Arminian Theology Superior to Calvinism Regarding God's Decrees

Supralapsarian Calvinist Francis Gomarus (1563-1641) is, by far, Jacob Arminius' fiercest opponent. What is supralapsarianism (supra-lap-sarian-ism)? Supralapsarianism is a theory regarding God's decrees: 1) God, logically yet primarily, decreed to save and to reprobate (i.e., to unconditionally elect to save some people and to decree the rest -- by leaps and bounds the majority (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14) -- to an eternal hell); 2) God decreed to create human beings in order to obtain creatures to save and to reprobate; 3) God decreed for the fall of these human beings; 4) God decreed to provide redemption for the unconditionally elect; 5) God decreed to apply Christ's redemptive work to the unconditionally elect. (link) In such a theory, human beings are either created for heaven or created for hell, all for the alleged glory God. Their purpose for existing is to fulfill God's decree to save or to reprobate. Does John Calvin teach this heinous theory?

Most suggest that supralapsarianism is developed and expounded upon by John Calvin's successor Theodore Beza (1519-1605), who is mentor to Jacob Arminius (1559-1609), during his years at university. Not so. Calvin himself insists that all people are "not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death."1 (emphasis added) The language of creation in Calvin's theory places his theology in the context of supralapsarianism; i.e., that God has, from eternity past, decreed to unconditionally pre-select some unto faith and salvation, the rest (the majority, cf. Matt. 7:13, 14) unto eternal condemnation in torment, and then decreed to create human beings in order to fulfill that prior decree. Thus, for Calvin, human beings are created for one or other of these eternal ends. This is a horrid and deplorable philosophy. But this is Calvin's theology and Calvin's supralapsarian God.

I will make public my opinion that I am uncertain that the God of supralapsarianism is the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the God that Christians are to worship. Obviously I do not view supralapsarianism as in any sense imaginable deriving from the Bible: it is a philosophy desperate for a scriptural proof-text. But the philosophy is inept even in its own right. For God to first decree to unconditionally elect unto salvation and to reprobate is illogical -- even if granted a preferential place within a philosophical construct -- since God had not yet decreed any objects of the prior decree. Moreover, how could God express divine anger, His holiness having been offended, in decreeing an abstract reprobation, before He had even decreed to create objects of that anger? The system is painfully baseless. Furthermore, the supralapsarian God is obliged to also decree, render certain, and ultimately bring about the fall, in order to secure the eternal state of the reprobate. These qualifications lead to baffling yet uncontested and inevitable conclusions.

The supralapsarian God is angry, at the beginning of this decree, without a cause (cf. Matt. 5:22 KJV), since no mortal has yet sinned, being not yet created; He has imagined for Himself an abstract decree of saving and reprobating prior to a decree to create objects to save and reprobate; and He then forces Himself to decree and proactively render certain that all mortals fall into sin, rebelling against Him and His commands, so that He can assume some semblance of divine anger in order to justify reprobating human beings He created in His own image. Someone may respond: And there are people who believe this atrocious philosophy? Yes, Calvin himself, among many of his followers advocate this cruel, appalling, and diabolical philosophy. They even name it "biblical."

Lest one imagine that I am being uncharitable to Calvin, as so many of his servants complain when experiencing even the slightest challenge to his philosophy masquerading as biblical exegesis, Calvin insists that, by the notion of predestination, he means "the eternal decree of God by which He determined with Himself whatever He wished to happen with regard to every man."2 (emphasis added) With such a hermeneutic, one can easily enough understand how the Calvinist can interpret Psalm 115:3 to suggest that God, quite literally, does whatever He wants, and still remains just, holy, and righteous. God can Author sin and evil and still be considered blameless and just.

The two-year-old girl that is raped: God wished and decreed for that to happen. The adultery and divorce of that Christian couple: God wished and decreed for that to happen. The sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse of a conservative evangelical pastor toward one of God's sheep: God wished and decreed for that to happen. No amount of caveat or qualification can be afforded a philosophy like that of the Calvinist. If the Calvinist insists that God is deterministically sovereign, and that He has decreed whatever He wished to happen in the earth and among mortals, then there can be only one conclusion: God is the Author of sin and evil regardless of how strongly and how loudly the Calvinist protests. Instead of abandoning this deplorable philosophy, Calvinist converts will blithely turn a blind eye to these inescapable facts, continue listening to John Piper and Matt Chandler and Mark Dever and Al Mohler sermons and reading their commentaries and attending their conferences -- all with their theological heads in their own specialized sand, while they ignore and demean their theological opponents, further securing their own elect bubble.

Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor and Arminius' mentor, heartlessly remarks that "those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God." (link) One wonders exactly how robust Beza would find himself lauding "the greater glory of God" while he suffered in the flames of hell for eternity. But Beza makes such remarks, not in a vacuum, but due to his Calvinistic ideology: he insists that God, as He decreed to unconditionally elect to save some, so also did He decree to unconditionally reprobate the rest of humanity. (link) Arminius opposes such a devious notion: "How can eternal damnation be called an 'end,' when an end has some ratio of good implied in it? ... Unless perchance anyone will say that even this is a good thing for the creature, that he should serve God for the illustration of His wrath; contrary to the clear word of Christ, 'It had been good for that man if he had not been born.'"3 We are still dumbfounded as to why the supralapsarian God is angry. If He decrees, renders certain and brings into reality whatever He wishes and wills, then what occasions His anger? All are performing His wishes, decree, and plan for the ages.

