Foreknowledge According to Arminians
We are examining George Bryson’s book The Dark Side of Calvinism. Before Bryson asks: Is Calvinism the Gospel? in the next chapter, he has some introductory remarks. By way of warning, I will point out that both the Introduction as well as the first chapter both imply that Calvinists are not Christians. I understand that Bryson does not go that far and I respect him for that. But his Introduction states that Calvinists make God the author of sin and in chapter 1 he wonders if Calvinism is the gospel.
It sounds as if Bryson thinks Calvinists are, at best, well-intentioned dragons and, at worst, so deluded in their understanding of the Bible that they are actually lost. His opening salvo in the Introduction is a little confusing, but we’ll try to follow him. He begins, “Despite formal denials from some Calvinists and documents such as The Westminster Confession of Faith, John Calvin and the system of theology he championed, does ‘…assert that God is, in himself, the cause and author of sin. …’ According to Calvin, it is all happening according to the perfect plan and purpose of God.” Did you follow all of that? I certainly didn’t. Allow me to make a couple of comments.
First, Bryson leaves us only to guess where the quotation comes from. Typically, generally, when you make such an accusation (“…assert that God is, in himself the cause and author of sin. …”), I expect a footnote. Where did Bryson get that quote? He leaves the erroneous insinuation that either Calvin or The Westminster Confession of Faith or both teach that God is the author of sin. Neither, in fact, does.
As an example of what I mean, this is what the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 5.4) says: “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all others sins of angels and men; and that not by bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.” (Emphasis mine.)
It is a gross and crass misrepresentation that either Calvin, the Westminster divines, or any truly Reformed person would teach that God is the author of sin. It is both irresponsible and unconscionable that Bryson would level such a charge at the Reformed community.
Second, I’m still puzzled at what Bryson means when he writes, “According to Calvin, it is all happening according to the perfect plan and purpose of God.” What is it? Conceivably, he means that God is the author of sin, but Calvin nowhere teaches anything even close to that. Does he mean that God works from a divine plan and is unfolding it in the course of human history? Christians affirm that he is. Bryson adds to his enigmatic statement: “Everything is as it should be.” I certainly hope so! What kind of world would it be if God had a plan and everything wasn’t as it should be? Now we’re talking culpability for God!
Bryson takes us to Calvin’s Institutes and excises a quotation that suits his purposes: “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.” Please allow me to give a little bit of a context to what is going on here. Calvin begins the section in question with an appeal to Scripture, namely Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” So far; so good. Those against whom Calvin is arguing say that man “had free choice that he might shape his own fortune, and that God ordained nothing except to treat man according to his own deserts.”
He continues, “Yet predestination, whether they will or not, manifests itself in Adam’s posterity. For it did not take place by reason of nature that, by the guilt of one parent, all were cut off from salvation…. Scripture proclaims that all mortals were bound over to eternal death in the person of one man [cf. Rom. 5:12ff.]. Since this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is perfectly clear that it has come forth from the wonderful plan of God.” Calvin rightly ties foreknowledge and foreordination together when he says, “Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree. If anyone inveighs against God’s foreknowledge at this point, he stumbles rashly and heedlessly. What reason is there to accuse the Heavenly Judge because he was not ignorant of what was to happen?”
In other words, as we shall see, Bryson opts to deny true biblical sovereignty and to work all things to his good pleasure. Rather, Bryson (and Chuck Smith and David Hunt) have robbed God of being God and have substituted a saccharine sentimentality regarding love and a misinterpretation of what John 3:16 actually says and what it actually means in its immediate context.
We return to what Calvin has to say on the subject that Bryson quoted. The quotation reads: “And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision.” Bryson selected only the part of the quotation that suited him and his needs, for Calvin goes on to say, “For as it pertains to his wisdom to foreknow everything that is to happen, so it pertains to his might to rule and control everything by his hand.” Or, wisdom is to foreknowledge as might is to sovereignty. What is wrong with that? If God is not sovereign, then we are left with the alternative that man is. Ultimately, in consistent Arminian theology (and make no mistake that Bryson, Hunt, and Smith are clearly Arminians), man is sovereign.
That is to say, in Bryson’s system—and he definitely has one—God’s love cannot be redeeming love, since man must have the final say in either rejecting or accepting God’s offer. What are some of the practical implications of this kind of thinking? James White puts it succinctly when he states, “Hence, God must love everyone equally, and try to save each one equally, and fail with regularity to do so. Indeed, we must conclude that God will be eternally unhappy, since He will love those in hell with the very same kind of undifferentiated love He has for the myriad redeemed surrounding His throne.” This is important to point out since Arminian/Biblicists like Bryson won’t tell you things like this. This is one of those “logical consequences” of the “God-loves-everyone” mentality. Most don’t or won’t take matters this far, but in reality, this is where you end up.
