Roger Olson, “Calvinism and God-ordained Suffering: A Follow Up”

, posted by SEA

This is for those who have been following the recent discussion thread about what a Calvinist care-giver should say, if he or she chose to express a classical Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty, to a suffering person who asks “Why is God letting this happen to me?”

You may recall that one of my most faithful and valued blog visitors and frequent commenters said I was wrong and even misrepresenting Calvinism.

What I said the Calvinist care-giver should say, in a nutshell (so not all that he or she should say), was that God designed, ordained and governed the suffering for his glory and that if the person would offer it up to God he would bring out of it glory for himself and good for the suffering person. Many people who commented simply hadn’t read or remembered well what I said. For example, I did NOT say the Calvinist should say to the suffering person that God CAUSED the suffering. Most Calvinists, in my experience, would not say that.

I was trying to be fair and faithful to what I have read from leading Calvinists–going back to Calvin himself who clearly stated in the Institutes that God never merely permits anything and to Edwards who argued that God does everything for his glory.

I was not intentionally misrepresenting classical Calvinism and many Calvinists have agreed here that the words I put in the hypothetical Calvinist care-giver’s mouth is what they would say if the suffering person really wanted a theological answer.

A few have argued that an Arminian should say the same thing. I disagree. The crucial difference lies in the words “designed” and “ordained.” “Governs”–yes. But no Arminian I know would say that all suffering is designed and ordained by God. Yes, God can bring glory to himself and good for the suffering person–but according to Arminian theology God does not design or ordain all suffering.

I think what we are seeing is that Calvinists do not agree among themselves about God’s role in suffering. But when I talk here about “Calvinism” I’m talking about classical, historical, traditional Calvinism as that was taught by Calvin, Edwards and others and is taught by contemporary Calvinists such as Sproul, Piper and others. I see no significant differences among them. Admittedly there are people who call themselves Calvinists who disagree with some points of classical Calvinism. When I talk here about Calvinism I am not talking about all the various beliefs held by people who call themselves Calvinists; I am talking about the system of Calvin and his faithful followers.

So, for those of you who don’t know what Calvin and all his faithful followers believed, let me quote (again) from Calvin. Here is what he wrote about what people do–including the “ungodly”: “That men can accomplish nothing except by God’s secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed with himself and determines by his secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies.” (Institutes I:XVIII.1) Calvin extended this to every human decision and action including sin: “in a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God’s will, not even that which is against his will.” (ibid., para. 3) Then, also, “God by the bridle of his providence turns every event whatever way he wills….” (ibid., XVI.9) In that same paragraph (I:XVI.9) Calvin gives an illustration of his view of God’s providence: A merchant riding through a forest with friends wanders away and is killed by thieves. “His death was not only foreseen by God’s eye, but also determined by his decree.”

In the preceding paragraph (8) Calvin denies that anything ever happens by chance or contingency. “Every success is God’s blessing, and calamity and adversity his curse, no place now remains in human affairs for fortune or chance.” Nothing, he says, happens without God ordaining it.

These sentiments of Calvin’s find agreement in Edwards and Piper and other past and contemporary Calvinists. I take them to be at the core of Calvinism. That some who call themselves Calvinists disagree does not make them less true of Calvinism.

John Piper rightly says that, in Calvinism, God “designs, ordains, and governs” everything that happens without exception (including the terrorist attacks of 9/11). This is what Calvin meant, too. And Edwards heartily agreed. Some who wish to be considered Calvinists disagree. Fine. I know people who call themselves Arminians who are really semi-Pelagians. When I talk about Arminianism I am not including them. I define these categories by their prototypes (as I have explained here before).

Based on my own experience here and elsewhere (talking with self-identified Calvinists) I find that many people who consider themselves Calvinists cannot stomach the strong view of God’s all-determining (I didn’t say all-causing) sovereignty and providence found in classical Calvinism. They often affirm it of the “big picture” but deny it when asked about, for example, the kidnapping, rape and murder of a child. I cannot find any room in Calvin or Edwards or Piper for that. Classical Calvinism is deterministic (not fatalistic) through and through–as I have shown in Against Calvinism.

Do I need to say every time I talk here about Calvinism that “not all who call themselves Calvinists agree with this?” I take it for granted that most people know that. Take any large category and you will find diversity among people who put themselves in it.

What I intended when I put the offending words in the hypothetical Calvinist care-giver’s mouth (to the person asking for a theological answer to where God is in his or her suffering) was what a person who adheres to classical Calvinism would or should say–not what every revisionist Reformed person would say. In fact, I realize that many classical Calvinists probably wouldn’t say it. But my point is that insofar as they are remaining faithful to their own tradition and theology they should say it (or something equivalent). And I did not intend to imply that the suffering person wouldn’t find comfort in those words. Many would!

I once heard C. Everett Koop talk (in a college chapel service) about “God killed my son.” He said that he only found comfort in knowing that God killed his son in a mountain climbing accident. He would find no comfort, he said, in thinking it an accident. I respected his honesty and forthrightness. (However, I did want to ask him, but wasn’t able to, if he would have found comfort in that view if his son had died a slow, agonizing death instead of what he described as a quick, painless death.)

Here is how one Calvinist visitor to my blog expressed what he believes a Calvinist care-giver should say to a person who really wants a theological answer: “God ordained your suffering to take place for his glory and for your own good. Through this suffering he will continue his work of transforming you into the likeness of his Son. You will learn to identify with the sufferings of Christ, to cry out to God alone to sustain you, and to be done with sin. You will gain the ability to comfort others who suffer like you have. Your suffering will abound in maturity by producing endurance, character, and a hope that will not disappoint you. The cares of this world will grow dim, the comforts and meditations on the next ever more glorious. God is with you in your suffering, sufficient to sustain you, and faithful to the end.”

I agree–only I think omitting that God designed it before ordaining it is wrong. God ordained it as a result of designing it. In classical Calvinism, as I understand it, the whole world and everything in it (including all decisions and events) was designed by God for his glory. I have checked that with several well-known Calvinist theologians who have affirmed that is what they believe and it is certainly consistent with everything written by Calvin and Edwards and other Calvinist prototypes.

As I have said here many times before there are numerous what I call “revisionist Reformed” people who still consider themselves Calvinists in some sense but who do not agree with classical Calvinism’s divine determinism (or “decretal theology”). I do not have them in mind when I talk here about Calvinism anymore than I have in mind open theists when I talk about classical Arminianism. I’m not saying open theists aren’t Arminians, but if an open theist accused me of misrepresenting Arminianism if I said that Arminianism includes belief in God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future and all that will happen I would not agree. I would say, well, SOME Arminians revise classical Arminianism at that point, but on that particular point they are not being faithful to classical, historical Arminianism (because the classical Arminian view of election is that God foreknows who will believe).

My question to the Calvinist who posted the comment quoted above is whether he (and others who agree) ALSO believe God ordains and governs the kidnapping, rape and murder of a child or the beheading of a child by a terrorist in Iraq? In my experience they always only want to talk about God ordaining and governing the suffering of Christians as either discipline or training in righteousness. But what about the ten year old boy who was found recently in a house in Texas with marks of physical abuse on every square inch of his body and dead from intentional starvation by his adult “guardians?” When found he weighed only 39 pounds. Did God design, ordain and govern that, too? Please, please answer. I have asked this so many times and rarely has any classical, historical Calvinist volunteered to answer.