We have concluded our review of biblical data discussing Calvinism and Arminianism, as well as internal and external conceptual problems that arise for Calvinism. This seems to tip the scales in favor of the Arminian understanding. But Calvinists argue there are three internal conceptual problems for Arminianism that are sufficient to disqualify this view. In this case, the Calvinist understanding of predestination and free will is vindicated. I’ll discuss the first of these in this post.
Calvinism Has a Higher View of God’s Sovereignty
The Calvinist Argument
Scripture is clear that God is sovereign. This includes him creating and sustaining creation (Heb. 1:3, Col. 1:17). His sovereignty also includes control over even the most minute aspects of the world around us (Rom. 8;28, Mat. 10:29-31, Job 42:2).
The assumption of the biblical text is that God is “maximally sovereign”—as sovereign as possible, having control over the greatest possible number of things. Otherwise, he would not be God. This framing is similar to the ontological argument that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being. Whether or not you buy the ontological argument for God’s existence, it still follows that once God’s existence is granted, he is to be understood as maximally perfect, which would include maximally sovereign.
It is argued that the Calvinist understanding of God is maximally sovereign, for he has control over everything, including people’s choices. Yet on the Arminian view God is not maximally sovereign, for he has control over less. He does not control (or determine) people’s choices–at least their most important decision whether or not to follow Christ. Therefore, the Calvinist God is more sovereign than the Arminian God. Since the Scriptures clearly teaches God is maximally sovereign, this is an intractable internal conceptual problem for Arminianism.
The Arminian Response
1. It Depends on What You Mean by “Sovereign”
Two responses may be offered by the Arminian. First, it is very important to clarify what the proper definition of “sovereignty” is. Often this is understood to mean God is able to do anything. However, on further reflection we see this is not the correct definition.
Scripture tells us God cannot do a number of things. He cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). He cannot sin in any other way (James 1:13). And he cannot cease to exist (Psalm 90:2). So God’s sovereignty cannot mean God is able to do anything. (I say more about this in my conversation on the problem of evil here).
Rather, what is implied in the notion of divine sovereignty is that God has the ability to do anything possible. It is possible for him to create the universe. And he did so. It is possible for him to part the Red Sea. And he did so. It is possible for him to die and atone for the sins of the world. And he did so.
So the correct definition of divine sovereignty is not that God can do anything. Rather, the correct definition is that God can do anything that can possibly be done. If it is possible, it is doable by God. Yet if it is impossible, it is not doable, even by God (or else it would be possible, and thus doable).
This definition of sovereignty doesn’t diminish God’s maximal sovereignty in any way. He reigns supreme over all things, and everything that is possible to control is within his control. The fact that he does not have the ability to control his existence (as a necessary being) or control whether he sins (as a Holy being) is not a limitation. If these were possible, he would have control over them as well. Thus he remains maximally sovereign. (In fact, it can be argued that God is an even greater being due to the fact that he cannot sin or cease to exist, for these are maximal moral and ontological perfections.)
In God’s sovereignty he had the ability to choose to create us, or refrain from creating us. He chose to create us. Furthermore, he chose to create us not as robots, but persons with libertarian free will. Though fallen, we retain this ability. I gave reasons to think this is the case in Post 8 of this series.
Yet by God choosing to create us with libertarian free will, it is impossible for him to then determine the choices we will make. The very nature of our freedom is that we will have this ability. If God created us with the ability to choose between two live options, he cannot then make us choose one of them. This is the very nature of free will.
Yet this does not limit God’s sovereignty. If it were possible for God to determine what free agents choose, he could do so. But this is not possible, for it would be God determining the choices made by creatures whose choices cannot be determined.
So in the same way God cannot sin or cease to exist, God cannot determine the choices of a free agent. Yet none of these facts are limitations, for they are not they are not things that can possibly be done. So on the Arminian view God is also maximally sovereign.
2. God is Perhaps More Sovereign on the Arminian View
Furthermore, suppose God were able to determine our choices, as Calvinism purports. If this were the case, it seems God would be less sovereign, for he would be accomplishing his purposes by coercion alone (determining what others choose).
On the other hand, if God were able to accomplish his purposes without resorting to coercion, but rather by influence, he would seem to be a greater being. He would seem to have even more sovereignty.
Consider an analogy. I desire my son to make right choices. To achieve this objective I could impose great control over my son, due to my sovereignty over him as his father. I could never let him choose what to watch on TV by determining in advance which show he will watch. I could accompany him when he goes out with friends, and intervene to stop him if he is about to make a wrong choice. By doing so I would achieve my objective—a son who does the right thing in various situations.
However, suppose I give him my counsel, but ultimately allow him to choose what he will do in various situations. He makes some wrong choices along the way, but as he matures he is able to make more and more right choices. In this case I have also achieved my objective—a son who does the right thing in various situations.
Yet in the first scenario I accomplished my objection by coercion. Doing so is relatively simple, and doesn’t take a lot of finesse. I simply tell him what to do and he does it. So, though I have accomplished my objective, it is a rather hollow “victory.” My sovereignty seems somewhat shallow.
On the other hand, in the second scenario I was able to accomplish my objective without coercion. I achieved my goal of a son who makes right choices, even though he had the ability to choose otherwise. This is a robust “victory” as a parent. My sovereignty seems much greater, in that I can accomplish my objectives without resorting to coercion.
So it is with God. God’s desire is to redeem all things, including the severed relationship with the crown of his creation–human persons. The Arminian believes God can accomplish this objective without resorting to coercion. He does not need to determine, via unconditional election and irresistible grace, the choices people will make. Rather, the Arminian believes that God can accomplish his purpose by exercising his sovereignty in such a way that the greatest number of people freely respond to his invitation.
So it seems God’s sovereignty is not an internal conceptual problem for Arminianism, after all. In fact, it may be that God is understood to be more sovereign on the Arminian view.
Next week I’ll explore two other possible internal conceptual problems for Arminianism. Until then, grace and peace.