Van Til Tool

Using the Van Til Perspective as the tool to discover what life means and how it ought to be lived.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


The Real Calvin Stands Up !!

A Review of:

John Calvin The Secret Providence of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010)

Reviewer: Forrest Wayne Schultz

Calvin's theology is not easy for the modern man to understand. The task is made especially difficult by the obfuscation produced by the widespread fallacious notions about Calvinism. To succeed in task of undestanding the real Calvinism, one needs to carefully distinguish it from these false notions of what Calvinism is.

In the nineteenth century Henry Cole assisted us in making this distinction by means of a book he published entitled Calvin's Calvinism, which consisted of a collection of three of Calvin's writings. One of these -- the book under review here -- is especially appropriate for our purpose because it contains Calvin's own answers to the various attacks against his thought by his contemporary Sebastian Castellio.

It is interesting to observe, as the Editor of the 2010 edition of the book does in his Introduction, that Castellio's thought prefigures that of Arminius, and that Calvin, in refuting Castellio (and similar thinkers) relies very heavily upon Augustine, who had carefully honed his thinking in his battle against Pelagius. Thus, the book is relevant for anyone wishing a clearer understanding of the contrast between Calvinist theology and its Pelagian and Arminian rivals.

Castellio's starting point, as he himself openly admits, is common sense. From the perspective of common sense, Calvin's teaching that God decrees that evil actions occur and that they be used to fulfill His purposes can make it appear that God Himself is evil; and that the decrees of election and reprobation can appear to be arbitrary or unfair. So, Castellio claims on this basis that Calvin has derogated the character of God.

Calvin answers this calumny not only by means of numerous quotations from Scripture (which show that his theology is derived from Scripture) but also by noting this ultra-important fact about God, namely "that nothing is decreed by him without the best reason" (p. 64) and that "his will is the rule of the highest uprightness" (p. 78).

The point noted by Calvin here, which Cornelius Van Til developed further in the twentieth century, is that since God's very nature is rational and wise and righteous and is the very standard and ultimate reference point for defining logic and wisdom and righteousness, that it is impossible for any of God's decrees and actions to be irrational or unwise or unrighteous.

A second distinction between the two theological perspectives is pointed out in the Editorial Introduction and is seen throughout the book, namely Calvin's recogntion of the mystery in God's ways, and Castellio's intolerance of this mystery. Calvin reminds us of God's exaltation above man; Castellio wants to bring God down to our level and explain everything in simple terms. To use Van Til's terminology, Calvin stresses the Creator/creature distinction; Castellio tends to blur that distinction. Calvin emphasizes the truth of Deut 29:29, viz. that "the secret things belong to God", i.e. there are certain matters God has chosen not to reveal to us. Castellio, on the other hand, is like the reader who resents the novelist for keeping some of the "backstory" to himself instead of telling the reader everything. And, Calvin (contra Castellio) is like the reader who recognizes that it would be absurd to conclude that the writer of a murder mystery must be in favor of murder because he has put a murder into his story!

The format of The Secret Providence of God is very unusual in that Castellio does not identify himself and that he pretends that the calumnies against Calvin were written by someone else and that he is doing Calvin a favor by informing him of them! And the book has a very unusual and surprising ending (p. 122) which I shall allow you to discover for yourself and ponder its significance.

In light of the great importance of this book it is not surprising that a man of the stature of Paul Helm was chosen as Editor: he held the J. I. Packer Chair at Regent College for five years. And it is not suprising that the book has received the endorsement of men like Westminster Seminary's Academic Dean and Vice-President Carl R. Trueman, and the noted church historian Michael A. G. Haykin whose excellent lecture on the life of Calvin was a valuable contribution to the recently concluded Calvin quinquicentennial.


  • At Thursday, October 07, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    As one who has only recently come to appreciate reformed doctrines, why is it that we have to revert to the "mysteries" of Gods hidden will when it comes to issues like the origin of evil and reprobation? I believe that Calvinism provides the best and most consistent Worldview for Christians, but I am not sure that it is watertight as a systematic theology across the spectrum on every issue; on the one hand we have no hesitation arguing for the reformed position on doctrines of eschatology and soteriology yet when faced with similar discussions on doctrines of election and the problem of evil we get all mystical and appeal to the "hidden counsel of God" quoting Romans 9:20. If we do attempt to reconcile Calvinism as a philosophy with these tough issues does it lead to hyper-Calvinism and supralapsarianism. Perhaps you can comment and recommend some reading on the subject.

  • At Saturday, October 09, 2010, Blogger Forrest Schultz said…

    One of the most important principles of the Van Til Perspective is one which, unfortunately, is often violated in theological discussions by Reformed men. This is the principle that God is self-defining and that He is the ultimate standard and definer of all terms and that He defines those terms by reference to Himself. To wit, the true definition and standard of righteousness is God's righteousness; the true definition and standard of love is God's love; of logic is God's logic; of beauty is God's beauty; and so forth. It is therefore radically unvantillian for anyone either to try to prove or disprove that God is righteous in terms of some standard other than God's righteousness. Ditto with the other attributes. As soon as we appeal to some standard other than God we are thereby placing ourselves in the position of Judge and are placing God down "in the dock" (to use C. S. Lewis's great phrase!) as though he were the defendant and we are sitting in judgment on Him. Whenever we see anyone doing this we must not try to defend God as though we were his defense attorney in this court. Rather we must state that this court has no jurisdiction -- it is an invalid court. Do you see that??

    In re the decree order matter, this is an extraordinarily complex matter to which I have devoted a great amount of study and have concluded that both the supra and infra view are false, but the discussion is far too lengthy to get into here. I can say that the reason we have failed here is due to the very unfortnate Reformed history of hostility to or indifference to the arts. The answer lies in the concept of "motif", which is the dominant principle in an art work, especially a play. To get right to the point, God, as Playwright, has decided that His play, i.e. history, will be characterized by two motifs (principal themes), the Creation Motif and the Salvation Motif, rather than just one one or the other.

    The first decree is the Creation Motif, i.e. that He will create a man (and all that entails), but it does not decide which man; it also does not decide if any other motifs will be involved. The second decree is that there will also be a Salvation Motif, i.e. He will also do a work of salvation. This means He will need to create a man who will fall (if created) rather than a man who will not fall (if created), because in order to do salvation you need fallen men, i.e. those needing salvation.

    Anyway, the reason there is sin is that God wants to do a work of salvation.

    The reason He chose both Motifs (Creation & Salvation) instead of just the Creation Motif, is that this will produce a more sophisticated more complex richer story. You see, the answer is found in the aesthetic aspect, about which Reformed people only recently are starting to care about.

    Concerning the other matter you raised, election and reprobation, PLEASE remember this:

    God is all wise, therefore He never does anything foolish, therefore the election decree is not foolish. Ditto -- must be lloving etc.


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