The question “Why do Arminians hate the sovereignty of God?” was asked recently by a Calvinist named Avery who assumes as much about Arminians. But we could, in turn, ask: “Why do Calvinists presume that Arminians hate the sovereignty of God?” The question assumes that Arminians know absolutely that the Calvinist’s assumption regarding the sovereignty of God, which is contextualized within the framework of exhaustive, meticulous determinism, is the correct and biblical teaching, yet we knowingly reject and hate that position.
On the contrary, Arminians rejoice in the sovereignty of God, and are quite content to let God be God. Moreover, we think that we rightly define the sovereignty of God, thus properly representing God’s character and nature. Furthermore, we think that the Calvinistic notion of the sovereignty of God maligns God’s character and nature, tarnishes His integrity, questions His justice and motives and, hence, insults the love of God.
Additionally, a quick retort is given by John Moore, as featured on the Open Theistic site God is Open: “Why do Calvinists define ‘sovereignty’ wrongly [and] then make an idol of it and don’t think twice if they impugn and malign the character of God as long as they keep their idol intact?” (link) Indeed, Moore’s critique is compelling, as many of us have noticed the idolizing of God’s sovereignty among some of the Young, Restless, and “Reformed” — sovereignty that appears worshiped to the neglect of God Himself as a divine Person.
Sadly, Avery is not the only Calvinist that thinks Arminians disdain the sovereignty of God, though, admittedly, Calvinists conveniently afford themselves the privilege of defining God’s “sovereignty.” Dr. Roger Olson writes: “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.”1 He is, of course, right.
Some Calvinists, like Dr. Edwin Palmer, insist that Arminians overtly deny the sovereignty of God.2 Calvinists David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn quote J.I. Packer as summing up Arminius and the Remonstrants’ contention with their Calvinist counterparts thusly. Pay strict attention to his first alleged point:
The theology which it [the Remonstrance of 1610] contained (known to history as Arminianism) stemmed from two philosophical principles: first, that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom, nor therefore with human responsibility; second, that ability limits obligation.3
By proffering the sovereignty of God in a deterministic manner, Calvinists have hedged themselves in their own convenient niche, declaring all other believers as unorthodox, or heterodox — or, as J.I. Packer, O.R. Johnston, and R.C. Sproul state their true opinions, we are “un-Christian” or “anti-Christian,” or at best “barely saved.”4 When Calvinist scholars make such outlandish comments about their theological opponents, how else will young and impressionable students of the Bible view Arminian theology or, for that matter, any other theology that opposes Calvinism, except but to then adopt Calvinism, in spite of their initial uneasiness regarding some of its claims, and especially regarding the sovereignty of God?
Arminians have a high view of God’s sovereignty, contrary to the caricatures spread of us to the contrary. As a matter of fact, we think Arminians hold to a higher view of God’s sovereignty than do Calvinists, as I was reminded from my Arminian brother, Johnathan Pritchett. The reason the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty is considered higher than that of Calvinism is due to the following. For an omnipotent God, strictly controlling all people is easy and effortless. Like moving chess pieces on a chessboard, the movements are swift and carefree. The pieces move wherever the overseer places them without the slightest challenge whatsoever.
But when considering the individuality of each created being, coupled with their complexities and, at times, irrationality, to say nothing of their will, God is still able to work “all things according to his counsel and will” (Eph. 1:11), and to do so without controlling and manipulating His creatures (because human beings are not chess pieces or objects). You can make an object obey you by controlling it. But wooing a human being to love and obey you is another matter entirely — one which requires honesty, vulnerability, and relationship.
Arminius believes that God governs all things which can be governed in His universe, which is to say that nothing is excluded. To admit that God is sovereign is to confess that He is the Ruler of the universe: He who is “the blessed and only Sovereign [dynastēs], the King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (1 Tim. 6:15 NRSV). Dynastēs refers to a ruler or officer of great authority, mighty (cf. Luke 1:49);5 a potentate. The word is derived from the noun dunamai, referring to ability, capability and power. That God is capable of controlling and manipulating all things imaginable is not tantamount to Him actually controlling and manipulating all things imaginable. Therefore the notion of sovereignty is not synonymous with determinism.
