God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom are often thought to be in competition with one another in a sort of zero-sum game: either God is sovereign or I am free. This has led to thinking that there are only two basic options on the table to chose from.
Option #1: God’s sovereignty is limited by man’s freedom. Man’s moral and rational capacities are withdrawn from the eternal decree of God and given an independent and autonomous significance and existence.
Option #2: Man’s freedom is eliminated by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are wholly determined by the eternal decree of God and cease to have any real significance or existence at all.
The first option is correctly labeled “Arminianism.” The second option is often thought to be the teaching of “Calvinism,” but is actually in fundamental disagreement with Calvinism. It is a kind of fatalism or determinism, which Calvinism has properly rejected full force. Both options fail to maintain the basic Creator-creature distinction, which has led to the assumption that God’s freedom and man’s freedom are qualitatively the same. Hence, the zero-sum game. Accordingly, where one is free the other is not. So while options 1 and 2 seem to affirm totally opposite positions, they are actually both situated on the same rationalistic spectrum, just at opposite ends.
Calvinism rejects this rationalistic spectrum entirely and provides us with a third option that is most consistent and faithful to God’s revelation in Scripture.
Option #3: Man’s freedom is established by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are created and maintained within the eternal decree of God and therefore have real existence and significance.
Whereas options 1 and 2 begin with man’s reasoning, Calvinism begins with God’s Word. It does not claim to solve the mystery, but properly relates God’s sovereignty and human freedom as friends, not enemies. God’s sovereignty does not eliminate man’s freedom, nor does man’s freedom limit God’s sovereignty, instead God’s sovereignty establishes man’s freedom.
This is encapsulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (3.1).
Herman Bavinck also avoids the rationalism that would set God’s freedom and man’s freedom in opposition to one another, rather than understanding the former to “create” and “maintain” the latter.
“If God and his human creatures can only be conceived as competitors, and if the one can only retain his freedom and independence at the expense of the other, then God has to be increasingly restricted both in knowedge and in will. Pelagianism, accordingly, banishes God from his world. It leads both to Deism and atheism and enthrones human arbitrariness and folly. Therefore, the solution of the problem must be sought in another direction. It must be sought in the fact that God—because he is God and the universe is his creation—by the infinitely majestic activity of his knowing and willing, does not destroy but instead creates and maintains the freedom and independence of his creatures” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:376–77, emphasis mine).
Geerhardus Vos likewise understands God’s sovereign decree not to destroy or limit but to establish and ground man’s freedom.
“God’s decree grounds the certainty of His free knowledge and likewise the occurring of free actions. Not foreknowledge as such but the decree on which it rests makes free actions certain” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:20).
“…God can realize His decrees with reference to His creatures without needing to limit their freedom in a deterministic manner. Their free acts are not uncertain and the certainty to which these acts are connected is not brought about by God in a materialistic, pantheistic, or rationalistic manner. As the omnipresent and omnipotent One, the personal One, He can so govern man that man can do nothing without His will and permission and still do everything of himself in full freedom. When God sanctifies someone, He is at work in the depths of his being where the issues of life are, and then the sanctified will acts of itself and unconstrained outwardly no less freely than if it never had been under the working of God. The work of God does not destroy the freedom of the creature but is precisely its foundation” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:90–91, emphasis mine).
“Our view of man as the spiritual production of God points to God as the archetype of all human freedom. Human freedom must be like God’s freedom, since man resembles God, and it must be different from God’s freedom since man is a finite creature. In God, then, lies the archetype of human freedom. … We are fashioned after God and our freedom after God’s freedom. But never ought we to lose sight of the fact that our freedom is distinguished from God’s freedom by reason of our finitude” (“Freedom,” 4).
“We found … that the Reformed covenant theology remained nearest to this Biblical position. Other theories of the will go off on either of two byways, namely, that of seeking an unwarranted independence for man, or otherwise of subjecting man to philosophical necessitarianism. Reformed theology attempts to steer clear of both these dangers; avoiding all forms of Pelagianizing and of Pantheizing thought. It thinks to have found in the covenant relation of God with creation the true presentation of the Biblical concept of the relation of God to man. Man is totally dependent upon God and exists with all creation for God. Yet his freedom is not therewith abridged but realized” (“The Will in Its Theological Relations,” 77, emphasis mine).
For more on this listen to this episode of Christ the Center in which we dive deeper into this topic with a consideration of Van Til’s representational principle.