A friend and I recently discussed the impact of divine omniscience as it pertains to human freedom. Omniscience is the term used to describe the complete knowledge of God. The critical question of God’s omniscience in theological circles is whether divine omniscience hinders a person’s choice to choose x or y. If God knows with certainty that person A will choose x and person B will choose y, do persons A and B really have the freedom to choose? I argue that God’s knowledge does not impede human freedom. I would like to present four reasons why divine omniscience does not hinder human freedom.
The “Could, Would, Will” omniscient knowledge of God.
In his book Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, Kenneth Keathley argues that divine omniscience includes what he calls the “‘could,’ ‘would,’ and ‘will’” knowledge. “Could knowledge” represents God’s natural knowledge; that is, that “God knows all possibilities.” God knows all the possibilities that could take place. “Would knowledge” is more popularly known as God’s middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is a concept that is accepted in Molinist and Congruist perspectives. In other words, “God knows which possibilities are feasible.” Put another way, God knows what free creatures would do when placed in certain situations. Finally, “will knowledge” is God’s free knowledge in that “God exhaustively knows all things.” Thus, if God knows with certainty what could happen in the potentials of the created world, and God knows the things that will happen from His knowledge of what free creatures would do in certain circumstances, then there is no reason to believe that God’s knowledge would impede human freedom in any way. Now God may place people in certain circumstances to bring about a certain reaction. But even in doing so, the free creature would still have the freedom to choose x from y.
The relationship of omniscient knowledge to future actions.
If one grants that God holds could, would, and will knowledge, some would still argue, “But now if God knows with certainty what will happen, doesn’t that still imply that a person could not have chosen differently?” This view is called theological fatalism. Is it true? Not really. The person is given an opportunity to choose and willfully does so. Knowledge holds no bearing on a person’s choice. For instance, given the model provided by Keathley, picture someone you know who is quite the hot-head. And suppose that this hot-head really steams up over liberalism. Now suppose that a hyper-liberal approaches this conservative hot-head (and by the way, the roles could easily be reversed) and tries to coerce the conservative hot-head to accept hyper-liberal philosophies. You know the result of the encounter. The hot-head will blow up and lose his cool. Did your knowledge of his reaction impede the freely chosen response by hot-head in this story? No! Knowledge is just that—knowledge. Thus, God, even given His placement of events in a person’s life to lead one to salvation, does not hinder a person’s free will by the certain knowledge of future events that will transpire.
The intimacy of omniscient knowledge.
The debate between Calvinists and Arminians often revolves around the issue of how God chooses whom to save. The Calvinist will say that God elected to save some and reject others due to God’s own will. The Arminian will say that God chose whom to save because He foreknew what people would do in advance. But why couldn’t the answer involve both? Thomists, Molinists, and Congruists hold that God’s election involves His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, evangelical Thomist Norman Geisler notes that “whatever God fore-chooses cannot be based on what He foreknows. Nor can what He foreknows be based on what He fore-chose. Both must be simultaneous, eternal, and coordinate acts of God. Thus, our moral actions are truly free, and God determined that they would be such.” God’s election is greatly based on His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, God told Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God knew Jeremiah intimately before Jeremiah’s birth. This, however, does not mean that Jeremiah did not have a free will. Consider the issue with Pharaoh. Yahweh tells Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). But how did God harden the heart of Pharaoh? This question is answered in chapter 8 of Exodus. God had brought forth a plague of frogs. Pharaoh had asked that God would take away the frogs. Yahweh did just that. He provided His grace to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. But what did Pharaoh do? One reads that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (Exodus 8:15). Did Pharaoh have the opportunity to choose differently than he did? Yes. Did Yahweh know what Pharaoh would choose when He provided grace unto him? Yes!!! So, did God’s knowledge hinder Pharaoh’s freedom to choose? No, not at all. God’s omniscience as it pertains to election is based on His intimate knowledge of each individual.
The sovereign nature of omniscient knowledge.
Due to the fact that God is beyond the scope of time and creation, God is sovereign over all things. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), thus if God promises to bring about a certain thing, it is certain that the promised thing will come about. However, God has given individuals the freedom to choose how to live and how to respond to His grace. If God can be trusted in what He says about future things, then one must accept God’s complete and thorough knowledge of the past, present, and future. Yet, this knowledge does not demerit the ability of free creatures to choose. If God is sovereign, then He must know what would take place when mixing two parts hydrogen with one-part water—the creation of water. God would know what would need to take place for live to be able to exist. Thus, it should not trouble anyone to think that God would hold absolute knowledge of a person’s future choices. It is because of this thorough knowledge that we can trust in God’s amazing sovereignty while holding to a view of human freedom.
