Calvinism on the Horns: The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge in Calvinism and Why You Should Be an Arminian

, posted by Ben Henshaw

Calvinists often lead the charge against Open Theism and traditional Arminians agree that Open Theism is Biblically problematic.  However, Calvinists often seem to hide the unfortunate implications of their own view of foreknowledge.

Open Calvinism?

Calvinism and Open Theism share some major philosophical assumptions.  One assumption is that God cannot foreknow contingencies (as in the future free will choices of His creatures).  Beginning with this assumption the Calvinist and Open Theist go about solving the problem two different ways.  The Open Theist, desiring to preserve the integrity of man’s free will, denies that God has foreknowledge of free will choices [1]. While God can foreknow events that He will cause or necessitate, God cannot foreknow contingencies.  Calvinism approaches the problem with the same fundamental assumption in believing that God cannot foreknow contingencies and therefore denies contingencies altogether in order to preserve God’s exhaustive foreknowledge.

Calvinists also agree with Open Theists that God can only have foreknowledge of that which He causes or necessitates while taking this one important step further in affirming that all things have thus been caused or necessitated by God in accordance with an eternal decree.  Arminians, on the other hand, affirm that God can indeed have foreknowledge of contingencies.  God is fully capable of having complete knowledge of every free choice that will ever be made without causing or necessitating those choices.  Arminians admit that they do not know how God can do such things, but see no logical problem with the assumption and no need to explain how God can do such things, just as Arminians see no need to explain how God can create the universe out of nothing.

Horn #1

Arminians believe that Calvinism’s position on foreknowledge creates a serious theological dilemma for Calvinists.  In agreeing with Open Theism that God cannot foreknow free will choices, Calvinism avoids the appeal to mystery with regards to explaining how God can foreknow the future, including all of the actions of His creatures.  Calvinists believe that their view provides a rather simple solution: God foreknows the future because His foreknowledge is based entirely on His eternal decree.  In this view, God decreed from eternity all that would ever take place.  God planned everything and then set that plan into motion.  The only way God can know what will happen in the future is by exhaustively planning the future in eternity [2]. God will infallibly bring to pass all that He has decreed, down to the tiniest detail.  Arminians believe that this view creates serious theological problems.  Let’s unpack this view a bit to get a clearer picture of the difficulties it presents.

Calvinists affirm that God’s decrees (His plans from eternity) encompass absolutely everything.  Nothing is excluded.  Everything was planned by God in eternity.  God can only foreknow something because He decreed it and will infallibly bring it about in time.  Since God’s plans for the future are exhaustive, His foreknowledge of the future is likewise exhaustive.  This creates a serious problem with regards to God’s relation to sin.

The Bible makes it clear that God hates sin and is separate from sin.  God’s holiness as revealed in Scripture affirms this in the strongest way possible.  It is primary to God’s character.  But if the Calvinist view is true, God can only foreknow sin because He decreed it and infallibly brought it about in time in such a way that it could not have been avoided.  Sin is therefore necessitated by divine decree, and not just sin in general, but every specific sin that would ever be committed.  Still further, every sinful desire, motive or intention has been decreed by God as well.  If this were not the case, God could not have foreknowledge of these sinful desires, motives and intentions.  This is why Arminians often charge Calvinists with making God the author of sin.  The implications are logically unavoidable.  Sin doesn’t originate in the person, but in the decree of God, long before there were any people around to sin.  This means that every sin has its origin in the mind of God.  God Himself thought up every sin and how each sin would be committed in such a way that the sinner could no more avoid committing that decreed sin than he or she could create a universe.

Calvinists take different approaches to dealing with this difficulty.  Often they will simply speak vaguely about God’s decreeing sin, but when pressed they must admit that the eternal decree allows for no such vagueness.  It is very specific and all encompassing, down to the last detail. Some say that while God may be responsible for decreeing the sin, the sinner is ultimately responsible because of his evil desire that produces the sin.  But this cannot solve the problem.  Again, the decree encompasses everything.  If it didn’t, God’s foreknowledge would be limited and Calvinism would quickly morph into a form of Open Theism (see Horn #2 below).

The exhaustive nature of the decree must mean that the decree includes the evil desires that produce the sin just as it includes the sinful act itself.  The decree includes the necessary cause and effect relationship between the sinful desire and the sin.  The decree includes the sinful intention.  The decree includes the thought process that led to the sin and every thought in that process.  The decree includes the “sinfulness” of the sin.  The decree even includes the nature and depravity of the sinner.  The decree encompassed the first sin of man as well as the rebellion of Satan.  Appeals to secondary causes are likewise futile as God decreed all so called “secondary causes” as well.  No secondary cause can cause anything outside of the decree of God.  In short, everything is according to plan and the source of the plan is God alone.  Therefore, God must be the originating source of every sinful thought, intention, motive, desire and act.

