Calvinism and Determinism

Are You a Determinist?It’s often claimed that Calvinists are determinists. The claim is true as far as it goes; the trouble is that it doesn’t go very far, and it can lead to a lot of confusion and unwarranted conclusions. For there are many different types of determinism. Some of those types seem to be entailed by what Calvinists believe; some are consistent with Calvinist beliefs but not entailed by those beliefs; and some types are inconsistent with what Calvinists believe. (By “what Calvinists believe” I’m referring to mainstream historic Calvinism, as represented by the teachings of John Calvin and the major Reformed confessions and catechisms. I recognize, of course, that there’s diversity within the Calvinist tradition, but here I plan to focus on typical Calvinist claims.)

Along with the claim that Calvinists are determinists goes the assertion that Calvinists are committed to a compatibilist view of free will, where compatibilism is defined as the thesis that determinism is compatible with freedom. Again, this claim is true enough, but it’s rather vague as it stands because in theory there are as many versions of compatibilism as there are types of determinism: for every type of determinism we can formulate a corresponding compatibilist thesis (viz., that freedom is compatible with that type of determinism). Indeed, there are even more versions of compatibilism than there are types of determinism, because there are also various kinds of freedom. For any particular type of determinism, that type may be incompatible with some kinds of freedom (e.g., the freedom to have chosen otherwise than one did in fact choose) but compatible with other kinds of freedom (e.g., the freedom to act according to one’s desires in a way that is responsive to reasons).

All this to say, the idea that Calvinists are determinists and compatibilists is rather more complicated than many people recognize. My purpose in this post is to try to clarify matters (at least to some degree!) by distinguishing various types of determinism and briefly commenting on whether or not Calvinists are committed to each type. (Understand that I’m not aiming here to defend Calvinism, compatibilism, or determinism, but only to shed some light on the relationship between them.)