The Potter's Freedom: Sovereignty (The Vital Issue)

At the turn of the twenty-first century Calvinistic Baptist James White wrote a rebuttal of Norman Geisler's confused book, Chosen But Free (Bethany House Publishers, 1999), called The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000). In my opinion, White did Arminians as well as Calvinists a service in rebutting Geisler's mistakes, misrepresentations, and often muddied theological wrangling and philosophical musings. The only other popular book with which I am familiar among non-Calvinists and Arminians that is as poorly written as is Geisler's is Frank S. Page's Trouble with the TULIP (Riverstone Group Publishing, 2000). Neither Geisler nor Page serviced non-Calvinists or Arminians in their publishing.

However, James White's theological positions and philosophical arguments against non-Calvinistic or Arminian positions are no better than the confused and poorly reasoned arguments from either Geisler or Page, in my opinion. Corresponding with White's fourteen chapters in The Potter's Freedom, I respond in full to each chapter. Bypassing White's introduction, detailing and outlining his complaints with Geisler's many errors, this post is in response to White's first chapter, "The Vital Issue," which presents faulty Calvinistic ideology. 

In this opening chapter White begins his crusade for the all-controlling God of Calvinism by quoting an opponent of the Reformation, Ignatius of Loyola. What he and Luis de Molina (originator of Middle Knowledge theory) vied for was a method of avoiding the view of some Reformers of an über-deterministic God who freely directs the ends of all people, whether for good or for evil, and that to His own glory (34). White comments, "Sadly, to this very day, nominal 'Protestants' embrace Molina's desperate attempt to get around God's freedom" (34), a complaint that also includes and indicts other Calvinists, like Alvin Plantinga, for example. So middle knowledge is not a non-Calvinistic problem.

What White is complaining about here is the Calvinistic notion that, unless God has unconditionally elected whom He will save and whom He will damn -- and irresistibly draws them unto Himself via regeneration, thus granting them an alien faith to believe in Christ (hence causing them to persevere) -- then salvation is "in the hands" of fallen human beings. His complaint is entirely unwarranted, however, since only God can save. Neither faith nor free will can save any sinner. God has chosen to save and He has chosen to save believers (cf. John 1:12, 13; 3:3, 5, 16, 17, 36; 12:47; Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; 1 Tim. 1:15; 2:4, 5, 6; 4:10; Heb. 7:25). God does not save unbelievers. St Paul teaches us that this faith, though enabled by the Spirit (Phil. 1:29), is not counted as merit or a work (Rom. 4:4, 5). So, God saves, and He conditionally saves the believer. If He conditionally saves the believer, then He has conditionally elected to save the believer.

White then appeals to Martin Luther, the Reformer who articulated the same notion of what Calvinists call God's "sovereignty," though we think they entirely abuse that word, for God's sovereignty and determinism are not synonyms terms. White writes: "he made it plain how he believed that the issue of God's absolute freedom and man's absolute dependence is, in fact, the very central issue of the entire Reformation." (34) Many disagree with White's assumption here.

First, White presents us with an inaccurate summation of the central issue of the Reformation. The central issue of the Reformation was that each and every person should be able to read and interpret the word of God for him- or herself -- not some Calvinistic notion that God has, before the creation of the world, unconditionally elected to save some and to damn others. Otherwise, Luther himself abandoned the central issue of "the entire Reformation" when he, along with his protégé Phillipp Melanchthon and the flock under his care, maintained that the role of Scripture in the lives of believers is Luther's dangerous idea of the Reformation.

Second, if White's premise were true, then Jacob Arminius himself was clearly in the Reformed tradition. If God is absolutely free and man is absolutely dependent upon Him, and this was "the very central issue of the entire Reformation," then Arminius carried out faithfully that Reformed tradition, and was himself Reformed, as are all Arminians who contend earnestly for the same. For Arminius, humanity was in such a desperate plight, free will being "not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and ... weakened; but it is also ... imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace [God's freedom], but it has no powers whatever [humanity's dependence] except such as are excited by Divine grace."1 We find God's freedom and humanity's dependence in one passage here. The notion of Arminius or Arminians being "Reformed," however, is one with which White cannot tolerate (36). 

