A Strong Argument Against Calvinisim? Part 1 You Decide….

Over here at Not For Itching Ears we like to discuss issues that challenge our view of Christianity and the Church.   It is healthy to consider what one believes about the Christian faith and how we express that faith in our corporate church life.  If all we ever do is listen to ourselves, we can inadvertently become the kind of people Paul warned Timothy about:  People who surround themselves with “teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.”  Today’s post is an attempt to counter that tendency among us as we discuss Free-Will and Determinism.  To do this, we turn to an extremely interesting email exchange between Father John Whiteford (an Eastern Orthodox priest) and  some proponents of Calvinism.

This isn’t your typical argument!  Father Whiteford brings another line of argumentation to his view that is almost entirely absent from the typical back and forth between Calvinists and Arminians:  What did the early church fathers teach about this?

I recognize that there are three groups of people who will read a post like this:  1) Strong Calvinists who will want to defend their view.  2)Strong Arminians who will want to find ammo for their view and 3) those who don’t have their minds made up but may lean to one understanding of things.  My hope, is that all three groups of people will be challenged and encouraged.   It’s a long discussion so I will be breaking it up into three posts.  Now, let the Discussion begin…

(Note:  FJ stands for Father John’s comments while CP stands for the Calvinist Protestant comments.)

FJ: It has been asserted that foreknowledge of a choice, necessarily determines that choice, and eliminates other possibilities as possibilities.

Let’s take the godless world of Star Trek, just to test whether this logic holds up. At the most, the Trek universe has some sort of personless force behind it… certainly no being who governs the affairs of men.

Now suppose that a person in this godless universe discovers a way to go back into the past, but can only go back into the past as an invisible, passive observer. They go back 10 years, and happen to be at a location and time which they well recall—thus they know what will happen, and thus what choices will be made. How would such a passive observer’s knowledge change the nature of the choices that were made, which previously were absolutely free choices?

Calvinists typically make the point that God’s foreknowledge cannot be based on his simply knowing the future, because he knew it prior to these future events, and thus could only know it because he decreed that it would be so. Thus God’s foreknowledge rest entirely in his own purposes, and is not in the least bit contingent upon man’s actions — but on the contrary, it is God’s foreknowledge that determines what man’s actions will be.

Thus, we are left with to logically conclude that man’s sinful actions originate entirely with God, and are not in the least bit contingent upon any choice of man — including Adam’s sin, because his fall was also foreknown “before” there was anything to foreknow other than God’s eternal purpose. If this view were true, God would be without a doubt the source of sin; and man’s actions being completely predetermined by God, to speak of free will is meaningless, because God’s will is completely determinative.

Any Calvinist willing to own up to these conclusions? If not, explain why. You can argue that your view is correct based on Scripture—but you should at least just come out and admit that you believe God is the author of sin. If you cannot admit that, then you must explain foreknowledge in terms in which God is not the only active participant, simply playing out in history what he alone had decided to do.

CP: I wonder if you might provided the biblical texts for you statement that God works all things according to His eternal purpose and foreknowledge?


(Acts 2:23) Him, being delivered by [1] the determined purpose and [2] foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands , have crucified, and put to death.

(Romans 8:29) For whom He Foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that he might be the firstborn of many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also Glorified.

Thus, we see four stages, laid out in a chain like sequence—and what is the first link in the chain? Foreknowledge.

Just for good measure, 1st Peter 1:2:

..elect according to the foreknowledge of God the father….

If God is in absolute control of men’s hearts, why does he then command men to make for themselves a new heart (signifying a new disposition of the will)? It would be as senseless as a puppeteer commanding his puppet to get up. How does God cause men to do evil?

CP: Not being privy to the counsel of the Almighty, I do not know the details of the mechanism(s) that God uses to predetermine the free choices men make.

FJ: And yet you are sure that God determines every choice, not because he foreknows them, but because he decreed them? Who filled you in on that counsel of the Almighty? But the haughty Assyrians were not sisters of charity before they invaded Israel my friend. They were already proud.

CP: As predetermined to be so by God, yes.

FJ: So God decreed that the Assyrians would choose evil, not because he foreknew that they would choose evil, but simply because he decreed that it would be so? If so, then God is the author of sin, and the Assyrians are completely passive. And Foreknowledge — you left that part out. That’s the problem here. Too much focus on one aspect of verses like this, and too little to the parts that don’t fit your views.

