Calvinism and the First Sin

“Calvinism and the First Sin” is the title of my contribution to a forthcoming volume, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, edited by David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Wipf & Stock). The publisher has kindly granted permission to post here a preprint version of the paper. Please note that this online version will be removed once the book is published. Do not quote or cite this version.

I think there’s something for just about everyone to disagree with in the paper! Constructively critical feedback is welcome.

24 thoughts on “Calvinism and the First Sin”

  1. I am glad you made this paper available. I have been thinking about Calvinism and determinism in similar ways since I read Frame’s volumes. I think that your distinction between alpha and beta causation are helpful. I was reading Saint Thomas the other day and he makes a similar distinction (or at least he appeared to).

    In Christ,

    1. Thanks, Blake. Yes, I think the position I defend is consistent with Aquinas’s position (or at least, one common reading of it).

  2. I also have a related question that I find attractive, but is viewed as overly Roman Catholic by many (most?). I was reading Augustine’s City of God last summer and I found his discussion of the fall of man to be interesting. I will find the page numbers when I get home form my trip. Augustine (seemed) to argue that Adam’s moral fall was tied to the fact that he is a contingent being. According to Medieval theology/philosophy God is the actus purus, or subsistent being itself. As my philosophy professor put it at the University of Louisville, “God is the being, that be’s the most (perfectly)”. Now it seems to me that God could not create another “perfect being” ontologically. So, Adam had some “evil” (in the metaphysical not moral sense, i.e. he had privation) built into his nature. So there was an in-built tendency in Adam to fall morally, because of his finitude. Note that because he was limited as to being, does not entail that he was fallen morally. I take the biblical account of a good creation to be in terms of what God viewed as good. I am not sure that moral perfection and ontological perfection are the same. This is pure speculation on my part and I would be willing to give this idea up in a heart beat if it can be shown to be contradicted by scripture. It seems to me that this tied in with the authorial account of evil you gave above might be fruitful. Again, this is speculation on my part so take it for what it is.

    In Christ,

    1. Blake,

      I agree with Augustine’s view that any created being must be less than “perfect being” and thus mutable and corruptible. But we don’t want to say (and I don’t read Augustine as saying) that Adam had “some evil built into his nature” even in an ontological sense. Mutability, yes; corruptibility, yes; but not corruption.

      I have some sympathies with the privation theory of evil, but I also have some serious reservations about it. Like you, I think that moral perfection is distinct from, and not reducible to, ontological perfection. Perhaps I will blog about this in the future!

  3. “At this point I must confess that further answers escape me. It is true that many Calvinists have favored the sort of compatibilist accounts according to which a person’s choices have sufficient intramundane causal explanations. On these accounts, it proves very difficult to explain the first human sin.” [18-19]

    What are the difficulties for such “intramundane causal explanations”? It seems that the confluence of mutable human nature and the prior presence of evil in creation in the devil’s temptation would be able to provide sufficient conditions, even on a compatibilist account, for the fall of man. It’s the mystery surrounding the fall of Satan which seems rather inexpicable then. Or am I mistaken?

    1. Hi Ben,

      I don’t think it’s difficult to show that those factors could provide sufficient conditions for Adam’s choice (i.e., the event itself) but the challenge is showing that such is consistent with Adam being morally responsible for that choice. I set up the problem on pp. 4-5 (point 3). Note also that I keep the door open in footnote 38!

      The challenge is to find a defensible compatibilist account that allows us to “tell a story” about how Adam might have freely and responsibly sinned despite having no inherent inclination toward sin. But as I point out, libertarians are in no better position on this front; if anything, they’re in a worse position!

  4. James,

    My name is Dan Courtney, and I’m an atheist. A commentor on my YouTube channel suggested that, given my interest in Presuppositionalism, I contact you. I apologize, but this was the only means I had to reach you. If you wish to respond, you can reach me at

    I had two debates scheduled for this fall; one with Brian Knapp of, and another with Jon Kaus of the Veritas Academy. Unfortunately both have been postponed, and I find myself eager to engage in a friendly debate, but without an opponent. My brief review of your material indicates that you are intelligent and articulate, and by reputation, respectful to your opponents. That being the case, would you be willing to arrange an in-person debate?

    For more information about me, please visit my YouTube channel ( I look forward to your reply.

    Dan Courtney

    1. Nice to hear from you, Dan.

      If you have in mind a formal public debate, that’s not really my bag. I would be open in principle to some kind of written exchange, but it would depend on the timing and the details. If you want to talk further, you can find my contact details here.

      1. Thank you for the reply James. Written exchanges are not nearly so engaging for most folks, so I think I’ll pass on that. I may just make some video responses to your current writings for my Youtube channel instead.

        Thanks again,

        1. True, although written exchanges are usually more substantive and rigorous. In any event, if you do make some video responses, please email me the links.

  5. I want to reword this mangled paragraph:

    “I take the biblical account of a good creation to be in terms of what God viewed as good. I am not sure that moral perfection and ontological perfection are the same. This is pure speculation on my part and I would be willing to give this idea up in a heart beat if it can be shown to be contradicted by scripture. It seems to me that this tied in with the authorial account of evil you gave above might be fruitful. Again, this is speculation on my part so take it for what it is.”

