God and the Governance of His Universe (Pt. One)

Calvinist scholar R.C. Sproul claims, rightly, that every event that occurs in the universe "must at least happen by [God's] permission."1 He then declares that if God decides to permit an event to occur He has, in some sense, foreordained the event to occur. Therefore, to admit that God foreordains all that comes to pass "is simply to say that God is sovereign over his entire creation."2 But sovereignty refers to a rule or a ruler, and a ruler neither decrees what creatures (or nature) shall do, nor does a ruler control the same. The foundation of Sproul's view of God's sovereignty is flawed.

For Sproul, and Calvinists in general, every event that occurs must manifest itself, at the very least, by God's permission; so that, if there were
one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God's sovereignty [defined by Sproul as His foreordination], then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. Perhaps that one maverick molecule will lay waste all the grand and glorious plans that God has made and promised to us.3 
But when considering how God foreordains His plans for the future, I find another, quite foreign principle underlying the notion of God's sovereignty from Sproul's and, hence, the Calvinistic position.

Sproul's view appears close to the truth, that is, as far as molecules are concerned. But creatures endowed with a measure of freedom cannot be categorically synonymous with molecules. Moreover, even if a maverick molecule existed, we believe that such could still be governed, not by God's sovereignty, as framed and defined by Sproul and other Calvinists, but by His omnipotence. To argue against the alleged existence of a maverick molecule based on God's sovereignty is to undermine His omnipotence. In other words, the maverick molecule could not "lay waste all the grand and glorious plans that God has made and promised to us" because God is all-powerful and could thwart the maverick nature of such a molecule.

Sproul further claims that we must not reject God's sovereignty -- to which I most heartily agree -- but we must hold to God's sovereignty "in such a way so as not to violate human freedom."4 Again, I could not agree more, as this entails an Arminian hermeneutic. The problem arises not from our understanding of God's sovereignty, or even in the method with which we frame it, necessarily, but in how (or, for some, if) God knows the future.

Dr. Sproul agrees with the Arminian that God knew in advance that we would fall into sin. Moreover, he claims that God could have intervened to stop it.5 But could God have intervened without violating human freedom? Sproul confesses above that God's sovereignty must be understood "in such a way so as not to violate human freedom." We agree. However, had God intervened in Eve's and Adam's free decision to eat of the forbidden fruit, then He would have violated their freedom -- the very notion we are instructed by Sproul to avoid when rightly parsing the issues regarding God's sovereignty.

But the Calvinist does not want to camp out on this idea: Sproul himself equivocates and turns our attention to our rebellion, the corollary of our unworthiness of His love and grace, and then insists that God does not owe us love and mercy.6 The problem with this deflection, however, is God's relation to our initial rebellion. Yes, God foreknew our future disobedience, but how God knew this future disobedience, from the Calvinistic perspective, is one with which we cannot agree.

Conveniently, Sproul only quoted from the first point of chapter three in the Westminster Confession of Faith.7 His intent was to highlight God's innocence in our freedom to sin. However, the second point of chapter three in the Confession contradicts this claim, we think: "Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future [a proposition opposing Arminianism], or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions [a proposition opposing Molinism]." (link) (emphases added) Therefore, God decreed or foreordained what actually comes to pass, and He did so because He planned it thusly.

In other words, God did not foreordain whatever comes to pass, including our sin or disobedience -- not to mention our fall from original righteousness and right relationship with Him -- because He foresaw that we would sin, or that we would sin based on certain conditions, e.g., Satan's presence and temptation in the Garden, any inherent flaw in our desire(s), etc. The fall of humanity was foreordained by God's eternal decision. Sproul avoids making these logical and necessary corollaries. God knows the future and can only know the future because He has decreed every minutiae of the future. If He has not decreed what shall come to pass, then He cannot know what will happen because there is nothing to know, so claim Calvinists.

Scripture contradicts this basic error. The God of Israel Himself claims knowledge of an event that never came to fruition (1 Sam. 23:9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14). According to a Calvinistic presupposition, God could not have foreknown the answer to David's question concerning being handed over to the enemy, because He had not decreed the events to which David was referring. Jacob Arminius, however, insists that God knows what can be known without qualification by "His own and sole essence," with the exception of evil, which He knows indirectly. But God also knows "all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible."8

God's knowledge, then, is "certain and infallible," understanding "certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent," noting that "this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will."9 The Arminian rejects any notion of God foreknowing the future only because He has meticulously decreed whatsoever comes to pass, as such a concept is a clear violation of human freedom -- a notion that Sproul himself insists we avoid with regard to properly understanding God's sovereignty -- and causes great harm to the integrity, holiness, and justice of God. Is Molinism the answer to our issues of God's knowledge and human freedom?


