The God Who Acts: Calvin on the Triune God

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  • The God Who Acts: Calvin on the Triune God

    Neither Luther nor Zwingli devoted much attention to the doctrine of the Trinity. Both accepted the orthodox formulations of the oneness and threeness of God developed by the early councils, but neither felt compelled to elaborate on this teaching. At the beginning of his career Calvin too followed this pattern. The first edition of the Institutes contained only a meager statement on the Trinity; the word itself (sacra trinitas) is mentioned only twice. On the basis of these sparse statements, Pierre Caroli accused Calvin of Arianism. Calvin had no trouble disproving the false charge, but, from that time on, he became an adamant defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. This stance was reinforced by his close encounters with genuine anti-Trinitarians such as Servetus, Gentile, and Gribaldi. Gribaldi was a Paduan lawyer who freely disseminated his doubts about the Trinity among the Italian-speaking refugees in Geneva. At the instigation of Calvin, Gribaldi was banished from the city in 1557 for “sapping and perverting the chief article of our faith.”73 Four years earlier Servetus, for the same offense, had met a fate worse than banishment.

    Calvin proved himself impeccably orthodox in his own formulations of the Trinity: “When we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons, or hypostases” (Inst. 1.13.20). We must ask whether Calvin in adopting this classical definition of God did not violate his own principle of doing theology within the limits of revelation alone. Calvin was very sensitive to this question and sought to meet it head on. He was well aware that words such as ousia, hypostases, persona, and even Trinitas were non-scriptural terms. He once said, “I could wish they were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on: that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, not the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality” (Inst. 1.13.5). Yet precisely because certain heretics, such as Arius, have used scriptural language to affirm nonbiblical concepts of God, it was necessary for Calvin to refute their errors by using words such as Trinity and Persons in order to render “the truth plain and clear” (Inst. 1.13.3).

    Even in conceding this point, however, Calvin warned against a speculative incursion into the mystery of God's essence. “Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself.” It was mere presumption for believers to “seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from his Word” (Inst. 1.13.21). Thus Calvin refused to twist the Scriptures in order to bolster the doctrine of the Trinity. Well-worn proof texts for the Trinity, such as the plural form of God (Elohim) in Genesis 1 or the thrice-repeated adulation of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 or Jesus' statement, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30) Calvin regarded as weak and spurious proofs for such an important doctrine.

    Those who denied the Trinity surely struck a sensitive nerve of Calvin. He referred to them as “slippery snakes,” “babblers,” “rascals,” “certain frenzied persons such as Servetus and his like,” who traffic in “chicaneries” and “vile absurdities.” Why was the Trinity such an important issue for him? As we have seen, he was not interested in the metaphysical niceties of abstract

    theology, nor was he slavishly attached to traditional terminology. The Trinity was crucial because it was a witness to the deity of Jesus Christ and thus to the certainty of salvation procured by Him. The purpose of Calvin's Trinitarianism was, like that of Athanasius, soteriological. He wanted to safeguard the biblical message, “God is manifest in the flesh,” against false interpretations, such as that of Servetus who “confounded the Son and the Holy Spirit with the creatures” (Inst. 1.13.22). Thus from the first edition of the Institutes onward, he placed the confession of the Trinity in a liturgical context, namely in the invocation of the Triune God at baptism. Baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit witnessed both the unity and the triunity of God. The distinctions within the Godhead were seen in the particularizing characteristics of each “Person”: The free mercy of the Father by the sacrifice of His death, the Holy Spirit cleansing and regenerating, making us partakers of the benefits of the Son. Yet, lest anyone think that Christians worship three gods, the very oneness of baptism pointed to the essential unity of the three divine persons.

    For it is one baptism, which is sanctified by the triune name. What reply will the Arians or Sabellians be able to make to this argument? Baptism possesses such force as to make us one; and in baptism, the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is invoked. Will they deny that it is one Godhead who is the foundation of this holy and mystic unity? We must necessarily acknowledge that the ordinance of baptism proves the three Persons in one essence of God.74

    In sum: The distinctions within the Trinity (Calvin preferred to call these “subsistencies”) were not to be understood as divisions. There was one God who knows Himself and who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity was the foundation of salvation for only could one who was truly God redeem those who were utterly lost. In the liturgy of baptism and in the doxology faith in the Trinity was confessed not in order to fully define the being of God—for who could ever do that?—but only (as Augustine had said earlier) not to be silent before the mystery of His presence.

