Tag Archives: Calvinism

Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

I recently received the following inquiry about an alleged problem for Calvinism:

This problem is explained in a new book I’ve been reading, The Challenges of Divine Determinism, by Peter Furlong (a theist who’s agnostic about the reality of divine determinism). Furlong calls this problem the problem of contrition, which lies in the observation that (to put the basic point briefly and crudely) in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did, and so one’s will must be in some sense aligned against God’s to repent. Of course no Christian wants his will to oppose God’s.

A very interesting challenge! Some thoughts in response (bearing in mind that I haven’t read Furlong’s book):

1. Calvinists routinely distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will.1 The first concerns God’s eternal decree, which infallibly comes to pass, while the second reflects God’s commands for mankind as an expression of his holiness. Thus, God willed preceptively that Joseph’s brothers would not sin against him, but he willed decretively that they would do so (hence Gen. 50:20). As such, we should clarify that when we say “and so God willed one to sin,” we’re speaking specifically of God’s decretive will. There’s no opposition to God’s preceptive will implied here; on the contrary, the reason we wish we hadn’t sinned is precisely because our sins are contrary to God’s preceptive will!

The Repentant St. Peter (Goya)2. Having drawn this distinction, we can be more precise about the challenge posed. The alleged problem is that in order to be truly contrite, one must wish that God had decreed otherwise than he did in fact decree. But why exactly is this problematic? Would so wishing imply that God made some kind of mistake in decreeing as he did? Would it imply that God shouldn’t have decreed what he did? That doesn’t follow at all, as far as I can see. Presumably God could have decreed otherwise than he did (i.e., God had alternatives open to him; nothing necessitated what he actually decreed) and if God had decreed otherwise, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.2 Wishing that God had decreed otherwise needn’t imply any deficiency on God’s part (e.g., that God could have decreed something better than what he actually decreed).

3. It strikes me that if there is a problem here, it isn’t a problem merely for contrition but for any counterfactual wishing. Suppose my favored candidate loses the election and I think to myself, “I really wish Jones had won.” If God decreed that Jones would lose, my wishing that Jones had won implies that I wish God had decreed otherwise! So if there really is a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with contrition per se.

4. What’s more, if this is a problem, it isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. Molinists also hold that God has an infallible decree, albeit one conditioned by God’s middle knowledge. So if a Molinist truly wishes that he hadn’t sinned, he is also wishing that God had decreed otherwise (specifically, that God had “weakly actualized” some other “feasible world,” some possible world in which he doesn’t commit the sin in question).

5. Christ’s wrestling in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-44) may be instructive here. Surely in some sense Jesus wished that his Father’s will were otherwise, otherwise his prayers in the garden make little sense. Jesus knew perfectly well that it was his Father’s settled will for him to go to the cross, but he still desired that things be otherwise. Was this a wrongful desire on Jesus’s part? Surely not! (Note that one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to appreciate this point.)

Obviously I don’t offer this as an example of contrition, only as a case of someone non-sinfully wishing that God had willed otherwise. Of course, Christ obediently subordinated his (entirely understandable) desire not to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the will of his Father. In the end, Christ’s overriding wish was to do his Father’s will. (Praise God!) But that doesn’t mean his other desires weren’t genuine desires.

6. Reflecting on it further, I’m not sure this is even a strictly theological problem, because one can formulate non-theological versions of the problem of contrition. Suppose a young man has premarital sex with his girlfriend. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter whom the man loves dearly. In fact, the couple decide to get married and raise the girl together. Later on, the man experiences a religious conversion and becomes convicted that premarital sex is morally wrong. Should he sincerely wish that he hadn’t engaged in premarital sex? In some sense, yes. But if he hadn’t done what he did, his daughter would never have been born. So is he implicitly wishing that his daughter had never been born? Presumably not!

This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have wishes with logically inconsistent implications (or alternatively, to coherently wish for what isn’t possible). I think it is, although a defense of that claim will have to wait for another occasion. The only point I’m making is that the problem of contrition, if a problem at all, isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. It can be turned into a problem for everyone. Conversely, if it isn’t really a problem in general, there’s no reason to think it’s a problem for Calvinists in particular.


  1. For a robust exegetical defense of the distinction, see this classic article by John Piper.
  2. It’s true that some Calvinists have taken a necessitarian position with respect to God’s decree, but that isn’t an essential tenet of Calvinism simpliciter.

Determined to Come Most Freely

A preprint version of the article I co-authored with Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” published a while ago in the Journal for Reformed Theology and summarized here, is now available here. Enjoy!

Blaming Sinners and Exculpating God

Some time ago I plugged Guillaume Bignon’s Excusing Sinners and Blaming God. Kevin Timpe wrote a critical review of the book in the journal Faith and Philosophy, and Bignon has now posted a response to the review on his website. His response is useful because it not only rebuts Timpe’s criticisms, but also takes the discussion further in some respects. Check it out.

