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Determinism and the authorship of sin in Calvinism and Arminianism

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by Dominic Bnonn


Arminians object to determinism because it makes God the “author of evil”—but does their own system avoid it? In this post, I argue that although they disagree with Calvinists about the nature of God’s sovereignty, their own theology commits them to an equally deterministic view.


I’ve been participating in, and witness to, some protracted debates with Arminians of late. These have mostly centered around whether God is the “author of sin”, or in some sense the origin of evil. I won’t recount the sordid details of these discussions—you can read the comment thread of ‘How Calvinism (Determinism) Makes God the Author of Sin’, by Billy Birch, if you want to see the majority of my involvement. What I want to write about here (with some awareness of, and apology for, how little I post my own articles as of late), is the issue of theistic determinism.


As most any Calvinist probably knows, one of the primary objections to Reformed theology from Arminians is that it entails a deterministic relationship between creation and God. That is to say, God meticulously determines everything which transpires in creation, such that man cannot have free will in the libertarian sense (Calvinists argue that he can still have free will, however, in the compatibilist sense). Arminians allege that determinism makes God the “author of sin”—an ill-defined, emotionally-laden term which generally conveys that God, in some sense, is the ultimate origin of evil. Under Arminian lights, this cannot be and amounts to blasphemy against God’s holy character.

Determinism defined


In the comment thread of Steve Hays’ brief article, ‘What is Determinism?’, I posit the following definition of theistic or theological determinism (as opposed to the secular notion of physical determinism):


TD: theistic determinism is true if, and only if, for an agent (S) choosing whether to act (A) at time t, the outcome A or ¬A is actualized inevitably because of a prior action on the part of God.


It seems to me that any definition which tries to impose a stronger element of determination becomes a caricature of the Reformed position. For instance, there is nothing about determination, per se, which requires a specific theory of causation with regard to what the “prior action of God” is. However, this being the case, how does Arminianism differ, functionally, from Calvinism itself? To elaborate—

God’s action under Calvinism


By Reformed lights, the “prior action of God” enjoys the following general sequence: God (1) surveys all the possible worlds he could create, and then chooses to create this one (call it W1)—evil and all. This is his decretive or “planning” action. Then, from eternity, God (2) creates this world by speaking it into being. This is his initial instantiative or “creative” action. Then, again from eternity, God (3) upholds this world moment to moment, thus keeping it in existence by employing his unique power of existential causation (that is, his power of making things exist; as opposed to natural causation like one billiard ball moving another). This is his continual instantiative or “conservational” action.


Because this last action applies meticulously to everything which exists, it stands to reason that there’s a sense in which God causes all things—including evil. It bears repeating that this is a unique kind of causation entirely unlike any other—a point sadly lost on Arminians, who appear to take a perverse delight in equivocating between it and other kinds of causation, such that they take God to himself be evil, to be thinking our thoughts for us, to be pulling the strings of puppets, and so on.

God’s action under Arminianism


However, consider the Arminian alternative. The “prior action of God” is not so different. First, God (1) surveys all the possible worlds he could create, and then chooses to create this one—evil and all. Arminians prefer to avoid the term “decree”, especially when we are specifically focusing on God’s surveying the evil in this world. Instead, they use the term “permit”. But the only distinction appears to be one of semantics. Given that Arminians and Calvinists agree that God has perfect, definite foreknowledge, and that he knew precisely every event which would occur in this world when he chose to create it, whether we characterize God as “permitting” evil by creating this particular world, or as “decreeing” evil by creating this particular world, is neither here nor there.


God then, from eternity, (2) creates this world by speaking it into being. At this point, the entire course of history, down to the nth degree of detail, is meticulously and unchangeably known by God. Every sin ever committed is perfectly foreseen. This being the case, every moment of creation occurs inevitably as God foreknew it would when he set things in motion by creating the world. Every sin occurs inevitably. Every human choice must go the way God has foreseen; it cannot go any other way, since God cannot be wrong. So the principle of alternate possibility, which is frequently taken by Arminians as requisite to libertarian freedom, is plainly false.


Lastly, God, from eternity, (3) upholds creation by the word of his power. Arminians dispute the Calvinistic view that God must meticulously cause each moment of creation (remembering, of course, that this is a sui generis, existential causation). But they agree that he must at least be permitting each moment to occur, for even they will not go so far as to say that things can occur without God’s ‘passive’ involvement.

What’s the difference?


The two views both require at least the following prior action on God’s part before any event in creation can occur—human choices included:


decretive plan → creation → active conservation

permissive plan → creation → passive conservation


And, following this prior action, any given event must take place inevitably. In Calvinism, God’s decree and active causation of W1 (this-world-and-no-other) make any human choice inevitable. And in Arminianism, God’s permission and initial instantiation of W1 also render the outcome of any human choice inevitable. Thus, in terms of theistic determinism, the only functional difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is that Calvinism openly admits its commitment to determinism, while Arminianism openly denies it while inconsistently being committed to it anyway.


Conclusion: if determinism makes God the “author of sin”, then both Calvinism and Arminianism make God the author sin. Arminians may now kindly refrain from leveling this objection against Calvinists any more.

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