Arminius on the Sovereignty and Providence of God concerning the Problem of Evil

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Arminius comments:

    • We have already said that in sin the act, or the cessation from action, and ‘the transgression of the law’ come under consideration: But the Efficiency of God about evil concerns both the act itself and its viciousness, and it does this whether we have regard to the beginning of sin, to its progress, or to its end and consummation.

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What Arminius is trying to avoid is the constructing of his exegetical theology which is free from charging or making God the author of sin. What does it mean to make God the author of sin? First, let us define sin. The Larger Catechism states that sin is “any want [lack] of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.”2 This definition works as well as any other.

Second, let us define author. The writer to the Hebrews states that it was fitting of God the Father to perfect the author of the salvation of everyone through sufferings (Heb. 2:10). He also called Jesus “the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). The Greek word for author is archegos and “primarily signifies one who takes a lead in, or provides the first occasion of anything.”3 This definition no doubt led the translators of the TNIV to render those two passages in the following manner: “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered” (Heb. 2:10 TNIV); and, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2 TNIV).

An author or pioneer is one who

    • takes the lead in, or provides the first occasion of, anything. . . . In Heb. 2:10, the word suggests a combination of the meaning of leader with that of the source from whence a thing proceeds. . . . That Christ is the Prince of life signifies the life He had was not from another; the Prince or Author of life must be He who has life from Himself.

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The word father has also been used to express one as being the author, originator or founder, of a thing. For example, Jesus states that Satan was “a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44 TNIV). Satan is the author of lies. He is its founder and originator. And when people are found to be liars, they are exposed as belonging to their father, the devil (John 8:44a), who is the father or author of lies (John 8:44b).

This same conception of authorship is used of Jesus in the Old Testament. Isaiah notes that the Messiah would be the “Everlasting Father” (Isa. 9:6 TNIV). Jesus is not God the Father, and God the Father is not Jesus. This was a Hebrew expression, employed to indicate that the Messiah was to be the author, founder, or originator of eternal life. Jesus states that He has the authority and right to make a person a child of God, thus granting him or her with eternal life, by receiving Him ~ by believing in His name (John 1:12).

Archegos (author), however, does not always necessarily

    • combine the idea of the source or originating cause with that of leader. . . . In Heb. 12:2 where Christ is called the “Author and Perfecter of faith,” He is represented as the one who takes precedence in faith and is thus the perfect exemplar of it. . . . Christ in the days of His flesh trod undeviatingly the path of faith, and as the Perfecter has brought it to a perfect end in His own person. . . . Thus He is the leader of all others who tread that path.

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Hence Christ Jesus, according to Strong, in Hebrews 12:2, has pioneered the way for faith, and has perfected it in Himself. Christ has not authored, originated, or created faith in the one who is the possessor of it; He is the preeminent pioneer of faith.

Combining our definitions, then, an author of sin would be one who is either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature. This is the definition of author of sin which we will be working with in this post. Can God be said to be the author of sin? And if not, then why not? Also, does the Arminian have any valid reason for the deduction that Calvinism inherently makes God the author of sin? The mere insistence that one’s theology does not charge God as being the author of sin does not, by such insistence, make it so.

Article 14 of the Belgic Confession states that Adam “subjected himself willingly to sin and consequently to death and the curse, lending his ear to the word of the devil. For he transgressed the commandment of life, which he had received, and by his sin he separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his entire nature.”6 Arminius used this confession in his Declaration of Sentiments to argue that “man did not sin on account of any necessity imposed by a preceding decree of predestination.”7 What Arminius (and Arminians) wants to avoid, again, is the admission that God is one who is either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.

One clarification needs to be addressed at this juncture. Arminius did not deny (nor do Arminians) the doctrine of concurrence. Roger Olson notes:

    • Arminius was puzzled about the accusation that he held corrupt opinions respecting the providence of God, because he went out of his way to affirm it. He even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God’s cooperation! This is simply part of divine concurrence, and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator.

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By “God’s cooperation,” Arminius means that since God is the sustainer of all things, and since no one or no thing can do anything without God granting it, God is said in that sense to cooperate. But divine concurrence should not be conflated with divine causation. Again, Olson explains that Arminius’s

    • only two exceptions to God’s providential control were stated in his letter to Hippolytus A Collibus ~ that God does not cause sin, and that human liberty (to commit sin freely) not be abridged. In the same letter he offered the opinion that the accusation arose from his denial that Adam’s fall was made necessary by any decree of God. And yet he went so far as to argue that Adam sinned “infallibly” . . . even though not “necessarily.” In other words, according to Arminius, Adam’s fall came as no surprise or shock to God. God knew it was going to happen. But no necessity was imposed on Adam to sin. For Arminius the conventional Calvinist explanation that Adam fell because God withdrew his morally sustaining grace and power from Adam amounts to the claim that Adam sinned by necessity. This Arminius could not abide because it stains the character of God.

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Arminians believe that there are things done in the earth by sinful creatures that God has not strictly decreed to happen (meaning, by decree a person could not do otherwise, because God had fixed it so that the person in question could not do otherwise ~ not because God foresaw that said person would freely choose to do an action, but because God decreed that the person would choose to do an action). Arminians interpret Jesus’ instruction to pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) to mean that His perfect will (that which is done in heaven) is not always done on earth. While Calvinist Wayne Grudem theorizes about God’s “revealed will” (as opposed to His “secret will”) at Matthew 6:10, Arminians interpret the Lord’s words to reference God’s “perfect will” (as opposed to His “permissive will”). We are to pray for God’s perfect will to be done in the earth as it is being experienced by those in heaven.

