The Calvinist Reading of Gen. 50:20

Dur­ing the course of nearly every dia­logue with my Calvin­ist broth­ers in Christ (whom I love but with whom I occa­sion­ally dis­agree), Gen­e­sis 50:20 is brought up as a flag­ship exam­ple of the allegedly Bib­li­cal doc­trine of Prov­i­den­tial Con­cur­rence. Reformed the­olo­gian Wayne Gru­dem defines this doc­trine as “God coop­er­ates with cre­ated things in every action, direct­ing their dis­tinc­tive prop­er­ties to cause them to act as they do” (Gru­dem, 1994, p. 317).

Grudem’s meta­physics are never quite clear, but the phrase “cause them to act” is clear enough. Even though Grudem’s sys­tem­atic the­ol­ogy gives a cer­tain amount of lip ser­vice to the exis­tence of some­thing like a “will”, Gru­dem is ulti­mately a determinist.

And that would locate him smack dab in the main­stream of Reformed the­ol­ogy, accord­ing to Calvin­ist the­olo­gian and Pre­sup­po­si­tional apol­o­gist Gor­don Had­don Clark. Clark warns us not to assume that the denial of free will is “hyper–Calvin­ism”. He exposits the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith (the “high water­mark” of Protes­tantism), the Shorter Cat­e­chism, and like state­ments based on the cen­tury or so of dis­cus­sion lead­ing up to them. And his find­ings? All Reformed state­ments of faith and proper Reformed the­olo­gians are full-​​blown deter­min­ists (Clark, 1961, pp. 28–32).

Any talk of man’s “free agency”, “nat­ural lib­erty”, of “Com­pat­i­bal­ism”, or God never being the “author” of sin, to be found in the main­stream of the Reformed tra­di­tion is to be under­stood entirely deter­min­is­ti­cally, accord­ing to Clark. That is to say that the Reformed doc­trine of con­cur­rence holds man’s will is causally deter­mined in every detail by God, though some would say that because it is not deter­mined by phys­i­cal means, it can be called “free”. In this way God’s prov­i­dence is said to “estab­lish” (cause and con­trol) man’s will (and is there­fore “com­pat­i­ble” with it). Sim­i­larly God is said not to be the “author” of sin, in that while He causes oth­ers to sin, He some­how never directly sins Himself.

Call it what you will.

This is not to accuse my Calvin­ist broth­ers of the “Fatal­ism” label they are so quick to throw off when called “Deter­min­ists”. I’m not accus­ing them of believ­ing in any force in the uni­verse out­side of God. I under­stand that they believe that it is God Who is doing the determining.

And that’s exactly the prob­lem. It makes God the cause of evil (even if not the “author” of it under the man­gled, Reformed under­stand­ing of “author”). But being the cause of evil is bad enough, as it under­mines the omnibenev­o­lence of God and oth­er­wise runs roughshod over the Bib­li­cal pas­sages teach­ing God’s love and man’s free­dom and responsibility.

So the rel­e­vant part about my Calvin­ist brother’s asser­tion that Gen. 50:20 teaches Prov­i­den­tial Con­cur­rence is that it would mean that evil actions are not only “will­ingly” per­formed by their sub­jects, but also wholly, suf­fi­ciently, and causally deter­mined directly by God.

Upon inves­ti­ga­tion I have been pleased to find lex­i­cal, gram­mat­i­cal, and con­tex­tual rea­sons to lov­ingly but firmly disagree.

Here’s the verse in question:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many peo­ple should be kept alive, as they are today.

–Gen­e­sis 50:20 (ESV)

My posi­tion is that it is more plau­si­ble than not that the author of this verse did not intend it to teach Prov­i­den­tial Con­cur­rence or to con­sti­tute an exam­ple of it.

It seems the ini­tial ques­tion is what the word “meant” meant to the speaker in the nar­ra­tive, and to the author who recorded it. Here’s why I don’t think it meant “causally determined”:

1. Ancient Hebrews almost never discussed metaphysics.

Even the thor­oughly Calvin­ist Pres­by­ter­ian B. B. Warfield reluc­tantly admits, in the con­text God’s “irre­sistible prov­i­den­tial gov­ern­ment of the world” that “its meta­physics never come to explicit dis­cus­sion” in the Hebrew scrip­tures (Warfield, 1909).

2. Perhaps as a consequence of (1), ancient Hebrew almost never addresses metaphysics; it’s nearly always observational and pictorial.

The Tyn­dale Bible Dic­tio­nary explains that “Hebrew… con­cen­trates on obser­va­tion more than reflec­tion. That is, things are gen­er­ally observed accord­ing to their appear­ance as phe­nom­ena, not ana­lyzed as to their inward being or essence. Effects are observed but not traced through a series of causes… Hebrew is a pic­to­r­ial lan­guage…” (Elwell & Com­fort, 2001).

3. The meaning of the underlying Hebrew word חֲשָׁבָ (“Chashab” — Strong’s H2803), is nothing close to “metaphysically cause”.

Rather it’s “to think, account”, “to plan, devise, mean”, “to charge, impute, reckon”, “to esteem, value, regard”, or “to invent.” (Strong, 1996).

4. The use of the underlying Hebrew verb in nearly every other context in the Hebrew scriptures is quite obviously not intended to indicate metaphysical causation.

