FORMERLY TITLED: “WHY CALVINISTS AND ARMINIANS BOTH CAN BELIEVE IN A SOVEREIGN GOD.”
This post was originally written to stand alone, but is now the first in a series titled “Calvinists And (Most) Arminians Agree On More Than You Think.” This series will discuss…well, just read the title 🙂 I refer to “(Most) Arminians” because there may be some who do not view God as being fully sovereign, and therefore do not agree with Calvinists about much, despite the fact that Arminian doctrine does allow for an equally powerful and sovereign God (which is the central point of Part I…).
The issue of God’s sovereignty is a big issue in the debate over Calvinism and Arminianism and everything in between. I am definitely NOT trying to settle that debate here. I am, however, going to try to make a point and clear up a bit of a misunderstanding so as to foster some degree of unity between both sides.
This common misunderstanding revolves around God’s sovereignty, and more specifically, how those who do not embrace the reformed view of election (predestination, irresistible grace, etc.). It is claimed that, if man exercises any degree of free will, if men have any say at all when it comes to belief, repentance, and so forth, if it is anything short of absolute, black and white predestination, then God is not sovereign. As one hypercalvinist blogger put it (and I do not use the term hypercalvinist loosely), Arminians believe that “God is helpless to do anything that is contrary to almighty man and his almighty free will,” (McCulley). He and others (though thankfully very few) take this even further, reasoning that all Arminians believe a false gospel and are as condemned as anyone else. I guess they use a different translation of the bible, where Romans 10:9 reads “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [and believe in the reformed take on how you came to believe], you will be saved” (NIV). Perhaps their version of 1 Corinthians 15:3b-4, where Paul repeats the “gospel” he had preached before, is reads that the “gospel” is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, [and also note that when God created you, He decided whether He would save you or not, and if you disagree you are condemned]…” But no matter.
Since most Calvinists are well-versed in scripture and can actually be reasoned with, this issue of sovereignty is important. Indeed, this ventures into what I call “scripturophilosophy,” as it goes beyond simply what scripture specifically says, and expands upon it. So some basic questions need to be addressed.
One key assumption that seems to be made, a false assumption at that, is that if we say God DOES NOT predestine people, then that means we are saying He CANNOT predestine them. Very commonly do I come across reformed theologians speaking of Arminian belief in that manner, describing Arminianism (and really any non-reformed position) as believing in a God who is not sovereign.
First of all, is God sovereign? Yes. He Himself rhetorically asks “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (NIV, Jeremiah 32:26). In context, He asks this before declaring His coming judgment, something He obviously plans to succeed in. All this is after Jeremiah declaring God’s inability to fail in verse 17. Nothing is too hard for God. We see many examples of people attempting to do evil and go against God, yet it always ends up serving Him. Just think of the cross, when the only truly innocent man was murdered, yet though an evil act, God was satisfied and we were saved. Same with the events of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-50. God Himself affirms what the prophets declare, and shows it in all He does. He certainly is sovereign. Nobody can defeat God. Even the Devil can only do as much evil as God permits (like in Job 1).
Does this, however, preclude the ability for man to have any sort of free will? That depends on what we mean by free will. If by that we mean that there is some part of man that God literally cannot control, that man has any sort of power that is truly his own, then no. God shows that He does have the power even to affect people’s hearts, such as with Pharaoh (e.g. Exodus 11:10), Lydia (Acts 16:14), and with us, His followers. Don’t most of us pray at some point for God to change our hearts to make us better, to make us more like Christ? I know I do, and it bears a lot of good fruit (or so I like to think).
However, this is not what most non-Calvinists are talking about when speaking of free will. What if God, who has full power over everything, decides not to necessarily use that power? What if God, when creating men, decided to create them with some semblance of a free will? What if, although He could certainly have made men completely under His control, like robots only more so, He chose instead to let them, to some very limited extend, do their own thing?
If men have free will, then that could logically mean that God didn’t have the power to take full and absolute control over His creation, but it could also simply mean He had that power, but decided to give them that power over themselves. If He is fully sovereign, who could say He doesn’t have the power to let someone else make a choice? In no other context would we consider delegation of power a sign of weakness. If an emperor gives authority to a governor, all the while reserving the right to override His decisions, would we say that the emperor has no power over the province the governor oversees? Of course not. The emperor chooses, in His power, to give some control to someone else. To delegate power means, by its very nature, that you have the power you are delegating. If God created men, and when he did He gave them the decision to choose or reject Him, then that means He must have had that power over them originally, or else he couldn’t have given the power to His creation in the first place.
Therefore, I don’t buy the argument at all that Calvinism must be true because God is sovereign. While some will wrongly believe that God somehow cannot control man’s free will, both Calvinists and more biblically-minded Arminians believe in a sovereign God. The issue isn’t over whether or not God has the power, but rather it is simply a matter of how He uses the power that those on both sides agree that He has.
“Christians who Sin?, or the Redeemed in Hell?, by David Bishop.” For the Elect Alone. WordPress.com. Weblog entry. November 24, 2010. http://markmcculley.wordpress.com/2010/07/
New International Version (NIV Bible).N.p.: Biblica, 1984. Biblegateway.com. Web. 6 Jun. 2011. <http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/
(Originally published 11/24/2010: http://3-ringbinder.blogspot.com/2010/11/why-calvinists-and-arminians-both-can.html. Immaterial changes have been made).