Do Arminians Pretend to Believe in the Sovereignty of God?

God is sovereign. Calvinists think that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God. James White, for example, responds to an Arminian on the Twitter account of the Society of Evangelical Arminians: "Please stop pretending to use the term 'sovereign' when what you mean is 'He chose to let man run the show.'" (link) The inherent problem with White's retort is that, in Arminianism, God still "runs the show" even if He permits free individuals to freely choose to make their own everyday decisions. (We are, of course, exempting the subject matter of trusting in Christ, since such requires the work of the Holy Spirit within the inner being, a work that is initially monergistic.)

An English definition of the word "sovereign" posits: "One that exercises supreme, permanent authority, especially in a nation or other governmental unit." (link) We refer to a King being sovereign over his dominion. Yet, what notion we do not proffer is that said King renders by necessity every minutiae of the thoughts, words and actions of his subjects. Not so in Calvinism. For the Calvinist, God has exhaustively and meticulously conscripted every thought, word and action of His subjects. Otherwise, God is not sovereign, but is subject to His own creatures. In Calvinism, God is not sovereign, but a divine Dictator. James White asks:
"Does the agent act because of causal factors which decisively incline the will [toward an act] or does he act without any factors decisively inclining the will?" In plain language, do men do what they do because God has decreed all things (including the actions of men) or do men act autonomously, and God simply has perfect knowledge of the results?1 (emphasis added)
Calvinists do not in any sense whatsoever deny that God has exhaustively decreed or rendered certain every event that occurs, including what we think, say, and do, but then they complain and writhe in agony when we insist that Calvinists present a God who is the Author of sin and evil. Of course God, in Calvinism, is the Author of sin and evil -- He has devised and manufactured in His divine mind from eternity past whatever is to occur throughout history, decreed and rendered certain the same, and even brings into reality the very same. God conscripted our thoughts, words, and actions and is, by the proper framework of the Calvinist, the grand Author of sin.

But notice how the Calvinist also controls the narrative: either God decrees and renders certain what human beings do or human beings act without any causal factors. This is a false dichotomy. The Arminian is not suggesting that people act without any causal factors, instrumental or otherwise, granting unto human beings some autonomous sovereignty. The notion is silly. Arminius' views on the sovereignty of God are, in fact, so strong in his own time that he has been confused as an overt determinist. Eef Dekker,2 for instance, posits that, due to Arminius' modal logic, he is himself an unwitting determinist.3 The majority of Arminian scholars disagree.

First, we must remember to view Arminius as a scholastic theologian, scholasticism being a medieval, Aristotelian tradition of understanding faith, the will, the intellect, God, theology, etc. Second, we must consider Arminius' context of modal logic, which, simply stated, references both necessary and possible realities.4 Arminius at times offers arguments that accord with his Reformed tradition such that appear too Reformed for the non-Reformed (the word Reformed here referring to the broad Reformed tradition, which is not synonymous with Calvinistic philosophical theology). For example, when Arminius insists that God does nothing in time which He has not decreed to do from all eternity,5 non-Reformed thinkers raise a furrowed brow and challenge him as to the degree God has decreed to act in history. Also, when Arminius insists that people do not even sin without the cooperation of God,6 those outside the broadly Reformed tradition challenge that notion, demanding an answer of God's involvement in our sin.

God in no sense whatsoever is pleased when we sin, nor does He agree with our decision to sin, but He permits us to sin when we decide to sin. Regardless, God "truly hates the sins of the regenerate and of the elect of God, and indeed so much the more as those who thus sin have received more benefits from God and a greater power of resisting sin."7 Arminius is emphatic that God is neither negligent nor passive in mundane affairs.8 He refuses to advocate the notion of God as entirely passive, with regard to sin and evil, yet argues that God does not render the same necessary.

