Calvinism’s view of the sovereignty of God is its hermeneutical grid by which the rest of the Bible is interpreted. As Silva writes, “The God who controls the events of history is the God who interprets those events in Scripture . . .”1 He cites 1 Kings 12:15 as a proof text to support his thesis: “So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfill the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam.” Thus, for the Calvinist, everything that happens in the earth was meticulously predetermined by God’s causative, unchangeable will. And somehow, God is not responsible for all that he brings about.
We are forced to ask, Is the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty the proper starting place upon which to base one’s hermeneutical grid? An even better question follows: Is the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty correct? And if not, then that method by which Calvinists interpret the tenor of Scripture is erroneous.
The notion that God meticulously determines or brings about every event on earth is not entirely accurate. Silva quoted 1 Kings 12:15 as proof for his thesis that God “controls,” as he put it, the events of history. I prefer to say that God “governs” the events of history, the difference being God’s causation. For, like it or not, if God causes an event to happen, if he is responsible for bringing it about, then he alone is responsible for the result as well. If I caused a little girl to fall down a flight of stairs, she is not to be blamed for falling down those stairs. This is merely Cause and Effect 101.
Is there, however, any historical events mentioned in Scripture that did not go according to God’s desire? I can think of several. I bring up God’s “desire,” considering how many Calvinists allude to Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (TNIV, emphasis mine), conflating his desire with his causative will.
When Israel apostatized (an event in and of itself that was not God’s desire), God turned His back on her. He said, “Israel cries out to me, ‘Our God, we acknowledge you!’ But Israel has rejected what is good; an enemy will pursue him. They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval” (Hosea 8:2-4 TNIV, emphases mine). If God “controls the events of history,” the way that Silva and other Calvinists suggest, then how can God admit that Israel had set up kings without his consent? The Calvinist’s view of sovereignty does not line up with texts such as this one.
Moreover, God admitted that Israel had “rejected what is good.” But did this not also come from the determinative will of a sovereign God (sovereign in the sense that Calvinists use the term)? Could it be, however, that God permits a measure of freedom to be expressed by His creatures (which affirms libertarian free will)? We think that this is exactly what the Bible teaches in innumerable places.
Also, when Israel asked God for a king to lead them, was this God’s desire? No. God told Samuel, “Heed to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7 NKJV). True, God chose Saul as their king. But this is not what God desired, it did not please him. God does not always get what he wants. He, for example, in no wise wants his children to sin (1 John 2:1), but they do!
Lest we be accused of failing to distinguish between God’s desires and his decretive will (as most Calvinists do when proof-texting Psalm 115:3), let us acknowledge the following. Calvinists such as Silva note that God “controls the events of history.” I am suggesting that God governs the events of history. We need to be careful with our language. To “control” something is to have “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events” (Oxford). If God “controls” the direction of people’s behavior, then he is to blame for all of the evil which they commit. If he strictly controls “the course of events,” then how can anything happen which he neither desired, planned, nor willed? And yet we find events in the Bible that came about which God did not strictly “control,” or rather bring about (Hosea 8:2-4; 1 Samuel 8:7).
Moreover, Jesus taught his disciples to pray thus to God: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10 NKJV, emphasis mine). If God is “controlling” the events of history, in the manner with which Calvinists insist, then this prayer (and all prayer!) is quite gratuitous and pointless. If God’s will is automatically being done because God is “sovereign,” Calvinistically speaking, then the prayer must be interpreted to mean something entirely different from its prima facie reading.
I am certainly not denying that God is sovereign. He is, and Arminians relish the fact. Arminius writes,
- Through creation, dominion over all things which have been created by himself belongs to God. It is therefore primary, being dependent on no other dominion or on that of no other person: And it is on this account chief because there is none greater; and it is absolute because it is over the entire creature according to the whole, and according to all and each of its parts, and to all the relations which subsist between the Creator and the creature. . . .
But the dominion of God is the right of the Creator, and his power over the creatures; according to which he has them [proprias sibi] as his own property, and can command and use them, and do about them whatever the relation of creation, and the equity which rests upon it, permit.
For the right cannot extend further than is allowed by that cause from which the whole of it arises, and on which it is dependent: For this reason it is not agreeable to this right of God, either that he [addicat] delivers up his creature to another who may domineer over such creature at his arbitrary pleasure . . . or that he command an act to be done by the creature, for the performance of which he neither has nor can have sufficient and necessary powers; or that he employ the creature to introduce sin into the world, that he may, by punishing or by forgiving it [evadat gloriosus], promote his own glory; or, lastly, to do concerning the creature whatever he is able according to his absolute power to do concerning him, that is, eternally to punish or to afflict him, without [his having committed] sin.2
The argument between Calvinists and Arminians is not over God’s sovereignty but over the meaning and implications of God’s sovereignty. I am arguing that the Calvinist’s definition of God’s sovereignty is deficient, both biblically and philosophically. All things that happen among human beings do not find their origins in the desires, mind, and will of God. Take for example the Israelites sacrificing their children to the false god Molek. God said, they did this “though I never commanded ~ nor did it enter my mind ~ that they should do such a detestable thing” (Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32:35). But if God is “controlling” and bringing about the events of history, as many Calvinists insist, it must have entered his mind for them to do such a detestable thing, for he foreordained, predetermined them to do such a detestable act. After all, God is sovereign (Calvinistically speaking). If he did not foreordain it, how could it come about?
In this manner I find the Calvinist’s view of God’s sovereignty deficient. In an effort to defend the glory of God, they in fact libel him as an instigator of all kinds of evil, especially hard determinists and hyper-Calvinists (though it is difficult to divorce compatibilists, i.e. soft determinists, from these two groups, since they are just as committed to determinism).
When the Calvinist quotes Psalm 115:3, he or she appears to be treating human beings, who are created in the image of God and still retain that image, though it is tainted, to be less than human, mere objects which God can “dispose” of at his whim. This is, rightfully, utterly repugnant. Roger Olson discusses Arminius’s view of God’s sovereignty, stating,
- The Dutch theologian allowed no inherent limitation of God by creation but only by God’s own character, which is love and justice. “God can indeed do what He wills with His own; but He cannot will to do with His own what He cannot rightfully do, for His will is circumscribed within the bounds of justice.” In this Arminius was not arguing that God is limited by human justice; Arminius did not believe that God is beholden to human notions of justice. However, he did believe that God’s justice cannot be so foreign to the very best understandings of justice, especially as communicated in God’s Word, that it is emptied of meaning. Thus, although God has the right and the power to do whatever he wishes with any creature, God’s character as supreme love and justice makes certain acts of God inconceivable. Among them would be foreordaining sin and evil. This is Arminius’s only main concern; he agreed with the main outlines of the Augustinian doctrine of God’s providence as expressed in Luther and Calvin, but he had to reject divine determinism in meticulous providence insofar as it leads inevitably to God being the author of sin.
For the most part, most modern Arminians wholeheartedly agree with Arminius and the Remonstrants on the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty, so long as God is not attributed with foreordaining, predetermining evil (James 1:13). Moreover, we find Calvinism to be an erroneous systematic theology because its hermeneutical grid is based on a faulty view of God’s sovereignty. With a faulty hermeneutical grid, proper exegesis is impossible. Thus Calvinism is to be avoided by all Christians.
1 Moises Silva, “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 265-6.
2 James Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XXVII, On the Lordship or Dominion of God,” in The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 365.
3 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 119-120.