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Libertarian Calvinism – 3

This is the third installment of a series on Oliver Crisp’s “Libertarian Calvinism,” a chapter in his new book, Deviant Calvinism. Part one is here and part two is here. In this post I’ll engage directly with libertarian Calvinism. I hope to show that even if the issues I raised in the first two posts could be addressed—which, I think, is by no means an easy task—libertarian Calvinism faces problems that not even Hal Jordan (a.k.a the Green Lantern) could overcome.1

1. Libertarian Calvinism

In this section I’d like to sketch the details of Libertarian Calvinism. Libertarian Calvinism (LC) claims that it’s right to think our first parents libertarian freely sinned, and they would claim this is consistent (identical?) with what the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) says about Adam and Eve. But, as confessionally sensitive, LCs also hold that post-fall humans do not have the libertarian freedom to choose to be reconciled to God. Yet, says the LC, man’s inability to freely choose to be reconciled to God does not imply than man lacks libertarian free will in everything. Man is libertarian free to make all sorts of non-salvific libertarian free choices, from what breakfast to eat to whether he helps or hurts his fellow-man.

LC affirms that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, but exercises his sovereignty over all things in various ways. When it comes to the salvation of certain people—the elect—since the elect cannot libertarian freely choose God, “God has to ensure their salvation by determining it” (88). LC, then, holds to a “mixed” view of human freedom and responsibility. Divine ordination includes elements of determinism (with respect to choices leading to the salvation of an individual) and indeterminism (which respect to many other mundane choices)” (89). Since LC is “incompatibilist,” then, it holds that freedom and responsibility are “inconsistent with divine determinism.” This means that when God determines that a particular sinner turn toward him and repent, this is an action “that [is] not free and for which the fallen human beings in question are not responsible” (91). So, many fallen humans have libertarian free will for at least all their non-salvific actions. But, given our fallen state, we are unable to freely come to God. God must bring us to himself. Moreover, in keeping with WCF desideratum, this bringing must be “effectual,” it cannot fail. So, God “determines” our turning to Christ, whether this means he determines a particular action or he “reorders our desires,” upon which it must follow that we will turn to God out of this new nature (cf. fn.13 p.91).

I take it that I’ve charitably summarized Oliver’s statement of LC.

2. Objections

2.1 Quibbles

I have just two quibbles that I’ll try to state briefly:

(1) I don’t think it’s right to say that LC holds to a “mixed” view of “human freedom,” if this is meant to separate itself from other Christian libertarian views. As far as I am aware, most if not all libertarians hold that some of our actions are (or can be) determined. Even Open Theists, ostensibly radical libertarians, allow that God determines some human actions. Moreover, human freedom is not “mixed” on LC. It’s simply libertarian freedom.

(2) Oliver gives zero attention to source incompatibilism. Most libertarians, I think, would say that sourcehood is where all the action is at. If it’s irrelevant whether someone is the ultimate source of their actions, then LFW is (pretty much) irrelevant. The sourcehood requirement says that a free agent must be the ultimate source of his action or nature (will, character, etc.) from which he acts. If an agent’s nature (will, character, etc.) from which she acts ultimately traces back to an external cause, rather than to the agent as the ultimate former of that nature then the agent is not responsible for the actions which flow from this nature. These agents don’t have the right sort of history. Now, this isn’t to deny that an agent can’t have a character that determines (or even strongly inclines) the types or tokens of the libertarian free actions it performs. But, if an agent does have such a character, to satisfy incompatibilism we must be able to trace the formation of this character back to prior libertarian free choices of which the agent was the ultimate source (and, many libertarians would argue, the agent had to have alternative possibilities open to them at this time).

Oliver seems to focus mostly on the ability to do otherwise (in an indeterminist sense), and at times talks of fallen humans’ actions merely not being determined. But, indeterminism is not sufficient for libertarianism. Incompatibilism is needed. Moreover, I would argue that at least source incompatibilism is needed, for mere leeway incompatibilism leaves libertarianism open to serious problems with luck. And so I will assume that the libertarian Calvinist is both a source and leeway libertarian (the latter because Oliver places a lot of weight on “doing otherwise”). Though this was a quibble about how Oliver presented LC (not explicitly affirming sourcehood), we will see below that it will form the basis for some of my objections to LC.