Horn #2

The first horn deals with the problem of Calvinist foreknowledge making the God of holiness the necessary and responsible author and originator of everything sinful in the universe.  There is no way out of this difficulty except to make illogical assertions like the claim that while God causes us to sin by way of His decree, He is somehow not the responsible author of sin.  The other serious problems that arise from the first horn are the difficulties of accountability, justice and judgment.  The Calvinist view cannot avoid the implication that God punishes His creatures for unavoidable sins and punishes them eternally in the most horrible way imaginable.  God decrees their every sinful thought and act in such a way that they cannot possibly resist those thoughts and acts and then punishes them eternally for thinking and acting in perfect conformity to the irresistible eternal decree of God.  Again, there is simply no way to avoid this problem except to make more illogical assertions.

Typically, Calvinists will just assert that the sinner is still responsible for his sins even though those sins could not have been avoided.  Some focus on the fact that the sinner sinned “freely” in accordance with his nature or desires, while apparently hoping that we will not press the uncomfortable issue of the sinner’s nature, desires, thoughts and intentions being likewise irresistibly decreed by God along with the very nature of the sin as sinful.  In other words, God punishes His creatures for being exactly what He created them to be and for acting exactly as He created them to act.

The only real solution is to deny that such things as sinful thoughts, intentions, motives and acts are encompassed in the divine decree.  This solution, for the Calvinist, avoids the first horn of making God the author of all sin and evil while falling on the second horn of limiting God’s foreknowledge.  If God did not decree such things, according to Calvinism, He cannot foreknow them either, and the Calvinist quickly becomes a partner with the Open Theist in denying God’s exhaustive foreknowledge.  So in Calvinism one must either fall on the first horn and accept that God is the author of sin in the strongest sense possible, or he must fall on the second horn and give up exhaustive foreknowledge.

Avoiding the Horns

Happily, there is an easy solution and that solution demands only one simple thing of the Calvinist: to give up his Calvinism and become an Arminian!  The Arminian holds that God does not need to decree a thing in order to foreknow it.  God foreknew all things from all eternity.  This means that there was never a “time” when God did not foreknow all things.  Therefore, God did not learn of the future since He always knew it fully.  However, God is able to foreknow things that are contingent.  God foreknows not only the future choice, but also the God given alternative power in the will that made the choice.

A person can choose either of two or more options with full power of choosing alternatively, and yet God foreknows what that free choice will be without in any way rendering that choice necessary by His foreknowledge.  God’s foreknowledge is not causative.  God foreknows the choice because we will choose.  We do not choose because God foreknows the choice.  The logical order is choice and then knowledge, while the chronological order is knowledge and then choice.  It is the difference between certainty (will be) and necessity (must be).  God foreknows our free choices as certain (they will be), but that foreknowledge does not render those choices necessary (they must be) [3].

In this view God permits and foreknows sin but in no way causes it.  God does not think up sins for us to do in an eternal decree.  We are the originators of our sin and rebellion, though God perfectly foreknows all of it.  God’s relationship to sin is one of permission and non-prevention only.  However, there are times when God will intervene to stop people from doing evil things.  God has the sovereign right to do such things when He sees fit in accordance with His wisdom (or in response to prayers, etc.).  God also has the sovereign right to allow people to think up sins and commit them, while in no way approving of those sins and certainly not decreeing those sins in such a way that people cannot avoid committing them.

In this view God judges in perfect justice.  God hates sin but allows for His creatures to choose for or against Him.  While God allows for sin and does not always intervene to prevent sin and evil in this world, there will come a day when God will judge the universe in perfect justice, holding every person accountable for their actions and putting an end to sin and evil once and for all.

Calvinism’s view cannot look to any such solution as the problem of evil is only compounded by a future judgment since God would be holding His creatures accountable for sins and actions that originated in the mind of God and were decreed by God from eternity in such a way that those sins and actions could not have been avoided by the creatures He judges.

In such a view, God judges His creatures for perfectly conforming to the decree of God in such a way that they could no more avoid all that they thought and did than they could make God cease to exist.  In essence, God would be punishing His creatures for being exactly what He created them to be and acting exactly as He irresistibly decreed for them to act.  Likewise, God would reward/bless many for doing just as God decreed for them to do with no difference at all between their acts and the acts of those condemned except for the fact that God decreed “good” acts for them rather than “condemnable” acts [4].

