5 Arguments that Calvinists Should Stop Using

Continuing our series on Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate, today we’re going to look at five arguments that Calvinists routinely use against libertarian views of free will. And, although they’re popular arguments, I’d like to suggest that Calvinists should stop using them. Each of them in some way undermines the clarity and charity that I think needs to characterize this discussion.

1. Arminians are anthropocentric. Calvinists love to argue that their system is entirely God-centered. Arminians, on the other hand, take the human person as their starting point. They focus on free will because their theology revolves around the human person and what he/she can contribute to salvation. In that sense, it is fundamentally anthropocentric and dis-oriented. And, this is usually where they’ll also bring in the idea that Arminianism undermines divine sovereignty; they’re really just trying to establish human autonomy.

But, it’s simply not true. Granted, Arminian theology understands the relationship between human and divine action differently, but that does not mean that their theology is conditioned by anthropocentrism any more than Calvinism is conditioned by fatalism. Good Arminian theology revolves around the triune God every bit as much as Calvinist theology does. Stop suggesting otherwise.

2. Arminians begin with philosophy rather than Bible. Similar to the first one, I often hear Calvinists claim that Arminians are more driven by a philosophical considerations than by the Bible. In other words, they think Arminians come to the table with a predetermined commitment to a libertarian view of free will, and then read that into the biblical texts, rather than allowing the Bible to shape and guide their view of the human person.

Two things can be said in response. First, Arminians unquestionably bring presuppositions to the discussion, but no more so than Calvinists. We all do it, so let’s stop pretending otherwise. Second, it’s just not true that Arminians simply impose their philosophical framework on the Bible (at least, no more so than anyone else). Arminians rightly point out that there is considerable support for their view of free will in the biblical texts. Of course, other biblical texts seem to support the compatibilist view equally well – that’s why there’s a debate. So, as I argued earlier, Calvinists need to stop acting like Arminians don’t read their Bibles.

3. Arminians can’t explain divine foreknowledge. Not everyone is going to like this one because the foreknowledge argument is quite popular in Calvinist circles. But, I think it causes more problems than it resolves. The basic idea of the argument is that if God knows in advance what we’ll do, then our actions are already fixed and cannot be libertarianly free.

The problem with the argument, though, is that it quickly lapses into discussions of the nature of eternity (is there any “sequence” in God’s experience of time or does he experience everything simultaneously) and divine knowledge (on what basis does God know things), things that are impossible to know for sure. Any argument based on such speculative considerations seems necessarily flawed. It also seems to run into problems with its “externalistic” view of volition. If I invented a time machine traveled forward to see what decisions you would make tomorrow, how does that have any bearing on the nature of your decisions? My knowledge is completely “external” to your decision (i.e. it has no direct connection). How could something so far removed from the decision have any bearing on whether the decision is free? So, for a couple of reasons, I find this argument far more trouble than it’s worth.

4. Arminians fail to realize that free will is driven by desires. This is the heart of classic compatibilism: a decision is free if it’s what the agent wants to do, but the decision is still fully determined because the agent’s desires are caused by antecedent factors. So, it’s fully determined that I will drink coffee this morning because I am already the kind of person who will want to drink coffee this morning. Thus, the same action is one that involves a choice for which I can be held responsible (i.e. it’s a free action) and is fully determined at the same time.

The problem is that desires alone are insufficient to ground a meaningful account of free will. To see this, suppose that my desire to drink coffee this morning stems from the fact that my evil neighbor planted some kind of neural parasite in my ear, which has attached itself to my brain stem, causing me to have coffee-drinking desires. In this scenario, I still want to drink coffee, and I still act on that desire, but it’s hard to see how it qualifies as a free action. (Notice in this scenario, I’m not being forced to drink the coffee – i.e. coercion – because I want to drink the coffee.) Now, this scenario is obviously absurd. But, it illustrates the fact that compatibilism cannot simply appeal to desires in its understanding of free will. It also needs to offer an account of where those desires come from sufficient to distinguish legitimately free actions (e.g., me writing this post) from those in which freedom seems compromised or lost entirely (e.g. brainwashing).  (Classic compatibilism has other problems, but this one seems the most glaring as it’s often explained by Calvinists.)

