What’s Wrong With Jerry Walls’ Argument Against Calvinism

The following is a guest post by Dan Johnson, associate professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University and co-editor of the recently published Calvinism and the Problem of Evil.

The Central Argument in Walls’ New Book Against Calvinism is Logically Invalid

The argument that lies at the heart of Jerry Walls’ recent book Does God Love Everyone? What’s Wrong With Calvinism is reproduced here:

  1. God truly loves all persons.
  2. Not all persons will be saved.
  3. Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as one properly can.
  4. The well-being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
  5. God could give all persons “irresistible grace” and thereby determine all persons to freely accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
  6. Therefore, all persons will be saved. (p. 30)

He points out that the argument results in a contradiction (between premise 2 and the conclusion, 6), though he could have just as easily removed premise 2 and just noted that the argument proves something Calvinists reject. He says that Arminians reject 5, but since 5 is an obvious implication of Calvinism and Calvinists also accept 2 and 4, Calvinists have to reject 1 or 3.

Walls treats this argument like it is a logically valid argument. He calls it a “logical argument,” and he thinks you need to deny one of the premises in order to avoid the conclusion of the argument: “Now Calvinists and Arminians generally agree that 2 is true and is clearly taught in Scripture. Therefore, both sides will deny the conclusion (number 6) that says “all persons will be saved.” But here is the question: which of the other premises will you reject if you deny that all are saved? Will you deny 1, or 3, or 4 or 5?” (p. 31) Only logically valid arguments – arguments where it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false – are such that you must deny a premise in order to avoid endorsing the conclusion of the argument. With invalid arguments it is possible for all the premises to be true while the conclusion remains false. So Walls must think this is a logically valid argument.

It is not. Walls must never have tried to formalize the argument and prove it valid; go ahead, try it – it cannot be done. It is a premise away from being a valid argument. And here’s the thing – Walls on some level recognizes this. He actually ends up stating the premise – in a footnote to premise 3. I reproduce it here:

The qualification “as much as you properly can” is needed in case one faced a situation where one could promote the flourishing of one person (say Peter) only by withholding the true flourishing of another (say John), or by losing some other good that was even greater in value. I do not believe, however, that God ever faces a situation in which he can promote the true flourishing of one person only by withholding the flourishing of another, nor do I think he is faced with a choice where he might have other goals that are inconsistent with promoting true flourishing. For the true flourishing of all persons is a right relationship with God, so given God’s almighty power and wisdom, he does not have to choose between promoting the true flourishing of Peter, say, instead of John. He can promote the true flourishing of both. (p. 30)

The claim he makes in this footnote – that there are no purposes which God has which could be incompatible with the salvation of all people – needs to be made explicitly in the argument for the argument to be logically valid. Otherwise the Calvinist could consistently accept every single premise (all of 1-5) while denying the conclusion (6), simply by asserting that God cannot “properly” pursue the good of all in the sense of “properly” Walls is using, by virtue of there existing great purposes which metaphysically necessitate the damnation of some. The easiest way for Walls to handle this is to alter premise 5; instead of reading “God could give all persons irresistible grace…” it should read “God properly could give all persons irresistible grace…”, where “properly” is understood here as Walls describes in the footnote.

But at that point premise 5 goes from looking like an obvious implication of Calvinism to quite the contestable claim (in my view, enormously hard to support effectively). To support his claim that the modified premise 5 is an implication of Calvinism, he’d have to argue that there are no sufficiently great goods which (broadly) logically imply (metaphysically necessitate) that some are damned. How could he argue such a thing? Well, he’d have to go through all the theodicies of damnation which are compatible with Calvinism (the various versions of the divine glory defense, the soul-making defense to the extent that it helps with damnation, McCann’s free will defense, Leibnizian considerations about a law-governed world, etc.) AND he’d have to argue that both skeptical theism and the Moore Switch fail. Importantly, he’d have to defend (against the skeptical theists) the optimism he exhibits in that footnote that were there a good reason God could have for allowing damnation, he’d be able to tell what it was, and so he can be sure no such reason is both possible and compatible with Calvinism. Needless to say, he does not do all (or really, any) of these things in the book.

