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The Calvinist-Libertarian Mashup

I. Calvinism and its discontents

Many theologians and philosophers have serious problems with Calvinism. Typically, Calvinism is presented as a system committed to (some form of) determinism about all of man’s actions. Call this determinism, ‘theological determinism’ (TD). Since Calvinists hold that man is (at least) morally responsible for some of his actions, then it seems that Calvinism is committed to compatibilism. I’ll define ‘compatibilism’ (COMP) as the view that moral responsibility is compatible with TD. That is, there exists a model on which both TD and COMP are true. Call this conjunction, ‘THEOCOMP’.

In our current (philosophical-) theological atmosphere, THEOCOMP is not viewed in a flattering light, to put it mildly. First, it is said that, necessarily, TD rules out moral responsibility; so, COMP is false (which entails THEOCOMP is false). Second, it is said that even if we grant COMP, the conjunction of TD with the thesis that there exists evil in the world entails the conclusion that God is the author of sin—which is supposed to be an anathema. Indeed, such doctrines inspired one contemporary Christian philosopher, Jerry Walls, to write a paper titled, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever be a Compatibilist” (Philosopia Christi, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011). The alleged implications of THEOCOMP, therefore, create quite the dialectical burden for the Calvinist (philosophical-) theologian. For some, it’s as if they have an albatross around their necks, and the sooner it can be removed, the better.

Clearly, one way to address the above challenges to THEOCOMP is to address them head-on. Another approach is to find a way to have your cake and eat it too. Roughly, this second way aims to keep their Calvinist bona fides while affirming libertarian freedom, at least for the vast majority of our actions.

II. Libertarianism

Libertarian freedom is the kind of freedom that is, at least currently, the fashionable view of the church—or, at least her intellectuals, especially the more philosophically oriented among them. While contentious, I’ll offer a standard definition of libertarian free will (LFW):

LFW = A person S is libertarian free with respect to some action/choice/omission X if and only if (i) S could have done otherwise than X and (ii) S is the ultimate source of his X-ing.

Let me briefly unpack (i) and (ii). (i) says S is free with respect to X-ing only if could have done other than X given an identical history leading up to the moment of his X-ing. As an example, let’s think of this condition in terms of possible worlds: You are free with respect to choosing Lucky Charms for breakfast only if there is some possible world with the same history leading up to your choice at which you don’t choose Lucky Charms. This means, everything leading up to your choice is the same. You choose otherwise given your same tastes, preferences, upbringing, reasons for eating Lucky Charms, etc. (N.B. Some libertarians don’t hold to (i) but will hold to something like (i*): there must be alternative possibilities, which doesn’t entail the the agent must be able do otherwise.)

(ii) says you have to be the ultimate source of your choosing Lucky Charms. Suppose you have fostered a Lucky Charms loving nature, such that, given your nature, you will always choose Lucky Charms if given the choice. Libertarians will say you are free here only if you formed your Lucky Charms loving nature. The “origin” is ultimately in you. Many libertarians will say that (i) is needed to truly “form” your character or “set” your will. But the crucial point is that (ii) claims that you can’t be the ultimate source of your will, character, nature, actional spring, etc., if that will etc., has been determined to be that way.

LFW, then, is incompatibilist. This is an important point to remember. COMP is logically (and/or metaphysically) incompatible with LFW.

It is said—though I find it very contentious—that affirming the above definition of freedom is the only way to maintain true ascriptions of moral responsibility and also get God off the hook for all the evils.

III. The mashup

If the Calvinist can keep the Calvinist essentials while incorporating LFW into her overall theory, she can be said to have her cake and eat it too. Of course, TD can’t be essential to Calvinism. Call this position CAKE.

I’m not sure how the argument for CAKE goes. I assume there’s many ways to slice it. One initially promising way to cut CAKE would be to say that most of our everyday choices, e.g., what cereal to eat, what book to read, what church to attend, whether to forgive a slight against us, etc., are all libertarian free. To maintain the Calvinist bona fides, however, our repenting and trusting in Christ is determined. I’ll call this DECISION. Greg Koukl presents something like this view here.

