RPM, Volume 17, Number 2, January 4 to January 10, 2015

Sovereignty of God

(Part 2)

By Bruce Ware

V. Attributes of God

A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God
B. Incommunicable Attributes
C. Communicable Attributes
1. Intellectual Attributes
2. Moral Attributes
3. Attributes of God's Rulership
a. Freedom
b. Omnipotence
c. Sovereignty
1) Scriptural Teaching
2) Issues

3) Possible Positions

How do you put together divine sovereignty, God's control with human beings and their freedom and responsibility?

a) Hyper-Calvinism

Consider all that is determined in the history of the universe, all the choices made, all the moral actions committed in the history of the universe. According to this model God does all of them, and we do none of them. We have no genuine free determination of anything that we do. We may have the illusion that we have freedom, and we may experience something psychologically that we think of as freedom. But in fact every choice that we make, every action that we perform is accomplished because of God's determination, strictly speaking. We are his instruments or tools in everything that happens. There is never genuine human freedom in anything that is ever done.

This is a minority view that is held in some Hyper-Calvinists circles. It does represent one stream of theological thought. I believe the Martin Luther held this view, at least of unbelievers until conversion takes place. Gordon Clark comes awfully close to holding this particular view that there really is no freedom. At least it is clear he doesn't like the term freedom and chooses not to invoke it. This represents, at best, the minority report within Calvinism. This is not the standard, the majority, Calvinist position that is held. But it is held by some in the Calvinist tradition.

One thing about this that is very interesting is that this view agrees with Arminians on some things. Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians are incompatibilists. They agree that these two things are incompatible, namely, divine determination and free human determination. You cannot have an act that is simultaneously freely determined by God and freely determined by a moral agent; that is impossible because those two things are incompatible. So if you hold that God determines everything that happens in the history of the universe, and you are an incompatibilist, what does that say about other creatures, like human beings and angels? It says that we don't actually determine anything. We may think that we do, and we may have experiences that lead us to think that we do, but we don't in fact.

I do not consider this a viable model. I think that this view struggles and strains at two huge issues. First, how do we account for moral responsibility for our actions when freedom is precluded? If freedom is precluded, how then, is there moral responsibility for actions? The only answer given by this view is, "God said so." I don't find that to be a satisfying answer to this question. God says certain things for reasons that are given. It seems to me that this would contradict what we find in Scripture, for example, about rewards and punishment on the basis of what you do or don't do. Whether you choose to do some something or not will be the basis on which you are held accountable. If you have no free choice, on what basis are you held accountable? The second issue is the problem of explaining how God is not morally responsible for evil. If he is the only actor, the only free agent in the universe who is doing all that happens, how can God not be morally accountable for evil? This is a very difficult problem. This is the problem that every one of these models faces but it seems to be that they are insolvable in this particular model.

b) Process Theology

This model holds that of everything that is determined in the history of the universe, all of those determinations are done by creatures, none is done by God. None. No single choice or action is done by God; all are done by creatures. One of the most shocking things about Process Theology as I learned about it (primarily in my doctrinal studies when I studied with Doctor Griffin at Claremont) is that the only agent in the universe that cannot just do something, cannot make something happen is God. In Process Theology, God's power is only in the power of persuasion. So he has to persuade entities that make up reality (things, creatures) to freely choose to activate or instantiate what God wills to have happen. But they can always say no. The point is that creatures (the entities that make up reality) make all the choices. All God can do is to try to get them to see things his way and do what he wants, but the choice will be made by them to determine what happens.

This view falters for many reasons. It is clearly an unacceptable view biblically. It denies creation ''ex nihilo''; it denies every instances of God's intervention in the world in the form of revelation and miracles. It is not even worth thinking about seriously if you are interested in holding a view that is biblical. But nonetheless, it is one of the models that is out there.

Ultimately, I fear that people who hold the Hyper-Calvinist view will be inclined toward a Voluntarist notion. This would help Hyper-Calvinism because then you do not have God violating absolute norms of morality if what whatever God wills, when he wills it, it is right. Then you don't have this problem. God can just will anything he wants, and whatever he wills is right. But Voluntarism undercuts the moral fabric of the universe. Voluntarism ends up holding that there is no absolute moral standard in God or in anything. It is ultimately arbitrary. This is not an acceptable view for Christian theology, but it would help in solving this problem. Yet when you see in the Bible over and over again that actions are judged right or wrong on certain standards, then don't those standards apply to God? We wouldn't want to say that God is above the law, nor would you want to say the law is above God. Both of those would have problems. But what if you hold that the law is intrinsic to God, then there is an absolute standard that is binding upon God. God cannot lie; this is not something that is imposed upon him, but God cannot lie is a standard that reflects his own intrinsic nature. If that is the case how do you account for all the lies that have been told? Who did them in the Hyper-Calvinist view? God did; you have nobody else to point to in terms of freely chosen action.

