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Libertarian Calvinism – 2

This is part 2 of a series I’m doing on chapter 3 of Oliver Crisp’s new book, Deviant Calvinism (part one here). First, to summarize the main point of the previous post: Crisp wants to argue that libertarian freedom is consistent with Reformed Theology, specifically as elucidated in the Westminster Confession of Faith. I argued that Crisp’s argument is incomplete, choosing to focus only on chapters 3 and 9 of the Confession. However, there are other chapters that confess propositions that arguably don’t support libertarian free will. Specifically, I cited the Confession’s teaching about the nature of God and his knowledge, and made the case that these claims are prima facie inconsistent with libertarian free will. I then argued that several standard ways of resolving these troubles may not be open to the libertarian Calvinist, since the Confession plausibly rules them out. There are other portions of the Confession that will be shown to spell trouble for Crisp’s case, and they will make an appearance in the next post. In that post (part 3 of the series), I will interact directly with Crisp’s case for libertarian Calvinism. But before I do that, I want to discuss two terms Crisp employs in the chapter but doesn’t elaborate on. These terms show up in debates over free will and the kind of necessity theological determinists have wanted to say attaches to free human actions.

Crisp highlights what he takes to be some of the important claims in WCF 9 will be concerned with two out of his set:

1. “[The Confession] says…that the human will has a natural liberty that is not determined to do good or evil by any ‘absolute necessity‘.”

2. “The Confession makes it clear that the first human pair had free will consistent with alternative possibilities.”

I’ve highlighted the terms I want to discuss, and I’ll address them in order:

Absolute necessity. Crisp wants to highlight the WCF’s claim that man is not determined to do good or evil by an ‘absolute necessity’. I felt some discussion of this term was warranted, since this denial of determinism by absolute necessity seems to be used by some contemporary Reformed theologians in their arguments against seeing the classical Reformed view as a species of theological determinism. Muller is particularly guilty of this, and Kenneth Keathley cites WCF 9.1 in the context of repeating Muller’s argument that Reformed theology isn’t deterministic. I do not mean to imply that Crisp is trying to highlight this portion as a way to sneak an indeterminist foot in the door. But given the contemporary state of the debate, I feel it would have been helpful to elaborate on this. For those reading Crisp’s book, and the broader literature arguing that Reformed theology was never a species of theological determinism, I’d like to take a moment now to make some remarks about ‘absolute necessity’.

In 9.1 the WCF denies that man is “forced” or determined by “absolute necessity” to do good or evil.  I think that given the historical context, the WCF’s denying that “force” or “absolute necessity” determines us is evidence in favor of its affirming compatibilist freedom, but I don’t have time to go into that argue here. What is it to be determined by ‘absolute necessity’? One way to answer this would be to look at another kind of necessity: relative necessity. The relative necessity of some proposition p says that if some (non-empty) set of conditions, C, obtains, then p must obtain. The most interesting and defensible forms of determinism with compatibilism are of this sort. So, as Robert Kane notes:  “In more familiar terms, we say that a determined event is inevitable or necessary (it cannot but occur), given the determining conditions. . . .Determinism is thus a kind of necessity, but it is a conditional necessity” (Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, OUP, 2005, p. 6). This concept of this kind of necessity existed at the time the WCF was written—often called hypothetical necessity—and it’s important to note that the WCF does not deny that man is determined to do good or evil according to a relative necessity, though they could have.

Given the above, we can define absolute necessity in similar abstract terms: some proposition p is absolutely necessary just in case p obtains on a null set of conditions. Making matters a tad less abstract, absolute necessity is a very strong sort of necessity, often called broadly logical necessity. Some (popular) examples of absolutely necessary propositions might be: (i) the necessity of identity (i.e., a thing is identical to itself); (ii) that no prime minister is a prime number; (iii) that God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-powerful. On this view, there is no world where a thing X exists and X isn’t identical to itself. Likewise, there is no world where a prime minster exists and is a prime number. Same with God, as classically conceived. There is no world where he exists and lacks one or all of those attributes just listed. We might say that a thing, X, is “determined” by “absolute necessity” to be itself and not something else. Likewise, a prime minister is “determined” by an “absolute necessity” to not be a prime number.