Arminians and Biblicists (read in Bryson’s case: Arminians) have a particular view of foreknowledge that they believe does an end run around predestination. Their view goes something like this: God looks down through the tunnel of time and those he foreknows will have faith, he calls his “elect.” As often as not, this is coupled with the “John 3:16 obsession.”
I preface my remarks this way because Bryson is about to present us with yet another quote from Calvin. Bryson says that Calvin understood “sovereign control” and “divine direction” in the following manner: “…some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of those ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or death.”
Now Bryson could have explained a number of important aspects of 3.21.5 in the Institutes, but he only chooses to cite this snippet. First, he could have pointed out that Calvin was arguing against Albertus Pighuis’ work De libero arbitrio (The Free Will) and the way Pighuis described foreknowledge. Listen to the manner in which Calvin opens that section: “No one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination, by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death.”
Well, what precisely does Calvin understand by the word “foreknowledge”? He writes, “When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things always were, and perpetually remain, under his eyes, so that to his knowledge there is nothing future or past, but all things are present. And they are present in such a way that he not only conceives them through ideas, as we have before us those things which our minds remember, but he truly looks upon them and discerns them as things placed before him. And this foreknowledge is extended throughout the universe to every creature.”
Bryson arguably might agree with that definition, but has ineluctable problems with predestination. Before I give you Calvin’s definition of what predestination is and how it differs from foreknowledge allow me to give a simple illustration. Let’s take a fictitious man named Joe. Follow me on this. God’s foreknowledge is most often explained by Arminians or “balanced-approached” (so-called Biblicist) theologians this way: God looks down through the “tunnel of time” and foresees that “Joe” will become a Christian. After all, doesn’t God know everything? Indeed, he does. Anyway, God then elects “Joe” on the basis of his foreseen faith. I would suppose that this is the view of the majority of evangelicals today. I believe it is a fallacious view, however.
I’ll explain why I believe it to be incorrect from two standpoints. The first has to do with “foreknowledge” and the second will flow out of our explanation of “foreknowledge.”
First, God’s foreknowledge is spoken about in Scripture (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29; 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:2). The rub comes when Christians believe they can speak of God’s foreknowledge apart from his electing grace. Let me explain what I mean. If we ask the question: Does God foreknow who will come to faith and who will not? I trust we would all answer by saying, “Of course!” Ah! But how does he foreknow? Well, what kind of question is that? It’s an important one. Does he foreknow infallibly? Yes. Does he foreknow absolutely? Yes. Does he foreknow the event in such a way that it cannot happen any other way? Yes. And to answer, Yes, to all those questions is to embrace unconditional election.
To answer any of those questions in the negative is to deny the truth of God’s revealed will summarized throughout Scripture and taught in Deuteronomy 29:29, which is that God foreknows the future exhaustively and that he has created the world knowing—exhaustively and comprehensively—what the future will bring.
But, I said there were two explanations, so let me hasten to the second one. If God knew before the foundation of the world that “Joe” would become a Christian or that he would make a decision to become a Christian, what does this mean concretely? Think along with me for a moment. If God foreknew the future exhaustively then, before “Joe” was born, God knew of his “free” decision. This means that even before time, “Joe’s” decision was inevitable.
Why was it inevitable? Well, certainly it wasn’t because of “Joe’s” free will, was it? He had not been born yet. Since God knows—foreknows—exhaustively, the decision is inevitable. The trouble now is with that word, inevitable. If “Joe’s” choice is not because of God’s unconditional election of him, it would seem that the choice then had to come from some source other than either “Joe” or God. Certainly no one in his or her right mind would want to admit that! Where did it come from then? Scripture is clear that foreknowledge is related to predestination as well as the other aspects of salvation by grace.
For this very reason, Calvin rightly combines foreknowledge and predestination in the section of the Institutes in question. He explains, “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” Here you recognize Bryson’s quote. What is instructive is what he chose to leave out. He simply allows the citation to “hang in the air” as it were. Bryson also manages to omit the fact that this particular section under question is chocked full of Scripture to support what Calvin’s saying.
Bryson completely fails to mention that Calvin’s argument about predestination is based on God’s choosing of the Old Testament people of Israel and that God chose them simply because he loved them (cf. Deut. 7:7-8; 10:14-15; 23:5; Ps. 47:4). Calvin comments that in Isaiah 41:9, God “emphasizes the ceaseless course of the remarkable generosity of his fatherly benevolence.” Calvin’s point is that God not enters into intimate relationship with those he chooses by sovereign grace to be his covenant people.
