In their book Why I am not an Arminian, Peterson and Williams writes, “That God sovereignly superintends and controls all things and that human beings are responsible for their choices and actions is repeatedly taught and demonstrated throughout the biblical record. God is sovereignly active in every moment.
“Yet that sovereign agency does not annul or limit human responsibility. Conversely, human agency is affirmed. We are not automatons. Human actions are not coerced or programmed at every moment by mysterious forces such that we wact contrary to our natures and desires. Yet this human freedom does not negate or limit God’s agency” (emphases mine).1
This compatibilist Calvinism is much easier to swallow by some than is a hard determinist Calvinism (which flirts with hyper-Calvinism, in my opinion). Peterson and Williams, however, begin their chapter, entitled “Freedom,” with the following statement. “The doctrine of divine sovereignty has always posed a problem for Arminianism. It is not too much to say that historically Arminian theology has tended to pit human freedom against divine sovereignty as if the two are mutually limiting or even mutually exclusive.”2
I believe that their error is due not from the Arminian perspective on God’s sovereignty, per se, as much as because the Arminian perspective does not tolerate a hard determinist, or even a compatibilist (soft determinist), view of God’s sovereignty, wherein God controls all things. We believe that God governs all things, but not in a controlling manner.
Peterson and Williams give two choices for the Arminian. Either God is sovereign (in the Calvinistic sense), or He cannot foreordain particular future events. They write, “If God sovereignly controls or ordains history or human destinies, then historical events and human responses to the gospel conform to an external necessity that annuls true human freedom. In short, human free will is incompatible with divine foreordination of any historical particular.”3
Even though they claim to be compatibilists (soft determinists), they still hold that “God sovereignly controls” all things, by their own admission. Though they want to hold that human actions “are not coerced or programmed at every moment” (p. 137), they also want to affirm that “human responses to the gospel” are sovereignly controlled by God. In short, they want their cake, and eat it too.
Moreover, I believe they misrepresent what the Arminian means by free will. I have noted ad nauseum Arminius’ treatment on human freedom. “The Free Will of Man towards the True Good,” wrote Arminius, “is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except as are excited by Divine grace.”4
Thus in order for any person to be saved, God must free that individual from his or her bondage to sin in order for that one to freely receive or reject the offer of the gospel, by faith in Christ Jesus.
If we hold to Peterson’s and Williams’ compatibilist view of human freedom, by putting a spin on their meaning of freedom, then the choice to receive or reject Christ Jesus is neither “coerced or programmed at every moment by mysterious forces such that we act contrary to our natures and desires.” (p. 137) Thus the human agent, if he or she so desires, may either receive or reject Christ Jesus, when given the freedom by God to do so. Though I fully understand that they would never consistently hold to that view when considering the matter of salvation.
So, do human beings have free will or not? Yes, human agents have free will. Is this free will total freedom of the will? No, of course it is not a total freedom, and that is not what is meant by the term. We all agree that even God Himself is not a totally free agent, for He is not free to act contrary to His nature (thus He cannot be unholy, or act contrary to any one of His attributes, which would make Him less than God).
What we must avoid (if we want to be biblical) is holding to any notion that God causes evil. Paul Copan has an ample blogpost concerning R. C. Sproul, Jr., who affirms that God actually is the cause of evil. After all, if nothing can come about other than that which God has sovereignly foreordained, in Sproul’s logic, then how could God not be the cause of all that happens?
So then, God hates sin and evil, but foreordains/causes it. Is He not, then, breaking His own commandments? Has He not, then, set up a standard by which He Himself is unwilling (no pun intended) to keep? Furthermore, is He not, then, a sinner? (God forbid!)
But such is the length and breadth one is willing to go to in order to defend an absolutist view of God’s sovereignty. Nevermind that God “cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13 TNIV). All that matters is that nothing can come about without God’s causation! Well does the following verse apply to Christians who use such logic. “As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'” (Romans 2:24)
Calvinism, when presented by the likes of Sproul Jr. and James White, because they hold to an absolutist interpretation of God’s nature and character, insist that not only is there no such thing as true free will, and that God controls all things (after all, God “has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden,” Rom. 9:18), but that God also hates those whom He has not elected to save.5 May God have mercy.
To be continued . . .
1 Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I am not an Arminian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 137.
2 Ibid., 136.
4 James Arminius, The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 192.
5 James White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 215-216.