Calvin and Arminius are well known for their views on predestination, but I would argue that they cared less about that subject than they did about defending particular attributes of God’s nature which they felt were at risk of being overlooked, under-appreciated, or misrepresented. The attributes they sought to defend informed their arguments concerning predestination and other subjects. Calvin was motivated by a desire to promote the glory of God by expressing His sovereignty, while Arminius was greatly concerned that the efforts of many theologians to demonstrate the ultimate sovereignty of God were impugning His goodness and glory. Neither man would deny the attributes of God which the other defended, but their difference in focus greatly affected how they interpreted Scripture.
Calvin viewed the sovereignty of God as the cause of all things, and he taught that before the foundation of the world, to ensure that God’s glory was clearly seen through both mercy and justice, based on nothing other than His own good pleasure, God elected those to whom He would show mercy or wrath. Furthermore, Calvin believed that in order to fulfill His purposes in Election, God decreed that man must sin and fall from grace. Calvin writes,
“Accordingly it cannot be denied that before creating man, God foresaw to what end he would come; he foresaw it because he had so ordained it in his counsel…No one should think it strange if I say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and with it the ruin of all his posterity, but also willed it. For just as it is part of his wisdom that he foresees all future events, so it is part of his power that he rules and governs all things by his hand.”Institues, 478
Arminius felt that attributing the first sin and the fall of man to God’s sovereign choice hurt his goodness and made God the author of sin. If that first sin was decreed by God and came about by necessity, then man in his innocence before the fall, not having the freedom in himself or the grace from God to abstain from sin, could not be justly condemned for its commission. Of man, Arminius states:
“Unless he had created them in righteousness and true holiness, he would himself have been the author of sin, and would by this means have possessed no right either to punish them to the praise of his justice, or to save them to the praise of his mercy. Unless they had themselves sinned, and by the demerit of sin had rendered themselves guilty of death, there would have been no room for the demonstration either of justice or of mercy.”Arminius Speaks, 31
Calvin acknowledged the difficulty that his comprehensive view of sovereignty added to discussion of the fall of man, and appealed to mystery for the solution when he says,
“Let us therefore recognize in man’s corrupt nature the cause of his damnation which is so obvious to him, rather than seek it in God’s predestination where it is hidden and entirely beyond our comprehension. Nor should it pain us to yield our minds to God’s boundless wisdom and to leave to him his many secrets. For when there are things which it is not lawful or possible to know, ignorance is a mark of learning, and the itch to know is a kind of madness.”Institutes, 479
Calvin saw both sovereignty and goodness as definite attributes of God, and argued that when they appear to conflict in scripture, we shouldn’t doubt his complete sovereignty, but instead, we should assume that God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding, and that God is doing something in his secret council that is completely consistent with all of his attributes, even if we cannot understand it.
Responding to this position, Arminius argued that sovereignty could be upheld in a way that didn’t present any conflict with his goodness at all. He felt that we don’t need to appeal to mystery to uphold both attributes. When they appear in tension, we should seek to understand them better. His solution was to describe God’s sovereignty as consisting of two complementary aspects: his efficacious will, and his permissive will. The former is the will of God by which He decrees that a thing must and will happen; it is certain and immutable. The latter is the will of God by which he declares that a thing may happen, leaving it up to his creatures whether it does. All things that happen on earth are either willed by God, efficaciously, or permitted by Him. Regarding the fall of man, Arminius argued that God did not desire the Fall, but permitted it by bestowing on rational man the ability to disobey God’s command even while God continued to extend the grace necessary for man to obey. This was to ensure that if man sinned, it would be of his own volition, outside of God’s will, and worthy of just condemnation.
The attempt to reconcile the sovereignty and goodness of God were not unique to Calvin and Arminius. Even before Arminius entered the scene, there were debates among those who, like Calvin, believe that Election is unconditional. It is out of such debates that we get Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism, or as they might be more commonly known today, High Calvinism (not to be confused with Hyper-Calvinism) and Low Calvinism. Examples of contemporary pastors in each of these camps would be John Piper and John MacArthur respectively, if I am not mistaken.
Today we still face this question in a variety of forms. Each of us has to decide how we will read Scripture and reconcile the sovereignty and goodness of God when they seem to be in opposition. Whenever we hear questions like “why is there evil?” “why did some tragic event occur?” “did God cause my suffering?” or “why do children die?” most Christians are taught to respond to these questions by saying that sin is the cause of the evil and decay in our world. I would argue that answers like that, while valid, don’t quite get to the heart of these questions. These questions are really another way of asking “how does God execute his sovereignty in our world?”. Are we living in the world God wanted, or the world he tolerates in order to get what he really wants?
As Christians we know that we serve a God who is sovereign over the whole world (Psalm 115:3, 135:6). We also know that we serve a God who is truly good (Psalm 119:68, 145:9, James 1:13, 1 John 1:5). Calvin believed that when these appear to conflict, we must trust God’s secret wisdom, while Arminius believed God’s goodness constrains his sovereignty.
What do you believe? Do you favor one characteristic of God over another? How does that affect how you interpret Scripture? How do you see the troubles of the world around you? How do you comfort those around you who are suffering right now?
Arminius, J. (2011). Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God (J. D. Wagner, Ed.). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
Calvin, J. (2014). Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541 ed.) (R. White, Trans.). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.