That is all I am going to say on those two. In my judgment neither one of them is a worthy contender for a biblical model of sovereignty and freedom. The other three are contenders.

c) Arminianism

By the way I got this idea of charting it this way from Don Carson in his book ''Divine Sovereignty and Moral Responsibility'' which is a very fine helpful study on this which is limited in its biblical survey because he does John in the New Testament but not more in the New Testament. It is Old Testament, inter-testimonial and then John. But his theological excursus at the end of the book is marvelous. In that theological excursus he presents two of these boxes; the one I am giving you right now and the next one. He has two and I am giving you five.

Considering the totality of the determinations in the history of the universe, God has done this many of them, and creatures, humans do that many. This view is a widely held view within evangelicalism. It is formulated on the basis of the conviction that it is impossible for a single action to be determined by God and another agent simultaneously. If God determines that it happens, we don't. If we determine that it happens, God didn't. It is an incompatibilist view; it holds that divine determination and human determination of the same event are impossible; those two things are incompatible. It is one or the other. It is an either/or view. It also affirms that God has great governance over the world that he has made, but he freely chooses to limit the extent of that governance. In this view could God have created a world in which he exercises total governance? Yes, you could have a Hyper-Calvinist world. You could have a world where God determines everything that happens. That is logically possible; God could have done that. But he chose, according to this view, to create a world in which he would give to others some measure of free determination. Because their free determination is incompatible with his determination of those very same things, then whatever he allows them to determine, he has not determined it then. So he gives up, in that sense, governance that he otherwise could have. Here is the point: He cannot exercise total governance and allow them to be free in determining what they do. So for the sake of freedom, that they may be free to make choices and determine things that they wish, he restricts his own governance. This is the classic Arminian view.

What is the kind of freedom that Arminians say is incompatible with divine determination? Libertarian Freedom. Another name for it is "Contra-causal Freedom." Other names you will find in the literature are more times pejorative in nature, names like "genuine freedom" or "real freedom," which assumes that any other view that would be espoused is not real freedom. They do use those quite lavishly. Of these terms the most helpful one is Contra-causal.

Contra-causal means an act is free insofar as when the action is performed or when the choice is made, all things being just what they are, the person could have chosen or done otherwise. Given that understanding of freedom, you could have caused contrary to what you caused. I just caused the dropping of a pen on the podium. Why? For an illustration. But I could have thrown it out in the audience instead; I could have held it my hand. There are a lot of other things I could have done. So I caused that, but I could have caused this by holding it. You can cause contrary to what you did cause: Contra-causal freedom.

Why is Libertarian Freedom incompatible with divine determination? If God has determined that you do something, its determination is fixed. So the question is are you free to do otherwise? No. The determination has rendered definite that you do just this one thing. So all things being just what they are includes God's determination when you perform this action. All things being just what they are includes God determining that you do this one thing. Are you free to do otherwise? No. If you hold to a Libertarian view of freedom then you really do have to invoke some model or something like this. That is, you cannot hold simultaneously, what I will argue we should hold, that God determines and we determine. These folks say that is nonsense. If Libertarian Freedom is the kind of freedom that we have, then it is nonsense. I agree with Arminians when they say divine determination is incompatible with Libertarian Freedom. That is absolutely true.

There is no sense to the notion that we have been determined to do just what we do, and we could have done otherwise. The complaint that I have is the conception of Libertarian Freedom as the freedom that we have.

Why do they hold this view? They hold this view because they believe that this conception of freedom accounts better for the problem of evil than another view might do. For example, over here, all that God does is good. God only does good. Any choice he makes, any action he performs is good. So where does evil happen. Evil doesn't happen with what God performs; evil happens in the things that we do, in which God is not the determining agent of those things. He merely has created an environment in which things like that, murder, sins of all kinds, evils of all kinds, can happen. But he doesn't determine that they happen. He merely creates an environment in which they may happen.

