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Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: An Antinomy

In the past ten years or so, I have suffered much intellectual and spiritual constipation over one particular topic: the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. A couple of generations after the Reformation, two parties began engaging in polemical conflict over this topic, and that conflict has continued to this day. Fortunately, we are no longer killing each other over this topic, which is a sign of progress, however, this topic still has an uncanny ability to bring out the toxic masculinity in otherwise well-adjusted Christians.

The antinomy between Calvinism and Arminianism and the search for answers has led me to be less theologically conservative than I used to be. We use Scripture, reason, and tradition to find answers to doctrinal questions, but what if there are two different traditions that give us two different answers? How do we decide between two different traditions? One way to decide is to stick to the tradition that we identify as “our own” tradition, to which we are loyal, for better or worse. This is the conservative approach. Another way is to explore different traditions, or different branches of the overall Christian tradition, in order to get a broader view. In the process, we can compare the different answers we come across, and we can study the Scriptures, reason, and tradition in deeper ways. In doing so, we can learn a lot, even if the end result is that we are less certain about some answers than we were when we started.

The antinomy I am referring to can be stated as follows. Calvinist theologians can make logically sound arguments that an indeterministic understanding of free will entails a denial of divine aseity. However, all Christians agree that God has the attribute of aseity. On the other hand, Arminian theologians can make logically sound arguments that a deterministic understanding of divine sovereignty entails that God is the author of evil. However, all Christians agree that God is not the author of evil. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that both Calvinists and Arminians are wrong.

Both Calvinist and Arminian theologians have decided that there is no third option. Calvinism and Arminianism exhaust the alternatives. It is one or the other. Since both Calvinists and Arminians are wrong, that means that everyone is wrong.

However, since Calvinist and Arminian theologians are wrong about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, they might also be wrong about the proposition that Calvinism and Arminianism are the only options. This is a plausible idea, since Christianity has been around since the first century, and neither Calvinism nor Arminianism existed before the 16th century.

My conclusion is that something went wrong in the Reformation. Protestants have embraced a false dichotomy. We have sliced up the concepts in the wrong way, and theologians have made careers out of taking each other’s concepts and pushing them to the extremes in order to score points in debates and make each other look bad.

So, what is the resolution to this dilemma? I do not know the full solution, but one key principle is that we should not take the other side’s view and “take it to its logical conclusion”. Each side of the debate has their own favorite Bible verses, and each side has their own way of interpreting the other side’s favorite Bible verses. There are also conceptual differences that can be hashed out through philosophical argumentation. All of that is fine. However, there is a problem when we say, “Well, if they were consistent in their beliefs, then they would (insert heinous heresy here). Thank God they are inconsistent in their beliefs!”

We need to be careful in engaging in “Us vs. Them” theology, where the people we identify as “Them” are our brothers in Christ. Being zealous for truth is great, but not at the expense of Christian charity towards our brothers who see things differently than we do. Sometimes the cause of not only love, but also truth, requires that we try to see things from the other side’s perspective and give them the benefit of the doubt in the way we understand their beliefs.

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