Do Arminians believe in the sovereignty of God? If one has only ever read Calvinistic books, the answer would seem to be a no-brainer, for according to most Calvinists, an Arminian is by definition someone who denies God’s sovereignty. For example, notable Calvinist exponent Edwin H. Palmer (1922 – 1980) explicitly declared that “the Arminian denies the sovereignty of God”.1
Funny though it may seem, there are even those who reject the tenets of Calvinism, yet try and take a middle road between Calvinism and Arminianism. These so-called ‘non-Calvinists’ are usually known by the maxim, “I am neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian, but simply a Bible-believer.’ I should know; I used to be one.
Anyhow, these non-Calvinists (who for the most part seem to be nothing more than un-informed Arminians) will sometimes fall into the belief that Arminianism, by definition, entails the denial of God’s sovereignty. Even the ‘Twentieth-Century Prophet,’ A. W. Tozer fell into this error, saying:
“ANOTHER real problem created by the doctrine of the divine sovereignty has to do with the will of man. If God rules His universe by His sovereign decrees, how is it possible for man to exercise free choice? And if he cannot exercise freedom of choice, how can he be held responsible for his conduct? Is he not a mere puppet whose actions are determined by a behind-the-scenes God who pulls the strings as it pleases Him?
The attempt to answer these questions has divided the Christian church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Most Christians are content to get into one camp or the other and deny either sovereignty to God or free will to man.” (Bold emphasis added) 2
The implications are clear: Tozer is saying, among other things, that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God.
Is it, however, accurate to say that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God? It is my contention that there are only two types of people who could make such a claim: those who have no idea about the issue, and those who are dishonest about the issue.
Contrary to the charges, Arminian theology strongly affirms the sovereignty of God in all things. Arminian scholar Roger Olson3 writes,
“CLASSICAL Arminianism goes far beyond belief in general providence to include affirmation of God’s intimate and direct involvement in every event of nature and history. The only thing the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty necessarily excludes is God’s authorship of sin and evil. Faithful followers of Arminius have always believed that God governs the entire universe and all of history. Nothing at all can happen without God’s permission, and many things are specifically and directly controlled and caused by God. Even sin and evil do not escape God’s providential governance in classical Arminian theology. God permits and limits them without willing or causing them.” 4
The point of difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is the definition of sovereignty. On the Calvinistic view, sovereignty means meticulous control (i.e., theological determinism),5 while on the Arminian view, God’s sovereignty necessarily means His complete freedom and authority (or right) to act any way He so wills. On this view, God certainly has the freedom and authority to exercise meticulous control over every minute detail (though the Arminian can’t see how this doesn’t necessitate God’s authorship of sin), but He also has the freedom and authority to not exercise meticulous control. For the Arminian, if God chooses to not exercise meticulous control, that decision is itself a sovereign decision. As (Arminian) apologist J. P. Holding writes,
“SOME Calvinist commentators point to various passages of specific events such as the selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen. 45-50), the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), and the military actions of the Assyrians (Is. 10). And they are not wrong to do so. Yet one cannot falsely generalize from these particulars and assume that God chooses to exercise His right of sovereignty in the same way for things like the moving of a finger. Perhaps He does, but perhaps He does not; perhaps He does at some times, but not at others.
Yet to suggest such a thing hardly removes any sovereignty from God, for a simple reason that I have yet to see dealt with by a Calvinist commentator (though I may see it in the future): The decision to do nothing is itself a sovereign decision.” 6
Thus, the Arminian concludes that even if God decides to do nothing in a given scenario, that decision is an exercise of, rather than an abdication of, His sovereignty. Arminian theologians Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell write,
“NOTE that God is no less sovereign in a world where he chooses to grant his creatures libertarian freedom than he is in a world where he determines everything. Sovereignty cannot simply be equated with meticulous control. Rather, sovereignty is the freedom to choose as one will and to accomplish one’s purposes. If God chooses to create people who are free and to accomplish his purposes through their undetermined choices, it is his sovereign right to do so. Less control is not the same as less sovereignty if God chooses to have less control. A perfectly good and wise God will exercise just the amount of control appropriate for the sort of world he chooses to create.” 7
This view is described in terms of ‘divine self-limitation’:
“THE main alternative to this [i.e., Calvinism’s determinism] strong doctrine of God’s sovereignty is divine self-limitation. First, let it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world do not say God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled. Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion.” 8
Thus, the Arminian contends that God “could exercise deterministic control, but he has chosen not to do so.”9 He limits Himself.