This is not a minor flaw. This argument is the heart of the book. More importantly, the premise he relegates to the footnote is precisely the key claim that a (philosophically sophisticated) Calvinist will reject. (Ironically, the Calvinist will end up rejecting the same premise Walls has the Arminian rejecting.) Representing the argument in the body of the text – the argument without that premise – as a logically valid one when it clearly is not is an egregious philosophical mistake and amounts to an egregious misrepresentation of Calvinism and its philosophical options. It directly misleads its readers. That means that even if Calvinism turns out to be false (and it may well do so), this particular argument will not be edifying for believers; it will lead them to believe (even the truth) without good reasons.

I don’t think I’ve added anything of substance in this post to the series of rebuttals Cowan and Welty have directed at Walls in Philosophia Christi; their discussions of his argument from love in those rebuttals – usually at the end of each rebuttal – cover all the same ground. Apparently Walls didn’t take enough away from that exchange to improve the argument in this book. However, I don’t know how much of that exchange happened before he finished writing this book; that may be a good excuse.

Addendum 10/17/2016: I made one mistake in my original post, which I should correct in order to be fair to Walls. Walls says a bit after the quoted argument that a Calvinist could deny premise 5 (not just 1 or 3, as I originally said), and he casts the divine glory defense as a way to do it. However, because of the invalidity I’ve pointed out, in order to make the divine glory defense into a denial of 5, he has to cast the divine glory defense as a claim that God had to display his glory by the condemnation of sinners, and so had to create some people and damn them. But this way of stating the divine glory defense would entail that God had to create, which of course would be denied by most of the Reformed. So it is not a version of the divine glory defense that the Reformed would want to defend. The better versions of the divine glory defense would accept all 5 premises and deny that the conclusion follows; and all the other defenses (like skeptical theism, the Moore Switch, and McCann’s free will defense) would do the same. So Walls’ misrepresentation of the Calvinist’s options was not quite as egregious as I initially claimed, since he does consider a form (though the worst form) of the divine glory defense; but the argument is still invalid and still misrepresents Calvinism significantly (I think “egregiously” is still an accurate description) by obscuring the primary option the Calvinist should take in replying to it.

2 Responses to What’s Wrong With Jerry Walls’ Argument Against Calvinism

  1. Yeah, in the original “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist” article (Philosophia Christi Vol. 13 No. 1 (Summer 2011)), what you’re talking about is his gloss on premise (12) in fn. 38 on p. 95. We critique that on p. 169 of our reply. What’s interesting is that once he introduces his qualification of ‘properly,’ he has to explicitly repeat it in premises (13), (15), (16), (17), (19), (20), (21), and (22) of his argument. So it’s quite central to that section of his presentation. But he never comes around and tells us what is it that God can ‘properly’ do, or how he can know such a thing.

  2. James Gibson

    On July 4th, 2012, I sent Luke van Horn an email with comments on Jerry’s Phil Christi article. He then sent these comments over to him. I didn’t know Luke was going to send them over to him. But he did. Anyway, here’s a section of the comments I sent over:

    “1. Walls thinks the CI is a “fairly straightforward implication of [theological] compatibilism:

    (CI) If freedom and determinism are compatible, God could have created a world in which all persons freely did only the good at all times.

    Walls does not argue that this is an implication. This is important since, as he is aware in footnote18, not all theological compatibilists would agree. John Feinberg, who is a theological compatibilists, for instance, denies this in No One Like Him. I do not know whether CI is true or false, for there may be reasons that I have not considered that show the consequent is false. Nevertheless, even if the consequent is true, it is not a “straightforward” implication from the antecedent. I will assume CI is true from hereon in my comments.”

    The problem is that even after you point out a hole in his argument, a place in which he needs to connect the dots, he skips along repeating the same exact points only to declare his own victory over Calvinists without ever connecting the dots. And here 4 years later, we are repeating the same points. I think we all know the heart of what’s wrong with Jerry’s arguments.