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Previous article in this series: March 15, 2018, p. 279.

The Epicureans

We therefore condemn the Epicureans who deny the providence of God, and all those who blasphemously say that God is busy with the heavens and neither sees nor cares about us and our affairs. David, the royal prophet, also condemned this when he said: “O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult? They say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’ Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” (Ps. 94:3, 7-9).

Chapter 6 of the Second Helvetic Confession (SHC) treats the truth of providence, “that all things in heaven and on earth, and all creatures, are preserved and governed by the providence of this wise, eternal and almighty God” (SHC, 6a). The opening paragraph of the confession sets forth the doctrine of providence positively, that is, what we affirm by the truth of providence. The second and third paragraphs treat errors against which the church must guard with respect to the providence of God. The first error is doctrinal. That is the error confronted in the second paragraph, which we consider in this article. The second error is practical, which amounts to an abuse of the doctrine of divine providence. That is the error of supposing that the truth of providence excuses neglect of the means by which God is pleased to execute the decree of providence. An understanding of the important relationship between God’s providence and the use of means is critical in the practical life of the child of God. Consideration of this concluding paragraph must wait until our next article.

In the second paragraph of the SHC, chapter 6, certain false teachers are identified by name. They are the Epicureans: “We therefore condemn the Epicureans who deny the providence of God….” It is significant that Heinrich Bullinger, the author of the SHC, identifies the false teaching and false teachers by name. This is biblical and this is Reformed polemics. Bullinger is not content merely to describe the error in general terms. Instead, he feels constrained to mention by name those who hold to the error. Just as Paul mentions by name the false teachers Hymenaeus and Alexander, in I Timothy 1:20, and Hymenaeus and Philetus, in II Timothy 2:17, so do the Reformed “name names” in their polemics against error: Arminians, Roman Catholics, Pelagians, evolutionists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the charismatics, Buddhists, and Hindus. These false teachings, as well as the proponents of these errors, must be exposed in order that they may be forthrightly rejected. The truth is always antithetical. Embrace of the truth necessarily involves rejection of the lie. Faith in Christ necessarily involves repudiation of that which is contrary to Christ.

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) was an ancient Greek philosopher who founded a school of philosophy that became known as Epicureanism. Among other things, Epicurus taught that the gods were far removed from affairs on this earth. They were essentially disinterested and indifferent with respect to what happened in the world and in the lives of men. It really did no good to worship the gods, pray to the gods, or sacrifice to the gods. You can see, I think, the implications of this pagan philosophy for the teaching of providence. It is a fundamental denial of the biblical doctrine that God is present in the creation, takes an interest in the lives of His creatures, and by His hand preserves and governs “all things in heaven and on earth.”

In his commentaries and other writings, John Calvin makes reference to the false teaching of the Epicureans. Included in his comments on Psalm 121:3 (“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber”), Calvin says:

As the Epicureans, in imagining that God has no care whatever about the world, extinguish all piety, so those who think that the world is governed by God only in a general and confused manner, and believe not that he cherishes with special care each of his believing people, leave men’s minds in suspense, and are themselves kept in a state of constant fluctuation and anxiety (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 5:65).

Calvin describes the teaching of the Epicureans, especially as it relates to God’s relationship to the world. He also points out how the false teaching stands at odds with the truth of the Christian confession, as well as the impact that it has on the Christian life practically. The result of embracing this false teaching is that “men’s minds [are left] in suspense, and are themselves kept in a state of constant fluctuation and anxiety.”

The error of the Epicureans resurrected

It is doubtful that Reformed Christians today will confront anyone who professes to be an Epicurean. But the teaching of Deism, which arose during the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century and exerted a great influence on the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, is only the resurrection of Epicurean thought. According to the Deists, God did indeed create all things, but thereafter removed Himself from any active involvement in the creation, allowing the creation to continue to exist according to fixed, natural laws built into the universe. God is detached from the material universe. The Deists popularized the watchmaker analogy. God is the divine watchmaker, who after having designed and built the watch, winds it and allows it to run its course according to the principles (laws) of its design.

Deism has been resurrected in the church of our day by the theistic evolutionists. According to theistic evolutionists of every stripe, God made the first, primitive life-forms. He gave existence to matter in the beginning. But then, from that moment onward, all things developed according to the natural laws that were built into the universe. It is possible, some theistic evolutionists will grant, that God intervened at appropriate junctures in the development of the world. One of those junctures was the time at which He gave to an ape-like ancestor of Adam a soul—perhaps. But for the most part, God is detached from the creation. He is not actively involved with nor present in the world. Rather than being an active participant in the life of the creation, He is a divine spectator, merely observing history unfold before His eyes.