As this article has sought to demonstrate, there need not be a conflict in holding God’s sovereignty along with a healthy view of human freedom. Thomas Aquinas felt that if there were no freedom of the human will, then laws and morality made little sense. I concur. Too often people think that the theologian must choose between divine sovereignty and human freedom—an either/or paradigm. Yet, when one considers the potential “could, would, will” knowledge of God; the relationship of God to future actions and outcomes; the intimate nature of divine omniscience; and the sovereign nature of omniscience; then the theologian can rest in the choice of a both/and scenario. God is sovereign AND people have freedom. Theologically speaking—it’s the best of possible worlds (pun intended).
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica: Complete Edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014.
Geisler, Norman L. Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.
Keathley, Kenneth. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.
Copyright, 9/19/2016. Brian Chilton.
 Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 17.
 It is here that Congruism parts ways with classical Thomism. Congruism accepts effectual grace which also differs from classical Molinism. Congruism is best seen as the middle path between Molinism and Thomism.
The book of Exodus provides one of the greatest stories of redemption found in the Old Testament. God redeems the children of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh by calling a human agent, Moses, to lead the people out of slavery and to freedom. Most bizarre in this scenario is God’s promise to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3). How does one solve the so-called problem of God’s sovereignty as it relates to human responsibility? This paper will propose that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not impede upon Pharaoh’s free will, but rather that Pharaoh’s response fit within the sovereign plan of God. In order to accomplish this task, the paper will first examine the involvement of God in Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Then, the paper will examine the involvement of Pharaoh in the hardening process. Finally, the paper will offer a proposed theological solution to the problem.
The Problem of God’s Involvement in the Hardening Process
One particular issue concerning Pharaoh’s hardened heart surrounds the involvement of God in the process. Some would prefer to claim that God had no influence upon the hardening process of Pharaoh’s heart. However, God is clearly seen to be a player in the process, if not even the moving force. God speaks to Moses and provides an interesting promise. God says to Moses, “You are to say everything I command you…But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:2-3). To compound the problem, Exodus reiterates that it is Yahweh who is moving Pharaoh to this condition (e.g. 11:10). In fact, Douglas Stuart rightly denotes that the story served a purpose as “Moses was writing this story not merely to help his fellow Israelites trust Yahweh as things happened but to help them learn to trust that Yahweh is the one who makes things happen in the first place, as part of a great redemptive plan for the benefit of his people.” God brings these things about for a particular reason. Such language addresses the theological notion of divine sovereignty. What is sovereignty and what do other passages of Scripture claim concerning God’s sovereignty?
Sovereignty is defined, according to John S. Feinberg, as “God’s power of absolute self-determination…God does his own actions, and that they are in accord with his choices.” That is to say, God is in complete control over events. The apostle Paul denoted God’s sovereignty in such a fashion as he translated Pharaoh’s hardened heart as demonstrative that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:17). Divine sovereignty thus means, as Feinberg denotes, that “God is the ultimate, final, and complete authority over everything and everyone. Whatever happens stems from his decisions and control.” When God called Jeremiah, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God had chosen Jeremiah before Jeremiah had a chance to respond. God’s choice is related to the Pharaoh as well. God had purposes for Pharaoh. For God said to Pharaoh that his purpose would be “that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). However, one must ask; does God not allow people to freely come to Him (e.g. Romans 10:13)? Does God condemn a person who would choose to repent? To understand this aspect of the equation, one must examine the role of human free will especially as it relates to the Egyptian Pharaoh of Exodus.
The Problem of Pharaoh’s Involvement in the Hardening Process
Pharaoh played a major role in this heart hardening process. Pharaoh freely responded to God in a rebellious fashion, as planned by God. Exodus states that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (8:15). God did not force Pharaoh to sin. Rather, Pharaoh repeatedly rebelled against the grace of God. Again, Exodus states that “When the Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts” (9:34). It was evident that Pharaoh played a major role in his own rebellion; so much that Philistine priests said to their leaders, “Don’t be stubborn and rebellious as Pharaoh and the Egyptians were. By the time God was finished with them, they were eager to let Israel go” (1 Samuel 6:6, NLT). God’s power was clearly demonstrated to other nations; however, the freely chosen rebellion of Pharaoh was also apparent. Moses clearly noted the choices of Pharaoh in the matter as Moses became frustrated at Pharaoh’s rebellion and “burning with anger” (11:8, NLT). Dorian Coover Cox would concede as much by claiming that “Whatever the reason, since Moses knew about the hardening, his anger, to be rational, must build on the belief that Pharaoh was still accountable for his attitudes and actions.” But why was Pharaoh so rebellious? Perhaps it stemmed from pride. McGinnis makes the case that “Egyptians prized the ability to appear strong, firm, resolute, and unmoved by events.” Pharaoh had rather rule his way to hell than submit his way to heaven. How does one solve this theological conundrum between divine sovereignty and human freedom?
