5 Arguments that Arminians Should Stop Using

Continuing our series on Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate, today we’re going to turn the tables. The last post focused on arguments that Calvinists need to stop using. Today’s post turns that same lens on Arminian arguments.

So, here are five arguments that I think Arminians need to stop using in the free will debate.

1. Calvinists reject free will. I won’t say much here, because I’ve already commented on this in the last post. But, this argument gets used often enough that it’s worth commenting on again. I’ll say it as clearly as I can. Calvinists do not reject free will. They do reject libertarian free will. But, of course, to criticize a compatibilist for rejecting libertarian free will is simply to reject a compatibilist for not being a libertarian. Not terribly helpful. You can critique compatibilism all you want, but simply arguing that Calvinists reject free will is not going to cut it. You’ll need to go deeper.

2. Calvinism undermines personal responsibility. The problem here, of course, has to do with the fact that Calvinism is a form of theistic determinism. Although they affirm (compatibilistic) free will, many simply can’t get past Calvinism’s determinism.  If it’s fully determined that I would do X, and it’s therefore necessary that I do X and “impossible” that I should do not-X, how can I possibly be held responsible for doing X? And, libertarians find the appeal to desires here (i.e. I’m responsible for doing X if I wanted to do X) completely unconvincing. Unless I’m somehow responsible for having these desires, then it’s hard to see how the desires themselves can render me responsible for the actions that they produce.

As I pointed out in the last post, though, the great irony here is that Calvinists use personal responsibility as an argument against libertarianism as well. But, if it’s a problem for both, then it’s hard to see how it is actually a problem for either. At the very least, Arminians need to recognize that Calvinists don’t have any greater difficulty with free will than they do.

3. Calvinists have no solution to the problem of evil. This objection is as old as theology itself. If God is completely sovereign and fully in control of every event that happens, then isn’t he responsible for all of the evil that happens in the world? So, it seems that the Calvinist either has to bite the bullet and admit that God is the “author” of evil (at least in a compatibilistic sense) or come up with some way of arguing that the “bad” things in the world aren’t really evil, in the big picture sense anyway. Since most libertarians find both of these solutions unpalatable, they often use the existence of evil as one of their larger clubs with which to bludgeon compatibilists.

But, the Arminian has a problem here. I argued earlier (8 Things That Everyone Needs to Stop Doing in the Free Will Debate) that good Arminian theology strongly affirms God’s sovereignty. But, if that’s the case, then the problem of evil would seem to be equally great for the Arminian. If God knew exactly how much evil would result from his act of creation, and if he could have acted (sovereignly) to prevent any given act of evil, then the problem of evil rears its head for the Arminian too. Granted, the Arminian doesn’t have to explain God’s causal relationship to such deeds, but the fact that he allows their existence is still a problem. The Arminian will probably respond that God allows such evil because he values free will (or the kind of relationship that free will makes possible). But, once you’ve made that argument, you’ve opened the door to saying that it’s possible for God to desire something of sufficient worth (e.g., his own glory) to justify the evil that exists in the world, which is exactly the kind of argument that the Calvinist often makes. So, once again we’ve run into an argument that is a problem for both and should be treated as such.

4. Quantum indeterminism creates room for libertarian free will. This is one that I run across increasingly often. On one interpretation of quantum physics, the physical world is fundamentally indeterministic. Although it appears to operate on deterministic principles, that’s only at the macro level. Dig deeply enough into the fabric of the universe and you only find randomness, chaos, and chance. And, if the universe is built on randomness rather than determinism, then the idea of a will unconstrained by antecedent factors seems much more likely.

The problem is that an indeterministic will is no solution to the free will problem. Indeed, it just makes the libertarian’s job even harder. I don’t have any greater control over an indeterministic system than I do a deterministic one. According to one, I have no “control” because my decisions are just the result of the deterministic processes around me. But, according to the other, I have no “control” because my decisions are the result of inherently random and chaotic processes. How is that any better? The only option here is to suggest that somehow my “will” lies outside these quantum processes and is able to impose some order on them. But, whatever that might be, it’s not quantum theory. So, now we’re just using the label while ignoring the actual content of the theory. (By the way, another problem with the quantum theory is that there’s a real debate regarding whether quantum physics entails that the universe is ontologically random, or whether it appears so because of our epistemological limitations.)

5. Compatibilism reveals its weakness by appealing to mystery all the time. Let’s face it. Ultimately, compatibilists can’t explain how their system works. Human volitions are both determined and free at the same time? Really? God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and we’re responsible for our actions? How does that work? Push hard enough and most compatibilists will appeal to mystery. They won’t agree that their system is incoherent; they’ll just say that understanding how God’s causality and ours fit together is beyond our ability to understand. And, libertarians are often quick to suggest that this is because their system just doesn’t make any sense. Of course they have to appeal to mystery, it doesn’t make any sense.

Once again, though, the argument cuts both ways. Push a libertarian hard enough, and you’ll find mystery there as well. For the libertarian, the mystery usually comes in response to the “luck” argument. On the one hand, they have to affirm that the human agent is in “control” of the action. But, they also need to maintain that the action is not “determined” by anything (including the agent’s own reasons, character, habits, etc.). The action can be influenced and conditioned by antecedent factors, but not determined by them. If that’s the case, though, how exactly does the agent “control” the action? How exactly do I choose A rather than B in such a way that the choice was not determined by any prior factors and without it becoming an arbitrary decision over which I have no control and for which I bear no responsibility? I don’t know. And, as far as I can tell, neither do most libertarians.

[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 10, 2011, in Anthropology, Metaphysics. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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