In the book Against Calvinism, Roger Olson asserts that Calvinism damages God’s reputation, and that it (unintentionally) turns God into a moral monster who is hardly distinguishable from the devil. Olson doesn’t argue that Calvinists affirm that God is like the devil. Rather, in his view it is the logical implication of Calvinism. It’s a strong assertion, but I agree. John Wesley did also.
Michael Horton, a pretty amiable Calvinist, and author of the book For Calvinism, recently did a post on why he believes that Arminians runs into the same “character of God” issues as Calvinists do. He proposes that “Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question.” He offers two questions:
If [in Arminianism] God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn’t he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?
Why [in Arminianism] would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?
Horton’s questions implicitly acknowledge that the Calvinist system does create problems for God’s character, however, he believes these issues are also present in Arminian theology. If Horton’s arguments hit the mark, they would seem to limit Arminians to only two options: 1) Acknowledge that the Arminian understanding of God’s foreknowledge turns God into a moral monster in the same way that Calvinism does, or 2) Reject the possibility that God has exhaustive foreknowledge (Open Theism).
But there is a third option: simple foreknowledge (which I’ll call SF). SF avoids the “character of God” issues present in Calvinism, while at the same time holding that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all events since before the foundation of the world.
What if God knew what humanity would do only after he made a decision to create us? This could be understood as a logical order, not by necessity a temporal one, since God is everlasting. What if after God decided to create us, he was unwilling or unable to take back that decision? This understanding of foreknowledge would not compromise God’s character, because his foreknowledge came about as a result of his decision to create. Not all Arminans hold to SF, some hold to different explanations (like Molinism). However, SF provides reasonable answers for Horton’s questions about the character of God.
SF adherents maintain that God’s foreknowledge is contingent on our existence. God knows what we will do because we will do it. God’s knowing isn’t the source of our doing. Rather, our doing is the source of God’s knowing. SF adherents believe that it is meaningless to speak of God knowing the actions of creatures that never exist. It’s also meaningless to speak of God knowing what we would do in different situations that don’t actually exist. If an actual situation doesn’t exist, there is nothing for God to know about it.
It’s a bit like stating that God knows what will happen tomorrow when the hobbit steals the leprechaun’s pot of gold. God doesn’t know any “fact” like that. There is no hobbit. There is no leprechaun. There is nothing for God to know about that situation, only an imaginary concept that doesn’t exist.
SF adherents hold that at some point God made a decision to create the world. Again, this can be understood as a logical order, not a temporal one. Prior to God’s decision to make the world, there was nothing for him to know about what humanity would or wouldn’t do. He hadn’t decided to create us. We were non-existent. After deciding to create the world, then God knew everything that would happen – sin, some people believing in him, others rejecting him. But at that point our world was actualized, God knew what we would do because we would eventually do it. At that moment God also knew what he would do about sin and how he would redeem humanity – by sending Jesus: God himself in the flesh. After deciding to create humanity in his image, and granting us the ability to make decisions, and granting us a privileged position, God couldn’t take back his choice to create. He couldn’t make us cease to exist, without doing violence to his character and to his creation.
Now, SF has some mystery to it. How did God know what we would do before we actually existed in time? How could God decide in an instant how he would interact with humanity throughout all time? How can God be emotional about his creation today if he has foreknown all events all along? These are valid questions, but I’m comfortable leaving them in the realm of mystery. Mystery is preferable to believing that God causes sin, or that he doesn’t know the future.
The logical order of God’s foreknowledge in Calvinism and Arminianism works something like this:
1) God meticulously decrees what will happen in the world that he intends to create.
2) God creates.
1) God decides to create.
2) God has exhaustive foreknowledge about everything that is going to happen.
While Calvinists and Arminians both believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, only in Calvinism does God meticulously decree the future – and (in the Arminian view) that’s what makes him responsible for evil. In Arminianism, God’s foreknowledge is contingent on the future free actions of creatures created in his image. If we did something different, God would know something different, because the source of his foreknowledge is our eventual actions. The Arminian does not affirm that God knew he would damn people before he decided created them, nor is it necessary for us to do so. If the source of God’s foreknowledge is our actions, God is not culpable for evil. If the source of God’s foreknowledge is through his meticulous decree, then God is responsible for every sin that every person commits. And he is ultimately responsible for evil. Perish the thought!
[For a scholarly explanation of the SF view, read God and Time by theologian Jack Cottrell. Cottrell calls this concept the “noetic big bang”.]