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In Arminianism,Calvinism,Culpability,evil,God,Justin Wishart,Molinism,theology

Arminianism and Culpability

By Justin Wishart

[Note: This article is not an official statement by FBB. FBB allows for freedom on this issue and encourages godly dialogue and debate. The author hopes that one of his fellow bloggers will offer a critical response to the article.]

How does God’s sovereignty mingle with human will? This is the very question that initially drove me to my interest in theology and apologetics. This question has motivated me to study God’s Word more than any other question. One critical question for me was how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could create this world with sin but, at the same time, not be culpable for the sin. Arminianism, and in particular the “free-will defence,” was at first a satisfying answer for me. God wanted all people to come and to enter into a loving relationship with Him. For this to be authentic, it could only be accomplished if people were given the free choice to do so. For love to be real, as the position goes, it cannot be forced. God is not some cosmic rapist who forces His love on others. It is then concluded that salvation must be chosen by the person being saved, otherwise a forced salvation is contradictory to a loving God. God allows evil into the world because it logically serves the greater good, and because of this, God is not culpable for the sin free-willed people choose. Sin is present because it serves the greater good. The people who used their free will are the only ones culpable.

However, this initially challenges the notion of an all-knowing God. If God does not force relationship, morality, or salvation on us, how can God know what we will freely choose? The spectre of Open Theism looms. This is typically answered by appealing to Molinism, but it is important to note that there is more than one type of Molinism.[1] The Arminians will, naturally enough, have an Arminian view of Molinism. While God completely knows all choices and their results, including sin, He does not force these choices on anyone. Thus, God is both all-knowing and not culpable. This position was intellectually satisfying to me for a long time.

Arminianism was first undermined for me when I read Gordon Clark’s book Religion, Reason, and Revelation. In this book, Clark discusses whether the Arminian view really takes away God’s culpability. He provides an analogy which helps drive his point home:

Suppose there were a lifeguard stationed on a dangerous beach. In the breakers a boy is being sucked out to sea by the strong undertow. He cannot swim. He will drown without powerful aid. It will have to be powerful, for as drowning sinners do, he will struggle against his rescuer. But the lifeguard simply sits on his high chair and watches him drown. Perhaps he may shout a few words of advice and tell him to exercise his free will. After all, it was of his own free will that the boy went into the surf. The guard did not push him in nor interfere with him in any way. The guard merely permitted him to go in and permitted him to drown. Would an Arminian now conclude that the lifeguard thus escapes culpability?

This illustration, with its finite limitations, is damaging enough as it is. It shows that permission of evil as contrasted with positive causality does not relieve a lifeguard from responsibility. . . . And yet the illustration does not do full justice to the actual situation. For unlike the boy who exists in relative independence of the lifeguard, in actuality God made the boy and the ocean, too. Now, if the guard—who is not a creator at all—is responsible for permitting the boy to drown, even if the boy is supposed to have entered the surf of his own free will, does not God—who made them—appear in a worse light? Surely an omnipotent God could have either made the boy a better swimmer, or made the ocean less rough or at least have saved him from drowning.[2]

Arminianism seems to make God culpable in a different way. Is the inaction of the lifeguard a type of evil? Is someone who supremely rules all the forces that cause or allow the sinful situation to happen not at least somewhat culpable for the situation? It seems very unclear to me how it is not the case. Judging by the writings of many Arminian theologians and philosophers, this doesn’t seem clear to them as well. Based on my study, they seem unaware of this form of culpability that their scheme creates.

John Calvin and Jacob ArminiusHowever, I would even take God’s level of culpability under this scheme a step further than Clark. At least, I will argue that Arminians are in the exact same situation they claim Calvinists are in. In order to avoid Open Theism, Arminians conclude that God exhaustively knows all events and choices that happened, are happening, and will happen in the actual world. God knows the beginning from the end down to its finest detail. This would obviously include our freely choosing salvation or not. This understanding is coupled with the idea that God does not directly force people to accept Him or reject Him. He knows but does not coerce.

If God knows exhaustively what will happen when He creates this world, then when He creates this world events will go perfectly according to his knowledge. Also, it seems logically valid that under this scheme, God could have created a world where a different set of events happened. For example, He could have created a world in which I didn’t accept Jesus as my Saviour. It follows that God created this world, in part, because He specifically wanted me to accept Him. Of course, no one can give any proper accounting of why God would choose me specifically as I can discern nothing special about me. However, God saw something in this actual world, which involves my salvation, that He liked enough to create it. Also, since God created the actual world with full knowledge of my salvation being included, there was no possibility I could not have freely chosen to follow Him. This includes every sinful act by all mankind and the pain that comes from such acts.

