Embracing the Holy Tension Between God’s Sovereignty and Human Choice: An Interview with Randy Alcorn About His Book hand in Hand

Trevin Wax: You use the historic terms "Calvinist" and "Arminian" while recognizing that these labels can obscure whenever they are used to conclude that "all believe A" or "none believe B." You also warn against taking the other side's terms and applying them to our definitions. How do our labels and terms frustrate and hinder meaningful conversation on these issues? 

hand in HandRandy Alcorn: Calvinism and Arminianism are big tents and it’s remarkable the variety of opinions within both. I’ve talked to professing Arminians, including a few well-known pastors, who are, essentially, closet Calvinists, even if they don’t know it. They think they’re supposed to hate Calvinism, but when I press them on various details they actually believe the doctrines of grace. When it’s presented as a biblical teaching, they’re all for it, but if someone’s trying to persuade them that they must buy into the whole Calvinistic system their defenses go up.

Even no two Calvinists agree on everything. If we agree on 80% of things that’s a lot. Even if we’re in the same theological framework, our beliefs fall on a continuum. I read a lot of Reformed books and frequently see authors disagree with each other, and not just on secondary issues. I was once mostly Arminian, but never as Arminian as some, and while I’m mostly Calvinist now, I’m not as Calvinist as some. And I’m okay with that, because my goal isn’t a 100% buy-in, just an attempt to believe God’s Word.

My wife Nanci and I learned years ago that we got into trouble by attaching our own meanings to the other’s words. One of us would reason, “If I said that, what I would mean is this.” Then we’d take each other’s words to their logical conclusion (according to our own logic, not the other’s). Only when we realized this did we learn to understand and appreciate each other.

For example, an Arminian says, “People have the freedom to choose as they wish.” A Calvinist responds, “Oh, so you don’t believe people have sin natures or that God is sovereign?” Shocked, the Arminian responds, “What? I believe in both!” The Calvinist insists, “No, you don’t,” because he doesn’t understand that what to him are logical conclusions to the Arminian’s statement are not logical conclusions to the Arminian!

Similarly the Arminian hears the Calvinist say, “God elects people to salvation and empowers them to believe.” The Arminian concludes, “Then you don’t believe people have the ability to make choices; you think they’re robots, and there’s no point in prayer, evangelism and missions.” In his mind, all these are perfectly logical conclusions to the Calvinist’s statement. But they are not what the Calvinist believes! That’s why we need to ask a person what they believe and listen to their answer, asking clarifying questions, instead of reducing them to a theological stereotype.

Both Calvinists and Arminians say “God is sovereign,” but mean different things by sovereign. The same goes for the term “free will.” When Calvinists and Arminians use these terms in conversation without understanding what it means to the other person, miscommunication is inevitable. Then tensions rise, and soon one or both are frustrated and defensive.

It’s fine to label ourselves, but I think it’s wise and kind to avoid labelling others. No one likes being put in a box. (I am always amazed to hear people tell me what I really believe. :) ) When it comes to terminology, especially in conversations regarding God’s sovereignty and meaningful human choice, I’d recommend using our definition or understanding of terms in place of the terms themselves until we know we’re on the same page. It may take longer to explain, but we’ll know what we’re really talking about.

Defining terms is also important when Calvinists talk with each other. Compatibilism is the belief that absolute divine sovereignty is compatible with real human choices. I believe that’s the clear teaching of Scripture. However, I’ve talked with Calvinists who call themselves Compatibilists but, when pressed, deny the reality of human choice in any meaningful sense (to say God dictates each choice is to say there is no real human choice). They are hard determinists, not soft determinists, and in my opinion are hyper-Calvinists, not true Compatibilists (the latter embrace both aspects of the paradox, not just one). My point is, to reach understanding we need to define a lot of different terms, or we’ll be disagreeing when we think we agree, and agreeing when we think we disagree.

Like you, I am not 100% on either the Calvinist or Arminian scale, which has prompted some friends from both sides to try to better inform or persuade me! You write that "all positions have strengths and weaknesses; be sure you know the strengths of others and the weaknesses of your own." That's a good word, and you seek to point out strengths and weaknesses in a manner that is fair and charitable. I wonder, though, if those who are fervently committed to one side would agree that the other side has strengths or that theirs has weaknesses. Is this a problem, or is this to be expected when someone is deeply convinced regarding their position? 

