Arminian Perspectives on the Providence of God

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Arminius wrote, “Not only does the very nature of God and of things themselves, but likewise the Scriptures and experience do evidently show that Providence belongs to God. But Providence denotes some property of God, not a quality, or . . . a capability, or a habit; but it is an act which is not ad intra nor internal, but which is ad extra and external; and which is about an object . . . different from God, and that is not united to Him from all eternity in His understanding, but as separate and really existing.”1

This understanding of God’s providence is completely divorced from the Calvinistic concept of a God who foreordains every event which is ever to take place. For the Calvinist, typically, God cannot simply foreknow an event, He must have foreordained that event to take place; He must be the first or primary cause of every event, for nothing can happen outside of God’s realm or providential control. This, obviously, does not account for what is known as “soft-determinist” Calvinism; however, those Calvinists are just as committed to determinism as are hard-determinists (so I’ve been told by strict and formal Calvinists).

The implications of this perspective of God’s sovereignty are quite troubling. James taught, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1.13 NASB). God, therefore, cannot be the primary cause of evil events and at the same time escape responsibility for those events, either good or bad. And according to James, Jesus’ half brother, God cannot be the primary cause of evil, period.

Roger Olson comments:

      A leading Calvinist theologian, writer and radio speaker told an audience that though Arminians claim to believe in divine sovereignty, when their claim is examined carefully very little of God’s sovereignty remains. Calvinist pastor and theologian Edwin Palmer flatly says that “the Arminian denies the sovereignty of God.”

Arminians are more than slightly puzzled by these Calvinist claims about Arminian theology. Have they read Arminius on God’s providence? Have they read any classical Arminian literature on this subject, or are they simply using second-hand reports about Arminian theology?2

This latter notion caused Calvinist Richard A. Muller to comment:

    The theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors. The restrictive conception of Aminius’ theology as a counter to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, indeed, as an exegetical theology posed against a predestinarian metaphysic, has led to an interpretation of Arminius as a theologian of one doctrine somehow abstracted from his proper context in intellectual history.3

The battle for the sovereignty of God is not really a matter of semantics. The reason why Calvinists think that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty is because Arminians do not think that God must control all events in order to be sovereign. Again, Olson comments:

      Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty, they undoubtedly are working with an

a priori

      notion of sovereignty such that no concept but their own can possibly pass muster. If we begin by defining

sovereignty

      deterministically, the issue is already settled; in that case, Arminians do not believe in divine sovereignty. However, who is to say that

sovereignty

      necessarily includes absolute control or meticulous governance to the exclusion of real contingency and free will? Does

sovereignty

    entail these meanings in human life? Do sovereign rulers dictate every detail of their subjects’ lives, or do they oversee and govern in a more general way?”4

Arminius, when establishing the boundaries of God’s sovereignty wrote: “And it may be defined, The solicitous, everywhere powerful, and continued . . . inspection and oversight of God, according to which He exercises a general care over the whole world, and over each of the creatures and their actions and passions, in a manner that is befitting Himself and suitable for His creatures, for their benefit, especially for that of pious men, and for a declaration of the divine perfection.”5

Absent from this description is any hint that God meticulously governs every particular action and choice which a human being makes. And logically, if God did govern His creatures in such a manner, then truly He is a Puppet Master, and we are His puppets; and there is not a Calvinist anywhere who should complain when they are charged with believing such.

But we think the Calvinistic view of the sovereignty of God is entirely too restrictive, amiss from the clear teachings contained in the scriptures, and not what we experience daily as creatures created in the image of God. Since God cannot cause evil, and evil things occur, then the only option one is left with is the notion of libertarian free will (that God allows / permits the free will actions of His creatures without foreordaining deterministically what they will do).

Arminius sums up God’s foreordination and providence by stating,

      But since God does nothing, or permits it to be done in time, which He has not decreed from all eternity either to do or to permit; that decree therefore is placed before providence and its acts as an internal act is before one that is external.

The effect, or, rather, the consequence, which belongs to God Himself, is His prescience [foreknowledge]: And it is partly called natural and necessary, and partly free: Free, because it follows the act of the divine will, without which it would not be the object of it: Natural and Necessary, so far as, when this object is laid down by the act of the divine will, it cannot be unknown by the divine understanding.6

1 James Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations,” The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 366-367.

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 115.

3 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 269.

4 Olson, 116.

5 Arminius, 367.

6 Ibid., 368.