Ben Henshaw, “God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will”

, posted by Patron

The content of this post was authored by Ben Henshaw and is posted on his behalf.

Sometimes Calvinists will say that Arminians have a small God. I have been told by Calvinists that the Calvinist God is “bigger” and therefore superior to my “little” Arminian God. Usually this claim is framed within the context of whether or not God can truly “save” anyone in an Arminian framework. Since the Arminian believes that God requires the genuine response of faith on the part of His creatures, then He is apparently quite small compared to the Calvinist God who just overpowers His creatures with His grace and makes sure that they are saved, etc. etc…you get the point.

I find this to be a terrible misunderstanding of the Arminian position, but that is the subject for a future post. For now I want to ask the Calvinist which God is bigger in a different context. Is a God who can only control His universe through cause and effect bigger or smaller than a God who can allow for true contingency in His creatures and still accomplish His will? Picirilli makes the point effectively in Grace, Faith, Free Will:

      …Arminians believe that there is no threat to, or restriction of, God’s sovereign freedom, who runs everything (nothing omitted) as He pleases, by having another personal and free (although limited) being in the universe.

Arminians consider that this view magnifies God’s omniscience. In the Arminian conception of the universe, God foreknows true contingencies. Man really can choose either of two ways, and God really knows which he will choose.

Likewise, Arminians consider that this view magnifies God’s power, in at least two interrelated ways.

1. God was able to create a being who was not merely “determined,” but an actor who also “determines” things, a being who is free and in His own image. He of the only true sovereign will was able to endow man with a will that really has the power of decision and choice.

2. God is able to govern the truly free exercise of men’s wills in such a way that all goes according to His plan. A God who created a complex universe inhabited by beings pre-programmed to act out His will for them would be great. But one who can make men with wills of their own and set them free to act in ways He has not determined for them, and still govern the whole in perfect accord with His purpose is greater.” (page 43, italics his)

He then goes on to quote Arminius:

“If the divine Wisdom knows how to effect that which it has decreed, by employing causes according to their nature and motion- whether their nature and motion be contingent or free, the praise due to such wisdom is far greater than if it employ a power which no creature can possibly resist.” (ibid.)

Arminians hold that God is wise enough to accomplish His will despite filling this world with creatures who are capable of free choice. We cannot explain how exactly God does this but are careful not to put limits on God’s omniscience and infinite ability. F. Leroy Forlines comments on the text that seems to best demonstrate God accomplishing His will through human free agents. Calvinists understand this passage through the lenses of their compatibilist assumptions, but Forlines well shows how these passages can harmonize with the libertarian understanding of free will and the Arminian understanding of divine foreknowledge:

      It is important we realize that God did not foresee the future as a passive observer. He did not simply raise the curtain of time and look at a future that was already fixed before He looked. He planned the future. But when He planned the future with regard to human beings who were made in His image and thus were personal beings with a mind, heart, and will, He chose to work with them in accord with the influence and response model. He has a cause and effect relationship with the material universe, but such is not the case with human personality.

The cross of Christ was a predestined event. At the same time, numerous human beings were involved in one way or another in effecting this event. Since human beings with free will were involved, in the crucifixion event, we must understand the role of God’s foreknowledge in predestinated events…It is the kind of God that I have just attempted to describe [a God who was not a mere spectator] who foresaw the future from all eternity. As He foresaw the future, He saw it as it would progressively unfold from: (1) The result of His creative activity and His divine influence. (2) The result of the devastating influence of sin. (3) The result of the response that human beings would give as a result of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the ministry of the Word of God, and the ministry of the redeemed. (4) The result of all influences that would come from outside Himself. (5) The result of all influence that He would bring on people through His power and His infinite wisdom. He saw, then, everything that He sees and is doing now. He is the same God now that He was then. Everything that He is doing now is just as real as it would be if He had not known it in advance.

God’s omniscience and wisdom furnished Him with all the information and the ‘know how’ that was needed for Him to arrange the death and sufferings of Jesus Christ as the means of atonement for the sins of the world. With the aid of His infinite knowledge and wisdom, the determinate counsel was able to predetermine the crucifixion of Christ in eternity past. In this arrangement foreknowledge was aiding, but foreknowledge as foreknowledge did not bear a causal relationship to the plan for the crucifixion to occur. Without foreknowledge, the determinate counsel could not have prearranged and predetermined the plan. (The Quest For Truth, pg. 396)

I find this explanation far more satisfying then the “compatibilistic” approach of Calvinism. While there is mystery in how God can perfectly arrange an event like the crucifixion without violating the free will of His creatures, it is a true mystery on par with the Trinity, incarnation, and creation Ex Nihilo. It is not hard to accept given God’s unfathomable wisdom. Compatibilism, on the other hand, wants us to accept two completely contradictory assumptions under the umbrella of “mystery”. It tells us that God causes people to engage in sinful activity, and yet also tells us that God is not the author of sin. It tells us that the one who sins in accordance with God’s infallible decree is responsible for that sin while the God who ordained that sin is not. That is not a “mystery”. That is a flat contradiction and an abuse of normal human language.

It seems to me that when it comes to the scope and nature of God’s sovereignty, the Arminian God is far wiser than the God of Calvinism. A God who controls His universe like a puppet master is not that impressive to me. A God who can control His universe and accomplish His will without having to override or meticulously control the will of His creatures seems far more impressive and worthy of worship. I believe that Calvinism does not exalt God’s sovereignty but rather limits it by not properly incorporating God’s infinite wisdom into the equation. The Arminian view exalts God’s sovereignty within the balanced context of His omnipotence and omniscience. It also allows for divine mystery within its proper context and definition, without expecting us to accept disturbing contradictions.

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