John Calvin uses a surprising term to describe our neglect of the doctrine of God’s providence in the course of our everyday lives. He calls it superstition.
Superstitious people wrongly attribute supernatural power to things that do not actually possess that power: a black cat, a broken mirror, a ladder overhead, salt thrown over your shoulder, the chalk of the third base line.
But what does superstition have to do with providence? The classical Reformed view of providence teaches that God is in ultimate control of everything in the universe, including the free choices and actions (good and bad) of all people. If this understanding is correct, it is superstitious to think and feel and act as though other human beings possess ultimate causality in what they do. We’re ascribing God’s role to them.
But isn’t this how we often think, feel, and act — even those of us who are Calvinists? We live as though the people who hurt and harm us are writing their own damaging scripts rather than fulfilling the sovereign plan of God.
Seeing the Bad Fruit of Superstition
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin exposes the bad fruit of our superstition:
We are superstitiously timid, I say, if whenever creatures threaten us or forcibly terrorize us we become as fearful as if they had some intrinsic power to harm us, or might wound us inadvertently and accidently, or there were not enough help in God against their harmful acts. (1.XVI.3)
Our superstition makes us timid and afraid. Early in my pastoral ministry, one woman with influence in the congregation was regularly critical of my preaching and leadership. Even her occasional affirmations were backhanded put-downs; she once complimented one my sermons by saying it was much better than another subpar sermon I had recently given.
Over time, I developed a prickly sensitivity toward her. I realize now I was being superstitious, ascribing to her a power she didn’t actually possess, forgetting God’s sovereignty over the words she spoke and his intention to work something good in my life through them. I didn’t need to fear what she said. As Calvin says, “there is no erratic power, or action, or motion in creatures, but . . . they are governed by God’s secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.” The fruit of my failure to live in light of this knowledge was fear.
Symptoms of a Superstitious Calvinist
Calvin’s use of the category of superstition isn’t perfect. It could wrongly be interpreted to imply that humans have no real agency. But I think it’s a helpful way of expressing a widespread problem. Many of us are superstitious Calvinists. We believe in God’s exhaustive, meticulous providence, but in our actual experience of daily life, we don’t live from that conviction. Our superstition makes us into:
1. Avoiders of People
Superstitious people avoid black cats, broken mirrors, ladders, and Friday the 13th . Superstitious Calvinists avoid people who intimidate us with their words and actions.
2. Manipulators of People
Superstitious people manipulate salt by throwing it over their shoulders and wood by knocking on it. Superstitious Calvinists try to manipulate people. We do what we think necessary to make them happy with us. We stroke their egos or avoid saying hard things. Why? We’re ascribing too much power to them.
3. Worshipers of People
Superstitious people give credit to the stars, to their lucky rabbit’s foot, to their four-leaf clover, or to the horseshoe over their door. Superstitious Calvinists give too much thanks and credit to other people (sometimes themselves) when things go well, and not enough credit to God.
The problem is that we’re called to minister to the very people of whom we’re superstitious. It’s as though a man superstitious of broken mirrors was sent to work in a mirror factory. How well is that going to work out?
Savoring the Good Fruit of God’s Providence
Conquering our superstition through meditation upon the truth of God’s providence brings wonderful fruit. The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What advantage comes from acknowledging God’s creation and providence?” And answers:
We learn that we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and to trust our faithful God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.
Belief in God’s providence makes us comprehensively thankful because everything that happens becomes a reason for saying thanks. Some years ago, our family went to the lake for a swim, all of us in bad moods and out of sorts. As we pulled into a drive-through for coffee, we discovered that a friend was in front of us in line. We surprised her by paying for her order, and that changed the mood of our entire family for the rest of the day.
Did God arrange that? If I believed in anything other than the classical view of God’s providence, I wouldn’t be sure. She was there of her own free choice. But believing as I do in God’s meticulous providence, I recognize that her presence in line ahead of us was God’s grace to grumpy people. So, I thank him for it.
An Example of Calvin Killing Superstition
Belief in God’s providence also gives us strength and confidence in life and ministry. John Calvin didn’t just write about the benefits of God’s providence; he actually experienced those benefits.
Calvin and his former friend Sebastian Castellio engaged in a serious theological dispute in the 1500s. In 1558, Calvin published his book Concerning the Secret Providence of God (his third response to Castellio). In his open letter response to Calvin, Castellio viciously mocked him. He said Calvin’s books were “weak and ineffective” because his reasoning was “obscure and crude.”
Castellio ended his letter with this jab: “I hope that you might not be angry on account of this letter. If you are just and true, it will not seem fearful. First, it is in fact to your advantage that you might be admonished by it, and second, if you understand (as you say) that all things happen by necessity, you must also believe that this letter was written by me necessarily.” Ouch!
At the very end of his response to Castellio, Calvin says,
Concerning the final cavil you throw out, that I am not to be angry at your insults if I believe your writing was necessary — for me this is truly a serious and efficacious exhortation to endurance . . .
Calvin goes on to recall the example of King David, who believed that God’s secret providence governed the curses and insults of his enemy Shimei, and therefore did not take personal vengeance upon Shimei. Calvin writes, “No man will ever bear the insults of the Devil and the wicked with calm moderation unless he turns his thoughts from them and toward God alone.”
Away with superstition! As we develop a deeper appreciation of the providence of God, I pray we’ll know the comforting, empowering, and liberating activity of God’s fatherly hand in every event of our lives.