A Quick Argument Against Libertarian Calvinism

One of the current debates among Reformed scholars concerns whether Reformed theology commits one to a compatibilist view of free will. Is there room in the Reformed tradition for a ‘libertarian Calvinism’ which affirms Calvinist distinctives (such as a strong view of divine providence and a monergistic view of salvation) while also allowing for libertarian free choices (at least in some areas of human action)? I’ve already argued in several places (e.g., here and here) that Reformed theology is committed to divine determinism and thus excludes libertarian free will. In this post, I offer another brief argument against ‘libertarian Calvinism’.

In chapter 7 his recent book Divine Will and Human Choice, Richard Muller observes that early Reformed thinkers typically located the foundation of possibility in God himself — specifically, in divine omnipotence (Muller, pp. 263-67). On this view, God knows what is possible by way of divine self-knowledge: his knowledge of his own power. For any state of affairs S, S is possible reduces to God has the power to produce or bring about S.

This position cannot be reconciled with a libertarian view of free will, because libertarian free choices are contingent and cannot be produced or brought about by God (either directly or indirectly). Consider these two states of affairs:

S1: Albert’s freely choosing at time t to finish the pizza.

S2: Albert’s freely choosing at time t not to finish the pizza.

On the standard libertarian view, both of these are possible, yet it’s not within God’s power to bring about both of them (by which I mean to actualize whichever one he wants, not to actualize both of them at once, which would be a logical contradiction).

A Molinist committed to libertarian free will might observe that God has the power to weakly actualize S1 or S2, based on his middle knowledge, even though he cannot strongly actualize them. True enough, but on the Molinist view God is constrained by the counterfactuals of freedom such that he can only weakly actualize either S1 or S2 (given the same world history up to time t). So the Molinist still has to concede that there are some possibilities beyond God’s power to actualize (weakly or strongly).

In fact, it’s trivially true that Molinism is incompatible with the claim that possibilities are grounded in divine powers, for two reasons: (1) on the Molinist view, not all possible worlds are within God’s power to actualize; (2) the counterfactuals of freedom (i.e., the objects of God’s middle knowledge) are contingent brute facts beyond the control of God.

So here’s the argument summarized:

  1. The Reformed tradition holds that possibilities are grounded in divine omnipotence.
  2. Libertarian free will implies that there are some possibilities which are beyond God’s power to actualize, and thus that some possibilities are not grounded in divine omnipotence.
  3. Therefore, the Reformed tradition rules out libertarian free will.

Furthermore, if the Reformed tradition affirms that some human choices are free (which it does) then the Reformed tradition is committed to a compatibilist view of free will. Q.E.D.

5 Responses to A Quick Argument Against Libertarian Calvinism

  1. Hugh McCann would deny 2, I think. He’d deny that God’s will is an “external determining factor” of human free decisions; those decisions are instead something like the content of his will. It follows that both of these are true: (1) everything that happens is the will of God, but also (2) it could be that human free decisions are not caused by anything “outside themselves” as it were. (Arguably Aquinas has a very similar view, which follows from his views about divine simplicity.) So he can both affirm divine determinism (though again he avoids the word “determinism” like the plague because of its connotations that there are “external” determining factors, but instead uses euphemisms) and libertarian views of freedom.

    I don’t think this really refutes your argument, because I doubt this view is what Muller et. al. have in mind. I’m also not sure that “libertarianism” is the best description of McCann’s view, though he insists that it is and only one of him and me is a renowned expert on free will (and it isn’t me). He would say that free will is compatible with God deciding everything that happens, but not with external causes determining everything that happens.

  2. What would McCann say about a Consequence-style Argument?
    1. Nec (if God decrees that Albert eat pizza at t, then Albert will eat pizza at t).
    2. It’s not up to Albert what God decrees.
    3. It’s not up Albert whether he will eat pizza at t.

    Here we don’t need the notion of God’s decree being an external cause. So does McCann go in for Frankfurt libertarianism? Does he endorse a compatibilist notion of up-to-us-ness? Does he reverse his authorial model and deny 2, claiming we author some of the content of God’s decree?

    • I’m not sure what he would say about that particular case. I take it that a typical compatibilist reply would be that “up-to-us” is not closed under entailment, right? And I assume that McCann would have to say that same sort of thing. (But then, Eleanore Stump’s libertarianism — which may be what you are referring to as “Frankfurt-style libertarianism” — would also say that. And I’m convinced by her arguments that her view is in fact a version of libertarianism.) If that’s right, he ends up with a view that gives libertarian-style answers to some puzzles and compatibilist-style answers to others. But he knew that literature better than I do (he helped to shape it), and he’s always insisted his view is a version of libertarianism. In my head, he is sort-of both, which shows that my category system is fuzzy.

      • We both can be libertarians depending on how terms get defined. I’m not sure if it was McCann (maybe McCabe?), but one of these determinist *sounding* but self-identifying libertarians claimed his view was libertarian because LFW is the view that we are free and freedom is incompatible with the past and laws entailing all events. It’s consistent for a theological determinist and compatibilist to be a libertarian in this sense. Similar claims have been made by the above sorts of libertarians, but instead of the past and laws being the threat, they say that LFW is the view that we’re free and(direct) freedom is incompatible with our (directly) free action being caused by any intramundane cause(s). We can’t be caused by a “cause among causes.” On classical theism, God isn’t a “cause among causes,” and so we can be said to be libertarian free in this sense. So this is one way some philosophers have said their view is libertarian. But then I can count as one too–if I think freedom is incompatible with something like nomological determinism.

        On Stump’s view, if we put aside the problems with narrow source incompatibalism such as those raised by Timpe, we’re left with the position that LFW is the claim that we are free and are the “ultimate source” of our characters or wills from which our actions flow, even if we can’t do otherwise, and being the source in this sense in incompatible with determinism. But here I’d like to see how McCann can affirm this. Isn’t the author the ultimate source of his characters’ characters? On the source incompatibilst view, don’t we in fact author some of the content of God’s will or decree?

        • Yeah, I don’t know what he’d say about the “ultimate source” problem. He denies that God’s will is an “external determining factor” of our will — and then denies that this implies that we can go against God’s will. The question, I guess, would be whether he would preserve any sort of priority of God’s will over ours, or whether it even makes sense to talk that way. I’m not sure. I wish we could ask him, but unfortunately he passed away not long ago.