If we imagine our position on sovereignty and free will is the only one without problems, we’re kidding ourselves, and need a dose of humility. All positions have snags, whether biblical, logical or practical inconsistencies. A position can be entirely true, but there will always be arguments against it, and if we don’t understand those arguments, or if we dismiss them as if only a stupid person could believe them, we can’t effectively communicate. God deliver us from theological arrogance. (Arminius and Wesley were not idiots; they had reasons for their convictions, and articulated them well, even when I believe they were wrong.)

Calvinists should admit there are passages which appear to say genuine believers can lose their salvation (fail to persevere) and Arminians that there are passages which appear to say we can’t lose our salvation and in the end will persevere. When either acts as if their position is obvious in every biblical passage, they’re not letting each Scripture speak for itself. For instance when an Arminian cites Hebrews 6:4-6 we should look at what Hebrews is saying, not simply jump in and try to trump it with John 10:27-29, and force on the text what isn’t there. We should ask whether anyone just reading the Bible at face value would ever come up with some of our neat little interpretations that make every passage fit our theology.

People equally committed to the authority of Scripture can quote it back at each other all day, each convinced he’s proven his point—but it depends on which passages we select and ignore, and which interpretations we embrace. I put this to test once by with a group of college students, asking whether a true believer can lose his salvation. I split them up according to their answers then gave them a handout of twenty-some Scriptures, which I asked them to read and discuss and draw conclusions from.

Tensions rose. On both sides of the room, students looked confused, some angry. Only afterward did I explain that I’d given each group different handouts consisting of entirely different passages, ones that appeared to give an answer exactly opposite to the position they’d said they believed. My main take-away was that we need to establish our positions in light of all Scripture, not just our system’s preferred passages that support what we wish to believe. (The passages are listed here.)

I think it’s a mistake for anyone to attach too much importance to being consistent with our own system. I was an Arminian, as a young Christian in an Arminian church, and after years of studying Scripture I gradually changed my view on election and predestination. But had I allowed my theological system to hold sway, I wouldn’t have changed my views, but would have stayed logically consistent, and that would have been a mistake.

But we Calvinists can do the same thing. We end up being accomplished logicians rather than pure biblicists. If we’re attempting to be card-carrying Calvinists, trying to keep in step with our theological comrades, our real authority is our theological system, or our logic, not the Bible. (If we depend too much on logic, we would never believe many biblical doctrines, including the Trinity—the mathematics don’t add up, do they?)

I recommend being willing to have “leaks” and inconsistencies in your theological system, while remaining unwilling to do violence to Scripture to make it fit your system. When we were translating every verse of the Greek New Testament over the course of three years, my Greek prof would remind us to grapple with the text before us, and let it speak for itself rather than seeing it through the lens of doctrines we’d been taught in our Bible and theology classes. I can still hear him saying, “Better to be at home with your Bible and not your theology, than to be at home with your theology and not your Bible.” When there’s a conflict between the two we need to alter our theology, and I’ve done that considerably over the years.

This is why I think we need to read good books by Bible-believers who argue against our positions. Inevitably, the authors will cite passages I tend to ignore. I reflect on those passages. I try to allow God’s Word to surprise me and change my mind and modify my positions. I like to learn. If I come to God’s Word unguarded, with my shields down, God uses it to grab me, taking me where he wants me to go. If the Bible never changes your mind because you’ve already got everything figured out, you’re missing the joy of discovery.

One of the things I appreciated about your book is your insistence that we should let the Bible speak, and we shouldn't be afraid to sound like the Bible when we talk. Case in point: some argue against saying "God allows" because they think "God causes" is more biblical and consistent with his sovereignty. But since Scripture uses the more passive "allow," permit," or "let" along with the active "cause" and "Make," why shouldn't we? Should we sound more "Calvinist" or "Arminian" depending on the passage of Scripture we are explaining?

We should always interpret Scripture in context, but there’s another problem—that we choose to read and preach certain passages because their language better fits our particular theology. And we avoid passages that would balance or correct us as part of the whole counsel of God.

An Arminian can carefully avoid the predestination and election passages, or so redefine the word meanings that they nullify those doctrines. On the other hand, a Calvinist can skip or gloss over where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says, “How often would [Greek thelo] I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would [thelo] not!” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus uses the same word for what he willed as for what fallen creatures willed. And whose will was realized? That of his fallen creatures.

