Calvinism and the “Leviticus Principle”

The following is a guest post by my friend Paul Manata, a philosophy student at Calvin College. It’s a response to this recent post on the Tyndale UC Philosophy blog. Paul originally submitted it as a comment on that blog, but for some reason it didn’t appear, and now the comments are closed there. So I invited Paul to post his response here instead.

Tyndale UC Philosophy Department writes, “Though of course many Christians are Calvinists, scarcely any Christian philosophers are.” There is currently something of a resurgence of Calvinist philosophers, and within five years I suspect we’ll see quite a bit more than we see today. There are also more working right now than a lot of people know about. But we could also add to the pile Christian philosophers who are determinists and hard determinists, but not Calvinists. There are quite a few of these, and while they’re not Calvinists they’re not libertarians either. Moreover, there was a time when the majority of Protestant philosophers were Calvinists. But it’s hard to tell what citing philosophers is meant to accomplish. If the recent PhilSurvey reports are not wide of the mark, only 13.7% of philosophers are libertarian. However, I’m not here to comment on these sociological data, interesting as they are.

You quote Leviticus and then draw two principles from it:

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15).

LP1: It is unjust or unfair to favor A over B in context C, if your basis for doing so is C-irrelevant.

or equivalently

LP2: It is just or fair to favor A over B in context C only if your basis for doing so is C-relevant.

I wonder, does the Leviticus principle, and the subsequent LPs, hold when we substitute ‘mercy’ for ‘favor’ (where I assume the latter means ‘favoritism’ or ‘partiality’)? Or, would it hold for cases of ‘pardoning’? Are judges, governors, etc., to be considered ‘unfair’ or ‘unjust’ if they choose to pardon some but not all pardonable criminals? Moreover, interestingly enough, it’s only those passed over who are treated fairly or justly, for those God elects are not treated fairly or justly (i.e., according to what they deserve)—if they were, they’d be punished for their sins.

Another issue, I guess, is this: Irresistible grace follows from election; it’s conditionally necessary upon it. That S is elect is a ‘spiritual’ difference over S*, who is not. So we need to go back to election. It is there that we consider a single set of spiritually identical people, in that every member of this set deserves punishment. So, contrary to your suggestions, there are not two groups at this stage. On Calvinism, God treats some members of this set fairly or with justice—i.e., the reprobate—and others he doesn’t treat fairly or according to justice—i.e., those he elects—he treats them according to grace, i.e., undeserved or, better, unmerited favor (where ‘favor’ here does not mean what it means in the above Ls).

You then argue that on Calvinism, it is merely permissible that God save sinners and merely permissible that he not save sinners. Calvinists then are said to suppose that it is permissible that God save some but not others. But this principle, agglomeration, doesn’t follow in deontic logic. Where P(A) = A is permissible, it is invalid to argue: (1) P(A), (2) P(B), therefore, (3) P(A&B).

Is the permissibility thesis a necessary element of Calvinism? I don’t see why it would be. Suppose God, having created a world like this, must show mercy to some and must punish some—i.e., all his attributes must be fully or maximally displayed. As Oliver Crisp writes, “For, according to the Augustinian way of thinking, God’s nature is such that he must display his justice and mercy in his creation and it is a good thing that both of these aspects of the divine nature are displayed in the created order” (in “Is Universalism a Problem for Particularists?” Scottish Journal of Theology 63(1): 1–23 (2010)). If this is right, then you’ve got the wrong modality. While agglomeration doesn’t hold for permissibility, it seems to holds for obligations (O) or necessities (N):



:. O(A&B)




:. N(A&B)

If either one of these were the relevant modality, the fallacious argument you’ve saddled the Calvinist with would fail, resting, as it does, on (3) instead of a (3*) that could, mutatis mutandis, be derived from the above.

Now, it seems intuitive to me that L1 and L2 don’t hold for mercy (and I’m not sure about L1 and L2 themselves, as they weren’t argued for but, at best, motivated inductively; but I’ll let issues with L1 and L2 sit for now). All I’d need is one case to provide a counterexample, and I’ve given one that seems plausible (another might be Hosea’s marriage to Gomer), especially when we consider that those left are treated fairly and justly. But to put a finer point on it, one principle might be put thus:

Mweak: It is not unjust or unfair for S to show mercy to A over B (or vice versa) when both A and B justly deserve D, and S has the right to show mercy to either A or B (which could be both) or neither.

