Previous article in this series: May 15, 2019, p. 375.

The Sects

We therefore condemn all who have taught con­trary to this, especially Pelagius and all Pelagians, together with the Jovinians who, with the Stoics, re­gard all sins as equal. In this whole matter we agree with St. Augustine who derived and defended his view from Holy Scriptures. Moreover, we condemn Florinus and Blastus, against whom Irenaeus wrote, and all who make God the author of sin.

The last several paragraphs of chapter 8 of the Second Helvetic Confession, are concerned with various denials of the doctrine of the fall of man and original sin. They also answer a perennial charge made against the orthodox Reformed teaching with regard to these two topics, the charge that the Reformed make God the author of sin. The last paragraph responds to certain “curious questions” that sometimes arise when the truth with regard to the fall of man and original sin are presented.

These paragraphs indicate that the Reformed faith is polemical. Those who follow in the Reformed tradition must always remember this important truth. It is important to set forth the truth positively—defining, explaining, and proving. But the positive setting forth of the truth is never enough. What is necessary besides is that the truth must be defended against those who deny it and distort it. The heresies and the heretics must be identified. This is not mere name calling. The purpose is not to be demeaning and vindictive. It is not the goal to embarrass or publicly to shame these people. The pur­pose is, first, to warn the people of God, lest they depart from the confession of the truth. And the purpose, sec­ondly, is to convince these heretics of the truth, as well as those who have fallen victim to their false teachings. We engage in polemics, in the words of the apostle Paul in II Timothy 2:25, praying that “God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.” As in the case or Hymenaeus and Alexander, the purpose is “that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Tim. 1:20).

By “The Sects” in paragraph 5, Bullinger is not refer­ring to “sects” in the modern sense of that term. When we think of sects, we immediately think of religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. In­stead Bullinger is referring to an identifiable religious group that had a recognized leader that departed from the faith. He includes in the sects “Pelagius and all Pela­gians.” Pelagius (c. A.D. 340-405) was a fourth-centu­ry heretic who rejected the teaching of original sin. He denied Adam’s headship, that he was the legal head and representative of the whole human race. He taught that man comes into the world morally neutral, neither bad nor good. Adam’s sin set a bad example, but it did not result, under the judgment of God, in the corruption of the race. And he taught that God’s grace was assisting grace, so that the grace of God and the free will of man work together to accomplish man’s salvation.

Pelagius was opposed by Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who showed very clearly in his writings the errors of Pelagius. Significantly, the SHC says about Augustine that he “derived and defended his view from Holy Scriptures.” Bullinger intends that as especially high praise for Augus­tine, as opposed to Pelagius who did not make any honest or accurate appeal to Holy Scripture. He set forth not merely philosophical arguments, nor mainly logical and rational arguments, but clear biblical arguments. Re­member that it was Augustine who said, “When Scripture speaks, God speaks.” He lived and wrote by that dictum. In his own writings, Augustine appealed continually to the Holy Scriptures in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of his teaching and the errors of his opponents. For Au­gustine, Scripture was the end of debate. There was no higher authority in the church than the Word of God.

Included with “The Sects” in this paragraph of the SHC are the Jovinians and the Stoics. They erred in “regard[ing] all sins as equal.” The Jovinians were a fourth-century religious group who were the followers of a certain Jovinius, about whom little is known. The church father Jerome (c. A.D. 347-420), a contemporary of Augustine, wrote against him. Although we know little of him, he and his followers are compared to the Stoics. The SHC indicates that part of their error was an insistence that all sins were equal, and that therefore there were no degrees of sins—no sin was more heinous than another sin. Besides this denial, it also seems that the Jovinians located sin in the deed, and exclusively in the deed. Sin did not include the sinful nature out of which the sinful deed arose—a fundamental denial of the depravity of fallen man. Not only what he does, but what he is belongs to man’s sin and sinfulness.

Classified with “The Sects” are also “Florinus and Blastus, against whom Irenaeus wrote.” The church fa­ther Irenaeus’ dates are c. A.D. 130-202. Once again, we know very little of these men. Blastus was a presby­ter at Rome. Irenaeus addressed a letter to him entitled On Schism. He wrote another letter to Florinus, On the Sole Sovereignty or That God is not the Author of Evil. Florinus seems to have defended this opinion. His view seems to have been that since God created all things, He must have created both the good and the evil. This, of course, would have been a fundamental denial of the fall of man into sin and the origin of evil in the perfect creation that God had made, according to the biblical account.

God is not the author of sin, and how far He is said to harden

It is expressly written: “Thou art not a God who delights in wickedness. Thou hatest all evildoers. Thou destroyest those who speak lies” (Ps. 5:4 ff.). And again: “When the devil lies, he speaks accord­ing to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Moreover, there is enough sin­fulness and corruption in us that it is not necessary for God to infuse into us a new or still greater per­versity. When, therefore, it is said in Scripture that God hardens, blinds and delivers up to a reprobate mind, it is to be understood that God does it by a just judgment as a just Judge and Avenger. Finally, as often as God in Scripture is said or seems to do something evil, it is not thereby said that man does not do evil, but that God permits it and does not prevent it, according to His just judgment, who could prevent it if He wished, or because He turns man’s evil into good, as He did in the case of the sin of Joseph’s brethren, or because He governs sins lest they break out and rage more than is appropriate. St. Augustine writes in his Enchiridion: “What hap­pens contrary to His will occurs, in a wonderful and ineffable way, not apart from His will. For it would not happen if He did not allow it. And yet He does not allow it unwillingly but willingly. But He who is good would not permit evil to be done, unless, being omnipotent, He could bring good out of evil.” Thus wrote Augustine.

