Saturday, August 08, 2009

Arminian motives

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

I have no more reason to doubt a Calvinist's account of why he is a Calvinists as I am to doubt an Arminian's account of why he is an Arminian.

But there's a bit of a disparity here, isn't there? I haven't met an Arminian yet who is willing to give up his libertarian assumptions when he comes to the Bible. But if you ask him to show where Scripture teaches libertarian free will, he can't. He just takes it as implicit. Or he points to places where people make choices, as if this proves a libertarian action theory. So Arminians, by their own admission, are Arminian not because of what Scripture says, but in fact because of their philosophical commitments.

Calvinists, on the other hand, are typically the opposite. Indeed, most Calvinists I know are strongly sympathetic to libertarian theories of the will, and treat them as intuitively obvious. It is only because Scripture openly and obviously contradicts such theories that these people are Calvinists at all. One merely needs to point to God's use of Pharaoh in Exodus—hardening his heart so that he would sin, while still holding him accountable for that sin—to see that libertarian action theory is false and unbiblical. So Calvinists, in contrast to Arminians, are Calvinists because of what Scripture says, despite any philosophical commitments they have.

Frankly, I find your deigning to believe that Calvinist are really arriving at their position by studying the Scriptures both ironic and hypocritical.

August 06, 2009 8:38 PM

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

Hi Gordon. It doesn't matter if this is an exception or not—the case against libertarianism, and for compatibilism, is still proved. Arminians say that we can't be held morally accountable for actions we didn't libertarianly choose. But Scripture gives us an example where Pharaoh is held accountable for actions he didn't libertarianly choose. So, even if this isn't normative, the objection against a compatibilist view of the will still collapses—as does any argument for a libertarian action theory which relies on maintaining moral accountability. That's what's at issue here; viz, "Given our understanding of who is responsible for what, an understanding we consider to be the fact of the matter, the Calvinistic God turns out to be as bad as the devil."

Given the example of Pharaoh, the Arminian case is just unsustainable. Or, if the Arminian thinks it is sustainable,then by his own standards God is as bad as the devil in his dealings with Pharaoh. Does that just make God occasionally evil under the Arminian view? Is this okay? I mean, what does it take for Arminians to realize that the reason they think God is the devil is because they are judging him according to the devil's standards?

August 06, 2009 9:37 PM

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

mattghg, obviously I haven't put the question to every Arminian I've met. But the ones to whom I have put the question made it clear that their commitment to libertarian freedom was the overriding factor behind their rejection of the doctrines you mention. In other words, a priori Scripture can't teach those doctrines, because that would be unjust on libertarian assumptions—therefore, it does not teach them. "Whatever it says, it can't teach that!"

I have also met Arminians who are so committed to libertarian freedom that, when pressed by the logic of their position, they admit they'd be willing give up doctrines like God's knowledge of counterfactual free choices rather than their commitment to libertarian freedom. (For the logic, see, eg here.) This is why I argue that open theism is merely consistent Arminianism.

August 07, 2009 3:44 AM

D Bnonn Tennant

Hey James; good post. There are some other, similar problems which arise from Arminian’s views, relating to the grounds of God’s knowledge. Arminian has previously stated that “God’s foreknowledge of free human acts is contingent on what the free human actors will actually do.” I agree that this view is logically necessary given Arminianism’s other philosophical commitments—but if it’s actually true, then the following problems seem to present themselves:

1. God’s aseity, simplicity, immutability, and necessity are undermined. Re aseity, if parts of God’s knowledge are causally contingent on human actions, such that this knowledge obtains only if the actions themselves obtain, then there is a sense in which God is causally dependent on his creation. Re simplicity, if parts of God’s knowledge are contingent on human actions, while other parts are not, then God is divisible. I’m not sure what the Arminian position is on God’s simplicity (or whether there is a standard view), but it seems to me to be a very important doctrine. Re immutability, if God gains knowledge when contingent events obtain, he is not immutable. And similarly for necessity. Perhaps it is possible to redefine these doctrines to fit into an Arminian scheme, but it doesn’t seem possible to do so without producing irreparable flaws into the core ontology of the Godhead.

2. One wonders what knowledge is, and how it is produced, under Arminian’s view. It appears to be something independent of God, which he, like us, obtains in certain circumstances. But this seems to raise enormous problems of ontology (I’m sure Greg Welty would throw up a little in his mouth at the mere thought). Put mildly, it appears to contradict strikingly with the meaning of logos that John has in mind in the first verse of his gospel.

