libertarian Calvinism

A Brief(ish) Response to Richard Muller

Grace and FreedomIn 2017, Paul Manata and I co-authored an article published in the Journal of Reformed Theology that offered a critique of two versions of “libertarian Calvinism” proposed by Oliver Crisp. Taking the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative of the Reformed tradition, we argued (1) that the WCF affirms theological determinism (and thus rules out libertarian free will for creatures), and (2) that even if the WCF doesn’t affirm theological determinism, it makes other assertions that conflict with the idea that we have libertarian free will (LFW). In our introduction we made mention in passing to the work of Richard Muller on the Reformed tradition and views on human freedom.

In his most recent book, Grace and Freedom: William Perkins and the Early Modern Reformed Understanding of Free Choice and Divine Grace, Prof. Muller cites our article a couple of times. On both occasions he makes critical comments to which I would like to respond. (Note: I am speaking only for myself in this post, not for my co-author.)

On pages 3-4, Muller writes regarding the debate over whether the Reformed tradition represents a compatibilist view of human freedom:

One line of argument assumes that an identification of the Reformed as compatibilist is mistaken—as would be an interpretation of Reformed theology as libertarian. This reading of the historical materials posits a significant continuity between the early modern Reformed writers and the argumentation of medieval scholastics, at the same time that it identifies a shift of argumentation toward philosophical determinism in eighteenth-century writers like Jonathan Edwards. A line of counter-argument views the Reformed tradition as unequivocally compatibilist and tends to assimilate the scholastic argumentation of a theologian like Francis Turretin to the compatibilism of Jonathan  Edwards. (Muller, pp. 3-4)

A footnote attached to the last sentence cites several articles by Paul Helm (including this and this) before adding:

Note also James N. Anderson and Paul Manata, “Determined to Come Most Freely: Some Challenges for Libertarian Calvinism,” in Journal of Reformed Theology, 11 (2017), pp. 272-297, which argues against Oliver Crisp’s notion of “libertarian Calvinism” but oddly assumes that the argumentation in Reformed Thought on Freedom and various other studies is libertarian, despite the authors’ clear statements to the contrary. The fundamental mistake in Anderson and Manata’s approach is that they assume that modern theories of libertarianism and compatibilism are the only two options for arguing free will. This also leads them to misread the Westminster Confession (Anderson and Manata, pp. 285-285 [sic]) on the issues of contingency and freedom. On the Westminster Confession, see John V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), pp. 101-111. (Muller, p. 4, fn. 4)

There are a number of things to say in response.

First, we have never suggested that the Reformed tradition is “unequivocally compatibilist.” There have been some Reformed theologians who have affirmed something like LFW (Girardeau appears to be one, as Oliver Crisp has noted). Our argument, rather, is that the Reformed tradition affirms certain theological claims (e.g., about divine sovereignty, divine providence, and the nature of conversion) that rule out LFW and thus commit that tradition (whether acknowledged or not) to some form of compatibilism. That’s certainly the case for the Westminster Confession, as we argue in our article.

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!

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.

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 of 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.

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.

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.