God or Fate: Is Calvin among the Stoics?

Currently, I’m working on three sermon outlines with respect to the 9th and 10th sunday of the Heidelberg Catechism and the 13th article of the Belgic Confession of Guido de Brès. These sermon outlines deal with God’s providence. Critics have pointed out that the theology displayed in these answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, resembles very much Calvin’s opinions (compare his Genevan Catechism, Q&A27). As a consequence, the Heidelberg Catechism shares in the suspicion of Calvin’s alleged Stoicism. In this post I aim to deal with this suspicion towards Calvin. There are, of course, other topics of interest with regard to Calvin’s alleged Stoicism, like his ethics and his view of the body. A few words about that in the end. But before we take a closer look at Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence, we need to give a little attention to biographical matters.

Calvin’s first monograph happened to be a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (1532). For sure, he felt himself somehow attracted to Stoic philosophy. But, as Bruce Gordon shows in his excellent Calvin-biography, Calvin’s relation with Stoic thought Senecadeveloped over the course of the years. While he felt attracted to some Stoic ideals, like self-reliance and self-dependence (p.30,32,248), he gradually moved away from the Stoic view of God as a distant and remote deity, towards a more biblical conception of God (p.57).

With this in mind, we return to Calvin’s doctrine of God’s providence. From the outset, it is clear that Calvin stresses God’s controlling power in his dominion over the world. Calvin abhors the sheer thought that God’s control could ever be wanting. Equally clear is his emphasis on human submission to God’s dealings with this world and our lives. No wonder then, that Calvin has been accused of confounding God and Fate. Hence, the accusation of Stoicism in Calvin’s theology. Calvin himself, however, viewed matter differently. He claimed that his view differed profoundly from the Stoic understanding of fate by arguing that God does not act according to necessity. Time and time again he claims that some of his opponents are Stoic, because their thinking is deterministic (Barbara Pitkin, What Pure Eyes Could See, p.26, 98). Calvin dissociates himself obviously from the Stoics.

So far, so good then? Not quite. The problem is that his contemporaries thought otherwise. In another article of hers, Barbara Pitkin points out how Heinrich Bullinger asked Calvin to write a book in order to make clear that God was not the author of sin, since many people had been troubled by Calvin’s rendering of the doctrine predestination in his Institutes. And Philip Melanchthon called him the ‘protestant Zeno’, which was by no means meant as a compliment (‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’, Journal of Religion 84/3 (2004), p.345-346).

What was the problem? It was not with Calvin’s intentions. Both Bullinger and Melanchthon could be called friends of Calvin, although their friendships were not without tensions. But the problem they had with Calvin was the way he defended his position on providence and predestination. In order to secure God’s control and his active involvement in matters, Calvin denied explicitly the usefullness of the traditional distinction of God’s permission. For sure, he sometimes uses the word in his writings, but conceptually it is elaborated in a different way in comparison with the traditional concept of permission. Take, for example, his Genevan catechism once again. In answer 28 Calvin speaks about God’s permission of the doings of wicked men and devils. But, as the rest of this answers makes abundantly clear, Calvin speaks about this permission in terms of absolute divine control, even coercion. “Although God does not govern them by his Spirit, he however curbs them by his power as a bridle, so that they cannot even move unless in so far as he permits them.” Even more so: “He even makes them the ministers of his will, so that unwilling and against their own intention, they are forced to execute what to him seems good.”

The Heidelberg Catechism seems, at least partly, to share this absolute conception of God’s providence. Answer 26 says for example: “whatever evil HeLogical square sends upon me…”. The Belgic Confession on the contrary, takes up the talk and underlying concept of divine permission of evil (art.13). Ursinus, the main author of the Heidelberg Catechism, applies the same concept of divine permission in his Schatboek, an explanation of the Catechism. That seems to me very important. Let’s take the following example: God wants a state of affairs ‘p’ (gWp). ‘Permission’ is then the conjunction of both: g-Wp & g-W-p. In terms of the logical square (see the picture), it refers to the positions I (g-W-p) and O (g-Wp) together. Talking in terms of permission enables one to explain why God doesn’t have a positive volition to evil states of affairs. So, by denying the usefullness of the concept of permission, Calvin seems to be forced to confirm God’s positive volition towards evil and sin. That is, in rather technical terms, what his friends were afraid of.

Once again the question: is Calvin among the Stoics? It might seem so, but no, I definitively don’t think so. Although influenced by Stoics like Seneca in his early career, his theology can’t be called Stoic, without doing Calvin grave injustice. In fact, as Nicholas Wolterstorff points out in Hearing the Call, Calvin’s way of dealing with grief is quite opposed to the Stoic ideal (p.118-122). And, as Thomas Torrance once showed, Calvin’s thinking of the human body wasn’t Stoic either (Kingdom and Church, p.92-93). Although Calvin’s doctrine of divine providence might seem to be Stoic, it certainly isn’t. And neither is the Heidelberg Catechism. A testcase for that verdict is the human attitude with respect to God’s providence. Fate evokes resignation, but a personal God asks for confidence. That’s precisely what Calvin calls for. So, we may safely conclude that Calvin is not among the Stoics. However, he certainly is among the determinists. But fortunately, that is atypical for Reformed theology in general.