Then again, James White is a Baptist and, in such a context, cannot himself be referred to as "Reformed," though he does so at every turn. Even the Canons of Dordt, part of the Three Forms of Unity, refute Baptistic errors, as does the Presbyterian document, the Westminster Confession of Faith. In other words, Baptists are not Reformed, no matter what they confess about themselves. Some may be Calvinistic, but they are not Reformed.

For James White, though, being Reformed -- according to his reading of Luther -- means holding to unconditional election. This is why White believes Arminius and Arminians cannot be referred to as being Reformed. But White is holding to a faulty presupposition, and therefore his supposition that being Reformed is tantamount to holding to the (erroneous) doctrine of unconditional election is entirely fallacious. Thus White's theory of what makes a person Reformed in chapter one is completely undone.


Subsequent to a brief introduction to Calvinism, what he calls "the doctrines of grace," as summed up in the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints), White commences propagating the Calvinist view of God's sovereignty, which for Calvinists is equated with the theory or philosophy of determinism, whether hard or soft determinism -- the notion that God is King, that He not only rules over His people (41), and maintains "unfettered, unlimited, undiminished authority ... to do as He wishes with His creation" (41), but that this God has also decreed whatsoever comes to pass (45). White confesses his belief:
While many are content to allow God to control the "big things" like hurricanes and the natural realm, it is the assertion that God's freedom extends to the actions of men, even to their choices, that meets with immediate rejection. But the Bible is clear on the matter. (45)
Yes, we, too, believe the Bible to be clear on this matter. Though God rightly governs His universe, including all His creatures, He warrants human beings a measure of freedom to accomplish even evil occurrences which do not please Him (cf. Isa. 5:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Jer. 19:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Ezekiel 18:4; 23; 33:11). Arminius answers: "But, because 'known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world' (Acts 15:18), and as God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,"2 yet God decrees no act or word of evil to be carried out irresistibly or by mere decree:
The power of God serves universally and at all times to execute these acts, with the exception of permission; especially and sometimes these acts are executed by the creatures themselves: Hence an act of providence is called either immediate or mediate. When it employs [the agency of] the creatures, then it permits them ... to conduct their motions agreeably to their own nature, unless it be His pleasure to do any thing ... out of the ordinary way.3
For White and other Calvinists, however, God does not merely permit evil to be done but has strictly decreed for evil to be carried out. (47) When confronted with the question, regarding Joseph's brothers, "But, if God decreed that this event would take place, how can He still hold Joseph's brothers personally accountable for their actions?" he can only reply, "Even if we did not have an answer to this question, it would not matter [emphasis added]: God makes it clear that He does hold men accountable." (48) I found White's reply to be very telling. Though God is seen, through a Calvinistic lens, to appear unjust, that does not matter, since God is King, and He can do whatever He pleases, even if what He does appears (and some would admit actually is) unjust. I was surprised White did not reply by misusing Romans 9:20: "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?"

As a brief aside: White argues his case in proof-text manner, assuming that the passages which he references prove his case ipso facto, as though he were merely enlightening us of the very objective truths of Scripture. He claims: "The Reformed position is nothing if not rich in the most in-depth exegetical work of generations of men who have labored diligently at the task of fairly and honestly dealing with the Scriptures in their original tongues." (27) Essentially, White is being embarrasingly naïve. Completely ignoring the crucial reality of hermeneutics, not to mention one's weltanschauung, no one exegetes and interprets any work, whether written or oral, in an objective sense. No one "fairly and honestly" deals with the Scriptures in their original tongues apart from the parameters of hermeneutics and worldview, not even the original languages. White's is a sophomoric mistake. 

For example, a Calvinist Greek professor attempted to demonstrate to our class from the Greek text that regeneration precedes faith by using Ephesians 2:8 as his exegetical proof-text. That day I dropped him as my Greek professor and chose another. The other Calvinist Greek professor, Dr. David Alan Black, insisted to our class that, though he believes regeneration precedes faith in theory, such cannot be proven from the Greek text: two Calvinist Greek professors -- two contrary positions -- one Greek text. 

Yet for all the hue and cry James White exudes about lack of exegesis among some non-Calvinists and Arminians, White would do well to remember that proof-texting or Scripture-quoting is not exegeting. In the first chapter alone, he quotes from twenty passages of Scripture, not one of which he actually exegetes. He merely assumes that the passages from which he is quoting objectively proves his presuppositions. White merely sees what he intends to see in the text because of his presuppositions or hermeneutical grid; and, when considering hermeneutics, we could charge everyone on earth with the same. Our respective hermeneutics guide our interpretations. Calvinists and Arminians do not perpetuate a battle with Scripture; Calvinists and Arminians perpetuate a battle of proper hermeneutics, each vying that the other has a faulty method of interpreting the text.

