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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Calvinistic Compatibilism: A Discussion of Divine Causation, Human Freedom and Moral Responsibility

Below is an excerpt addressing the subject of divine causation and compatibilism. This has been adapted from a series of responses I recently shared with some non-Calvinist Christians who have taken an incompatibilist position (i.e. their belief is that God's pre-determination of everything is incompatible with human freedom of choice and moral responsibility). I argue here for the opposite view, that God's sovereign pre-determination of everything is perfectly compatible with human freedom of choice and moral responsibility for our actions. This is excerpted from an ongoing conversation in the comments at the following blog post:

Dear Non-Calvinist friends:

You present an interesting argument. The main thrust seems to be that Reformed theology makes God the author of evil, and in so doing removes man's freedom and moral responsibility. This objection is not new; it has been a common challenge faced by Calvinistic thinkers for centuries. I believe the argument is flawed, and I will explain why in detail. First, here is a summary:
  1. The argument fails to distinguish between hyper Calvinism and mainstream Calvinism
  2. The argument is based on a faulty understanding of mainstream Calvinism, which affirms compatibilism rather than mere determinism.
  3. The argument is based on a faulty understanding of compatibilism, which affirms human freedom and responsibility in addition to determinism.
  4. The argument groundlessly assumes compatibilism is impossible and self-contradictory.
  5. The argument is based rationalism rather than a sound, Biblical epistemology (theory of knowledge)
  6. The argument gives undue credit to the human mind's ability to peer into the unrevealed. 
  7. The Argument fails to present a Biblically and logically sound alternative to the Reformed approach, which it rejects based on multiple misunderstandings.
Historically, Calvinists have taken a variety of positions, from a VERY SOFT compatibilism to a VERY HARD determinism. You have quoted from several examples of this diversity. A.W. Pink (depending on the day of the week), Vincent Cheung and Gordon Clark are in the line of the more hyper brand of Calvinists, who are most likely to espouse the hardest form of determinism without apology. You extol this as being somehow more “consistent.” Others like Piper, Packer and Frame are more likely to express a compatibilism that affirms human freedom as a mystery within (and even upheld by) divine ordination. I have read Calvin’s discussion of free will in the Institutes; he is a textbook compatibilist, at least in that part of his writings.

So I think it is a bit unfair for you to say Calvinistic ordination always “collapses into causal determinism” and then disparage the softening statements of compatibilism offered by the more moderate voices in the group. This would be akin to me saying that an Arminian view of free will collapses into Pelagianism (or perhaps Open Theism), while ignoring the Classical Arminian’s affirmation of Total Depravity (which strongly inhibits – or rather, kills –  libertarian freedom), and Prevenient Grace (which ackowledges the deadness and – gratefully – affirms our need for divine grace). I prefer to view the more moderate/mainstream Calvinists’ softening statements as evidence of a commitment to Biblical balance, preventing them from falling into the philosophical trap of hard determinism (the kind hypers veritably revel in). I do not see the softening statements as logical contradictions, but an attempt to be consistent with Scripture, grounded in the humility that confesses God’s ways are superior to our highest intellect.

I cannot see how God can be God without ordaining all things. I find this inconceivable simply because it is contrary to His Word:
  • Proverbs 16:9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
  • Proverbs 19:21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.
  • Proverbs 20:24 A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?
  • Isaiah 46:8-11 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
  • Eph 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will
At the same time I cannot see man’s God-given freedom as less than a genuine, morally responsible and unconstrained liberty. Here I am just agreeing with Calvin and other compatibilists. We insist that God can ordain everything without denying his creatures real freedom. We cannot turn from either of these conscientiously held convictions.

Photo borrowed from
One of the great difficulties in this discussion is the fact that you and I are speaking two very different philosophical languages. We embrace opposing assumptions and presuppositions (although I would guess we fundamentally agree that Scripture is inerrant and Christ alone saves, by grace alone through faith alone to the glory of God alone).

Your arguments presuppose that freedom of will is incompatible with God's pre-determinate counsel. If I agreed with this presupposition, I would find your arguments unassailable. However, do you have any way to prove that this really is the case? Do you have a Biblical argument to prove this?

My presupposition is that God's all-determining will, eternal decree, and continuous providential action are not at all incompatible with creaturely freedom of will. I see God's decree clearly taught in Scripture, so I cannot take that away without a total change of heart in terms of the exegesis. On the other hand, I live in a world in which I experience every moment the liberty of my choices. Uncoerced, unconstrained, and apparently including the ability to choose otherwise than I do. But alas, which am I to believe? God's Holy Word or my undeniable experience?

But there is more. Another aspect of my experience has been my absolute and unquenchable rebellion. Only God's sovereign grace could ever have changed my heart and altered my course. And yet by His grace I did not find myself constrained or forced to believe. I chose freely; yet I could (and would) only choose to believe in Christ by sovereign, irresistible grace.

Then again, God's Word commands me to choose and holds me responsible for the choices I make. It nevertheless says I can have no good thing (faith and repentance included) unless God grants it to me by His mercy.

So now I have God's Word on both sides, and my experience on both sides. What can I do but hold on to both of them? I can't explain how God sovereignly ordains all things and yet keeps me free to choose in ways that render me morally responsible, unconstrained, voluntarily motivated, and apparently not without other options.

So I find myself embracing compatibilism, the belief that there can be a pre-determination of everything by an incomprehensible God without any diminishment of natural human freedom and responsibility. A million "rational" arguments against it won't change my understanding of God's Word or my experiences.