A question arises under this view. Did I become a Christian because I chose to be, or did I become a Christian because God chose to create this world? It seems to me that the answer would have to be “both.” Then another question forms. If I am culpable for my free choices (whether I accept or reject God), then why is God not culpable for His free choice (creating the world where I would accept Him)? It seems just as much to be the case that I am a Christian because God created the actual world as it is as that I freely chose Him. It becomes all the more poignant when one thinks about people who are damned for unbelief. The only difference that I can see from Calvinism is that God enacted His will for my salvation at the moment of creation, and not actively on me right now. Yet, under both views, God enacted His will.

While Arminianism does put culpability on me, as I should be responsible for my actions, this doesn’t seem to take the culpability for the sins of this world off God. Unless this is answered, this seems to take away one major reason why people accept Arminianism. Notice that my argument here doesn’t make Arminianism false, it argues only that, if sound and valid, culpability is not taken off God under this view. The only way I can see to remove God’s culpability at this point is to use arguments that Calvinists already make. Thus, at least when viewing this from a culpability perspective, Arminianism doesn’t seem to offer any philosophical advantages over Calvinism.

[1] For a good account of this, read Kirk R. MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007).

[2] Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), 205.

  • In your commentary you state: “If God knows exhaustively what will happen when He creates this world, then when He creates this world events will go perfectly according to his knowledge.” I am not certain I understand your thoughts on this point exactly, but as I have considered the tenets of Calvinism it seems this initial point may be the core sticking point between Calvinism and Arminianism. Let me explain with an example.

    If I am driving to work tomorrow morning and I have a car accident on the way, God would have known that I was going to have the accident, but that does NOT mean he caused me to have the accident or that he made the creation according to His knowledge. In his sovereignty he allows us to decide our own course. God sees the end from the beginning and this is why the scripture is clear that God has “foreknowledge”. From God’s perspective His whole plan (our whole existence) was over in an instant, and his plan succeeded. We see God as being outside of time and space, but even inside of time and space Einstein’s Relativity has proven scientifically that “in theory” an object traveling at the speed of light would essentially stand still in time. That object could observe anything and everything that happens in the universe, all through time and not be a moment older. (The Time-Space continuum). So, the idea of God knowing the beginning from the end even make sense scientifically, without our theology. Let’s just accept the fact that God knows the beginning from the end and that God has the ability to launch his creation and let it go without his specific direction, if he wants to.

    I visualize God launching the universe, and Earth in the beginning, with just a word, and including at least some of the elements of heaven, i.e.; free will, good and evil to set the stage for his display. Then he just lets it go, however it goes, by giving us free will to choose either good or evil as we see fit. God is a discerner of the heart and can therefore see whose heart is For him and whose is not. Again, He has the ability to not interfere with our choices. God also knows those points in time when certain individuals begin to understand and discuss how God’s foreknowledge works, (as we are doing now). But that understanding or lack of understanding should have no affect on our need to continue making choices in this life and our need to share the gospel with others, he asks us to do. Then, according to his foreknowledge he determines the names which are now written in the Lamb’s Book of Life before the beginning of time. As God looks across the span of time he sees those whose hearts are turned to him and he says that he “knows them” as in the sense of a “relationship” with him. These would be the names considered chosen by Calvinism, but the choice God makes is not arbitrary but is based on those souls he “knows” have a relationship with him, based their own free will. He then calls them…

    To the question of whether or not an evangelist can bring a person to Christ without God calling them, I would say this: My understanding of the New Covenant is that it is an Agreement that connects each of us to Christ personally. Based on the nature of covenants in the Old Testament and therefore under the terms of the New Covenant, everybody that matters to me also matters to Christ and everybody that matters to Christ should also matter to me. Because you and I are in Covenant with Christ individually we become like blood brothers to each other regardless of our theological confusion or our denomination choices simply because we are united with Christ. The body of Christ should therefore be united as One through the New Covenant. But, this means that if I wish to evangelize a friend, because that friend matters to me, the Holy Spirit has agreed through the Covenant to come with me and help me as I approach my friend. The people that matter to me, matter to Him and He calls them.

