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.

Learn to stand strong in your faith!

Subscribe to our weekly email to get the latest content from Faith Beyond Belief.
* indicates required