Calvin, "Calvinists," and the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

There are at least three key passages in Calvin’s Institutes where he gives his view on the matter of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In these passages Calvin rejects the explanation that such hardening is merely by the “permission” of God. The permission view rejected by Calvin, however, has been taken up by some modern “Calvinists.” Seemingly oblivious to what Calvin actually teaches, these “Calvinists” have actually called Calvin’s view hyper-Calvinism.

First, here are Calvin’s comments:
Calvin’s Institutes, Book I, Chapter 18, Paragraph 2:

But nothing can be clearer than the many passages which declare, that he blinds the minds of men, and smites them with giddiness, intoxicates them with a spirit of stupor, renders them infatuated, and hardens their hearts. Even these expressions many would confine to permissions as if, by deserting the reprobate, he allowed them to be blinded by Satan. But since the Holy Spirit distinctly says, that the blindness and infatuation are inflicted by the just Judgment of God, the solution is altogether inadmissible. He is said to have hardened the heart of Pharaoh, to have hardened it yet more, and confirmed it. Some evade these forms of expression by a silly cavil, because Pharaoh is elsewhere said to have hardened his own heart, thus making his will the cause of hardening it; as if the two things did not perfectly agree with each other, though in different senses—viz. that man, though acted upon by God, at the same time also acts. But I retort the objection on those who make it. If to harden means only bare permission, the contumacy will not properly belong to Pharaoh. Now, could any thing be more feeble and insipid than to interpret as if Pharaoh had only allowed himself to be hardened? We may add, that Scripture cuts off all handle for such cavils: “I,” saith the Lord, “will harden his heart,” (Exod. 4:21). So also, Moses says of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, that they went forth to battle because the Lord had hardened their hearts (Josh. 11:20). The same thing is repeated by another prophet, “He turned their hearts to hate his people,” (Psalm 105:25). In like manner, in Isaiah, he says of the Assyrian, “I will send him against a hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge to take the spoil, and to take the prey,” (Isaiah 10:6); not that he intends to teach wicked and obstinate man to obey spontaneously, but because he bends them to execute his Judgments, just as if they carried their orders engraven on their minds. And hence it appears that they are impelled by the sure appointment of God.

Calvin’s Institutes, Book II, Chapter 4, Paragraph 3 and 4:

Ancient writers sometimes manifest a superstitious dread of making a simple confession of the truth in this matter, from a fear of furnishing impiety with a handle for speaking irreverently of the works of God. While I embrace such soberness with all my heart, I cannot see the least danger in simply holding what Scripture delivers. when Augustine was not always free from this superstition, as when he says, that blinding and hardening have respect not to the operation of God, but to prescience (Lib. de Predestina. et Gratia). But this subtilty is repudiated by many passages of Scriptures which clearly show that the divine interference amounts to something more than prescience. And Augustine himself, in his book against Julian, contends at length that sins are manifestations not merely of divine permission or patience, but also of divine power, that thus former sins may be punished. In like manner, what is said of permission is too weak to stand. God is very often said to blind and harden the reprobate, to turn their hearts, to incline and impel them, as I have elsewhere fully explained (Book 1 c. 18). The extent of this agency can never be explained by having recourse to prescience or permission. We, therefore, hold that there are two methods in which God may so act. When his light is taken away, nothing remains but blindness and darkness: when his Spirit is taken away, our hearts become hard as stones: when his guidance is withdrawn, we immediately turn from the right path: and hence he is properly said to incline, harden, and blind those whom he deprives of the faculty of seeing, obeying, and rightly executing. The second method, which comes much nearer to the exact meaning of the words, is when executing his judgments by Satan as the minister of his anger, God both directs men’s counsels, and excites their wills, and regulates their efforts as he pleases. Thus when Moses relates that Simon, king of the Amorites, did not give the Israelites a passage, because the Lord “had hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate,” he immediately adds the purpose which God had in view—viz. that he might deliver him into their hand (Deut. 2:30). As God had resolved to destroy him, the hardening of his heart was the divine preparation for his ruin.
In accordance with the former methods it seems to be said, “The law shall perish from the priests and counsel from the ancients.” “He poureth contempt upon princes, and causeth them to wander in the wilderness, where there is no way.” Again “O Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear?” These passages rather indicate what men become when God deserts them, than what the nature of his agency is when he works in them. But there are other passages which go farther, such as those concerning the hardening of Pharaoh: “I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” The same thing is afterwards repeated in stronger terms. Did he harden his heart by not softening it? This is, indeed, true; but he did something more: he gave it in charge to Satan to confirm him in his obstinacy. Hence he had previously said, “I am sure he will not let you go.” The people come out of Egypt, and the inhabitants of a hostile region come forth against them. How were they instigated? Moses certainly declares of Sihon, that it was the Lord who “had hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate,” (Deut. 2:30). The Psalmists relating the same history says, “He turned their hearts to hate his people,” (Psalm 105:25). You cannot now say that they stumbled merely because they were deprived of divine counsel. For if they are hardened and turned, they are purposely bent to the very end in view. Moreover, whenever God saw it meet to punish the people for their transgression, in what way did he accomplish his purpose by the reprobate? In such a way as shows that the efficacy of the action was in him, and that they were only ministers. At one time he declares, “that he will lift an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth;” at another, that he will take a net to ensnare them; and at another, that he will be like a hammer to strike them. But he specially declared that he was not inactive among theme when he called Sennacherib an axe, which was formed and destined to be wielded by his own hand. Augustine is not far from the mark when he states the matter thus, That men sin, is attributable to themselves: that in sinning they produce this or that result, is owing to the mighty power of God, who divides the darkness as he pleases (August. de Prædest. Sanct).

