God Intended it for Good: Joseph and His Brothers in Egypt

Upon quoting the narrative found at Isaiah 10:12-17, within the context of a deterministic assumption, Calvinist James White then focuses very briefly on the historical setting of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt found at Genesis 50:19-21. White, as a typical Calvinist, declares that, though a person may possess one purpose, God's purpose shall prevail. Already, White presents a dilemma, since Calvinism teaches that "man's purpose" was actually decreed by God. Hence whatever a person purposes, God decreed that so-called purpose. But I digress. In the case of the Assyrians, God is "perfectly just to judge on the basis of Assyria's sinful intentions." Why? Because, allegedly, "Assyria acts in accordance with its desires, and yet, what is done is the fulfillment of God's decree."1 (emphases original) He concludes similarly with Joseph and his brothers.

White acknowledges the realization of Joseph as to "the motivations of his brothers when they sold him into slavery. But, in the very same event he saw the over-riding hand of God, guiding, directing, and ultimately meaning in the same action to bring about good."2 (emphasis original) But what White fails to mention -- what many Calvinists fail to confess -- is that God, from the Calvinistic position, also decreed from eternity past each and every desire toward a given action in every single case throughout history. So, if White were a bit more transparent, then he would confess above that God judges on the basis of Assyria's sinful intentions, though Assyria acts in accordance with its desires, yet those desires are influenced by God Himself via His eternal divine decree. That such Calvinists neglect to mention this theory, insisted upon in their theology, is telling. God brings about wickedness within mortals and then judges them for acting wickedly.3

Lest you think I am being unfair then consider the words of John Calvin and other Calvinists. Calvin insists that people do not perform any action except "at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what He has previously decreed with Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction."4 (emphasis added) In this worldview, then, the reason I hold to Arminianism and another holds to Calvinism (and yet another to Hyper-Calvinism, another to Semi-Pelagianism, another to Pelagianism, and so forth) is because God has previously decreed such with Himself and brings such to pass. This corroborates well with Calvinist Wayne Grudem's insistence that God "influences our desires and decisions."5 Is God the author of sin, then? Calvinists hiss at the notion! Yet Calvin infers that God is "the author of that trial of which Satan and wicked robbers were merely the instruments."6 (emphasis added) Note his use of the term "the author." Hence, if one is attacked by Satan, or by robbers, God is the author of the sin and wickedness, and the perpetrators are merely instruments in the hands of God who uses them to bring about His eternal decree -- an ultimate decree rendering sin and evil necessary.

One Calvinist, unaware of the system he has freely chosen to adopt for himself, may argue that God merely permits evil but does not strictly will evil. Not so, argues Calvin, as he writes: Not by mere permission, but by the direct and explicit will and decree of God, He "blinds the minds of men, and smites them with giddiness, intoxicates them with a spirit of stupor, renders them infatuated, and hardens their hearts."7 Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argues against this notion, first invented in the early fifth century by St. Augustine (354-430), stating:
But this is a heretical opinion [i.e., deterministic Calvinism, then, is heretical], for it takes away the very notion of merit and demerit from human acts. For what someone does necessarily and cannot avoid doing, seems to be neither meritorious nor the opposite. Therefore this should be numbered among the opinions alien to philosophy, since not only is it contrary to faith but it subverts all the principles of moral philosophy as well. If there is nothing free in us, but we are moved to will necessarily, deliberation, exhortation, precept and punishment, praise and blame, in which moral philosophy consists, are swept away.8 (emphases added)
But this heresy, as Aquinas frames the matter, is exactly what Calvin and Calvinists proffer. Moreover, Calvin's theory of God "blinding" depraved sinners is entirely gratuitous in nature. One would imagine that, if total depravity is true, and Arminians believe the doctrine is true, then God would not have to expend so much energy in all that "blinding" activity. In other words, depraved sinners are already inherently blind spiritually; they are already smitten with giddiness and intoxicated with a spirit of stupor, rendered infatuated with sin, and maintain hard hearts. They are self-condemned (John 3:18, 19). To suggest that God must proactively work in such a "blinding" fashion is nonsensical and entirely gratuitous since total depravity is true.



We, Arminians, think, believe, and argue that God is intimately involved in the lives of human beings. For the Calvinist to pit the narrative of Genesis 50:19-21 against Arminian theology is to entirely misunderstand and misrepresent Arminianism. We eagerly embrace the truth of Joseph's statement with rejoicing: "Even though you [the brothers of Joseph] intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today." (Gen. 50:20) What is perplexing, in the Calvinist hermeneutic, is the underlying assumption that the intention of God to turn evil into good is couched within the philosophy of determinism.

