A Philosophical Defense of Arminianism

By James M. Rochford

We have already explained the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism (see “Calvinism versus Arminianism”). Here we will offer a philosophical critique of Calvinism from a moderate Arminian perspective.

Calvinists sometimes object that we should not use philosophy to judge our theology. They sometimes even charge Arminians of supplanting theology with philosophy. But this is patently absurd. Without the canons of logic and reason, we wouldn’t even be able to practice theology! For instance, the Law of Non-Contradiction states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true in the same sense and at the same time. Without this logical law, we would be unable to point out contradictions in our systematic theology. Moreover, in defining the Trinity, we often appeal to philosophical concepts like “essence,” “substance,” or “persons.” These philosophical terms are necessary in order to articulate accurate theological concepts. Claiming that philosophy is unneeded for theology (or somehow unspiritual) is like claiming that we can do theology without using grammar or the rules of hermeneutics. Philosophy is a necessary intellectual tool to exercise good theology.

This being said, we see several major problems with Calvinism philosophically.

PROBLEM #1: Calvinism makes God responsible for sin and evil

Many (if not most) Calvinists would reject this claim. We are glad that they would do so. However, we are stating that the system of Calvinism leads to this logical conclusion: If everything in the universe is according to God’s will, then this would include sin and evil. But this would make God an evil being. We have obvious problems with such a view—given the goodness of God.

(1) God causes everything in creation to occur according to his will.

(2) Evil occurs in creation.

(3) Therefore, God causes evil according to his will.

How do Calvinists respond this logical consequence of their view?

RESPONSE #1: God indeed causes evil

Some Calvinists bite the bullet on this logical consequence of this view, stating that God causes evil, rather than merely permitting it.

Mark R. Talbot (Calvinistic pastor and author): “[God] brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Exodus 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Hebrews 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child.”[1]

Calvinist John Piper published a sermon after September 11, 2001, saying that God didn’t just permit the atrocity of 9/11, but he caused it.[2] He made the same claim in an interview here.

Calvinist James White—in a debate in 2003—stated that God is responsible for evil—even the rape of a child (found here).

John Calvin: “Let us imagine, for example, a merchant who, entering a wood with a company of faithful men, unwisely wanders away from his companions, and in his wandering comes upon a robber’s den, falls among thieves, and is slain. His death was not only foreseen by God’s eye, but also determined by his decree. For it is not said that he foresaw how long the life of each man would extend, but that he determined and fixed the bounds that men cannot pass (Job 14:5). Yet as far as the capacity of our mind is concerned, all things therein seem fortuitous. What will the Christian think at this point? Just this: whatever happened in a death of this sort he will regard as fortuitous by nature, as it is; yet he will not doubt that God’s providence exercised authority over fortune in directing its end.[3]

John Calvin: “To sum up, since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience.”[4]

RESPONSE #2: This is a “mystery” or an “antinomy”

Other Calvinists are not willing to connect God as the direct cause of evil. Instead, they appeal to “mystery” to explain this problem:

J.I. Packer (Calvinist theologian): “Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent… Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as, not rival alternatives, but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other.”[5]

J.I. Packer (Calvinist theologian): “The reality of human moral agency and responsibility in a world where God is Lord is one of the mysteries of creation, which we reverently acknowledge, but do not pretend to fully understand.”[6]

We do not accept this answer as credible. This is not a mystery or a paradox; it is an explicit logical contradiction. Philosopher Jerry Walls writes, “Mysteries are very different from logical contradictions. It isn’t a sign of true piety for one to be willing to dispense with logical coherence in the name of mystery… A paradox is a sort of verbal inconsistency or puzzle, but the inconsistency is merely verbal rather than real, so it does not involve the simultaneous assertion of incompatible claims. Once the meanings of the terms are clarified, the inconsistency is resolved.”[7]

RESPONSE #3: Compatibilism answers this problem

Many Calvinist theologians hold to a concept called compatibilism (also called soft determinism). This view holds that human agents acting freely insofar as they always choose what is consistent with their nature. Nothing external to the person causes them to make a choice, but their own psychological state, beliefs, and desires caused them to act. The person could have acted differently if they wanted to, but because their psychological state, beliefs, and desires don’t want to do differently, they choose the very thing that God decreed for them to choose.