In such a scheme, there is no perceivable moral difference between the one who sins and the one who does right.  Neither has any control over their intentions, desires or actions [5].  Both acted in perfect conformity with an irresistible eternal decree.  Both acted in accordance with a “strongest motive force” that they had absolutely no control over and no power to resist [6].  The only difference between them is that God will bless or reward the one while condemning and punishing the other.  It is amazing to me that Calvinists seem increasingly comfortable with such a concept of God’s justice


The Calvinist accounting of foreknowledge is plagued with serious theological difficulties that lead to absurdities and which challenge the most basic Christian teachings concerning God’s character, holiness, justice and love.  In contrast, the only difficulty in the Arminian scheme is that of explaining God’s ability to foreknow free will choices without causing them (though it is not really hard to imagine such a thing, even if we cannot explain how the ability operates).  Arminians do not see this as a thing necessary to explain.  No theologian can explain how God can have knowledge of anything, let alone future contingencies [7].  No theologian can explain how God can create the universe out nothing.  No theologian can explain God’s eternal nature.  These are mysteries left in their proper places rather than affirming blatant contradictions under the umbrella of mystery [8].

The Arminian position has all the advantages of comporting with Scripture and experience while avoiding the grave theological implications of Calvinism.  It has the advantage of providing a satisfying theodicy which looks ahead to a future judgment that will forever solve the problem of evil rather than compounding it exponentially.  It accords with the language of Scripture with regards to commands and the obvious inherent Biblical assumption of an alternative power in the will in numerous passages where we are called on to make choices, make changes, make and hold commitments, practice self-control and self-denial, etc [9].  It allows us to accept the Biblical testimony that God desires for all to be saved and that Christ died for all without having to submit such passages to tortured interpretations.  Indeed, Arminianism even makes better sense of those passages, given their specific language and full contexts, which specifically address the issues of election and predestination [10].  Therefore, it seems to me that there is every reason to be an Arminian and no good reason to be a Calvinist [11].

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Related Articles: Big Trouble in Little Geneva: Good Series Exposing the Major Theological Problems Inherent in John Piper’s Calvinist Theodicy


[1] In the libertarian sense where our choices are not predetermined as in the Calvinist compatibilist accounting of free will.  I have argued previously that the language of choice is non-sensical in the absence of legitimate options as would be the case if every movement of our mind and “will” was predetermined, necessitated, and therefore completely outside of our control.  The libertarian accounting of free will affirms that when we make a choice we have full alternative power in the will for a contrary choice; otherwise it could not properly be called a “choice” at all.  Robert Picirilli puts this well when he writes, “A choice that can go but one way is not a choice…” (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 41)

[2] Free Will Baptist F. Leroy Forlines quotes several Calvinists on this point.  He writes,

“Foreordination, for most Calvinists, takes the mystery out of foreknowledge.  As Boettner explains:

‘The Arminian objection against foreordination bears with equal force against the foreknowledge of God.  What God foreknows must, in the very nature of the case, be as fixed and certain as what is ordained; and if one is inconsistent with the free agency of man, the other must be also.  Foreordination renders the events as certain, while foreknowledge presupposes they are certain.’

“He goes on to say:

‘The Arminian doctrine, in rejecting foreordination, rejects the theistic basis for foreknowledge.  Common sense tells us that no event can be foreknown unless by some means, either physical or mental, it has been predetermined.’

“Feinberg, in arguing for his position of ‘soft determinism,’ says, ‘if indeterminism is correct, I do not see how God can be said to foreknow the future.  If God actually knows what will (not just might) occur in the future, the future must be set and some sense of determinism applies.’  Crabtree also sees a problem of divine foreknowledge of free human events.  He explains, ‘No one, not even God, can know the outcome of an autonomous decision that has not been made, can he?  To assert the possibility of such knowledge is problematic.’” (The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions, pg. 310)

[3] See Picirilli’s book, Grace, Faith , Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Arminianism vs. Calvinism, pp. 36-44, 59-63.  See also his theological article which covers most of the same ground (see his published response to open theism here).  See also Thomas Ralston’s treatment of the issue.  Probably the strongest argument for the consistency between true libertarian freedom and exhaustive foreknowledge can be found in Daniel Whedon’s refutation of Jonathan Edwards in John D. Wagner’s edited reprint, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, pp. 227-235.  An unedited original version of Whedon’s work can be read online.  The same sections can be found there on pages 271-292.

[4] I put these terms in quotes here because it is hard to understand how our actions could rightly be called good or condemnable if they were thought up by God from eternity and decreed for us in such a way that we were entirely powerless to avoid them.  This would seem to empty such actions of any moral relevance.  They would simply be arbitrarily labeled based on how God chooses to react to the actions He thought up and decreed for His creatures (either in reward/blessing, or condemnation/punishment).  And in case anyone wants to divert attention to the intentions behind the actions, we need only remember that according to Calvinism God decreed those intentions in the exact same way.

