Tag Archives: compatibilism

Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism

Since we’re talking Calvinism and compatibilism, let me mention that Paul Manata and I just had an article on those issues published in the Journal of Reformed Theology: “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism” (details here).

Here’s the abstract:

It is commonly held that Calvinism is committed to theological determinism, and therefore also to compatibilism insofar as Calvinism affirms human freedom and moral responsibility. Recent scholarship has challenged this view, opening up space for a form of Calvinism that allows for libertarian free will. In this article we critically assess two versions of ‘libertarian Calvinism’ recently proposed by Oliver Crisp. We contend that Calvinism (defined along the confessional lines adopted by Crisp) is implicitly committed to theological determinism, and even if it were not so committed, it would still rule out libertarian free will on other grounds.

Libertarian Calvinism (LC) is an attempt to reconcile a Calvinistic (monergistic) view of salvation with a libertarian (incompatibilist) view of human freedom. We summarize and compare two versions of LC proposed (although not personally endorsed) by Oliver Crisp. Following Crisp’s lead, we take the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as representative of historic confessional Calvinism. We develop three objections that apply to both versions of LC:

  1. WCF’s statements about God’s attributes and God’s eternal decree imply theological determinism and thus rule out libertarian free will (since libertarianism, on standard definitions, entails that determinism is false).
  2. Libertarianism is motivated by the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ (OIC) principle, but WCF implicitly rejects OIC, thus undercutting a major motivation for libertarianism (and thus for LC).
  3. WCF 10.1 straightforwardly affirms compatibilism by asserting that God determines that the elect freely come to Christ. Since libertarianism entails that compatibilism is false, LC is internally inconsistent.

We conclude the paper with a brief assessment of the prospects for libertarian Calvinism more generally.

Excusing Sinners and Blaming God

What are the most common philosophical objections to Calvinism? Arguably these:

  1. Calvinism makes the problem of evil even more intractable.
  2. Calvinism implies that God is culpable for the sins of his creatures (the “author of sin” objection).
  3. Calvinism undermines human moral responsibility by denying free will.

They aren’t completely independent objections, because the first is typically predicated on the second and third, which means that the latter two objections are the linchpins of the philosophical case against Calvinism.

Excusing Sinners and Blaming GodSo are these objections decisive? Far from it. They’ve been rebutted in various places over the years, but nowhere more directly and rigorously than in Guillaume Bignon’s new book, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God.

Dr. Bignon is a French analytic philosopher and computer scientist, a former atheist who ended up embracing the Christian faith through a remarkable series of providential events. The book is essentially Bignon’s doctoral thesis at Middlesex University and the London School of Theology under the supervision of Paul Helm (who also contributed a foreword to the book). Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a doctoral thesis, though; it’s quite readable and accessible, despite its technicality. (I have to say that Bignon writes in clearer English than many scholars who claim English as a first language.)

Here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

Calvinist determinism destroys moral responsibility and makes God the author of sin. These two accusations are not new, and were arguably anticipated by Paul in Romans 9, but they remain today the most important objections offered against Calvinist/determinist views of human free will. This book is a philosophically rigorous and comprehensive defense of Calvinism against these two families of arguments. With respect to human moral responsibility, it discusses whether determinism destroys “free will,” turns humans into pets or puppets, and involves or is analogous to coercion and manipulation. It responds to the consequence argument and direct argument for incompatibilism, the principle of alternate possibilities, the “ought implies can” maxim, and related claims. With respect to the authorship of sin, it discusses whether Calvinist determinism improperly involves God in evil. Does it mean that “God sins,” or “causes sin,” or “wills sin” in problematic ways? “Does God intend our sin, or (merely) permit sin?” In each case the coherence of the Calvinist view is defended against its most potent objections, to reject the claim that Calvinism is “excusing sinners and blaming God.”

Guillaume shared a draft version of his thesis with me, and I was very impressed with his work, so I was happy to provide the following endorsement for his book:

If God determines all things, including the evil actions of his creatures, doesn’t it follow by irrefutable logic that God must be culpable for those evil actions rather than the creatures? Au contraire, argues Calvinist philosopher Guillaume Bignon in this engaging yet rigorous work. Conversant with state-of-the-art literature on free will, this is one of the best defenses of theological compatibilism available today.

In short: highly recommended.

It’s not too late to get it as an extra stocking-filler for your Arminian brother-in-law! In fact, for a powerful one-two punch, couple it with a copy of Calvinism and the Problem of Evil. (Since they’re both published by Wipf & Stock, you might even save some money on shipping charges.)

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.