However, there are many problems with compatibilism:

First, this view is still a form of divine determinism. Even under compatibilism, the moral agent does not act freely at all. Calvinist John Hendryx writes,

Compatibilism is a form of determinism and it should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism. It simply means that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. Our choices are not coerced …i.e. we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God’s sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass (Eph 1:11). In light of Scripture, (according to compatibilism), human choices are exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism.

Again, philosopher Jerry Walls writes, “The crucial point to keep in mind is that the agent could not want to do otherwise than she in fact does. If the agent had wanted to do differently, she could have done so, but it was impossible for her to want to do differently, given the prior causes and conditions that strictly determined her psychological states and character.”[8]

Consider an analogy. Imagine someone set up a string of 50 dominoes in a row to knock over an object. Would it be any less determined if I added another domino to the string of determined causes? Of course not. Compatibilism adds a person’s nature and character into the string of determined causes, but under Calvinism, the person’s nature is itself determined.

Second, this view lowers humans to the sum of their desires—almost like animals. If we put lettuce and lamb in front of a lion, the lion’s nature will always choose to eat the lamb. While human desires are more complex than this, this is fundamentally the same view of humans—that we are at the mercy of our desires and nothing more.

Conclusion: Why not just accept freewill as the solution?

All people have an immediate experience of freewill. Imagine how good the arguments would have to be against freewill, in order for you to believe that you were determined in your actions. The burden of proof on the Calvinist is enormous, because it flies contrary to our immediate experience (see “The Mind and the Brain: Is Freewill an Illusion?”). Furthermore, if freewill does not exist, then a number of logical consequences would follow:

(1) We could never know if our knowledge of anything is true.

(2) We should never persuade others, because all are determined to hold their beliefs.

(3) We cannot be held culpable for moral actions, because we are determined to do everything.

Calvinists would object to each of these statements above. And we are glad that they would reject each of these. We are not saying that Calvinists affirm these concepts, but rather, these flow logically from their theological system.

PROBLEM #2: Calvinism has a problem explaining the Fall (Gen. 3)

Calvinists offer several answers for the Fall of humanity:

RESPONSE #1: The Fall is a “mystery.”

This is an oft-repeated answer for Calvinists when an aspect of their theology is contradictory. For instance, Calvinist R.C. Sproul writes,

We are fallen creatures. But Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know. In spite of this excruciating problem we still must affirm that God is not the author of sin.[9]

There is a reason for every choice we make. In a narrow sense every choice we make is determined.[10]

Sproul believes that Adam and Eve fell because of their “free will, not by divine coercion.”[11] However, this answer to the Fall is guilty of double talk: They can’t have it both ways. Either we have freewill or we don’t.

RESPONSE #2: The Fall is the result of God removing his sustaining grace from Adam and Eve.

Calvinist Paul Helm holds that human sin occurs from “divine withholding” of grace.[12] That is, God merely allows humans to choose for evil. But if the first humans had freewill to choose for sin, wouldn’t this crush the Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty—that is, his meticulous control of all things? Why would the first humans be exempt from divine determinism?

RESPONSE #3: The Fall is God’s sovereign decision so that he can reveal his attributes of mercy and justice.

Without sin, God’s attributes of mercy and justice would never be revealed to the world. Lorainne Boettner writes,

Sin… is permitted in order that the mercy of God may be shown in its forgiveness, and that His justice may be shown in its punishment. Its entrance is the result of a settled design which God formed in eternity, and through which He purposed to reveal Himself to His rational creatures as complete and full-orbed in all conceivable perfections.[13]

While this is a side point, notice that Boettner uses the word “permitted” rather than “caused.” This is the language of Arminianism—not Calvinism. Citing Romans 9:22-24, James Boice writes,

God considers the display of his attributes to be worth the whole drama of human history—to be worth creation, the Fall, election, reprobation, and everything else. From God’s point of view, the revelation of his glory—meaning the revelation of all his glorious attributes—is the grand priority.[14]

We agree that God demands us to glorify him. Since God is the greatest conceivable good, it is wrong for us to love other things above him. However, God is a giver and lover by nature. He doesn’t glorify himself at the consequence of judging us in the process. He glorifies himself, ultimately, for our benefit—not his. Paul writes that God created his plan for “our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). In the gospel of John, we learn that God received glory by being stripped naked, beaten, and nailed to a Roman Cross (Jn. 12:23-24; 13:31-32). Thus we agree with Calvinists that God does everything for his own glory, but God’s glory is ultimately for our good—not his own. We agree with Leighton Flowers, who writes, “God is most glorified not at the expense of His creation, but at the expense of Himself for the sake of His creation.”[15] After all, the nature of love is self-sacrifice—not self-glorification (1 Cor. 13:5; Jn. 15:13).