To be clear, when I say a million “rational” arguments won’t convince me otherwise, I am referring to arguments that are purely based on human logic, and thus appear to be “rational,” yet do not take Biblical revelation into sufficient account. I would like to think that all of my Arminian brothers will agree heartily with me on this point.

We are getting down to the root issue here. If I understand your position correctly, you fundamentally disagree with the premise of Christian compatibilism (i.e., that God’s pre-determination of everything is compatible with [and not contradictory to] genuine human freedom), and you do not even think it remotely possible that it could be true.

That last part presents a very strong claim of assurance in the way divine sovereignty and human choices can relate to one another. You are not simply saying they DO NOT relate a compatibilistic way; you seem to be making the claim that they CAN NOT relate this way. The alternative would seem to be a view of divine sovereignty that does not involve pre-determination of everything. I wonder how you distinguish between those events that are pre-determined and those that aren’t? Or is nothing at all pre-determined by God?

Don't fall for "Teeter Totter" theology!
To me, these matters are a great mystery. I view God's sovereign decree and my freedom as much more complex than a mere philosophical "seesaw," which would entail that any gain on one side necessarily results in a corresponding loss on the other. I conceive of my freedom as existing within and being upheld by His all-determining sovereignty.

I find it fascinating that any thinking person would not consider the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human choices to be a mystery. In saying this, I should be careful to define my terms. By “mystery,” I mean an item or area of knowledge which God has not revealed to us explicitly through some means (e.g., the Bible, creation, etc.).

I should also reiterate my definition of “compatibilism,” as mentioned above. It is simply the belief that divine pre-determination of everything does not conflict with genuine human freedom of choice. Jonathan Edwards affirmed this, but also went much further by actually proposing a theory of how it all works. I am not doing that (at least not right now). Although I admire Edwards’ attempt, I don’t view the results as something “revealed by God,” and thus I cannot claim the matter is no longer mysterious to me simply because someone has come up with what they think is a great explanation. Someone else may come up with a better one. Even so, until God reveals this, it remains an area of uncertainty for compatibilistic Christians who regard the Bible as their highest epistemological authority.

So I don't see how compatibilism can ever "collapse" into mere determinism. It involves determinism, yes, certainly. But if you define determinism in a way that automatically rules out the possibility of genuine freedom, I can only say that my compatibilism does not involve that kind of determinism. I would actually join you in arguing against any determinism that rules out human freedom and responsibility. I would equally oppose any version of human freedom that rules out determinism. I refuse to close off these categories as if they are mutually exclusive, since there does not appear to be any compelling reason to do so from a Biblical, philosophical or experiential standpoint.

Do you think it is remotely possible that predestination and freedom are not mutually exclusive?

I am honestly amazed that anyone can have so strong an assurance in ruling out the mere possibility (that God could possibly establish His sovereignty and our choices in a compatibilistic way) that they would even cast accusations of “irrationalism” at those who do affirm it.

By the way, I have never argued that it is virtuous to accept things that don’t make sense. My clearly stated position is that it is sensible for Christians to accept all the teaching of the Scriptures – the whole counsel of God – even if they find some aspects hard to understand or explain.

However, I would challenge anyone to Biblically and logically demonstrate that it is impossible for God to use compatibilism in His administration of the universe. In essence, can you show me how the concept of God’s pre-determination of everything and the concept of human freedom, when taken together, result in a genuine contradiction?

I am not asking whether these concepts strike you as contradictory, if they feel contradictory, if they appear to be contradictory, etc. (or even if you find the idea to be dangerous from a practical standpoint). I am only asking for Biblical and logical proof that they ARE contradictory.

The person who tries to do this faces a very significant problem: GOD is included in the equation! We are discussing a partly unrevealed relationship of metaphysical concepts which involves God’s management of His creation, the relationships of time and eternity, God and humanity (not to mention angels/demons and other entities we may not even know about), choice and freedom, responsibility and volition, etc.

My contention is that the best Biblical and logical sense we can make of the situation (taking all of the Biblical data and our own experiences into account) is to affirm that God mysteriously works (and remember, by “mysterious” I mean something He hasn’t explicitly revealed to us) in such a way that human freedom exists in harmony with divine pre-determination.

I also believe that one can make a much stronger Biblical argument for compatibilism than for incompatibilism. But that is part of the reason I am a compatibilist.

As an addendum, I share many of your concerns regarding the potential ill effects of an imbalanced Calvinism. Much of this can be characterized as hyper Calvinism (I sometimes refer to “high[per] Calvinism,” meaning anyone, whether “high” or “hyper” in his views, who over-emphasizes certain logical implications at the expense of other matters clearly revealed in Scripture). I am not saying all High Calvinists are hyper or imbalanced; but imbalanced Calvinists are almost always High or hyper in their theology.

This is part of the reason I have embraced Moderate Calvinism, and devoted myself to deterring and opposing any form of Calvinism which:

  • denies or downplays human responsibility
  • calls God the author or direct cause of evil
  • uses God’s sovereignty as an excuse for sin
  • hinders evangelism/missions on the basis of election or other theological considerations
  • leads to apathy in service and devotion
  • elevates human logic above the revealed will of God
To be honest, I would rather serve alongside a consecrated, moderate, and fair-minded Arminian who is growing in godliness than a cold high(per) Calvinist who is complacent and arrogant. 

In my view, Calvinism “done right” will actually result in the opposite effects, and to a greater extent than any non-Calvinist philosophy will. That is my conviction, and part of the reason I am a Moderate/Paradoxical Calvinist.
Again, thank you for your thoughtful comments and interactions.

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