The Sovereignty, Providence, and Will of God

, posted by

The subject of the Will of God was a topic of interest for James Arminius. Many have wondered if he was a Molinist. Richard Muller acknowledges that Arminius read from Molina,1 but Arminius never claimed to be a Molinist.

However, Arminius left in his writings the notion that perhaps he was at least influenced by Molina’s pattern of thought on what God knows and what God has willed according to that knowledge. Muller noted

      The divine knowledge of possibility, since it is knowledge of what things can come into existence, is also a knowledge of the way in which all possibles could exist ideally or perfectly, without defect and a knowledge of impossibility as well. Arminius even argues an order in the divine knowledge of possibles. Thus God knows, first, ‘what things can exist by his own primary act.’

Second, in the logical order of knowing, God knows the possibilities resident in the secondary order of causality belonging to creatures. Whether a creature or order of creatures exists or will exist, God knows the capabilities of these creatures and what can occur in and through them by means of ‘his conservation, motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission . . .’

Third, ‘he knows what he can do concerning the acts of creatures, consistent with himself and these acts.’ This logic must also be applied to God’s knowledge of actual things. The argument could be cited directly from Aquinas.2

Arminius wrote, “The will of God is distinguished into that by which He absolutely wills to do anything or to prevent it; and into that by which He wills something to be done or omitted by his rational creatures: The former of these is called ‘the will of his good pleasure,’ or rather ‘of his pleasure;’ and the latter, ‘that [signi] of his open intimation.'”3

Thus Arminius was not quick to attribute, and rightly so, that all things which occur are due to the absolute will of God, for that would make God the author of evil. That is a conclusion which hyper-Calvinists and some forms of Calvinism cannot avoid. And due to their flawed perception of God’s sovereignty, they are bound to make that error.

Walls and Dongell writes,

      R. C. Sproul tells of a time he was teaching a seminary course on the theology of the Westminster Confession and began a class by quoting the opening lines of article 3 of the Confession. This passage . . . reads as follows: ‘God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.’ Sproul had announced the week before that he would lecture on predestination, and a number of visitors were there that evening, expecting a little controversy.

After reading the passage, he asked if anyone did not believe what it claimed. A number of hands went up, signaling dissent from Sproul’s Calvinism. Sproul then asked if there were any atheists in the room. When no hands were raised, Sproul reports that he said something ‘outrageous,’ namely, ‘Everyone who raised his hand to the first question should also have raised his hand to the second question.’ Not surprisingly, a number of groans rose from the audience.

The point Sproul wanted to drive home with this exchange was that belief in God’s sovereignty is not distinctive to Calvinism. To protest against sovereignty is not to deny merely Calvinism but to deny theism itself. As Sproul later put the point, ‘That God in some sense foreordains whatever comes to pass is a necessary result of his sovereignty.’4

All Christians would have to agrere with Sproul that “in some sense” God foreordains whatever comes to pass. But what sense that might be is another matter entirely. The Calvinists’ claim to God’s sovereignty seems to be a glaring contradiction to what is found in Scripture. If what Sproul and others admit is true, then God has foreordained (by a mere decree, not by foreknowing the outcome) that only some are going to be saved, yet claims at the same time that His desire is to see everyone saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2.4). This is not an antinomy, it is a blatant contradiction of terms.

Moreover, can we have a God who foreordains sin, while at the same time confessing His hatred of sin (Prov. 6.16; 8.13)? Once again, this is no mere antinomy, this is a blatant contradiction of terms.

Furthermore, God has taught mankind that He is incapable of tempting anyone to sin (James 1.13), so how can He foreordain a person’s sin (1 John 2.1)? These reasons are why a balanced view of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will are so important to maintain. Is God the first cause of all that happens? Or, can He also be the secondary cause of some events, allowing for free will actions?

Arminius concluded, “Whatever things God wills to do, He wills them (1) either from himself, not on account of any other cause placed beyond Him (whether that be without the consideration of any act perpetrated by the creature, or solely from the occasion of the act of the creature), (2) or on account of a preceding cause afforded by the creature.”5

Notice how well balanced and careful he is concerning God’s sovereignty and providence with man’s free actions. Arminius affords God’s sovereign right as Lord of all and also holds man accountable for his own actions, noting that man’s actions have consequences and that God may allow both his actions and consequences, weaving everything into a grand plan and will without causing such things to occur.

In this way, God is kept aloof from ordaining sin and causing evil, and man is held responsible before God for his choices, and can in no wise charge God with being the cause of his actions, coupled also with the consequences he may reap.

1 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 269.

2 Ibid., 147.

3 James Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations,” The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 344-345.

4Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 119-120.

5 Arminius, Works, 345.