Sometimes this is called in philosophical literature "The law of double effect." When God created human beings with freedom, he intended that they use their freedom to choose good. Why did God give freedom? He gave it with this intention that they use it to obey him, love him, worship him, follow him, that all of this good would ensue because of their freedom.

Furthermore, they would argue that without that freedom, how could there be genuine love? Are they constrained to love him? How can there be genuine worship of him? How can there be genuine moral responsibility if they didn't have this freedom? God gives them this freedom to accomplish good. The kind of good God has in mind is moral good, not pragmatic good or aesthetic good, but moral good, moral choices, doing what is good and right. The problem is even though God gave them free will for this effect, they have the ability to use that free will for an unintended effect, a double effect: evil.

God did not intend that they use their freedom for that purpose, but nonetheless, they do. Here is the kicker. God cannot give them freedom by which alone they can do good without the possibility of them using their freedom for evil. Philosophers have raised this question. Why could not God have created a world in which free creatures only and always do what is good or right? Then there would not be Contra-causal Freedom. If they could not choose, instead of doing the good, doing it contrary (contra-causal), they would not be free. They would be robotic, contrived beings rather than being free. In order for them to be free, to love God and do good, they must be free to say no to God.

This is an easy thing to see.

If you go to a doctor with some kind of ailment, let's say that you are having terrible headaches. The doctor gives you some pain medication for these severe headaches, and he might say to you, "By the way, this pain medication that I am giving to you has certain side effects with it." What are side effects? They are unintended negative effects. This is the law of double effect. So he says, "I am giving you this pain medication for these severe headaches you have got, but it is really going to give you an upset stomach, and you are going to have a hard time sleeping at night." What that doctor faces in prescribing for the patient is the same thing that God faces. He is obviously prescribing the pain medication for the relief of the headaches, for the good, but he can't give the medication without the possibility of the side effects coming about. I am sure that they work at this at pharmaceutical laboratories all the time. I can't imagine they don't try to reduce side effects of certain kinds of medications or come up with ones that don't have side effects. The doctor tells you, "I am going to give you this pain medication for your severe headaches, but the side effect is if you take this two or three times it will kill you, but it really will relieve you of your headaches." Then you think, "You know what, the evil is just too great to justify the giving of the good." So there must be another principle involved in God's giving of human freedom according to this model.

It is not just that only with freedom good can come about, but it also must be that God judges that the good will outweigh the evil. It must be the case. Otherwise it is like the doctor who gives you the pain medication and it kills you. The side effect of it is worse than having the headache. So in terms of the problem of evil in the Arminian view, they really invoke two defenses. The free will defense is this one we just talked about.

You can see how it automatically entails the second one, which is generally called the "greater good defense." If God judges that the use of human freedom will end up with greater evil than good, then one would wonder whether God was wise to do this. Not all Arminians use this view. In the debate that Dr. Schreiner and I had with Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell (who are Asbury Profs) last April, I even believe that Jerry Walls argued that the greater good over evil is not necessary. He said what God wants in this is just giving the good for the purpose of whoever will use it. Do we know that the saved will outnumber the lost? Do we know that in the end there will be a net greater good than evil? I think he argued that just having good in and of itself, no matter what the proportion is what makes it worth it. I think that is a minority view.

It is also a conception on which Open Theism is vulnerable. Open Theism holds that God doesn't know how things are going to come out in the future. He has very good guesses about it; he is a very good prognosticator, but he doesn't know what the end will be. One of the problems with this view is what if we end up at the end of history, and it is only getting worse and worse. Maybe we blow ourselves up in a huge atomic warfare episode at the end of history, and everybody dies; what if that is how it will end. And what if only 8% of the population of humanity who has every lived is saved? What will God think of the Divine Project (as John Sanders calls it) of bring the human race into existence given the Arminian commitments (God's universal love for all people; he wants all to be saved)? It would look like an abysmal failure. It seems to me that Open Theism has put itself in a position where that criticism cannot be answered. It is a distinct possibility that that could be the case. Their response is, "We are pretty sure it won't be, look how God has brought good out of evil." They point to biblical history and assume it was the God of Open Theism that brought the good out of evil in those episodes that they are talking about in biblical history. Was it the God of Open Theism who did that, or was it a sovereign God who did that, who was able to work the good out of evil?