Many Arminians, at least those who follow Arminius' thoughts regarding God's knowledge, find Molinism not only biblically unable to be proven but also gratuitous. In other words, because God's knowledge of the future in Arminianism derives from His own essence, the concept of possible worlds is entirely gratuitous in explaining how God knows the future. Even granting the notion of possible worlds, with an exceeding amount of varying outcomes, one can never understand why God chose this world with this outcome. We can allude to the goodness of God, and that out of this goodness He chose the best of all possible worlds, but how on earth one could arrive at such a concept from Scripture seems impossible to demonstrate. (More on these concepts in the following post.)

The Molinist appeals to "three moments in God's knowledge," including "God's knowledge of all necessary truths," e.g., logic; the notion of middle knowledge; and also the real world in which we exist, which is the world that God created, referred to as God's "free knowledge."10 God's middle knowledge pertains to Him knowing "what every possible creature would do (not just could do) in any possible set of circumstances."11 Though Arminius alludes to God's ability to know "all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible," this tip of the hat to middle knowledge need not be an explicit indication that he was an overt Molinist. Appealing to God's middle knowledge does not a Molinist make.

Historically, Arminians have never sensed a need to appeal to Molinism in order to substantiate their views of God's relationship to the future, and His knowledge of it. This has, however, troubled Open Theists. These believers view God's simple foreknowledge of our future free will decisions as being contradictory. If God foreknows what a person will freely do (Arminianism), even if not decreed to such an action (Calvinism), or even based upon what a person would do in such circumstances (Molinism), God still knows what the person will do and, hence, that person must do what God foreknows he or she will do. The conclusion is that the person is not truly free to do otherwise than what God knows he or she will do.

Moreover, some passages in the Bible seem to indicate that God's knowledge is incomplete: He is learning about certain situations based upon our decisions and subsequent actions (cf. Gen. 18:21; 22:12). Other passages indicate that God even changes His mind about certain scenarios in which He claimed He was going to perform a given action (Num. 11:1, 2; 14:12-20; 16:20-35, 41-48; Judges 10:13-16; 1 Sam. 23:10-13; 24:12-16, 17-25; 1 Kings 21:21-29; 1 Chron. 21:7-13; Jer. 7:5-7; 18:2-11; 38:17-18, 21; Ezek. 20:5-22; 33:13-15 Hosea 11:8-9).12

Dr. Gregory Boyd, for instance, grants God's announcement to Hezekiah as an example.13 God sent Isaiah to Hezekiah, who was sick from boils, with this message: "Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover." (2 Kings 20:1) There are no attendant conditions to God's message. Hezekiah was informed by God that he would die from his illness and not be healed. But Hezekiah prayed to the Lord and his future was changed by fifteen years.

Perhaps many of us, myself included, would have merely accepted the message and prepared to die. Hezekiah refused, turned to the Lord for mercy and healing, and the future was changed -- at least from our perspective. Now, the Arminian who rejects Open Theism would simply confess that, due to God's exhaustive foreknowledge, He knew that Hezekiah would ask for mercy and for healing, thus appearing to change the future by the addition of fifteen years to his life. Even so, why would God frighten Hezekiah into this prayer? Why not just tell Isaiah that He had planned to heal Hezekiah?

Appealing to anthropomorphic language (that God speaks to us on a human level, using metaphors and images, and, at times, only appears to be learning, or changing His mind) is not deemed acceptable to Freewill Theists, even though Open Theists take anthropomorphic language, including cognitive linguistics, very seriously.14 What Open scholars find dismissive from their detractors is their not taking certain passages of Scripture literally when, at times, the former take passages of Scripture far more literally than the latter, though the latter often accuse the former of neglecting to do so.

Open Theists believe that God knows all that can be known -- the future remains open, and therefore He cannot know exhaustively about the future, given that there is nothing yet to know. He knows what He can bring about; and all that He intends to accomplish will be fulfilled. This subject will be continued in the following two posts.

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1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 1986), 15-16.

2 Ibid., 16.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 17.

5 Ibid., 21.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 17. "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." (link)

8 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Five Private Disputations: Disputation XVII. On the Understanding of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:341.

9 Ibid.

10 William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999), 129-30. See also Kenneth D. Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 16-41.

11 Ibid., 130.

12 Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 157-66.

13 Ibid., 8.

14 John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 18.

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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.