    With regard to the term “predestination”, I see it as a function going forward. Just as God predestined the children of Israel to be His people, so it is today, that the Church has been grafted in and has been predestined to achieve the plan of God in the Earth. All who are called and except their calling, and join the Body of Christ (The Church) are therefore predestined to partake in God’s plan. If you’re in His Church, you going somewhere amazing.

    Now let’s consider, what the point was for this whole plan of God in the first place. What is the answer to that great “mystery”? I think we find it here in Ephesians 3: 9 “and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; 3:10 to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” NKJV

    Good and evil both exist, even in heaven, and God has apparently established this universe and this world for the purpose of showing “principalities and powers in heavenly places” his manifold wisdom, through what the Church does. The church is Exhibit A. The fact that we have free will, and we exercise it as we do, is what makes the actions of the church something that speaks to the principalities and powers in heaven and demonstrates the manifold wisdom of God.

    Getting back to the boy on the beach in your lifeguard story, I would say that God clearly recognizes the many injustices that occur in this world, a world that He alone created. He IS culpable for everything!..but he dealt with it. The story of the cross and the forgiveness of sin might better be characterized in today’s contemporary terms by saying that evil in whatever form is simply human injustice. The lack of justice in this world is our biggest problem. Things are not fair and people are getting ripped off and children are suffering Etc.. That’s evil and that’s injustice, the biggest problem in the world today, with no apparent solution, except the cross. The work of the cross deals with all that. Sometimes you and I are on the side that causes the injustice and sometimes we are the victims of the injustice. Nobody is exempt on either side. God, through Jesus paid the debt for all our injustice, and if you read the last chapter of revelations you will find the following:
    11 He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.
    12 And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward [is] with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. Notice he not only deals with the righteous and unjust BUT, he brings a reward to compensate those ( of his own ) who have been the victims of such injustice.

    It’s the Unconditional Election the “U” in TULIP, that I cannot find any biblical support for. Eph. 1:4-8; Rom. 9: 11-21 do not say that God chose without any reasoning.

  • Justin Wishart

    Thank you for the reply Brad,

    Unfortunately, I don’t think I explained myself well in my article as you missed my meaning. For my article, I don’t claim Calvinism or Arminianism are true. It doesn’t matter which is true as the argument applies both ways. Here are some key points to keep in mind when reading this.

    1. Calvinism is often attacked as they feel this makes God culpable for sin, which is below God. My article tries to analyse whether Arminianism/Molinism removes this culpability. I argue it does not provide any of the imagined advantages typically thought that it does.

    2. Under all views of God’s sovereignty (except for something like Open Theism), God knows each and every action within creation, even “before the foundations of the world”, AKA creation.

    3. God created the actual world with complete knowledge of my salvation, even if I freely chose it. It could never have been the case that I would not have freely chosen Him (notice I use the word “freely” here). The concept of libertarian free-will does not alter this fact for an omniscient God.

    4. God could have created another world (under the Molinist view) for which I didn’t freely chose Him. Thus, something about me being saved in the actual world is something God wanted, and I cannot know what that reason was. Otherwise, He would have created another world. The God who knew the number of hairs on my head (which seem to be dwindling each year) without creation, was also mindful of me when He did create the actual world.

    Given points 2-4, God wanted my Salvation, for some reason I cannot see, and took steps to ensure this would happen. In Calvinism, He decreed it to be so, and I could not be any other way. In Arminianism/Molinism, He passively enacted His will by creating this actual world. My Salvation could not not happen, regardless of my libertarian free-will.

    This means that either way, whether God decrees or passively enacts His will, God is responsible for my Salvation, whether actively or passively. It then seems as if my point 1 follows, that Arminianism/Molinism doesn’t provide the philosophical advantage on God’s culpability that some imagine. Either way, God’s will is accomplished, and it could not be not accomplished. Any other conclusion seems to lead to something like Open Theism or Progressive Theology.

    If you read my last paragraph, I imply that even given my argument, I don’t see God as culpable for people’s damnation. But, I do say that the arguments the Arminian/Molinist will probably use at this point will look identical to the Calvinist’s.

    I hope I have cleared up my argument a bit. I don’t see how your reply really addresses my points, but I probably didn’t express them effectively enough in my blog. Here is a link which touches on some of the themes discussed here. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PQaM352CrRc

  • Alina

    But when Arminian theologians appeal to Scripture to defend their theology, I wouldn t insult their attempts by referring to them as garbage, based purely on philosophical reasons, with no scriptural evidence whatsoever.