CP: According to my Greek sources, the word prognosis used here and elsewhere in the NT carries with it a sense of predetermination, of prior choice, and not just mere perception (cf. Rom 8:29). In 1 Pet. 1:20, the word is used in relation to none other than Jesus Christ. Surely God our Father did something a little more active than just perceiving the death of His Son?

FJ: Here is what my Greek source says on the subject (Kittle’s TDNT, abridged):

Proginosko, prognosis. The verb means “to know in advance,” and in the NT it refers to God’s foreknowledge as election of His people (Rome 8:29; 11:2) or of Christ (1st Peter 1:20), or to the advance knowledge that believers have by prophesy (2nd Peter 3:17). Another possible meaning is “to know before the time of speaking,” as in acts 26:5. The noun is used in the LXX in Jdt. 9:6 for God’s predeterminitive foreknowledge and in Jdt 11:19 for prophetic foreknowledge; Justin uses it similiarly in “Dialogue with Trypho 92.5, 39.5”

Just to aid you Protestants, here are the quotes from Judith:

(9:6) the things you decide on come forward ad say, “Here we are!” All your ways are in readiness, and your judgement is made with foreknowledge.

(11:19) I will lead you through Judea, till you come to Jerusalem, and there I will set up your judgement seat. You will drive them like sheep that have no shepherd, and not even a dog will growl at you. This was told me, and announced to me in advance, and I in turn have been sent to tell you.

As for 1st Peter 1:20, let’s look at it:

He indeed was foreknown before before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.

The contrast in this verse is clear, God knew beforehand, what was revealed to us in Christ in these last times. Two other examples of how the Petrine epistles use this term have been cited—and both of them are clearly in reference to knowledge that is prior to something. In this case, the knowledge is prior to the manifestation of Christ in time.

CP: Surely your view demands that the foreknowledge of God is a passive thing, mere intellectual perception of something happening – to which God then reacts to. The universe is a series of random events that God somehow molds to His purpose.

FJ: God is not passive, but neither is he the mover behind all choices or actions. He gives no man strength for lies, says Sirach. In your view, he determines those lies and decrees them from the foundation of the world, and only foreknows them because he determines them, not the other way around. Thus your view would make God the author of sin.

CP: God doesn’t do anything until man does something first.

FJ: God does plenty prior to man’s doing something—but in your view, God is the only active participant. All others are passive, doing only what God has decreed. I have not said that God has no influence on men—in fact, if you wish to discuss it, we can talk about the doctrine of synergy.

CP: OK, but if you’re thinking about this in terms of God “persuading” or “influencing”, this sounds an awful lot like semi-Pelagianism.

FJ: Could you define what you mean by Pelagianism, and then by Semi-Pelagianism?

Even St. Augustine said that Adam’s will was neither inclined towards evil or good, but as as such,

a neutral power, as can either incline toward faith, or turn towards unbelief… (NPNF2, Vol 5, p 109).

He also says:

God no doubt wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the Truth; but yet not so as to take away from them free will… (Ibid, p.109)

…if he had willed by his own free will to continue in this state of uprightness and freedom from sin, assuredly without any experience of death and unhappiness he would have received by the merit of that continuance the fulness of blessing with which the holy Angels are also blessed; that is the impossibility of falling any more, and the knowledge of this with absolute certainty.

(On Rebuke and Grace, ch 28, NPNF2 5:483)

The first man had not that grace by which he should never will to be evil, but assuredly he had that in which if he willed to abide he would never be evil, and without which, moreover, he could not by free will be good, but which, nevertheless, by free will he could forsake. God therefore, did not will even him to be without his grace, which he left in his free will: because free will is sufficient for evil but is too little for good, unless it is aided by omnipotent good. And if that man had not forsaken that assistance of his free will, he would always have been good; but he forsook it, and he was forsaken. (Ibid., 484)

St. Augustine is as close to a patristic basis for the Calvinist idea of free will and predestination as one can find, and yet where does he say that the fall was unavoidable? Where does he say anything about God withdrawing his grace—but on the contrary, we have God’s grace available to a man who could either cooperate with it, or reject it.

Thus, as wrong as St. Augustine was on other points in this regard, he clearly did not hold to the idea that God determined that Adam would fall, irregardless of how he would respond to God.

CP: Either it’s (a) you or (b) God who is ultimately responsible for your salvation. Pick one. If (a), then you’re a Pelagian heretic. If (b), then either you’re a closet Calvinist, or you don’t really mean what you say about the grace of God.