With these concepts under our belt we can now understand what it would mean to say that “humans” are “determined” by “absolute necessity” to do “good or evil.” Suppose human H were determined by an absolute necessity to do evil E. This would entail that there is no world where H exists and does not do E. But, and this is important, this is consistent with H being determined by a relative necessity to do E. And most determinists, theological or otherwise, think humans are determined by a relative and not an absolute necessity.

Alternative possibilities. Crisp says that the confession makes it clear that the first human pair had a “freedom” that is consistent with “alternative possibilities.” (I’ll now refer to “alternative possibilities” as APs.) This is another place I wish Crisp had elaborated. Let’s get the relevant confessional proposition in front of us:

9.2 Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

I take it that Crisp thinks that our first parents having a power “mutably” means that they have freedom that is consistent with APs. But what does he mean by “alternative possibilities?” As the term is used in free will literature, it is generally cashed out thus:

PAP= S is free and responsible in doing action A only if S could have done otherwise than A.

But now how should we understand “could have done otherwise”? Well, there are compatibilist and incompatibilist analyses of that phrase. Here is a very basic definition for each:

PAPcompatibilist = S ‘could have done otherwise’ than A =  S would have done otherwise than A at time t if … (the ellipsis is filled in differently depending on the context, e.g., “If I had wanted to,” “If I had tried to,” etc.)

PAPincompatibilist = S ‘could have done otherwise’ than A  = S did A at time t in the actual world, @, and there’s some nearby world, w, to @, and w = @ up to t, and S does not-A in w.

The latter needs some clarification and qualification in various places but they would take us beyond the scope of this post. Basically, the idea is that you “do otherwise” than A in the sense needed for freedom if we hold everything leading up to your A-ing fixed (that is, your upbringing, your desires, your reasons, your environment, your biology, (God’s decrees?) etc., all stay the same right until the moment you choose A), and you don’t do A.

The former—which is not without its detractors, mind you—makes some change in the past leading up to the action, and says we do otherwise in the most similar world to our own that includes this small change. These compatibilists point to our language when we talk about things like regret. I often say, “If I had only known that the phrase was offensive in the company I said it in, I wouldn’t have said it.” This “knowledge” changes something about the past, and so is consistent with determinism which, generally, says “same past, same future” (of course, this would need to be modified for theological determinists since many don’t believe that God’s decrees are in the past). I will note that this analysis of PAP was very popular at the time of the WCF, and the “wanting” or “trying” condition was meant to rule out that the person was “forced” or “absolutely necessitated” to do the action, which is exactly what the WCF does.

So which sense does Crisp mean when he says that the WCF “makes clear” that our first parents had freedom consistent with PAP? If the latter, then Crisp should tell us whether we’re including God’s decrees in those things we hold fixed? If not, then does the world where Adam and Eve don’t fall contain a decree or not? If not, why does the Confession say that God decrees “whatsoever” comes to pass? If so, then is the decree a different decree from the actual world? If yes, then it’s trivially easy to show that this “PAP” is consistent with a determinism. Or, is the decree that same? If it’s the same, is it consistent with Reformed theology to say that we could falsify the decree? It’s not. So, do we “have a power” such that we could have made God decree something else? Do we have counterfactual power over the decree? Then God’s decree “depends on” the creature. He decrees because he foresaw it as future, or that it would come to pass if he instantiated certain conditions. How does this square with those other sections of the confession I cited in my previous post? These are questions libertarian Calvinists need to wrestle with and provide answers to if we’re to find out whether their libertarian Calvinism is really consistent with the WCF, let alone Reformed theology

