A doctrine of time
What exactly does God's sovereignty look like?
As mentioned in my previous column, the Canons of Dort (1619) were formulated as an orthodox Calvinist response to purported errors in theology taught by Jacob Arminius (1560 – 1609). Although the theological differences between Arminians and Calvinists were (and are) complicated, they fundamentally hinge on different claims about the sovereignty of God.
Calvinists claim that God is in complete control of what happens in the universe, and God’s will is the final cause of all things. God’s sovereignty is unconditional and absolute. All things are predetermined by the pleasure of God’s will. Because of humans’ historical fall into sin, humanity is genetically incapable of performing any good act, including the acceptance or rejection of God’s offer of salvation. They are thus totally depraved and dead in sin. Free will is an illusion and God has determined before the foundation of the world who will be saved and who will be lost.
Arminians, on the other hand, claim that God is sovereign but has freely chosen to limit his control in correspondence with human freedom and response. Thus, God’s decrees concerning the saved and unsaved are associated with foreknowledge of human response and not necessarily predestined by God’s own planning. Although humans have inherited a corrupted nature, they retain the image of God, and through “prevenient grace” God has removed the ultimate consequence of Adam’s sin by the Holy Spirit, who enables persons to respond (positively or negatively) to God’s call to salvation.
God is not bound by time
What should we make of these competing claims? In previous CC columns I’ve mentioned that many controversial theological doctrines (including Calvinist ones) seem to assume that God exists in time as we do. Of course, God’s sovereignty would be greatly limited if God is bound by the constraints of time. Suggesting that past and future apply to God eliminates the very sovereignty of God that Calvinists are so keen on defending. Any talk of God’s actions before the “foundation of the world” are meaningless since God is not subject to time. The medieval philosopher Boethius argued that God is a timeless entity. Past and future only make sense for limited human beings, and God allows free will to exist in time.
There is no question that we humans experience our time-bound lives as being filled with choices. We know that our free will is not absolute. It is bound by our human limitations, affected by our life histories and opportunities (as well as obstacles not of our own making) and finally by the mysterious movement of God’s spirit in our lives. Without any remnant of free will and agency, humans are reduced to automatons and the concept of responsibility becomes meaningless. Total depravity? We are sinful, broken creatures, but each of us still has, by the grace of God, the ability to respond positively or negatively to God’s call to salvation.