One of the many things New Calvinism has done well is to overwhelm the internet research space with Calvinistic answers to common theological or pastoral questions. Ministries like Desiring God, Grace to You, or Ligonier dominate the results of Google searches. Rightly so; John Piper, John MacArthur, and R.C. Sproul are accomplished pastors and prolific authors.
Another thing these ministries have done well is paint opposing viewpoints in the worst possible light. Whenever I discuss with Calvinists I have to wade through the common assumptions that if I do not agree with Reformed soteriology then believe <insert absurd theology here>. Right now, the New Calvinist movement enjoys the double whammy of the majority opinion on the internet and so being able to shape how people see those who disagree with them.
One of example of this is the non-Calvinist view of autonomous (libertarian) free will.
It’s One or the Other
So far, in my experience, as limited as it is, I have not heard a Calvinist theologian, pastor, or layman rightly attribute to non-Calvinists our view of autonomous free will. The issue of free will is always treated as a choice between either seeing God is in meticulous control (the Calvinist view of sovereignty) or some other absurd alternative. The alternatives vary: God either leaves history up to chance or merely fore-knows who will believe in Him and is not active in mankind’s salvation. Another option offered is that we must then must see God as choosing certain people because there is something good in them. Or perhaps another possible view is that man is in control of God. Grace To You ministries puts it this way on their website:
Certainly He did not choose certain sinners to be saved because of something praiseworthy in them, or because He foresaw that they would choose Him. He chose them solely because it pleased Him to do so. God declares “the end from the beginning …saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa. 46:10). He is not subject to others’ decisions.
Notice the options besides meticulous/compatibilistic determinism that are given. If you do not define sovereignty as meticulous determinism then you must believe that God does not establish His purposes. You must also believe He is utterly powerless and at the behest of His creation’s decisions.
Non-Calvinists wholeheartedly agree that God’s purposes will be established. But what is God’s “good pleasure” that He will accomplish? We do not assume that it is meticulous determinism which is, in our estimation, never established in the Scriptures. What if it is God’s good pleasure to establish a world in which His creatures have autonomous free will? Is not God free to establish such a world?
Many Calvinists do not believe so.
The Rogue Molecule
God is certainly powerful enough to meticulously control every molecule in the universe if He so desired. But is that what He desires to do? Not only do some Calvinists think so, but at least one prominent Calvinist ties in meticulous determinism with the definition of God.
“If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”
According to Sproul, unless God controls all things then He controls nothing. That is, since God promises to make sure certain things happen therefore He must control every molecule of all of the things that happen. It is embarrassingly poor logic.
That aside, notice the implication. Your only choices are seeing God as meticulously deterministic or as being powerless to fulfill any of His promises. If God is unable to fulfill His promises then it is as if the choices of man control God. Given those as the only options, it’s easy to see which one to choose.
But are those the only options?
Cooking Up Problems
I understand the problem with the libertarian view of God in that it sees man as able to resist God. That’s a difficult point that requires some explanation. However, the Reformed solution, to see God as meticulously determining everything, creates way more and bigger problems.
The non-Calvinist position, through the ages of the church, is not that man has power over God. But that God, due to his love and grace, restricts His own power, and allows mankind to resist. So it isn’t “man can resist God” in the sense of a power struggle, as the Sproul-type Calvinists presume. Of course, man cannot resist God, to claim it is so is obviously absurd. Which is the point of painting non-Calvinists as believing in this way, to make them look a fool so as not to deal with their actual position. Instead, the non-Calvinists position is that God ordained that men would be free to make choices and so in resisting God we are not destroying the decree of God, no indeed, we are confirming it.
This is how A.W. Tozer put it:
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise 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.”
Let me pose a question by use of an analogy that I first heard from Leighton Flowers. Which is more praiseworthy? A chess player wins every match by playing both sides of the chess board? Or someone who plays real opponents who are trying to beat him and is so good at chess that he wins every time? Any 12-year-old can win at chess by playing both sides, it takes a master to play real opponents and win every time.
In Sproul’s sincere goal of seeing God as sovereign over His creation, he has actually, inadvertently, lowered his view of God. In this view, God is unable to be God unless He’s in meticulous control. I think God is bigger and more powerful than that. I think He can be sovereign over creatures who have actual wills and who are actually opposed to Him and still fulfill His purposes every single time. That His will is no less certain because He has given men freedom to resist Him. And that’s MORE praise-worthy than if he was in meticulous control (playing both sides of the chess board).
Libertarian/autonomous free will is ultimately a defense of God’s holiness. It is the view that God is wholly separate from the evil choices of men. Grace To You’s and Sproul’s view of sovereignty, with the goal of being assured of the promises of God, has created the problem of seeing God as commanding mankind not to sin and then meticulously determining that man would do what God commanded him not to do, then punishing that vast majority of mankind to eternal hellfire for doing what He determined they would do. It sees God as chained to making a meticulously determined world else He is not God.
Wanting to see God as holy and free to make the world as He sees fit is not absurd theology. If we could start with not assuming that our opponents are absurd, then we could have a more fruitful discussion.