Divine Sovereignty & Free Will: Calvinist & Arminian Perspectives

As I begin to interact with my old book entitled, “Calvinist Verses? Responding to the Errors of Calvinism,” I think it is necessary first to present what I have in mind when I use the terms Arminianism and Calvinism. I hope that this will help people who are not familiar with the controversy to understand from the outset what the issues being debated are. So, in this post I will give some brief thoughts about the first major distinction between the two theological systems, namely the view of divine sovereignty.

Divine Sovereignty in Classical Arminianism

Classical Arminianism believes that God is in complete control of everything that happens in the universe and the history of men. The only caveat is that God does not determine history unilaterally but looks (using divine foreknowledge) at the choices men make and from that determines what He will do in response. So, in one sense, God waits to see what people decide, and then He decides what He will do.

This perspective might become clearer with an analogy. Imagine God and mankind playing chess. God gives mankind the first move, but already knows every move that they will make, and knows how He will counter their move. From this perspective mankind is determining at least some of the direction the game will take, and God responds to it. He never moves for them and lets them move whichever way they like. If they move a pawn on a certain move, that is what happens, and He responds accordingly. But it is just as possible that they would have moved the queen instead of a pawn, in that case God would have responded differently.

Now this is just an analogy and those who understand the subtleties of the Arminian position will not be wholly satisfied with it. But the point is that man is free to make any choice he wants (though God at times does limit the choices a person has), and God will honor that choice and let it become reality. So, in this perspective mankind is free to choose as they wish and God has limited His control of their choices in order to make them truly free. He allows men to make many choices, even choices He does not want to happen. In this view, God limits His control of history to allow free creatures to exist.

Divine Sovereignty in Open Theism

There is another view of sovereignty that has become popular among those who consider themselves Arminian. The classical Arminian would consider it erroneous, but it is nonetheless embraced by some in the Arminian camp. So, in order to be thorough, I will include it in this summary.

In this view God allows freedom for people to choose just as the classical Arminian position states, but it says that God does not know with absolute certainty every detail of what a person will choose until they make the choice. Proponents of this view, which is called Open Theism, believe that if a person is truly free to choose any of a multitude of options, then it is illogical to believe that God could know what they are going to choose. Let me again use our chess analogy to bring some clarity.

The scene is the same, Man gets the first move and God responds accordingly. The difference is that God does not know with certainty which move the other player (individual people) will make until they make it. He can make a wise guess based on His knowledge of all things and the nature of the individual making the move, but the person is a free creature that could always make an unexpected choice out of his own sovereign free will.

In classical Arminianism God limits His control of human history in order to make room for people to make various choices by their own free will, and He responds as He wills. In Open Theism God does not just limit His control, but He also limits His knowledge. The idea is that God chose to limit His knowledge when He chose to make creatures with absolutely free will. Proponents of this perspective believe this is so because the future cannot be known fully, even by God, when creatures are truly free.

Divine Sovereignty in Classical Calvinism

Classical Calvinism teaches, like classical Arminianism, that God is in complete control of everything that happens in the universe and the history of men. The difference is that Calvinism holds that God does unilaterally determine all the events of human history. He does not see what men choose and then respond to it, but He determines everything that will happen, including every choice that men will make. In spite of this absolute control, Calvinism teaches that human beings are free, though their options are limited.

In classical Arminianism God limits His control by “waiting” for the person to make a choice on any given moment in his life, and then responding to it. But in Calvinism God does not limit His control, but He limits the free choices of men. Let’s turn again to our chess example to see how this plays out.

The chess board is set as before, but this time God makes the first move. With each move He makes He knows how the human will respond. God does not force His opponent to make any moves, God allows him to make any move that he desires to make. But it is God that is complete control of the Chess board. So though Man is not coerced in any way, God by His wisdom knows what He will do. From the human perspective each move is decided freely by the human being, but God is the One that is sovereign over every move. God determines what He does, and He determines what moves (options) are left open to human beings. Since He knows the hearts of men perfectly, He knows exactly what they will do even before they do. In this view God knew every minute detail of human history before it began, not because He merely looked ahead and saw what mankind would do, but because He determined beforehand what He was going to do and what He was going to allow free creatures to do.

Summarizing the Differences

Both classical Arminianism and Open Theism believe that human beings are completely free. And they agree that in order for God to create such creatures He had to limit His control to some degree or another. But Open Theists go a step further and conclude that God not only had to limit His control, but also His knowledge in order to make such creatures. The Calvinist believes that God did not need to limit His control at all in order to make free creatures. Calvinism believes that human beings are genuinely free, but that God has limited their choices by making the first “move.” So, the issue at hand (and this issue relates to other issues like the character and nature of God) regarding divine sovereignty is whether God has limited His control to some degree, or whether He has limited human options. This is a subtle difference, but it has profound consequences.

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