Have You Missed the Point Regarding Arminianism?

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Dr. Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, in a post entitled “Why I’m a Calminian,” writes, “If either pure five-point Calvinism or its consistent repudiation in pure Arminianism were completely faithful to Scripture, it is doubtful that so many Bible-believing, godly evangelical Christians would have wound up on each side. The former wants to preserve the Scriptural emphasis on divine sovereignty; the latter, on human freedom and responsibility.” Dr. Blomberg wants to find some middle ground between the two, much like Majoritarian Baptists.

My initial reaction upon reading this piece, at least with regard to Arminianism, is, “Have so many people missed the point regarding Arminianism?” If so, perhaps they are closer to Arminianism than they initially thought. When folks, whether scholars or laypersons, define Arminian theology by human freedom and responsibility, I think that they misunderstand Arminianism — at least, the theology of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants (his followers). Let me explain.

Dr. Blomberg explains that Calvinism “wants to preserve the Scriptural emphasis on divine sovereignty.” (Is he suggesting that Calvinists neglect the doctrine of human freedom and responsibility?) But what of Arminianism? Are we to think that Arminian theology does not care to preserve the scriptural emphasis on divine sovereignty? Are we to think that Arminian theology cares only about — and is mostly defined by its emphasis upon — human freedom and responsibility? I think not, for two reasons: 1) Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Reformation Arminians hold tenaciously to the sovereignty of God, not as defined by Calvinists, but, we believe, as outlined and balanced from Scripture; and 2) we believe that a person cannot even sin without God’s concurrence! Let us flesh out these two statements.

What Arminianism and Wesleyan-Arminianism denies regarding the Calvinist’s view of the sovereignty of God is that He, from all eternity, decreed whatsoever He would bring to pass. The Westminster Confession of Faith exemplifies Calvinistic theology on the sovereignty of God in this manner, under point one: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”1 Note that the Westminster divines did not want to focus on God’s sovereignty to the neglect of human freedom or responsibility (“nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures”), even if Arminians think that an inconsistency is being maintained by insisting that God foreordains free will actions.

Nonetheless, in the above statement, even Arminians can eagerly affirm both assertions on God’s sovereignty and human free will, for nothing is explicitly stated as to how God brings all things to pass. However, if we keep reading, we quickly discover why Arminians cannot affirm the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty, under point two: “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.”2 Even this statement, however, is not far from Arminius:

But, because “known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18), and as God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do, this vocation [unto salvation] is likewise instituted and administered according to God’s eternal decree: So that what man soever is called in time was from all eternity predestinated to be called, and to be called in that state, time, place, mode, and with that efficacy, in and with which he was predestinated.3

What Arminius and Arminians deny is that God could not foresee all future contingencies, and then out of His counsel for the ages weave His foreordained plan for His glorious consummation. After all, the Westminster divines echo the thought of Arminius — and those in the Reformed tradition — when he states that God “knows all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible. . . . The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves. But this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will.”4

For God to foreknow a person’s free choice to sin against him- or herself, or against God, or commit an evil against another human being, and to allow such a choice to be carried out, we find to be the biblical model between God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will. (This “free will” is limited by God’s sovereignty, of course, and regarding spiritual matters, such as salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, “free will” cannot effect either, but must be granted by the proactive grace of God through the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit.)

Nevertheless, a person cannot even sin without God’s consent or concurrence, admits Arminius and Arminians. Since in God through Christ, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, we all live and move and have our being (Acts 17:25), and since God has sovereignly determined “allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26 ESV), no individual can accomplish any task, even sin, without God’s sustaining power and consent. God’s continual and ever-present sovereignty and providence is demonstrated and exercised as “a general care over the whole world, and over each of the creatures and their actions and passions, in a manner that is befitting Himself. . . .”5 God does not bring about the sin of His creatures; but when His creatures desire to sin, unless He should by His own wisdom, plan, and power intervene (cf. Gen. 20:6), God “presides over actions and passions; and of which the principal acts are motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission.”6

Some people are utterly shocked to find Arminius confessing that no one can commit a sin without God’s concurrence. Dr. Roger E. Olson admits that Arminius was “not willing to regard God as a [mere] spectator.”7 But this appears logical, even if we were without Scripture. For since He sustains every living thing, we can only conclude that a) God could end our life at any given moment, hence ending our choice to sin; b) God could rearrange circumstances so that any given sin or evil would not come about; and c) while we aim to sin, and actually do commit sin, God is still — in that moment of a sin act — sustaining our very being. What we want to avoid at all costs is to confess that God strictly decreed for someone to sin, either against him- or herself, or against God, or against another human being, and such as by necessity.

In other words, the individual had no other choice but to sin because God decreed for that person to sin. This we must deny, for it does injury to the integrity of God and to the witness of Scripture, we believe. Sin is decreed by God so far as He foreknew its occurrence. That is why we try our best to biblically hold the balance between the sovereignty of God in all things as well as human freedom and responsibility. We cannot attribute sin and evil to the decree of a God whose very nature is repulsed by sin (Ps. 97:10) — whose eyes are too pure to look upon sin (Hab. 1:13). Thus we maintain that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11 ESV), and that we are responsible for the choices we make because they are genuinely our choices and not those which God has chosen or predetermined for us.

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1 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III. Of God’s Eternal Decree, in the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, ed. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 2176.

2 Ibid.

3 James Arminius, “Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235.

4 Ibid., 2:341.

5 Ibid., 2:367.

6 Ibid. Arminius continues: “The power of God serves universally and at all times to execute these acts, with the exception of permission; specially and sometimes these acts are executed by the creatures themselves: Hence an act of providence is called either immediate or mediate. When it employs [the agency of] the creatures, then it permits them . . . to conduct their motions agreeably to their own nature, unless it be His pleasure to do any thing . . . out of the ordinary way.”

7 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 121. Olson continues that Arminius’s “only two exceptions to God’s providential control were . . . that God does not cause sin, and that human liberty (to commit sin freely) not be abridged.”