FJ: How about God is responsible for my salvation, and I am responsible for my response to his offer of salvation? God holds those responsible who reject the gospel, which would be senseless, if they were not in fact responsible for their response.

CP: But if you say that you are “influenced” by the grace of God to the point where the grace is salvific, then what has happened to your “free will?” Methinks that grace has somehow overriden your free will without becoming externally coercive, and if so, then welcome to the Wonderful World o’ Calvinism and glad to have you aboard.

FJ: How about God reveals himself to men, and they must choose to either accept his grace or reject it. If they accept it, they are saved, are being saved, and will be saved. You claim that I add to my salvation by my response. I say you are looking at it wrongly to begin with.

It is not God’s Grace (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) + my response (1) = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,001. Rather it is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000 (God’s grace) x 1 (my response) which only = 1,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000. Thus God gets all the credit. But if my response is no (0), it is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 x 0 = 0.

There is no being beyond the Law of God, and so in that sense, no one is autonomous. That does not mean that there are no other beings which freely rebel against the Law of God, and thus bring upon themselves His wrath. Furthermore, there is no reason to conclude from any of this that God predestines anyone to sin or rebel.

My understanding of foreknowledge is based entirely on your three points. God (alone) is not circumscribed by time, and thus he can know from all eternity what occurs in time (immediately). He does not need to cause something to happen in time in order to know it from all eternity.

Thus my position is that God knows certainly what we will do within time, within the context of what He will do. Obviously God can and does limit our behavior by his active intervention in the affairs of men, but he does not limit our choices within time — though he knows from all eternity what they will be. He neither has to guess, nor cause anything to know what it will be, because to Him there are no limits.

By the way, St. John of Damascus deals with this whole issue quite thoroughly in his “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”.

For example, someone asked how it is that the Bible speaks of events in Heaven, such as Satan appearing before him in Job. St. John points out that even Angels are circumscribed in time and space, though they are spirits. They are not everywhere present, spacially or in terms of time. God is.

This is the end of part 1.  Read Part 2

There you have it!   I think both sides represented their views well, so it shouldn’t be necessary to argue the points again.  What many of us would be interested in hearing is how you interacted with the arguments.  If you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, were there any arguments from the other point of view that you felt deserved consideration?   If you are undecided, did you find one view more compelling that the other?  Feel free to share your thoughts with the rest of us. 

To read more of Father Whitefords writings, go here.

For another interesting discussion on a topic you may have always assumed could not be challenged, see our series of articles called “A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)

About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on November 30, 2011, in Christianity, Contemporary Church Culture, Early Church History, The Christian Life, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I am extremely interested in what is being said in this post, however I’m having an extremely difficult time understanding it even though I’m somewhat familiar with the subject matter. I will continue to try, but I think the problem might be in the editing. For instance, is this entire paragraph representing the Calvinist perspective, even after the “on the contrary”?:

    “Calvinists typically make the point that God’s foreknowledge cannot be based on his simply knowing the future, because he knew it prior to these future events, and thus could only know it because he decreed that it would be so. Thus God’s foreknowledge rest entirely in his own purposes, and is not in the least bit contingent upon man’s actions — but on the contrary, it is God’s foreknowledge that determines what man’s actions will be.”

    Somewhere in the midst of that paragraph my brain loses track of what’s being said, and it sounds like you’re still making the same point even while saying that you’re being contrary to it. I’m also finding it difficult to follow sentences like the following:

    “Thus, we are left with to logically conclude that…”
    “I wonder if you might provided the biblical texts for you statement…”

    As I mentioned, I will continue to wrestle with this post (and check out the others in this series), but is there some kind of resource that I could refer to in order to get an overall picture of what you’re saying here? Is there a book that these Orthodox arguments can be found in? Since this was posted awhile ago, would it be beneficial to repost this series after some fresh editing?

    I have been getting a lot out of your blog lately, and you have caused me to become very curious about Eastern Orthodox theology and the early church fathers.




    • Hi Ben,

      I’ve been on vacation in the land of no internet, which is why it took so long to get this up!

      Good questions! We didn’t actually write this article. We re-blogged it. So, I don’t really want to edit it, because it is someone else’s work.

      Scroll down to the end of the article and you will find a link to the authors website. I am quite sure he will be able to answer you!


  2. The point that paragraph is making is that Calvinists believe that God only knows the future because he determines what the future will be, i.e., he makes the future be the way he wants it to be, and so therefore knows it only on that basis.


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