Since CAKE is constituted by lots of propositions, I will list the two crucial propositions we will be concerned with. For our purposes, we will define it thus

Cake = DECISION is determined & LFW is true.

IV. An unsatisfying CAKE

I think such a position is fundamentally flawed. Here’s my brief case for why CAKE should be abandoned. (INC = ‘incompatibilism):

First, I take it as assumed by proponents of CAKE that many of our post-DECISION choices that spring from our redeemed nature are free. This might include going to church, loving neighbor, forgiving a slight, reading the Bible, etc. Now, assume, for reductio, that CAKE is true, then

    1. (a) DECISION is determined and (b) LFW is true. (def of CAKE)
    2. Some of our post-DECISION choices that spring from our redeemed nature are free. (premise, Christian theism, common belief)
    3. If DECISION is free, then it is either compatibilist free or libertarian free. (premise)
    4. But, DECISION can’t be libertarian free, since it’s determined. (def. of LFW)
    5. But, DECISION can’t be compatibilist free either, since that entails a contradiction (see EDIT below). (logic)
    6. So, DECISION is not free. (4-5, 3).
    7. But, if DECISION is not free, then none of our post-DECISION choices that spring from our redeemed nature are free. (they can’t be compatibilist free, per the reasoning in EDIT; and, they can’t be libertarian free because DECISION itself isn’t free, and this violates the sourcehood condition of LFW).
    8. None of our post-DECISION choices that spring from our redeemed nature are free. (6, 7)
    9. Contradiction! (2, 8)

Here’s the basic reasoning: If our decision to turn to Christ, e.g., repent, believe, trust, etc., is determined, which it must be (ex hypothesis) to maintain a Calvinist bona fide, then it can’t be free. For if it were free, it’d have to be compatibilist free. But compatibilism is true, then LFW is (necessarily) false (and vice versa). And so the main motivation of CAKE, viz., to incorporate LFW, is undermined. Okay, so we deny that the decision to repent, believe, trust, etc., is free in any sense. It’s, for lack of a better phrase, “hard determined.” But then if this were so, what of the countless ostensibly free actions/choices we do that stem from our redeemed nature? This might be going to church, loving our neighbor, turning the other cheek, family worship, etc. We’ve already seen that these can’t be compatibilistically free. That leaves libertarian freedom. But given condition (ii) in §II, these actions/choices can’t be libertarian free. So something has to go. Presumably, the Calvinist bona fide is not negotiable. If it were, what’s the point of CAKE? Just drop Calvinism and be done with it. I also assume that denying that our ostensibly free post-conversion actions/choices aren’t free after all, is a dead-end. So it’s the libertarianism that must go, and (this slice of) CAKE fails.

V. A way out

Here’s a way out for the beleaguered Calvinist. He does not need to do anything as rash as affirm LFW which, you will recall, is partly defined by the thesis of incompatibilism. Rather, he can affirm that all of our free actions are not determined. This is not to affirm LFW, however, for indeterminism isn’t incompatibilism, and LFW needs the latter. He could affirm a definition of freedom like this one: S is free with respect to X if and only if S wants to X for the right reason.

I’m not saying this definition is good, but it’s short and sweet and allows me to make my main point, viz., it’s a compatibilist definition of freedom. As indeterminism isn’t sufficient for LFW, indeterminism also doesn’t falsify a compatibilist definition of freedom. That is, compatibilism doesn’t entail the actual truth of determinism. However, since the beleaguered Calvinist wants to maintain our above bona fide, this definition of freedom would possibly allow our post-conversion acts/choices—acts/choices which fail to meet the condition of ultimate sourcehood, and thus can’t be libertarian free—to be free. Moreover, this view would allow our beleaguered Calvinist to claim that the vast majority of evil acts are not determined by God.

This position doesn’t run into the problems brought out in IV. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t run into its own set of problems. In fact, I don’t think it’s sustainable—at least in giving the beleaguered Calvinist the peace she seeks. But, it’s a more viable strategy than that of the above slice of CAKE. Detailing its problems is beyond the scope of this post.


A friend asked about (4), (5), and (6), namely, why accepting compatibilism for some of our post-DECISION acts that flow from our redeemed nature shows the falsity of CAKE, i.e., ¬(1). Here’s the answer I gave him:

I take it that CAKE is false because CAKE = Calvinist bona fide (CBF) & libertarianism.