Proposed Solution to the Theological Issue
If one seeks to hold a balanced theological perspective, one must accept both the sovereignty of God as well as human responsibility. Throughout Christian history, theologians have sought to solve this issue and have come to differing conclusions. McGinnis denotes that Origen felt that “God does not intend to harden…; although God’s purpose may be merciful, a person’s ‘inherent wickedness’ may result in hardening. In this way God is said to harden the one who is hardened.” Juxtaposed to Origen’s thought, Augustine solved this problem by asserting that “God’s mercy or hardening spring ‘from deeply hidden merits.’” But, how would Exodus present an answer?
Barker and Kohlenberger note concerning Exodus 11:9-10 that the writer of Exodus “as a recapitulation of all Moses’ negotiations beginning in 7:8, we are reminded that all had taken place as God had predicted it. No amount of evidence had persuaded Pharaoh’s heart, and Israel was still enslaved.” God had a purpose in His workings, as “The Lord announced repeatedly that He was acting so that various parties would acknowledge Him.” God would say to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). The terms used within the text seem to indicate the role that both God and Pharaoh played in the process. Geisler notes that four words are used pertaining to Pharaoh’s hardened heart, “Qashah, meaning “stubbornness”…Kabed, meaning “heavy” or “insensitive”…Chazaq, meaning “strength” or “encouragement”…When Pharaoh is the agent of hardening kabed is used. When God is the agent, chazaq is used.” Termed another way, Geisler denotes that “the Hebrew word hardened (chazaq) can and often does mean ‘to strengthen’…or even ‘to encourage.’” That is to say, God placed Pharaoh in the circumstances to freely react to the predetermined plan of God. A congruist theological approach can best systematize this kind of working.
Congruism is a theological system that is described by Millard J. Erickson as a “theology [that] can be characterized as a mild Calvinism (congruism) that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality.” Aquinas, believing in both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humanity, denoted that “God gives grace to a person, and pre-ordains that He will give it, because He knows beforehand that He will make good use of that grace, as if a king were to give a horse to a soldier because he knows he will make good use of it…there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination.” Thus, a congruist, or compatibilist, interpretation evaluates human freedom as finding a home within the sovereign plan of God, a solution to the Pharaoh predicament.
This paper has evaluated the theological problem of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The first section noted the clear Scriptural evidence that addresses God’s involvement in the hardening process, noting particularly the importance of divine sovereignty. The second section noted the clear Scriptural evidence that supports Pharaoh’s own responsibility in the hardening process. The final section offered a proposal found in the congruist theological model, evaluating human freedom as taking place within the sovereign plan of God. One can find great comfort in acknowledging God’s sovereignty amidst human responsibility. At times, the world seems chaotic. Evil grows at a rapid pace. The marvelous news is that God is still in control. Human freedom is playing to the beat of God’s sovereign drum, ultimately culminating to God’s grand redemption of His people.
Copyright 2015. Brian Chilton.
The preceding article represents the academic work of the author. Note that the contents have been scanned and submitted. Therefore, any attempt of plagiarism will be discovered by one’s respective school of learning. As always, be sure to use cite any references used for one’s work.
The article’s theme picture is that of Yul Brynner playing the part of Pharaoh in the motion picture “The Ten Commandments.” Paramount Pictures (October 5, 1956).
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologicae. In Summa of the Summa. Translated by the Fathers of the Dominican Province. Edited and Annotated by Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.
Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, Abrided Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Cox, Dorian Coover. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context.” Bibliotheca Sacra 163, 651 (July 1, 2006): 292-311. February 27, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Feinberg, John S. No One Like Him: Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
_______________. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.
McGinnis, Claire Mathews. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6, 1 (March 1, 2012): 43-64. Accessed February 27, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus, The New American Commentary, Volume 2. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).
 Henceforth, passages in Exodus will be referenced by only the chapter and verse.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, Volume 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 262.
 John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 294.