Yes, this isn’t the only text, and many other texts affirm God’s sovereign purposes won’t be thwarted. But I would say to an Arminian, “if this text were the only one on the subject I would have to change my theology—and it certainly serves as a balance to it.” This gives us much more credibility when we call upon them to be faithful in interpreting other texts that are more deterministic in their portrayal of God’s sovereignty.

The Bible features a staggering breadth and depth of truth that selective proof-texting can never reflect.

Regarding your mention of the language of permission, I’ve heard Calvinists argue against saying “God allows” because they think “God causes” is more biblical and consistent with his sovereignty.

But what does the Bible say? Of course, there are “God determines” passages, such as Romans 9:18, but there are also the “God allows” passages. For instance, an ax head flies from its handle and kills someone. So what does God say? “If [the man] does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate” (Exodus 21:13, ESV). It doesn’t say God caused the accident but rather “lets it happen.” The term “let” or “allow” or “permit” are all good translations. Or, take Mark 5:12–13, where demons beg Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs and Jesus “gave them permission.” God said of disobedient people, “I let them become defiled” (Ezekiel 20:26).

Similarly, Arminians should accept the language of determinism whenever Scripture uses it. God told Abimelech, “I have kept you from sinning against me” (Genesis 20:6). When casting out demons, Jesus “would not allow them to speak” (Luke 4:41).

I like what you say about being willing to sound more Calvinist or Arminian depending on the passage of Scripture we’re explaining. Let’s not posture ourselves and worry about whether we sound Calvinistic or Arminian, but focus on whether we are being biblical. Since Scripture uses the indirect “allow,” “permit,” or “let” along with the direct “cause” and “make,” I think we should do the same. Don’t we need both kinds of words to get the full biblical picture?

I love this sentence from your book: "The God of the Scriptures is so big, wise, and powerful that he can grant truly meaningful and real choices to angels and humans alike, in a way that allows them to act freely, within their finite limits, without inhibiting his sovereign plan in any way—and indeed using their meaningful choices, even their disobedience, in a significant way to fulfill his sovereign plan." You use this term, "meaningful choice" a lot. Why do you think it's better than “free will”?

I've been in discussions and witnessed debates which demonstrate how the term free will is given different meanings and inhibits communication.

To me, “free will” sounds too expansive. To be finite means to have huge limitations as to what we can choose. But we are not just finite; we’re fallen. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). A slave is not free, and sinners are not free. Now, we have limited freedoms that are still real, and we can make meaningful choices. For instance, a prisoner is not free overall; yet he may choose to read, watch television, lift weights, write letters, pray, think about his family, or plot an escape. But he cannot visit a coffee shop downtown or catch a plane to London.

The man in bondage makes meaningful choices—free, yet within very real confines. Redeemed sinners, however, “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God” (Romans 6:22). Therefore we have freed wills— that is, we can do right.

Our ability to choose, though restricted, remains actual and consequential. This is what I mean by meaningful choice. It’s real, not illusory. We are accountable because we are responsible to make right choices—choices which God can empower us to make, but we are responsible to ask him to do so and receive his sustaining grace.

One of the problems that surfaces in Calvinist/Arminian debates is the lobbing of verses back and forth as if the other side doesn't know or have an interpretation of verses that seem to counter their position. The danger you see here is that we sometimes negate or undermine the meaning of one passage by too quickly calling upon another, not allowing the less popular passage to say what it says. You don't believe the Bible is contradicting itself on these matters, so what do we do when there are passages that seem to "go against" our theological viewpoint?

The first thing we need to ask is whether our theological viewpoint is wrong. We should ask if there are other passages that stand with this one in calling our position into question. And we should stack up against them the passages we think teach something different. Believing that no truths contradict each other, we should seek to balance and reconcile doctrines as far possible. If we think Scripture teaches both, even if we can’t reconcile them, we still need to believe them.

If staying consistent with a system is our priority, we’ll wear lenses that allow us to always see Scripture as making inferences we would never see were we not bringing our theology to the text and trying to make the text harmonize with it.

Meanwhile we may explain away what appears to be the clear meaning of texts by reinterpreting them to say something counterintuitive to their wording (e.g. chosen doesn’t mean chosen, all doesn’t mean all). Attempting to stay within a particular system of thought is understandable, yet it’s dangerous when we read into texts what no one could or would see there unless they thought they should, based on what they already believe.

