September 11, 2008

The Relationship Between God's Sovereignty and Human Free Will

I posted this on my website July 22nd, 2008. It represents my fundamental view of God's sovereignty. I posted it then after I had first submitted it to SEA. It still has not been published there, but once it is, it will include a link here for comment. Please, I'm truly interested in feedback on my views here.

I'm Free and God Is Still Sovereign
by Martin Glynn

Over and over and over again I am told that I do not truly believe that God is sovereign. Sure, I think I believe it, but God can't really be sovereign if He doesn't minutely control every little thing that came to pass. Besides, didn't King George's sovereignty mean that he caused each blade of grass in his kingdom to move? I digress.

My intent here is to define as succinctly as possible my personal perspective as to the relationship between God's sovereignty and our freedom to choose. This does not define the position of all Arminians, or even all the members of SEA. This is my understanding. Let any flaw you find be on my head and no others. Let us begin.


Pure and simple, sovereignty means that you are king, hence the King George comment above. I find it interesting that Calvinists have attached attributes to the meaning of sovereignty that could never apply to an earthly king. It is alright to say that such attributes are a logical result of God being king, but it is a gross error to attach them to the definition of the term. However, what makes one a king?

A king is one who has the authority, right, and power to demand, and there in cause, his will to be manifested within his realm with the objective of maintaining the quality of life for the citizens within that realm.

So what would it mean for God to be king? It would mean that whenever God decrees something to happen, it will happen. Here's the rub: it does not demand that everything which happened God decreed. That is an illogical leap. This is also important, if God did not decree everything, that means if something happens which He did not decree, it does not necessarily go against His sovereignty.

Ok, let's say, I accidentally drop this fantastic cup of milk which I am drinking. If God decreed that I shall drop the cup, and I drop it: God is still sovereign. If God decreed that I shall hold on to the cup, and I drop it, then I have just undermined God's sovereignty. However, if God has said absolutely nothing about whether I drop the cup or not, and I drop it, then God is still sovereign as long as we maintain the fact that He could have decreed it if He had wanted to.

God has the right and power to do whatever it is He pleases, and if God pleases not to decree something one way or the other, it is His right and power not to. We have no right to say that he must decree it or He forfeits His sovereignty. That's silly! (at best) No, we declare God to be sovereign, regardless of how He chooses to do things or not to do things.

Free Will

I don't like to talk about free will too much. I don't think it is an apt focus for what it is we are trying to say. I would agree with the definition of free will as contrary choice, but even then, I would say that the basic point is that our will has true consequences on what will be in the future, no matter how slight those consequences may be. Therefore, what I prefer to talk about is human contingency.

Human contingency is the understanding that God has determined that particular events and ends shall be contingent upon the human will. What is important to note is that only particular events and ends are contingent, which means that others are not. The ones which are and the ones which aren't are determined by God. However, those which are are truly contingent.

Now there are a lot of things which are left up to the human will. For instance, I agree with Martin Luther that the color of my socks were probably determined by me. What's important to the Arminian position is that the whether or not one will have saving faith is contingent upon the will of that one. After all, that's what makes us Ariminian. But the point is that those things are contingent on our will because God either let's them be because He doesn't care about the color of our socks, or because God explicitly decrees that this end will definitely be contingent because He wants it that way.

But, no human will is completely free. We are restricted by boundaries. Think of a baby in a play pen. Within that play pen, the baby can do whatever he wants, but there are boundaries set up by the sovereign parents that prevent the baby from certain activities. Additionally, what else is in the pen is determined by the parents, not by the baby. Likewise, God puts boundaries on us, that we cannot cross. The general ones are as follows:

  1. Natural laws: God has set up His universe in a very particular way that we cannot change. I cannot fly under my own power, shoot lasers out of my eyes or lick my own elbow. There are physical laws, established by God, that prevent me from doing so.
  2. Particularity: Each of us are born to a particular place, at a particular time, as a particular gender and nationality, and with access to a particular set of people. I cannot meet George Washington. I cannot become a woman. I cannot be something other than Irish (though why would I want that anyway). No, I was born here and now because God caused me to be born here and now, so that I may seek Him, as the Word says. I cannot change this. It's part of what makes me human.
  3. Consequence: Though there are events which are contingent on my choice, there are established consequences for that choice. Some are written in the physical world like splatting if I choose to jump off a building, or going bankrupt for making unwise investments. Others are exacted by God, for He is the judge of the universe, and He judges what we do both in this life and the next.
  4. Established events and ends: God allows particular events and ends to be contingent on the human will, but He also decrees certain events and ends to come to pass, and once God decrees is, we cannot stop it. God's sovereign power is irresistible, when he exercises in that manner.