[5] Feinberg’s description of compatiblism or “soft determinism”, as quoted by Forlines, is instructive on this issue and more fully reveals the serious moral problem inherent in the position,

‘Like many other determinists, I claim that there is room for a genuine sense of free human action, even though such action is causally determined.  This kind of freedom cannot be indeterministic [or free in the libertarian sense of the power of contrary choice in the will], of course.  Instead, determinists who hold to free will distinguish two kinds of causes which influence and determine actions.  On the one hand, there are constraining causes which force an agent to act against his will.  On the other hand there are nonconstraining causes.  These are sufficient to bring about an action, but they do not force a person to act against his will, desires, or wishes.  According to determinists such as myself, an action is free even if causally determined so long as the causes are nonconstraining.  This view is often referred to as soft determinism or compatibilism, for genuine free human action is seen as compatible with nonconstraining sufficient conditions which incline the will decisively in one way or another.’

“Later in this same treatment, in commenting on human responsibility, Feinberg explains,

‘People are morally responsible for their actions because they do them freely.  I agree that no one can be held morally accountable for actions that are not free.  But as has already been argued, compatibilism allows the agent to act freely.  The key is not whether someone’s acts are causally determined or not, but rather how they are determined.  If the acts are constrained, then they are not free and the agent is not morally responsible for them.’ (Quoted in The Quest for Truth, pp. 308, 309)

For our purposes, this will require some unpacking.  First, to Feinberg, people act freely as long as they are not forced to act “against their will.”  That is, if they are forced to act contrary to their own “desires, or wishes.”  An example of this might be someone being forced to do something they do not desire to do because they are at gun point (though even in this scenario a person could choose not to obey the gun man).  In such a case, Feinberg would say the person is not acting freely and is therefore not morally responsible for his actions.  However, if we act in accordance with our desires, that means that we act freely and are for that reason morally responsible.  Moral relevance is attached to “freely” acting in accordance with our desires.  But this explanation gets very strained when we realize that even in Feinberg’s view, God determines those desires which act irresistibly on the will.  In his view God irresistibly moves the will to “freely” act as it does (“freely” only in the sense that nothing hinders the will from acting just as God irresistibly controls it to act), but the will cannot help but to move just as it is moved. So it is difficult to see how Feinberg’s solution solves anything at all.

[6] See Thomas Ralston’s refutation of the Calvinist appeal to motives as necessarily and irresistibly controlling our decisions: Thomas Ralston on the Freedom of the Will Part 9

[7] Arminian F. Leroy Forlines quotes Calvinist James Oliver Buswell who sees no philosophical problem with not being able to explain how God could have foreknowledge of the future free will choices of His creatures,

“To the question then how God can know a free act in the future, I reply I do not know, but neither do I know how I can have knowledge by analysis, by inference, by reason or from causes, or from statistical data reported by intuition, or (if it is insisted upon) by innate ideas.  Knowledge is a mystery in any event, and God’s knowledge of free events in the future is only one more mystery, revealed in Scripture.  We have good and sufficient grounds to accept, and no valid ground to reject, what Scripture says of this subject.” (F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism, pg. 74. quoting Buswell’s A Systematic Theology of the Religion, Vol. 1, pg. 60

[8] Arminius rightly left the mystery of God’s foreknowledge in His nature as follows:  “God foreknows future things through the infinity of his essence, and through the pre-eminent perfection of his understanding and prescience, not as he willed or decreed that they should necessarily be done, though he would not foreknow them except as they were future, and they would not be future unless God had decreed either to perform or permit them.” (The Writings of James Arminius Vol. 2, pg. 480, as quoted in Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 40).

Likewise, Daniel Whedon makes it clear that the difficulty is not a matter of whether future free will choices can be reconciled with foreknowledge (as they certainly can be reconciled), but in understanding how God can foreknow future free will choices,

“Whether there is any foreknowledge or not, it is certain that there will be one particular course of future events and no other.  On the most absolute doctrine of freedom there will be, as we shall soon more fully illustrate, there is one train of choices freely put forth and no other.  If by the absolute perfection of God’s omniscience that one train of free events, put forth with full power otherwise, is embraced in his foreknowledge, it follows that God foreknows the free act, and that the foreknowledge and the freedom are compatible.  The difficulty does not indeed lie in the compatibility of the two.  The real difficulty (which we distinctly confess to leave forever insoluble) as may soon more clearly appear, is to conceive how God came by that foreknowledge.  But that is no greater difficulty than to conceive how God came by his omnipotence or self-existence.  It will be a wise theologian who will tells us how God came by his attributes.  It will require a deep thinker to tell how the universe or its immensity came about by its real or actual deity; or how the present self-existent came to be, and no other.” (The Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, pg. 229)

[9] See Glenn Shellrude’s excellent article on the incompatibility of Calvinist determinism with the language of Scripture.

[10] This is especially true with regards to the corporate election view which makes far better sense of passages like Romans 9-11 than the reformed individual unconditional election view.  See here for some great resources on the corporate view of election.

[11] For more on why you should be an Arminian, see this fantastic write-up on the F.A.C.T.S. of Salvation.