    Creation

    Having derived from Scripture the Triune nature of God, Calvin next described the activity of God in relation to the world in creation and providence. These doctrines fall under the general rubric of the “Knowledge of God the Creator” in contrast to the “Knowledge of God the Redeemer,” which Calvin discussed in Books II-IV of the Institutes. Calvin saw the created world as a “dazzling theatre” of God's glory, alive with multiple witnesses of His power and majesty. Human beings, too, bore within them an ineradicable “sense of divinity” which left them without excuse for their idolatry and rebellion. Because of the noetic consequences of the Fall, this natural knowledge of God could never lead to salvation. “With nature alone as guide our minds cannot penetrate to him.”75 Once, however, people were illumined by the Holy Spirit, and with the aid of the “spectacles” of Scripture, creation could yield a more lucid and spiritually edifying knowledge of God. Strictly speaking, this biblically informed knowledge of God in creation was not a “natural theology,” but rather a “theology of nature.”

    While Calvin distinguished the knowledge of God the Creator from that of God the Redeemer, he did not doubt that the one Triune God was the Subject of both acts. In commenting on Ephesians 3:9, he stated: “By Christ as God, the Father created all things. It is not surprising, then, if by the same Mediator all the Gentiles are now restored into the whole.”76 Again, the purpose for the enhanced knowledge of God revealed in nature was to strengthen the faith of believers: “Therefore it was his will that the history of creation be made manifest, in order that the faith of the church, resting upon this, might seek no other God but him who was put forth by Moses as the Maker and Founder of the universe” (Inst. 1.14.1).

    Calvin strongly countered the notion that in creation God was merely reworking an already existent material mass. This idea, as old as Plato and Aristotle and as current as process philosophy, was to Calvin's mind a blatant denial of the aseity (Latin: a se, from himself) and lordship of God. God created the world exnihilo, out of nothing. For Calvin, no less than for Zwingli, this affirmation was the benchmark of biblical faith. The Hebrew word bara, he pointed out, means “to create,” to bring into being what was not, rather than to form or fashion something already made.77 The Manicheans went so far as to attribute creation to two equally powerful deities, one a benevolent god who created good, the other a sinister spirit who brought forth evil. Such a view not only robbed God of His omnipotence but also (and more damaging in Calvin's view) deprived Him of His glory.

    Although God lacks nothing, still the principal aim he had in creating men was that his name might be glorified in them....The wicked are created for the day of their perdition: for that does not happen save in so far as God wills to reveal his glory by them; even as he has said in another place, that he raised up Pharaoh in order that his name should be manifest among the peoples. And were this not so, what would become of so many evidences of Scripture which tell us that the sovereign aim of our salvation is the glory of God?78

    The world was created for the glory of God, but it was not created without consideration for the benefit of humankind. Why, for instance, did God take six days to create the world? He could

    have done it all in a moment, but He accommodated his power to human capacities, distributing “his work into six days that we might not find it irksome to occupy our whole life in contemplating it” (Inst. 1.14.2). For precisely the same reason, God created the angels—not for his own sake, but for ours, “to comfort our weakness, that we may lack nothing at all that can raise up our minds to good hope, or confirm them in security” (Inst. 1.14.11). Indeed, all of creation was intended to enhance human life:

    Now when he disposed the movement of the sun and stars to human uses, filled the earth, waters, and air with living things, and brought forth an abundance of fruits to suffice as foods, in thus assuming the responsibility of a foreseeing and diligent father of the family he shows his wonderful goodness toward us (Inst. 1.14.2).