5. Arminian free will undermines responsibility. The argument here begins with the “luck” argument. Since, the libertarian view entails that nothing prior to my decision is sufficient to determine my decision, then it seems like the decision itself is rather arbitrary. Even my character, reasons, and desires do not determine what I will decide.  Given the exact same circumstances, it’s entirely possible that I would have made the opposite decision. So, libertarianly free decisions seem random. If good/bad results, that’s really just the “luck” of the draw and not something for which I can bear responsibility (after all, I could just as well have done the exact opposite).

Now, I think the luck argument itself is a significant problem for libertarian views of free will. (Libertarians will often appeal to mystery at this point.) So, that’s an argument that Calvinists should definitely keep using. But, Calvinists are rarely satisfied with the luck argument alone. The real payoff is in going the next step and arguing that because of the luck argument, the libertarian view of free will is inadequate to ground moral responsibility. The problem here is that Calvinists have an equal (if not greater) difficulty explaining moral responsibility (as we’ll see in the next post). So, if both sides have an equally difficult time with the same problem, it’s hard to see how it can serve as a useful argument for either.

I’m not saying here that the Calvinist has no good arguments against libertarian free will. As I mentioned above, I do think the luck argument is a significant problem. And, I could easily list a few more. The point of this post, though, is to highlight some arguments that I’d like to see much less of in future discussions.

For some other good posts on this subject, see:

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 8, 2011, in Anthropology, Metaphysics. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I think what would help forward the whole discussion between both Classic Arminians & Calvinists is if they would recognize that they are both swimming in the same philosophically shaped stream (classical theism). Which, once this dawned on me, highlighted the whole irony of this long fought battle to begin with. I’ve tried to alert both sides to this, in the blogosphere, and yet I usually get nothing but scorn 😉 for it; since both believe they are just proclaiming untarnished Gospel “Biblical” truth, and like all of us Protestants, in general, are unwilling to recognize the power that our disparate interpretive traditions (which go uncritically recognized) have on our engagement of the text and then each other. To me this debate is taking place in the same metaphysical living room, it’s just that the furniture is in different places in that room.

  2. Marc,

    I’m curious to know what you think about what I say above. Do you think that what I am saying is true? And if so, do you think that its possible to frame such discussions in any other terms other than the metaphysics upon which both classic Calv/Arm presume? For example do you think Barth’s actualism and reification of predestinaiton/election reorientates this discussion in a way that escapes questions surrounding libertarianism/compatabilism etc.? Or maybe it’s not so much “escapes”, but doesn’t think such things are as important as a doctrine of God in these discussions, and thus he doesn’t really even deal with them except to ground human freedom etc. in christology etc. (which as you and Perry were discussing below still needs some more work).

  3. We might have to discuss this offline some time. I’ve seen you make the argument before that classical theism is the problem behind the free will debate, but I have to admit that I’ve never been entirely clear on how you’re making the connection or how you’re developing the argument. So, it’s difficult for me to respond at this point.

    To answer your specific comment about Barth, no I don’t think that his theology succeeds in escaping the debate. So, I think the second half of your comment is more accurate – he’s just not all that interested.

  4. Marc,

    To clarify, I don’t think I’ve ever made the argument that the problem behind the free will debate is classical theism. Instead, my point with the classical theism focus is to say that this methodology (the one that is classical theism) produces/constructs a certain notion of godness that then affects how classical theistic theologians flesh out subsequent doctrines, relative to the defining idea that the doctrine of God represents. In other words, my point is that classical theism creates a God whom relates to his creation through the absolute decrees (i.e. not personally), and thus for me the Calv/Arm discussion is really only over points of (internal) philosophical emphases vs. actual methodological differences, viz. relative to their univocal voice on their classically theistic shaped prolegomena. In lieu of this I wonder how there is any real Theological differences between the “two sides” (I think Theologically they represent the same tradition and voice). So instead I think this dispute has never really been over theological concerns, but reflects an argument of how to understand the analytical Philosophical questions (logico-deductive) that under-gird the whole classical theistic system to begin with. That’s why this discussion (IMO) reduces to Libertarian Free Agency and Compatibilist questions, and not actual Christian Theological ones. I wonder if that helps clarify, or if it only confuses the issue further?

    So in light of what I just said, and in response to your response on Barth not escaping: Do you think it fair to submit Barth, and the whole tradition (continental) that follows (and precedes) to the same questions that “this debate” operates from and under? I mean I wonder what Europe has to do with Athens? 😉 Do you think that the questions that are being asked in this discussion are demanded by God’s self-Revelation in Christ, or do they stem from self-fulfilling philosophical questions (and I mean self-fulfilling because we live in America, in a culture that has taken shape, by and large, by the conditions and expectations created by classical theology).

    • I find it interesting that you don’t think you’re saying that classical theism is the problem, even though you do think that it entails a methodology that leads directly to the problem. Are you saying that classical theism and the correspondingly problematic methodology are separable?

      Either way, I’m not convinced that classical theism necessarily leads to God being viewed as less personally involved with creation. I know that’s a common claim, but I just don’t buy it. Regarding people like Nazianzus, Augustine, Calvin, and even Aquinas, I just don’t see any of them as down-playing God’s personal interaction with everything that he’s created. Granted, their language in places can make it sound like that, but taken as a whole, I just don’t see it in their overall theology.

      On whether the debate is theological or philosophical, I would say yes and no. I think that done well, it’s a theologically framed dicussion within which philosophical debates rightly occur. But, I would agree that the debate is often overly driven by philosophical concerns lightly cloaked in theological language.

      And, on your last point, I think that understanding human volition is fundamental to any adequate anthropology – that’s why you see similar discussions taking place in so many different religious and philosophical systems (i.e. it’s not just a “Greek” thing). Though there are important differences in how thinkers in various traditions approach these conversations, so we do need to beware the temptation to get locked into just one way of approaching the debate.

  5. Good post. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how rarely conversations between calvinists and arminians take place over the Bible, which is why I’ve found your point 2 ironic. In my experience, “street level calvinists” are more philosophical than they are biblical. That’s not to say there are no proof texts they can point to, but often are unaware of other interpretive possibilities or how to defend against them.

    One could just as easily say this about Arminians, too, but your post was about calvinists.

  6. Marc,

    Okay, I can see how what I said could pose a problem with classical theism and free-will. It’s not that I don’t see them “directly” related, but that I think we should be more careful in nuancing how the prolegomena of classical theism affects the particular focus of “free-will” stuff (since this is only one of many foci that take the shape that they do as a result of accepting the conditions of classical theism in the first place). I think I somewhat misunderstood how you jumped straight from classical theism to free-will in characterizing what you’ve apparently seen me argue somewhere in the past. I see your point. The way I was thinking about this was in these terms: “Why does someone have to accept classical theism and this “free-will” debate in the first place; and on the terms demanded by classical theism?” And here’s how I define classical theism: I am assuming that classical theism is not slavishly tied to just any concept of God that has “metaphysics” tied to it; instead my understanding of classical theism is related to the Thomist synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian Theology. I think this definition is applicable to this discussion, since the debate is oriented around Thomism (or classical theism) — amongst post-Reformed orthodox Calvinists and Arminians. So to your question: Are you saying that classical theism and the correspondingly problematic methodology are separable? I say, No! What I’m saying is that a theologian does not need to accept the method and thus the material of classical theism in the first place [that’s why I had a problem with simply jumping from classical theism to the “free-will” question w/o consideration of the method of classical theism to begin with — it seemed like you were just assuming a priori that everyone must accept classical theism as THE only way into this (of course there are differing conceptions over what counts as classical theism [and doesn’t]). [I’d be interested in understanding how you maintain a personalist understanding of God’s relation to creation, when under the classical theist understanding he does so through impersonal decrees — to keep him “unmoved,” as it were]

    Strictly speaking (as I just noted), I don’t see Calvin, Augustine, or Nazianzus as “classical theists,” per se. I suppose how we define classical theism would be of import to that question. I don’t see the impersonal problems with these guys either; although not so with Aquinas. But if you simply reject my premises out of hand I guess there isn’t much more to say.