If one engages in theological studies, one will be met with two main theological paths: that of Calvinism from French Reformer John Calvin and that of Arminianism from Dutch Reformer Jacob Arminius. Calvin’s theology can best be summarized by the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Arminius, while not taking an extreme course as believed by some, took somewhat a different route. For he still promoted total depravity (with some distinctions), but also taught conditional election (based on divine foreknowledge), unlimited atonement (free for everyone), resistible grace, and leaving open the possibility of apostasy (while he did not explicitly teach that one would fall away from grace, he left it open as a possibility).
As I have deepened my studies in Scripture, I have noticed glaring holes in both systems. For Calvinism, there are undeniable problems related to the character of God. Calvin did not focus so much on the love of God as he did the grace of God (for more information see my paper Evaluation of John Calvin’s Views on Election here on the website). There are clear-cut problems with Calvinism (at least the extreme forms) when it comes to understanding a person’s responsibility to respond to the Spirit of God. For example, Paul writes explicitly “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). This indicates that one can resist the Spirit of God. God also says, “…“I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:20-21).Notice that God states through Paul and Isaiah that He reached out to others not associated with Israel while continuing to reach out His hands to those who were disobedient and contrary. Why would God do this if His Spirit were irresistible? Obviously God knew they would resist, but He still tried to reach them.
There are great problems with Arminianism, as well. If you read some of my earlier posts, you will note that I previously identified myself as a classic Arminian Baptist. However, I am not so certain that Arminius holds the best answers either. While Arminius holds fewer problems than extreme Calvinists, Arminianism is problematic in the sense of Romans 9. Many Arminians would hold to what is called corporate election, meaning that God chose to save a group of people through Christ. Christ was the person that was elected and not necessarily other individuals. This is extremely problematic. For, one will note that if God foreknew the people who were going to be saved, God would have known the individuals that constituted that corporate group before they were created, as well as those who were not chosen. Why then did God still create those who were not going to respond?
Luckily, other systems can be discovered that help one wade through the depth of these theological issues. In fact, two other systems are preferred over both Calvinism and Arminianism. These systems are less stringent than those of Calvin and Arminius which leaves more wiggle room, therefore holding less problems. The two systems stem from the uber-intellectual Christian giant known as Thomas Aquinas (Thomism) and from one of Aquinas’ followers, Spanish theologian Luis de Molina (Molinism). Both systems hold similarities with some stark differences.
Basics of Thomism
Thomism does not have a catchy little acronym to demonstrate the basics of the system. However, for the purposes of this article, it is important to understand two basic principles that Thomas Aquinas taught in his classic writing Summa Theologicae. First, Thomas believed in the sovereign reign of God. In fact, God is responsible for the creation of all things. For Thomas, God is the necessary “efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God” (Aquinas, Summa I.2.3, 67). Therefore, God is the prime mover when it comes to salvation. However, Thomas seemed to hold to a form of the human will in the process of salvation. Thomas writes that
“just as it is impossible for a thing to be at the same time violent and natural, so it is impossible for a thing to be absolutely coerced or violent, and voluntary. But necessity of end is not repugnant to the will, when the end cannot be attained except in one way: thus from the will to cross the sea, arises in the will the necessity to wish for a ship. In like manner neither is necessity repugnant to the will…For what befits a thing naturally and immovably must be the root and principle of all else appertaining thereto, since the nature of a thing is the first in everything, and every movement arises from something immovable…” (Aquinas, Summa I.82.2, 290).
So for the Thomist, God is the ultimate mover and humans respond to the movement of God. Later, it was added that efficacious grace, or “grace that effects the purpose for which it is given” (Hughes 2001, 521) was necessary for one to be saved. In other words, efficacious grace is grace that plays out to its end. This is somewhat similar to the doctrine of irresistible grace with some differences. It is here that Molina would have issues with the classic Thomist view.
Basics of Molinism
Luis de Molina, a Spanish theologian and knew and taught from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae extensively. However, Molina held some issues with the two forms of knowledge promoted by Thomas Aquinas and in his view of efficacious grace. Molina held that while humans were free to respond to the grace of God, God knew how a person would respond under certain circumstances. Molina held that in addition to God’s natural knowledge (things that are) and free knowledge (things that could be), God also possesses middle knowledge (or the things that might be under certain circumstances). So, in other words, Molina believed that God knew how a person would respond to God’s grace under certain circumstances. Therefore, God places people in events and places that would bring the person to His grace without impeding upon the human will. This differs from Arminanism because God absolutely knows what it takes to bring a person to faith and knows those of whom no amount of persuasion would influence. This holds a greater balance in the context of Scripture than one might think. The Scriptural support for Molinism will be argued in a future article. Because of middle knowledge, Molina did not see efficacious grace as necessary.