By his own admission, Bryson opposes Calvinism as a theological system. That’s fine. It’s been done before. Like many before him who did not understand the doctrines of grace, Bryson is convinced that Calvinism says some pretty disturbing things about God. Interestingly, once that assertion is made, you’d kind of expect a list of some of the most disturbing of the most disturbing things.
Perhaps one of the disturbing facets of Calvinism to Mr. Bryson is a quote he uses from the late Edwin Palmer: “The apparent paradox between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man belongs to the Lord our God and we should leave it there. We ought not probe into the secret counsel of God.” On the other hand, I cannot understand why this is so disturbing. It is simply a reiteration of Deuteronomy 29:29. But Bryson wants to know, “Are these conflicts in Calvinism really only an ‘apparent paradox,’ or are they hopeless contradictions, with absolutely no hope of reconciliation in this life or the next?” Will Bryson give us the correct interpretation that has no contradictions—apparent or otherwise—and (absolutely) no inconsistencies? We shall have to see.
What is the most disturbing thing I’ve read thus far in this book has nothing to do with God but with the following statement from Bryson: “It is the contention of this writer that the Calvinist is saddled with the double burden of being under a system which is both contradictory and unscriptural.” That’s a serious charge, especially the part about being unscriptural. If Calvinism is unscriptural, why is it that the Church of Jesus Christ has never pronounced it to be a heresy like it did, say, Pelagianism? If the system is both contradictory and unscriptural you have to ask why it would have any adherents, let alone some of the greatest and keenest minds and preachers in the history of the Church embracing it.
What Mr. Bryson wants us to believe is that what he’s going to be discussing in his book is salvation and damnation. Yet, by his own admission the “system” hangs together or falls as a whole. Simply because he wants us to believe that he’s only dealing with a sub-sub-section of theology he can make the ridiculous statement that “Calvinism amounts to Theistic Fatalism.” Again, a serious, serious charge. Why? Precisely because if true Calvinism is much like the philosophical determinism of Islam. Even though theistic fatalism supposes some kind of deity, much like the so-called theistic proofs for the existence of God, it does not posit the personal, covenantal God of Scripture.
So in summary, Bryson contends that Calvinism is unscriptural and is akin to theistic fatalism or determinism. He cites Arminian Lawrence Vance probably because they are both Arminians and Vance agrees with him: “Although Calvinists go out of their way to distance themselves from fatalism, they are in essence teaching the same thing. When a philosopher believes ‘what is to be will be’ it is called determinism. What a stoic believes ‘what is to be will be’ it is called fate. When a Moslem believes ‘what is to be will be’ it is called fatalism. But when a Calvinist believes ‘what is to be will be’ it is called predestination.” To Bryson’s mind, it is all of a piece.
But what does Bryson understand by the word “fatalism?” He cites Wayne Grudem’s definition, even though Grudem is a Calvinist. “By fatalism is meant a system in which human choices and human decisions really do not make any difference.” Clearly, Grudem does not think that Calvinism is fatalism, but Bryson doesn’t bother to give us what Grudem thinks the huge difference is between biblical predestination and philosophical fatalism. He merely adds, “I have never read a better description of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination than this.” Or, “Theistic Fatalism…perfectly describes Reformed Theology.” The words “sheer nonsense” describe Bryson’s description!
Mr. Bryson must not be very well read if this is what he thinks predestination actually is. Even a cursory reading of the Bible would require substantially more that theistic fatalism when one encounters words like “predestination,” “election,” and “foreordination”—and make no mistake: those words are in the Bible.
 George Bryson, The Dark Side of Calvinism, The Calvinist Caste System, (Santa Ana, CA: Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004).
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., Citing the Beveridge edition of Inst.3.23.7. I’ve already said that I thought this translation is inferior to the Battles’ edition.
 Inst.3.23.7, p. 955 (Battles).
 Ibid., 955-956.
 Ibid., 956.
 There are several examples of this and Bryson, Hunt, Smith, and Missler fall into this category. Missler, in fact, has written a booklet entitled The Sovereignty of Man. (Chuck Missler, The Sovereignty of Man, (Coeur d’Alene, ID: Koinonia House, 1995).
 Dave Hunt & James White, Debating Calvinism, (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2004), p. 18.
 Inst.3. 21.5.
 Ibid., 926.
 Ibid., 928-929.
 Bryson, TDSC, 16.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 19. Quoting Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), pp. 85-87.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 22.