I’ve heard Romans 9 interpreted as a defense of libertarian human choice and Hebrews 6 as an emphatic proof text for the perseverance of the saints—but these aren’t exports from the texts, they are imports to it. A doctrine can be true without being affirmed by a particular text, and we would do well not to read it in where it isn’t present. We shouldn’t choose between biblical passages, we should believe both truths, whether or not we can harmonize them.

Spurgeon put it this way: “If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.”

I'm glad you included Molinism in your list of charts, and it was helpful that you didn't position as a middle position, but as a view of God's sovereignty that can be appropriated into either a Calvinist or Arminian framework. Do you see Molinism as growing in popularity, in acceptance from Calvinists and Arminians alike?

Molinism hinges on God’s “middle knowledge” in which he not only knows everything that has or will ever happen (the facts) but also exactly what would have happened, how people would have chosen, had things been different (the counter-factuals). Based on this, God has arranged the world knowing what will be freely chosen by everyone when placed in any particular circumstance. By arranging those circumstances to accomplish his sovereign ends, God who foreknows the future chooses accordingly, allowing him to accomplish his purpose as fully as if he’d predetermined each and every thought and action.

Scripture supports the idea of middle knowledge (Jeremiah 38:17–18; Ezekiel 3:6–7; Matthew 12:7; 24:43; 1 Corinthians 2:8), and I personally think it’s a helpful concept even though I may disagree with other beliefs of most who emphasize it. However, Molinism is more of a philosophical concept than a major biblical teaching, so it’s more attractive to abstract thinkers. Generally it’s held to by Arminians, but various Calvinists see it as fitting well with Reformed theology. It can be viewed in such a way as to be compatible with either system, though I don’t think it “bridges the gap” between Calvinism and Arminianism the way some seem to believe.

What do you hope your work in this book will do for the churches and individuals who read it? 

My hope is that readers will gain a bigger view of God by embracing paradoxical beliefs that seem to contradict each other, but in God’s infinite mind do not. I want them to see what the Bible teaches about the bigness and pervasiveness of God’s sovereignty and the reality and importance of meaningful human choice. I included a number of charts and diagrams to help readers understand the issues on the table with Calvinism and Arminianism, and Compatibilism and Libertarianism. I try to make them understandable without oversimplifying.

Also, I hope it helps people to learn to embrace all of God’s inspired Word, not just the parts we like best.

I hope readers gain an appreciation for their brothers and sisters in Christ who believe the Bible, and trust in the sole sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work , who believe in God’s sovereignty and human free will, but view them differently. Since I was once a four point Arminian and am now a four point Calvinist, and the transition happened over many years, I understand both viewpoints and would like to see more fairness and kindness to those of different persuasions.

Some Calvinists are too quick to call all Arminians Pelagians, which is as offensive to them as it is to Calvinists when Arminians speak of the “monster God of Calvinism.” I’ve heard Calvinists say that Arminians affirm human beings have the capacity to muster up faith to believe the gospel. But that’s uniformed, since both Arminius and Wesley affirmed total depravity and prevenient grace, saying that God must miraculously grant people the ability to place their faith in Christ. (They said God gives that ability to all people, and some use it and others don’t; which is different than Calvinism, but very different also than what Calvinists often think Arminians believe.)

By giving examples of the ways both “sides” often misrepresent the other, I make a plea for more fairness and objectivity, more grace and kindness. I talk about how Arminius, for example, praised the commentaries of John Calvin. If Calvinists read what Arminius (also a Reformer) wrote they’ll see not just areas of disagreement but of enthusiastic agreement.

Having seen my old beliefs caricatured by Calvinists and my current beliefs caricatured by Arminians, I’m trying to help promote humility and love. This doesn’t mean there aren’t serious differences, of course there are. But I point to Wesley and Whitefield as great examples of having such disagreements but expressing deep respect for one another. I think we need more of that in the church, where in-house doctrinal disputes can be a test of our love and unity in Christ (John 13:35; John 17:21).

Finally, I’m appealing to readers who don’t often think about intellectual and theological issues to  stretch their brains and resist the shallowness of our age that would make us into trivial people. I’m hoping for some people hand in Hand will be a gateway to more serious, thoughtful and joy-giving bible study and reflection. (With help from others, I spent a lot of effort writing quality discussion questions in the hope that believers of different persuasions will study the book together.)

This was originally posted on interviewer Trevin Wax’s blog (part one and part two).

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries