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Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) on God’s Permissive Decree

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Vos:

16. How does one designate God’s decree as it functions with respect to sin?

A permissive decree (decretum permissivum). This term has become accepted in Reformed dogmatics and is even found in most confessions. Our own [Belgic] Confession, on the doctrine of providence (Article 13), says, "[A]ll our enemies cannot harm us without His permission and will."

Here and there objection is made to this distinction. Beza states it is not difficult to show that it is completely misunderstood by some, in a way that removes the devils and evil men from God’s control except that He keeps their actions and the consequences of their actions within certain limits. Nevertheless, Beza also wishes to see the terms decernius and permissivum (decreeing and permitting will) maintained, provided that they are explained correctly.

Danaeus speaks more dismissively: "From this it follows that that sophistical distinction that one is accustomed to make between God’s permission and His decree ought to be abandoned, because what happens by God’s permission happens with His will and consequently by virtue of His decree."

a) First, it should be observed that by permissive decree the Lutherans understand something entirely negative. By it they mean that God does not decree to prevent or hinder sin by a positive act. Thus, sin itself is fully present in God’s decree as sure and certain. Concerning it God has nothing more to decide. His permissive decreeing, taken strictly, means to say that He does not decree rather than that He certainly decrees not, namely, to counter sin. This, of course, is a wrong and inadequate view. It teaches that sin has its reality and certainty from man. The former is true, as we have seen; the latter cannot be conceded. For, as for all things, so also for sin, certainty must lie in the decree of God. A permissive decree cannot be a bare budding in our spirit.

b) Others understand the permissive character of God’s decree concerning sin more in another sense, namely as follows:

God decrees in a positive manner that certain things will happen. However, sin as an unavoidable consequence adheres to these things that God decrees. Thus, if He wills these things, He must also permit sin. So, it comes down to this: God has permitted sin not for itself but because of its necessary connection with other things that He willed.

Usually this is worked out further as follows: At issue above everything was the freedom of the human will, that man, therefore, should choose for himself what he wanted, good or evil. Thus, involved as well in this freedom, in this possibility of going in either direction, was the permitting of evil, of sin.

This view is entirely unacceptable. It still makes only the possibility of sin an object of God’s decree, but not the certainty of sin. We must not only maintain that God tolerated that possibility but also that its certainty is the result of His permissive decree. It may not be thought as though God decreed to create man and then to wait on how the choice of man would turn out. That would be the Pelagian conditional decree applied to the situation of man before the fall. This view, then, is also completely at home within the orbit of Pelagian ideas.

c) There are different conceptions of God’s permissive decree that do not really pertain to the decreeing act but more to its execution and so need not be discussed here–for example, the difference between the formal and the material in sin. This is a point that has its place in the doctrine of providence and not here. Although one would see this distinction as a solution, it is of no help here, for God’s decree concerns both the formal and the material.

d) It is not possible to explain fully in a corroborating way how we are to think about God’s permissive decree. We wish, in general, to maintain the following:

1. The permissive decree is no less a certain decree than any other. Any thought as though we can speak of hesitation or uncertainty in God must be excluded by far. God is certain in everything He decrees, and for all things their certainty is secure solely in the decree of God. Also sin, in order to be certain, must be through God’s decree. The one who denies this deviates from Reformed doctrine. Just on this point lies the one great error of the church father Augustine, who wanted to make sin only an object of God’s foreknowledge but not of God’s decree. Calvin says as decisively as possible, "Man falls because God’s providence has so ordained it, but he falls by his own fault" (Institutes, 1.18.4); "I acknowledge that it is a horrible decree. Still, no one can deny that God certainly has known how it would turn out with man and that therefore He has known because he has so foreordained it in His decree." "For the first man has fallen because the Lord judged that it ought to be so. Why He judged that remains hidden to us" (J.23.7, 8).

But Calvin also lets the reverse come out, as we immediately hope to see.

2. As its object the permissive decree had sin in view as something contrary to God’s holy nature and on which His displeasure must rest. To permit something always means that it arouses my disapproval. Therefore, because on the one hand sin is against God’s holy nature, on the other hand there must have been considerations in God that nonetheless caused Him to decree to permit it. It is not granted to man to know these considerations in detail. It must be enough for us to know that through sin God knew to glorify Himself by His righteousness and His redeeming love.

3. By permitting sin in His decree God remains completely free of any wrong. Calvin: "The destruction of the godless depends on God’s decree such that the cause and nature of that destruction is to be sought in man himself." "Through his own malevolence, man has corrupted the nature that he had received from his God." "God could not have judged other than that man ought to fall, because He saw that thereby the honor of His name would properly come to light. And where one speaks of God’s honor, there His justice must immediately be in view, for what deserves praise, must be just." Thus, according to Calvin, it is a just decree, both in its origin as in its content (cf. Institutes, 2-4.3-5, where Calvin goes much further than we would presume to and where in principle he rejects the permissive decree).

In the execution of this decree, too, there is nothing that can make God a cause of sin. On this point Scripture speaks as emphatically as possible. God tempts no one to evil (Jas 1:13). God is light and in Him there is no darkness (1 John 1:5). God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes (Eccl 7:29). The Spirit of God teaches His children to praise all that is good as the work of God but also to ascribe blame for all that is evil only to themselves. This testimony of the Spirit in the believer, founded on God’s word, teaches us how this matter appears in God’s light, and we must believe it though that same light does not illumine our understanding.

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics tran. Richard B. Gaffin (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 93-96. [Italics original; some minor refomatting; and underlining mine.]

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