Bad Calvinism

“All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” Daniel 4:35

It is one of my theological convictions that whatever someone ends up doing to humanity qua humanity one ends up doing to God. If you think of humanity in a certain way eventually, if you are consistent this view will in some way end up applying to God. This is true for a simple reason, namely that humanity is made in God’s image. I want to try to float an objection to Calvinism so I am depending on my Calvinist friends to give me their thoughts on the matter. This does not mean that non-Calvinists should not join in.

The general line of thought among Calvinists today concerning human freedom seems to go something like the following. The nature of an agent determines their desires which in turn determine their actions. The reason why sinful individuals cannot do anything to please God or anything genuinely good, is because they have sinful natures which determine sinful desires which in turn determine sinful acts. So, sinful agents lack libertarian free will because their natures determine their actions.

Any Arminian worth his salt in defense of libertarian free will, will cite various scriptural passages to show that humans have free will. These passages say that humans can choose between alternatives or that they are given a choice in serious matters. To these the Calvinist will reply that these in no way imply that such agents are free with libertarian freedom. These agents choose between alternatives according to their desires which are in turn determined by their nature. Since their nature is sinful, their choices will always be sinful and determined. The scriptural passages then only show that humans do whatever pleases them or whatever they desire-they do not show that they possess libertarian freedom. These human agents can said to be genuinely free, the Calvinist argues, because they are not compelled and they do what they desire to do-they do what pleases them.

Now I take it as an uncontroversial point between all Christian traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran and Anabaptist) that God has libertarian freedom with respect to things like creation and redemption. I think this is easily supportable by numerous texts from the Patristic treatises and sermons to the Scholastic Summas and Commentaries to Protestant Institutes of theology and Systematic theologies to various liturgical texts. So it is a common, and I would argue a necessary Christian doctrine that logically God could have chosen to create but also could have chosen not to create. Likewise, God could have chosen to redeem or he could have chosen not to redeem. This incidentally grounds the idea that salvation is gratuitous because it is free and not necessary. If it is necessary for God to redeem then salvation is no longer a matter of grace but a matter of nature and here Pelagianism will result. Moreover, this grounds the idea that creation itself is gratuitous.

But when I search for reasons why a Calvinist would think that God is free with libertarian freedom with respect to creation and redemption, I am flooded by Calvinists with verses like Daniel 4:35. Such verses speak of God’s power and His might. They speak of Him doing whatever pleases Him, whatever He desires and so forth. While those things are certainly true of God, forgive me, but I do not see how such passages show that God is free with respect to creation and redemption and here is why.

Like the case of human agents, if an agent’s nature determines their actions, why doesn’t this hold true with God also? All of the passages that are brought forward to show that humans had libertarian free will only show, according to the Calvinist, that these agents do what they desire or what pleases them, not that what their desires are an option of choice for them. Likewise, Daniel 4:35 and other such passages do not prove that God has libertarian free will with respect to creation and redemption. These passages only prove that God does what pleases Him and an agent doing what pleases himself is perfectly compatible, on Calvinist lights, with the agent being determined. So why would a Calvinist think that God is free with libertarian freedom with respect to creation and redemption? I can’t think of a reason. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t one but only that I can at present not bring one to mind.

So why is it that an agent’s nature determines their actions with respect to angels and humans but not God? Isn’t this the reason given by Calvinists as to why God cannot sin, namely because his nature determines His actions? If so, I cannot see how a Calvinist can stave off the conclusion that creation and redemption are necessary on this schema. If an agent’s nature determines their actions, then creation and redemption are necessary and sola gratia goes out the window. That is to argue, if the thesis that an agent’s nature determines their actions is true, then creation and redemption are necessary and inevitable since God’s nature determine His actions. Creation becomes an emanation of sorts as does redemption with the final result being a kind of pantheism. Here will ends up being identified with nature in God so that it is now impossible to distinguish acts of eternal generation from acts of volition. Consequently there is no difference between the generation of the divine persons of the Trinity (acts of generation) and the creation of the world (acts of will). To maintain then that an agent’s nature determines their actions appears antithetical to the core teachings of Christianity.