The main concern of this paragraph is to respond to the charge that the Reformed doctrine of the Fall and original sin makes God the author of sin. By “author of sin” the charge intends to allege that the Reformed doctrine makes God responsible for sin, guilty of sin, and therefore a sinner Himself. Because that cannot be true, the Reformed doctrine of the Fall and original sin cannot be true either.

The Reformers rejected this charge. They did not jettison the biblical teaching of the Fall, but they steadfastly retained it and responded to this false accusation of the enemies of sound doctrine. Bullinger adds his voice to the voice of the other Reformed respondents. Significantly, he acknowledges that his response is not entirely original, but that he is relying upon Augustine. Augustine deals with the problem of evil in a number of places in his writings, including the Confessions, The City of God, and Enchiridion, which Bullinger quotes in this paragraph of the SHC.

Bullinger’s response to the charge that his teaching makes God the author of sin is four-pronged. First, he makes clear from the Scriptures that God hates sin. How could He possibly be the author of sin and at the same time hate sin. He quotes Psalm 5:4 in this regard: “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.” Verse 5 adds, “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.”

Second, in response to the charge that the Reformed view makes God the author of sin, Bullinger points to the teaching of Scripture that the one who delights in sin, loves sin, and tempts to sin is the Devil. He quotes Jesus’ words to the unbelieving Jews in John 8:44, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” Clearly, the author of sin is the Devil. He is that as the first rational, moral creature to sin. And he is that because he was the instigator of man’s sin; he tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Third, because man is totally depraved and has and is born with a sinful nature, man always sins at his own impulse and on account of his own willing desire to sin. He is never compelled to sin against his will. Because he is a totally depraved sinner, his will and nature are already completely sinful. As the SHC says, “Moreover, there is enough sinfulness and corruption in us that it is not necessary for God to infuse into us a new or still greater perversity.” In addition, as often as Scripture speaks of the fact that “God hardens, blinds and de­livers up to a reprobate mind, it is to be understood that God does it by a just judgment as a just Judge and Avenger.” God’s hardening, blinding, and delivering human beings up to a reprobate mind is never to be understood as God creating sin where before there was no sin, but punishing sin with sin. The sin and the sinner are already a reality; God is not creating sin, but pun­ishing sin with still more sin.

And fourth, God cannot be charged with being the author of sin because He always turns evil and sin into that which is good. With regard to sin, God not only “permits it and does not prevent it,” but He “turns man’s evil into good,” and “He governs sins.” If God were the author of sin and delighted in sin, He would not cause good to come out of the evil. That shows that He cannot be the author of sin. So much does He hate sin that “in a wonderful and ineffable way” whatever takes place “contrary to His will” occurs “not apart from His will.” The result is that “He who is good would not permit evil to be done, unless, being omnip­otent, He could bring good out of evil.”

Curious questions

Other questions, such as whether God willed Adam to fall, or incited him to fall, or why He did not prevent the fall and similar questions, we reck­on among curious questions (unless perchance the wickedness of heretics or of other churlish men com­pels us also to explain them out of the Word of God, as the godly teachers of the Church have frequently done), knowing that the Lord forbade man to eat of the forbidden fruit and punished the transgression. We also know that what things are done are not evil with respect to the providence, will, and power of God, but in respect of Satan and our will opposing the will of God.

The concluding paragraph of the chapter on man’s fall into sin and original sin addresses itself to what Bullinger regarded as “curious questions.” The principle set forth in this paragraph is a sound principle.

Scripture is the authority in the church. That means not only that what Scripture teaches must be believed and confessed. It means that we must not go beyond Scripture. The church must not take away from (deny) Scripture; but neither may she add to the teaching of Scripture, binding men’s consciences with that which is not taught in Scripture. This was a characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church, that she added to Scripture her own doctrines and laws and made them necessary to be believed and obeyed for salvation, like purgatory, indulgences, the teaching concerning Mary, and many other examples.

Among the curious questions that Bullinger raises is the question whether God willed (decreed) the Fall. He certainly cannot be charged with being the author of the first sin inasmuch as He forbade the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and also pun­ished man for eating it. But did God will the Fall? Was the Fall decreed by God? He grants that what things are done as evil, “are not evil with respect to the providence, will, and power of God.” But he seems to hedge on the specific question, “Did God decree the fall of man into sin, yes or no?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” It is not enough to say that these things “are not evil with respect to the providence, will, and power of God.” But are they actively decreed by God? That is the question.

Where Bullinger hedges, Calvin is much stronger. He makes very clear that it is his position that God decreed the fall of man into sin. He expresses this in a number of places. He says in his Institutes that “it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descen­dants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision.”[1] And in his treatise “The Secret Providence of God,” Calvin says: “Meantime, I freely acknowl­edge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret counsel and decree.”[2] A consistent confession of the absolute sovereignty of God teaches that God decreed the Fall, but that He decreed it in such a way that He is not and cannot rightly be charged with being the author of sin.

As to God’s purpose in the Fall, we can surely say one thing: God decreed the fall of the first Adam in or­der to reveal the greater glory of the second Adam, the Lord from heaven, Jesus Christ our Savior.

1  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 3.23.7; 2:955-6.

2  John Calvin, “The Secret Providence of God,” in Calvin’s Cal­vinism, trans. Henry Cole (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1950), 267.