“God’s Ever-Present Hand”

Calvin on Providence (Institutes I.16-18)


By John Drury


Before jumping headlong into a linear exposition of Calvin’s treatment of providence, it is worth noting three larger themes that are interwoven throughout his account:


(1) The basis of divine providence is the secret and mysterious plan of God. There is a cloud of mystery that surrounds Calvin’s account. Although the principle of providence is clearly revealed in scripture, the reasons behind providential acts are hidden from us. Thus faith is necessary to grasp providence.


(2) The character of divine providence is unmistakably particular. Throughout his discussion of providence, Calvin’s accent repeatedly falls on special providence that wills specific events. Providence means that God not only wills all events, but each event.


(3) The purpose of divine providence is to express God’s fatherly favor and therefore summon the proper human response. Providence is not an abstract philosophical concept for Calvin. Rather, providence reveals that God is taking care of us. There are certain human virtues or dispositions which correspond to the revelation of divine providence.


The Nature of Providence (chapter 16)


Calvin starts by linking providence to the doctrine of creation. The affirmation that God is creator is incomplete without the discussion of providence. God is not just a “momentary creator” who leaves the world to its own devices (197). This would be a crude and cold depiction of God’s creative work. Calvin indicates that the belief in creation leads to belief in providence.


Calvin also links the knowledge of providence with his previous treatments of faith and reason. Even “carnal sense” is compelled to acknowledge that the power which creates the world also sustains that world by propelling it into motion (197). However, this carnal knowledge falls short of what is known by faith: that God is the Governor and Preserver, actively sustaining, nourishing and caring for everything in his creation. Philosophers affirm that we live and move and have our being in God, “yet they are far from that earnest feeling of grace which [David] commends, because they do not at all taste God’s special care, by which alone his fatherly favor is known” (198). Note here that the philosophers have some sense of providence, but what they do not know is the most important thing: the particular, fatherly care that characterizes providence in Scripture.


Calvin explicitly contrasts providence with both fortune and fate. “God’s providence, as it is taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune or fortuitous happenings” (198). Although fate is a popular view, it is a “depraved opinion” (198). Those taught by scripture look elsewhere than fate for the “cause” and will regard that “all events are governed by God’s secret plan” (199). Calvin acknowledges that God has created certain objects to behave according to the laws of their nature. Yet they are effective only inasmuch as God empowers them to be so (199). They are instruments of God.


Even at this early stage in his treatment, Calvin notes the purpose of God’s providence: “to renew our remembrance of his fatherly favor toward us” (199). He also indicates the particularity of providence by asserting that “each year, month, and day is governed by a new, a special, providence of God” (199)


Having blocked the idea of blind fate on the hand, Calvin turns his critical focus to the Sophistic idea of a general passive providence. God does not merely influence the world generally by setting up its laws. According to Calvin, providence is perpetual, particular, and active. He argues this on the basis of divine omnipotence. He concludes that God’s providence is “a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity” (200). Hence, “nothing takes place without his deliberation” (200).


Calvin already intimates the positive benefits of this doctrine: “for in times of adversity believers comfort themselves with the solace that they suffer nothing except by God’s ordinance and command, for they are under his hand” (200). Those who praise God for his providence receive the benefit of knowing God’s power and protection (201). In contrast to the positive benefits, Calvin also indicates what is at stake for those who do not affirm providence. Calvin warns us against transferring to the stars or chance the fear due to God. We should be “beware of this infidelity” (201). In other words, the issue at hand is loyalty to God.


Upon completing his critiques of pagan notions of fate and passive providence, Calvin addresses errant Christian formulations of the doctrine of providence. He attacks those who understand providence as mere foreknowledge. God does not just observe, but governs the world (202). Foreknowledge without foreordination would imply omniscience without omnipotence. Calvin tacitly counters the misplacement of providence under foreknowledge by stating that “providence is lodged in the act” (202).


Calvin also opposes what he calls a “mixed” account of providence, wherein God only moves human wills but does not determine them (202). Calvin replies that God “directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end” (202). It should be noted that on this point Calvin does not argue explicitly against this view, but simply rejects it.


Finally, Calvin critiques a mere universal providence that ascribes to God some kind of general motion without actual control. Calvin responds that universal providence must be combined with special providence whereby God “exercises especial care over each of his works” (203). He reiterates that “God so attends to the regulation of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance” (203)


After the above critiques, Calvin begins to unfold his understanding of the positive purpose of the doctrine of providence. The key is that without providence, “no place is left for God’s fatherly favor, nor for his judgments” (204). The relationship between God and humanity is the focal point of the doctrine of providence: “because we know that the universe was established especially for the sake of mankind, we ought to look for this purpose in his governance also” (204). Calvin applies this purpose to the issue of poverty. Providence “urges the poor to patience; because those who are not content with their own lot try to shake off the burden laid upon them by God” (205). Calvin notes that even natural events are determined by God on behalf of or against certain men (206). So the cosmic scope of God’s providence has an anthropological center.


