What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?” (Part 2)

What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?” (Part 2) September 26, 2014

What Did Charles Hodge Say about “The Decrees of God?” (Part 2)


In Part 1 of this series on the theology of Charles Hodge I claimed that Hodge remains the “gold standard” for Reformed theology for most American Calvinist evangelical theologians. Again, as I said there, that doesn’t mean they all agree with him about everything; it only means that if he said it, claimed it, argued for it, it can’t be considered alien or foreign to Reformed-Calvinist thought—especially in its North American expression. Hodge is to modern North American Calvinism what Karl Barth is to dialectical theology/neo-orthodoxy—the trend-setter and corner stone. Others of the party may disagree about details and secondary matters, but they generally agree about the main ideas.

My point in this series is simple: If Charles Hodge taught it in his Systematic Theology, especially about God’s sovereignty in history and salvation, it cannot be alien or foreign to Calvinist thought—especially as that is understood in North America. Those Reformed thinkers, Calvinists, who significantly deviate from his theology in those areas are at best revisionists.

When I read Hodge’s Systematic Theology on God’s sovereignty I am struck by how much is echoed in more contemporary conservative evangelical Reformed/Calvinist theology. For example, in his Christian Theology Millard Erickson uses the same phrase Hodge used repeatedly about God’s involvement in the events of history and individuals’ lives—including their status as elect and saved (or not): “rendered certain.” It’s not a common, everyday phrase. It was Hodge’s way of avoiding saying that God “caused” sin, evil, reprobation and calamities. God did not “cause” them, but he did and does “render them certain” according to an eternal divine plan. When John Piper (and other contemporary American Calvinists) say that God “designs, ordains and governs” all things without exception, he is simply putting into his own words the ideas Hodge expressed in his Systematic Theology, Volume 1, Chapter IX “The Decrees of God.” Here I will quote extensively from that chapter with frequent glosses showing the parallels with so-called “New Calvinism.” My point is that this “New Calvinism” isn’t new at all. It is simply Hodge’s classical Calvinism updated and packaged for the (mostly young) masses.

Chapter IX begins with “The Nature of the Decrees.” Hodge begins by quoting the Westminster Shorter Catechism and agreeing with it: “The decrees of God are his eternal purposes, according to the counsel of his will, whereby for his own glory He had foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Here is Hodge’s clarification of this: “Whatever He [God] does or permits to be done, is done or permitted for the more perfect revelation of his nature and perfections.” Note that no event escapes this comprehensive purpose. Hodge makes no exceptions. “Whatsoever comes to pass,” including the kidnapping, rape and murder of a small child (Hodge gives us no reason to think there are any exceptions) was “done or permitted” by God for the purpose of the perfect revelation of his nature and perfections. That is, for his glory. Now, to be sure, many Calvinists recoil at that, but that is what Hodge believed and said and it is perfectly consistent with classical Calvinism from Calvin himself (or before him Zwingli!) to Piper. Don’t be distracted by the language of “permission.” The point is that even what God permits he foreordained for his glory. There’s no escaping that. Whatever happens, without exception, was foreordained by God according to his eternal plan and purpose for his glory. Hodge will go on to say in the rest of the chapter that even what God permits he renders certain. So it is not at all contingent or accidental or consequential—to the fall or human sin.

In the second section, “The Decrees Reducible to one Purpose,” Hodge declares that “The reason, therefore, why any event occurs, or, that it passes from the category of the possible into that of the actual, is that God has so decreed. … All are part of one all-comprehending plan.” According to Hodge, God never purposes “what He did not originally intend.” This is clear enough, or it should be. The kidnapping, rape and murder of a small child must also be intended by God. Hodge adamantly denies (in this section) that God ever purposes something successively—as a result of something outside of his plan. That, he says, would stand against the very idea of God as infinite.

In the next part, “The Decrees of God are Eternal,” Hodge argues that “History in all its details, even the most minute, is but the evolution of the eternal purposes of God.” In other words, the kidnapping, rape and murder of a small child is part of the eternal plan and purpose of God and not at all the result of something interfering with God’s plan or purpose such as the fall or sin. Even those must be parts of the eternal, unchangeable purpose and plan of God.

