Have you ever gotten into a debate that made your head spin? In Christian thought there’s one topic that has caused a lot of dizziness: God’s sovereignty vs. human free will.
God’s sovereignty means that God has authority over all that he has made and he can do whatever he wants with what he has made. To be more specific, God is in control and his choice determines our destiny. Human freedom, on the other hand, means that we have the ability, graciously given to us by God, to accept or reject God’s will, so our choice determines our destiny. And therein lies the apparent conflict. (I’ve already written two blogs on the topic of God’s sovereignty: Is God Behind Evil? and Sovereignty and Responsibility but this one will be more of a brief historical overview.)
Calvin vs. Arminius
While Christian scholars have disagreed over the nature of God’s sovereignty and human freedom for almost two millennia, the debate increased in intensity about five hundred years ago with John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius.
John Calvin (1509-1564) not only wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible, he also incorporated his findings into a systematic theology: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s teaching emphasized God’s sovereignty and after his death the acronym TULIP was used to summarize his views: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. To put that into one sentence: Sin has killed us making us unable to do anything to save ourselves or even move toward God’s offer of salvation (T) so the elect are saved by four divine means which are applied only to them: God’s unconditional election (U), Christ’s death (L), God’s irresistible grace (I), and the power to persevere in the faith until the end (P). Needless to say, non-Calvinists believe that one or more of the TULIP’s petals are not connected to a biblical stem. For example, while Calvinists affirm that Christ died only for the elect and use Jesus’ statement as support, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11), non-Calvinists point to 1 John 2:2 which seems to contradict the idea of a limited atonement, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) who was originally trained in Calvin’s teaching, came to disagree with the emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Arminius believed the Scriptures gave a greater role to human free will than Calvin allowed. But Arminius held to a strong view of total depravity, meaning we are dead in our sins and unable to move toward salvation. In addition, Arminius espoused a high view of God’s grace, meaning our only hope for salvation is a gracious act of God. So if we are enemies of God and unable to move away from our opposition against God unless God intervenes, how does our ability to accept or reject the gospel fit into the picture?
Arminius found the solution in the doctrine of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is a grace that is given to everyone granting all the power to accept the gospel. And since everyone receives the same God-given ability to accept the gospel, those who believe are not especially favored by God in comparison with those who don’t believe. Believers simply cooperated with the God-given grace given to all. The doctrine of prevenient grace enabled Arminius to hold on to the biblical doctrines of total depravity, salvation by God’s grace, and the role of the human will in accepting or rejecting the gospel. Of course, Calvinists don’t believe prevenient grace—at least in this sense—is taught in Scripture.
Wesley vs. Whitefield
Skipping a century we come to the disagreement between John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770). The two prominent preachers went toe-to-toe with each other on the topic of God’s sovereignty and human free will. Wesley’s ardent Arminianism led him to preach a sermon in which he claimed Calvinism makes God worse than the devil. Whitefield, a staunch Calvinist, publicly disagreed with Wesley’s sermon in a letter. But in the end, their mutual respect for each other won out as Whitefield requested that Wesley preach at his funeral. Wesley acquiesced and eulogized his friend with admiration.
Calvinism and Arminianism Today
Two centuries later, the debate has not died down. Contemporary Calvinist scholars include J. I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and John Piper. Arminian scholars of note include I.H. Marshall, Roger Olson, and Ben Witherington. These are all Bible-believing, learned scholars and insightful writers, but they have come to different conclusions on the issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom.
Scriptural Support for Calvinism and Arminianism
Looking at the history of this debate and attempting to make sense of the biblical data makes me sure that I’m unsure. There’s strong scriptural support and philosophical weaknesses with both views and that’s why the debate has lasted for centuries. The reality is that certain Scriptures emphasize God’s sovereign grace, while other Scriptures highlight human freedom. For example, Jesus not only affirmed God’s sovereignty with the statement, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44), he also pinned the blame on the human will when he stated, “you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn. 5:40). And that’s why one famous New Testament scholar responded to the question, “Are you a Calvinist or Arminian?” with the question, “Which passage are you referring to?” (If you’re interested in getting into the biblical details of the debate listen to the lengthy exchange between James White (Calvinist) and Michael Brown (Arminian): Part 1 and Part 2).
Other Solutions: Molinism and Open Theism
There have been other attempts, besides Calvinism and Arminianism, to solve the perplexing relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Molinism, for example, uses God’s middle knowledge as the solution. God looked into the future and saw all that would and could happen and then with that knowledge actualized this particular world. In that way God remains sovereign over all that actually does happen, while for the most part, not directly interfering with human choice. William Lane Craig is a prominent proponent of Molinism.
Open Theism, on the other hand, redefines God’s omniscience by asserting that even God doesn’t know the majority of our future free decisions because they are unknowable. God’s foreknowledge is limited to what he will do and to future events that he has determined must take place such as the death of Christ. Greg Boyd espouses the Open Theistic view.
While I think there is more biblical support for either Calvinism or Arminianism compared with Molinism and Open Theism, my view on all four is basically the same: they deal with certain Scriptures extremely well, they deal poorly with other Scriptures, they add concepts that aren’t explicitly taught in Scripture, and they have logical weaknesses. The issue for everyone is how to put all the evidence together into one coherent framework and I don’t think that’s been done nor am I hopeful that it can be done.
The Mind of God
Essentially, the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism takes us into the mind of God in eternity past. How exactly did God make his decisions before the world began? Did God elect by looking ahead, seeing who would respond to the gospel, and then choosing to save them (Arminianism, Molinism)? Or did he elect those whom he sovereignly chose by his grace without considering future events such as how they would respond to the gospel (Calvinism)? Or does the eternal God not know how certain temporal events will turn out (Open Theism)? What do future events even look like to an eternal God? Can we, time-bound puny creatures, really figure out how the mind of God works? We have a hard enough time trying to understand each other’s minds.
Conclusion: Respect Each Other
I’m not trying to argue anyone out of holding to Calvinism or Arminianism or any other view on this topic. In some ways, I’m envious of those who have a settled view. My only goal was to show that this debate has a long and contentious history—a history of diligent Bible interpreters seeking to correlate a large amount of biblical data and coming to different conclusions. But the disagreement shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the topic takes us into the mind of the eternal God and that’s where we’re all left in the dust.
Finally, if you have a set view on this topic then hold to it with fervor, but be gracious enough to admit that your theological antagonist makes some good points. And remember the example of Wesley and Whitefield (at the end of their lives) and show respect to those with whom you disagree.