What the Calvinist has done to the image of God has worked back to apply to God too so that now God is every much a determined agent as a human agent. Given that God’s libertarian freedom with regards to creation and redemption is a core Christian teaching, Calvinism’s desire to supports its soteriological claims commit it to a non-Christian view of God.

It seems to me that one can only maintain a Calvinist view of anthropology and soteriology on pain of denying a Christian view of God. Such a result seems to me as about as good of a knock down argument against a theological position as one could ever want. If one’s views in any other area commits one to a denial of a core Christian teaching, then it is the former views which are false and to be rejected. The only way out that I can see for Calvinism is to maintain that those passages brought forward to show that humans have libertarian free will really do show that humans have it so that likewise the passages like Daniel 4:35 that speak of God doing what pleases Him show that God has libertarian freedom as well. If this move is made, Calvinism’s entire soteriology and anthropology has to be re-thought because now it will be true that an agent’s nature does not determine his actions. Consequently teachings like total depravity have to be re-thought to include libertarian free will and one wonders then what is left of traditional Calvinism.

Perry Robinson

15 Responses to Bad Calvinism

  1. Daniel Jones says:

    Steve,

    My email is aureli_augustini@sbcglobal.net just send me and email and I’ll send it to you–which will probably be later on tonight.

    Daniel

  2. steve hays says:

    Daniel,

    In case you’re interested, I’ve posted another reply to what you wrote in the comments box (under the title “Divine simplicity.”

    You’re welcome to send me your paper, but since you didn’t give me your email, I can’t give you mine–not privately, at least. And you have no contact info on this website that I can see.

  3. steve hays says:

    At your request I’ve posted a reply to your essay and comments.

  4. steve hays says:

    At your request, I’ve posed a reply to your essay and comments.

  5. Jon says:

    The question proposed is a very good one. I think the basic problem is that most reformed see the biblical data that man’s will is in bondage to sin (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:16-22; 2 Cor. 2:14) and are simply willing to accept it in humble faith that it is correct, while being careful to not neglect those other passages which clearly teach his moral responsibility and freedom of choice. This is apparently not satisfactory to others, which is fine. The basic reformed thinker is convinced that when our reason clashes with the divine revelation, our reason is in error, not God. And so, when posed with a tough question like the one you propose, I am constrained to simply reply that I’m not sure how everything works out. The logic of your question is undeniable and perhaps nature does not determine choice. Or perhaps there is an essential difference between the operations of the will of God and the will of man (which there is undeniably some difference) which do away with this problem, but which is unknown to us. But this does not negate for me the clarity of God’s revelation in the area of man’s corruption and bondage to sin.
    Furthermore, anyone who thinks that the reformed teaching on man’s depravity states that man can never choose to do anything right or good is not even worth responging to. This is not the reformed position. The reformed position is that man is morally incapable, left to himself, to do anything meritorious of divine favor and thus eternal life.

  6. Daniel Jones says:

    Cosmo,

    Thanks for the question.

    1) Regarding God, there is no need to gloss libertarian free-will with respect to objects of differing moral worth. To insist in that question, is just a symptom of Origenist dialectic.

    2) An appeal to God’s nature regarding choices won’t cut it, because God can create or not create. Both of these options are equally good. If one option were more good, then something is needed to satisfy what it means to be God.

    3) God cannot sin or lie, because He has a supernatural mode of willing that is uncreated (i.e. He has no gnomic will). In other words, his personal mode of willing is fixed with his natural faculty of will that is directed towards the good(s). Thus, God never deliberates about what is good. The Saints in the Eschaton enjoy this same mode of willing also when they freely move around God maintaining there libertarian freedom to choose alternate courses of action in God (God’s powers or energies), all equally good. This is what it means to exercise virtue and to attain the good by ever-moving rest.

