Negligibly Resistible Grace

It’s well known that Calvinists and Arminians disagree about whether God’s redemptive grace can be resisted by those to whom it is directed: Calvinists affirm irresistible grace (the ‘I’ of the TULIP) while Arminians affirm resistible grace. The labels aren’t ideal (I prefer to speak of “efficacious grace”) but they still capture a key difference between the two camps. Consider, for example, the fourth of the Five Articles of Remonstrance which represents the classical Arminian position in contrast to the Calvinist position:

That this [saving] grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost, -Acts vii., and elsewhere in many places.

In debates between Calvinists and Arminians the issue is typically treated as a simple binary choice: grace is either irresistible or resistible. It’s not often recognized, however, that resistibility typically comes in degrees.

For any person S, something offered to S could be more or less resistible. Likewise, for any two things offered to S, one could be less resistible than the other. For example, a ham sandwich may be more resistible for me than a bowl of chili. I could resist either of them, but one would be less resistible than the other.

Varyingly Resistible Cupcakes

Furthermore, two items of the same kind could have different degrees of resistibility. Of two cupcakes offered to me, I might find one to be less resistible than the other. Of twelve different cupcakes, some will almost certainly be less resistible for me than others. (The resistibility of any particular cupcake will depend on many other factors, of course, such as how hungry I am, but that qualification doesn’t affect what I’ll argue below.)

Presumably the same principle would apply to divine grace (however exactly we define ‘divine grace’). If the divine grace offered or given to some particular unbeliever is resistible at all, it could be more or less resistible. One assumes God has considerable freedom as to exactly what grace is given to a person, and how much of it. That grace could include both external and internal elements (e.g., the preaching of the gospel would be an external grace, while the drawing of the Holy Spirit would be an internal grace) and those elements could be given in more or less resistible forms.

If divine grace can indeed vary in its resistibility with respect to any particular unbeliever, this presents something of a challenge to the Arminian. Consider the following three propositions:

(1) For any unbeliever S and resistible grace G, there is a less resistible (but still resistible) grace G’ — a grace that S is less able or inclined to resist.

(2) For any unbeliever S and resistible grace G, God is able to give G to S.

(3) God always prefers to give less resistible grace.

What reasons would an Arminian have to affirm each of these? (1) seems to follow naturally from the fact that there are degrees of resistibility. (2) follows from divine omnipotence; if it’s logically possible for S to receive G, it should be within God’s power to give G to S. (3) would be supported by the Arminian axiom that God wants everyone to be saved. Given the choice between giving more or less resistible grace to an unbeliever, surely God would choose the less resistible grace, simply because the unbeliever is less likely to resist it (and therefore more likely to be saved).

Here’s the problem: (1), (2), and (3) taken together imply that God will always give minimally resistible grace to every unbeliever; indeed, he will give infinitesimally resistible grace. (By analogy, think of an asymptotic function that approaches zero but never actually reaches zero.) Yet surely an infinitesimally resistible grace — what we might call “negligibly resistible grace” — is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from irresistible grace. If the latter is morally or theologically objectionable, why not the former?

So I assume the Arminian will want to back up and reject one of the three propositions above. But which one, and why? (I have a hunch about how most Arminians will be inclined to answer here, but I’ll let them speak for themselves!)

5 Responses to Negligibly Resistible Grace

  1. This is interesting. In the past, I’ve asked Arminians what it is that makes the difference between one person responding to grace, and one person not. If it’s not that one person is better than another, or that one person receives more grace, then what accounts for the disparity?

    But that question presupposes that God gives the maximum grace to everyone (a reasonable assumption, as you say). When we add your argument to the mix, it seems to put the whole question on a razor edge. If God gives negligibly-resistible grace to everyone, what accounts for such a large number of people failing to be converted?

  2. I’d reject (3). I’d note that responsibility comes in degrees too. Then I’d grant your claim that negligible resistant grace is indistinguishable from irresistible grace and, per libertarian assumptions, they wouldn’t be morally responsible. So I’d change (3) to (3*): God always prefers to give less resistible grace, but not less than the threshold for maintaining responsibility (perhaps other desiderata too, like moral character formation, etc.).