Finally, future Molinists would create another version of the Molinist system. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez developed a system called Congruism. Congruism fits well in both Calvinist and Arminian perspectives. In this system, God knows individuals before creation. God’s knowledge of the individuals includes the knowledge of what the person would do in certain circumstances. Therefore, those who would respond to the grace of God were placed in positions that would lead the person to respond to the grace of God. Efficacious grace re-enters this version of Molinism. While more study of Bellarmine and Suarez’s theology is necessary before expounding on their systems extensively, the Congruist system is explained by Millard J. Erickson as “a mild Calvinism…that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality. This theology is a dualism in which the second element is contingent on or derived from the first. That is, there are realities distinct from God that have a genuine and good existence of their own, but ultimately received their existence from him by creation (not emanation)” (Erickson 1998, 448). Erickson also writes that Congruism was the position of B.B. Warfield who termed the position as congruism as it “holds that God works congruously with the will of the individual; that is, God works in such a suasive way with the will of the individual that the person freely makes the choice God intends” (Warfield, in Erickson 1998, 385).
While any of these three systems work well in dealing with the sovereignty/free will conundrum, it is in this writer’s opinion that Congruism works the best. However, I would disagree with Warfield, Erickson, and Norman Geisler that Congruism is a version of mild Calvinism. Congruism should be noted as being mild Molinism. For Congruism seems to fit the system of Molina more than Calvin. In fact, Congruism seems to fit the systems developed by Bellarmine and Suarez even more as these two theologians presented their own twist to Molinism. I would add one small detail to Warfield’s description of the system, however. It is God’s will that all should be saved. It has been written many times before, but it bears repeating that Peter wrote that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In fact: if Congruism is true, then God has not only a purpose for each life, God holds a purpose in an individual’s existence in a particular timeframe. In which case, you have a purpose not only to God but also to the world in which you are placed.
So to answer the question presented in this article; do Thomists and Molinists hold better answers in solving the conundrum of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in regards to salvation than do Calvinists and Arminans? My answer is a resounding…YES!!! Regardless of where one finds oneself on the theological spectrum, it is important to find balance. While we may strive to understand the ways of the infinite God and the workings of God’s creation, it is important for us not to become so obsessed with the differences in the theological systems that we forget the clear commands of God in that we are to love God with all our being and to love one another as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39-40).
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologicae. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. In Summa of the Summa. Edited and Annotated by Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.
Hughes, P. E. “Grace.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Warfield, B. B. The Plan of Salvation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942. In Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Dislaimer: The following is a paper submitted by Pastor Brian Chilton to Liberty University. This paper has been scanned and admitted through “Safe Assign” and will be detected by any and all accredited universities and colleges if a person attempts to use the following paper as their own. No part of this paper may be copied and pasted into another paper without giving credit to the author. Failure to do so may, and most likely will, result in charges of plagiarism by the student’s respected school. Charges of plagiarism can result in academic probation and/or expulsion.
The purpose of this paper will be to evaluate the beliefs of John Calvin concerning election.
Calvinism is one of the most controversial theological systems that have entered Christendom. Do modern individuals truly understand Calvin’s beliefs on election? This paper will seek to evaluate the essence of John Calvin’s beliefs pertaining to election. In order to accomplish this evaluation, the paper will first define election from a theological standpoint. Then, the paper will provide an evaluation of Calvin’s view of God in relation to election. The paper will then provide an evaluation of Calvin’s views of humanity as it pertains to election. Finally, the paper will provide an evaluation of Calvin’s understanding of human free will.
Defining Election and John Calvin
In this portion of the paper, the man behind Calvinism will be examined. Also, the definition of election will be presented and shown how it relates to the viewpoints of John Calvin. John Calvin is best known for his viewpoints concerning election. In fact, election is Calvin’s imprint upon theology. Calvin was in fact the “systematizer of the Reformation…” Galli and Olsen state that “To this day, Calvin’s name is associated, for good and for ill, with the city of Geneva. And Calvin’s belief in God’s election is his theological legacy to the church.” For this reason, it is important that one understands the man behind the doctrine as one undertakes a study on Calvin’s view of election.