2.2 Libertarian Calvinism is possibly contradictory, and at best highly implausible

Recall from §1 that LC requires that God determine fallen man’s choosing to be reconciled with God. In Reformed theology, God’s effectual calling (hypothetically) necessarily results in a new nature.2 The redeemed act from this new nature. Many of the post conversion actions they do (praying, worshiping, tithing, re-ordered relationships, etc.) flow from (or are sourced in) this new nature. Indeed, this new nature will (unfailingly) develop into a glorified nature, and will determine if not all tokens of heavenly actions, at least the moral type of heavenly actions. The redeemed will be unable to sin, and all that they do will be pleasing to God.

Many have argued that considerations like those above present a problem for traditional libertarian Christians.3 But libertarians have a reply.4 The idea is this: even if the redeemed have a nature that determines their heavenly actions, the redeemed are the ultimate source of their having this nature. We can trace their redeemed nature back to a (pre-conversion) choice they libertarian freely made. Thus, they have the right sort of history.5

But now consider the position LC is in. LC denies ultimate sourcehood (at least for one relevant domain, as I will explain); God is ultimately responsible for changing our nature. The redeemed nature we act out of is not ultimately due to us but is caused externally. The causal buck stops with God, not us, and that’s a violation of source incompatibilism. Indeed, as the LC admits, God determines our obtaining a new nature. But the sourcehood requirement for libertarian free will is incompatibilist, and so cannot be determined.

Now, the dicey problem is just this: many (if not all) of the actions the regenerate do that flow from or are sourced in this new nature are taken by Christians of all stripes as free actions. Pick your favorite action that flows from or is sourced in your regenerate heart, one you would not do (or would not do with the same motivation or reasons) if you were unregenerate. You probably see this as a free action. But how could it be free on LC? Since the new nature (the new man, the heart of flesh, etc.) is not something we’re ultimately responsible for—it’s not ultimately “up to us” whether we have the nature or not—then these actions could only be free in the compatibilist sense. And here’s the problem: LC, by affirming libertarianism, affirms source incompatibilism. But, to retain credibility and affirm that we do all sorts of free actions that are sourced in our regenerate nature, it must also affirm source compatibilism. But compatibilism and incompatibilism are contradictory! Thus, LC, to remain credible, must affirm a contradiction. This spells doom for LC. Now, LC has another option. That is to reject that any of our actions that flow from our new nature are free actions. This position is extremely implausible. Ultimately, it would seem to require that we never do a free action in heaven, since all our actions in heaven (it seems) are sourced in that regenerate (now glorified) nature. So, if LC isn’t contradictory, it’s highly implausible. If this doesn’t spell ‘doom,’ it at least spells ‘Worry’ (with a capital W).

These objections seem sufficient to reject LC, and if we assume that the WCF is consistent, then LC is inconsistent with the WCF. Moreover, if we assume that the WCF affirms that God determines our having a new nature, and also affirms that we freely act from that nature, then the Confession at least implicitly affirms source compatibilism.

2.3 Libertarian Calvinism, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’

Suppose you’re not convinced by the above argument. There’s another strong objection to LC.6 I will assume that it is obvious that the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ principle is a major reason many endorse libertarianism.7 Crisp seems to endorse this on behalf of LC when he remarks that, for the LC, we can only be morally responsible if we could have done otherwise (cf. 87, 89, 91).  If one could be morally obligated to do an action, and then held accountable for not doing it, even if one could not (ultimately, through tracing/sourcehood) avoid doing it, then it would seem a major reason for affirming LFW, and a major reason for denying compatibilism, would be undercut. In fact, some philosophers (e.g., David Copp, Ish Haji) use ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ to derive the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) that the LC says is in the WCF. PAP is required for the truth of certain morally deontic judgments. So, given ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, then PAP. And, given PAP, compatibilism is false. So, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ is clearly an important principle for libertarians.

