Writer Steve Schramm explores determinism and freewill, looking at what the Bible, philosophy and Christian history say about divine sovereignty

Christians do not disagree that God has a measure of control over the Universe he created. There is marked disagreement, however, on what the nature of that control is and how far it extends.

Does God predetermine everything that happens? Does God control the world as though all are mere puppets in a stage performance? Or perhaps does God allow us to make our own choices and let the chips fall where they may? Or something else?

This is an age-old question that will not be settled by this entry, but some clarity around this question will certainly help.

In mainstream Christian circles, there are four primary views on the question of divine sovereignty; within them, even more nuance could be discussed. Here, we will consider the broad strokes of Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism and Molinism, and will clarify the similarities and differences between them as well as a few technical considerations.


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Summarising the basics of each view:

Here is a summary of each we will briefly consider:

Calvinism (reformed theology)

Calvinism is rooted in the teachings of its namesake, John Calvin, and is widely billed as a response to the widespread Roman Catholicism of the 15th Century. Calvin saw both practical and theological issues in the Catholic tradition and longed to see a return to the biblical text as the Christian’s sole authority for faith and practice.

Calvinism holds that God is completely sovereign over all aspects of creation, including human salvation. Everything occurs according to God’s decree and purpose. Not a leaf falls or a breath is taken that is not directly attributable to God’s will and direction of his creation.

Moreover, God predestines certain individuals to salvation (the elect) and others to damnation (the reprobate) for his glory. This predestination is unconditional, meaning it is not based on any foreseen merit or action of the individual.


Arminianism is often presented in contrast to Calvinism and is associated with the teachings of Jacobus Arminius. Arminius believed that God desires all people to be saved and offers salvation to everyone. However, human free will plays a role in accepting or rejecting this offer. While God knows who will choose him, he does not unconditionally predetermine this choice.

Within this framework, humans have what is called Libertarian Free Will. This can be characterised as “the ability to do otherwise” in at least some situations, even if not every situation. In other words, humans genuinely have the ability to choose between A or B, even if A or B is the choice to follow Christ and be saved.

There are many who believe that, at least with respect to the notion of salvation, you must be either Calvinist or Arminian and there is no inbetween. Both positions point to scripture to make its case and neither are a result of imposing outside ideas onto the biblical text.

Open Theism

This relatively modern view suggests that the future is not completely set or known by God because of human free will. While God is supremely powerful and knows all possibilities, he does not know the future exhaustively because of the genuine choices of free creatures. Thus, God’s plans can be responsive and adaptive based on human actions.

Although this position probably sounds strange to most Christians in the pew, there are both biblical and philosophical arguments used by its proponents.

According to scripture, there seem to have been times in history where God either regretted a decision he had made (eg Genesis 6:5-6) or changed his mind based on external circumstances (eg Exodus 32:9-14). Open theists believe these passages are irreconcilable with the notion that God has exhaustive knowledge of or control over the future.


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Molinism (middle knowledge)

Proposed by the 16th Century theologian Luis de Molina, this view seeks to reconcile God’s complete knowledge and sovereignty with human free will. This view is not soteriological (pertaining to salvation) per se, but could be applied to one’s thinking about this issue as well.

On Molinism, God possesses “middle knowledge” where he knows all potential scenarios and how individuals would freely act in each. With this knowledge, God sovereignly orchestrates the world in such a way that human free choices align with his ultimate plans.

An important concept for Molinism to be accurate is that of “logical priority”. God may have middle knowledge of events, but that alone is not enough for God to use that knowledge sans (without) creation. If he has this knowledge logically prior to his creative degree, however, Molinism suggests he could use this information to divinely orchestrate creation while preserving Libertarian Free Will.

Some questions that arise when considering these views:

These are complicated issues with many layers to unpack. The complexity of the debate makes it difficult to wade through the issues.

It would, however, be appropriate to sketch out the basic questions—some easier to answer and some harder—that arise so you know how to navigate this topic when it comes up.

1. What view does scripture teach?

This is likely the most contentious question of all. Despite pleas from all sides—but especially Calvinists and Arminians—that scripture very plainly teaches their respective view, the very reason the debate rages is due to disagreement on how to take biblical passages.

The calm, confident defender of these views would do well to recognise that this issue is not settled precisely because it’s not easy to settle.

2. Are these simply philosophical symptoms being imposed on the Bible?

Due to the history behind Calvinism and Arminianism, it is common for Open Theists and Molinists to be charged with imposing a prior philosophical belief onto the text of the Bible.

Both of these positions also have scriptural support and cannot be dismissed so easily. It’s also worth noting that Calvinism and Arminianism could very well be charged with philosophical imposition.

Furthermore, it is possible to hold multiple views at the same time. For example, there are many Molinists who are also Calvinist or Arminian with respect to soteriology.

3. What is the true nature of human free will?

Calvinists are often charged with making God out to be evil by predestining everything that takes place. Thus, and for good reason, they would not want to say that humans have zero free will.

Calvinists tend to hold a version of free will called Compatibilism, which is “the position or view that causal determinism is true, but we still act as free, morally responsible agents when, in the absence of external constraints, our actions are caused by our desires”.

This contrasts with Libertarian Free Will, which again suggests that humans have the logical ability to evaluate two choices and choose the one that is most sensible to them. Both views have strong support in the philosophical community.

4. Is it possible for God to have middle knowledge logically prior to creation?

In recent decades, much more attention has been drawn to Molinism, thanks in part to the work of Dr William Lane Craig. Many are excited by the prospect of a view such as Molinism, as it wants to honour all of the biblical data instead of favouring select verses, and seems to do so pretty well.

Molinism relies on the notion that God knows the “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom”. This means God knows what any person would do if placed in certain circumstances. But in order to preserve human freedom, God would have needed this knowledge logically prior to his decision to create anything at all.

Thus, the biggest roadblock for Molinism is arguably the “grounding objection”. Most agree that “truths” must be grounded in something real, and there is a looming question of how God could have knowledge of choices people would make when they do not yet even exist.

5. Who’s doing the “work”?

One point of contention between Calvinists and Arminians, at least with respect to salvation, is whether the latter is a form of works-based salvation.

The Armininian wants to affirm, along with the Calvinist, that salvation is fully a work of God. The central question to ask, then, is whether the notion of placing your faith in Christ is a “work”.

Paul seems to contrast works and faith heavily in the scriptures, argues the Arminian, suggesting that to place one’s faith in Christ is merely a response to his drawing and not to be considered a work. The Calvinist believes even this goes too far, and has a conception of salvation that God actually saves and regenerates a person before placing their faith in Christ; indeed, for Calvinists, it is only possible for a person to do this if they have first experienced this regeneration.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Due to the esoteric nature of these topics, many avoid these issues altogether and question their importance. Still others say: “Well, I just believe the Bible.”

This author holds sympathy for both above positions, and yet, understands that God has called us to move on from the milk of the word to the meat of the Word.

While the plan of salvation may be simple, it is also mysterious. Proverbs 25:2 says: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.”

This verse and others call us to go deeper into the scriptures and search out the mysteries of God that we may know him more and more each day. Sometimes, that involves wading into deep theological waters.

It’s challenging to do so, but also rewarding, and God will bless those who go on the journey.


Steve Schramm is an autodidactic writer, Bible teacher and host of the Bible Nerd Podcast. He’s authored four books, including Truth Be Told: A Believer’s Guide to Sharing Christianity, Overcoming Objections, and Winning More Souls for Christ