Arminius and Arminians quite eagerly advance the truth that God's decrees will be carried out just as He has planned from eternity past (cf. Eph. 1:11): "For God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from eternity: for 'known unto Him are all His works from the beginning of the world.'" (Acts 15:18 KJV)4 He adds: "But by what argument it can be proved that creation is a means by which God executes that predestination," like the supralapsarian maintains, "which we are here discussing, I certainly do not see."5 (emphasis added) In other words, Arminius rejects the theory that God's decrees are imagined apart from the context of creation in the mind of God, so that God would have to decree to create in order to fulfill any previous decree in His mind.

ARMINIUS' DUTCH-REFORMED CHURCH DE OUDE KERK

He further argues that God "wisely ordains all His actions, wisely carries them through: He decreed to make rational creatures, and made them most wisely, to the glory of His wisdom, goodness, and power; which end He attained by creation itself."6 He then flatly denies, rejects, and challenges the solely-and-supremely philosophical supralapsarian position:
If anyone say that salvation and damnation are the ends wherefore rational creatures were made, I shall deny it, and shall with good reason require proof, since God's end cannot exist outside of Himself. But let a careful comparison be instituted between creation and salvation and damnation, and between the decree of creating, saving, and damning; and it will appear that just as creation is prior to salvation and damnation, so the decree of creating is prior to the decree of saving and damning. For there is the same order in the decrees as in the execution: nor can God will to save that which is considered as not yet made [as in supralapsarianism]. . . . But God cannot by His own power save that which is non-existent: neither is this a sign of impotency, but of the unvarying wisdom and will of God.7 (emphasis original)
Some modern-day supralapsarian Calvinists attempt to soften and modify the historical understanding of the decrees: God's first decree is still to unconditionally elect unto salvation, which is still nonsensical, given the fact that there exist no objects to unconditionally elect unto salvation; God's first decree is also to "the reprobation of the rest of sinful mankind in order to make known the riches of God's gracious mercy to the elect" (link), as if introducing the illumination of the reprobate to "the riches of God's gracious mercy to the [unconditionally] elect" in any viable sense whatsoever actually softens the blow that God created the reprobate for an eternal hell. But supralapsarians think that their idea is grounded in the words of St Paul: "What if God, desiring [or willing] to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of his wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory" (Rom. 9:22, 23 NRSV)? Are the supralapsarians, then, not right?

The Achilles's heel of this faulty interpretation is discovered in one Greek compound word in the text, προητοίμασεν, prepared beforehand. (Rom. 9:23) The "objects of wrath" were not προητοίμασεν for this eternal experience. Why? Because reprobation occurs throughout history and in conjunction with the free rejection of the offer of salvation which could have been received by the enabling grace of God. This answer betrays any notion of Calvinism, infralapsarian or supralapsarian, but must be received as biblical truth if we are to be faithful to the uncontested fact that no one is προητοίμασεν, prepared beforehand, for reprobation. (Rom. 9:22, 23)

For Arminius, and for Arminians and other non-Calvinists, the suggestion that God decreed whatsoever happens among mortals, including what sin they sin, how they sin, and when they sin, renders God the Author of sin and wickedness and oppression and injustice and evil. God's first decree regards creation, creating human beings in His image, and then decreeing whatever action(s) He will take, according to His justice and goodness, toward those image bearers. Arminius implies that "the way his opponents conceive predestination [unconditional election] means that God is responsible for sin. Time and again Arminius returns to this point, and it is foundational to his presuppositions in his [monumental work, Declaration of Sentiments, a devastating anti-supralapsarian and infralapsarian critical exposition]."8 Arminius concludes:
From these premises we deduce, as a further conclusion, that God really sins. Because (according to this [supralapsarian] doctrine), He moves [any person] to sin by an act that is unavoidable, and according to His own purpose and primary intention, without having received any previous inducement to such an act from any preceding sin or demerit in man. From the same [supralapsarian] position we might also infer that God is the only sinner. For man, who is impelled by an irresistible force to commit sin (that is, to perpetrate some deed that has been prohibited), cannot be said to sin himself [or from his own willing since it was God's irresistible will, decreed from eternity past, that the person should sin exactly as he or she commits sin].9
Is this summation of Calvinism unbearable? If so, then I invite you into a theologically rich tradition of biblical interpretation known as Arminianism, which, according to Molinist Dr. Ken Keathley, is merely the orthodox theology of the early church fathers.10 Ours is a tradition that reaches back, not merely to a Reformed theology stemming from the post-Reformation tradition, but to the theology handed down to the successors of the apostles of Jesus Christ. But prepare yourself to be challenged regarding long-held and cherished beliefs, to view the grace and mercy of God as far wider than you may have previously understood, and to join in the mission of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit in the holy life of the believer, redeemed by the blood of Christ through the grace of God, and granted the ability to live in the power of the Spirit daily in the journey of the disciple and loving follower of Jesus Christ.

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1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), III.21.5.

2 Ibid.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Examination of the Theses of Dr. Francis Gomarus Respecting Predestination," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 3:539.

4 Ibid., 3:540. Cf. Works, 2:235, 350, 368.

5 Ibid., 3:540.

6 Ibid., 3:540-41.

7 Ibid., 3:541.

8 W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 80-81.

9 Works, 1:630.

10 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

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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.