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!


Like most contemporary Calvinists, I am a compatibilist. The following article explains what this means and why I hold to the position. Included is a discussion of how compatibilism relates to competing philosophies such as Determinism, Arminianism and Open Theism.

Inevitably, the classic geometrical argument against Biblical and theological paradox comes up in conversation.

The incredulous questioner scrunches up his face and says, "Are you trying to get me to believe in square circles?"

Sometimes the tone of the question imparts a sense of rationalistic condescension. I've even seen the "square circle" invoked as the penultimate refutation of any and all paradoxical thinking. It's a philosophical, "So there!"

In spite of its perceived force and intended effect, the argument is completely bogus. We will see why in a moment. In the process, we shall demonstrate that it serves as an effective illustration of the very concept it tries to destroy. In other words, the "square circle" completely backfires as an attempt to dismantle the arguments validating theological paradox. A simple lesson in geometry turns it on its head. I answer it this way:

"Why yes, I am saying there are square circles. You already believe in them, and Geometry proves they exist." (So there!)

Squares and circles are, by definition, 2-dimensional objects. As such, they cannot exist in 1 dimension, but can exist in 2 and 3 dimensions. It is true that within a two dimensional field a shape cannot possibly be both square and circle at the same time, because squares and circles are (by any logic) mutually exclusive. However, on a three dimensional field things change radically. We can have square triangles (pyramids), circular triangles (cones), and - YES - square circles (cylinders)! View any of these objects from certain angles, and some of their shape characteristics disappear. From some angles, a cylinder with equal height and width looks just like a square. From other angles, the same cylinder appears to be a perfect circle. This doesn't make the cylinder self-contradictory - though it may appear that way when viewed two-dimensionally.

When we translate dual-shaped 3-dimensional objects onto two dimensional fields, we are forced to eliminate some of the dimensionality and thereby reduce the object to one of three possible shape types. Let's illustrate using the cylinder:

1. We can eliminate the axis that reveals circularity, and reduce it to a mere square.
2. We can eliminate the axis that reveals squareness, and reduce it to a mere circle.
3. We can retain aspects of all three axes, and reduce it to a shape which is properly neither a square nor a circle, but contains aspects of both.

Let's say divine sovereignty and human responsibility are circle and square, respectively. Some portions of Scripture only reveal God's sovereignty (perfect circles). Other portions of Scripture only reveal human responsibility (perfect squares). And some portions of Scripture mention both divine sovereignty and human responsibility in varying degrees (odd shapes made of squared angles and curves). Because we cannot see all three dimensions at once, God shows us the same issue from various angles. In our minds, they sometimes appear to contradict, but this is only a result of our limited vantage point.

The "square circle" argument against theological paradox overlooks the fact that one additional dimension makes the seemingly impossible possible. That extra dimension makes the apparently contradictory totally tenable. We must come to grips with the fact that God's logic - God's Truth, God's thinking, God's knowledge - exists on a higher plane than ours. He has infinite dimensions. So it is really amazing that we do not find more paradoxes in the eternal realities He has revealed. He has finely tuned His Word to be rationally intelligible to our wee little human brains - yet its revelations point to realities that are beyond our grasp and super-rationally True.

Compatibilism proposes that God plainly declares His absolute sovereignty because He wants us to hold it firmly, and He sometimes reveals human freedom without qualification because He wants us to hold it firmly. He reveals both together because He wants us to recognize that they interact in ways not fully discernible from our human point of view. Compatibilism says when we see squares and circles in the same place we can rationally believe there is a cylinder there (a 3D square circle).

In the Bible, God is not describing 2-dimensional concepts to 3-dimensional creatures. He is describing multi-dimensional concepts to comparatively 2-dimensional creatures living in a comparatively 2-dimensional world, with nothing but 2-dimensional logic to work with - and broken brains to boot. Our attempts to grasp His self-revelation ought to melt us down to the most humble confession: "I am insignificant! God is GREAT! I am a blockhead! God is WISE! I am limited! God is INFINITE! I am of the dust! God is ETERNAL!"

So, the next time someone asks you about square circles, just hand him the nearest cylindrical object and walk away without saying a word.

The Square Circle of Compatibilism

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.

For further study, see this example of Biblical combatibilism in Augustine of Hippo.


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