    • Wouldn’t that just invite a different problem, namely, a problem of negligible responsibility? If responsibility comes in degrees too, and God gives minimally resistible grace to S, such that S is at “the threshold for maintaining responsibility,” then S will be minimally responsible — which would be practically indistinguishable from being not responsible. I don’t think that’s an attractive option for the Arminian.

      Perhaps a better option would be to say that God aims for some optimal trade-off between the resistibility of grace and the responsibility of the unbeliever. But that raises other questions.

      • So this move gets around the problem that God would prefer to give a grace that is practically indistinguishable from irresistible grace. The objection now is that this moved invites a problem of “minimal responsibility.” God gives them resistible-enough grace to leave them responsible, but this makes them just barely responsible (they’re at the margins of the responsibility (moral) community in this instance), which is practically indistinguishable from not being responsible.

        One move would be to side with some who say responsibility isn’t degreed, but we’ll say the Arminian doesn’t want to be handcuffed to such a contentious position. One reply to the new objection is to question the claim that minimal responsibility is practically indistinguishable from not being responsible. Suppose S is a minimal language user (not a parrot that can say some words). Still, it would seem that there’s a world of difference between S and someone that isn’t a language user at all. I think responsibility is closer to being in a linguistic community. But suppose that this still isn’t very attractive to the Arminian. Why can’t he just claim that God gives them resistible-enough grace so that they’re responsible to a *sufficient degree*, d? (We just stipulate that d leaves them responsible enough to meet whatever worries you have that they’re clearly indistinguishable from the non-responsible. Perhaps we can say that d puts them as “full-fledged” members of the moral community.) Would something like this work?

  3. It seems that the issues James raises apply not just to redemptive matters but moral ones generally: according to the Arminian, God wants sin to not occur (in a sense like the one in which He wants everyone to be saved), and He provides grace (internal and/or external) to help with not sinning. I agree with Bnonn that (to put it in my own terms), in addition to the problem James highlights (if negligibly resistible grace is unobjectionable, why not irresistible?), there is an empirical problem: the world doesn’t look like what we would expect were God universally distributing negligibly irresistible grace. (This could be softened somewhat were inclusivism accepted, but that raises other problems.)

    I wonder if the relation between resistibility of grace and degree of responsibility depends on what the agent does. If I’m choosing between a wrong and right act, and the circumstances make it 95% probable that I choose wrong then is the degree of responsibility I’d have if I choose wrong the same as the one I’d have if I choose right? Intuitively, one might think I would be particularly “praiseworthy” for choosing right in these circumstances, which would suggest a particularly high level of control/responsibility. But if I choose wrong, then it would seem that I have a lower degree of responsibility, since, after all, it was almost inevitable that I choose wrong. Conversely, if it’s 95% probable that I choose right, one might think I would be highly blameworthy (and so highly responsible) for going wrong, but not-so-highly praiseworthy (responsible) for choosing right.

    If this is right, then there’s no simple connection between the resistibility of the grace and the degree of responsibility: the degree of responsibility partly depends on what the agent does. If God’s grace to John makes it 95% probable that John will act so as to be saved, then John is especially blameworthy for remaining lost (if that happens), but hardly praiseworthy for becoming saved (if that happens). If this is right, then perhaps the Arminian should pick between 3 options: (1) God wants it to be a “toss-up”, so that degrees of responsibility for being saved and lost are symmetric; (2) God wants to raise the responsibility of those who are lost (translates into less-resistible grace); (3) God wants to raise the responsibility of those who are saved (translates into more-resistible grace). Things may be more complicated on Molinism. For example, if God knows that John would be saved even if given easy-to-resist grace, and that Fred would be lost even if given hard-to-resist grace, he can give the one kind to John and the other kind to Fred (maximizing John’s responsibility for being saved and also Fred’s for being lost).