Is it clear in this model how Arminians would answer the first question, the first issue? The mechanical question: How are divine sovereignty and human freedom related? They are related insofar as when one functions the other doesn't. If God determines that something will happen through a human being, then that human doesn't act freely. If the human being determines he will do something, then God does not determine it or is not sovereign over it.

What about the second issue? How are divine sovereignty and moral responsibility for evil or moral praiseworthiness for good related? God is responsible for creating the environment in which evil happens, but he is not responsible for evil. Why not hold God responsible for evil because he created the environment in which it could happen? How do they answer that? By appeal to this: God doesn't cause the evil. To answer that question, why isn't God morally responsible for evil because he created the environment? Remember this classic Arminianism in which he full well knew before he created all the evil that would take place. He knew the Holocaust; he knew the burning fields; he knew everything. He knew it all before he created. So how is he not responsible for bringing evil into existence by creating this environment in which he doesn't make it happen but he creates the environment in which he knows we will make it happen? Answer: He intended that we use our freedom for good, and he knows that good will outweigh evil in the end. When all things are said and done, when history has ended, his purposes will be more accomplished than not.

How does Arminianism answer the question can God know in advance what free creatures will do? They simply assert that he does because he is omniscient. What they cannot do is ground the assertion. They cannot give an explanation of how he knows it apart from the fact that he is God. Because God is omniscient, he knows everything. So if this proposition is true, namely I will have a hamburger for dinner on November 7, 2002, God knows it is true because he is omniscient. Their appeal is simply to God's deity, his omniscience. This has never been satisfactory for Calvinists. It is basically an appeal to mystery. We don't know how God knows it; he just knows it; he just does because is God.

How is it that God is not responsible? Their claim is God is not responsible for it because, although he knew all of it would be, he was not at any point the agent causing it to happen. Furthermore, he does not want it to happen; he is encouraging it not to happen, and we cause it to happen. We bear responsibility for it. Why run the risk, why have world where this freedom is going to be used in such horrible ways, as now we know it has been? It started in Genesis 4, but it has gotten a lot worse since. God knew every bit of it, every single lie, every single murder, every single rape, every single child abuse, every single war and all atrocities. In the Arminian view, you name it, and God has known all of it before he created. So what justifies him doing it? Because you would never have worshipers, lovers of God, a people of God without granting Libertarian Freedom, by which they use that freedom to do evil also.

The question is, is it biblical to hold this view? No, I don't think so, but Arminians believe that it is. There is a difference between saying a view is not biblical, and a view is heretical. There are lots of views that I would say are not biblical. I don't think that Presbyterians who baptize infants hold a biblical view, but it is not heretical. I don't think Charismatics are biblical, but I don't think they are heretical. I don't think Arminians are biblical, but I don't think they are heretical. Heresy has to do with (and it not always clear cut) a set of orthodox doctrines that all of the church has held through its history, from the time that they were settled anyway. The deity of Christ, the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, etc. are doctrines that constitute orthodoxy. A view can be orthodox, because Arminians hold to all of those. They hold to the Trinity, they hold to the Hypostatic union; they hold all of these orthodox doctrines. But they differ within that orthodoxy in what turns out to be huge questions. There is no question about that. It is not that they are not important; they are extremely important. But nonetheless, the Church has not judged those differences to be differences that constitute orthodoxy and heresy. So no, I don't think Arminianism is a biblical view, and you will see why as I argue instead for another one. You have to ask the question, does this fit Scripture's presentation of divine sovereignty? In my judgment, it fails in certain ways that are clear when you take a look at the whole of Scripture.

d) Calvinism

In Calvinism, everything that has happened in the history of the universe is by divine determination. What is the point of this line? However, a portion of what is decided is also determined by creatures, humans, angels. So both divine determination and human determination, human free agency occur in regard to the very same actions. This view is called Compatibilism as opposed to Incompatibilism. What are the two things that are compatible according to this view? Human freedom or human determination and divine determination. By that I mean there is freedom in both cases.

God freely determines what he wants to be, and we freely determine what we want to be, and those things happen together. For how much does that happen? Everything. Everything we choose is intersected with divine determination; all of our choices and all of our actions, are meshed with divine determination. So that God is in control of everything. He obviously foreknows everything on a different basis, and also his control is comprehensive.

In this model, the way God knows everything that will be is because he has determined all that will be. Here there is grounding for divine foreknowledge. There isn't just an appeal to him being God and omniscient, so he knows every true proposition, and some of those propositions are about the future. It is not just that. It is, rather, God knows what he has control of. What does he have control of? Everything that happens in the future. So God knows what will happen tonight and the next day. God know what wars will take place and what choices you will make because he has a determining influence upon everything that happens.