    Daniel

  7. Cosmo says:

    If God cannot lie then what is limiting God’s libertarian free will to lie?

  8. Perry Robinson says:

    The Calvinist wants to say that no effect either with or without God’s assistence can merit God’s favor or please Him. This is the conclusion that TD is supposed to secure.

    Augustine by contrast agrees that noting of our own can please God but it can be genuinely good. It is just ordered to ourselves as an end and not to God. But with God we can do something that pleases him which is why Augustine says that God doesn’t justify us without us, contra the Deformed.

  9. Jonathan Prejean says:

    “In your view, what could be defined as something pleasing to God?”

    Scripturally, they are works that are not produced of the person’s own efforts but from Christ working through the person. In the moral sense, they are motivated by love of God rather than love of self (which is what distinguishes them from works from the person’s own nature or efforts).

  10. Andrew says:

    Johnathan,
    Right. It was my assumption that “good works” was pleasing to God, which is what I was implying in a very general manner. Perhaps, to general.

    In your view, what could be defined as something pleasing to God?

  11. Jonathan Prejean says:

    “The fact that even the most evil of men can help an old lady across the street speaks for itself. Even Hitler loved his own grandmother.”

    For a Calvinist, that would simply be common grace. The point of total depravity is that we are incapable of doing anything that is pleasing to God, so that we can do nothing with respect to our own salvation.

  12. Andrew says:

    I, for one, have never believed that the “degenerate” man is completely incapable of doing “good”. I would add that Perry makes a solid point in as much that man, regardless of his “spiritual state”, man is capable of “good” because man, being created, is created in Gods image, thus adopted characteristics or traits of the creator.

    However, my primary point is that the picture Calvinism paints of the “degenerate” man doesn’t even correspond to reality nor visible within the world in which we live in. A classic example of this is the man who denies God, yet is capable of love, compassion and mercy. Another example would be metaphysical constructs like that of pride, honor and respect. While the Calvinist claims man is completely disconnected from God, they are at odds with how the atheist or degenerate man interacts.

    Even if the Calvinist claims that atheists and the degenerate man is merely adopting such things as conventions, it still doesn’t the answer as to why they have a tendency and a propensity to do such things. While they degenerate man cannot justify why these things have value or even justify the concepts, they still assume that such constructs retain value nonetheless.

    The fact that even the most evil of men can help an old lady across the street speaks for itself. Even Hitler loved his own grandmother.

  13. Perry Robinson aka Acolyte says:

    Andy,

    thanks for the comments. It is exactly the view that God’s nature determines his actions that many Calvinists adhere to that generates the problem of a necessary creation. I agree that Thomas’ view is by far much better than the Reformed position, and the Reformed positions are better than the more popular answer that I am hacking away at above.

    The point is that if in the case of God, his nature does not determine his actions, then since humans are made in God’s image, there is good reason to think that human nature does not determine an individual human being’s actions either. In which case the whole popular Calvinist line of total depravity goes out the window since now having a “sinful nature” (which I take to be an oxymoron on other grounds) will not imply that the agent can’t do something good.

  14. Jonathan Prejean says:

    That’s actually part of the problem; we’re not so optimistic about divine simplicity being a workable Christian account. See the discussion here:
    http://energies.coffeeconversations.com/archives/2005/01/perrys_logical.html

  15. Andy Bartus says:

    I am confused by your understanding of what Calvinists believe concerning 1) justification, 2)libertarian free will of both God and man, 3)more specifically God’s nature (and consequently His love and justice).

    You said, in questioning the Calvinist, “[s]o why is it that an agent’s nature determines their actions with respect to angels and humans but not God?”
    –Whatever Calvinist tells you that God’s “nature” does not affect His actions is not representing Calvinism accurately. I suggest they study St. Thomas’ theory of Divine Simplicity. (While obviously he was not a Calvinist, his worldview was similar enough).

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