My Arminian cred is still intact

January 1, 2014

I’ve said many nice things recently about Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian Church in America pastor in Manhattan who is among my favorite Christian writers and thinkers. He recently sharpened my thinking about suffering and God’s sovereignty with his brilliant Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, as I’ve blogged about extensively. It probably takes a good Calvinist like him to fearlessly say what needs to be said about sensitive questions such as: Where is God when we suffer? How does God use suffering? How does God use even sin and evil for his purposes?

As I’ve said, my own theological education made me very reluctant to say much of anything about the second and third questions.

Nevertheless, I now gladly say that God does use suffering for our good; that if we suffer, God has his reasons for permitting it, whether we know what those reasons are or not. Similarly, because God permits sin and evil (because if he didn’t, what would become of free will?) he chooses to enfold it within his good purposes as well. This is completely consistent with Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20 and Paul’s words in Romans 8:28.

Personally, I find these ideas deeply comforting.

If we resist these ideas, however, what’s the alternative? That God doesn’t really have the power to change things in our world? If we pray for God to intervene or change something in our world—like, say, to cure a disease—and he doesn’t do it, is it because he doesn’t have to power to do so? I hope not! Most Christians would say that he has the power, but he often chooses not to. And when he chooses not to—even in spite of our fervent prayers—we can trust that he has good reasons. If that’s the case, then, there is a good answer to the question, “Why is this happening to me?”—even if we don’t know what it is.

This is all baby talk for a lot of Christians who learned these lessons a long time ago, but I’m just catching up. Forgive me.

All that to say, does my new thinking on this subject—so contrary to the spirit of what I learned at the Methodist-affiliated seminary I attended—gibe with Wesleyan (Arminian) theology?

And the answer is a resounding Yes. And I didn’t even need to learn this stuff from a Calvinist! Here’s Roger Olson, my favorite Arminian blogger (who’s Baptist, by the way), discussing the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will in his blog post today:

Now, an Arminian begins with the fact that God only permits sin in general and specific sins and then says that, yes, God also uses sinners and their freely chosen sins for his purposes, but without sin being part of his antecedent will. Sin is only part of his consequent will—what God wills to allow because of the fall and its consequences. So, the men who crucified Jesus, for example, were only “destined” to sin insofar as they planned and carried it out freely and God permitted them to do what they wanted to do. But this was part of God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. And God did not render their sin certain. He knew what they would do, but he did not effectually manipulate them to do it nor was their sin part of God’s “design” except consequentially.

So, the whole answer depends on recognizing the difference between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will and the difference between God rendering certain and God permitting. When Scripture refers to God foreordaining something that is obviously ungodly, it has to mean that God foreknew it and chose to use the ungodly dispositions and actions of sinful creatures for his purposes. Why does it have to mean that? Because otherwise God is the author of sin and evil—something few Calvinists wish to say.

5 Responses to “My Arminian cred is still intact”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I’m not sure exactly what “antecedent” and “consequent” wills are. I’m also not sure exactly how God’s interaction with men’s own wills actually plays out. However, it seems to me that something on the order of “immediate” versus “ultimate” wills is in play. By which I mean, “immediate” is God’s will as the “actor on the stage,” how he responds in “real time” to whatever is before him at the moment. Whereas, “ultimate” is God’s will as to the “entire play” as the “playwright,” working everything together to accomplish his ultimate purposes.

    Thus, as God immediately responds to the sins of the moment, perfectly, he certainly hates sin and would never encourage it (“God cannot be tempted [successfully] to sin, neither does he tempt any man.”). Similarly, he is saddened by “unprovoked” tragedies (“Jesus wept”). Yet, foreseeing how we would choose to be, he weaves our choices and his responses (and his choices and our responses) together to accomplish his ultimate ends.

    Actually, it may be somewhat misleading to refer to “two wills” in any ultimate sense. Certainly God hates sin and abhors true tragedies ultimately as well as immediately. But, he foreknew the states of our hearts, and therefore decided how to work things together to demonstrate his ultimate character consistently with how he feels and responds at any given moment. The “trick of the matter,” in my limited view, is that he “already” took into account what our hearts are like (which he foreknew), and works with our sins and tragedies, which he does NOT like, to accomplish what he ultimately DOES like. As with Joseph, his brothers, and the famine. He certainly did not immediately want or encourage the brothers to desire to kill Joseph; but, foreknowing the state of their hearts, he had the caravan pass by at exactly the right time so that Judah would suggest selling him instead, and then etc. to the end of that story (wherein, among other things, Judah would be “redeemed”).

    So, perhaps Olson may mean roughly the same by his choice of words as I mean by mine–I don’t know. If there is any difference, then I would expect it might be that I think God “foreknows” everything, so that I think he has “planned ahead” for everything already, but does so knowing what the state of our hearts would be like, without making our hearts be that way, whether from eternity or “now.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I think you’re saying the same thing. God doesn’t will sin or evil to happen, but given that they do happen, he chooses to work through it or transform it into something good.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Sin doesn’t reflect what God desires before the Fall (his antecedent will). But given that sin happens, he chooses as a consequence to use it to serve his good purposes—as in the case of Joseph’s brothers. Only a theology unhinged from scripture could argue otherwise.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I should also say that God desires sin if the alternative is that human beings are automatons without free wills. Which is another way of saying that God desires the cross if it means that we humans are capable of truly loving.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I agree with this. As God considered the multitude of universes he could have created, surely the top two were (a) a “heaven always for everybody” with no option to disobey (“automatons,” as you say), and (b) a “love universe,” where people were free to choose God (and, being free to choose, could also choose against God) in response to God’s “love offer.” A love universe is better, so that “won out.” But not without the “trade off” of having sin and its consequences and required punishment. In other words, “Doctrine of Competing Principles.” It is necessary to “take the bad with the good” in order to have the greatest good, so that option is the better of the two, despite its downside.

        And, those who ultimately come to a “bad end” from the deal really have no one but themselves to blame–they chose whatever over God (“Excuse me from the feast, because I have ….”), so they lose God in the bargain, and losing God means losing all the good which comes from God. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsover a mand sows, that shall he also reap.” So, certainly the best universe of the two. Love, and only a denial of love for those who freely choose to reject it.


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