    I’m glad we agree on something (the philosophical emphasis).

    I agree that questions surrounding volition are important in re. to anthropological considerations (in general), but my point was whether or not God’s self-Revelation in Christ actually intends to address (implicitly or explicitly) such questions? That’s what I was getting at with the “Christian Theology” thingy. To me it seems like an analytic imposition upon Revelation that resists such questions (at least in the way they are being framed in “this” debate — i.e. your post).

    Thanks, Marc.

    • Okay, now I understand better what you mean by “classical theism.” I wonder, though, if you might be better off saying “Thomistic theism” or even “Aristotelian theism,” since “classical theism,” at least as I usually see the phrase used, is broader than just Thomism.

      But, I still have a hard time understanding how Aristotelianism/Thomism can be the culprit here since the free will debate, even couched in specifically libertarian/compatibilist terms is much broader than that.

      I would definitely agree that the free will debate is secondary to more central matters of God’s self-revelation in Christ. But, that doesn’t make the discussion unimportant. I see it as a philosophical discussions of issues raised/implied by those central theological issues (among other things like science, morality, etc.). In that way, I see it as similar to the mind/body discussion. That’s another one that is not central to Christian theology. But, that theology has implications for human ontology and the (rather philosophical) mind/body discussion is part of thinking through those implications.

  7. Marc,

    I understand why what I said about “classical theism” could be confusing; sorry. Yes, for example Bruce McCormack’s critique of classical theism (like in his edited book Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives) is much more broad in scope (in his chapter it is aimed at Open Theists); in fact so broad that anyone who has “any” metaphysicalism at play (juxtaposed with his Barth[ian] postmetaphysicalism) in their respective doctrine of God is a “classical theist;” which includes even TFT’s conception. Next time I’ll just try to be more precise to avoid the confusion.

    2) Yes I do also agree that broader libertarian/compatibilist debate is broader than just the Aristotelian/Thomist frame. But, I think the way it is being specified (per the target of your posts) brings it back within the scope of the Thomist/Aristotelian trajectory if only because it is Thomists who are employed in this debate (I mean the theology represented by both post-Reformed Calvinists/Arminians is in some regard an appropriated form of Thomas’ synthesis). Anyway, I do realize this can be and should be understood to be a philosophical discussion. Like my good friend who did his MA in Philosophy at Talbot; he is fond of reminding me that questions like this are in fact primarily philosophical ones and not theological; and I agree with him. That’s not to say, though, that philosophy can’t be of service to theology. I suppose this takes us to the whole debate between Analytical Theology (typified by someone like Oliver Crisp) and Continental Theology. And I’m quite sure that I come from more of an Continental and that you more of a Analytical approach, but of course not in absolute ways for either one of us.

    On your last point. I do see room for so called theological adiophra and then of course theolougemena (breaking out my Latin dict. today 😉 ), and of course that’s where all of that remains. Not unimportant, but areas that should not be elevated to levels of division. And in fact, as your posts are seeking to correct, unfortunately much of the adiophra has taken center stage amongst both parties you are addressing and thus have been the source of much division within the body of Christ.

    I am certainly no saint (I know you’re surprised 😉 ), I just have a hard time wanting to engage within this kind of locus intramural debate; on the terms that the loci that this debate takes shape from demands (philosophically). Of course, I think what you’re doing with the posts are good. Trying to correct and clear ground for fruitful discussion to take place amongst the classic Calv/Arm; that’s a good commendable thing!

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