Let us draw from an Old Testament circumstance for an example. The prophet Jeremiah records these words from the LORD: “They have built in the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire ~ something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 7:31 TNIV; cf. Jer. 19:5). The fact that these wicked people of Judah sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire testifies to God’s permissive will, for He Himself stated that not only did He not command them to do such a wicked thing, but the thought for them to commit such wickedness never entered His mind. The wicked act was not God’s perfect will for the Judeans, to say nothing of the sons and daughters; yet God permitted the wickedness.

Again, concurrence is not denied. What is denied here is exhaustive determinism, i.e. that God was the one who was either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature. The wicked act of burning one’s child in a sacrificial fire to a false god was actually forbidden in God’s law. Moses repeats God’s words: “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD” (Lev. 18:21 TNIV); and also, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire” (Deut. 18:10 TNIV). So we discover that not only had the command to sacrifice one’s child in the fire to Molek never entered God’s mind, but the wickedness was actually forbidden. Thus God could not have been the author of their wickedness, for the act was not originated, founded, or pioneered by Him in any respect whatsoever.

Moreover, neither was it God’s perfect will ipso facto that the Judeans commit such wickedness, for God Himself stated that it had not entered His mind for them to commit the sin. God states at Jeremiah 32:35 that such wickedness was not commanded, nor did it enter His mind “that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin” (TNIV). It is painfully obvious that God is distancing Himself from involvement in this wickedly horrible and sinful act. What or who made Judah sin? The wicked people who committed the horrible act made Judah sin, not Judah’s holy and just God.

Now, for Calvinists to suggest that God “influences the desires and decisions of people”10 inevitably leads one to the conclusion that God is the author of sin ~ the one who is either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature. Calvinist Wayne Grudem states: “If God does indeed cause, through his providential activity, everything that comes about in the world, then the question arises, ‘What is the relationship between God and evil in the world?’ Does God actually cause the evil actions that people do? If he does, then is God not responsible for sin?”11 One is left with the question, What does Grudem mean by cause evil actions? Grudem explains:

    • Moreover, our analysis of concurrence . . . in which both divine and human agents can cause the same event, should show us that both factors can be true at the same time. Even when Pharaoh hardens his own heart, that is not inconsistent with saying that God is causing Pharaoh to do this and thereby God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Finally, if someone would object that God is just intensifying the evil desires and choices that were already in Pharaoh’s heart, this kind of action could still ~ in theory at least ~ cover all the evil in the world today, since all people have evil desires still in their hearts and all people do in fact make evil choices.

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The majority of Calvinists (with very few exceptions) are not trying to convey that God forces people to sin. But one cannot restrain from asking how God can “influence the desires and decisions of people” without being in some sense responsible for the results that follow. If God did not influence the desires and decisions of people, then what would people do? and what would reality look like? and how much of God’s “influence” determines our reality?

For the Judeans, in the Jeremiah passage, was it not God who influenced their desire and decision to sacrifice their children in the fire to Molek? According to Calvinism’s definition of God’s sovereignty, He not merely influenced their desire and decision to commit that wickedness, He secretly willed it, for all things which happen have been foreordained by God’s all-determining, secret decree. And yet God confessed that even the hint of a thought to that effect had never entered His mind. Arminius understood that something was awry in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence concerning the problem of evil in the Calvinism of his day. Olson explains:

    • A distinction between two modes of God’s will is absolutely crucial to Arminius and his followers: the antecedent and the consequent wills of God. The first has priority; the second exists because God reluctantly allows human defection in order to preserve and protect the integrity of the creature. In his antecedent will “God judged that it was the province of His most omnipotent goodness rather to produce good from evils, than not to allow evils to be.” This will of God precedes sin itself; it precedes the Fall and is the reason the Fall could happen. In his consequent will God cooperates with the sinner in sin after and as a consequence of the sinner’s free decision to sin (with God’s permission). Sin then is not within God’s will in the same way; it is only within the will of God antecedently insofar as God determines to permit sin within his creation. Sin is only within God’s will consequently insofar as it is necessary to preserve liberty and bring about some greater good. . . . Thus, even though God does not approve of sin, sin does not thwart the will of God. God antecedently wills to permit sin and consequently wills to allow unrepentant sinners to be condemned.

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What Calvinists need to understand foremost is that Arminius was not trying to explain away God’s sovereignty, but interpret it rightly (as are Arminians). The restrictive definition offered by Calvinists, i.e. absolute and meticulous sovereignty whereby God influences or controls the desires and decisions of all people, cannot be affirmed without forging a view of God that is morally ambiguous at best, or the author of sin at worst. Moreover, we find no reason why the Calvinist should hold to the narrow definition of God’s sovereignty, since in granting one permission to do something, even if against the wishes of the one who grants it, his decision demonstrates that he is sovereign; for without his permission, nothing could be accomplished.

1 James Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation IX. On the Righteousness and Efficacy of the Providence of God Concerning Evil,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:164.

2 The Larger Catechism, in The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, ed. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 2192.

3 James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 991.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, 2157.

7 F. Stuart Clarke, The Ground of Election: Jacobus Arminius’ Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006), 73.

8 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

9 Ibid., 121-22.

10 Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 146.

11 Ibid., 147.

12 Ibid.

13 Olson, 123.