5 Arguments that Calvinists Should Stop Using
Posted by Marc Cortez
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: