Arminians and a High View of Sovereignty

Arminians have a high view of God's sovereignty, contrary to the caricatures spread of us to the contrary. As a matter of fact, we think Arminians hold to a higher view of God's sovereignty than do Calvinists, and that Calvinists actually hold a low, unavoidably deterministic view of God's sovereignty. The reason our view is considered "higher" is due to the following: For an omnipotent God, strictly controlling all people as one would a puppet is easy and effortless. Like moving chess pieces on a chessboard the motion is swift and effortless: the pieces move wherever He places them without the slightest challenge whatsoever. Any self-demeaning tyrant can control and objectify people, manipulate them into error, and to some degree bring about evil.

But when considering the individuality of each created being -- since human beings are not objects which can be moved about in such a fashion -- coupled with their complexities and irrationalities, to say nothing of their will and various options from which they make choices, God is still able to work "all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11); and do so without controlling and manipulating His creatures. One can make an object be obedient by controlling it; but wooing a human being to love and obey is another matter entirely -- one that requires honesty and relationship. God takes the more difficult route, displaying vulnerability, and the bravery of being rejected.

Jacob Arminius believed that God governs all things which can be governed in His universe, which is to say that nothing is excluded. To admit that God is sovereign is to confess that He is the Ruler of the universe: "He who is the blessed and only Sovereign," δυνάστης, "the King of Kings and Lord of Lords." (1 Tim. 6:15 NASB) δυνάστης refers to a ruler or officer of great authority, mighty (cf. Luke 1:49),1 a potentate. The word is derived from the noun δύναμαι, referring to ability, capability and power. That God is capable of controlling and manipulating all things is not tantamount to Him actually controlling and manipulating all things. Therefore the notion of sovereignty is not synonymous with determinism.

Notice, however, the connotations not attached to the word "sovereign": controller of every minutiae of one's existence; determiner of (and one who has strictly decreed) all things, including sin and evil; one who decrees and wills all things which shall come about by necessity. In other words, the word "sovereign" does not give way to the notion of God (or any ruler for that matter) exhaustively or meticulously determining by necessity every detail of one's life, including what choices the individual will make and when such shall be made; nor manipulating (or decreeing) primary or secondary causes in order to guarantee a predetermined conclusion. 

Moreover, the word "sovereign" does not give place to the theory that sin and evil are necessary. Therefore, the Calvinist's view of God's (deterministic) sovereignty is a serious error -- one which throws suspicion upon His integrity and motives. By "necessary," we mean that sin and evil must come to fruition because they are part of God's decree, plan or will: He will bring them to pass, or bring them about, either through primary or secondary means because He has decreed it so, as the Westminster Confession of Faith states. (link) These notions are what Calvinism have cast upon God's nature and they directly and quite unavoidably affect how we perceive His character and person. 

This is one among many reasons why Calvinism should be rejected by orthodox Christians. These deterministic notions were never part of orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of Church history, and they have no place in theology today. Even Augustine in his early years opposed strict determinism. We do not find determinism introduced in the history of the Church until Augustine's fifth-century over-reaction to Pelagius.


By way of a brief example, Calvinists favor certain cherry-picked verses, and use their interpretation as a hermeneutical grid for interpreting all of Scripture. "He removes kings and raises up kings" (Dan. 2:21 NKJV), so Calvinists will remind us, assuming an exhaustive measure of unilateral determinism in the ways of God. Yet they neglect to properly address, to say nothing of balance their hermeneutical grid, by other verses, such as Hosea 8:3, 4, where God complained: "Israel has rejected the good; the enemy will pursue him. They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge [or approve] them." (emphases added) If God always without fail removes and raises up kings, then how could He complain that Israel established their own kings, and quite without His approval?

In this we are certainly not denying God's sovereignty; we are properly framing God's glorious sovereignty. Arminius believed that God is sovereign over all things, including sin and evil. Dr. Roger Olson comments:
Arminius was puzzled about the accusation that he held corrupt opinions respecting the providence of God, because he went out of his way to affirm it. He even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God's [benign but sustainable] cooperation! This is simply part of divine concurrence [in which God sustains the evildoer during an act of evil while disapproving the evil], and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator.2
Concerning the doctrine of election, Arminius affirmed that God "does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,"3 again, affirming that no act (even salvation) is left to chance, but that all things without exception are governed by God. But what he and all orthodox Christians deny -- that is, those who carry a high view of Scripture and of God's sovereignty, character and integrity -- is that God decreed sin and evil as though He needed evil in order to accomplish His plan for history. If sin and evil are necessary, and thus God wills or decrees sin and evil, and they are such for the glory of God, then I fail to see how sin and evil will be unnecessary in the eschaton (in God's future kingdom).

As a matter of fact, if sin and evil are necessary, and they are such for the glory of God -- for "Christ's glory to shine brighter," as John Piper is infamous for erroneously teaching4 -- then should we not pray for the manifestation of more sin and evil? We want Christ Jesus to shine as brightly as possible! May we, then, according to John Piper's logic, never pray against injustice and evil, but give way for its presence so that the glory of God can be put on display to the utmost. Such theology is, again, in my opinion, unworthy of the God of the Bible, who detests sin and evil (Ps. 26:5; cf. Ps. 97:10 119:104, 128); and who sent His Son into the world to deliver humans from and to destroy the works of the enemy (1 John 3:8).

God Himself admits that He absolutely despises "haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers." (Prov. 6:16) Such are named an abomination from His perspective. Are we to imagine, then, that God foreordained or decreed or "brings to pass" these things which He hates and considers abominable? According to Calvin and classical Calvinists, the answer is yes. According to Scripture, and thus according to classical Arminianism, the answer must be no.

Neither Scripture nor classical Arminian theology is willing to portray God as one who decrees by necessity sin and evil. This truth, however, does not negate the sovereignty of God, but rather frames it in its biblical context, we think. In other words, God's sovereignty, when biblically, rightly defined, negates the theory of determinism while supporting the truth of His governance and authority.

We should stand in awe of God, who is able to work all things according to the counsel of His will in spite of sin and evil, while maintaining both respect and allowance for human freedom (limited and governed as our freedom may be). But the conception of God controlling all things which people choose and say and do, as Calvinists maintain, is a very low and demeaning view of God's holy and just character: determinism cannot escape maintaining a low view of God's sovereignty. Classical Arminianism presents the biblical view of God's sovereignty, which is, accurately, absent of any notion of strict determinism. This is due, simply, to the fact that the word "sovereign" does not biblically lend itself to the conception of determinism.

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1 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Abridged Edition, ed. Verlyn D. Verbrugge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 154.

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

3 James Arminius, "Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235.

4 Taken from Bruce A. Little's article, "Evil and God's Sovereignty," in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 291.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.