Wednesday, January 03, 2007

God = Father, according to Calvin [parts 3 &4 of 4]

So, up to this point we have seen that prior the Fall man stood in unbroken Father-son relationship to God. But Adam destroyed this relationship with his heavenly Father by transgressing the commandment. All of his offspring, then, are estranged from God, condemned in Adam. God’s fatherly love, however, extends by grace to those chosen in Christ, those, who by faith in him are united with him as brothers of the eternal Son. As adopted sons we possess the inheritance of our brother and therefore of our Father. This leads to what might be the most under-emphasized point in Calvin’s theology: that the God who works with all-sovereign providence loves and cares for his children because he is their Father.

The Relationship Trusted

The doctrine of fatherhood which pervades Calvin’s entire theology, is especially significant in his doctrine of providence. It’s everywhere, undermining that frequent caricature of Calvin’s God being a merciless potentate who happily dictates damnation, simply because he can. Bierma notes that there is indeed “a one-sided emphasis in the field of Calvin research.”[1] However, in the actual substance of Calvin’s theology it seems that terms such as fatherly “care,” “benevolence,” and “love” arise almost spontaneously, in a diverse array of contexts.

To say, however, that Calvin sees God’s fatherly love as unilaterally bestowed upon all people in all ways would be a gross misrepresentation. Those in Adam do receive some benefits of the loving fatherly character of God—Calvin explains that God “sustains, nourishes, and cares for everything he has made, even to the last sparrow.”[2] They are, however, ultimately the recipients of wrath and judgment.

But, as has been clearly demonstrated, those in Christ relate to God as Father and as such God relates to them as sons, with care and love, direction and discipline. Wilterdink notes, “Calvin shows repeatedly that he sees this all-pervasive providence in terms of God’s fatherly favor.”[3] Calvin brings both of these ideas together when he says that “either fatherly favor and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence.”[4]

Calvin understands this fatherly favor of God as that of “special care.” Calvin says of unbelievers, “Indeed, although they subscribe to Paul’s statement that we have our being and live in God, yet they are far from that earnest feeling of grace which he commends, because they do not at all taste God’s special care, by which alone his fatherly favor is known.”[5] Here Calvin is discussing the specific sovereign action of God, in which he acts as in fatherly provision toward his creation. This indeed is grace, even toward those who are not sons. However, this special, fatherly care of God manifests itself more fully and profoundly in his dealings with believers. Calvin explains:

There are very many and very clear promises that testify that God’s singular providence watches over the welfare of believers [Calvin here quotes a variety of biblical texts: Ps 55:22; 1 Peter 5:7; Ps 91:1; Zech 2:8; Jer 1:18; Is 49:25]. Indeed the purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of saints with such great diligence that they do not even stumble over a stone. Therefore, as we rightly rejected a little above the opinion of those who imagine a universal providence of God, which does not stoop to the especial care of any particular creature, yet first of all it is important that we recognize this special care toward us [….] we ought to realize that God watches over us with all the closer care [….] 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.[6]

So, believers, in contrast to the condemned, know the “special care” of God’s fatherly favor, which God repeatedly promises and fulfills. God purposed the biblical witness to testify to this marvelous truth, that God cares ever so closely for his people, as a Father for a child. Proof of this fatherly care abounds. God bestows blessings received in Christ, on earth to some extent, but fully and ultimately in the heavenly kingdom: “For before he shows us openly the inheritance of eternal glory, God wills by lesser proofs to show himself to be our Father.”[7]

These “lesser proofs” Calvin sees in a multi-faceted way, one of which is in the mysterious difficulties of life, even (especially?) for those in Christ. God demonstrates his fatherly affection for his children in and by these circumstances. Calvin says: “In short, if all things flow unto us according to our wish, but we are uncertain of God’s love or hatred, our happiness will be accursed and therefore miserable. But if in Fatherly fashion God’s countenance beams upon us, even our miseries will be blessed. For they will be turned into aids to salvation.”[8] Calvin here overturns human wisdom, explaining that apart from the assurance of God’s beaming and fatherly countenance upon them, no one will experience true happiness. But sons of God may be assured; God is for them and love them because he is their Father, working all things out for their blessing and salvation. Important for Calvin is the fact that much of God’s fatherly care is veiled for his still earth-bound sons. Sons receive their inheritance on death’s other side, tasting only the down payment until that time.