Indeed, Glen Shellrude highlights this very point, as he considers Second Temple Judaism and the lack of evidence supporting a deterministic hermeneutic regarding the Old Testament:
The lack of evidence that either mainstream Second Temple Judaism or Jesus and the early church were theological determinists is an important consideration when considering Old Testament texts which Calvinists take as proof texts for theological determinism [Genesis 50:19-21 among them] . . . If this was how the original authors intended their statements to be understood [i.e., deterministically], then one would expect that this would be reflected in Second Temple Jewish literature or the New Testament. The lack of evidence for theological determinism in this literature suggests that neither Second Temple Jews or Jesus and the early church understood these Old Testament texts in the way that Calvinists propose.9
For further study, consider the exegetical posts investigating deterministic claims by Calvinists of Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Hosea (click the links to be directed to the posts). The issues raised by the prophets, and the manner in which they frame various arguments between God and His failing people, do not merely lack evidence for Calvinistic determinism but actually contradict the same and support the biblical stance of libertarian free will, along with its corollary, responsibility. The conclusion of which remains: If God has decreed and influences our desires and decisions, as Calvinists claim, then He is the most infamous Sinner in the known universe. Not many make such bold proclamations today, but this is the crux of the matter, and why Calvinism should be abandoned by all faithful believers in and followers of Jesus Christ. The very nature and character of God are at stake.

Is the Calvinist God so very threatened by human free choice that He must control every situation, every desire, every option and every decision, in the most meticulous fashion, in order to gain a sense of power and sovereignty? Is God not free to allow for freedom, relative though such may be, and tainted no doubt by a sin nature? Can God not bring good out of evil intentions without having decreed the same -- without bringing such about by efficaciously influencing the desires and decisions of every mortal ever to exist? Is the Calvinist God truly that weak-minded and burdened by an inferiority complex? We find the Calvinistic understanding of the nature and character of God deplorable. God is not the author of sin, the author of all trials, the author of all sickness and evil, at least in an exhaustive and universal sense, as Calvinists falsely argue. We do not deny God's rightful sovereignty: we rightly define the sovereignty of God.

Jacob Arminius argues that God does not perform any act in history, or permit anyone to the performance of any act in history, which "He has not decreed from all eternity either to do or to permit."10 Think about that statement very carefully: whatever act occurs on earth in time is manifest solely by the eternal decree of God. What, then, is the difference between Arminius and Calvin, between Arminians and Calvinists, on this issue? In Arminius and Arminians, God allows for creaturely freedom to express itself, even wickedly. In Calvin and Calvinists, God decrees the creaturely behavior, cleverly but deceptively disguised as being freely wrought.

Arminius' doctrine of concurrence maintains both the sovereignty of God and the free will of mortals. Often, a less-than-five-point Calvinist will insist that he is a Calvinist, yet he argues that he holds "in tension" both "the sovereignty of God and the free will of man." The problem with this notion is the understanding and defining of the word "sovereignty." If by "sovereign" the individual implies that God has exhaustively and meticulously decreed the desires and decisions of each creature, then he is not holding to a "tension" in his theology at all, but misunderstands that he is actually a Calvinist in the proper sense and that free will is a farce.

If, however, by "sovereign" the individual is indicating that God sovereingly permits a person to perform either good or evil, and that the same was not rendered necessary by God's eternal decree (even though the same was eternally foreknown), then the person is actually an Arminian. Or, at least, the person holds to the same frame of reference concerning the sovereignty of God as does Arminius and Arminians. Such a person does not reference determinism in the concept of sovereignty. God remains sovereign, in the biblical sense, without having exhaustively and meticulously decreed the desires and intentions and decisions and actions of all people.

Regarding Joseph and his brothers, Arminius argues that, concerning the beginning of sin, the divine concurrence is active, and "is necessary to produce every act."11 Because God actually is sovereign, and because in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), God sustains our existence even when and while we are sinning. We do not sin because He decreed for us to sin, or because God is bringing about sin in and through us, even though all that happens in the earth is manifested within the context of God's eternal decree. This decree includes the free actions, of free mortals, granted their freedom by a free God. Arminius argues that God must concur with the free decision of a person to sin in order for that person to carry out sin. Should He not concur with the free decision of a person to sin, then He intervenes, as Sovereign of the universe, as He reserves the right to intervene, and we can refer to Abimelech for an apt example. (Gen. 20:6) Still, even within the context of this example, God intervened on behalf of Abimelech not by a decreed, deterministic resolution, but because of Abimelech's integrity.

