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Why I Reject the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace

 It is no secret to most that I hold strongly to the Reformed doctrines of grace. But it is equally no secret that I have deep respect for the godly character and scholarship of many of the Arminian persuasion that believe differently than I. The issues that unite us a greater and more substantial than those that divide us. In other words, the Calvinism/Arminianism divide is over non-essential issues in my opinion. What I am saying is that this article is in no way meant for to put an essential line of demarcation concerning the issues of Calvinism and Arminianism. However, just because something is not essential does not mean it is not important. Therefore, I continue to write on these about such.

Yesterday, I wrote that I believe that the doctrine of Prevenient grace is the Achilles heel of Arminianism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy (although, less so with Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism since they don’t have such a strong stance on depravity). Prevenient grace literally means “grace that comes before.” Prevenient grace is the Arminian counter to the Calvinistic doctrine of Irresistible grace.

It is important to note at the outset that both Calvinists and Arminians believe that people are born sinful. To make this a little more clear, both sides agree that all people are born with an inherent disposition of antagonism toward God. Both Calvinists and Arminians reject what is know as Pelagianism. Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that people are born neutral, neither good nor bad. Pelagius believed that people sin as a result of example, not nature. Augustine, the primary opponent of Pelagius, responded by teaching that people are not born neutral, but with a corrupted nature. People sin because it is in their nature to sin; they are predisposed to sin. Both Calvinists and Arminians agree with Augustine believing the Scriptures to teach that people are born with a totally (radically) corrupt spiritual nature, making their disposition toward God perpetually antagonistic. Therefore, according to both sides, people are absolutely helpless without God’s gracious, undeserved intervention. This is an important mischaracterization of Arminian theology that adherents to my position often fail to realize. Arminians believe in the doctrine of total depravity just as strongly as Calvinists. In contrast, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics both hold out some sense of natural ability. Therefore, they don’t believe that the will is as depraved as traditional Protestants.

This adherence to total depravity makes the Arminian doctrine of Prevenient grace necessary. A former Wesleyan theology professor of mine who believed in Prevenient grace once called it the “ingenious doctrine.” Why? Because according to Arminians it allows them to hold to the biblical position of total depravity, yet also allow true free will. You see, according to Calvinists such as myself, if people are in such desperate condition, being inclined toward enmity with God from birth, and unable to change their condition on their own (as a leopard cannot change its spots – Jer. 13:23), having no “free will” to choose against this depraved nature, then the only way to answer the question, How is anyone saved? is to answer that the will of God saves them. In other words, if our will could not change our disposition, then God must have changed our will. Up to this point, both Calvinists and Arminians agree. But the Calvinist will say that God’s intervention is radical. In our depraved state, God comes into our lives and opens our eyes to His beauty. This intervention happens by means of saving or “irresistible” grace. In our helpless and antagonistic position, while shaking our fists at God, God sovereignly and autonomously regenerates us. Once regenerated, we trust and love the Lord because our nature has been transformed by Him. Therefore, God is the only one to credit for our salvation seeing as how we did not play any part in its genesis (this is sometimes referred to as monergism). But, according to Calvinists, God does not give this gift of saving grace to all people, only the elect. Otherwise, all would be saved.

How do Arminians deal with our depraved condition? Well, they reject the Calvinistic doctrine of “irresistible” grace believing that it does violence to the necessary freedom that must exist for God to have a true loving relationship with man. But something, nevertheless, must make belief possible. In comes Prevenient grace. This is an enabling grace that comes to the aid of all people so that their disposition can be made capable of receiving the Gospel. It does not save them as the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, but it makes the savable. In essence, Prevenient grace restores people to a state of ability. As Adam before the fall was not predisposed toward a willful rejection of God, being able to make a true free will decision, so people, once affected by Prevenient grace are brought dispositionally to Garden of Eden type conditions. God’s grace comes to the aid of all fallen sinners restoring freedom of the will. Now, it is up to the individual to make an unbiased untainted choice for or against God. Voila! With the doctrine of Prevenient grace, total depravity and true freedom can be harmonized. Ingenious, right?

I agree with Calvinist commentator and theologian Tom Schreiner that “Prevenient grace is attractive because it solves so many problems [for the Arminian] . . .” but I also believe that it creates more problems than it solves. I am going to briefly list the two major problems that I see with the doctrine of Prevenient grace, but I, as always, want to remind you that there are many great men in the history of the church and in contemporary Evangelical philosophy and theology that do not see things the way I do. I encourage you to seek out their position from them in addition to reading my analysis.

1. Lack of Scripture: The biggest issue that Calvinists have traditionally had with the doctrine of Prevenient grace is its lack of biblical support. Tom Schreiner’s quote above is incomplete; it concludes with this, “. . . but it should be rejected because it cannot be exegetically vindicated.” While Prevenient grace may solve problems and allow Arminians to hold to a biblical understanding of depravity, the biblical support for the doctrine is very difficult to find. Most Arminians would agree that direct and explicit support from Scripture is not there, but they would say that the concept is necessitated from other explicit teachings. Most importantly, God commands and desires that all people are to repent of their sin (Acts 17:30, 2 Pet. 3:9, et al) and holds them responsible if they do not. This assumes that “all people” have this ability, otherwise God’s desire is hopeless and His command is useless. While there may be some mystery in the fact that God desires the salvation of all and commands all to repent, this does not necessitate nor justify, in my opinion, the insertion of a fairy complected and even more mysterious doctrine of Prevenient grace. In other words, it could be conceded that God commands all people to repent because sin is at issue. People have violated God’s law. This necessitates God to act as God in accordance with His righteous character and reveal the violation of sin, even to those who have no ability to change on their own. In this case, God’s command is true and genuine. Even if no one were to respond, their sin is made manifest and God’s righteousness is exposed through God’s command. It can also be conceded that God does truly desire the repentance of all people, even if people do not have the ability to repent. God’s desire in this case is mysteriously not going to be an active agent in bringing about the salvation of some. Why? I don’t know. But my ignorance in this matter does not justify the implication of Prevenient grace. God can passively desire things that He does not actively will to come about.

