Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Jeffrey Simon on Calvinism, free will and moral responsibility

I spent some time last night chatting with some of my readers on Facebook, and Jeffrey Simon was one. He wrote this essay on Calvinism versus Molinism which I thought was good enough to post. I am in agreement with Jeffrey on this issue, BUT I did include some debates featuring Calvinist James White at the bottom of the post. I just wanted to present an excerpt from his essay that makes a point that I thought would get lots of responses from Calvinists. Jeffrey is quite aggressive.

The essay is here, but you have to be his friend in order to see it.


When harmonizing man’s perspective and God’s perspective, the Calvinist embraces what is known as theological fatalism.  They redefine free will and embrace compatibilism.  Essentially compatibilism says that determinism and free will are compatible, hence the name compatibilism.  In the same way that the wind blowing causes the trees to move, our desires and environment produce an effect which would be our action.  When we make a decision, we could not have chosen otherwise.  The Calvinist likes to say that we choose according to our greatest desire.  This would explain how God is in control of everything and more specifically our salvation.  How does God ensure the salvation of certain individuals? He changes their desires so they will freely choose Him.  This brings up an objection though.  If God desires that all are saved (1 Tim 2.4) and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Eze. 33.11) and God “can save all whom He chooses to save”, then why are not all saved?  The Calvinist responds by making a distinction in God’s will.  While it is God’s revealed will and desire [thelo] that all men are saved, it is not His decreed will [boulomai] that all will be saved.  Essentially, God desires that all are saved and has a general love for the reprobate, but He has predestined them to Hell because His will [boulomai] trumps His desires [thelo].  Within Calvinism, there is a smaller section that claims regeneration logically precedes faith.  Because we are “dead” in our sin, we must be made alive or regenerated before believing.  How can a dead man believe and make himself alive?  In the same way that Lazarus was commanded to be raised from physical death, we are commanded to be made alive (through regeneration) from our spiritual death.

In my estimation, the main problem with Calvinism is that it embraces a causally deterministic system.  How can we freely make decisions yet God determined them for us?  It is not a mystery, but rather a contradiction.  In fact, at this point Calvinists are in agreement with naturalists because nearly all naturalists embrace compatibilism or determinism due to the fact that naturalism implies physicalism or materialism.  Now, imagine reading through the Bible with the idea that free will does not exist.  It is rather dizzying to imagine such a thing!  Dr.  William Lane Craig sums it up nicely when he says,

”Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture. The classical Reformed divines recognized this. They acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom” (The Only Wise God).

If God has determined our every thought and action, yet those nine things hold true, then it turns the Bible into a charade.  How can anything be expected of us if we can’t make decisions?  In response to this, the Calvinist may say “so what”.  It may violate our fallen sense of justice, but God can do as “He pleases and no one can hold back His hand or say to Him: ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4.35).  God can determine us to do immoral things and hold us responsible because He is God.  In fact, in the Book of Acts when Peter and John are talking about Christ’s crucifixion, they say that God “anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever His hand and His purpose predestined to occur.” Even though God predestined them to crucify Christ, they were held responsible.  While this is possible it surely does not seem plausible.  Turning to the book of Judges, for example, we would find ourselves asking why God determined Israel’s rebellion so many times.  One only has to retort, so God is the author of evil, then?  If I were to pick up a stick and use it to move a rock, what moved the rock? Technically the stick moved the rock; however, no one would say that.  I moved the rock by picking up the stick and using it.  It is no different with God.  Surely those men crucified Christ, but it was really God behind the scenes.  This intrudes upon the holiness of God because He cannot stand sin (Psalm 5.4) and cannot even tempt man (Jas 1.13) yet alone causally determine evil.  Continuing, let’s take this causally deterministic system and God’s will as described by Calvinists to its logical conclusion.  First of all, as I just mentioned, the biggest problem is that God becomes the author of evil.  Second of all, there can be no “well-meant offer” of the Gospel to all persons if God has determined their destruction in hell.  In regards to God’s will, a better way, I think, to understand it would be that while God desires all men to be saved, His will is to save those who believe.  This does well with texts that say that God desires that all men are saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) (and it also does not make God look hypocritical).  There are numerous texts where God exhorts people to believe, yet they reject Him.  For example, in Isaiah 5 God is disappointed with Israel because of their continuous sin and He asks what more could He have done for them.  God had provided all the means for godly living, yet Israel rejected Him.  Why would God waste His time with people whom He predestined to Hell and had no chance of salvation?  Also, if it’s God’s “secret” will to save some and damn some, then how can anyone know about it?