On my view, it seems like the Confession is saying here that it’s possible that Adam sin. That is, his good nature and powers didn’t entail that he couldn’t fall. In other words, Adam’s nature was not “absolutely determined” to not fall. He was not like a triangle that, once created, couldn’t have angles summing to 190º. This is consistent, though, with the fall’s being relatively necessary upon the creation of Adam’s nature conjoined with a set of circumstances (e.g., God’s determinative decree, thanks to James Anderson for the nature/circumstance distinction here). Human nature, considered in itself, doesn’t necessitate that it will do good or evil.  So human nature (and the freedom or powers it has) considered in itself is consistent with “mutability” (or APs). (And this is what Ch.9 is discussing; the decree was discussed in ch. 3, after all!) Notice, however, that this says nothing about whether human nature (and freedom) conjoined with a set of circumstances (the decree) has PAP. The libertarian Calvinist needs PAP in the latter sense, and it’s far from clear (with apologies to Crisp) that the Confession makes clear that human freedom is consistent with PAP when human nature is conjoined with a particular decree. (Thanks to James Anderson, Steve Hays, and Greg Welty for discussion here.)

I regret the length of this post, but I felt that discussion of both of these terms is crucial to evaluating both theological determinism and libertarian Calvinism. In the next installment I’ll interact directly with Crisp’s libertarian Calvinism. I will argue (a) that it’s potentially impossible—entailing a contradiction—and (b) that even if (a) doesn’t hold, it must reject ought-implies-can (undermining a major motivation for LFW), and also ends up, interestingly enough, affirming some tenets of hyper-Calvinism.


  1. Jonathan says:

    2 silly questions (sorry for the bad grammar – not my mother tongue):

    1/ Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the WCF necessarily entails alternative possibilities and thus LFW when it says in 3.1 “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established”?

    If not, how do you interpret the bit “nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established”?

    2/ I understand that elsewhere the WCF states that “God’s knowledge is independant upon the creature and nothing is to Him contingent”. So of course this seems incoherent with creatures having access to alternative possibilities and some contingency. But shouldn’t we simply infer from this that they believed it to be a mystery to be left unresolved but to affirm? Surely they knew it was utterly paradoxical.

    With that “mystery” stance in mind, couldn’t we both affirm some form of LFW and theological determinism at the same time?

  2. Paul says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    You ask first if this “necessarily entails alternative possibilities and thus libertarian free”: “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

    I’m not clear on why you think this phrase “necessarily entails” APs and LFW. Perhaps you could present the argument for that entailment.

    You ask second about the apparant inconsistency of what the WCF says about God’s knowledge and its independency. You wonder whether “we shouldn’t simply infer from this” that the framers “believed [human libertarian freedom, and the independency of God’s knowledge upon those creaturely free actions] is a mystery left to be unresolved but affirmed.” This “mystery stance” allows us to “affirm some form of LFW and theological determinism.”

    In response, I certainly don’t think that that “mystery stance” is what we should infer. How does what you cite from the WCF make it obligatory to make that inference? Second, there’s powerful arguments for the inconsistency between LFW and FK, and the argument becomes exponentially stronger if we add the premise that “any solution can’t have it that God’s knowledge depends on the creature.” It’s not just that we can’t see how they both cohere, it’s that we have an argument that entails that they can’t. I think it’d be an intellectual shortcut to play the mystery card here. Perhaps, though, such an appeal could be funded by appeal to divine revelation. So, you’d have to say that God is in a position to correct our fallible metaphysical inferences, and he’s done so in the Bible, by (a) revealing that we have LFW and (b) theological determinism is true. Of course, I don’t think you could make a case for (a), for the same reasons Crisp cites about the WCF apply to the Bible—but in spades. That is, the passages you could appeal to are seriously metaphysically underdetermined. Second, virtually all libertarians would balk at the Bible’s teaching (b).

    Thankfully, we don’t need to engage in such machinations. For as I’ll argue in my next post, a position that affirms “LFW and theological determinism,” like e.g., Crisp’s libertarian Calvinism, is fraught with problems on top of problems. So stay tuned for the next post. At the end of the day, though, if one wants to dig in their heels and say, “I have no answer to these arguments, but I want to hold to LFW and determinism, and how they cohere is a mystery,” there’s not much I can say to that. I would think, though, that Crisp would find that to be a cost too high to pay, and would consider the libertarian Calvinist position a no-go.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Hi Paul,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    Regarding the 1st question – I’m just asking how you interpret the part that states “the liberty and contingency of second causes is established”?