    1) I am not sure what the bible means by “good”. It seems that “goodness” would be something along the lines of “exactly how God wanted it”. Can an account of the privative nature of contingent being be included in a good creation? I don’t think that God could create another being, like himself, that would be a perfect being. It seems that the concept would fall prey to the same objection that can be made to metaphysical dualism (there cannot be two beings that are the maximally great being, because a being that is maximally great cannot be exceeded. It seems that there could only be one kid on the block with that title.)

    2) If it can, then it seems that one could be a being with privation yet be morally perfect. These two concepts do not seem to contradict, but maybe they do. I can’t see how.

    3) If we can have an ontological nature that tends toward privation, then our moral decisions, when not made according to God’s standard, would tend toward non-being (evil).

    4) Is there a way of bringing these two ideas together (the privation or our natures and moral goodness), and your excellent account of the “Authorial Account (call it AA)” of divine sovereignty and evil?

    5) Can I do this and remain an orthodox protestant?

    Lots of questions, but I find this subject very interesting and difficult (especially for a non-philosopher).


  6. DC14522,

    I find your claim that presuppositonalism is Christianity in full retreat silly. I have not watched the video yet, but the title suggests to me that you have only interacted with those such as Sye. Sye is not exactly the best exponent of the position (No offense Sye).

    Presuppositonalism (not the best word) is a self-consciously Christian approach to epistemology. We simply do not allow you your absurd atheistic (and /or materialistic) assumptions. We show that positions that deny teleology in the universe are absurd, or the rejection of a moral law-giver leads to nihilism etc. On that note a Thomist such as Edward Feser has something of a presuppositionalist streak to him see his critique of Alex Rosenberg at his blog.

    Presuppostionalism can also be viewed as a theological epistemology that seeks to be obedient to Christian revelation. Presuppositionalism, much like Naturalism is a totalizing world view that seeks to apply Christian truth in all of life. Consistency is a virtue, and presuppositionalism seeks to be as consistent as possible.

    Admittedly, some are better than others at presenting presuppositonalism, but to say that it is Christianity in retreat is kind of laughable.


    1. Blake,

      Call me Dan, please. Looks like we can agree on one thing; Sye isn’t the pinnacle of presuppositional apologetics. Although I do give him credit for introducing me to this particular genre.

      If you would like to get my take on presuppositionalism, you would be better served watching my video, Presuppositionalism; Fallacy and Failure. Obviously from the title, I’m not a fan, but this video is more concise than the “full retreat” video, and it doesn’t rely so much on my initial interactions with Sye.


  7. Pingback: Late August 2013 Presuppositional apologetics Links | The Domain for Truth

  8. Concerning footnote 30 on page 14: Culpability is not dependent on only the extent which the causing agent intends the outcome. A drunk driver is culpable while few if any intend to to do damage to themselves or others. There is an aspect of “should have known or should have understood” that plays into assigning culpability.

    1. I agree with your observation, but I’m not sure of its relevance, since I don’t claim otherwise in the paper. Yes, the drunk driver is culpable. But that scenario isn’t very analogous to the case of divine causation! My point in that footnote is simply that whether or not God would be culpable (blameworthy) for a creature’s sin depends, in part, on God’s intent in bringing about that sin.

      1. James,
        My concern is that one is normally culpable for stuff that happens beyond one’s intention. In the case of the sting operation, one is not able to remove all the negative consequences from one’s record because they “got the crook” etc. Now perhaps the good consequences may outway the bad ones, but one’s intentions are not the only concern when assigning culpability for the results of the situation. In that footnote, you made the analogy between the sting operation and God. I don’t think the sting operation can be analyzed as clearly in your favor as it seems that you attempt to make use of it.

        Now if you think that when one moves from Beta to Alpha causation, all the problems will go away, then that is fine. But it would seem that one would need either to expand the argument for such or add more to the mystery pile.

        1. Sorry for the delay in replying.

          I don’t claim that intentions are the only concern when assigning culpability. I only said that they need to be taken into account. If God has good intentions in ordaining the sin of his creatures (cf. Gen. 50:20) then this is one reason to think that he is not blameworthy, even if he is ultimately responsible.

          There is a relevant parallel here with the sting operation, so I guess I’m missing your point here. Perhaps your point is that cops who run a sting operation are actually culpable (at least in part) for the crime. If so, that can be debated. But my main argument doesn’t hang on it.

      2. Further looking at the situation, it seems that divine causation is even more difficult to deal with than non-divine causation if one wishes to put all the weight on intentions when assigning culpability. It seems that the Reformed view of God implies that everything that happens is in fact intended by God. To avoid such, it would seem that one would have to move in the direction of Molinism and limiting God in His ability to actualize exactly what He wishes to happen.

        So I guess, I am just unsure how the focus on intentions advances the discussion in human but even to a greater extent in divine causation.

        1. Again, I don’t “put all the weight” on intentions when assigning culpability. I’m not sure where you’re getting that from. If you think that’s what I claim in the paper, I’ll need to take a look to see if I’ve been unclear about that.

          “It seems that the Reformed view of God implies that everything that happens is in fact intended by God.”

          Yes, I say as much in the paper. But to say that God intends event E tells us nothing about (a) why God indends E or (b) how God will bring about E. Both of the latter are relevant to the issue of culpability too.

          As for your point about Molinism, I believe I’ve addressed that in the paper. To say that God is limited in what he can actualize tells us little about whether God is culpable for what he does in fact actualize.

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