Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of Eternity Changes Everything and the forthcoming Revelation volume in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible series. In an article entitled “Are You a Superstitious Calvinist?” he writes:
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. Continue reading