2. It does not really solve any problems: Lets assume that we could overcome the difficulties of the lack of Scriptural support of Prevenient grace. Let’s say that I give the Arminians the benefit of the doubt and say that it is possible to interpret the biblical data in such a way that all people receive an enablement that neutralizes their antagonistic disposition toward God. God then would come to each person sometime in their lives and graciously restore their will to the point that they don’t have any predisposed inclination toward rejection or acceptance of the Gospel. What would this look like?

First, this “balancing the scales” of the will makes any choice, good or bad, for God or against, impossible. Why? Because each person would be suspended in a state of perpetual indecisiveness. They would have no reason for choosing A rather than B. Even Arminian theologian Roger Olson admitted to this in a recent post: “One thing I wrestle with about Arminianism is the mystery of free will.  I don’t know how it works.  There does seem to be an element of uncaused effect in it” (source). If there is no reason to choose one over the other, then all choices, if they were made, would be completely arbitrary (“uncaused effect”).

You see, we make choices according to who we are. If “free will” of the Arminian variety is going to be responsible for making the choice, and this will is neutralized by Prevenient grace, then there is nothing compelling you (character, upbringing, disposition, the Holy Spirit, genetics, etc.) to make any decision whatsoever. Who you are, the primary factor behind every choice, is taken away. There is no “you” to make the choice. It is arbitrary. It does not solve the “loving relationship”problem to say that God is pleased to have a relationship based upon the arbitrary decisions of people. Therefore, in order to hold to the doctrine of Prevenient grace, one is left with either perpetual indecisiveness or an arbitrary choice. Neither of which solves any problems.

Not only this, but lets do the math. Prevenient grace neutralizes the will, making the will completely unbiased toward good or evil. Therefore, this restored “free will” has a fifty-fifty shot of making the right choice. Right? This must be. The scales are completely balanced once God’s Prevenient grace has come upon a person. What would you expect to see if this were the case? Well, I can flip a coin and pretty much expect that the coin would land on heads just as many times as tails. The same should be the case with salvation. You should expect that just as many people to trust the Lord as those that don’t. But just a cursory look through Scripture tells us that this is not the case. For the most part the number of unbelievers has been dramatically higher than that of believers. Take the time of the flood for instance. How is it that out of millions of people (probably much more), there was only one who was found to be righteous? That would be like me flipping a coin a million (or more) times and it landing on tails 999,999 times and only landing on heads once. Impossible. Christ even explicitly said that there will be and always have been many more people who don’t believe than those that do (Matt. 7:14). How can this be if Prevenient grace created a situation of equal opportunity for all people? It can’t.

Now I don’t want to be accused of building a straw man here so I will attempt to represent how Arminians would respond to this. They would say that the contributing factors that influence people’s freedom are those in the outside world. As the snake came from the outside and influenced Adam’s otherwise neutral will, so also outside influences such as culture and family influence people’s will. Therefore, in the time of Noah, the reason why there was only one righteous person on the earth is because the culture had become so corrupt that God could not be found. This is why God destroyed everyone with the flood. This makes some sense, but in reality it simply re-introduces the same problem that Arminians are desperately attempting to avoid – divine unconditional election.

Let me explain. If outside influences play such a large role in influencing Prevenient-grace-restored-people in their choice for or against God, doesn’t that make God the determining factor in whether they are saved or not? If you had a choice, knowing that outside influences were going to play such a big role in the decisions you make, would you want to be born to a family of believers who teach and live the Gospel in a culture of believers that do the same, or would you rather be placed in a committed Muslim home in a Muslim country where the Gospel is unable to give a testimony of God? In other words, would you rather be placed in a Garden with the snake or without the snake? Of course you would say you want to be placed in the environment where the outside influences for belief in God would be most prominently exemplified. Why? Because you have a better chance. Maybe the odds are not perfect, but they would still be much better. Let’s face it, if you were in the preflood world at the time of Noah, as nice a person as you are today, I seriously doubt that you would have followed Noah rather than the rest of the world.

The problem is that you do not decide where you live or when you will be born. You do not determine your outside influences, God does.

Acts 17:26 26 And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.

This passage tells us that God determines the outside influences that are the ultimate influence, the determining factor, in our choice. God chose where you would be born, when, and to what family you would belong. Therefore, God’s sovereign unconditional choice is still the ultimate and determining cause in our salvation. This is the very problem that Arminians seek to avoid with the doctrine of Prevenient grace.

If Arminians were to respond by saying that God gives more grace to those in the most depraved conditions, this would not explain why it is that people in cultures and families that are godly have a higher percentage of believers. We are back to flipping the coin. It does not work either way.

In conclusion, I don’t believe that there is a reason for to entertain the doctrine of Prevenient grace outside of a presupposed view of what some believe must be in order for the truth to be palatable. More importantly, since it really does not solve any problems, it is, in my opinion, superfluous and confusing. Even if it may seem more palatable to say that all people have equal opportunity to accept the Gospel, the palatability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity. This is why I reject the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. 

Whether you agree with me or not, I hope that I have been able to give you an appreciation of why Calvinists such as myself have issues with the libertarian freedom inducted by Prevenient grace.

357 Responses to “Why I Reject the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace”

  1. First, this “balancing the scales” of the will makes any choice, good or bad, for God or against, impossible. Why? Because each person would be suspended in a state of perpetual indecisiveness.

    I think you went from bad to worse in this post. There is so much to address here, but I will reserve that for my own post tomorrow on my own site. For now, let us address this quote.

    In your opinion, Michael, how did Adam and Eve fall from their original righteousness? According to your quote here, God must have been the One to have caused or necessitated their rebellion, since they would have existed “in a state of perpetual indecisiveness.” This entire argument, in my opinion, needs to be more carefully examined from you and other Calvinists.