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

Calvinism and the Problem of EvilThe book Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David Alexander and Daniel Johnson, and to which I contributed the essay “Calvinism and the First Sin,” has finally been published. Go here for more details. For some reason the table of contents isn’t provided on the publisher’s website, so here it is:

  • Introduction (David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory (Daniel M. Johnson)
  • Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin (Greg Welty)
  • Theological Determinism and the “Authoring Sin” Objection (Heath White)
  • Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a Problem for Calvinism (James E. Bruce)
  • Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil (David E. Alexander)
  • Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity (Paul Helm)
  • On Grace and Free Will (Hugh J. McCann)
  • The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists (Alexander R. Pruss)
  • Calvinism and the First Sin (James N. Anderson)
  • A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense (Christopher R. Green)
  • Calvinism and the Problem of Hell (Matthew J. Hart)
  • Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy Toward Arguments From Evil (Anthony Bryson)

I haven’t read all of the other contributors’ essays yet, but the two I have read, by Dan Johnson and Greg Welty, are excellent. (Welty’s essay in particular is a real doozie.)

For a further taster, check out the Google Books preview.

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 2)

[This is the second in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

In this short series I’m considering the question: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? In the first post I summarized how I plan to approach the question, before looking at two biblical teachings which Molinism seeks to accommodate: (1) comprehensive divine providence and (2) God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. I concluded that while the Bible does indeed affirm (1) and (2), and Molinism is consistent with the Bible on those points, Augustinianism also affirms those points. So Molinism holds no advantage over Augustinianism with respect to (1) and (2). I then added:

If we want to show that Molinism has better biblical support than Augustinianism (or vice versa) then we need to find some proposition p which is affirmed by Molinism and denied by Augustinianism (or vice versa) such that p enjoys positive biblical support (i.e., there are biblical texts which, on the most natural and defensible interpretation, and without begging philosophical questions, assert or imply p).

In the next few posts I want to examine three potential candidates for proposition p from the Molinist side: (1) that incompatibilism is true; (2) that God desires all to be saved; and (3) that God is not the author of sin.

Incompatibilism About Free Will

As I noted in the first post, Molinists are committed to a libertarian view of free will. Libertarianism involves two basic claims:

Incompatibilism: genuine freedom is incompatible with determinism.

Freedom: we make (at least some) genuinely free choices, i.e., choices for which we can be held morally responsible.

These two claims together entail that determinism is false, but since compatibilists typically agree that we make genuinely free choices, it’s the first claim which really distinguishes libertarians from compatibilists.

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Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Molinism

Consider this post a (lengthy) side-note to my earlier post. One of the favorite texts of Molinists is Matthew 11:21-24, because it indicates (1) that there are true counterfactuals of freedom, i.e., truths about what free creatures would have done in different circumstances, and (2) that God knows these true counterfactuals. I pointed out that while (1) and (2) support Molinism over against other views such as Open Theism, they don’t favor Molinism over Augustinianism, since Augustinianism also affirms (1) and (2). (Where Molinism and Augustinianism diverge, at least philosophically, is with respect to the nature of creaturely freedom and how God’s knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom relates to his eternal decree.)

In this post I want to take a comment by Dan as a launching-pad for a closer examination of Matthew 11:21-24 and its relevance to the debate between Molinists and Augustinians. Dan wrote:

One of the classic “proof texts” for middle knowledge also seems resistant to Augustinian/Calvinistic reading and to favor libertarian freedom. Matthew 11:21 says: 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

On Calvinism, irresistible grace (a.k.a. modernistic regeneration or effectual call) determines conversion, such that anyone given God’s irresistible grace cannot resist and will repent. Further, without irresistible grace, no one can convert due to their depravity.

From the verse, we know the people of Chorazin didn’t repent, but the people of Tyre would have repented had the same might works been done there. Tyre was notoriously sinful, so the comparison is to shame the folks of Chorzin – they really had a great opportunity to repent, so their choice to remain in sin was more wicked than the folks of Tyre. Yet on Calvinism, God was not given the folks of Chorzin the one and only thing that He knew could enable and cause repentance: irresistible grace. This alone is problematic and seems disingenuous.

But there is another problem with regards to the folks of Tyre. Neither the people of Chorazin and Tyre actually repented. On Calvinism, we could safely conclude neither were given irresistible grace, because had they being given irresistible grace, they would repent. But the verse gives us the counter-fact: the people of Tyre would have repented, given the same might works. So how is it that Tyre would have repented without irresistible grace? On Calvinism, we are left with the contradiction that irresistible grace both is and is not necessary for repentance.

