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Libertarian Calvinism – 1

In chapter 3 of Deviant Calvinism (Fortress, 2014) Oliver Crisp argues that “in what the [Westminster] Confession does say [about God’s decree, human freedom, etc], there is the conceptual space, so to speak, to prescind from determinism touching all human choices and to affirm some limited version of libertarianism” (74-75). I am going to begin a series of posts interacting with chapter 3, which is titled “Libertarian Calvinism.” I think this will be better than to write one (really) lengthy post. Here’s a map to what’s forthcoming:

  1. In this post I won’t be interacting with what Crisp explicitly says in chapter 3, instead I want to register some worries about those things Crisp leaves unsaid. There are several gratuitous (I say) assumptions it seems Crisp expects us to make, and I think it would be good to have those on the table before we proceed with his positive case.
  2. Next, I will worry about some terminological matters.
  3. Next, I will argue that “libertarian Calvinism,” as present by Crisp, has two unsavory implications: (i) it denies we have to be the ultimate source of our character or nature, and (ii) it denies that ought-implies-can. (i) might show his position entails a contradiction, and (ii) tugs at a major motivation for being a libertarian about free will. Moreover, (iii) it will be seen that compatibilism makes the best sense of some key sections of the Confession.
  4. Finally, I will argue that ‘libertarian Calvinism’ doesn’t understand its ‘enemy’. An olive branch on the free will issue is insufficient for peace. Instead, total surrender is required. Crisp’s libertarian Calvinism leaves in-tact the major objections to Calvinism.

What Was Left Unsaid

(N.B. Oliver kindly left a comment on my previous post, and I should note that he does not endorse libertarian Calvinism, he’s just trying to ‘unpack’ a view he finds in the literature. I, for one, thank him for this, as I believe this is an important but under-discussed topic. So I hope he takes my series of posts as part of the conversation about the view he’s trying to unpack, even though I ultimately want to argue that the view faces serious, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles.)

The sections from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) that Crisp appeals to to show that one may affirm both the Confession and “some limited version of libertarianism” are chapters 3 (Of God’s Eternal Decree) and 9 (Of Free Will). Certainly, these choices are obvious, so I don’t fault Crisp for focusing on these sections of the WCF. Yet, I did find it interesting to see certain sections ignored, most notably, elements of chapters 2 and 5.

Crisp intends to make a case for ‘libertarian Calvinism’ by arguing that libertarian free will (LFW) is not inconsistent with the WCF. Slightly changing one of his claims, Crisp says that “It would be significant, therefore, if it transpired that what the Westminster Confession says about this matter of human freedom [allows its defender to simultaneously affirm LFW]” (p.72). I take it that Crisp would agree that if any Confessional statement, or an implication or entailment of any Confessional statement, were inconsistent with LFW, then a putative defender of the WCF could not affirm both the WCF and LFW, if a desiderata was maintaining consistency.

I take it that Crisp agrees that the Confession teaches (1) God is simple, (2) God is a se, and (3) God has exhaustive foreknowledge, including knowledge of all future human actions. It is beyond dispute that each of (1) – (3) issues in powerful objections to the existence of creaturely libertarian free will. If any of (1) – (3) is inconsistent with LFW, then one cannot hold to the WCF and LFW. The Confession is inconsistent with LFW, in that case. For the moment, though, I want to focus only on (3).1 We know many philosophical-theologians (e.g., Greg Boyd, William Hasker, Alan Rhoda, John Sanders, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, Nicholas Wolterstorff) would judge the WCF inconsistent with LFW since the WCF affirms (3).

Now, my point here is this: if (3) (and (1) and (2) for that matter) is inconsistent with LFW, then affirming the WCF is inconsistent with LFW. So, it must be the case that Crisp’s libertarian Calvinist expects us to make the (gratuitous, I say!) assumption that LFW is consistent with (3) (and (1) and (2) for that matter). I did find it interesting that this topic was not so much as broached in Deviant Calvinism. One might have expected to see the debate about the compatibility between (3) and LFW mentioned in chapter 3’s sub-section, “The Theological Debate about Human Free Will.” Yet it is missing. But, a strong case can be made that (3)’s inconsistency with LFW forms the basis for the most discussed and intractable problem vis-á-vis human freedom and the kind of God affirmed by the WCF. The Roman philosopher Cicero advanced this very point long ago: “It seems to me that it is not in the power even of God himself to know what event is going to happen accidentally and by chance. For if he knows, then the event is certain to happen; but if it is certain to happen, chance does not exist. And yet chance does exist, therefore there is no foreknowledge of things that happen by chance.” Here I simply refer to the arguments, I don’t rehearse them. I will assume the relevant parties are familiar with the relevant arguments.

Now, I do not want to be unfair to Crisp. He did not raise this possible inconsistency, and so I don’t to push too hard on a point he didn’t raise and offer a response. So let me state my aim in bringing up this issue: There’s more work for the libertarian Calvinist to do. To show that LFW is consistent with the LFW requires more than showing LFW is consistent with chapters 3 and 9. While I will address Crisp’s positive case in future posts, we may note that either Crisp’s case is incomplete (in which case this lacuna should have been mentioned), or he simply expected us to grant him the compatibility of LFW with (3) (and (1) and (2) for that matter).

