Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Square Circle of Compatibilism

In the previous post, I proposed that "square circles" actually exist in the form of the classic 3-dimensional cylinder. Building on this illustration, I'd like to examine some further implications of compatibilism.

Compatibilism affirms God's deterministic sovereignty and human freedom/responsibility. It says the two are not incompatible, but entirely reconcilable - though perhaps in ways not yet revealed.

One could argue that a cylinder of equal height and width is not a square at all, but a "stack" of circles that appears square under certain conditions. In other words, the squareness of the cylinder is a byproduct of the arrangement of the circles. Yet at certain angles, this inherently circular object gives the distinct appearance of being a square. Though it is made up of circles, it is not a "circular circle," for that would be a sphere. A cylinder is a uniquely "square" circle.

Compatibilism likewise argues that real human freedom and real divine deterministic sovereignty relate to one another in a specific way. Just as the square aspect of a cylinder depends on the circularity, so human freedom depends on divine sovereignty. Just as a cylindrical arrangement of circles creates a genuine square, God's total sovereignty creates genuine human freedom. The two are inseparable, but one is nonetheless dependent on the other.

Here are a few "object" lessons to augment this discussion . . .
(Remember: circles represent God's sovereignty and squares represent man's freedom)

Pelagianism - A perfect cube with no curvature of any kind. Effectively, no sovereignty of God, and all is dependent upon man's freedom. I add open theism to this category because it makes God subject to time. As I see it, a God who is not sovereign over time or human will can't be called "sovereign" in any true sense. Open theists will vehemently deny that they deny any essential, orthodox doctrine, but so far their writings convince me otherwise.

Arminian Free Will Theology - An element of circularity (divine sovereignty) is introduced only as squareness (human freedom) is removed. Arminians see exhaustive, meticulous sovereignty as excluding human freedom. This view is neither truly square (libertarian freedom) nor truly round (exhaustive sovereignty). It tries to be a bit of both, with a clear emphasis on squareness.

Compatibilism - As noted above, a cylinder's squareness is built from a particular arrangement of consistently diametrical circularity. Both aspects are truly present, but the squareness is totally dependent on the size and "height" of the circles. The greatest difficulty with this view is that no one can explain the details of how it works. It is formed by affirming a paradox, or (at the very least) a great deal of mystery. But what's wrong with that, if we are faithful to Scripture? As I see it, this is the most Biblical of all the possibilities represented. Put all your cards here, my friends.

Moderate Determinism - A certain amount of squareness (human freedom) is allowed, but only at the expense of circularity (divine sovereignty). The object is neither truly circular nor truly square from any angle. This view is the exact opposite the Arminian approach, and counters the Arminian denial of exhaustive sovereignty by proposing a greater limitation of human freedom. Some historical Calvinists - and probably Calvin himself - are represented here. Their views were closer to comatibilism than the Arminian view is, because they recognized human freedom as entirely subject to divine sovereignty. But a little grain of rationalism hurts this position.

Hard Determinism - A perfect circle from every perspective. Divine sovereignty is emphasized to the complete exclusion of human freedom. It's very attractive, but if any person held this position consistently, he would do absolutely nothing and then die under the delusion of fatalistic stoicism.

And the winner is . . . Calvinistic Compatibilism. In my opinion, it's the only one that fires on all cylinders.

Soli Deo Gloria.


  1. Is there a reason you left out Molinism? Logically it makes the best sense out of God's sovereignty and human freedom.


  2. Dan,

    Great question. I honestly hadn't thought of it, and I'm not sure how it would look in the illustration. Any ideas?

    Although I'm not a Molinist and don't find it particularly compelling, I do have a bit of a soft spot for middle knowledge Calvinism and hope to further study this angle at some point. For now, I am content to embrace a simple compatibilism that holds in tension those truths that seem exegetically warranted and non-negotiable. While middle knowledge is interesting philosophically as a possible solution, I don't find much Biblical support for it.

    Clear lines must be drawn between Scriptural truths and the proposed solutions that attempt to explain their interrelations. The first we are bound to affirm; the second we are obligated to hold loosely.

    Thanks again for the interesting comment!



Feel free to respond to anything written in the posts, or to the comments left by others. All comments are reviewed before they are published.

Please be charitable. If you disagree, do so with grace. Keep your words positive, focused, and on-topic. We don't expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to treat everyone else with respect and grace, speaking the truth in love.