An Arminian Response to the Calvinist use of Isaiah 10:5-16 as a Proof Text for Compatibilism

[updated on 1/5/23]

From an interaction with a Calvinist:

Calvinist: Most Calvinists believe in a soft determinism called compatiblism [sic.]. This is clearly taught in Gen 50:20:

“But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”

And very strongly in Isaiah 10:5-16 when God first raises up Assyria to punish Israel and then punishes the nation that He uses to punish another because of what is in their heart. Here is the text:

““ Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hand is My indignation.
6 I will send him against an ungodly nation,
And against the people of My wrath
I will give him charge,
To seize the spoil, to take the prey,
And to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
7 Yet he does not mean so,
Nor does his heart think so;
But it is in his heart to destroy,
And cut off not a few nations.
8 For he says,

‘ Are not my princes altogether kings?
9 Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
10 As my hand has found the kingdoms of the idols,
Whose carved images excelled those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 As I have done to Samaria and her idols,
Shall I not do also to Jerusalem and her idols?’”

12 Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Lord has performed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, that He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks.”
13 For he says:

“ By the strength of my hand I have done it,
And by my wisdom, for I am prudent;
Also I have removed the boundaries of the people,
And have robbed their treasuries;
So I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man.
14 My hand has found like a nest the riches of the people,
And as one gathers eggs that are left,
I have gathered all the earth;
And there was no one who moved his wing,
Nor opened his mouth with even a peep.”
15 Shall the ax boast itself against him who chops with it?
Or shall the saw exalt itself against him who saws with it?
As if a rod could wield itself against those who lift it up,
Or as if a staff could lift up, as if it were not wood!
16 Therefore the Lord, the Lord[a] of hosts,
Will send leanness among his fat ones;
And under his glory
He will kindle a burning
Like the burning of a fire. ”

Calvinist: “Several things to point out. First, there is no autonomy in this passage. There is a compatibilism between the will of the Assyrians as wicked sinners with evil hearts (Gen 6:5 & 8:21) and the righteous justice of God with His sovereign decrees.”

Arminian response #1: “I can basically agree with the second sentence in your conclusion here, but this does not mean that the Assyrians had no free will in a non-compatibilist (libertarian) sense.  In other words, just as with your other quote, passages like this are just as “compatible” with the Arminian view (and I would argue, more compatible).  See below.”

Calvinist: “Particularly notice verses 5-7 and then 13-15. The point is clear that God is absolutely sovereign and man is full responsible.”

Arminian Response #2: “Again, all these verses show is that God can use the intentions of others to accomplish His purposes.  Arminians wholly agree with this.  It is not even contrary to Arminianism to say that God sometimes controls the wills of people to accomplish His purpose* or to execute judgment (surely, it was not Nebuchadnezzar’s will to lose his mind and act like an animal, Daniel 4:28-37).  Arminians only hold that God gives man a measure of free will.  Man’s will is not unlimited, nor does it operate in a vacuum.  Free will, when rightly understood, operates within a framework of possibilities.  See this post for a good description of the limits of free will from an Arminian perspective.

However, this passage does not address the idea of God controlling someone’s thoughts, desires and actions and then holding that person accountable for the desires, thoughts and actions that God irresistibly controlled.  The passage actually teaches the opposite.  The Assyrians became an instrument of wrath in God’s hands against Israel because they were already bent on conquest.  Therefore, they were already perfectly suited to be the rod of God’s wrath and correction.  God used them to punish His people, but He had no need to irresistibly cause them to.  He did not control their desires and wills to go against Israel.  Their desire was already to conquer other nations (verse 7).  God simply directed the Assyrian’s attention towards His people, a people that God had, up to that point, protected from such a devastating conquest.  But God did not control their desires.  Indeed, their intentions in attacking Israel are displeasing to God (verse 7-11)

Their intentions are especially sinful because they attack in arrogance, not even believing that YHWH is a true God.  So God will punish His people through the Assyrian invasion, but also punish Assyria for their arrogance in thinking that their conquest was due only to their superior strength in believing that the God of Israel was no different than the false gods of the other nations they had conquered.

Now why should any of this contradict the idea that man has libertarian free will and yet this in no way prevents God from accomplishing all that He plans?  God is not threatened by free will.  He isn’t so small that He cannot be sovereign over a world where there are wills that He does not directly control. Nothing in this passage suggests that God irresistibly controlled the wills of the Assyrian people and then held them accountable for what He caused them to do.  Rather, God punishes them because their wills are not in harmony with God’s ultimate purpose (to punish His people).  Instead, their wills are bent on mocking God in their arrogance, believing that the success of their conquest was because there was no God in Israel (verses 8-14).   It is for that reason alone that God punishes them.  So again, there is nothing in these passages that force a compatibilist interpretation.  Therefore, they do nothing to prove compatibilism.  Indeed, they make more sense from a libertarian viewpoint.”

From: https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/saved-by-grace-through-faith/

*It should be noted that in those rare instances where God may control a person’s will to accomplish His greater purpose, we would also say that in those situations God would not hold that person responsible for their actions.

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