Calvin turns back once again to his critique of other views of God’s ongoing relationship to his creation. He distinguishes his view from fate on the hand and fortune on the other. This is a prime example of Calvin’s pattern of finding a via media between two false extremes. Against the Stoic doctrine of fate, Calvin declares:

 “We do not, with the Stoics, contrive a necessity out of the perpetual connection and intimately related series of causes, which is contained in nature; but we make God the ruler and governor of all things, who in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do, and now by his might carries out what he has decreed” (207). 

It is on this divine basis, and not logical necessity, that Calvin ascribes both natural events and human actions to the providence (207).


On the other hand, Calvin rejects the idea of chance or fortune as pagan. He appeals to Basil and Augustine to state his case. In addition to this genetic argument, Calvin makes use of the theme of mystery by suggesting that “perhaps what is commonly called ‘fortune’ is also ruled by a secret order, and we call a ‘chance occurrence’ only that of which the reason and cause are secret” (208).  In other words, just because we cannot see the cause, does not mean there is no cause at all. So rather than rejecting outright the concept of fortune, Calvin redefines it perspectivally.


Calvin describes the proper use of this correct understanding of fortune. He starts with the principles that “however all things may be ordained by God’s plan, according to a sure dispensation, for us they are fortuitous” (208). Although God has a secret plan, for us it is a secret plan. Calvin gives the example of a victim of robbery-homicide whose “death was not only foreseen by God’s eye, but also determined by his decree… Yet as far as the capacity of our mind is concerned, all things therein seem fortuitous” (209). The Christian mode of apprehension then is to recognize both the apparent fortuitousness of events and the hidden divine agency behind them. This mode of apprehension is possible only by faith: “what for us seems a contingency, faith recognizes to have been a secret impulse from God” (210).


The Practical Application of Providence Doctrine (chapter 17)


Having laid out his understanding of the nature of providence, Calvin turns to the purpose of the doctrine. However, one should note that just as he already began to draw these practical implications during his account of the nature of providence, so also does he continue to develop his understanding of providence while delineating its significance. Nowhere is this overlap felt more than in his three opening points: (1) “God’s providence must be considered with regard to the future as well as the past,” (2) providence sometimes works with an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, and sometimes against an intermediary, and (3) providence “strives to the end that God may reveal his concern for the whole human race … especially his vigilance in ruling the church, which he deigns to watch more closely” (210). Although they introduce new principles, these points are clearly relevant to this section. Why? Because they address the mode of divine providence and therefore carry with them implications for the proper human perception of and response to divine providence


Calvin begins by asserting that God always has reasons for his plans. He comments on a number of biblical texts, of which John 9 is the most appropriate (211). Calvin offers a caveat that the following exploration into the reasons behind God’s providential acts is not passing judgment on God, but rather revering his “secret judgments” (211). He pointedly indicates that God’s plans are mysterious, “incomprehensible” and a “deep abyss” (212). Accordingly, our response should be adoration (213).


Since his focus is now on the human response to providence, Calvin must inevitably address the problem of human responsibility. Calvin asserts that providence does not imply that we lack responsibility, because the whole purpose of providence is to get our attention in order to follow God. As he puts it, “let them inquire and learn from Scripture what is pleasing to God so that they may strive toward this under the Spirit’s guidance … being ready to follow God wherever he calls” (214-215). Calvin rejects that our actions or prayers are rendered irrelevant because of providence (215). He regards this as a misuse of the doctrine because it contravenes its true intent. The underlying concept here is duty: we are summoned by providence to follow God. To blame providence for our failure is to miss the point. It is worth noting that Calvin does not at this point answer the logical objection directly.


Not only does providence not imply that we lack responsibility for our past actions, but also providence does not imply that we lack responsibility for planning for our future. We should be prudent in ordering our affairs. We should prepare for our future, “but always in submission to his will” (216). God sets the “limits” and the “means,” but he also has “entrusted” the care of our lives to us and has “made us able to foresee dangers” (216). Once again, the key word is “duty” (216). Although God may be secretly willing all events, we are called to act in accordance with his revealed will.


With regard to the relation between God’s providence and our disobedience, Calvin interestingly distinguishes between the will and command of God: “unless he willed it, we would not do it [evil] … but do we do evil things to the end that we may serve him? Yet he by no means commands us to do them” (217, emphasis added). God may will our disobedience, but is exonerated “for so great and boundless is his wisdom that he knows right well how to use evil instruments to do good” (217). So although God indirectly wills these evil acts through his created instruments, he brings them to good ends and is therefore not responsible for evil. Rather, the one who committed evil is still accountable to God for disobeying his command.