John Calvin was born in “Noyon, Picardie. His father was a notary who served the bishop of Noyon, and as a result Calvin, still while a child, received a canonry in the cathedral that would pay for his education.” Therefore, Calvin benefited from an active involvement in ecclesiastical and academic life from an early age. Eventually Calvin would run into problems with French royalty due to his involvement in the Protestant movement. At this time, “The Anabaptist takeover of Münster…made Francis I regard anyone interested in reform of the church as potentially seditious.” Although Calvin was known as a pastor and reformer, Calvin is perhaps best known for his writings. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which will be referenced in this paper concerning Calvin’s theology, became a manual for those who adhered to the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Calvin, in fact, had two reasons for writing this manual. Steinmetz indicates that the Institutes were “…designed not only to ‘transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness’ but also to explain the theological views of Protestants to the French king…” Therefore, one must wonder how much of Calvin’s Institutes were influenced by his desire to promote what would be seen as a peaceful version of Protestantism…if at all.
When one speaks of the issue of election, that which has already been identified as Calvin’s imprint upon theology, it is a multi-faceted affair. Election involves one’s views of God, humanity, and human free-will. However, a simple definition of election would be rendered in six statements as given by Klooster:
1. Election is a sovereign, eternal decree of God…2. The presupposition of God’s eternal decree of election is that the human race is fallen; election involves God’s rescue plan…3. Election is ‘election in Christ’…4. Election involves both the elect’s salvation and the means to that end…5. Election (as well as reprobation) is individual, personal, specific, particular…6. Finally, the ultimate goal of election is the glory and praise of God.
All orthodox Christians hold to some version of election. However, Calvin and his followers would view election differently than those who were not of the Reformed tradition. Election involves how one views God, humanity, and a person’s ability, or lack of ability, to respond to the grace of God. In the next section, the paper will address Calvin’s view of God in relation to his view of election.
Evaluation of Calvin’s View of God Concerning Election
In this portion of the paper, Calvin’s viewpoints concerning God as it relates to his theology of election will be presented. How does Calvin view God? John Calvin has an incredibly high view of God. In fact, Calvin believes that God is so great that it may be impossible for humanity to fathom the greatness of God. Calvin writes that,
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.
Therefore, human knowledge of God is limited at best in the Calvinist theological theme. While Calvin would accept that humans can have natural knowledge about God, that knowledge would not equate to saving faith. For instance, Calvin does not deny that natural knowledge of God is possible. Rather, saving faith cannot be known without special revelation and that revelation comes from God. Calvin writes,
For although no man will now, in the present ruin of the human race, perceive God to be either a father, or the author of salvation, or propitious in any respect, until Christ interpose to make our peace; still it is one thing to perceive that God our Maker supports us by his power, rules us by his providence, fosters us by his goodness, and visits us with all kinds of blessings, and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ. Since, then, the Lord first appears, as well in the creation of the world as in the general doctrine of Scripture, simply as a Creator, and afterwards as a Redeemer in Christ,—a twofold knowledge of him hence arises: of these the former is now to be considered, the latter will afterwards follow in its order.
Therefore, Calvin would tend to believe that God is known by all individuals in a general sense as Creator, but the personal relationship offered to a human being is not known unless God reveals Himself as Redeemer.
Such a view is also apparent in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 1:20. Paul writes that “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen.” Concerning this passage, Calvin states that Paul “does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity; for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself.” One can almost find hints of Thomas Aquinas in Calvin’s theology; for it was Aquinas that said that “it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.” God is eternal and beyond the scope of the universe. Therefore when it comes to all things including salvation, God is the first mover. God finds man and not vice versa. Helm writes that “Calvin makes it clear in the Institutes that he is committed to the view that God is simple (‘a simple, single essence’). But he not only adheres to a version of the idea of divine simplicity, he is an eternalist; that is, he holds that God exists beyond or outside time.”Calvin’s theology is based upon a high view of God.
How much can humanity know about God outside the scope of special revelation? Surprisingly, Calvin believed that humans could know some of the attributes of God pertaining to God’s existence. Calvin wrote that “though experience testifies that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found who cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity so far is it from yielding fruit in its season.” For Calvin, an element of divine knowledge is known by all because of the necessity of God’s existence, but this did not indicate that Calvin believed that humanity could make a necessary response to God unless moved because God is the prime mover as will be noted in the next section.