    Unlike some theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, Calvin did not seek to prove the existence of God by arguing from the effects of creation back to a First Cause, the Creator. To his mind such a proof, even if it were possible, was redundant since all persons had within them an intuitive awareness of God. But the creation did have tremendous significance for believers. They were not meant to exploit nature for their own selfish ends, nor to study it merely to satisfy their wanton curiosity. Rather believers were to contemplate the goodness of God in His creatures in such a way that their very hearts were moved. Calvin said “to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation and at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise, and love him” (Inst. 1.14.21-22).

    The following “Hymn to Creation,” adapted from the Institutes, is a beautiful example of the proper response to creation which Calvin enjoined upon the believer:

    God has set all things for our good
    And our salvation; in our very
    Selves we feel His pow'r and grace,
    His great, unnumber'd benefits,
    Freely conferr'd upon us.
    What else can we then do but stir
    Ourselves to trust, invoke, to praise and love Him?
    For all God's handiwork is made for man.
    Ev'n in the six days he shows a Father's care
    For His child as yet unborn.
    Away, ingratitude, forgetfulness
    Of Him! Away with craven fear He may
    Fail us in our need! For He
    Has seen to it that nothing will be
    Lacking to our own welfare.
    Whene'er we call on God, Creator
    Of heav'n and earth, we must be mindful
    That all He gives us is in His hand
    To give; our ev'ry trust and hope
    We hang on Him alone
    Whatever we desire, we are
    To ask of Him and thankfully receive
    Each benefit that falls to us.
    Let us then strive to love and serve
    Him with all our hearts.79

    Providence

    More than any other reformer of the sixteenth century, Calvin was keenly aware of the precarious and utterly contingent character of human life. If Luther was preoccupied with the anxiety of guilt, and Zwingli moved to a deeper understanding of the gospel by his close brush with death, then Calvin was haunted by the specter of the apparently haphazard and meaningless course of existence. Just as Luther continued to wrestle with the devil after his evangelical breakthrough, so too Calvin recognized the perpetual conflict and struggle in the believer's search for meaning: “While we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Inst.3.2.17).

    The sources of anxiety were present in every conceivable human situation. In a striking passage, which anticipates the sense of “thrownness” so evident in modern existentialist literature, Calvin described the fragility of the human condition:

    Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend's, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck? (Inst. 1.17.10).

    To pretend that we are exempt from such dangers, to imagine that we can neutralize their impact by taking out large insurance policies, for example, or by worshiping at the modern shrine of the health spa is to deny our humanity or, as Calvin put it, to “overlap our finitude.”80 Calvin's doctrine of providence did not reflect the pious optimism of “God's in his heaven, all's right with the world.” It arose from an utterly realistic assessment of the vicissitudes of life and of the anxiety they produce.

    Calvin distinguished his view of providence from two popular misconceptions, that of fatalism on the one hand and (what would become known later as) deism on the other. The Stoic doctrine of fate presupposed that all events were governed by the necessity of nature which contained within itself an intimately related series of cause and effect. Calvin was accused of teaching precisely this doctrine. He denied the charge, pointing out that in the Christian view “the ruler and governor of all things” was not an impersonal force or chain of necessity, but rather the personal Creator of the universe “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” (Inst. 1.16.8).

    Calvin expended more energy in refuting the other error, namely the idea that God having constructed the world in the beginning had since left it to run its course more or less on its own. Such a view imagined God idly observing from heaven what takes place on earth, distant and removed from the daily goings-on of everyday life. Some who subscribed to this view held that God foresaw what would happen but did not intervene in the actual unfolding of the events themselves. Against this concept of “bare foreknowledge,” Calvin asserted that providence “pertains no less to his hands than to his eyes” (Inst. 1.16.4). God so attended to the regulation of all events, which proceed from His set plan, that “nothing takes place by chance.” Slightly better, but still deficient, was the belief that certain events were allowed by God's permission, but not sustained by His direct action. But this view too limited God's omnipoitence by conjuring up a deity who reposes idly in a watchtower.81 “Bare permission” was no better than “bare foreknowledge.” Both denied to God what the Scriptures everywhere attributed—a watchful, effective, active, ceaseless engagement with the governance of the world He had created.