Then Hodge declares that “The Decrees of God are Immutable.” “The whole government of God, as the God of nature and as moral governor, rests on the immutability of his counsels.” No “unforeseen emergency” can resist the “execution of his original intention.” Again, then, the kidnapping, rape and murder of a small child must be according to God’s original intention and not the result of anything that intruded into God’s original intention such as the fall and human rebellion against God.

Then Hodge argues that “The Decrees of God are Free.” “God adopted the plan of the universe on the ground of his own good pleasure, for his own glory, and every subordinate part of it in reference to the whole.” Furthermore, “The decrees of God are in no case conditional.”

Then, according to Hodge, “The Decrees of God are certainly Efficacious.” This is crucial for those who argue that God merely permits sin, evil or innocent suffering. Yes, Hodge uses the language of permission, but that permission is efficacious permission. What God permits he permits according to a plan and his permitting what he planned to happen renders it certain. “All events embraced in the purpose of God are equally certain, whether He has determined to bring them to pass by his own power, or simply to permit their occurrence through the agency of his creatures. It was no less certain from eternity that Satan would tempt our first parents, and that they would fall, than that God would send his Son to die for sinners.” So, even what God “simply permits” is efficaciously rendered certain by God intentionally according to his plan and purpose—to thereby glorify himself. (We must always keep in mind the foregoing when interpreting what is presently before our eyes.) Thus, if we are to believe Hodge, God planned the fall of humanity and rendered it certain for his glory even if he did not bring it to pass by his own power but used an instrument, Satan, to bring it about. Hodge is here simply repeating what Calvin said in The Institutes.

Next Hodge argues that “The Decrees of God relate to All Events.” “The doctrine of the Bible is, that all events, whether necessary or contingent, good or sinful, are included in the purpose of God, and that their futurition or actual occurrence is rendered absolutely certain.” How anything can be “contingent” is not explained by Hodge; it would seem counterintuitive, to say the least, to believe that anything rendered absolutely certain according to an eternal plan could be truly contingent. But let that not detain us. Hodge’s main point is crystal clear. God’s decrees render all events certain according to God’s intentional plan and purpose to glorify himself through them all. That includes the kidnapping, rape and murder of a small child.

Next Hodge explains that “Free Acts are Foreordained.” “The Scriptures teach that sinful acts, as well as such as are holy, are foreordained.” Also, “The whole course of history is represented as the development of the plan and purposes of God; and yet human history is little else than the history of sin.” He specifically mentions “The destruction of the Huguenots in France, the persecution of the Puritans in England.” All happened according to a divine plan and for good reasons Hodge believes he can discern: They “laid the foundation for the planting of North America with a race of godly and energetic men….” This reasoning would also apply, of course, to the Holocaust which was yet to come. If Hodge were alive today he could not avoid saying that the Holocaust, like every other horror of human history, was planned and rendered certain by God.

Next in Chapter IX Hodge answers “Objections to the Doctrine of the Divine Decrees.” The first objection is that “Foreordination [is] inconsistent with Free Agency. The best he can do here is carry out the “tu quoque” argument that all his orthodox opponents, who believe in divine foreknowledge, also must believe in the certainty of all events, including sin and evil, even as they proclaim their contingency and free agency as their cause. What he conveniently overlooks is the clear (at least to Arminians) distinction between God planning (designing) and foreordaining and rendering certain and God merely foreknowing. To foreknow is not to render certain. It may be true that what is foreknown absolutely is certain to happen, but there is a huge gulf between foreknowing a sin will be committed and foreordaining it and rendering it certain. (Interestingly Hodge here deals with what is now called “open theism” and simply sweeps it aside as virtually unworthy of serious consideration as it makes God not God.)