This teaching, which is only Epicureanism resurrected and dressed in different clothes, is a fundamental denial of the providence of God. It is a repudiation of the truth that God has not only created all things, but also upholds and governs all things. The teaching of theistic evolution is not only an erroneous teaching about origins; it is also an erroneous teaching about the continued existence of all things—providence. Theistic evolutionists “blasphemously say that God is busy with the heavens and neither sees nor cares about us and our affairs” here on the earth.

This also points out that the teaching of theistic evolution is contrary to the Reformed confessions. The Second Helvetic Confession does not stand alone in what it teaches about God’s providence. Using similar language, the other great Reformation confessions also set forth the truth of God’s providence. In complete agreement with the SHC are the Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13, “Of Divine Providence,” the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 5, “Of Providence.” The teaching of theistic evolution is not only unbiblical, but also clearly contrary to the Reformed confessions. For this reason, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, seminaries, Christian schools, and institutions of higher learning must not tolerate in their midst those who teach the heresy of theistic evolution. For that is, indeed, what the teaching of theistic evolution is: heresy. It is heresy inasmuch as it contradicts the express teaching of the Reformed confessions. Because it does, it must be rejected and they who teach it must be dealt with by the church. They must not be tolerated, but must be disciplined. They must not be left in the church to exert their influence, especially on the young people, but must be set outside of the church and called to repentance.

Blasphemous and folly

Before leaving this paragraph, there are two things that we ought to note. The first is the SHC’s designation of the error of the Epicureans, and by implication that of the Deists, as “blasphemous.” Bullinger states that the Reformed church “condemn[s] the Epicureans who deny the providence of God, and all those who blasphemously (emphasis added) say that God is busy with the heavens and neither sees nor cares about us and our affairs.” This is an especially “blasphemous” error because of the implications of this error for the truth concerning God Himself. Blasphemy always touches God Himself, His being and nature.

It is true, of course, that every error, in one way or another, is an attack upon God. Heresy always impacts the truth concerning God—who and what God is. But that is especially true of this particular error. The error of Epicureanism, and its illegitimate offspring, Deism, is an egregious error. It denies that God loves and cares for His people. According to the Epicurean, God is indifferent to the plight of those whom He has chosen. He turns a cold shoulder to the cries of those whom He has redeemed in the blood of His dear Son. He is completely unaffected by the distresses, temptations, and persecutions of those who are indwelt by His Spirit.

That is blasphemy—of the worst sort! That is a fundamental denial of who God is in relation to His people. It denies God’s fatherly love and care for His people. It denies that they are His beloved bride and His dear children, upon whom He can never turn His back. It denies that they are ever the apple of His eye and remain constantly the object of His favor. Impiety and sacrilege in the extreme!

And it is folly, consummate folly! Significantly, Bullinger quotes Psalm 94:8,”Ye fools, when will ye be wise?” The question is a rhetorical question. It is not a question seeking information that the psalmist does not possess. Rather, it is a question that is intended for emphasis. The psalmist knows the answer to the question, and those to whom he puts the question also know the answer to the question. Those who say that “The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard it” (v. 7) are fools. Not only ought they to know better, they do in fact know better, despite what they may say. That is what a fool is. A fool denies what he knows is the truth and acts contrary to better knowledge. As much as the natural man knows that God is and that He alone is the Creator, so does he know that God is present in the creation that He has made. Not only did He create everything in the beginning, but from that moment onward, He upholds and governs all things by His almighty and everywhere-present power. That is the providence of God.

To a great extent, the Reformation restored to the church the biblical doctrine of God’s providence. The sovereignty of God in salvation was not the only casualty of the Roman Catholic Church’s denial of the sovereignty of God and the widespread acceptance of the free will of man. Lost and forgotten was also the biblical truth of the providence of God. More and more, God was pushed out of His universe, and more and more He was made dependent on autonomous man. God did not rule, but reacted. He did not control, but cooperated with. He did not perform His will, but pleaded His will.

The Reformers recovered the biblical truth of God’s providence. That truth is that “all things in heaven and on earth, and all creatures, are preserved and governed” by the providence of God.