Is there anyone on the Calvinist side reading this who can explain how people can be responsible for sinning if they have no way to avoid it? I am not sure if a person can be responsible in that case because the only way that they can not sin is if God does something, and he chooses not to do it. It’s like giving a person a final exam but locking them out of the classroom all semester long.

Actually, I can see how that might actually be offensive to atheists, as in this debate between William Lane Craig and Edwin Curley of U of Michigan Ann Arbor.

Probably the best way to settle this is with debates. But I think that the only Calvinist who has debated on this issue is James White. So I put his debates below. I don’t think that famous Calvinists like Mark Dricoll and even Wayne Grudem defend Calvinism in formal public debates. Can anyone point out any debates that I may have missed? I want formal debates with good scholars on either side so I can make sure that my mind was made up based on evidence.

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Is God the cause of human evil in Calvinism?

Wes over at Reason to Stand thinks so.

The problem:

A Calvinist friend of mine recently asked me the difference between “unwilling” and “unable” and why I consider the two to be mutually exclusive when talking about mankind’s ability to sin or not.

And here is his reply to his friend:

If I am unable I cannot be unwilling because my inability precludes my willingness either way.

[…]If I am unable then I am no better off than a robot preprogrammed to run a certain course and as such I cannot rightly be held accountable for that which I have no control over.

On the other hand, if I am unwilling then I logically have the ability to act in a manner other than that which I choose.

If I am unable to not sin then I cannot logically be held accountable or responsible for choices that are, by definition, beyond my control.

If I am unwilling to not sin then I am not only responsible for my choice but, in light of the holy standard of God, I am unable to bridge the gap I freely created.

[…]The bottom line is that we are either free and responsible or else we are not free and therefore not responsible.

And William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga also like middle knowledge. Hmmmn. Wes and Bill Craig and Alvin Plantinga are pretty smart guys.

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Phil Fernandes explains his view of free will and divine sovereignty

It also happens to be MY view, pretty much.

This is SPOOKY! I could have said 99% of this myself!

The only thing we differ on is that I think you can lose your salvation, but only by committing “the unforgiveable sin”, which is rejecting God’s grace intentionally. You can’t lose your salvation by sinning, because you are forgiven. But every sin will cause damage in your life.

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Response from a Calvinist

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Stan’s concerns about the middle knowledge argument

In this post at Birds of the Air.


There are multiple problems in my mind. There is what is known as the grounding objection. This argument sees a problem with what are called “counterfactuals”, that whole list of contingencies that God sees. If they never happen, on what basis can they be considered true? If they never occur, how are they real? In fact, if they’re based on the freedom of the creature, how can they be true without limiting the freedom of the creature? Yeah, yeah, whatever. The thing that disturbs me the most is that it undermines God’s Sovereignty. The Bible claims that God is the only Sovereign. In Middle Knowledge we have a contingent God. All of Middle Knowledge is based on what the creature will or won’t choose and what God can do with it. God, then, is limited to what His creatures will or won’t do. Let’s say, for instance, that God would like to save Ted. Going further, let’s say that there could be one circumstance that would cause Ted to choose Christ (all big assumptions, but just follow along). However, that one circumstance required that Bob would make a free will choice … that Bob won’t make. Poor Ted. God had it all figured out how to save him, but Bob wouldn’t make the right choice, so Ted is doomed.

Of course, I have other big problems with Middle Knowledge. There is the fundamental assumption that God cannot under any circumstances interfere in Man’s Free Will. Where this notion comes from is completely beyond me. There is the further fundamental belief that if God does certain things, some humans will choose Him. The Bible depicts humans as dead in sin (just for starters). Under what possible set of circumstances would God be able to get this dead person to properly respond to Him? If “The Natural Man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”, what possible scenario could God scare up to make him accept the things of the Spirit of God?