Before moving on, one must note the great emphasis that Calvin places on God’s sovereignty. It is this emphasis that sets Calvinism apart from other theological systems. Norman Geisler describes the term sovereignty as “‘what a sovereign has,’ namely control over his kingdom. God’s sovereignty—the idea that God is in control of the whole universe…” Perhaps no other passage of Scripture relays the sovereignty of God better than Romans chapter 9. It is perhaps in Calvin’s commentary that one catches the full glimpse of Calvin’s view of God. Calvin is not persuaded that the love of God is the moving force behind God’s salvation of humanity. Calvin writes that he did “consent not to the opinion of those who think that Paul spoke these words from regard to God only, and not to men; nor do I agree with others, who say, that without any thought of God, he was influenced only by love to men: but I connect the love of men with a zeal for God’s glory.” Therefore for Calvin, God’s primary choice to save was based on God’s sovereign zeal for God’s own glory. Calvin would say that God has no obligation to save anyone since God relies upon no one or nothing. So, God’s choice of saving souls is entirely God’s sovereign choice. Calvin would make this clear as he wrote that
But that no one may imagine, that Pharaoh was moved from above by some kind of common and indiscriminate impulse, to rush headlong into that madness the special cause, or end, is mentioned; as though it had been said,—that God not only knew what Pharaoh would do, but also designedly ordained him for this purpose. It hence follows, that it is in vain to contend with him, as though he were bound to give a reason; for he of himself comes forth before us, and anticipates the objection, by declaring, that the reprobate, through whom he designs his name to be made known, proceed from the hidden fountain of his providence.
In one sense, it would seem that Calvin viewed foreknowledge as part of God’s general knowledge. That foreknowledge, or prescience, was not a prerequisite for a person’s salvation as the decision to save originated with God. When one examines Calvin’s statements closely, one will find that all things were appointed by God; being that some humans were chosen by the sovereignty of God for heaven and others were chosen for damnation for the purpose of God’s glory. It is here that one must pause and contemplate whether Calvin does an injustice to the character of God. Arminius would certainly believe so.
Jacob Arminius held that Calvin’s interpretation of election was “repugnant to the nature of God, especially with regard to those attributes by which he performs and manages all things: his wisdom, justice, and goodness.” Arminius would hold that, from God’s perspective, individuals are chosen by “which God decreed to save and to damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe.” For Geisler, salvation is not an either/or situation but a both/and concerning election and foreknowledge. Geisler writes that “Election is not based on or dependent on foreknowledge. Rather, election is in accord with it.” Geisler would not see foreknowledge as the prerequisite for salvation nor would he find foreknowledge of ill effect on the purpose of election. For this reason, Geisler would not belong completely in the Arminian camp and he would not completely belong in the Calvinist camp either. While this writer would agree with Geisler’s interpretation, one should expect to find such difficulties when seeking to understand the infinite, sovereign God and God’s relationship with humanity. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Calvin’s main emphasis on God’s decision-making is less in tune with God’s loving nature but rather on God’s glory. The reverse is true for Arminius’ theology. How one view’s God’s nature impacts one’s views concerning the human capacity to respond to God’s grace. This will be the issue in the next section.
Evaluation of Calvin’s View of Humanity Concerning Election
In this portion of the paper, Calvin’s viewpoints concerning the nature and depravity of humanity will be given. Does a person have knowledge enough of God to respond to God’s grace? It must be noted that Arminius, contrary to popular belief, did not hold that one could consciously respond to the grace of God without first having one’s eyes opened to the gift of salvation by the grace of God. Arminius states that he “would go so far as to assert that the creature, although regenerated, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any temptation, apart from this preventing and awakening, this continuing and cooperative grace.” The issue of the free will of humanity will be examined in the next section. However, the nature of human depravity is oddly shared by both Calvin and Arminius. The question is what is the extent of this depravity?
For Calvin, human depravity is complete and extends to every faculty. Calvin defines original sin as “a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh.” Calvin would view humanity as completely depraved and totally incapable of responding in any way to the goodness of God. But what about the love of God regarding lost souls?
When considering the lost, one must remember that Calvin focuses on the glory of God over the love of God. The apostle Paul asked, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” Calvin views this verse as follows,
If the Lord bears patiently for a time with these, not destroying them at the first moment, but deferring the judgment prepared for them, and this in order to set forth the decisions of his severity, that others may be terrified by so dreadful examples, and also to make known his power, to exhibit which he makes them in various ways to serve; and, further, that the amplitude of his mercy towards the elect may hence be more fully known and more brightly shine forth;—what is there worthy of being reprehended in this dispensation? 
Non-Calvinists and moderate Calvinists may view this verse differently. Geisler would view Romans 9:22 as indicating that the vessels of wrath are “objects of wrath because they refuse to repent.” Calvin would respond that individuals are completely at the mercy of God’s sovereign will. The Calvinist view of God and humanity culminate to the view of human free will. Do humans have the capacity to respond to God’s grace?