Calvin maintains this position even more vigorously in his discussion of the Cross:

But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. It is the Heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them so as to put his own children to a definite test. Beginning with Christ, his first-born, he follows this plan with all his children.[9]

As a human father would discipline his human son, so a believer’s heavenly Father disciplines his adopted sons—because he loves them. On this idea, Calvin best interprets himself: “Now because that only is pleasing to us which we recognize to be for our salvation and good, our most merciful Father consoles us also in this respect when he asserts that in the very act of afflicting us with the cross he is providing for our salvation.”[10] This is not the merciless punishment of a tyrant, but the loving work of a Father for his children. Contrary to much theology, the God of Calvin is a Father who loves his children enough to chastise them, and bring them what they most need—a painful and heavy cross. A cross which brings salvation.

Perhaps the most poignant example in the Institutes of Calvin’s conception of God as Father is in his discussion on prayer. Astonishingly, as Calvin says, in Christ we may call God “Father;” in fact, God not only permits believers to address him as “Father,” but desires that they do so: “God both calls himself our Father and would have us so address him.”[11] In the next breath (or pen stroke), Calvin continues, “By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father. Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called ‘children of God.’”[12] Calvin’s logic flows seamlessly here: In Christ, God desires that we call him “Father.” Because “Father” denotes the greatest conceivable love, distrust flees. This, then, is the surest proof of God’s love toward us: our adoption, in which we are called “children of God.”

Similarly, in the next section, Calvin expounds the parable of the prodigal son which “depicts and represents for us […] this abundance of fatherly compassion,” whose archetype is God himself.[13] Calvin comments on this parable, saying:

In setting forth this example of great compassion to be seen in man, he willed to teach us how much more abundantly we ought to expect it of him. For he is not only a father but by far the best and kindest of all fathers, provided we still cast ourselves upon his mercy, although we are ungrateful, rebellious, and forward children. And to strengthen our assurance that he is this sort of father to us if we are Christians, he willed that we call him not only “Father” but explicitly “our Father.” It is as if we addressed him: “O Father, who dost abound with great devotion toward thy children, and with great readiness to forgive, we thy children call upon thee and make our prayer, assured and clearly persuaded that thou bearest toward us only the affection of a father, although we are unworthy of such a father.”[14]

He notes that the compassion of the father in the parable of the prodigal pails compared to the compassion of God who is “best and kindest of all fathers.” God’s fatherhood likewise stands in contrast to the unworthiness of his children, whom God calls to himself in a most intimate and loving relationship, desiring that they relate to him as such. In this way, it seems, Calvin explains the entirety of an adopted son’s response toward his all-loving and all-gracious Father in heaven: to acknowledge with full assurance that his heavenly Father feels only love, devotion, and affection for him—abundantly so—and is ready to forgive despite his wretched unworthiness.


The fatherhood of God is not an issue peripheral or incidental to Calvin’s theology. While the limits of this paper preclude a full discussion of this concept in Calvin’s understanding, it has traced a rough contour of his position on God as Father. This notion pervades the heart of some of the most central elements of Calvin’s theology: faith, salvation, and providence. We have seen that Adam was the son of God before the Fall, but severed that relationship because of sin. Though men then stand condemned, God, in his loving and fatherly character still manifests blessings upon them, especially and ultimately toward believers. God provided, in Christ, a way for Adam’s children to be once again adopted as sons of God. By faith in Christ, who is the natural, eternal, and true Son of God, believers are brought into Christ and united with him, adopted as brothers. As brothers of Christ, they may then be adopted as sons of God. And as sons, they may trust in the loving care of their all-gracious and merciful Father, whose inheritance they will receive in the heavenly kingdom.

The academy and the church alike suffer from a lack of balanced explanation of Calvin’s theology. We must not accept or draw a caricature of the theology of man who is so manifestly biblical in his understanding, desiring to faithfully expound the biblical categories and descriptions of the all-sovereign, all-loving, all-holy Father-God. A robust and proportional portrait of Calvinism must apprehend this foundational teaching which percolates through all of his thought: “The purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of saints with such great diligence that they do not even stumble over a stone.” As only a father is, Calvin, explains, such is our God, to infinite degree.

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, “Book Reviews: Calviana” of Garret A. Wilterdink, Tyrant or Father? A Study of Calvin’s Doctrine of God, 2 vols. (Bristol, IN: Wyndam Hall, 1985), in Calvin Theological Journal (Vol. 21, no. 2, November 1986, 239-41), 241.

[2] 1.16.1

[3] Wilterdink, 13.

[4] Inst., 1.17.1.

[5] Ibid., 1.16.1.

[6] Ibid., 1.17.6.

[7] Ibid., 3.9.3.

[8] Ibid., 3.2.28.

[9] Ibid., 3.8.1.

[10] Ibid., 3.8.11.

[11] Ibid., 3.20.36.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 3.20.37.

[14] Ibid.

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