To avoid the problem, some might say the repentance is not true repentance. But Christ preached about true repentance: repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand! He never uses “repentance” as false repentance and He always denounces any outward pretense of conversion and He exposes any self-deception and false assurance. Further, it invalidates (probably inverts) Christ’s main point of saying the folks of Chorazin were worse than the folks of Tyre. It’s better to refuse the Lord’s supper than to partake in pretense, it’s better not to know the way of righteousness than to know it and turn from it and so it’s better to live in open sin than with a false repentance. So if the repentance is a false repentance, the folks of Chorazin are better than the folks of Tyre, because they avoided false repentance. But that’s the opposite of Christ’s point.

The better solution seems to be to deny grace is irresistible and say man has libertarian freedom with respect to resisting God’s grace.

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How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 1)

[This is the first in an n-part series, where n>1 and probably n<10.]

Luis de MolinaMolinism is a theory that purports to reconcile a robust doctrine of divine providence and foreknowledge with a libertarian view of free will by appealing to the notion of divine middle knowledge: God’s eternal knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, that is, contingent truths about what possible creatures would freely choose if they were created by God and placed in particular circumstances. (For previous posts on Molinism, see here.)

Molinism is most often criticized on theological or philosophical grounds, mainly because it’s most often championed on the basis of its supposed theological and philosophical virtues. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve objected to Molinism on theological and philosophical grounds myself. (So it must be okay, right?) Nevertheless, for the Christian who takes the Bible to be the Word of God and the final authority in theological matters, the preeminent question ought to be: How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? (I don’t propose to defend the underlying methodological principle at this time; I’m simply going to take it for granted.)

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Bringing Down the Walls of Jerry & Co

It’s a truly terrible title for a post, I admit, but I just couldn’t resist. Sorry.

Anyway, on to the substance. In 2011 Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls published an article, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist,” in Philosophia Christi. A compatibilist is one who holds that freedom is compatible with determinism (in this context, divine determinism). Walls’s arguments are targeted primarily at Calvinists, who typically endorse a compatibilist view of free will (and rightly so). Variants of Walls’s criticisms are pretty commonplace among non-Reformed Christian philosophers (hence the “Co” of the title).

The most recent issue of Philosophia Christi (Summer 2015) includes a splendid response to Walls’s article by Steven Cowan and Greg Welty. Greg has posted the article on his website with some scene-setting context and interesting commentary on how the debate between classical theists and non-classical theists is playing out. (Note also the link to an addendum to the printed article with fourteen ‘bonus’ rebuttals.)

Philosophy matters, because theology matters. It’s encouraging to see this important issue debated with respectfully but rigorously in the pages of a peer-reviewed philosophy journal.

Libertarian Reformed Baptists?

This is a follow-up to the previous post in which I argued that “libertarian Calvinism” (a view recently explored by Oliver Crisp in his book Deviant Calvinism) is not compatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Not all Presbyterians hold to the WCF, although it is arguably the most widely-adopted Reformed confession among Presbyterians in the English-speaking world. Moreover, Reformed Baptists have their own parallel confession: the 1689  London Baptist Confession of Faith. Since the WCF and the LBCF are very similar (often word-for-word identical) in their statements on major points of Reformed doctrine (see here for a side-by-side comparison) I thought it would be interesting to quote the relevant sections from the LBCF to show that libertarian Calvinism isn’t a live option for Reformed Baptists who take the LBCF as their doctrinal standard.

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Libertarian Calvinism?

Can a confessional Calvinist affirm a libertarian view of free will? Is “libertarian Calvinism” a live option? I suspect most Calvinists today would say no, but in chapter 3 of his book Deviant Calvinism, Oliver Crisp argues for the affirmative.Deviant CalvinismOne of Crisp’s central claims is that the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most widely endorsed Reformed confessions, doesn’t rule out a libertarian (i.e., incompatibilist) view of free will. In this post I want to take issue with that claim on two fronts. (What I say here overlaps to some extent with the criticisms raised by Paul Manata in his series of blog posts: here, here, here, and here.)

Let’s begin by understanding how Crisp defines libertarian Calvinism (hereafter, LC). LC is Calvinist because it affirms (1) that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass (i.e., comprehensive divine providence) and (2) that God determines (indeed causally determines) that his elect will come to Christ for salvation (i.e., unconditional election and effectual calling). So LC is strictly monergistic with respect to salvation. But LC is also libertarian because it affirms (3) that free choices require the ability to do otherwise and therefore cannot be determined by prior factors (such as God’s decree) and (4) that some human choices are indeed free.

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