God decreeing that men should sin, and men following course, since they obviously could do no other, in the face of an eternal decree by an omnipotent, sovereign God. The same causal order or chain is observed in several other passages, having to do with God “forsaking” those beyond all hope of redemption:

Deuteronomy 31:16-18 And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to sleep with your fathers; then this people will rise and play the harlot after the strange gods of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake me and break my covenant which I have made with them. [17] Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured; and many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, `Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ [18] And I will surely hide my face in that day on account of all the evil which they have done, because they have turned to other gods.

Joshua 24:20  If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.

2 Kings 22:17 Because they have forsaken me and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. (cf. 2 Chr 7:19-20; 15:2; 24:20; 34:25; Ezra 8:22; Ps 89:30-32; Jer 9:13-16; 16:11-13)

Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his Judgments. God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets (1 Kings 22:20 [mistakenly “2 Kings” in the text]). If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a Judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers. (I, 18:1)

Calvin refers to the following passage:

1 Kings 22:19-23 And Micai’ah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; [20] and the LORD said, `Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. [21] Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, `I will entice him.’ [22] And the LORD said to him, `By what means?’ And he said, `I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, `You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.’ [23] Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has spoken evil concerning you.”

This is a difficult passage, but upon sufficient reflection and consideration of all the relevant variables, I contend that it is another instance of what we saw above: God’s permissive will rather than some eternal decree of his that ordains Ahab and other evil men to act as they do (albeit quite pungently expressed here!).

The eminent 19th century ten-volume work, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Lutheran scholars C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (reprinted by Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan; translated by James Martin; Volume III: The Books of the Kings, p. 277) provides what I think is the correct explanation:

Jehovah sends this spirit, inasmuch as the deception of Ahab has been inflicted upon him as a judgment of God for his unbelief. But there is no statement here to the effect that this lying spirit proceeded from Satan, because the object of the prophet was simply to bring out the working of God in the deception practiced upon Ahab by his [i.e., Ahab’s] prophets. . . .

The prophet’s view is founded upon this thought: Jehovah has ordained that Ahab, being led astray by a prediction of his prophets inspired by the spirit of lies, shall enter upon the war, that he may find therein the punishment of his ungodliness.

As he would not listen to the word of the Lord in the mouth of His true servants, God had given him up (Rom. i 24, 26, 28) in his unbelief to the working of the spirits of lying. But that this did not destroy the freedom of the human will is evident from the expression, “thou canst persuade him,” and still more clearly from, “thou wilt also be able,” since they both presuppose the possibility of resistance to temptation on the part of man.

Elsewhere, Scripture makes it clear that Ahab chose to do evil on his own accord (with no hint of God causing, let alone decreeing it from all eternity). Thus, at this point, he was long overdue for God’s judgment:

1 Kings 16:30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all that were before him. . . . [33] . . . Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.

1 Kings 21:25-26 (There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the LORD like Ahab, whom Jez’ebel his wife incited. [26] He did very abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the people of Israel.)

Catholics do, however, heartily and enthusiastically concur with the second-to-last sentence of Calvin’s Book I:

Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures, have delivered. (I, 18:4)

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