Sovereignty, not Determinism

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Arminians have a high view of God’s sovereignty, contrary to the caricatures and lies 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 recently from my Arminian brother Johnathan Pritchett. The reason our view is considered “higher” 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 irrationalities, to say nothing of their will, God is still able to work “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11 NASB), and 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 and relationship.

James 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 NASB). Dynastēs refers to a ruler or officer of great authority, mighty (cf. Luke 1:49)1; 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 is not tantamount to Him actually controlling and manipulating all things. 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 they shall be made. Nor does the word “sovereign” give place to the theory that sin and evil are necessary. Therefore, the Calvinist’s view of God’s (deterministic) sovereignty is a serious error.

By “necessary,” I mean that sin and evil must come to fruition because they are part of God’s decree, plan or will: He will bring them to pass either through primary or secondary means because He has decreed it so, as the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly states. 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 Augustine in his early years opposed strict determinism. We don’t 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.2

Concerning the doctrine of election, Arminius affirms that God “does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,”3 again, affirming that no act (even salvation) is left to chance, but all things without exception are governed by God. But what he and all orthodox Christians must deny — that is, if they carry a high view of Scripture and 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 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 such for the glory of God — for “Christ’s glory to shine brighter,” as John Piper is infamous for teaching4 — then should we not pray for more sin and evil? We want Christ Jesus to shine as bright 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).

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 NASB). Are we to imagine, then, that God foreordained or decreed or brings to pass these things which He hates and considers abominable? According to Calvin and Classical Calvinism, the answer is yes (link). According to Scripture, and thus according to Classical Arminianism, the answer must be no.

Neither Scripture nor Classical Arminian theology is willing to portray God as 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, 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 allowances for human freedom (limited and governed as our freedom may be).

The conception of God controlling all things which people choose and say and do is a very low and demeaning view of His holy and just character. But Classical Arminianism presents the biblical view of God’s sovereignty which is, accurately, absent of any notion of strict determinism. This is due, simply, to the fact that the word “sovereign” does not lend itself to the conception of determinism.

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1 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition, ed. Verlyn D. Verbrugge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 154.

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

3 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.

4 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.