Here’s how I define LFW: INC & Someone is free/does a free action.

This entails that CAKE = CBF & INC.

Now consider the latter conjunct, INC. I take it that INC negates a possibility claim, namely, COMP. Roughly, COMP says that possibly, some free act is determined. So, <>(Fx & Dx). (I take it the act isn’t determined but *derivatively* L-free, i.e., traced back to a prior L-free choice to set one’s will, undergo hypnosis, get drunk, etc). Thus, INC = ~<>(Fx & Dx).

So, this entails that CAKE = CBF & ~<>(Fx & Dx)

But to affirm (4a) is to affirm <>(Fx & Dx). So, CAKE would entail that there is a model on which these are true: [CBF & ~<>(Fx & Dx) & <>(Fx & Dx)]. But this conjunct is necessarily false.


  1. Ron says:


    Compatibilism implies that free will is compatible with determinism. We of course share an idea about free will that differs from libertarian free will, as it is our understanding that libertarian free will is not compatible with determinism. Since “free will” of some sort is commonly seen as being necessary for moral responsibility, we may, of course, define compatibilism as you have here, as compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism (as opposed to defining it as compatibility between free will and determinism). Just curious, why the change? I prefer it as I think it clears away some dross.

    Advantages of defining it this way:

    Incompatibilists and compatiblists can agree that man is morally responsible. So, it would seem that the incompatiblist takes on a burden of proof to show that determinism undermines this responsibility that can be agreed upon. Even if there’s no burden of proof upon the incompatibilist, a point of discussion is better distilled: why does God’s determination of all things undermine moral accountability? Whereas if we define compatiblism, more commonly I’d say, as free will being being compatible with determinism, then the discussions begins with opposing (equivocal) terms, namely a shared definition of free will. After all, we too would say that determinism is *incompatibile* with free will given the notion of libertarian free will.

    In a word, that man is morally accountable is not as controversial as whether he has free will or what sort of free will he has so that compatibilism can be true.



  2. Ron says:

    1. The “DECISION” view, from the strictures of those who embrace it, makes the “decision” for Christ a-moral and a-responsible since determined decisions (for them) are not morally relevant, not being “free.” Not sure why one would have to forgo his CAKE *strictly* on those grounds – if, that is, he’s willing to allow for a robotic / puppet DECISION that is neither free nor morally relevant. I do find such a position odd (not to mention getting traction, mostly unwittingly, among many who fancy themselves “Reformed”) but not necessarily internally contradictory, narrowly considered that is. For sure, it is, I believe, philosophically unsustainable and certainly not Reformed.

    2. Regarding the “way out,” you write: “Moreover, this view would allow our beleaguered Calvinist to claim that the vast majority of evil acts are not determined by God.”

    What a strange view (which comes at a high price) but it is, like 1, a view tha I believe is implicit within “Reformed” circles I’m afraid; albeit not a permissible Reformed position.

    Good stuff, Paul.

  3. PLM says:

    Hi Ron,

    There’s no real reason for switching between the two. Perhaps it subconsciously reflects my attempt to serve different masters :). One master says that free will (FW) is “whatever control is needed for moral responsibility” (MR). On this view, we can slide between terms, there an ‘iff’ here. Other writers think there’s a real difference here, and that compatibilism between determinism (D) and FW is “metaphysical compatibilism” and compatibilism between MR and D should be called “moral compatibilism.” This view merely claims that FW is necessary for MR. In any event, I don’t mean anything deep by sliding between phrases, where I am now, if pushed, I’d be fine with couching everything in terms of “moral responsibility.” But I know that for many people it’s at least initially odd to say we are MR for our choice in cereal, and it sounds more natural here to say we choose cereal freely rather than responsibly.

  4. B.C. Askins says:

    “So, CAKE would entail that there is a model on which these are true: [CBF & ~(Fx & Dx) & (Fx & Dx)]. But this conjunct is necessarily false.”

    Why can’t the proponent of CAKE maintain this is just a MACRUE?

