2 Errors to Avoid When Talking About Predestination (Calvin’s “Institutes”)
Perhaps predestination is the doctrine that John Calvin is most remembered for. Predestination is a biblical word referring to “God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man” (Calvin’s definition 3.21.5). While theologians debate exactly what God’s predestining entails, no one can dispute that the word and concept of God choosing His people is found in the Bible (Eph 1:4-5; Rom 9; John 15:16).
Yet this doctrine can lead to much conflict, strife, and dissension. So how can we talk about predestination? Calvin wisely instructs us to avoid two errors:
ERROR #1: ARROGANT PRESUMPTION & VAIN CURIOSITY
While God has revealed true knowledge about predestination in the Bible, He has not answered all of our questions about it. It is folly for us to assert arrogantly our ideas about it or give way to vain curiosity: “it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder” (3.21.1). God has not told us why He chooses some and not others. This knowledge is too high for us, and has not been revealed. We know that it is out of sheer mercy that He chooses anyone–not because they deserve it–but we don’t know why He would choose some and not others.
ERROR #2: COWARDLY SILENCE
The other error we make is when we don’t speak about predestination at all. Calvin states, “There are other who, wishing to cure this evil [arrogant presumption], all but require that every mention of predestination be buried; indeed, they teach us to avoid any question of it, as we would a reef” (3.21.3). Since predestination is a biblical word and idea, we would be wrong to be completely silent about it. We must say what Scripture says, and not be silent.
Thus we see true wisdom in Calvin’s words here: we most avoid both arrogant presumption and cowardly silence when speaking about predestination.