Wisdom from Calvin (plus a cop out?)

Here is a great theological exposition of Lamentations 3:33 from John Calvin. But it is hard not to think that he cops out at the end.

Lam 3:33. "For he [Yhwh] does not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men."

'This is another confirmation of the same truth, that God takes no delight in the evils or miseries of men. It is indeed a strong mode of speaking which the Prophet [Jeremiah] adopts, but very suitable. God, we know, puts on, as it were, our form or manner, for he cannot be comprehended in his inconceivable glory by human minds. Hence it is that he transfers to himself what properly can only apply to men. God surely never acts unwillingly nor feignedly: how then is that suitable which Jeremiah declares, – that God does not afflict from his heart?

But God, as already said, does here assume the character of man; for though he afflicts us with sorrow as he pleases, yet true it is that he delights not in the miseries of men; for if a father desires to benefit his own children, and deals kindly with them, what ought we to think of our heavenly Father? ‘Ye’, says Christ, ‘who are evil, know how to do good to your children,’ (Matt 7:11). What then are we to expect from the very fountain of goodness? As, then, parents are not willingly angry with their children, nor handle them roughly, there is no doubt but that God never punishes men except when he is constrained.

There is, as I have said, an impropriety in the expression, but it is enough to know, that God derives no pleasure from the miseries of men, as profane men say, who utter such blasphemies as these, that we are like balls with which God plays, and that we are exposed to many evils, because God wishes to have as it were, a pleasant and delectable spectacle in looking on the innumerable afflictions, and at length on the death of men.

That such thoughts, then, might not tempt us to unbelief, the Prophet here puts a check on us, and declares that God does not afflict from his heart, that is, willingly, as though he delighted in the evils of men, as a judge, who, when he ascends his throne and condemns the guilty to death, does not do this from his heart, because he wishes all to be innocent, and thus to have a reason for acquitting them; but yet he willingly condemns the guilty, because this is his duty. So also God, when he adopts severity towards men, he indeed does so willingly, because he is the judge of the world; but he does not do so from the heart, because he wishes all to be innocent – for far away from him is all fierceness and cruelty; and as he regards men with paternal love, so also he would have them to be saved, were they not as it were by force to drive him to rigour.

And this feeling he also expresses in Isaiah, ‘Ah! I will take consolation from mine adversaries’ (Isa 1:24). He calls them adversaries who so often provoked him by their obstinacy; yet he was led unwillingly to punish their sins, and hence he employed a particle expressive of grief, and exclaimed ‘Ah!’ as a father who wishes his son to be innocent, and yet is compelled to be severe with him.

Fabulous stuff! Three cheers for Calvin (again!). But then comes the possible cop out

But however true this doctrine may be, taken generally, there is yet no doubt but that the Prophet here addresses only the faithful; and doubtless this privilege peculiarly belongs to God’s children, as it has been shown before.

Sure - the text is addressed to Israel (not sure how faithful they were but they were elect) but does it follow from that that this privilage only belongs to God's children? Calvin was applying his points universally as general claims about God's way with humanity and then he suddenly pulls the rug from under his own feet. Apparently God does not punish the faithful for fun but it turns out that he might punish the unfaithful for pleasure.

I hope that Calvin is wrong. Actually that's a lie. I'm sure that he's wrong. But I love him still!


Bernard said…
Hi Robin,

Just a quick thought. Is Calvin using the word 'peculiarly', in the sense of, 'particularly', or in the sense of 'solely'? If in the sense of 'particularly' then he seems to be emphasising that this attitude of God, which is towards all, is towards His people in particular.


Robin Parry said…

Lovely to hear you. Calvin may have meant that but I wonder if his logic does not entail precisely what I said. Here's why:

In Calvin's exposition of Lamentations 3 (which is excellent) he speaks at great length of God's soverignty over all events including the sinful deeds of the wicked. OK - fine.

Here he tells us that God punishes the wicked because he is judge (again - fine).

But my problem is this: here he says that God would rather save the wicked than punish them but the sinners force him to punish them beause of their sin.

Hold on! If God has the kind of sovereign power that Calvin says he has and if he really desires that sinners repent then ... he would enable them to repent. God is not held hostage by the sinful desires of people. If he wants to save sinners then he will. If he does not it is because he does not choose to.

So the fact that God does not cause all sinners to repent makes me think that Calvin is restricting his claims to the elect.
Chris said…
Hi Robin,

It's a pleasure to come across your website, and to see that you work with Paternoster. I'm an editor with Moody Publishers here in Chicago. I've just started a blog myself called Cloud of Witnesses
(http://greatcloud.wordpress.com/) that you might be interested in. I write on theology, philosophy, and writing and books.
I'm always looking for blogs written by people in Christian publishing, so I'm glad I found yours!

Take care,
Chris Reese

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