Dr. Grudem’s Erroneous Description of the Arminian View of Providence

, posted by Vincentian

In his otherwise excellent Systematic Theology, Dr. Wayne Grudem falls into some unsightly errors regarding Determinism and soteriology. He covers the doctrine of God’s Providence in chapter 16 (or chapter 8 in the abridged version). As he does so, he contrasts what he calls the Calvinist position with the Arminian position. What he calls the Arminian position is a doctrine of God’s permissive providence which has been the historic consensus of the Church through the ages. It is true Arminians hold this position (though Grudem wrongly describes it). “Deviant Calvinists” such as Libertarian Calvinists can hold it as well, and I would argue they would be wise to do so!

What Dr. Grudem calls the Calvinist position is a doctrine of universal, meticulous, unilateral divine scripting, or theistic Determinism. In this view, God is the scriptwriter of every event and every internal human urge, and that not based on the foreseen free choices of men — those “free choices” are only made because God already scripted for them to be made.

GRUDEM WRONGLY SUMMARIZES THE MYSTERIES OF DETERMINISM AND PERMISSIVE WILL

Grudem sums up his chapter on Providence by contrasting what he calls the Arminian view (Permissive Will) with the Calvinist view (Unilateral Scripting). He admits that both systems must leave some unanswered questions, and then explains what he thinks they are:

Arminians must leave unanswered questions regarding

[A] God’s knowledge of the future,

[B] why he would allow evil when it is against his will, and

[C] whether he will certainly triumph over evil.

Their failure to resolve these questions tends to diminish the greatness of God — his omniscience, his omnipotence, and the absolute reliability of his promises for the future. And these unanswered questions tend to exalt the greatness of man (his freedom to do what God does not want) and the power of evil (it comes and remains in the universe even though God does not want it). Moreover,

[D] by denying that God can make creatures who have real choices that are nevertheless caused by him, the Arminian position diminishes the wisdom and skill of God the Creator.

This is so amazingly false it boggles the imagination. Hundreds of books have been written from the perspective of the Arminian view of providence, on each of these subjects, nonetheless! I will briefly respond to each point:

To item C, this is complete misrepresentation. There is no Classical Arminian or Wesleyan Arminian in the world who would express doubt over whether God will certainly triumph over evil. For Grudem to suggest that this is the logical implication (much more to imply that Arminians would agree) is a terrible thing to write. If Grudem is going to write such nonsense, he might as well include that Calvinists have to admit they don’t know if God is any better than Satan, since God is the “primary cause” of sin — but of course this would be highly offensive to Calvinists and be forcefully rejected by them. With perhaps even greater forcefulness, Arminians must reject item C as completely false. God is the Creator who could destroy the universe and spiritual creatures with simply a thought. How could anyone doubt the Omnipotent and Good and Prescient God will win when He has promised He will? The historic Christian (and Arminian) philosophy of God’s foreknowledge and our view of God’s power and goodness leave no room for doubt as to whether He will certainly triumph over evil.

To item A, different Arminians have different perspectives on the nature of how God possesses His foreknowledge, and while they may be somewhat speculative, they do have satisfying answers. This is probably the most correct statement Grudem makes in this quote. Specifically how does God foreknow the future? We don’t know. Likewise, Specifically how did God create the universe? We don’t know. How did God “acquire” His knowledge of future free choices and His omnipotence? (this last question is nonsensical, of course — God did not “acquire” His omnipotence).

Our failure to understand these aspects of God are obvious because of God’s infinitude, and we should not be surprised that there is mystery in this area. There is no paradox, though, only mystery. Even for those who hold a modernistic fringe view such as open theism still believe that God foreknows enough about the future to provide security for the believer — if anything, many open theists[1] demand more from God’s wisdom and skill, but they do not doubt His competency, nor His exhaustive foreknowledge of and readiness for potentialities.

But in contrast to open theism’s view of the future being unknowable except as possibilities, various models of Arminian foreknowledge have been presented. Most people are familiar with CS Lewis’ model that God occupies a greater dimension from which He can survey the dimension of time in the same manner we would survey a parade route from overhead. In 200 AD, Tertullian offered the most succinct explanation of how it can be that God is able to foresee the future: “Because He is God.”  Frankly, this is an excellent answer for Christians. Tertullian does go on to provide a more robust defense of God’s simple foreknowledge in combination with His goodness and His power. In this treatise, he not only answers the problem of evil, but argues powerfully against the idea that God causes everything (including sin) to happen in a deterministic way, specifically rebutting the idea that God’s foreknowledge of events is omnicausitive.[2]

To item D, Arminians insist that man was made in the image of God, possessed of limited but genuine intellect, will, self-determination, and the ability to participate in the love of the triune God without their individual personhood being subsumed. These are amazing properties, and enable us in a limited way to understand and admire God, but more importantly, to be able to become “partakers of the divine nature” through God’s promises and through participation in Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:4, 1 John 3:2, etc). Grudem asserts that his theory of theistic determinism and human compatibilism glorifies God’s creative power more than God creating man with libertarian free will. I’m not convinced.