    Providence, then, was inseparably joined to creation and was itself a kind of continuation of the creative process (creatio continuata): “We see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception” (Inst. 1.16.1). Not only the great events of history but even the most minute occurrences within nature were subject to God's

    direction. “It is certain that not one drop of rain falls without God's sure command” (Inst. 1.16.5). Thunder and lightning, too, obeyed His voice. The emphasis on God's direct, immediate activity in the world led Calvin to reject the traducianist theory of the origin of the soul. According to this view, which was held by Luther, the soul is transmitted from generation to generation through the process of human procreation. Calvin, on the other hand, believed that each time a child is given life, God creates a new soul ex nihilo. This meant that God must be very busy for each day He created thousands of souls every minute.

    God's direct interaction with the world did not mean for Calvin, however, that He could not also use secondary causes to effect His will. Indeed, these played an important role in the unfolding of God's purposes.

    Therefore the Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by God's plan, and that nothing takes place by chance, will ever look to him as the principal causes of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place (Inst. 1.17.6).

    God did not hesitate to use even Satan and his hosts to achieve His divine goals. The question arises whether in so doing God did not become an accomplice in their evil deeds. To get around this difficulty Calvin distinguished between the will and the precept of God. “While God accomplishes through the wicked what he has decreed by his secret judgment, they are not excusable, as if they had obeyed his precept which out of their own lust they deliberately break” (Inst. 1.18.4). In commenting on Paul's “thorn in the flesh” which was inflicted by “a messenger of Satan” Calvin asked how Satan, who was a murderer from the beginning, could become in this way a sort of physician to the apostle, since through infirmity Paul gained much spiritual strength!

    My answer is that Satan's only intention, in accordance with his character and customs, was to kill and destroy, and the good of which Paul speaks was dipped in deadly poison, so that it was a special act of mercy for the Lord to turn into a means of healing what was by nature the means of death.82

    In His great and boundless wisdom, God “knows right well how to use evil instruments to do good” (Inst. 1.17.5). Of course, God did not simply give free rein to the devil and his demonic cohorts, but bridled them in their fury and mad raging. Calvin found this fact to be of great comfort to believers under duress from the evil one:

    Let them recall that the devil and the whole cohort of the wicked are completely restrained by God's hand as by a bridle, so that they are unable either to hatch any plot against us or, having hatched it, to make preparations or, if they have fully planned it, to stir a finger toward carrying it out, except so far as he has permitted, indeed commanded (Inst. 1.17.11).83

    In his book, My Lady of the Chimney Corner, Alexander Irvine told a story which illustrates this distinctively Calvinist perspective on providence. A starving Irish family is provided a good meal as the result of a wager made during a gambling game. Anna, the pious mother, thanks God for bringing them relief. Boyle, whose nefarious activity had won them the dinner, replies: “Anna, if aanybody brought us here th' night, it was th' ould devil in hell.” “Deed yer mistaken,” Anna answers sweetly, “When God sends a maan aanywhere, he always gets there, even if he has to be taken there by th' devil.”84

    A common objection to Calvin's doctrine of providence is the charge that, since God decrees every event, there is no basis for human responsibility. Why should believers not step calmly into the path of a speeding car or leap exuberantly from a tall skyscraper, certain that they will be protected from harm by divine providence? Calvin, however, not one to suffer fools gladly, repulsed this line of reasoning by arguing that believers are not excused from due prudence since human precaution itself is one of the means by which God preserves life. Thus, “if the Lord has committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them” (Inst. 1.17.4). The providence of God does not work in such a way as to negate or make unnecessary human endeavor. Even when God works through an evil person to achieve a divine purpose, he does not do it “as if he were a stone or a piece of wood, but he uses him as a thinking creature, according to the quality of his nature which he has given him.”85

    Yet the question remains whether Calvin's insistence upon the divine governance of all events does not in the end (or in the beginning, seen from the perspective of the eternal decrees) make God the author of sin. This is a serious objection and one which Calvin did not take lightly. The last chapter in Book 1 of the Institutes seeks to show how God carries out His judgments while, at the same time, “he remains pure from every stain.” Calvin argued first that “God's will” is not a universal term but one which carries a multiple meaning. Luther too had spoken of God's revealed will and His concealed will. The former He has manifested in His Word, which includes the law with the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” The latter is the secret plan by which God carries out His eternal plan and which includes, for example, the delivering up of Christ to be crucified. In sending Christ to the cross, the Bible says that Herod and

