Embracing the Holy Tension Between God’s Sovereignty and Human Choice

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hand-in-handYesterday, I posted the first part of a conversation with Randy Alcorn about the ongoing discussions of Calvinism and Arminianism in the church. In his book, hand in Hand, Randy provides a concise and charitable overview of the debate. Today, we discuss meaningful human choice, the rise of Molinism, and Randy’s hope for the church.

Trevin Wax: I love this sentence from your book: “The God of the Scriptures is so big, wise, and powerful that he can grant truly meaningful and real choices to angels and humans alike, in a way that allows them to act freely, within their finite limits, without inhibiting his sovereign plan in any way – and indeed using their meaningful choices, even their disobedience, in a significant way to fulfill his sovereign plan.” You use this term, “meaningful choice” a lot. Why do you think it’s better than ‘free will’?

Randy Alcorn: I’ve been in discussions and witnessed debates which demonstrate how the term free will is given different meanings and inhibits communication.

To me, “free will” sounds too expansive. To be finite means to have huge limitations as to what we can choose. But we are not just finite; we’re fallen. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). A slave is not free, and sinners are not free. Now, we have limited freedoms that are still real, and we can make meaningful choices. For instance, a prisoner is not free overall; yet he may choose to read, watch television, lift weights, write letters, pray, think about his family, or plot an escape. But he cannot visit a coffee shop downtown or catch a plane to London.

Our ability to choose, though restricted, remains actual and consequential. This is what I mean by meaningful choice. It’s real, not illusory. We are accountable because we are responsible to make right choices—choices which God can empower us to make, but we are responsible to ask him to do so and receive his sustaining grace.

Trevin Wax: One of the problems that surfaces in Calvinist/Arminian debates is the lobbing of verses back and forth as if the other side doesn’t know or have an interpretation of verses that seem to counter their position. The danger you see here is that we sometimes negate or undermine the meaning of one passage by too quickly calling upon another, not allowing the less popular passage to say what it says. You don’t believe the Bible is contradicting itself on these matters, so what do we do when there are passages that seem to “go against” our theological viewpoint?

Randy Alcorn: The first thing we need to ask is whether our theological viewpoint is wrong. We should ask if there are other passages that stand with this one in calling our position into question. And we should stack up against them the passages we think teach something different. Believing that no truths contradict each other, we should seek to balance and reconcile doctrines as far possible. If we think Scripture teaches both, even if we can’t reconcile them, we still need to believe them.

If staying consistent with a system is our priority, we’ll wear lenses that allow us to always see Scripture as making inferences we would never see were we not bringing our theology to the text and trying to make the text harmonize with it.

Meanwhile we may explain away what appears to be the clear meaning of texts by reinterpreting them to say something counterintuitive to their wording (e.g. chosen doesn’t mean chosen, all doesn’t mean all). Attempting to stay within a particular system of thought is understandable, yet it’s dangerous when we read into texts what no one could or would see there unless they thought they should, based on what they already believe.

Spurgeon put it this way:

“If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.”

Trevin Wax: I’m glad you included Molinism in your list of charts, and it was helpful that you didn’t position as a middle position, but as a view of God’s sovereignty that can be appropriated into either a Calvinist or Arminian framework. Do you see Molinism as growing in popularity, in acceptance from Calvinists and Arminians alike?

Randy Alcorn: Molinism hinges on God’s “middle knowledge” in which he not only knows everything that has or will ever happen (the facts) but also exactly what would have happened, how people would have chosen, had things been different (the counter-factuals). Based on this, God has arranged the world knowing what will be freely chosen by everyone when placed in any particular circumstance. By arranging those circumstances to accomplish his sovereign ends, God who foreknows the future chooses accordingly, allowing him to accomplish his purpose as fully as if he’d predetermined each and every thought and action.

Scripture supports the idea of middle knowledge (Jeremiah 38:17-18; Ezekiel 3:6-7; Matthew 12:7; 24:43; 1 Corinthians 2:8), and I personally think it’s a helpful concept even though I may disagree with other beliefs of most who emphasize it. However, Molinism is more of a philosophical concept than a major biblical teaching, so it’s more attractive to abstract thinkers. Generally it’s held to by Arminians, but various Calvinists see it as fitting well with Reformed theology. It can be viewed in such a way as to be compatible with either system, though I don’t think it “bridges the gap” between Calvinism and Arminianism the way some seem to believe.

Trevin Wax: What do you hope your work in this book will do for the churches and individuals who read it? 

Randy Alcorn: My hope is that readers will gain a bigger view of God by embracing paradoxical beliefs that seem to contradict each other, but in God’s infinite mind do not. I want them to see what the Bible teaches about the bigness and pervasiveness of God’s sovereignty and the reality and importance of meaningful human choice. I included a number of charts and diagrams to help readers understand the issues on the table with Calvinism and Arminianism, and Compatibilism and Libertarianism. I try to make them understandable without oversimplifying.

Also, I hope it helps people to learn to embrace all of God’s inspired Word, not just the parts we like best.

I hope readers gain an appreciation for their brothers and sisters in Christ who believe the Bible, and trust in the sole sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work, who believe in God’s sovereignty and human free will, but view them differently. Since I was once a four point Arminian and am now a four point Calvinist, and the transition happened over many years, I understand both viewpoints and would like to see more fairness and kindness to those of different persuasions.

Some Calvinists are too quick to call all Arminians Pelagians, which is as offensive to them as it is to Calvinists when Arminians speak of the “monster God of Calvinism.” I’ve heard Calvinists say that Arminians affirm human beings have the capacity to muster up faith to believe the gospel. But that’s uniformed, since both Arminius and Wesley affirmed total depravity and prevenient grace, saying that God must miraculously grant people the ability to place their faith in Christ. (They said God gives that ability to all people, and some use it and others don’t; which is different than Calvinism, but very different also than what Calvinists often think Arminians believe.)

By giving examples of the ways both “sides” often misrepresent the other, I make a plea for more fairness and objectivity, more grace and kindness. I talk about how Arminius, for example, praised the commentaries of John Calvin. If Calvinists read what Arminius (also a Reformer) wrote they’ll see not just areas of disagreement but of enthusiastic agreement.

Having seen my old beliefs caricatured by Calvinists and my current beliefs caricatured by Arminians, I’m trying to help promote humility and love. This doesn’t mean there aren’t serious differences, of course there are. But I think our in-house doctrinal disputes can be a test of our love and unity in Christ (John 13:35; John 17:21).

Finally, I’m appealing to readers who don’t often think about intellectual and theological issues to stretch their brains and resist the shallowness of our age that would make us into trivial people. I’m hoping for some people hand in Hand will be a gateway to more serious, thoughtful and joy-giving bible study and reflection.

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