“We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement. Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
Recently, a well-meaning “New Calvinist” (more on this nomenclature in part 2) posted some very blunt language on Twitter about the relationship between divine sovereignty and various ways in which people suffer in this world. He wrote that if you experienced X trauma (fill in the blank) God ordained it. Predictably and understandably, this provoked a strong reaction.
There are several threads here that should be unwound and addressed separately. First, the problem of evil is great and amateur (i.e., lay) “Reformed” Twitter is perhaps not the best place to learn how to think about it. Second, the Scriptures do teach divine sovereignty and providence but they also teach human agency and the relationship between the two (providence and human agency) is more mysterious than the provocative tweet allowed. Third, much of what passes for “Reformed” on social media is not. This point is significant because, in our age, for reasons that I will explain in part 2, many assume that anyone who affirms divine sovereignty represents Reformed theology and the Reformed churches. That is simply not the case. Fourth, there are important pastoral issues when dealing with the problem of evil, divine sovereignty, and human agency. Here Psalm 73 (and many other places in Scripture help us). In this first part I will address the first two of these issues.
Why is evil a “problem”? Why is it improper to speak the way the way our predestinarian Twitter friend spoke? For one thing, Scripture typically speaks rather differently. God is never presented as the “author of sin.” In 1561, Belgic Confession art. 13 the Reformed churches spoke to this problem directly:
We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.
Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.
We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.
This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.
In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.
For that reason we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God involves himself in nothing and leaves everything to chance (emphasis added).
The Reformed churches confess that the relationship between God and evil are a mystery. We reject any attempt to resolve the mystery. We are not rationalists. We refuse to go beyond what Scripture says. We affirm both that God is sovereign and nothing happens outside his fatherly care and that human beings are morally responsible agents who, within God’s providence, choose without coercion (any external force) to do what they do. They are culpable for those choices. We also reject the pagan notion that the world is random and chaotic. We speak of God permitting certain things.
During the Arminian controversy, the Remonstrants (who objected to the doctrine of the Belgic Confession but who wished to remain in the Reformed churches) caricatured Reformed theology in order to criticize it. They consistently ignored the view held by most of the churches and theologians, namely, that Scripture presents God as electing and passing by created and fallen humans. This view is known as “infralapsarianism” because the decrees of election and reprobation (passing by) are considered within(infra) the fall. The minority view, “supralapsarianism” held that the elect and reprobate are considered as potentials, not as created and not as fallen. The Synod of Dort confessed the infralapsarian view.