The same freedom is true for the brothers of Joseph: they freely sell their brother. This free and evil intent and action is used by God to the saving of many starving people in the future. Hence, what the brothers intend for evil, God intends for good. The sin belongs to the sinner and the saving belongs to a just and merciful God. In this biblical worldview we leave intact the integrity of a just and holy God and the sin and wickedness that belongs to wicked people. The Joseph narrative betrays evidence for Calvinism, or determinism, and evinces how God can even transform evil motives into an opportunity for displaying His mercy, grace, and providential power.

Can anyone oppose God's purposes? Yes, as Dr. F. Leroy Forlines confesses, passages such as Romans 9:19-24 or Genesis 50:19-21 do not "suggest that a person cannot resist in the sense of opposing God's purpose. Rather, no one can defeat God's purposes. A person can disobey God and will be held responsible for his disobedience. However, God has purposes that are carried out in spite of disobedience (Gen. 50:19-20)."12 (emphases original) Moreover, He is not threatened by disobedience. God, then, does not need to exhaustively and meticulously decree every minutiae of our existence in order to be sovereign or in order to know the future. How does God know a future free-willed action? Arminius argues that the foreknowledge of God belongs to His divine nature. Thus God, from eternity past, always preserved the advantage. He understands how to allow the brothers of Joseph their evil intent and how to bring about good from the evil.

God's knowledge is exhaustive in Arminian theology. Since, as infinite in being, He does not nor cannot learn, then He certainly does not "look down through the corridors of time" in order to gain knowledge of any event, even one's belief in Christ, or one's disobedience, like Joseph's brothers. Arminius insists that God's knowledge and foreknowledge is attributed to an inherent "simple and infinite intuition, according to the succession of order, and not of time."13 In other words, such exhaustive knowledge belongs to God by nature of His essence, or being, and is related to the creation-order14 and not by "peering forward" in time. God is not so weak or threatened by free (or freed) will that He must pre-plan all events in order to know them or in order to be sovereign over them. His foreknowledge is exhaustive and His knowledge, like His sovereignty, is innate. We think that this view of God is a stronger view of God's sovereignty than that proffered by Calvinists, since the Calvinist God is threatened by free will, to the degree that He must manipulate people in order to be counted as sovereign. God is bigger than that.

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1 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 47.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 Calvin argues: "Thus we must hold that while by means of the wicked God performs what He had secretly decreed, they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precept, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust." John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.4. God, then, in the view of Calvin and Calvinists, can quite literally decree, bring about, or perform any action, no matter how heinous, wicked, or sinful, and remain holy and just. This, we believe, is a complete contradiction in moral theology.

4 Ibid., I.18.1.

5 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

6 Calvin, Institutes, I.18.1.

7 Ibid., III.21.5.

8 Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 556-57 (4.22).

9 Glen Shellrude, "Calvinism and Problematic Readings of New Testament Texts, Or, Why I am Not a Calvinist," in Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation, ed. Clark H. Pinnock and John D. Wagner (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2015), 43, fn. 28.

10 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XXVIII. On the Providence of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:368. Cf. 2:235, 2:350.

11 Ibid., 2:183.

12 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 135.

13 Arminius, Works, 2:341. How does God foreknow the future? "God knows all things, neither by intelligible ... representations, nor by similitude, but by His own and sole essence; with the exception of evil things, which He knows indirectly by the good things opposed to them, as privation is known ... by means of the habit. . . . But this infallibility [of His knowledge] depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will [or eternal decree]."

14 "It appears that in order for there to be a stable created environment in which God and creation interact in a purposeful way, only two possibilities exists. Either God determines everything, thus assuring the order of creation based on divine predetermination, or God provides for the suitable function of creation by establishing certain moral (internal) and physical (external) ordering consonant with man's power of moral choice. Determining all things necessarily eliminates man being made in God's image (God is not a determined being.)" Hence Calvinism defrauds people of being image-bearers. We think that people possess one viable option for a biblical theodicy, having dismissed the other options of a Greater-Good theodicy, Molinism, and Open Theism, and that theodicy is a Creation-Order model. Bruce A. Little, A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2005), 162.

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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.