    Consider for a moment the dreams of the pharaoh told to Joseph. He dreamed two dreams, and the two dreams means that events foretold in the dream were established. This means that if he didn't' dream two, than the events weren't... Therefore, some events are established, and some are not. But the ones which are, we cannot prevent.

What I want to know, what I am dying to know, is how God is not sovereign given the descriptions above? I fail to understand this accusation, given to us time and time again. So please, explain: how?


bethyada said...

I agree with you idea that God can still be sovereign even if he does not micromanage. Though a Calvinist may argue that God is capable of micromanaging, and if God does micromanage then everything happens according to his will. They will say that their view of God has more sovereignty than yours because his will is done more often in their way of thinking.

So though your analogy is correct, it is because God's sovereignty has to be that way (the way you describe it) if free will is to exist. I am not certain that God can micromanage and freewill coexist in the same universe.

Your subdivisions are reasonable except the 3rd. Consequence seems to be made up of 3 further subdivisions: physical, moral and punishment. The physical seems to belong to subdivision 1 and the other 2 should be separated out. Thus:


(One could consider logical also, but that is not set up by God like the 5 above, rather it is intrinsic to his character.)

The point about Pharaoh's dreams is an excellent one.

Jc_Freak: said...

Thank you so much for you comment, I highly appreciate your input.

I would like to make a defense of the consequences boundry on our will. In my mind, these are boundries, not seperate categories. There can be a great deal of overlap, since they are not intended to have each action fall under one or the other. Additionally, they are not exhaustive, hence my statment of general ones.

I believe the boundry of consequence is therefore very important. It is not as that we get whatever we want strictly on the power of our will. What we choose will have consequences, and not always one's we can predict. It is the boundry on our will that our will cannot guarentee ends, it can only change certain ones.

However, I would also add that adding something about morality would probably be prudent. Maybe something along the lines of a code that upon which our decisions will be judged which, itself, is establshed by God. I would have to think about how to word that better. Punishment, of course, is more of a cross between 3 and 4, but I would say that that is ok, since these are not meant to be strict categories.

Deron Arnold said...

I agree that it's hard to imagine God micromanaging the universe.

But the Scriptures do say that not a sparrow falls apart from the will of the Father. Do you think He's micromanaging just the sparrows?

And also the lot is cast into the lap but the Lord determines the result.

I grew up Arminian (though I didn't know it) and still hold many of these principles. Yet I've also found myself believing many of the Calvinist positions.

I consider myself a Calminian but everyone tells me that there can be no such thing.

I am comfortable living with paradoxes such as man's complete free will and God's complete "hands-on" sovereignty.

So much of the debate depends on cause-and-effect. But God is outside of time and the whole cause/effect thing for Him is different than probably anything we can imagine.

Jc_Freak: said...

"I consider myself a Calminian but everyone tells me that there can be no such thing.

I am comfortable living with paradoxes such as man's complete free will and God's complete "hands-on" sovereignty."

I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on my points about Calminians. I don't really mind the concept of paradoxes themselves. There are many things about Christian theology that is paradoxical. I also think that both the Arminian and Calvinist system is paradoxical. However, as of right now, I don't think the Calminian position isn't really paradoxical as much as non-committal. However, if I am wrong, I am very willing to be proven wrong. How would you define your position? I would prefer you to do so on the other post though, for simplicity sake.

"I agree that it's hard to imagine God micromanaging the universe.

But the Scriptures do say that not a sparrow falls apart from the will of the Father. Do you think He's micromanaging just the sparrows?"

I don't have a problem with the concept of God micromanaging the cosmos. God is omniscient and omnipotent: He can do it. I just don't think He does.

Though I highly appreciate your response, I think you've missed my point. God can micromanage the universe, but He chooses not to for His own reasons. My issue is with the idea that God must micromanage it to be considered sovereign. This is illogical since no other sovereign necessarily micromanages their realm.

It's not an issue of what God can do, but an issue of what God does do. That is my point.

Jc_Freak: said...

Recently I was shown a quote from A. W. Tozer on this subject. I loved the quote so much that I am "storing" it here. This is from the 22nd chapter of "The Knowledge of the Holy"

"...God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise free moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God, but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, 'What doest thou?' Man's will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon his creatures. He would be afraid to do so."