The stronger, ‘Crispy’ principle would be

Mstrong: It is not unjust or unfair for S to show mercy to A over B (or vice versa) when both A and B justly deserve D, and S has the duty (in some suitable sense) to show mercy to either A or B but not both, and S has the duty (in some sense) to serve D to either A or B but not both.

If either of these are the relevant principle, rather than the Ls, the above argument wouldn’t go through as stands.

But here’s one point that would remain: Does S select A over B (or vice versa) arbitrarily? No. All we need is some relevant reason S selects A over B (or vice versa). In the case of Calvinism, that set of relevant reasons is pretty large. Now, ‘spiritual’ is left vague in your blog post. So I’m not sure the content of ‘spiritual’. But on Calvinism, “unconditional election” simply states that the basis for choosing some sinner can’t be the biblically revealed conditions of salvation, i.e., faith, repentance, meritorious good works, or anything in the creature that would necessitate God choosing him over another. But there’s still a remainder of reasons—these even may be ‘spiritual’, unless ‘spiritual’ just means exactly those things I listed from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which seems question-begging and somewhat ad hoc if it does mean just those reasons. So I maintain that a relevant reason exists. This is a metaphysical point that saying “I can’t see what it is” can’t rebut: to think so confuses epistemology with metaphysics. This argument would also work for mere permissibilists, i.e., those who accept Mweak.

Another objection might be: If God had to, in some sense, show mercy to some and punish others, this would (a) vitiate against divine freedom and (b) remove the graciousness of grace. I don’t think (a) is true, and many libertarians admit there are some things God must do, especially if the necessity obtains contingently, upon a prior contingent choice. I don’t think (b) is true either. Here are two reasons: (i) The grace would still obtain for individuals, since it’s indeterminate as to which ones will receive grace; and (ii) something like this holds on Arminianism too.

There are two reasons that support the second of these (i.e., that something similar holds on Arminianism): (1) Given the content packed into ‘love’ on Arminian schemes, it would seem unloving for God not to attempt to save anyone when he could, but given depravity, he’d have to provide grace to achieve this. (2) If the human race was unable to do any good action sans prevenient grace but they were still liable to punishment for their sins, then “ought implies can” would seem to be false, and (most) libertarians claim it can’t be false and that it would be unjust for God to punish people who could not do good. So again, on Arminianism, God had to provide prevenient grace to all in order to punish any.

9 thoughts on “Calvinism and the “Leviticus Principle””

  1. Hi Paul,

    Many reformed commentators seem to go father than you on explaining unconditional election and say there was nothing outside of God that was the reason for why He elected who He did.

    God be with you,

  2. Hi Dan,

    I think what I said is consistent with what you have said. Nevertheless, I took myself to simply affirm what the Westminster Confession (3.5) says about unconditional election, and the Confession is relevant for deciphering Reformed orthodoxy. But perhaps you took my inclusion of ‘necessitate’ to be too strong. That’s fine, you can remove that and replace it with “the reason can’t be grounded in the creature.” But from these affirmations you can’t conclude that there is no relevant reason God has for his choice in electing one individual over another, i.e., that his choice was arbitrary. In any case, the main and most relevant denials are the denials that God’s choice is grounded in the foreseen faith or good works of the creature, and those are the standard denials seen in Reformed systematics. This is the main focus, especially when we consider it in contrast to the Arminian claim that God’s choice to elect one over another is, at least partly, grounded in the (foreseen) faith of the first one (which I’m not assuming here to be a ‘good work’).

  3. Thanks Paul, that was helpful. I guess I would follow up with if God’s choice isn’t grounded in us and it’s not arbitrary, then it’s somewhat unlike our choices, which are typically grounded in what we choose or are arbitrary.

    God be with you,

  4. Hi Dan,

    Do you mean to say,necessarily our choices are arbitrary or grounded in the thing we choose, to get the position that God’s choice can’t be like ours. Or did you just mean God’s choices would not in fact be like ours, though they could be? I don’t know how one could show either. It seems possible that humans sometimes make a choice that is not arbitrary but the reason for the choice is not grounded in the object chosen. Here’s an example: I choose to do A for S, but my reason for doing A for S is not grounded in S but in S*. Or I choose to go running, but that choice is not grounded in running but in a higher-order choice or desire to be healthy. But that aside, I don’t think God’s ‘choosing’ is very much like ours. I often (discursively) reason through options, mull things over, etc. Or take Robert Kane’s definition: Robert Kane: “A choice . . . resolves uncertainty and indecision in the mind about what to do.” I’m not sure that’s true of God.

