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2 The Argument of Second Causes

Let us consider now the argument of second causes. John Calvin establishes God as the primary cause of all things, “For the man who honestly and soberly reflects on these things, there can be no doubt that the will of God is the chief and principal cause of all things.”[1] He further writes, “But of all the things which happen, the first cause is to be understood to be His will, because He so governs the natures created by Him, as to determine all the counsels and the actions of men to the end decreed by Him.”[2]

 

Essentially, John Calvin is trying to convey the idea that nothing at all occurs outside of the direct will, power, and predestination of God. There is not a single action which was not first conceived in the mind of God from eternity past, established in His will, and made effectual by God Himself. According to the doctrine of Calvinism, God is the primary cause of everything, and John Calvin establishes God’s creation as the secondary cause of sinful actions, “Further what I said before is to be remembered, that since God manifests His power through means and inferior causes, it is not to be separated from them.”[3]

 

In his writings, Calvin uses the term “proximate cause” to mean “primary cause” and “remote cause” to mean “secondary cause.” Calvin believes that man, as a secondary cause, acts only because God, as the primary cause, wills and governs them to do so. Nevertheless, he believes the primary cause cannot be blamed for the actions of the secondary cause, “What I have maintained about the diversity of causes must not be forgotten: the proximate cause is one thing, the remote cause another.”[4]

 

Integral in John Calvin’s argument of distinction is God’s character. God is holy, so God cannot be responsible for creating and causing sin. God is holy, so everything God wills and desires must be holy. Consequently, John Calvin concludes that if God wills and desires a sinful action, He must have a good and holy intention for it. Calvin writes:

Certain shameless and illiberal people charge us with calumny [slander] by maintaining that God is made the author of sin, if His will is made first cause of all that happens. For what man wickedly perpetrates, incited by ambition or avarice or lust or some other depraved motive, since God does it by his hand with a righteous though perhaps hidden purpose—this cannot be equated with the term sin.[5]

 

Thus, John Calvin’s argument of second causes maintains that God predetermines sinful actions in His good and perfect will. God governs man so that he acts in the sinful manner He predetermined. Man then performs these actions and assumes the role of the secondary cause. However, man intends the actions as sin while God intends the same actions to accomplish His good, holy, and perfect will. Both God and man will the same action, but God’s intention for the sin is good while man’s intention is evil. Calvin writes:

Must we then impute the guilt of sin to God, or invent a double will for Him so that He falls out with Himself? I have shown that He wills the same as the criminal and the wicked, but in a different way. So now it is to be maintained that there is diversity of kinds while He wills in the same way, so that out of the variety which perplexes us a harmony may be beautifully contrived.[6]

 

The confusion of Calvinism is apparent in the writings of John Calvin himself. How is it that God, according to Calvin’s own writings, wants the same things as the wicked and the criminal, just in a different way? What “harmony can be beautifully contrived” by this? Calvin attempts to answer these questions by saying, “Elsewhere it is said that sins are the punishments which God exacts for previous sins.”[7] Nevertheless, we are still talking about sin. How are we supposed to believe that a righteous and wise God punishes sin by willing further sin? Would such actions accomplish any more than simply compounding and increasing sin? Calvin even acknowledges his confusion regarding this issue when he identifies this as, “the variety which perplexes us.”[8] He also attempts to argue that our spiritual eyes are not acute enough to perceive and understand this issue.*[9]

 

The Scriptural will of God is not a perplexing thing. Yet, for the Calvinist who tries to balance his position on God’s sovereignty with the clear Scriptures regarding God’s holiness, the will of God is a very confusing matter. It is important to realize that this matter is made no clearer or more easily understood by Calvinist writings. In fact, the writings of devout Calvinists, as we shall see later in this work, continually contradict Scripture, as well as other Calvinist writings, and simply serve to further confuse the issue.

 

Many Christians today who read Calvinist writings see the obvious contradictions and are unable to justify their teachings with Scripture. This leads to confusion. Nevertheless, they continue to highly regard John Calvin, along with his writings, followers, and doctrines. Why is this?

 

We must remember that the Word of God tells us in Acts 10:34, “that God is no respecter of persons.” If a man’s teachings and doctrine are unscriptural, then regardless of that man’s name or position, we are to turn away from those positions of his that Scripture deems to be wrong.

 

The argument of second causes is one such position.  John Calvin is saying that God wills evil to accomplish His righteous purposes. In other words, God ordains man to do evil so that His righteous purposes can be done. Clearly, God must be unfamiliar with the common expression among Christians that, “The ends do not justify the means.” Just because a person intends something evil in order to accomplish something good does not make the evil acceptable. There is never an excuse for sin. Sin done for good intentions is still sin. Evil intended for good is still evil.

 


  1. Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, 177.
  2. Ibid, 178.
  3. Ibid, 170.
  4. Ibid, 181.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 184.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, 177.
  9. “Is it any wonder that such immense splendour should blunt the acuteness of our mind? Our physical eyes are not enough to sustain a contemplation of the sun. Is our spiritual insight greater than our natural powers, or the majesty of God inferior to the glory of the sun? It is becoming in us, then, not to be too inquisitive; only let us not dare to deny the truth of what Scripture plainly teaches and experience confirms, or even to suggest that it does not reach agreement with God.” (Ibid, 184–185.)

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The Argument of Second Causes Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Zebell. All Rights Reserved.

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