After addressing the issue of human responsibility, Calvin concentrates on the positive benefits of a belief in divine providence. Providence is a very comforting doctrine because it reminds us that God is taking care of the welfare of believers (218). Calvin explains how this thought brings comfort whether we experience wealth or adversity (219-221). In adversity, we should like Joseph look past the injustice and acknowledge that God is at work (220). Calvin sums up the human virtues apropos to a belief in providence: “Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge” (219, emphasis added).


Calvin returns to the problem of human responsibility with his interesting account of secondary causes. Although he certainly does not emphasis them, he does acknowledge the reality of secondary causes. Humans are given certain tasks to do, and although we may only be the secondary cause of these acts, we should not overlook our duty (221). This is especially true with regard to our wise preparation for the future (222). Once again, the accent in his account of human action is duty.


Calvin wraps up his discussion of the benefits of the doctrine of providence by means of a contrast. He says that without a belief in providence we would feel tossed in the wind of chance or blind fate (223). But with providence in mind we take comfort and have assurance in God (224). The bottom line is that “when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work” (224).


As a sort of appendix to this section, Calvin replies to objections concerning God changing his mind in the Old Testament (226-28). The thrust of his argument is that Scripture is here speaking “figuratively” (226) and in the “mode of accommodation” (227). He “harmonizes” these statements with other verses, which are sometimes found within the same context, which imply that God cannot change. He concludes that “God changes with respect to his actions … meanwhile neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered” (227). Calvin also notes that some prophesies, such as Jonah’s, were intended to be headed by human repentance and therefore, when he withholds punishment, God is not changing his plan at all but rather fulfilling it (227-28).


Providence and Evil (chapter 18)


Calvin reiterates his previous position here with regard to the problem of providence and evil. He unabashedly attributes to God’s secret providence all acts of evil. This is just a logical extension of the argument thus far. What is added is Calvin’s rejection of the distinction between active and permissive will. This distinction is usually employed to acquit God of complicity in evil. Calvin does not see the need to acquit God of anything, since that would both put us in the position of judging God and would ignore the fact that God always brings good out of evil.


Calvin rejects the scholastic distinction “between doing and permitting” (229). God does not merely permit, but wills all acts, including evil ones. He states clearly “that men can accomplish nothing except by God’s secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed within himself and determines by his secret direction” (229). He substantiates this claim by offering a number of Old Testament references as well as the New Testament accounts of the foreordination of the death of Christ (230).


Calvin notes that even Satan works within the boundaries of God’s providence: “I confess, indeed, that it is often by means of Satan’s intervention that God acts in the wicked, but in such a way that Satan performs his part by God’s impulsion and advances as far as he is allowed” (232).


The crux of the matter is that God does not have two wills (233). God has one will, one plan, one law, one decree. There is no confusion in God as to what he desires and enacts in his creation. Calvin cites Augustine at length to argue that God’s executes his singular will though it mysteriously includes the disobedience of his will (235). The key for Augustine, as well as Calvin, is that this is a mystery.


Calvin concludes his entire discourse on providence with an admonition to be attentive to Scripture: “For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Scared Scripture. Those who too insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation” (237). This is a crucial reminder that Calvin intends his account to be received as a comment on Scripture and not an independent theory of providence. It also allows his readers to place his understanding of providence under the careful scrutiny of Scripture.




  • Do the above mentioned themes of mystery, particularity, and fatherly purpose rightly characterize Calvin’s account of providence? If not, how could they be adjusted? What other themes dominate?
  • Is Calvin successful at differentiating his view from deterministic views?
  • If the reasons for providence are mysteriously hidden, how does one apprehend them in particular cases for the sake of comfort? Or does particularity only characterize providence itself, not its perception? Or does Calvin retain the particularity by a dialectical understanding of specific providential acts as revealed mysteries?
  • Would Calvin acknowledge aspects of human agency other than duty? In defense of Calvin’s meager account, is it fair to say that human agency is not the main theme of this section?
  • Does Calvin’s focus on the divine intent of providence effectively avoid the logical problems of divine providence and human responsibility? How might one supplement his account? What arguments does Calvin shun which would be helpful in sorting out this issue?
  • Though defensible in principle, does Calvin’s appeal to accommodation actually work in practice? Or does it merely function to harmonize difficult texts with his views? What is the responsible exegetical use of the principle of accommodation?
  • How does the doctrine of providence relate to other key doctrines, especially Trinity and predestination?




To comment on or discuss this and other articles, click here.