The grounding objection is the only one that worries me. Stan is awesome to read because he always tells the truth about the views that he rejects. He knows both sides of issues equally well.

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Response from a Calvinist

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MUST-READ: William Lane Craig discusses Calvinism and the problem of evil

This is an answer to a question of the week from his Reasonable Faith web site.

Here’s the question:

Dr. Craig,

I am troubled at the mass amount of Calvinists I see who are incredibly intelligent and trustworthy christian leaders. What I mean is that, So many seem to be capable of great analysis (far beyond myself), but seem to stick their head in the sand when it comes to the problem of evil. If they don’t, then they tend to make God a self-contradicting being. Why do you think this is so?

I’m also personally troubled at how few leaders I see subscribing to Molinism. It seems to me that it answers the most questions and creates the least problems. I understand it can be complex, but I wouldn’t think we would just rest with the problem of evil not being satisfied. I don’t base what I believe on the beliefs of others, but we can’t ignore the influence others have in our lives, or the desire to have a home with others when it comes to these thoughts.

Anyway, I would enjoy your thoughts… as I always do.



And here’s the first part of the answer:

I think you’re right, Gordon, that a great many intelligent and godly Christian leaders are Reformed, or followers of John Calvin, in their theology. I’m currently participating in a four-views book on divine providence along with a pair of Reformed theologians. It is evident from their contributions that, despite the intellectual puzzles raised by the Reformed view, they both embrace it because they are convinced that it most faithfully represents the teaching of Scripture on the subject, Scripture being the only authoritative rule of faith.

Actually, I have no problem with certain classic statements of the Reformed view. For example, the Westminster Confession (Sect. III) declares that

God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Now this is precisely what the Molinist believes! The Confession affirms God’s preordination of everything that comes to pass as well as the liberty and contingency of the creaturely will, so that God is not the author of sin. It is a tragedy that in rejecting middle knowledge Reformed divines have cut themselves off from the most perspicuous explanation of the coherence of this wonderful confession.

By rejecting a doctrine of divine providence based on God’s middle knowledge, Reformed theologians are simply self-confessedly left with a mystery. The great 17th century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin held that a careful analysis of Scripture leads to two indubitable conclusions, both of which must be held in tension without compromising either one:

that God on the one hand by his providence not only decreed, but most certainly secures, the event of all things, whether free or contingent; on the other hand, however, man is always free in acting and many effects are contingent. Although I cannot understand how these can be mutually connected together, yet (on account of ignorance of the mode) the thing itself is (which is certain from another source, i.e., from the Word) not either to be called in question or wholly denied (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1: 512).

Here Turretin affirms without compromise both the sovereignty of God and human freedom and contingency; he just doesn’t know how to put them together. Molinism offers a solution. By rejecting that solution, the Reformed theologian is left with a mystery.

Craig levels 5 challenges against Calvinism:

  • Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
  • Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
  • Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
  • Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
  • Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.

Read the rest here. It’s worth it. (Registration is not required, as far as I can tell)

All of my readers should try to make themselves familiar with Molinism (i.e. – middle knowledge). I have friends who are Calvinists and I think it helps to be able to explain to non-Christians how God can be sovereign over all of the universe from the beginning of time, and yet man can still be responsible for freely choosing to rebel against God.

I think every Christian feels that God was tugging them toward him to some degree or other, and that they had no free choice to resist him. And on Molinism, there was no other way it could be. God chose a universe in which he knew that you would freely respond to his drawing you toward him. He was not surprised – he knew. There was no rolling of the dice – he chose to save you before the universe was created. But not in violation of your free will to respond to his salvific initiative. He chose you, and he gave you what you needed to respond to his drawing you to him.

Seriously folks – the middle knowledge view solves the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom a lot better than Calvinism does. You can keep your Calvinism if you like it, but it sure helps to know the Molinist view if you are talking to atheists who want an answer. Just phrase it as a possible answer to the problem, if you don’t believe it. At least survey the possible views for non-Christians so they see it as a possibility.

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Response from a Calvinist

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