John Calvin: Predestination and Justice
In this second article in a series on John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, I will describe why and how Calvin chose to teach predestination. I also will articulate John Calvin’s conception of justice, and his defense of predestination as just. In the first article I explained Calvin’s doctrine of predestination itself.
My discussion of Calvin’s view will draw on excerpts from Book III, chapters 21-23, of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) in Hans J. Hillerbrand’s collection The Protestant Reformation (ordinary page references are to this work), and sections 3.24.4 and 3.24.5 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion translated by Henry Beveridge (decimal references are to this work, pictured to the right).
John Calvin: On Teaching Predestination
Based on his conviction that the Bible is God’s beneficial and sufficient revelation for humanity, John Calvin felt constrained to teach the doctrine of predestination (182). To the extent that predestination is part of scripture, Calvin thought it should be taught for the benefit of God’s people (181, 183). Calvin had several specific benefits in view. First, predestination reveals a wonderful and terrible aspect of God’s glory that is formative for believers (180). A second and correlated benefit is “true humility (180).” To see God in all his awesome glory is at once to see our own humble position relative to him, and to clearly sense our obligation to him (180). According to Calvin, those who suppress the doctrine of predestination “tear humility up by the very roots (180).” A third benefit Calvin cited is confidence in our salvific status. By the doctrine of election, believers can rest assured that God’s eternal salvific purpose will be accomplished in their lives, despite trial and hardship (180). Together, Calvin described these three benefits of the doctrine as the very “foundation of our salvation (180-181).”
In addition to his desire to benefit believers, John Calvin seemed concerned to address methodological deficiencies in the way the doctrine of predestination was often approached. Specifically, Calvin rejected inquiry into predestination that was not bounded by the teachings of scripture, declaring it “foolish and dangerous, nay, even deadly (182).” In keeping with his notion of the sufficiency of scripture, Calvin advocated inquiry that was strictly limited by scripture. Where scripture is silent regarding aspects of predestination, believers should adopt a “learned ignorance (182).” Where scripture teaches, we too should teach (182).
Calvin exemplified this method in his writing, grounding his teaching in copious biblical passages. While Calvin periodically cited theological predecessors such as Augustine (181, 205, 208, 211) or Bernard (3.24.4), these citations were generally linked to scriptural support and were never used as the sole basis for an argument. Calvin also made frequent use of logic as a criterion for evaluating biblical interpretations and the arguments of his opponents (e.g., his use of “consistency”, 192). As far as possible, John Calvin wanted to portray God’s purposes and actions as humanly reasonable. However, as noted above, he recognized limits to the application of human reason, and so he eschewed speculative inquiry apart from the Bible (181). Where the Bible appeals to the unknowable mystery of God, Calvin wanted to limit the probing of reason.
John Calvin on Predestination as Just
John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was often opposed on the grounds that it made God out to be unjust. However, Calvin strongly countered such arguments, elucidating his conception of justice in the process. One objection to his doctrine was that it portrayed God as tyrannical, condemning people who, before creation, had done nothing wrong (202). A second related objection was that if God willed humanity’s fall in Adam—as Calvin maintained (207-208) —why does he condemn those in the sinful condition he willed (204)? Moreover, are such people justly condemned for sin they could not avoid? Who can resist the will of God (206)?
Calvin answered these objections in two ways. First, he maintained (with scripture; cf. Gen. 18.25, 204) that God’s will is the “highest rule of righteousness,” and therefore anything that God wills—such as predestination—“must be considered righteous,” or just, regardless of how it appears to us (202). For Calvin, God’s will has “its own equity (210).” Here Calvin upheld the justice of God, but claimed that it is simply “unknown” to us on some level (210). Thus, God’s justice is ultimately hidden and mysterious. With Paul (Rom. 9.20), Calvin affirmed that it is simply not our place to question God (205). He rejected that God is lawless, but he also rejected that God must give us an account of his justice, or that we are competent to “pronounce judgment [on God]…according to our own understanding (203).” It is absurd to accuse God because of our own lack of understanding (205). For John Calvin, since predestination yields the glory of God, it must be just: “whatever deserves praise must be just (209).”
Calvin’s second response was that since all people, including the reprobate, are “vitiated by sin,” and so deserve the punishment of death, God is actually just toward the reprobate in a perfectly comprehensible way: “of what injustice toward themselves may they complain (203)?” Calvin argued that although the hidden cause of God’s predestination is incomprehensible, “we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation,” which is human nature corrupted by sin (209). Here Calvin articulated a more common retributive notion of justice where wrongdoing is recompensed with punishment. So, while aspects of God’s justice are mysterious and hidden, this aspect is clear to humanity. Calvin asserted that the “cause and occasion” of the perdition of the reprobate lies in their own sin (209).
One further objection was raised that bears on God’s justice: God is uneven in his judgment. The objectors asserted that a just God should treat everyone equally, either punishing all or giving mercy to all (211). However, Calvin rejected this notion of justice on the ground that God is free to distribute mercy as he pleases, and that such mercy need not preclude judgment altogether (211). Calvin pointed out that God “does not bind Himself by a set law to call all men equally (197).” Thus, if people are all equally deserving of punishment (211), and if God owes mercy to no one, “He is freed of all accusation” regarding predestination (212). God chooses of his own free will to show mercy to some, and it is just for him to judge the others (211). Here John Calvin’s concept of justice was again retributive.
In summary, John Calvin defended a strong doctrine of predestination whereby God determined before all creation those who would obtain eternal life, and those who would receive eternal death. In both salvation and condemnation the key purpose of predestination is satisfied, that the glory of God might be shown. According to Calvin, God’s predestination is solely the result of his will, independent of external reasons, and so is ultimately mysterious to humanity. For this reason, Calvin advocated that inquiry into predestination be restricted to the bounds of scripture. Calvin repelled claims that predestination makes God unjust, arguing that all of sinful humanity deserves punishment—and so none are condemned unjustly—and that since God’s mysterious will is righteous, we can affirm that predestination is just.