Usu­ally it’s some­thing like “regard” or “scheme” (for starters, this verb in the same mor­pho­log­i­cal state as it is in Gen. 50:20 can be found in 1 Sam. 18:25, 14:13, Esth. 8:3, 9:24–25, Job 35:2, Ps. 21:12, 14:3, 5, Isa. 33:8, 53:3–4, Jer. 11:19, 18:8, 48:2, 49:20, 30, 50:45, Lam. 2:8, and Amos 6:5).

5. The stem of the underlying Hebrew verb does not generally communicate causation.

This verb is found in the “Qal” form, that is, its unmod­i­fied root. While Qal verbs can com­mu­ni­cate actions…

6. …there is a stem in Hebrew entirely dedicated to indicating active causation (“Hiphil”).

There­fore the author could have specif­i­cally indi­cated cau­sa­tion if he had wanted to. For exam­ple, in Joshua 1:6b the author writes the word for “inherit” (נָחַל, “nachal”) with its Hiphil stem (תַּנְחִיל). Ren­dered in Eng­lish, this phrase there­fore reads “you shall cause this peo­ple to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” (ESV).

Note that not even verbs with the Hiphil stem nec­es­sar­ily indi­cate meta­phys­i­cal cau­sa­tion, as God is not likely say­ing that Joshua will be in direct, “Prov­i­den­tially Con­cur­rent”, or “Com­pat­i­bal­ist” con­trol of every action and inten­tion of the peo­ple in order to lead them into the Promised Land (also cf. Bullinger, 1898, p. 821 for list of idiomatic active verb usages in Bib­li­cal Hebrew; I learned of Bullinger via Dave Miller & Kyle Butt, who call on Bullinger’s list for insight into God’s hard­en­ing of Pharoah’s heart–the other flag­ship exam­ple offered up in favor of the Calvin­is­tic for­mu­la­tion of divine prov­i­dence; I learned of the Miller & Butt arti­cle via Bran­don Ridley).

Even still, the author of Gen. 50:20 didn’t even use the causative mor­pho­log­i­cal device that was avail­able to him; he specif­i­cally chose instead a non-​​causative stem.

7. The “meant” translation of Darby, ASV, AV/​KJV, ESV, NASB95, NKJV, RSV and any others is metaphysically ambiguous.

If the trans­la­tors had thought that this verb meant “cause” in any meta­phys­i­cal sense, there are plenty of ways they could have indi­cated so in trans­la­tion (like, for exam­ple, “cause”).

The other trans­la­tions only worsen the Calvinist’s case:

• “devised” (Young’s Lit­eral Translation)

• “intended” (NET, NIV, TNIV, NLTNRSV)

• “planned” (God’ Word, NIrV)

• “turned” (New Cen­tury Version)

• “used” (The Message)

8. Many commentaries agree with me.

To take just one exam­ple, Pashall and Hobbs write that Joseph did not say to his broth­ers “…that God caused them to think evil against him, for they were respon­si­ble for their own thoughts. In his wis­dom and power, how­ever, God used their evil pur­poses to achieve his will.” (1972, p. 52).

On top of the above 8 points, I am still left with the hermeneu­ti­cal ques­tion about whether the speaker in the nar­ra­tive (Joseph) is intended to by the author of the nar­ra­tive (Moses) be a taken as meta­phys­i­cal author­ity to begin with. Else­where in the Hebrew scrip­tures we find our heros and fore­fa­thers say­ing and doing out­right bone-​​headed things. It’s not always clear which por­tions of the nar­ra­tives found in scrip­ture are meant to be didactic.

Now, you’re telling me that this is one of your flag­ship verses? This is among the clear­est, strongest evi­dence for your cen­trally impor­tant doc­trine that you can come up with?

I am no Hebrew scholar and really I am no scholar at all (at present). I con­sider this some­thing of a place­holder for future study. Even still, these seem like impor­tant points, and I would need them explained by any­one argu­ing for the Calvin­ist read­ing of Gen­e­sis 50:20.

What of the alter­na­tives to the Reformed doc­trine of Con­cur­rence? Among the many is the Clas­si­cal Armin­ian doc­trine of Con­cur­rence or the more philo­soph­i­cally stated “Molin­ism”, which at present looks far more coher­ent with the Bib­li­cal data to me.

4 thoughts on “The Calvinist Reading of Gen. 50:20

  1. tor

    I can find no flaw in your rea­son­ing. One could argue that meta­phys­i­cally, Man, being cre­ated in the image of God, has self-​​determination, although, not on the level of God’s self-​​determination.

  2. Derek

    ad tor: what a won­der­ful and (oft neglected) insight. 

    A ques­tion: When you say that we have “self-​​determination, although, not on the level of God’s self-​​determination”, Are you sug­gest­ing a dif­fer­ence in degree or a dif­fer­ence in kind? 

    What­ever your answer, please explain!

  3. tor

    Derek, we have cre­ativ­ity, but not on the level of God’s cre­ativ­ity. We can love, but not on God’s level. We can be at dif­fer­ent places… but not all at the same time. We have power and author­ity, but not on God’s level. I’d say the kind, or “genus” is the same, but the degree is lower. Our mis­sion, should we decide to accept it, is to be trans­formed into His image, until one day, we see the Son face to face and become like Him.

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