Calvin’s Institutes, Book III, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8:

“Here they recur to the distinction between will and permission, the object being to prove that the wicked perish only by the permission, but not by the will of God. But why do we say that he permits, but just because he wills? Nor, indeed, is there any probability in the thing itself—viz. that man brought death upon himself merely by the permission, and not by the ordination of God; as if God had not determined what he wished the condition of the chief of his creatures to be. I will not hesitate, therefore, simply to confess with Augustine that the will of God is necessity, and that every thing is necessary which he has willed; just as those things will certainly happen which he has foreseen (August. de Gen. ad Lit., Lib. 6, cap. 15).”

Calvin also wrote in his Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God:

How foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be not by His will, but merely by His permission. … Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as He will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake or to evil according to their merits. p. 176 ff.

One modern “Calvinist” theologian at odds with Calvin’s view was the late R. C. Sproul. His book Chosen By God has some excellent material and is of great value. But, when it comes to this question of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Sproul’s view is not Calvin’s. In fact, Sproul’s view appears to be exactly the view Calvin opposes. Sproul writes,

Equal ultimacy is based on the concept of symmetry. It seeks a complete balance between election and reprobation. The key ideas is this: Just as God intervenes in the lives of the elect to create faith in their hearts, so God equally intervenes in the lives of the reprobate to create or work unbelief in their hearts. The idea of God’s actively working unbelief in the hearts of the reprobate is drawn from biblical statements about God hardening people’s hearts. Equal ultimacy is not the Reformed of Calvinist view of predestination. Some have called it “hyper-Calvinism.” I prefer to call it “sub-Calvinism” or, better yet, “anti-Calvinism.” …
Active hardening would involved God’s direct intervention within the inner chamber’s of Pharaoh’s heart. God would intrude into Pharaoh’s heart and create fresh evil in it. This would certainly incur that Pharaoh would bring forth the result that Go was looking for. It would also insure that God is the author of Sin. Passive hardening is a totally different story. Passive hardening involves a divine judgment upon sin that is already present. All that God needs to do to harden the heart of a person whose heart is already desperately wicked is to “give him over to his sin.”
– R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God, Tydnale House, 1986, p. 142, 144.

One finds some good things in Sproul, but I must conclude that in this one matter he has seriously departed from Calvin.

On the matter of permission I consider Gordon Clark to be a better example of one who’s views have agreement with Calvin: https://douglasdouma.com/2016/09/28/clark-on-permission/

Another good example is from Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft in volume one of his Authentic Christianity: An Exposition of the Theology and Ethics of the Westminster Larger Catechism. He writes,

Although some try to explain the relation of God’s decrees to human sins in terms of God’s mere “permission” of sin, God’s purpose regarding evil acts of free agents is more than bare permission. It involves permission (Acts 14:16), “but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding (Ps. 76:10; 2 Kings 19:28), and otherwise ordering and governing, (of those evil acts) … to His own holy ends (Gen. 50:20; Isa. 10:6). (WCF, V, iv) – p. 410

2 thoughts on “Calvin, "Calvinists," and the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart”

  1. Pingback: Review of Calvinism: Pure & Mixed by W. G. T. Shedd | A Place for Thoughts

  2. Great Post Doug,
    I have been wanting to carefully examine Calvin’s views on this and blog on it myself for a while. Mine will have to wait a little while longer. This is very helpful! Thanks!!

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