I will close by responding to the second disjunct, i.e., Crisp’s expecting us to grant the compatibility of LFW with (3).  Suppose Crisp says, “Right, I expected us to assume that LFW is compatible with (3). After all, while there are powerful arguments for (3)’s inconsistency with LFW, there’s powerful responses to those arguments. So the libertarian Calvinist can just pick one of them, and assume that they work.” Now, such a response initially sounds acceptable. However, the matter isn’t that simple. For it must be noted that the responses to arguments that (3) conflicts with LFW must be consistent with the WCF. I want to suggest that it’s not prima facie obvious that the libertarian Calvinist can accept just any consistency argument for (3) with LFW.I will now refer to the alleged problem (3) carries for LFW, as the FWFKP (i.e., the free will and foreknowledge problem).

For example, many prominent attempted solutions to the FWFKP will want to say that God’s foreknowledge of our future actions is non-threatening just in case God’s knowledge of those actions depend on us (and the notion of ‘depend’ here must be incompatibilist). But the WCF (2.2) states that God’s “knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain.” The problem has been stated in one form by Katherine Rogers:

…the actions of creatures cannot have any causal effect on God at all….So even God’s knowledge of the actions of creatures cannot be caused by what those creatures do.This view can be squared with compatibilism, but it seems to me impossible to posit creatures who are free in a libertarian sense but to deny that it is the choices of these creatures which produces God’s knowledge of these choices.

It must be noted that Rogers here contends that God’s knowledge would causally depend on the creature. Crisp’s libertarian Calvinist might say that the WFC’s notion of ‘dependency’ is ‘metaphysically underdetermined,’ so that while causal dependency is ruled out by WCF 2.2, it may be that God’s knowledge non-causally depends on the creature. Kevin Timpe argues for this view in “Truth-making and divine eternity” (Religious Studies, 2007, 43, 299–315). God’s knowledge depends on the creature in the sense that the creature is the truthmaker of God’s knowledge, and the truthmaking relation is non-causal.

This is not the place to engage this matter in a thorough and rigorous way. This post is already getting too long. Let me simply note that this solution faces several problems. Of course, one is that Timpe denies that his solution is compatible with impassibility, which the Confession affirms (though Crisp may no doubt claim that there are several versions of the doctrine of impassibility, and Timpe’s view may only require rejecting some but not others). Moreover, it’s not clear that such a notion of dependency is consistent with divine simplicity. For example, on James Dolezal’s view (cf. God Without Parts), God is the truthmaker for anything that can be predicated of him. If God has the property of ‘knowing Smith’s libertarian free action,’ it is God, and not Smith, who stands as the truthmaker for that truthbearer. The main point, though, is that the libertarian Calvinist owes us some account of how God can have knowledge of future libertarian actions and that knowledge not depend on the creature, and the framers of the WCF may have had a more global conception of ‘dependnecy’ than, say, just causal.

Of course, it is standard among Reformed theologians to claim that God’s knowledge of future contingents depends only on his decree. God decrees whatsoever comes to pass including, the libertarian Calvinist would be bound to say, all libertarian free actions. What is the basis of God’s decree of future contingents? Many Arminians would claim that God’s decree here is based on his foreseeing what free creatures do. But the Confession denies this basis in 3.2 However, the libertarian Calvinist might hope that embracing Molinism could be his solution to the FWFKP. But aside from the fact that it seems as if Molinism requires that God’s knowledge ‘depends on’ the truth of the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom that exist ‘outside’ of him, and thus we run into the above problem again, it also seems that the WCF rules out this answer in 3.2 as well. There we read

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

On Molinism, by means of God’s middle knowledge (knowledge of what creatures would libertarian freely do in circumstances), God know the set of possible worlds which are feasible for him to create. God then decrees to create certain free creatures, like Peter, in certain circumstances, like those testing his loyalty to Christ, and it is on the basis of this middle knowledge and his knowledge of his decree, that God has exhaustive foreknowledge, include the future free actions of humans. On this view, it seems as if God decrees some things because he saw that they would come to pass on such and such conditions. But, apparently, such is denied by the WCF.

While there is clearly much more to be said, my point here is merely to say that the case for libertarian Calvinism is far from being made. For even assuming that Crisp has shown libertarian Calvinism is consistent with WCF chapters 3 and 9—and I will argue that he hasn’t—such a case is insufficient. For there may be other sections of the confession that conflict with LFW. While Crisp may ask us to make the gratuitous assumption that LFW is compatible with exhaustive foreknowledge, it is not clear that the libertarian Calvinist can appeal to just any of the extant resolutions to the FWFKP. For the libertarian Calvinist to make his case, he must provide a resolution to the FWFKP, and that case must be consistent with the WCF (and, I’d argue, the broader Reformed tradition as found in the various systematic theologies). The case must not allow for God’s knowledge to depend on the creature (I’d argue in either a causal or non-causal sense), the case cannot assume that God decrees because he sees as future, the case cannot assume that God decrees anything according to middle knowledge, and the case must result in a very strong view of providence (WCF ch. 5), which has consequences not discussed here.


1 For an argument against the consistency of simplicity and human LFW, see this post by Bill Vallicella. Also see my objection to his solution to retain God’s LFW even if humans can’t have LFW, and his response to it here—to which I still owe him a reply.



  1. notDerkPereboom says:


    I’m a doctoral student working on moral responsibility. Paul Anderson recommended that I check out your blog. I’ve got a couple of works in progress on Calvinism, monergism, moral responsibility, grace, and hell. Shoot me an email if you want to discuss some of the arguments I’m thinking about.

  2. notDerkPereboom says:

    Make that James Anderson… brain fart.

  3. Paul says:

    Will do, thanks!

  4. […] here overlaps to some extent with the criticisms raised by Paul Manata in his series of blog posts: here, here, here, and […]

  5. […] defense of libertarian Calvinism, though they are expressed in analytic-philosopher-speak. . Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part […]

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