Contrary to the opinions of Calvinists like White, the primary concern of the Arminian regarding the sovereignty of God is not about control, but character. White regretfully quotes Spurgeon on the matter: "There is no attribute of God more comforting to His children than the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty." We agree, as long as we frame the sovereignty of God void of strict determinism regarding sin and evil, since God despises sin and evil and seeks to redeem the same. We believe God is absent of a schizophrenic cognitive distortion rendering certain that someone sin and then holding that person accountable for the sin God decreed. The holy and just character of God is assassinated by Calvinism and Calvinists who promote the same. Spurgeon, quoted by White, continues to champion the cause of Calvinism:
Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe troubles, they believe that Sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children of God ought more earnestly to contend than the dominion of their Master over all creation -- the kingship of God over all the works of His own hands -- the throne of God, and His right to sit upon that throne.9
The implications here are, simply, a character assassination upon the holiness and justice of God. But James White adds insult to injury: "The Christian loves God as He reveals Himself. The non-Christian seeks to conform God to an image that is less threatening to him in his rebellion. It is a work of grace in the heart that allows a person to love God as God really is, not as we wish He would be. The Christian desires to love God truly."10 (emphases original) Notice a two-fold problem here: 1) according to White, God has explicitly revealed Himself as the Calvinist portrays Him, and all who disagree reveal their true nature (i.e., "the non-Christian seeks to conform God to an image that is less threatening to him in his rebellion"); 2) in typical deterministic fashion, White panders to the "God-opened-my-eyes-to-the-truths-of-Calvinism" Gnostic philosophical adage, which has more in common with pagan ideology than biblical theology. If Calvinism is all that great, all that God-glorifying and heresy-defying, then why does God not "open the eyes" of all His regenerate children?

In Calvinism, God is the very problem to the cause of sin and evil, though He shows up just in time to appear like the Hero. He decrees the suffering of all, including His children, and, as long as He has a purpose for doing so, He is viewed by the Calvinist as spotless, blameless, not culpable for what He brought to pass. So, when Melissa Huckaby sexually assaulted eight-year-old Sandra Canto, and then murdered her, dumping her lifeless body in a ditch, the God of Calvinism decreed that event, evidently had a good purpose for doing so, and actually brought Himself glory. Did Melissa Huckaby have a choice in the performance of that heinous act? According to Calvinists, obviously no, since God has decreed, renders certain, and brings into reality every event that should occur in the earth. John Piper openly admits as much.

For a Calvinist like John Piper, God gives people cancer and other methods of suffering (link), all for His glory. But for Piper, and other Calvinists, the matter is a bit more severe: If God had not decreed sin, evil, disease, and the like, then that would actually be very bad news. (link) In essence, then, John Piper and other Calvinists present this as a proper biblical-theological summary:
Good news, everyone! God has decreed, renders certain, and brings into reality that you get cancer, AIDS, tumors, strokes, blood clots, arthritis, suffer from sex abuse, physical abuse, bullying, satanic oppression, home invasion, theft, rape, murder, incest, abortion, drug addiction, mental illness, and the like! This is all for your good and His glory.
This is tantamount to calling good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20). This type of theology does not glorify God -- it assassinates the good, holy, and just character of God. Calvinism does not make God big and glorious: Calvinism undermines the justice and goodness of God. God hates sin and wickedness (Ps. 11:5), considers death an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), and the death of His beloved ones as costly (Ps. 116:15). "Let those who love the LORD hate evil." (Ps. 97:10) But how can we hate evil when the God of Calvinism decrees evil, renders evil necessary, and brings evil into reality through various agents? If God hated evil all that much then He would seek to eradicate evil, to redeem our evil, not to render evil certain. The Calvinist turns biblical theology regarding God on its head. Why must we constantly remind the Calvinist that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) -- not to render the works of the devil or of evil people necessary?

Is God sovereign over the affairs of His creatures -- over sickness, evil, and death? Of course God is sovereign over these matters! There can be no question whether God is sovereign over such issues. The real question, however, remains the following: to what degree is God involved in such matters? But this topic directly involves our views on the knowledge of God as well as the will of God and God's concurrence. The false dichotomy presented by James White above must be answered. After all, the historic Arminian position does not insist that God looked down through the corridors of time in order to see or to learn what would happen.


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), 60.

2 Eef Dekker, "Jacob Arminius and His Logic: Analysis of a Letter," in the Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1993): 119-42.

3 Thomas H. McCall, "Was Arminius an Unwitting Determinist? Another Look at Arminius's Modal Logic," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014), 24.

4 See Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991), 15-51.

5 Cf. The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235; 2:350; 2:368.

6 Ibid., 2:162-77. See also Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

7 Arminius, Works, 2:725.

8 Ibid., 2:163. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 94-106.

9 Quoted by White, The Potter's Freedom, 36-37.

10 Ibid., 37.


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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.