    God bless.

  2. Hello MCP,

    I think both camps make things way to simple and “neat”. I think it is reasonable to conclude the idea of previent grace from the first several chapters of Romans. How can man see the glory of God demonstrated in the natural world if they are not enlighted by God? My question for the Calvinist would be how much overt scriptural evidence is there for being regenerated prior to salvation? Yet it is a strongly held belief among Calvinists. The Bible seems to teach simultaneous regeneration or post faith regeneration. And perhaps the Arminians hold too much to the idea of God looking down a corridor of time and making choices within a human concept of linear time. I think God, being outside of time, did predestine many things, yet with the knowledge of the choices men would have made or would make. There must be genuine responsibilty if we are to be judged for our choices in life, with the Gospel being the primary point of judgement. But God would not be unjust using someone as a vessel of wrath, if He knew that no matter how much light He gave that person that person would never trust Him for salvation. Pharoah had much light, but rejected it so God used him for His purposes. When Pharoah stands before God, God will say I knew you itimiately before the foundations of the earth and I knew every decision you would every make. Knowing that you would never trust in me I used you for my glory. I know you have answers for all of my points, but the God of true Calvinism seems to run counter to His own teachings on Justice, Love and Human Responsibitly. On another point I have always been fascinated when I am out sharing the Gospel with my Calvinist friends. They always tell the unsaved that Christ died for their sins, yet I know they believe in Limited Atonement. Their explanation that we don’t know who the elect are has always puzzled me. Does the concept of not knowing who the elect are give us license to lie to the majority of unsaved people we witness to? We shouldn’t tell anyone that Christ died for their sins if we only beieve He died for the Elect. We shoud say, He might have died for your sins.

  3. Truth Unites... and Divides October 18, 2010 at 11:10 am

    “Why I Reject the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace”

    C. Michael Patton is merely exercising his free will in rejecting the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace.

    ;-)

  4. William,

    In order for me to answer that question, I would have to know the answer to the question Would Adam and Eve had sinned without outside temptation (the snake). I don’t know the answer.

    However, I would say that were it the case that Adam and Eve sinned due to the influence of the snake (which “tipped the scales”), this would fit into my stance here since I don’t require true libertarian freedom. I would think that this, like all the choices of all the rest of humanity, is a much bigger problem for Arminians since they insist on libertarian freedom.

  5. “God commands and desires that all people are to repent of their sin (Acts 17:30, 2 Pet. 3:9, et al) and holds them responsible if they do not. This assumes that “all people” have this ability, otherwise God’s desire is hopeless and His command is useless. While there may be some mystery in the fact that God desires the salvation of all and commands all to repent, this does not necessitate nor justify, in my opinion, the insertion of a fairy complected and even more mysterious doctrine of Prevenient grace.”

    That issue is the crux of the matter. What do such passages indicate?

    Wesleyan scholar Ken Schenck writes:
    “This is what it means for God to love the world–He genuinely loves the world. He genuinely wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He does not just love humanity because of how much humanity loves Him. He loves humanity, period, and likes hanging out with us.
    Now since the Reformed tradition is so fond of logic, there are only three options for the theological appropriation of 1 Timothy 2:4: God “wants to save all persons and [for them] to come to a knowledge of the truth….
    a) This is hyperbole of some kind, an exaggeration. Somehow the words don’t mean what they say. Everyone really only means those who count, those he has elected….
    b) Everyone will be saved, the universalist option. Barth famously said that he was not a universalist, but maybe God was. This, in my opinion, would be the most coherent Calvinist view…
    c) God does not force humans to be saved but in some way, enables or allows them to have a say in the process….
    Clearly the last option is the one that makes the best sense of 1 Timothy. Any other option involves shoving extraneous theological propositions down its throat”

  6. Michael,

    I just have a few points. First, true libertarian freedom takes into account influences on behavior.

    Second, with regard to the supposed lack of scripture, why do you think that the scriptures that show God working in someone’s life prior to their salvation aren’t scriptural? Are you suggesting that there needs to be an explicit proof text for everything we derive from scripture? If that’s the case, then Calvinism faces a pretty serious lack of scriptural support for its views. But this assumes that we do lack strong and explicit proof texts. As a matter of fact, Romans 2:4 and Titus 2:11 seem pretty strong instances of a grace that precedes and is necessary to lead to repentance.

    With regard to it not solving anything, it seems to me you’re simply begging the question in favor of determinism. If people do have libertarian freedom, then no such causative mechanism is needed to “tip the scales” one way or the other. The agent him/herself ultimately chooses what to do. They may have certain reasons and may be influenced by certain things that take part in their own reasoning, but these things don’t cause the choice. Rather, the agent him/herself determines the choice they make. If this is the case, then prevenient grace does solve something, namely how those who are totally unable to come to God are enabled by Him without being irresistibly determined.

  7. Just curious…Roger Olson seems to agree that the Prevenient grace system necessitates an uncaused cause. Do you Arminians agree with him. I do appreciate his honesty there.

    Also, you have to distinguish what Augustine spoke of as Prevenient grace in the sense of preparation. All traditions believe in this. The prevenient grace that is being spoken of here is not merely God preparing someone for the Gospel through life’s circumstances, the witness of creation, good apologetics, etc, but the nutralizing the effects of the fall on the will so that a person can make a true libertarian decision.

    Seems that some of you are unaware of this distinction.

  8. So not a sparrow falls unless it’s His will, but humans can do what they want?

    Rick, you forgot option (d). God does not get what He desires, because if he did everyone would be saved. So He settles for the next best thing, accepting what men want to give him.

    Maybe it’s true what they say, consistent Arminianism ends in Open Theism.