Evaluation of Calvin’s View of Free Will Concerning Election
In this portion of the paper, Calvin’s views concerning the extent of freedom in the human will be explored. Does Calvin reject any human involvement in the process of salvation? Asked differently, do human beings have enough freedom to respond to the grace of God? This issue is another distinction that separates Calvin’s views from others. Arminius suggests that “There is not a single doctrine that the Papists, Anabaptists, and Lutherans oppose with greater intensity” than that of Calvin’s views of predestination and the absence of human free will. So what is it that Calvin believes concerning human freedom? Calvin sees humanity as helpless and completely enslaved in sin. For Calvin, it is erroneous to think that humanity can respond to God’s grace. Calvin writes that “Some make man a fellow-worker with God in such a sense, that man’s suffrage ratifies election, so that, according to them, the will of man is superior to the counsel of God.” In regards of human freedom, Calvin sees it impossible for one to choose good because one is so indelibly enslaved to sin. Calvin asks “How few are there who, when they hear free will attributed to man, do not immediately imagine that he is the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil?” Therefore, nothing good could be known and no salvation experienced without the working of the Holy Spirit of God. Bolt writes that “There are good classic theological connections between general revelation and pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), and an emphasis on the cosmic or universal work of the Holy Spirit is a significant development in contemporary theology, especially in ecclesiology or the doctrine of the church.” These beliefs gave rise to what is classical called irresistible grace.
Irresistible grace is understood as man’s inability to resist the will of God. This is in stark contrast to Arminius who states that “Scripture teaches that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace offered.” In fact, Arminius sees Calvin’s views as problematic in the realm of prayer as “Prayers cannot be offered with suitable faith and confidence that they will be profitable to all the hearers of the Word when among the hearers there are those whom God is willing to save, but also those whom, by his absolute, eternal, and immutable will (antecedent to all things and all causes), it is his pleasure and will to damn.”Geisler would agree as he writes of Romans 9:15 that “God has mercy on whom He will have mercy. But both here and everywhere else in Scripture, God (in accordance with His unchangeably loving nature) wills to have mercy on everyone who truly repents.”It would be difficult for one to disagree with Arminius and Geisler in light of Scriptures such as 2 Peter 3:9 where the apostle writes that “The Lord is…patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”Some might claim that the apostle was speaking only of the elect. However, such an interpretation does not fit the context as Peter addresses the judgment of God in 2 Peter 3:3-7. Yet, Arminius and Geisler would agree with Calvin that the grace of God is necessary in order for one to even have the chance to respond to God’s salvation. Perhaps the hinge of difference between Calvin’s viewpoints and those of moderate and non-Calvinists is based upon human ability, or inability, to respond to the grace of God. It is agreed with Velde in that “Behind the discussion on election and reprobation is the question as to the cause by which we receive salvation.” In Calvin’s view, nothing is superior to God’s sovereignty, not even human freedom. All revolves around the glory of God in Calvin’s theology.
This paper has evaluated the beliefs of John Calvin concerning election. First, it was demonstrated that Calvin held a high view of God believing that God was superior to all things and that God was above human comprehension, even though natural revelation was a possibility for all people. Next, it was shown that God held a low view of humanity. Calvin did not think it was possible for humans to know much about God other than that which could be known by the course of efficient causality through natural revelation. Finally, flowing from the first two tenets, Calvin did not believe that human beings could respond to the grace of God.
All theological systems have problems to some degree. While the impact and writings of John Calvin are greatly appreciated, this writer cannot fully support all of Calvin’s conclusions. Perhaps the best description of this writer’s theological perspective is found in what Millard J. Erickson termed “(congruism) that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality.” In reality, this system is closely akin to a version of Molinism put forth by the theologian Luis de Molina.
Regardless of where one finds themselves in the election debate, one cannot help but appreciate the contributions of John Calvin. Calvin is loved by his supporters at the Synod of Dort and resented by those of the Remonstrant movement. Calvin’s viewpoints were controversial in his day and continue even at the time of this writing. While the issues of election are unlikely to be solved on this side of eternity, Calvin’s contributions can be appreciated by his admirers and despisers alike.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible. La Habra: Lockman, 1995.
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 W. S. Reid, “Calvin, John,” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition, Walter A. Elwell, ed (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 201.
 Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 38.
Jacob Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments, in Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary, W. Stephen Gunter, ed and trans (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2002), 113.