3. Furthermore, if God’s foreknowledge of free human acts is causally contingent on what the free human actors actually do, then it follows necessarily that God has no knowledge of things which free human actors do not do. If God’s knowledge of free acts obtains only in the event that the free acts themselves obtain, then hypothetical free acts, which don’t obtain, will commensurately not cause any knowledge in God. So Arminian appears to be committed to a view in which God has no knowledge of counterfactual free acts. How, then, does Jesus know that Tyre and Sidon would have repented in sackcloth and ashes in Matthew 11:21?

4. God’s inability, under Arminian’s view, to know counterfactual free acts also raises further problems. Since God’s knowledge of all free human acts only obtains causally consequent to the acts themselves obtaining (although temporarily prior, since God is timeless), it stands that he had no knowledge of any free acts causally prior to the creation of the universe. Since God’s action in creating the universe is a prior causal condition of human free acts, and human free acts are a prior causal condition of God’s knowledge of them, it follows that God did not know any human free acts prior to his creation of the universe. Therefore, he did not (and could not have) surveyed all the possible worlds with all the possible free human acts, and chosen to instantiate a particular one. Rather, he must have merely surveyed all the possible initial conditions for the world, up until the first free human act, and then instantiated the one that he wanted. Only once he had done this would he have gained any knowledge at all of free human acts—by which stage, it would be too late.

5. This in turn produces obvious absurdities. For instance, God is limited to a purely reactive attitude toward history. Exodus and Romans tell us that God raised Pharaoh up for the express purpose of revealing his power in him. Yet how could this be possible under the Arminian view? What counter-factual reality did God foresee where Pharaoh was obstinate? Evidently it was not the reality in which he was king, since Scripture says that God raises up Pharaoh to be king as a response to his foreknowledge of Pharaoh’s obstinacy. But then, Pharaoh must have been obstinate in some other reality. What reality is that?

6. Moreover, given that this counter-factual reality was not the reality in which Pharaoh was king, how did God know that Pharaoh would act in the same way in the actual reality? Since, by definition, free will entails the real ability to do otherwise, is it not the case that Pharaoh was just as likely to not be obstinate (or, at least, that it was not impossible?) In fact, isn’t it the case that God would have to foreknow the actual reality, in which Pharaoh is king, in order to raise him up as king at all?

7. This unfortunately leads on to entail that God is “stuck” with regard to time. Even though he is mutable, and can learn, under the view Arminian has espoused, he is unable to respond to events which involve free acts which have not yet occurred in time. Once he knows of a free will event, it has already happened. Although his knowledge may flow back in time from our point of view, such that he can know what will happen before it does because he exists at all times (including a time prior to the free will choice), he cannot actually act to change that event—even in a passive sense, by altering natural events. By the time a free act is known by God, it is already fixed in history. God is merely an observer. He cannot actually influence history at all—unless, that is, he acts like a time-traveler and goes “back in time” and changes things to see what will happen later on! Ultimately, all manner of time paradoxes would seem to be entailed in such a view, along with any number of realities that actually happened (they were not merely counter-factual) but then were “undone” by God in the past. But this view seems to have more in common with my last NaNoWriMo project than with the God of the Bible. What Arminian would agree that God spends his time changing things in the past to try to find the best possible outcome for the universe?

8. Lastly, I wonder if any of this even saves free will in the end anyway. Even if God foreknows events causally consequent to their occurring, it remains that he does foreknow them—his knowledge is chronologically prior. This seems to commit Arminianism to some variant on the B theory of time. But the B theory of time is patently incompatible with libertarian free will. If there is no logical distinction between past and future for God, and both are set and cannot be changed, then it seems that libertarianism fails to obtain pretty much automatically. A choice I make in two minutes must happen one way, and not the other. But if it must happen one way, and not the other, then I have no actual ability to choose the opposite of what I will. Unless one is willing to give up the principle of alternate possibility (and most libertarians aren’t), it would appear that despite putting their philosophy, and their theology proper, through the mangler and reducing God to a time-traveler, Arminians still cannot salvage free will.


  1. Thanks Steve. The discussion is ongoing at 'Do Arminians claim that the Calvinistic God is the Devil?' (Victor Reppert, anti-Calvinism) and 'Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers' (James Anderson, anti-Arminianism).

  2. Good job steve, and everyone at Triablogue. After skimming the insanity on Arminian blogs, you guys have much more patient and mercy than I do, which is an inspiration to me to challenge their "philosophical commitments" for the proverbial 1000th time. I guess if I were responding to any "individual" I would indeed quit and shake the dust of my feet, as even Korah was left alone, yet in responding to the "system" I guess there is more fortitude to contend for the faith in hopes that "new individuals" will be exposed to error of self-reliance. Then again, our greatest purpose is that God be glorified, even if He desires to harden hearts. Yea, I say that in humility, because without the grace of God, that too is what I deserve.