  9. Is libertarian free will a requirement of Arminianism and is pre-faith regeneration a requirement of Calvinism?

  10. Michael

    Just curious…Roger Olson seems to agree that the Prevenient grace system necessitates an uncaused cause. Do you Arminians agree with him. I do appreciate his honesty there.

    I’m not sure 100% what Roger is saying there. If he’s saying there’s absolutely no cause for a certain action, then that doesn’t even agree with libertarian freedom. I wager to suggest that he probably means by this that there is no external cause which necessitates that an agent choose a particular thing, in this case faith in Christ. Rather it is the agent him/herself that determines their own choice. It is self-caused.

    Also, you have to distinguish what Augustine spoke of as Prevenient grace in the sense of preparation. All traditions believe in this. The prevenient grace that is being spoken of here is not merely God preparing someone for the Gospel through life’s circumstances, the witness of creation, good apologetics, etc, but the nutralizing the effects of the fall on the will so that a person can make a true libertarian decision.

    Seems that some of you are unaware of this distinction.

    I’m a little confused at what you’re saying here, but are you acknowledging that there is scriptural support for what we’re saying, whether you agree with the interpretation or not?

    It seems to me, that if “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11) then, if the Calvinistic view of this preparing grace were correct, we’d need to be universalists.

    God bless :)

  11. Other Michael,

    So not a sparrow falls unless it’s His will, but humans can do what they want?

    There’s a distinction between a will permitting something and actively causing something. It could be according to the will of God to permit certain things.

    Maybe it’s true what they say, consistent Arminianism ends in Open Theism.

    Maybe someday I’ll hear an argument for this offensive canard.

  12. Michael,

    If you really think that the use of free will requires a compelling reason, then you must believe that God was compelled to create this world. And that would entail that God had to create, in much the way a woman in labor needs to push the baby out.

    But for a Catholic, that is a heresy. God was free to create or not create. There was no necessity or compulsion in God’s free choice to create. Creation is not something God needs to get out of His system, to actualize His nature, or perfect or realize Himself. He was already perfect and perfectly happy, and didn’t need to create, and was perfectly free not to create. That’s why creation is a sheer gift. It is also why Spinoza’s metaphysics is false, because if we are just a necessary expression of the divine nature, then pantheism is entailed.

    In addition, if Lucifer had a compelling reason to rebel against God, then he couldn’t be blamed for what he did in rebelling against God, since he couldn’t have done otherwise. If you had a daughter, and she passed out and when she fell her body hit and broke something that you had previously told her not to touch, would you spank her? She might protest, “But I couldn’t help it.” Would you respond, “Sorry, darling, it doesn’t matter that you couldn’t help it; I ordered you not to touch it, and you touched it. Take your lickin.” Really? But if you wouldn’t do that, they why do you think our heavenly Father would do that? If God made Lucifer such that Lucifer couldn’t help but fall, then Lucifer would not be culpable, and it would be unjust for God to punish Lucifer. Lucifer is culpable primarily because he could have done otherwise, and knew that he should have done otherwise, but freely did what he knew was wrong.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  13. “There’s a distinction between a will permitting something and actively causing something. It could be according to the will of God to permit certain things.”

    Whether he “permits” it, as you say, or actively causes it, it is still all for His ultimate purpose. Everything ultimately glorifies God.

    If man can trump God’s desires, does he not set himself up as a higher transcendent being?

    Regarding the offensive canard, you could read Clark Pinnock, Greg Boy, (soon to be Olsen?), et al.

  14. Bryan,

    “If you really think that the use of free will requires a compelling reason, then you must believe that God was compelled to create this world. And that would entail that God had to create, in much the way a woman in labor needs to push the baby out.”

    Not really since it is consistent with his character to create. The basic assumption is that freedom is the ability to act according to who you are. God has all of the innate attributes that we would expect to will creation. And that is the point. Man does not. Man has to be given a new character to choose according to who they are. They cannot be given a neutral character and expect a choice to be made. Outside influences or inner compelling is the only explanation for choices that are not arbitrary.

  15. For you, could God have chosen not to create? That is, was He free to not create, or was creation necessary given God’s nature?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  16. Michael,

    Given this notion of freedom as “the ability to act according to who you are” it would follow that all the demons in hell are free. Not only that, but every rock and tree is free too, since it acts according to what it is.

    In fact, given that definition of freedom, I can’t think of anything that is not free. And in that way, the word ‘freedom’ is evacuated of all meaning, since when everything is said to be ‘x’ then ‘x’ has no meaning, since the contrary of x is inconceivable.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  17. Boss,

    “‘Also, you have to distinguish what Augustine spoke of as Prevenient grace in the sense of preparation. All traditions believe in this. The prevenient grace that is being spoken of here is not merely God preparing someone for the Gospel through life’s circumstances, the witness of creation, good apologetics, etc, but the neutralizing the effects of the fall on the will so that a person can make a true libertarian decision.

    Seems that some of you are unaware of this distinction.’

    I’m a little confused at what you’re saying here, but are you acknowledging that there is scriptural support for what we’re saying, whether you agree with the interpretation or not?”

    No. I am acknowledging common grace and the type of prevenient grace that Augustine spoke of. It is the effect of grace that is at issue. Does the Bible teach that God’s common grace effects a neutralization of the effects of the fall on the will in order for depraved people to have the ability to accept him? I don’t see it.

    That I acknowledge a common grace or even a “preparatory” grace as being consistent with biblical revelation is not the same as saying that we can read into this the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. It is much to complex to find in these passages that speak of common grace. It is not unlike the Catholic understanding of papal authority being read into any reference to authority of elders or church leaders in the Bible. Yes it could fit, but their has to be something compelling to make us read such into these passages.

    In the end, like I said, even if one were to read these passages this way, the philosophical problems of real life don’t really do anything but escalate the problem in the ways I described in the post.

    At least that is my opinion. But, then again, there are some bulwarks of philosophy and theology that would disagree with me: Roger Olson, William Craig, J.P. Moreland, and, our own, Paul Copan. Formidable guys they are. It gives me pause.