Then Hodge considers the objection that “Foreordination of Sin [is] inconsistent with Holiness.” His basic response is that God “sees and knows that higher ends will be accomplished by [sin’s] admission [into his plan] than by its exclusion, that a perfect exhibition of his infinite perfections will be thereby effected, and therefore for the highest reason decrees that it shall occur through the free choice of responsible agents.” In other words, when God plans, foreordains, and renders certain a sin he does so for a good reason so no guilt is involved for God. But the sinner is guilty because he acts freely. It is doubtful, however, that Hodge believed in libertarian free will, power of contrary choice, so by “acts freely” he means “does what he wants to do” even if he could not do otherwise. Hodge’s final argument in response to this objection is this: “Sin is, and God is; therefore the occurrence of sin must be consistent with his nature; and as its occurrence cannot have been unforeseen or undesigned [!], God’s purpose or decree that it should occur must be consistent with his holiness.” But, of course, that assumes everything in the world, including the kidnapping, rape and murder of a small child cannot be “undesigned” by God. What Hodge seems not to be able to conceive of is God’s self-limitation, God’s sovereignty over his sovereignty, God’s willing choice not to design, foreordain and render certain every event. Embedded in his whole discussion of God is the assumption that God, in order to be God, must be the all-determining reality. But, in the end, Hodge never adequately explains how God is good in any normal meaning of the word, if he is the ultimate, final author of all the horrors of history—except that he does it all for the summum bonum of his glory and therefore it’s all justified. He does not wrestle adequately with the question of God’s goodness; he simply assumes that no matter what God does must be good just because God does it. While Hodge was probably not a nominalist/voluntarist most of the time, this what he falls back on here.

Finally Hodge argues that his view of God’s decrees is not “Fatalism.” He defines “fatalism” as “the doctrine that all events come to pass under the operation of a blind necessity.” His view differences from that in affirming that all that occurs according to the “will of an infinitely wise and good ruler, all whose acts are determined by a sufficient reason.” I’m sure the distinction will be lost on most people because they think of “fatalism” as any view that whatever happens is bound to happen and could not happen otherwise—whether by blind necessity or divine operation.

Now, I’m well aware that many people who call themselves Calvinists disagree with Hodge’s (and Calvin’s and Edwards’s and Piper’s) strong view of divine determination of all events including sin and innocent suffering. They shrink back when confronted with this view of God’s sovereignty in meticulous providence and say either “That’s not my Calvinism!” or “Well, I’m a Calvinist but not of that kind.” When pressed they often appeal to mystery and paradox and say they somehow believe in both God’s comprehensive sovereignty and that individual acts of sin and torture of children (for example) are not foreordained or rendered certain by God. But that’s Arminianism, not Calvinism! Arminianism also includes belief in God’s comprehensive sovereignty but defines it differently—as God’s either decreeing or merely permitting all events. But Hodge’s view is classical Calvinism! All other views of God’s sovereignty are either revisionist Calvinism or Arminianism or both! Hodge is not considered an extreme Calvinist; he was an infralapsarian rather than a supralapsarian and his doctrine of the divine decrees shows that those are really the same thing—when considered from the perspective of divine determinism. They differ only in soteriology, but that difference pales into a distinction without any real difference once one remembers their common view of God’s overall sovereignty over all affairs.

My argument is that if someone calls himself or herself a Calvinist he or she should bite the bullet, so to speak, and agree with Calvin’s, Edwards’s, Hodge’s and Piper’s view of the decrees of God—that everything that happens without exception is designed, decreed, ordained, governed, and rendered certain by God. That is classical Calvinism. “Reformed Theology” may be a bigger “tent” than that, but “Calvinism” historically includes that view of God’s providence. Piper’s Calvinism is not, then, “Neo-Calvinism;” it is classical Calvinism put forth boldly and without qualification or apology. I respect him for that. And the only logical alternative to it is some kind of Arminianism—whether called that or not—in which God limits himself to allow libertarian free will such that sins and evils and innocent suffering are not designed or ordained or rendered certain by God even if they are foreknown by him.

So permit me to end with this illustration of the difference. A small child is kidnapped, raped and murdered. We all know it happens and we grieve over it and consider the perpetrator a monster. What should we think theologically about God’s role in the event? If Hodge is right, the whole event in all its gruesome details, was decreed by God according to a divine plan the purpose of which is to glorify himself. Take away all the verbiage and that’s what it boils down to. Hodge (and other Calvinists) will insist that God only “permitted” the perpetrator to enact the deed, but his explanation of God’s decrees requires that God’s permission was efficacious; it guaranteed the perpetrator would do it and God wanted him to do it and for a divine reason. So who is a monster if that is the case? The perpetrator or God?

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