This view is classic Calvinism which attempts to hold together both divine sovereignty and moral responsibility, both divine sovereignty and human freedom. The kind of freedom that is advocated here is different from Libertarian Freedom. It is rather be a kind of freedom in which, when you make a choice, all things being just as they are, you cannot have chosen otherwise. Intuitively this view is contrary to very notion of freedom. If you cannot have chosen otherwise, how is it free?

In the Libertarian notion of freedom, if you hold that an agent when he acts, all things being just what they are, he could have chosen otherwise, that means that there is no choice-specific reason or set of reasons for why an agent chose what he did. There are reasons for his actions, but the problem is any reason for why you do "A" is the identical reason for why you do "B". Any reason you give for why you pulled the trigger is an identical reason for why you don't pull the trigger. How is this an explanation for why you do what you do? The answer is, it isn't. It falls back to a kind of arbitrariness, a capriciousness of human action. Compatibilists hold that when an action is performed there is some prevailing reason (prevailing desire) for why you choose what you do. That explains why you choose this and not that. So the answer to the question, why did you do this, has a specific answer. It may not be one that we can give, but in principle, God would know there is a specific answer to the question.

If you are standing in front of Baskin Robbins Ice Cream counter and you are looking at all the choices, and you pick one flavor, chocolate chip (that is always my favorite), if you say you could have chosen otherwise, that is true in the most general sense of it. All of them were there, and there was nothing hindering you; it wasn't as if the clerk was covering the other ones saying, "No you can't have those. The only one left is chocolate chip and that is the only one you can have." No, there wasn't anything hindering you. In that very general sense you could have chosen otherwise. But were there reasons for why you picked this and not that? Then the answer is, yes, there were choice-specific reasons. Freeze that moment of choice. All things being what they are, there were prevailing desires, prevailing reasons why you picked this. Given those reasons, these conditions, you could not have chosen otherwise. That is compatibilism.

The question is, how did these things come to be? There are tremendous pastoral spiritual benefits to this principle when you learn it. This is how we function; we always make our choices according to prevailing desires. That means if you have difficulty in certain area making the right choices, then you need to engage in a process of acquiring desires that will eventually prevail upon you to make choices differently. This is part of what is involved in retraining our minds, retraining our emotions, retraining our wills. How can you defeat temptation in a certain area? If your prevailing desires is to yield, then next time you will, unless there has been a change in your prevailing desire that leads you to want this more than that. This is what spiritual disciplines are about. Why meditate on Scripture? Why pray? Why seek instruction? Why do these things? So that we would have our minds and hearts trained to want what God wants. It won't happen in us until our prevailing desires are changed. Then when they are changed, then we could not have chosen otherwise. Then we will obey. Ultimately, this is the sanctification process where God works in us to give us increasingly the prevailing desires that accord with his will and his purposes. Glorification will be when all of our prevailing desires have been transformed to the point that all that we want to do in every situation, every single time is to do what God wants. We will have a mind to think as he thinks. We will have desires to desire what he wants. Sanctification is working bit by bit to get us to the point of glorification where that will be finalized in us.

The Compatibilist view holds that we always do what we most want to do. It is hard to imagine what a radical idea that is. Jonathan Edwards wrote his treatise on the "Freedom of The Will" to give biblical and philosophical defense of this notion and to expound the pastoral benefits of this notion. We always do what we most want to do.

Take that principle and apply it to dieting. Say you have trouble with weight control. We always do what we most want to do. So what do we need to do? You will always go to the chocolate cake; you will always do this if your prevailing desires are not changed. You will do what you most want to do. So by God's grace, with input of spiritual disciplines, retrain your prevailing desires.

The most important reason to hold to compatiblism is not philosophical. All I have given you so far is philosophical reasons; namely Libertarian Freedom doesn't work. It reduces to arbitrariness, capaciousness; it doesn't explain why we do what we do. Compatiblism does work; it does explain why we do what we do. It gives cause for effect. Choices are effects. What caused it? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions? Effects are the results of causes. Compatibilist Freedom does explain choosing. Philosophically it works where Libertarian Freedom fails. The most important reason for why Compatibilist freedom is true is because of the Bible.

Blessings on you.

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