  18. Bryan, rocks don’t have a will and don’t act. :)

    The assumption is that there are choices made. We are free to make these choices in the sense that nothing forces us to make them. As Augustine said, “We have freedom, but we lack liberty.”

  19. Bryan,

    Absolutely God was free. He is always free. But does he have the freedom to sin, lie, or break promises? No since that would be outside of his character.

    Do you believe that God can act in ways that is inconsistant with his character?

  20. CMP,

    Is the issue maybe more whether this prevenient grace is “resistible” or not? I’ve honestly never heard an Arminian suggest this “blank slate” or utterly neutral stand you give. Rather, they would say that prevenient grace only gets us to the point in which we can truly make a decision (out of our will) to believe in Christ or not, not that it takes us the full way *through* that decision.

    I think Calvinism strongly resonates with me intellectually, but I live more as an Arminian if I’m honest. That troubles me.

    I also wonder how much of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate is fueled by a person’s conversion experience. Most Calvinist writers I read describe their own conversion experience sort of as “God dragged me in kicking and screaming” whereas what I hear from non-Calvinists is more “God called and I responded”. Is there any possibility that this debate stems from God using different methods?

  21. Michael,

    If you think God could have not created the world, i.e. was free to not create the world, then it follows that free choice does not require a compelling reason to act one way rather than another. And then there is no reason to think that humans must have a compelling reason in order to choose freely. A sufficient reason is not necessarily a compelling reason.

    God cannot sin, but as St. Anselm explains, that is more precisely described as an ability to avoid sin necessarily. Freedom does not consist in the ability to sin; otherwise God would not be free. But freedom does require the ability to do otherwise. If God could in no way do otherwise than He does, He would not be free. But God is free because He can choose between an infinite number of possible goods.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  22. Jordon, no. While most Calvinist that I know believe that regeneration proceeds faith, some, such as Bruce Demarest, do not. He does recognize the need for grace to come before salvaiton, but he equates this with “calling.” Therefore, in his ordo salutis (order of salvation), he has election-calling-faith-regeneration-justification, but he believes this calling to be “effectual” as do all Calvinists.

    The traditional Calvinistic ordo is election-call-regeneration-faith-justification.

  23. Bryan,

    So you believe that God can act inconsistant with his character?

  24. Michael,

    No, I don’t believe God can “act inconsistent with His character.” I’m not sure where you got the idea that I might believe that. God’s character does not entail that He create, nor does it entail that He not create. Whether He creates or does not create, either course of action is consistent with His character. But for God to do evil, that would be inconsistent with His character; but God cannot do evil — or more properly, God perfectly and necessarily avoids doing evil.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  25. Jordan-
    “the point is that prevenient grace only gets us to the point in which we can truly make a decision to believe in Christ or not”

    As Wesleyan scholar Keith Drury points out, there is a difference between some modern Arminianism and traditional Arminianism:

    “Contemporary Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism either implies or explicitly teaches that faith is an inherent power within human beings as a result of the prevenient grace given to all of humanity. As such, human beings have the ability in any given moment to exercise their will to believe the Gospel and be saved. From this perspective, people at any time may hear the Gospel, weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the argument offered and chose to follow Christ. Thus, faith and a personal response to the Gospel, is primarily something a person does….
    Wesley disagrees. This contemporary understanding is a fundamental misappropriation of Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace. Prevenient grace, to Wesley is primarily a restoration of humanity’s responsiveness to grace not the granting of the power to believe. To Wesley prevenient grace brings to power to respond to grace, not the power to believe.
    Wesley would say that as a result of prevenient grace human beings are able to cooperate with further offers of grace by God—not that they had the power to believe when they heard the gospel. For Wesley prevenient grace in itself does not restore to people the ability to exercise faith, much less express repentance—these are works of God not men and women. Prevenient grace enables a person to cooperate with God’s grace made available through the means of grace that seeks to convict a person of sin, convince a person of the need for Christ, and create saving faith. Thus, to Wesley all prevenient grace enables a person to do is choose to cooperate with these further works of grace or not. Grace from this perspective is the work of the Holy Spirit in us.”

  26. So Brian,

    We may be talking past each other here (which is not hard to do with such topics), but what I hear you say when you say that God cannot act inconsistent with his character is that God lack true libertarian freedom. He does not have the power of contrary (out of character) choice. He chooses according to who he is.

    How is it that we can have a greater degree of freedom here than God? Why would it be so inconsistent for us to say that we can only choose according to who we are and that there is not some tirtium quid at work in our lives called “free will”? The will is only who you are. We have the freedom to choose according to who we are. As Ronald Nash put it (from Jonathan Edwards) “We only choose according to the greatest desire of the moment.” If we are born willfully broken, then unless something drastic happens, we are going to choose against God always because that is who we always are. Arminians seek to neutralize the will so that the choice will be fair and responsible. But this simply ends in indecisiveness or arbitrary choices. These don’t honor God. If we one were to choose God it is because God has changed them so that who they “are” at the point of the choice is “believer.”

  27. As always folks,

    Love the conversation. Please keep it clean and beneficial. No demeaning of either side in the slightest bit. Go out of your way to be gentle and tactful.

    I am out as I have classes to write, prepare for, and teach over the next couple of day. But I already have a blog post ready for tomorrow on “What I Know and Don’t Know About Satan and Demons.”

  28. CMP-
    “I am out as I have classes to write, prepare for, and teach over the next couple of day.”

    You are really out to celebrate OU being ranked #1. :^)

  29. I know the compatibilist/incompatibilist views regarding free will are complex. How free is free, when is an agent morally responsible, etc.

    That said I always understood prevenient grace not as creating a “neutralized” will and therefore a state of indecisiveness or a 50/50 chance at salvation but rather that the HS gives an understanding in the person such that they are convicted (aware, understand) that they are sinners and that God will judge them. They will understand the gospel message and that there is a choice to make. Thus they exercise the “free will” to accept or reject the gift God offers. However the choice they make is not irresistible.