By contrast, the Arminian explanation to the Fall is straightforward and close to the text of Scripture: The first humans chose to rebel against God, by virtue of their own freewill (see “Problem of Evil”).

RESPONSE #4: God caused Adam and Evil to fall

Infralapsarianism teaches that God permitted the Fall. This comes from the Latin roots infra (“after”) and lapsus (“fall”). By contrast, supralapsarianism teaches that God caused the Fall. This term comes from the roots supra (“before”) and lapsus (“fall”).[16] John Calvin seems to affirm supralapsarianism, when he writes,

They say that he [Adam] had free choice that he might shape his own fortune, and that God ordained nothing except to treat man according to his deserts. If such a barren invention is accepted, where will that omnipotence of God be whereby he regulates all things according to his secret plan, which depends solely upon itself? Yet predestination, whether they will or not manifests itself in Adam’s posterity. For it did not take place by reason of nature that, by the guilt of one parent, all were cut off from salvation. What prevents them from admitting concerning one man what they willingly concede concerning the whole human race? . . . If there is any just complaint, it applies to predestination. And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendents, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision.[17]

While most Calvinists[18] hold to infralapsarianism (i.e. God permitted the Fall), others like Theodore Beza, Gerhardus Vos, G.H. Kersten, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Hoeksema, Arthur Pink, and Gordon Clark hold to supralapsarianism (i.e. God caused the Fall).

PROBLEM #3: God chooses NOT to save everyone

Some Calvinists believe in double predestination (i.e. where God sends some to heaven and others to hell).[19] If God causes all things, then this seems to follow logically from the Calvinist view. However, other Calvinists hold that God merely withholds grace from certain people, and this is why some are judged. James Montgomery Boice writes,

The reason why some believe the gospel and are saved by it is that God intervenes in their lives to bring them to faith. He does it by the new birth or regeneration. But those who are lost—and this is the crucial point—are not caused by God to disbelieve. They do that all by themselves. To ordain their end, God needs only to withhold the special grace of regeneration.[20]

Election is active; reprobation is passive. In election God actively intervenes to rescue those who deserve destruction, whereas in reprobation God passively allows some to receive the just punishment they deserve for their sins.[21]

Why doesn’t God save everyone? Remember, Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Paul writes, “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Jesus said that he would “draw all men to [Himself]” (Jn. 12:32), and the Holy Spirit would “convict the world”—not just the elect (Jn. 16:8). Based on God’s own character, this would be internally inconsistent.

Calvinist thinkers usually claim that this is simply a “mystery.” For instance, regarding this question, James Montgomery Boice writes, “A perfectly legitimate answer to our question is that the ‘why’ is none of our business! God does not owe us an answer.”[22] R.C. Sproul writes,

The only answer I can give to this question is that I don’t know. I have no idea why God saves some but not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why…. One thing I do know. If it pleases God to save some and not all, there is nothing wrong with that. God is not under obligation to save anybody. If he chooses to save some, that in no way obligates him to save the rest.[23]

Again, appealing to “mystery” is not an adequate answer. God’s revealed word explains that he desires all people to be saved. Thus for him to send individuals to hell is inconsistent with his own character. This isn’t a mystery; it is a logical contradiction.

This is why Calvinists have to appeal to a “secret will” of God.

PROBLEM #4: God does NOT have a secret will

In order to explain the aforementioned problems of God being the cause of evil and that he does not choose to save everyone, most Calvinists appeal to God having a revealed will and a secret will. Commenting on Matthew 23:37, John Calvin wrote,

The nature of the Word shows us that here there is no description of the secret counsel of God… Certainly those whom He wishes effectively to gather, He draws inwardly by His Spirit, and calls them not merely by man’s outward voice. If anyone objects that it is absurd to split God’s will, I answer that this is exactly our belief, that His will is one and undivided: but because our minds cannot plumb the profound depths of His secret election to suit our infirmity, the will of God is set before us as double.[24]

Furthermore, Calvinists hold to two different kinds of “calls” that God makes to sinners: the general call and the special call. The general call is an invitation to the unbeliever—even though they are fated for hell, while the special call is given to the elect person. Again, Calvin writes,

There is the general call, by which God invites all equally to himself through the outward preaching of the word—even those to whom he holds it out as a savor of death [cf. 2 Cor. 2:16], and as the occasion of severer condemnation. The other kind of call is special, which he deigns for the most part to give to the believer alone, which by the inward illumination of his Spirit he causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts. Yet sometimes he also causes those whom he illumines only for a time to partake of it; then he justly forsakes them on account of their ungratefulness and strikes them with even greater blindness.[25]

We agree that God has a directive will and a permissive will… but a secret will? While we agree that God does choose to keep some things a secret (Deut. 29:29), we deny that these secret components of his will would contradict his revealed will. After all, if this were the case, then how could we trust anything that we read in the Bible? Perhaps God’s “secret will” could actually contradict what we are reading.