    I suspect I misunderstood that phrase, but I’m not sure how.
    Doesn’t the possibility of actual contingencies of secondary causes (i.e. creatures) imply some form of APs (and thus LFW)? If not, why?

  4. Paul says:

    Around the time of the WCF it was popular to distinguish between the liberty of spontaneity and the liberty of indifference. The former was opposed to violence and the latter opposed to necessity and causes. The former liberty had to do with acting from the agent’s willings and desirings. Such a liberty could be necessitated in some way, but that necessitation could not be by force or coercion. Contingency is compatible with relative or hypothetical necessity, but not absolute necessity. This is discussed in the post somewhat and at more length in my paper on Reformed Theology and Freedom (go to the ‘papers’ section).

    Our wills are contingent causes, because it’s possible for them to cause something other than they do. To see that, just consider a world where God decrees that I don’t respond to you. Michael Sylwanowicz has some good stuff on this in Contingent Causality and the Foundations of Duns Scotus’ Metaphysics. But even if we assumed that ‘contingent’ implied ‘indeterminism,’ that’s still not enough to get you LFW. You’d need to establish *incompatibilism*. So a non-determined free action is not necessarily a LFW action.

  5. Jonathan says:

    OK, I get it now, that makes perfect sense.
    I wasn’t aware they had that particular distinction in mind when speaking of contingency.

    Many thanks for taking the time to answer, I’ll have a look at your paper.

  6. Paul says:

    No problem. Mind you, I’m not saying that they did in fact have that distinction—between kinds of ‘liberty’—in mind, just that that distinction was around at the time and it was popular to couple a compatibilist understanding of the liberty of spontaneity with the denial of “force” or “coercion.” It seems a metaphysical libertarian would want to deny a whole lot more. But I agree with Oliver Crisp that the Confession is metaphysically underdetermining and that it proceeds largely by way of “protective” clauses, i.e., saying what is affirmed does *not* entail, or what it disallows. Crisp thinks this may make room for LFW. I’ll soon argue that it doesn’t, but it does make room for various compatibilist proposals.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Yes, I get it, the goal was to deny “absolute necessity”, not to lay out a specific metaphysical position.

    Regarding the 2nd question and LFW:
    You mention that passages we could appeal to are seriously metaphysically underdetermined (I would agree). But can’t we say the same thing for the proof-texts used to postulate a full-blown theological determinism? (honest question)

  8. Paul says:

    I don’t use “proof texts to postulate a full-blown theological determinism.” That’s a handy name to give to the theological data. The theological data, even if metaphysically underdetermined, provides us a perimeter fence that theories of divine foreknowledge, providence, and human action must not transgress. I don’t think any extant “Arminian” (i.e., just a catch-all to refer to all varieties of ‘free will theism’) stay within the bounds. Theories that do, I think, look like ‘compatibilist’ theories, and the revelation data from omniscience, providence, sovereignty, and God’s decrees could be called ‘deterministic’ in the broad sense that they give rise to a conditional/relative necessity. But this ‘determinism’ isn’t like popular extant versions, e.g., nomological determinism, and it’s metaphysically wide open how the “mechanics” might work, and thus is underdetermined between many possible models. It’s just not so underdetermined that *any* model works. For example, you say you agree that the Bible is underdetermined. But I’m assuming you wouldn’t think Open Theism is just as good as any other view. And I’m assuming you wouldn’t accept an appeal by them to metaphysical underdeterminacy or “mystery” as a way to become on equal footing with all other options. (These are assumptions, maybe you do, but if so, we can just construct some case that even the Open Theist would say has “gone to far”.)

  9. Jonathan says:

    I see what you mean.

    Many thanks for the exchange, much appreciated.
    I’ll take the time to read your paper and dig the other articles.

    (No, I’m not an open theist, obviously)

  10. Matthias says:

    Having tangled with Molinism in the last couple months, these last few posts have been enjoyably engaging. Thanks!

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October 2014


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