    Any good reading suggestions for better understanding the “free will” concepts in both systems?

    Thanks
    MikeB

  30. Wesleyan scholar Ken Schenck writes:
    “This is what it means for God to love the world–He genuinely loves the world. He genuinely wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). […] there are only three options for the theological appropriation of 1 Timothy 2:4

    There are not only three options.

    One example of an alternative interpretation would be to take in the context (where Paul exhorts us to pray for kings and rulers), and assert that “all men” here refers to all kinds of men, encompassing the rulers and the ruled, the oppressed and the oppressors; not each and every individual. This gives Paul’s comments about praying for kings context; otherwise it’s hard to see why he didn’t merely skip talking about kings and simply exhort us to pray for all men.

    -Wm

  31. Michael,

    but what I hear you say when you say that God cannot act inconsistent with his character is that God lack true libertarian freedom. He does not have the power of contrary (out of character) choice. He chooses according to who he is.

    Then you are mis-hearing me. God does have libertarian freedom, to choose between goods, since all the good options are consistent with (though none is entailed by) His character. But He cannot choose evil. Not being able to choose evil does not eliminate His libertarian freedom.

    How is it that we can have a greater degree of freedom here than God?

    We don’t have more freedom than God has, since He has an infinite range of good options open to Him, while we have a much smaller range of options (good and evil) open to us. Maximization of libertarian freedom is not the greatest good; this is why libertarian freedom is a qualified good, not an absolute good.

    Why would it be so inconsistent for us to say that we can only choose according to who we are and that there is not some tirtium quid at work in our lives called “free will”?

    Because it would nullify moral praise and blame. (This notion that this life is a kind of Darwinism selection system for those with good and bad natures, was the form of Marcionism against which Origen strongly argued.) It would make our choices meaningless, and this presently earthly life meaningless as well, since none of choices here ultimately make a difference.

    The will is only who you are. We have the freedom to choose according to who we are.

    Then we are just like robots, neither to praise or blame for our ‘choices.’ And then God is a sicko who tortures people in hell for eternity, for doing what they could not help but doing.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  32. CMP,

    I’m going out on a limb here…. but you started it with referring to the Olson article. And I think fair is fair…..

    You wrote:
    Even Arminian theologian Roger Olson admitted to this in a recent post: “One thing I wrestle with about Arminianism is the mystery of free will. I don’t know how it works. There does seem to be an element of uncaused effect in it” (source).

    Right ?

    Well in the same article Olson mentions

    What would happen, though, if both sides of this evangelical debate openly admitted that their systems are fallible interpretations of Scripture and not “transcripts of the gospel” (which is the same as to say equal with Scripture in authority) and that adherents of the other system are not wrong-headed or insincere or stupid or whatever but people sincerely seeking to trace out the meaning of Scripture where it is not as clear as we would like it to be?

    As a matter of fact, the statement you used is his “dare” to the Calvinist theologians out there. And personally based on your writings I would put you in that group.

    His dare is this: Let me step out and dare to name a problem with Arminian theology and then challenge a committed Calvinist to do the same. After which he gives the example you quoted.

    So… what is your problem with the Calvinist theology ? Or is in infallible and elevated to the same heights as Scripture ? ;-)

    Not being facetious.. but trying to keep you honest…. I’m sure I’ll be forever anathematized from the blog now…. :-(

    Personally.. I have a problem with either one, but I’ll write an article on that over the coming days.

    In Him
    Mick

  33. To be fair, CMP wrote this on Olson’s blog as well:

    “As a Calvinist, I find it very difficult to understand why God did not choose everyone. All explainations that are given in my camp are terrible. I am not saying that they are necessarily wrong (I don’t know), but they are completely unsatisfying. There is simply no problem with unconditional election of all people. The problem is when God, who loves all people, only elects some.”

    But I’d like to see a longer article as to what this means and how one can still adhere to the entire Calvinistic theology while struggling with this portion of it.

    Mick

  34. (Regarding deciding that “free choice” consists of choosing according to one’s nature:)

    Because it would nullify moral praise and blame.

    Why? This seems to do nothing more than define “moral praise and blame” according to libertarian free will. Why shouldn’t moral praise and blame be according to one’s nature? After all, we praise God for being good; isn’t that true praise, and praise of a moral quality?

    It would make our choices meaningless, and this presently earthly life meaningless as well, since none of choices here ultimately make a difference.

    I think what you’re saying is that since God already knew we were by nature “bad”, He could have just discarded us unborn, rather than having us live and make our bad choices.

    He certainly could have. But instead He formed us and then saved some of us, even though none of us deserved to be either formed or saved.

    And then God is a sicko who tortures people in hell for eternity, for doing what they could not help but doing.

    Wouldn’t He be a WORSE sicko for torturing people for eternity based on completely arbitrary choices made during a finite span? We only have 70 years to make choices, and if our choices truly COULD go either way, then surely we should still be able to choose if only we’d lived a little bit longer and been argued with one more time.

    Yet at some point, you will say, man becomes unable to make those choices anymore; he becomes set in his choices, and after that eternity will not change him. After that point, though, by your argument, wouldn’t you say that he is no longer to be morally praised or blamed? Yes, he was bad in the past, and consistently bad; but now he is no longer a moral subject (by your definition). Isn’t that what your claim about moral praise and blame implies?

    -Wm

  35. Wayne in Frisco October 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    From Michael: “Maybe it’s true what they say, consistent Arminianism ends in Open Theism.”

    Yes, it must.

    CMP – great post. I learned a lot and will be keeping a copy of this one. Good arguments.

  36. Universal Salvation:

    I don’t currently believe in universal salvation, but whenever I heard arguements between C alvinists and Arminianists it always convinces me more and more that universal salvation is true.