Consider God’s words through prophet Jeremiah: “If you will not listen to it, My soul will sob in secret for such pride; and my eyes will bitterly weep and flow down with tears, because the flock of the LORD has been taken captive” (Jer. 13:17). Walls and Dongell comment, “Although the text seems to identify salvation as God’s deepest desire, the Calvinist must conclude that at a deeper level God never intended to bestow transforming grace on Jeremiah’s hearers. In other words, the true intentions of God cannot be discerned from his words.”[26]

PROBLEM #5: God does NOT love all people

Some Calvinists bite the bullet and state that God does not love all people. For instance, A.W. Pink writes, “God loves whom He chooses. He does not love everybody.”[27]

But by far, most Calvinists affirm God’s love for all people. They note that God gives blessings to all people—regardless of whether they are elect—through common grace (Jas. 1:17). After all, Jesus taught that God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45). John Piper affirms, “Our hearts should go out to every single person whatever the color, whatever the ethnic origin, whatever the physical traits, whatever the cultural distinctives. We are not to write off anybody.”[28]

We wholeheartedly agree!—and we are glad that Calvinists affirm this. But are they being consistent with their own beliefs on this point? Why should our hearts “go out to every single person,” when we know that God’s heart does not go out to them? Should we show a love for them that God does not? Such a concept is unthinkable.

Moreover, how can we honestly say that God truly loves people by giving them earthly blessings, when he chooses to keep people from an eternal, saving relationship with himself? From a biblical perspective, the ultimate form of love is found in a relationship with God—not in temporal, earthly blessings. Isn’t this what Jesus himself taught? It was Jesus who asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36) Giving people a world of blessings does nothing compared to an eternity in hell. This is simply not biblical love.

[1] Mark Talbot, “Chapter 2: All the Good That Is Ours in Christ: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” in John Piper and Justin Taylor (general editors), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 42.

[2] John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say, ‘God Did Not Cause the Calamity, but He Can Use It for Good.’” Found here.

[3] Calvin, Institutes. 1.16.9.

[4] Calvin, Institutes. 1.18.2.

[5] J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 22-23.

[6] J. I. Packer, “Arminianisms,” in Through Christ’s Word, ed. W. Robert Godfrey and Jesse L. Boyd III (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1985), 147.

[7] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 159.

[8] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 109.

[9] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 20.

[10] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005. 132. Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 79.

[11] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 97. Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 81.

[12] Paul Helm writes, “What determines the actions in so far as it is an evil is divine withholding. God withholds his goodness or grace, and forthwith the agent forms a morally deficient motive or reasons and acts accordingly.” Helm, Paul. The Providence of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994. 171. Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 81.

[13] Boettner, Loraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Tae-ku: Bo Mun Publ., 1975. 234. Cited in Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 93.

[14] Boice also claims that it is because he can show his power to the nations for those who are rebellious (Ex. 9:16). Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 109.

[15] Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology (Trinity Academic Press, 2017), 14.

[16] F.H. Klooster, Walter A. Elwell (general editor), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), 1060.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.7.

[18] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philadelphia: Evangelical Press, 1932), 2.11.6.

[19] John Calvin: “(God) does not create everyone in the same condition, but ordains eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others.” Cited in Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 396. Not all Calvinists believe in double predestination (i.e. some chosen for heaven and other chosen for hell; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:8; Jude 4; Rom. 9:22-23). Instead, they follow Augustine’s teaching that God is active only in the salvation of the elect, while he is passive with regard to the non-elect.

[20] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 103-104.

[21] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 104.

[22] Italics mine. Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 109.

[23] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 25.

[24] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. III, James and Jude, p.69.

[25] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.24.8.

[26] Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 2004), 57.

[27] Arthur W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930), 29-30. Cited in Flowers, p.21.

[28] Emphasis mine. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1993), 145.