    1. Maybe choices are either necessary or grounded in what we choose, but I am not sure about that. On the running example, I would think the qualities of running (vs say eating junk food) are a reason in why you choose to run rather than eat junk food. Sure you have a more ultimate goal, but there will be many smaller choices along the path of getting to that goal.

      On God’s choice being different; it has to be like or unlike some aspect of our choices, or we could have no knowledge of it at all.

      God be with you,

      1. Hi Dan,

        I guess I think it’s just false that, necessarily or even as a matter of fact, our choice to X is grounded in X if it’s not an arbitrary choice. I think there are just too many counterexamples. I may choose to help someone study, and the choice is not grounded in the person or the desire to help them study, but in the fact that this would please their sister, whom I’d like to take to prom. Or, I may may choose X by mistake, thinking it was Y—it doesn’t seem right to me to say that my choice was grounded in X, even though I did choose X. Examples like this are multiply, so I think it is false that either: necessarily, our choosing X is grounded in X (when it’s not arbitrary), or: our choosing X is always in fact grounded in X (when it’s not arbitrary).

        On God’s choice: To say there is some sense in which God’s choice is like ours does not license the move that because it is unlike ours regarding feature F, therefore it’s not like ours at all. Perhaps if F were essential or necessary to any choice whatever, it would license that move, but I’ve seen no reason to suspect that’s the case with the examples you’ve offered. One reason why is because I think the claim you’ve made is false.

  5. Godismyjudge

    The sister and mistake choices are based on things outside the chooser. There’s still the sister and Y and they are outside the chooser. I doubt such an example exists within human experience.

    Sure other aspects of choice could be understood. My inquiry is if factor F (unconditionality) can be understood other than apophatically?

    God be with you,

  6. Pingback: Late April 2013 Presuppositionalism Links Round up | The Domain for Truth

  7. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for asking these questions. It provides a chance to clear up several misconceptions people might have.

    You wrote: “[our choices] are typically grounded in what we choose or are arbitrary.” That is, if I choose X, the choice is grounded in X. You never made a claim about “our choices are grounded in things outside the chooser.” As I was objecting to your first formulation, it seems improper to claim my counterexample is faulty for failing to be a counterexample to a principle it was not intended to cover. I take it that the shift indicates you disagree with your original principle.

    Your second principle: ‘For all x, if x is a choice, x is based on “something” outside the chooser.’ On some construal, this principle is completely consistent with everything I’ve said. God may base his choice to elect S on a very complicated reason, perhaps one that involves a many greater goods. I, and Reformed theology, have only claimed the reason can’t be grounded in the creature.

    But taken another way, this principle is problematic. First, what does it mean to speak of something “outside” of God? Does he have a “boundary”? Second, it seems to deny that God made any choices “before” anything existed “outside” of him (whatever that means). Suppose all that exists is God. If a choice has to based on “something” outside of him, this seems to be what is being said: there exists an X such that X is “outside” of God. What would this be? We are supposing only God exists. For God to make a choice, does there need to be “something” that is not God and is eternal or timeless or? How would that square with aseity?

    Specifically and historically, election has meant that the choice cannot be grounded in foreseen faith or good works. We can’t forget that Unconditional Election was formed as a response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance, which claims that God elects some based on considering them as believers.

    As the WCF notes, the choice is made: “according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will.” Notice the three conjunctions. Arminians typically focus on only the last one, and give it a voluntaristic gloss at that. The choice is made according to a purpose and counsel. How could something that is made according to a purpose and counsel be “arbitrary”?

    The Canons of Dort teach that: “For Scripture declares that there is a single good pleasure, purpose, and plan of God’s will, by which he chose us from eternity both to grace and to glory, both to salvation and to the way of salvation, which he prepared in advance for us to walk in.” Notice there is a “purpose” and “plan” “by which” God chose us.

    You ask: “My inquiry is if factor F (unconditionality) can be understood other than apophatically?” Sure. For ‘unconditionality’ is not ‘unconditionality’ überhaupt. The Canons of Dort don’t suggest this, the Westminster Confession doesn’t either. It is trivial to find something election is conditioned on: for example, God’s decree, detailed plan, purpose, will. Each of these may be expanded to include complex reasons as constituting them. Sans any of these, there would be no decree, plan, or purpose. We may not know the reasons, but that’s not apophaticism.

Comments are closed.