    It makes no sense for salvation to be down to only Gods choice but not all to be saved.

    Also Arminianism has the problem of why anyone would freely choose or not choose God. Then again couldn’t the arguement you use against Prevenient Grace be changed slightly to say that because of our nature and culture we are not responsible for our actions since our nature is not our fault and random actions are not our fault.

    Salvation is a horribly messed up thing to have to think about.

  37. Part one: Since I’m made in God’s image, I’m going to use what I know and reason from that perspective. Let’s see what a scholastically uncluttered mind can reason? God sees and knows the outcome of our lives and choices before we were born. I’ve had to answer to many unbelievers or those considering becoming believers the question, Why? If God knows how it’s all going to play out, why bother going through the exercise? Well, I don’t know. I can only make an analogy that is hard to shake for some reason. Parents know often (not definitively as God knows except Mom’s who do have eyes in the back of their heads) when a child is going to get hurt. And yet, they let them try anyway. Is that cruel? Is that wrong? Should they secure the child so they cannot make the obvious wrong choices and spare the child the pain? Of course, most parents know to do so is sparing the child the lesson and growth to mature, to be equipped. I knew that as a young mom long before I was a grandparent. It’s elementary.

  38. Part two: So parents have pretty good instincts? about different children. We do try to give wisdom but ultimately the child needs the room to show responsibility or act like a buffoon and fall on his face. I have influenced the child. I know because they told me later in their adults lives that they did hear and did recall, when in a precarious situation,they heard my voice, my words but….but still chose not to believe and chose to sin. Now what might I have done if I knew positively as God knows that the child was going to rebel and sin? Save some time, that’s for sure. You never stop being a parent, you never stop loving your children. But a time can come even for earthly parents to feel estranged from a child and feel as if they don’t really know that child. The one that you know….again not in the sense God knows but this is the best analogy I can give… that you know is on a path of his own choosing, a path to destruction, you make a decision to cut ties with the sinning child in order to accommodate and feed and reward the righteous child.

  39. So is a parent wrong for the time he allows the sinning child to disrupt the family? Does anyone know for sure when it’s time to remove a child from the family. I mean, the child is still in your heart but physically removed to give the righteous a break. For a time, did not the sinning child teach the righteous that obeying and living in the will of his parents is the best life? The parent has used his influence on all his children. He’s taught proper behavior, etiquette, manners, sharing, good morals, unconditional love…sounds more like a she, right?… perhaps to little avail. He’s certain he knows the outcome. He hopes. God is different. He knows before that child takes his first breath how he will live his life and how he will respond to Him. He doesn’t feel. He doesn’t hope. If a parent can predict so well the outcome of a child, how much so does God? The sinning child creates chaos in the home. When he is removed, there is peace. The righteous child is blessed. If God knows better than we do the outcome, why indulge the child that He knows will always reject Him, not eventually, not maybe when he’s older but always reject what is righteous with His Holy Spirit? So, I am making a case for which one? Prevenient grace or Irresistible grace?

  40. “God can passively desire things that He does not actively will to come about.”

    LOL, you calvinists say the darndest things! :-)

    So God is sitting there wanting to save people but is too tired or lazy to actually do anything about it, amazing!

  41. The more information I am gaining from your blog about calvinism, the more I see that I agree with at least some of his (calvin’s) beliefs. I would like to see you blog about basic Calvinists beliefs and ideals. I wonder how much I believe like Calvin did. This is really interesting. I totally agree with Calvin that man cannot resist the grace of God, otherwise salvation would be dependent upon us or our actions, however without God’s total salvation of mankind, I feel no one would be saved. I believe it is God that leads us to repentence and when he does, we cannot or will not reject it. I believe God has all power and control over the will of man. I really want to learn more about Calvin and his beliefs. Amazing.

  42. Is the following picture flawed in some way that I’m missing, or perhaps too vague to be of any real value? Note that it does assume that if you know everything (as only God could) about the sum of a person’s life experiences, including all of the personal and environmental influences (physical and spiritual) acting upon them, you can predict with perfect accuracy how they will make any given decision.

    At the outset, when the omniscient, omnipotent God is creating the universe, he can set it up in any logically permissible way. He can see, “before” creating it, the entire timeline of its history laid out before him. Even in a universe in which he might create agents with free will, he knows without actually creating it the direction in which they’ll exercise their will, including their own reasons for the decision. If a particular decision displeases him, he has only to create a slightly different universe from the one he is considering, in which the decision will please him.

    What standard does God have by which to discriminate among possible universes at the time of creation, except how much it pleases him to create each option? What conclusion can we draw except that the universe we have — complete with its history of sin and redemption, a future of both mercy and justice at some critical balance — pleased him above all others? Then, regardless of how he brings about the salvation of the objects of his mercy, he has in effect chosen them by choosing to create a universe in which he saves them.

    I know this is territory Leibniz has explored, though I am not well acquainted with his philosophy nor with his principal critics; my impression has been that his purpose is more to answer the so-called problem of evil than to address the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. Of course there’s a question whether you would still call it “free” will if your decisions are in principle predictable (even if only by God himself).

  43. WM,

    “Why? This seems to do nothing more than define “moral praise and blame” according to libertarian free will. Why shouldn’t moral praise and blame be according to one’s nature? After all, we praise God for being good; isn’t that true praise, and praise of a moral quality?”

    Because ones nature was destined, determined, and ordained by God. It can be no more praiseworthy then the android Data’s ethics programming in Star Trek. He may have appeared to be exercising free will or doing what he chose, but ultimately it was all elaborate programming that forced him uncontrollably to do what was right. If ones goodness or badness is externally determined and not through a choice of their own how then ca we blame those who commit evil acts for doing evil or those who commit selfless acts for doing good? Those who do evil do evil because they were ordained to be evil and those who do good do good because they were ordained to do good. Neither one is to be “blamed” or “praised” for their actions. They were just doing what they were programmed to do.