  5. PLM says:

    It doesn’t meet the conditions. It’s an *explicit* contradiction. Indeed, I’d argue it’s *analytic*. As I’ve spelled it out, moreover, the terms have the same meaning. I’m not equivocating! :) Moreover, where are the possible places of equivocation? LFW isn’t really incompatibilist? The truth of LFW doesn’t really entail the falsity of determinism? Here’s two definitions of ‘incompatibilism’, one by a leading libertarian, the other by a leading compatibilist:

    Kevin Timpe presents the incompatibilist thesis thus: “The incompatibilist . . . maintains that [a fully determined world containing a free person] is impossible and that free will is possible only if determinism is false” (14-15). Similarly, Kadri Vihvelin states, “Incompatibilism is usually understood as the claim that the truth of determinism entails the non-existence of free will: that there is no possible world where determinism is true and someone has free will.”

    So if they took this route, they’d have to say they’re not using ‘incompatibilist’ the way everyone else is. Maybe they mean, incompatibilist* or freedom*, but then INC* and FREE* just aren’t what everyone else is talking about.

    And, remember one justification for MACRUEs is God’s incomprehensibility, doctrine of analogy, etc., those things wouldn’t apply here. So we’d need to spell out why we think MACRUEs would apply here, and they couldn’t use James’ justification.

  6. B.C. Askins says:

    Sorry for the long delay. Holidays and stuff…

    Anyway, I think the proponent of CAKE (the cake “slice” puns are fun, by the way) might still be able to build a case for a mysterian view of freedom, though it would involve more extensive argumentation than I’ve the time, desire or expertise to provide. But here’s a few thoughts in that direction…

    I can agree that the [apparent] contradiction here could stem from an analytic statement on incompatibilism, but this is no less the case in terms of creedally orthodox trinitarianism (I know you’re familiar with Van Til’s controversial formulation of the Trinity as “one person in three persons”).

    This would entail using INC or “freedom” in one sense as commonly defined while incorporating INC* or free* in a different sense, but that doesn’t strike me as immediately problematic, given the framework of a MACRUE.

    Which is where it would get a bit more thorny for the CAKE eater, because (as you mentioned) he/she/it would need to build that framework on different footing than James’ argument. But there may be some human *analogs* to divine incomprehensibility, analogical reasoning, etc. which might prove useful in building such a case. Alas, this is where I run out of time, desire, and expertise… :)

  7. PLM says:

    So if we’re going to affirm that God is one person and three persons, what we say is that he’s one person in sense A and three persons in sense B (where A ≠ B). So, maybe we say he’s one ousia-person and three hypostasis-persons. So there’s no *formal* contradiction. Moreover, the very application of “person” to God has been problematic in historical theology. At best there’s some analogical relation. So we can see how problems could arise here.

    You suggest a similar move for the CAKEster. You suggest they affirm INC in the common sense but also INC*. Okay, so what does that get them? My problem arises from their affirming INC, not INC*. Moreover, can one live in a determinist world and have INC* freedom? If so, why not just call it COMP? In what way, precisely, is it “INC*”? If it’s consistent with determinism, then it’s COMP!

    My problem arises *if* they want to call many post-DECISION acts free (as it seems they do). But you seem to admit they can’t call it free in a COMP sense. But they also can’t call it free in an INC sense (per sourcehood constraints). So you suggest they call it “free*”. Well, since this “freedom*” is *compatible* with those actions flowing from a *determined* actional spring, it’s just *compatibilist* freedom (at least, source compatibilist). Is it not? Then why bother with “free*” at all? It’s not compatible with being determined, so just stick with the original concepts we already have words for.

    Another problem will be this: whatever “freedom” they have (common or *), we can apply the traditional arguments to it. For example, how does it handle the consequence argument, the basic argument, the luck objection? In all these cases it seems to me that we’ll wind up with basic INC or COMP.

    So, I confess I can’t see how this project would work. But if it did work, why wouldn’t they just co with ‘free*’ all the way from the start? Or would this definition of ‘free’ make God the author of evil, us puppets, etc? No? And does this definition please our libertarian friends? Yes? And does this definition allow us to affirm Calvinist bona fides? Them *I’m* all for that! Where do I sign up? :)

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November 2013


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