Regarding item B, this issue is addressed at the heart of the Arminian paradigm. To say that Arminians do not have an answer to “why [God] would allow evil when it is against his will” is to demonstrate that Grudem has absolutely no understanding of what the Arminian paradigm is. Arminian theodicy is built on Scripture’s explanation of why God has allowed evil and resistance to His will although He does not approve of it.

So then, why would God allow evil even when it is against his will according to a Permissive Will standpoint? How is it possible that human and demonic agents are solely responsible for the evil and sin in the world, while God nonetheless does retain sovereign control? While a more full answer must be sought in an extensive treatment, the concise answer is that it is because God does not need to use His sovereignty in a micromanaging manner, and has sovereignly chosen not to. He has freely chosen to give limited freedom[3] to human and spiritual agents.

GRUDEM’S OWN VIEW — A PHILOSOPHICAL DISASTER

After describing what he feels are the unanswered questions Arminians face, Dr. Grudem explains what he sees as his own unanswered questions:

 Since we are finite in our understanding, we inevitably will have some unanswered questions about every biblical doctrine. Yet on this issue the questions that Calvinists and Arminians must leave unanswered are quite different. On the one hand, Calvinists must say that they do not know the answer to the following questions:

  1. Exactly how God can ordain that we do evil willingly, and yet God not be blamed for evil.
  2. Exactly how God can cause us to choose something willingly.

To both, Calvinists would say that the answer is somehow to be found in an awareness of God’s infinite greatness, in the knowledge of the fact that he can do far more than we could ever think possible. So the effect of these unanswered questions is to increase our appreciation of the greatness of God.

I would actually say that problem #2 is not a problem at all for Dr. Grudem — he and other proponents of God’s unilateral scripting explain it with a compatibilist philosophy of creaturely willingness. In different circumstances, I would be willing to agree that God could make “compatibilist” creatures who observe their own thoughts and experience the internal feeling that they themselves are the willing originators of their actions, even while God has in fact scripted their every thought: In a world without evil, without spiritual war, and without damnation — and particularly a world without God’s clear revelation that He does not desire these things — there would be no compelling reason to reject this compatibilist hypothesis.

If such a perfect world were the case, we might not know the exact details of how He might do this, but it is not beyond our imagination. However, in a world of sin and evil, #2 combines with #1 to provide a sadly unChristian paradigm. In light of Matthew 23:37, one must ask the question, “What does it mean for God to unilaterally script us to do something willingly, which he does not actually want us to do on any level?” It is one thing to say God allows a world of Spiritual war and rebellion; it is quite another to say that He unilaterally scripted every act of “rebellion,” and then that He is filled with wrath against the abuse of a scripted so-called “freedom.”  It seems that in Grudem’s paradigm spiritual warfare is ultimately God fighting against Himself.

While Grudem is happy to assert that the unanswered question of #1, how God can ordain evil and not be blamed for it, will have the result that people will conclude that God is infinitely great, this is fanciful. The evidence is that it makes most Christians question how God could actually be truly opposed to evil, and therefore truly what He insists He is: Good, not willing that any should perish, pleading with sinners, stretching His arms out to save even those who ultimately rebuff His wooing. There are hundreds of millions of Christians who would argue that the Calvinist conception of God impiously paints Him as a moral monster. They may be wrong about the logical implications of Calvinism, but their existence defies Grudem’s idea that #1 has the effect of making people praise God’s greatness. Indeed, the early church fathers, General Baptists, Jacob Arminius, the Eastern Orthodox church, John Wesley, and innumerable others believe that the Determinist paradigm must lead to implications which are impious and even heretical. Indeed, because of this very problem, virtually all Christian determinists appeal to mystery regarding God’s goodness. This has the effect of setting up a system in which it seems like the logical result is that God is, in fact, a moral monster, and the Determinist’s response is to shrug their shoulders and say. “Well, He is good, though. I don’t understand it, but He is.”

That God is not the author of evil (James 1), nor does He intend for people to commit evil actions (Jeremiah 19:5), and that He desires to save but some people are unwilling to come (Matthew 23:37) should provide scriptural pause for those who would embrace Dr. Grudem’s views. As any Christian who holds to the historical view of God’s permissive providence can tell you, Scripture is replete with truths that do not mesh with Determinism. If there is a better option — a more scriptural option — we should take it. I’m happy to advise the reader that there is an option which is the historical Christian view, which is fully supported by Scripture, and which isn’t a philosophical disaster like Determinism.

END NOTES

[1] By this I refer to those open theists who affirm that God knows every potentiality, and nothing takes Him by surprise, even though it may have been “against the odds.”

[2] See “Against Marcion,” Book II.

[3] Note that by freedom I mean true contingency and response-ability, that the will is not bound to only act in a mechanistic cause-and-effect way.