    As for God being evil, philosophically speaking a evil being could not be God as traditionally defined.

  44. It is interesting that, as seen in the comments in this post and CMP’s previous post, both sides see Scripture, a systematic theology, logic, etc… on their side. Both also seem to acknowledge a tension.

    So I am wondering how people decide to lean one way or the other in that tension.

    This brings to mind a series Scot McKnight is doing at Jesus Creed regarding American’s view of God. In commenting on that book, he writes:
    “Americans have four gods — four distinct images of God that influence many dimensions of life and culture. They use three axes to examine through the Baylor Study of Religion what Americans think: God is loving, God is judge, and God is engaged, but they discover that nearly everyone thinks God is loving, so it was the judging and engaged dimensions that were able to distinguish the groups:
    1. The Benevolent God (24%): engaged and non-judgmental
    2. The Authoritative God (31%): engaged and judgmental
    3. The Distant God (24%): neither judgmental nor engaged
    4. The Critical God (16%): judgmental but not engaged”

    Scot later goes on to note:
    “…religious communities matter:
    RCC: Authority (22%), Benevolent (30%), Critical (21%), Distant (30%)
    Evangelical: Authority (51%), Benevolent (26%), Critical (14%), Distant (11%)
    Black Prot: Authority (68%), Benevolent (12%), Critical (20%), Distant (0)
    Mainline: Authority (22%), Benevolent (28%), Critical (20%), Distant (30%)”

    Therefore, is the Calvinism/Arminian debate somewhat shaped by that Authority/Benevolent/Critical/Distant distinction?

  45. jonathan:

    “So God is sitting there wanting to save people but is too tired or lazy to actually do anything about it, amazing!”

    The idea that God could save people, but doesn’t, is hardly unique to Calvinism. Unless you are a universalist you’ll have to come to terms with this.

    See Are There Two Wills in God?

  46. CMP,

    I think the problem is that the Bible does not present a unified teaching on this subject. If it were really the Word of God, one would expect it to be consistent. OTH, if it is the musings of men then the inconsistency is not surprising. (BTW, it is not only this doctrine that the Bible is inconsistent on).

    What happens is that Calvinists have specific passages to which they give priority and then they explain the “difficult” verses on the basis of the ones that they made their benchmark. The Arminian does precisely the same thing except that the verses which the Calvinist thinks are “difficult” become his benchmark and the verse that the Calivinists have priortized become the “difficult” verses for the Arminian.

    Both positions have problems exegetically and theologically. One of the problems that I see with Calvinism is that it holds man responsible for that which he cannot do. How is that just? If my child is deaf, should I condemn him because he cannot hear?

    One of the problems for the Arminian is that if man’s choice is determinative, then there is something in the believer that distinguishes him from the unbeliever and that “something” becomes the basis for his salvation. This makes the believer in some way, better or more spiritually adept or less rebellious or something that results in his salvation.

  47. Ken Pulliam:

    “One of the problems that I see with Calvinism is that it holds man responsible for that which he cannot do. How is that just? If my child is deaf, should I condemn him because he cannot hear?”

    No, but if he borrows $5 million and then blows the money at the casino he is still 100% liable despite his utter inability to repay the debt.

  48. Because ones nature was destined, determined, and ordained by God.

    Yes, indeed; but that doesn’t answer my question at all. “Why,” (I said) “shouldn’t moral praise and blame be according to one’s nature? After all, we praise God for being good; isn’t that true praise, and praise of a moral quality?”

    It can be no more praiseworthy then the android Data’s ethics programming in Star Trek.

    The moral praiseworthiness of Data’s actions was an question that Star Trek examined many times (although I didn’t watch it enough, so I don’t know if they decided to resolve the issue). I think they decided that although every step in Data’s processes was simple law-following based on his design, his actions were nonetheless creditable to him. I imagine that when his designer walked onstage, the characters complimented him on his design, and gave examples of times Data had shown courage that saved their lives (and such). They no doubt praised the designer for his life-saving design, but didn’t give the designer credit for the times Data had actually acted to save their lives (that credit belonged to Data himself).

    We can also compare more reachable examples. We can actually observe people discussing literary characters like Samwise Gamgee or Ophelia, for both of which their respective authors managed to establish solid characters; we inevitably assign moral praise and blame to them and their actions (of course, not confusing them with real people who can act in our lives).

    As for God being evil, philosophically speaking a evil being could not be God as traditionally defined.

    I didn’t say God was evil; I said that we praise God for being good, even though that is His nature and He cannot be otherwise. This contradicts your claim that praise must be for things which could have been otherwise.

    -Wm

  49. Wm,

    It seems to me that there is a difference in praise going to someone that can not be otherwise and a being that can not be otherwise being held eternally accountable for the evil he did which he could not do otherwise. The evil he did because the Being that is now holding him eternally accountable saw to it that he had to do. And now, indeed, that Being that saw to it that he could not do otherwise is holding that one so accountable for what he could not help but do by His own decree that he is going to be eternally tormented with horrific torment for it!

  50. WM,

    I think the different between praising God for having a good nature and praising man for his nature is that God, including his nature, is a neccessary, uncreated being who, if He is to be truly God, must be good. A evil God is not God. Man on the other hand is a contingent, created being. If man’s nature is bound by God such that man cannot legitimately choose between good and evil then man’s nature is neither blameworthy or praiseworthy, rather God is praiseworth or blameworthy for creating a creature that is such.

    Imagine my Star Trek scenario again with Data (yes I know I am a bit of a Trekkie). In the Star Trek series Data was the second android created by Dr. Soong. The first android was named Lore and was built without an ethics program. This android became a monster and was responsible for the deaths of thousands. This of course was no Soong’s intent. Now imagine instead that Dr. Soong had created Lore with the intention of creating a monster and had given it a anti-ethics program of sorts. Would Dr. Soong be blameworthy for the actions of Lore??

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