Determined to Believe?

Determined to Believe?John Lennox is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and an evangelical Christian with a longstanding concern to defend the Christian faith in the public sphere. In recent years he has risen to prominence as an articulate, well-informed, and winsome apologist, writing books on the relationship between Christianity and science, and engaging in public debates with prominent skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Ruse. His 2007 book God’s Undertaker, which I have often recommended to my students, deftly debunks the myth of conflict between religion and science. I wish I could be so enthusiastic about his recent foray into systematic and philosophical theology, which might well have been titled Calvinism’s Undertaker.

As Lennox explains, his latest book “is written mainly for Christians who are interested in or even troubled by questions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility” (15). Having been asked on many occasions to share his views on this thorny issue, Lennox decided to embark upon a book-length treatment of the topic. The primary target of his book is theistic determinism, which Lennox nowhere explicitly defines but apparently takes to be the view that God determines—more specifically, causally determines—every event in the creation, including the decisions and actions of his creatures. The book consists of 20 chapters and is divided into five parts. In this review I will summarize the content of each part, offering some critical comments along the way, before concluding with some concerns prompted by the book’s title.

Read the rest of the review here.

Is Calvinism Unliveable?

It’s sometimes claimed that determinism is irrational because (so the argument goes) one can’t consistently believe that one’s beliefs are determined. Occasionally this is transposed into an objection to Calvinism, since Calvinism is arguably committed to theistic determinism.

Let’s take a look at a recent example from William Lane Craig’s weekly Q&A blog and consider whether the objection has any substance. (Craig’s article was reproduced on Biola University’s blog several months later, so it has had some exposure.)

A correspondent writes to Dr. Craig:

As a former agnostic, one of the most powerful apologetic arguments against naturalism, atheism (and so on) is the idea that nobody strives to be a *consistent* naturalist/atheist/etc. In other words, they fail to act in accordance with the nihilism to which many of these ideas logically lead. Being more than a little curious, I stumbled into the free will position within Calvinism. Doesn’t this lead to a similar problem? In other words, what exactly does a consistent Calvinist even look like?

What does a consistent Calvinist look like? Well, if you’re really curious, you can find out here. But moving on to Craig’s response:

I think that you’ve successfully identified a problem with determinism in general, Leif, of which Calvinism is but a specific instance, given the Calvinist’s view that God determines everything that happens.

Note first that Craig treats Calvinism as merely one species of the genus determinism, taking it that any problem with determinism in general must afflict Calvinism’s theistic determinism. I doubt things are that simple. It’s pretty difficult to generate an argument against determinism as such, which is why most anti-determinist arguments target particular types of determinism (e.g., physical determinism or nomological determinism).

Continue reading

Brian Abasciano on John 3:16

Dr. Brian Abasciano recently posted an article on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website in response to an “untenable grammatical argument” offered by (so he claims) James White, Guillaume Bignon, James A. Gibson, and yours truly. Dr. Abasciano generously describes me as a “respectable Calvinist philosopher” (who are the disreputable ones, I wonder?) even though he thinks I committed an “embarrassing mistake” (if so, at least I’m in good company).

Drs. Bignon and Gibson have replied here. Dr. White made some excellent comments in response on The Dividing Line (April 24 episode). I don’t have much to add to these, but I’ll make a few observations of my own.

Continue reading

John 3:16 Teaches Limited Atonement

Yes, it really does. Hear me out.

John 3:16 is commonly cited against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (LA).1 The argument is simple: LA teaches that Christ made atonement only for the elect, but this best-known verse in the Bible says that God so loved the world that he sent his Son. That implies a universal atonement, for all mankind, not one limited in its extent.

The WorldThat seems like a knockdown argument on the face of it, but on closer examination it turns out to be very weak. In John’s writings “the world” (ho kosmos) rarely if ever carries the sense of “all mankind” or “every human who ever lived.” It certainly doesn’t mean that in 3:16 because that would make nonsense of the immediately following verse. (Try replacing “the world” with “all mankind” in verse 17 to see the point.) Rather, “the world” typically means either (i) “the created universe” (as in John 17:24), (ii) something like “the fallen creation in rebellion against God” (e.g., John 3:19; 13:1; 15:19; 17:13-18; 1 John 2:15-17) or (iii) “all nations” as opposed to the Jewish people alone (as in John 4:42). Whatever the exact sense in 3:16, there’s nothing that conflicts with LA.

So John 3:16 doesn’t count against LA. Perhaps most Calvinists are content to leave it at that, but I think we can go further and argue that it actually supports LA.

Continue reading

  1. I prefer the labels ‘definite atonement’ and ‘particular redemption’ but I’m going to stick with the traditional label for this post.

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.