    Pilate were fulfilling what God in His counsel had determined before to be done (Acts 4:27-28). At the same time they were also violating the expressed will of God revealed in His law. This does not mean that there are two contrary wills in God, else His unity would be disrupted. We do not, indeed we cannot, understand how God wills to take place what He also forbids to be done. “But even though his will is one and simple in him, it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp how in diverse ways it wills and does not will something to take place” (Inst. 1.18.3).

    Time and again Calvin appealed to the mystery and incomprehensibility of God's actions: “Let us recall our mental incapacity, and at the same time consider that the light in which God dwells is not without reason called unapproachable because it is overspread with darkness” (Inst. 1.18.3). The problem of evil is so acute precisely because we cannot understand how the tragedies of life redound to the greater glory of God. In commenting on the man born blind whose malady was the occasion of God's glory (John 9:1-4), Calvin warned against prematurely judging the reasons for such conditions: “God sometimes has another purpose than punishing men's sins when he sends them afflictions. Consequently, when the causes of afflictions are hidden, our curiosity must be restrained so that we may neither injure God nor be malicious to our brethren.”86

    In the face of suffering and tragedy, the temptation is either to deny God's ability to prevent the disaster, and thus posit a God who is impotent in the face of radical evil, or, more commonly, to blame God for not intervening. A well-known pastor tried to comfort a fellow minister whose young daughter had died of cancer by saying to him that “God will have a lot to give account for in heaven.” No one who has faced such a crisis can deny the fact of such feelings. Indeed, the Bible itself, especially the Psalms, is filled with them: How long, O Lord? Why is your mercy gone forever? Why do the evil triumph and the righteous suffer? Calvin did not deny the legitimacy of posing such questions out of the throes of pain, but he also knew that such anger against God is like “spitting at the sky” (Inst. 1.18.3). It is folly, he said, to “try to make God render account to us” (Inst 1.17.1). True piety will realize that behind the suffering we experience, which in itself is not good but evil, God remains in His justice, wisdom, and love the Father who has promised never to leave or forsake us. The root error of those who charge God with complicity in evil is their facile belief that God and humans are subject to the same standards of judgment. Yet an “infinite qualitative difference” exists between the two. To judge God's providential acts by criteria of justice and wisdom applicable to humans only is to compare apples and oranges; it is like asking how many inches are in a pound. “There is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God, and to what end the will of each is directed, so that it be either approved or disapproved” (Inst. 1.18.3). Finally, then, there is no answer to the problem of evil, at least no answer which is available to the human mind in this life. God's method of governing the universe Calvin called an “abyss”—an abyss we ought reverently to adore rather than try curiously to penetrate (Inst. 1.17.2). For all of his reputation as a theologian of rigorous logic, Calvin preferred to live with mystery and logical inconsistency rather than to violate the limits of revelation or impute blame to the God Scripture portrays as infinitely wise, utterly loving, and perfectly just.In his treatise Against the Libertines (1545) Calvin distinguished three aspects of providence. The first is God's general or universal providence which is manifested in the order of nature. By this operation God governs all creatures according to the quality and inclination which He has placed within them. The second level of providence, God's “special” providence, pertains to God's involvement with the human community, the acts of God by which He helps His servants, punishes the wicked, and tests or chastises the faithful. At this level of providence, God's good gifts are distributed without discrimination among all peoples; He sends the rain and sunshine to just and unjust alike. God distributes His “common grace,” as later theologians would call it, to the whole human race without exception. Calvin observed with a wry humor that “the most evil people eat and drink...sometimes they are even fatter than the faithful.”87There is yet a third level of providence, however, which pertains particularly to the elect. This is the form of God's operation by which He “governs his faithful, living and reigning in them by his Holy Spirit.”88 Calvin mentioned this third aspect of providence in Book 1 of the Institutes—“because God has chosen the church to be his dwelling place, there is no doubt that he shows by singular proofs his fatherly care in ruling it” (1.17.6)—but postponed any extended discussion of it until he had first treated the great themes of redemption (Book 2) and regeneration (Book 3). We note here what we shall have to examine more closely a little later: The doctrine of predestination, which would logically fit better under the discussion of providence, Calvin placed in the context of soteriology, in relation to his treatment of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer (Inst. 3.21-24).