Olson further writes,
“DOES God govern by meticulously determining the entire course of every life, including moral choices and actions? Or does God allow humans a realm of freedom of choices and then responds by drawing them into his perfect plan for history’s consummation? Calvinists (and some other Christians) believe God’s control over human history is always already de facto – fully accomplished in a detailed and deterministic sense; that is, nothing can ever thwart the will of God. Arminians (and some other Christians) believe God’s control over human history is always already de jure – by right and power if not already completely exercised – but at present only partially de facto. God can and does exercise control, but not to the exclusion of human liberty and not in such a way as to make him the author of sin and evil. After all, Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt 6:10 RSV). If God’s sovereignty were already completely exercised de facto, why would anyone need to pray for God’s will to be done on earth? In that case, it would always already be done on earth. The distinction between God’s sovereignty de facto and de jure is required by the Lord’s Prayer.” 10
Olson further elaborates on the concept of sovereignty de facto and sovereignty de jure:
“EVANGELICAL theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 – 2005) offered a helpful distinction in God’s providence… It is the distinction between ‘sovereignty de facto’ and sovereignty de jure.’ According to Grenz, with whom I agree, due to God’s voluntary self-limitation he is now sovereign de jure (by right) but not yet sovereign de facto (in actuality). His sovereignty de facto is future. This reflects the biblical narrative in which Satan is the ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor. 4:4) (where ‘world’ clearly means ‘this present evil age’), and God will defeat him in the coming age to become ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28). The entirety of 1 Corinthians 15 can be interpreted in no other way; it assumes the distinction between God’s sovereign rule de jure now and de facto in the future. This is not to say, of course, that God is not actually sovereign now at all; it only says that God is allowing his sovereignty to be challenged and his will to be partially thwarted until then.” 11
In reading Dr. Olson’s chapter on Arminianism and the sovereignty of God in Arminian Theology, only one conclusion can be drawn: Arminians (that is, true Arminians, as opposed to semi-Pelagians) strongly affirm God’s sovereignty. In fact, their affirmation of, and beliefs about, God’s sovereignty are so strong so as to be scarcely weaker than that of Calvinists. The one exception is the issue of sin and evil, for Arminians believe that if God were to exercise meticulous control and cause everything, then He would be the author of sin (a Biblically untenable position). It is on this basis (and also on the basis that Arminians believe it is everywhere assumed in Scripture) that the Arminian posits the concept of divine self-limitation.
Quoting notable Arminians such as Arminius, Episcopius, Limborch, Wesley, Pope, et al., Olson is able to conclude that,
“FROM Arminius on, Arminians of the heart, as opposed to those Arminians who veered into deism or later liberal theology, heartily embraced and promoted the concurrence and governance of God, even in the details of history. But they sought to develop a concept of God’s sovereignty that would avoid making God the author of sin and evil, something they believed Calvinism could not do. This necessarily involved the idea of God’s voluntary self-limitation in relation to creation for the sake of human liberty. They believed that this does not detract from God’s sovereign oversight of human decisions and actions; thus God is able to make everything work together for the good in his plan and purpose. Above all, these Arminians affirmed that nothing can happen apart from God’s permission. God is sufficiently powerful to stop anything from happening, but he does not always exercise that power, because to do so would be to rob his free and rational creatures, created in his image, of their distinct reality and liberty… Every classical Arminian shares with every classical Calvinist the belief that God is in charge of and governs the entire creation, and will powerfully and perhaps unilaterally bring about the consummation of his plan.” 12
To sum up, I think it would be accurate to say that the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty is just as strong as the Calvinist view, with the one exception being the denial of meticulous determinism, for on the Arminian view, this would seem to necessitate God’s authorship of sin and evil. The Arminian thus sees God’s reputation and character as being at stake. In order to rescue God’s character, the Arminian, while holding to a strong view of sovereignty, will posit that God sovereignly limits Himself (He is thus exercising, and not abdicating, His sovereignty). This is seen in the distinction between sovereignty de facto and sovereignty de jure, where, as Olson says, at the present time, God is allowing His sovereignty to be challenged, and His will to be partially thwarted.
1 Palmer, Edwin The Five Points of Calvinism (2009: 27th Printing, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI), p. 85
2 Tozer, ‘The Sovereignty of God,’ in The Knowledge of the Holy
3 Dr. Olson is, in my opinion, one of the more articulate representatives of Arminianism in our day.
4 Olson, Roger Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL), p. 116
5 Granted, there are some individual Calvinists who do not necessarily believe in divine determinism, but determinism appears to be the traditional view among Calvinists, being especially affirmed by John Calvin himself. See also Are Calvinists Determinists?
6 Holding, J. P., ‘On Unconditional Election’ (<http://www.tektonics.org/tulip/ulip.html>)
7 Walls, Jerry and Dongell, Joseph, Why I Am Not A Calvinist (2004: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL), p. 145
8 Olson, Roger Against Calvinism (2011: Grand Rapids, MI), p. 99
9 Ibid., p. 101
10 Olson, Arminian Theology, pp. 117-118
11 Olson, Against Calvinism, p. 100
12 Olson, Arminian Theology, pp. 132, 135