Catch, however, the connotations not attached to the word “sovereign”: controller of every minutiae of one’s existence; determiner of (and one who has strictly decreed) all things, including sin and evil; one who decrees and wills all things which shall come about by necessity. In other words, the word “sovereign” does not give way to the notion of God (or any ruler for that matter) exhaustively or meticulously determining by necessity every detail of one’s life, including what choices the individual will make and when such shall be made. Nor does the word “sovereign” give place to the theory that sin and evil are necessary. Therefore, Calvinism’s view of God’s deterministic sovereignty is a serious error.
These notions are what Calvinism have cast upon God’s nature, and they affect how we perceive His character. This is one among many reasons why Calvinism should be rejected by orthodox Christians. These deterministic notions were never part of orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of Church history, and they have no place in theology today. Even St Augustine — the anachronistic founder of what would come to be called Calvinism — in his early years opposed strict determinism. We do not find determinism introduced in the Church until Augustine’s over-reaction to Pelagius in the early fifth century.
Arminius believes that God is sovereign over all things, including sin and evil. Roger Olson comments:
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.6
Concerning the doctrine of election, Arminius affirms that God “does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,”7 again, affirming that no act, even salvation, is left to chance, but all things without exception are governed by the sovereignty of God. But what he and all orthodox Christians must deny, that is, if they are to maintain a high view of Scripture as well as of God’s sovereignty, is that God decreed sin and evil as though He needed evil in order to accomplish His plan for history. If sin and evil are necessary (and thus God wills all sin and evil), and they are such for the glory of God, then I fail to see how sin and evil will be unnecessary in the eschaton (in God’s future kingdom).
As a matter of fact, if sin and evil are necessary, and they are absolutely necessary for the glory of God, for “Christ’s glory to shine brighter,” as John Piper is infamous for teaching,8 then should we not pray for more sin and evil? We want Christ Jesus to shine as brightly as possible! May we, then, according to this logic, never pray against injustice and evil, but give way for its presence so that the glory of God can be put on display to the utmost! Such theology is unworthy of the God of the Bible, who detests sin and evil (Ps. 26:5; cf. Ps. 97:10 119:104, 128), and who sent His Son into the world to deliver humans from and to destroy the works of the enemy (1 John 3:8), not to make His glory shine brighter through evil.
God Himself admits that He absolutely hates “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov. 6:16-19 NASB). Are we to imagine, then, that God foreordained or by necessity decreed or brings to pass these things which He hates and considers abominable? According to Calvin and classical Calvinism the answer is yes. According to Scripture and thus according to classical Arminianism the answer must be no. Neither Scripture nor Arminian theology is willing to portray God as the One who decrees by necessity sin and evil. This truth, however, does not negate the sovereignty of God but rather frames it in its biblical context.
In other words, God’s sovereignty, when biblically, rightly defined and understood, negates the theory of determinism while supporting the truth of His governance, rulership and authority. We should stand in awe of God, who is able to work all things according to the counsel of His will, while maintaining both respect and allowance for human freedom, limited and governed as that freedom may be. Arminians, however, love God in toto and not merely His sovereignty.
The conception of God meticulously controlling all things which people choose and say and do is a very low and demeaning view of His holy and just character. Arminianism presents what we believe to be the biblical view of God’s sovereignty, which is rightly absent of any notion of strict determinism. This is due, simply, to the fact that the word “sovereign” does not lend itself to any conception of determinism. We do not hate God’s sovereignty: we hate how Calvinism’s distorted views of sovereignty demean the integrity, justice, love and holiness of God.
1 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 116.
2 Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 85.
3 David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2004), 3.
4 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 24.
5 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition, ed. Verlyn D. Verbrugge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 154.
6 Olson, 121.
7 James Arminius, “Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235.
8 Taken from Bruce A. Little’s article, “Evil and God’s Sovereignty,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 291.