    Our discussion of Calvin's doctrine of providence would not be complete without looking at its pastoral implications. As a pastor in Geneva, and in his correspondence with thousands of Christians in widely differing circumstances, Calvin was an experienced “director of souls” or, as we would say, spiritual counselor. He never tried to minimize or deny the reality of the suffering which confronts the believer. To Madame de Budé, recently widowed and about to face the turmoil of being uprooted from her family and sent into exile, Calvin wrote: “True it is, that we shall not cease to be subject to many troubles and annoyances; but let us pray him that having been strengthened by his word, we may have wherewithal to overcome them.”89 With another noblewoman in France, the Comtesse de Seninghen, Calvin commiserated in her illness:

    I hear...that you are weak in body and afflicted with many diseases, of which I too have my share to exercise me in the same manner. But however that may be, we have great cause to be satisfied that in our languishing we are supported by the strength of God's Spirit, and moreover, that if this corruptible tabernacle is falling to decay, we know that we shall be very soon restored, once and for ever.90

    As a pastor Calvin recognized the legitimacy of human emotions and did not counsel a Stoic indifference in the face of suffering. He interpreted the scene of Jesus weeping before Lazarus's tomb as an example of Christ's suffering with us: “When the Son of God put on our flesh he also of his own accord put on human feelings....Herein he proved himself to be our brother, so that we might know that we have a Mediator who willingly excuses and is ready to help those infirmities which he has experienced in himself.”91 Again, we are “companions of the Son of God” who came “down to our condition to encourage us by his example.”92 Thus while nothing happens to the believer which is not in an ultimate and incomprehensible way directed by divine providence, God does not leave His children to suffer alone, but shares with them “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

    Calvin was frequently called on to counsel those Protestants who had been imprisoned for their faith and who often faced imminent martyrdom. The practical application of his doctrine of providence is best seen in these letters. In 1553 he addressed the following words to “the prisoners of Lyons” who awaited execution in France.

    Be then assured, that God who manifests himself in time of need, and perfects his strength in our weakness, will not leave you unprovided with that which will powerfully magnify his name....It is strange, indeed, to human reason, that the children of God should be so surfeited with afflictions, while the wicked disport themselves in delights; but even more so, that the slaves of Satan should tread us under foot, as we say, and triumph over us. However, we have wherewith to comfort ourselves in all our miseries, looking for that happy issue which is promised to us, that he will not only deliver us by his angels, but will himself wipe away the tears from our eyes. And thus we have good right to despise the pride of these poor blinded men, who to their own ruin lift up their rage against heaven; and although we are not at present in your condition, yet we do not on that account leave off fighting together with you by prayer, by anxiety and tender compassion, as fellow-members, seeing that it has pleased our heavenly Father, of his infinite, goodness, to unite us into one body, under his Son, our head. Whereupon I shall beseech him, that he would vouchsafe you this grace, that being stayed upon him, you may in no wise waver, but rather grow in strength; that he would keep you under his protection, and give you such assurance of it, that you may be able to despise all that is of the world. My brethren greet you very affectionately, and so do many others.—Your brother, John Calvin.93

    One of the prisoners wrote back to Calvin, describing how his letter had found its way into the prison and was read by “one of the brethren who was in a vaulted cell above me...as I could not read it myself, being unable to see anything in my dungeon.” He expressed his gratitude for Calvin's consolation, “for it invites us to weep and to pray.”94 In this way the doctrine of providence, far from inspiring passive resignation in the face of evil, sustained countless men and women in moments of crisis, danger, and death.

    Source: from Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George
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