Nuggets on God’s Providence

John Calvin was many things, but above all he was a pastor. He wrote many books refuting the lies and errors of the Roman Catholics, Libertines, and Pelagians among others. But most of his work was focused on building up Christians in Geneva and throughout Europe. His most well-known work, The Institutes, is filled with wonderful exhortations to trust in God.  His pastoral wisdom is on full display in Book I, Chapter XVII of The Institutes. In this chapter he is explaining the benefit of God’s providence for the Christian.  God’s providence is the Scriptural truth that God “sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes God’s providence like this:

Q11: What are God’s works of providence?
A11: God’s works of providence are, his most holy,wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes God’s providence like this:

Q: 27. What do you mean by the providence of God?
A: The almighty and everywhere present power of God;  whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs  heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought,  fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness,  riches and poverty,  yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand. 

Calvin believed strongly that God orders our life according to his will. Here are some nuggets from Calvin on the benefits of believing and understanding God’s providence. 

When dense clouds darken the sky, and a violent tempest arises, because a gloomy mist is cast over our eyes, thunder strikes our ears and all our senses are benumbed with fright, everything seems to us to be confused and mixed up; but all the while a constant quiet and serenity ever remain in heaven. 

God’s providence does not always meet us in its naked form, but God in a sense clothes it with the means employed.

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 principle cause of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place. Then the heart will not doubt that God’s singular providence keeps watch to preserve it, and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to its good and salvation.

Calvin cites dozens of Biblical stories throughout this section showing God’s care for his saints and his rule over their enemies throughout the Scriptures. Then he says this:

The principle purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of the saints with such great diligence that they do not even stumble over a stone.

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 [of God’s providence],

If anything adverse happens, straightway [the Christian] will raise up his heart here also unto God, whose hand can best impress patience and peaceful moderation of mind upon us…he has surely benefited greatly who has so learned to meditate upon God’s providence that he can always recall his mind to this point: the Lord has willed it; therefore it must be borne, not only because one may not contend against it, but also because He wills nothing  but what is just and expedient.

[The Christians] solace is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it.

In short…you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.   

Divorce in Reformation Europe

I just finished reading Robert Kingdon’s book Adultery and Divorce in John Calvin’s Geneva. In this book he examines four specific cases of divorce in Geneva and what those cases can teach us about how views on divorce changed during the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation divorce was impossible. There were various ways to get out of a marriage including annulment and legal separation. But there was no divorce.  Calvin and other reformers, including Beza and Vermigli, changed this during the 1500s. However, while divorce was permitted it was still extremely difficult to get one. The only reasons for divorce were adultery and desertion. Here are some thoughts from the concluding chapter of Kingdon’s book.

“Divorce was now possible in Protestant Geneva, however, it remained difficult. A petitioner for a divorce always had to make a compelling case that adultery or desertion had occurred, a case that could withstand the scrutiny of a full trial.  It was never enough for a husband and wife simply to declare that they had become incompatible and no longer wished to live together…Furthermore, an attempt, sometimes quite strenuous was almost always made to persuade the couple to resolve their problems without divorce, to forgive each other, and in token of this fresh agreement to participate in a formal reconciliation ceremony.”

Kingdon goes on to note that most divorces took a long time to be approved. In the four cases described in the book, one took two years, one petition for divorce had to be filed twice, nine years apart, and one man was separated from his wife for eight years before divorce was granted.  He also notes that in the entire period of Calvin’s ministry in Geneva (1541-1564) only twenty six divorces for adultery were granted and far less for desertion. In other Protestant areas divorce, while allowed, was almost unheard of.  Basel had less than three per year. Neuchatel had less than one per year . Zurich was around 5 per year. Kingdon goes on to say that from 1500-1592 there was .57 divorces per 1,000 people per year in Basel. In 1910 the rate was 55.8 divorces per 1,000 people per year. The point here is that despite Protestants opening the door for divorce it was still almost impossible to get one. Kingdon cites one author who notes that widespread divorce rates did not take hold on continental Europe until the early 1800s.

All Protestants felt the innocent party in a divorce was free to remarry. Many, especially Beza who wrote a book on divorce after Calvin’s death, felt that the guilty should remarry as well. It would keep them from sexual immorality.

Kingdon adds that the death penalty was occasionally used on notorious adulterers, which would of course be a de facto divorce. However, this form of punishment was not common in Protestant or Roman Catholic circles.