By quoting from such passages as Genesis 50:19, 20, 21; Psalm 33:8, 9, 10, 11; 135:6; Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 10:5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 15, 15, 17; 14:27; 41:21, 22, 23; 45:9; 46:9, 10; 64:8; Jeremiah 18:4, 5, 6; Daniel 4:34, 35; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Acts 4:27, 28, 29, 30; 1 Corinthians 1:26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 and Ephesians 1:11, White believes he has offered us sufficient evidence for suggesting that God determines the outcome of every event by His foreordained decree, including the choices people make, and even their intentions. How White explains scriptures to the contrary is a mystery (cf. Genesis 6:3, 5, 6, 7, 8; 18:25; Exodus 3:19; 6:1; Deut. 30:15, 19; 1 Samuel 23:10, 11, 12, 13, 14; Isa. 5:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Jeremiah 2: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 29, 30; 3:21, 22; 4:3, 4, 14; 5:19, 23, 28, 29; 6:16; 7:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 23, 30, 31; 13:11; 19:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Ezekiel 18:4, 23; 33:11; Luke 13:34; John 3:16, 17; 15:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Acts 7:51; Rom. 11:17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32; 1 Tim. 2:4, 5, 6; 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9); and perhaps he would cry Antinomy! or play the mystery card by way of answer. 

While we can easily explain how God can demonstrate mercy and wrath in His sovereignty and relationship with human beings and nations, especially from the passages which White quotes, we believe Calvinists cannot sufficiently answer how God can both determine or decree the choices and actions of people, and at the same time berate those people for doing what He determined for them to do, confront their sinful ways, and then punish them for the same. That is not just. Calvinists can insist that God is still just, but that kind of God is not a God of justice just because they say so.

Calvinists detract from the justice and glory of God, we believe, by maintaining such errors. If White or other Calvinists insist that people can "frustrate" God's will with their freedom, we believe the notion of anyone "frustrating God's will" merely assumes that God has "willed" or decreed every minutiae of our existence, including who will and who will not believe in Jesus Christ, a man-constructed theory that is contradicted by Scripture, we believe (cf. Deut. 30:15, 19; Ps. 26:5; 97:10 119:104, 128; Prov. 6:16; Jeremiah 2:5-9, 13-17, 20, 29, 30; 3:21-22; 4:3-4, 14; 5:19, 23, 28-29; 6:16; 7:3-7, 23, 30, 31; 13:11; 19:5; Isa. 5:4; John 1:12, 13; 3:16; 12:32; Rom. 1:16, 17; 2:4; 3:21-22, 23, 24, 25, 26; 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:4, 6; 4:10; 1 John 3:8).

White insists that Joseph's brothers, and all others who sin, are to be judged by God on the basis of "the intention of their hearts." (48) (emphasis original) But, let us be consistent here with Calvinistic ideology: even "the intention of their hearts" must be decreed by God in order for Him to be viewed as sovereign. If there are no "renegade atoms" in the universe (45), but each is determined by God by decree to their proper end, then certainly even the intention of the hearts of people -- including their choices (45) -- are also decreed by God. So, the God of Calvinism decrees the intention of our hearts, as well as has decreed our very choices, and then He holds us responsible and judges us for doing what He has decreed we do. This is the God of Calvinism. This is not the God of the Bible. 

Or, let me state this in a more delicate manner: This portrait of the God of the Bible is distorted, marred, and is not a proper representation of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This God claims to hate wickedness, sin, evil (Ps. 26:5; 97:10 119:104, 128; Prov. 6:16, 17, 18, 19; Hab. 1:13), claims to have not even thought about decreeing, to say nothing of actually decreeing evil (Jer. 19:5), but, according to Calvinists, He has decreed every minute sinful, evil, wicked event in the known universe. At this, one must decide whether to believe the Calvinistic notion of God, or, from our perspective, what the Bible actually claims of our triune God. But to accept one is to reject the conceptions of the other. This, in our opinion, is a "Vital Issue" indeed.

__________

1 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI: On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:192. 

2 Ibid., 2:235. 

3 Ibid., 2:367. 

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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.