But here’s the rub for LC: there’s a problem with ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ and LC. We must recall that LC gets its Reformed bona fides from being ‘compatible’ with the WCF. Following the Bible’s claim in Acts 17:30 that God requires all men everywhere to repent, WCF 15:6 states: “As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof…” It seems here that all people (or, at least, all appropriately situated persons) have a moral obligation to repent of their sins. Failing to do so would seem to be something they are morally responsible for, since they are liable to punishment by God for failing to do so. But, as LC makes clear, all men are unable to repent of their sins unless God determines that they turn from their ways and seek to be reconciled. So LC seems at odds with ‘ought’ implies ‘can’.

Another example can be taken from WCF 16:7: “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God…” (emphasis mine)

Here we read that unregenerate persons can do some of the things God commands—but not in the right manner, for the right reasons, and to the right end—and thus in not doing so, they sin. As section 16 makes clear, only regenerate persons may do good without sinning (and I’d just note the sourcehood worries already creeping in here). As LC maintains, unregenerate people are unable to effect the regenerate nature required to do good works that proceed in a non-deviant causal way—in the right manner, and for the right reasons and end—from their regenerate nature. Thus, even the “mundane” good actions Crisp says that the unregenerate libertarian freely do are tainted and incur God’s displeasure. If they ‘ought’ to do these actions in the right way, for the right reasons, and to the right end, then, per ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ they can. But, LC Calvinism has it that they can’t. hence, LC must deny ‘ought’ implies ‘can’.

One final example should suffice. Chapter 21, “On Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day” makes clear that all men have a moral obligation to worship God, with one essential constituent of this worship being that “all men” have the obligation to pray “in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.” Along with this, “all men” are required to worship God on the day he has appointed. It seems clear, especially with regard to the heart of prayer, that these things are actions that could only flow from a regenerated nature. Putting aside the issue that our prayers seem to be (paradigm!) free actions (again, inviting the sourcehood considerations I raised in §2.2), since not all men are able to pray and worship in this way, but are morally obligated to, then, again, it seems as if the WCF, and thus LC, must deny ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. LC can deny the WCF on these points, but LCs consistency with the WCF was the touchstone for its Reformed bona fined. Moreover, this denial will motivate a further problem with LC (see §2.4).

The argument presented in this section, as with the above section, seems to pose a serious problem for LC. If the LC must deny ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ it’s just not clear what the motivation for being a libertarian is. Moreover, if, as we have seen, the WCF (implicitly) denies ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ then this would seem to be just one more piece of evidence (couple with sorcehood worries, and worries about God’s omniscience and the independence of his knowledge on the creature) that the WCF implicitly affirms a compatibilist version of freedom.

2.4 LC as a species of Hyper-Calvinism?

In his chapter on “Libertarian Calvinism,” Crisp tries to defend LC from several positions. Some might want to say that it is “conceptually confused.” In §2.2 I argued that it possibly was conceptually confused (or at best implausible), and Crisp does not interact the argument I raised there. But, he also tries to handle objections that LC is just “a species of Arminianism” (91-92), or just “a species of Calvinism” (92-93). I won’t interact with Crisp’s defense of LC against these charges, but I’d like to raise a “species” he doesn’t consider: hyper-Calvinism.

This objection would come into play if Crisp allowed LC to escape the objections raised in §2.3. Suppose that Crisp were to deny that all people have a duty to have faith in God and his Son. As I made clear above, the WCF assumes “duty-faith.” Duty-faith is, simply, that all people have a duty to have faith in God and his Son. The Bible also assumes this (cf. Acts 2:38, 2:40, 3:19, 17:30, 26:20; 2 Th. 1:8; Jn 3:36; Mt. 11:28; etc.) However, hyper-Calvinism denies this. Indeed, as Tom Nettles claims, it seems that the essence of hyper-Calvinism is a denial of duty-faith. The hyper-Calvinist document The Gospel Standards affirms this denial of duty-faith when it states: “Therefore, that for ministers in the present day to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe, and receive Christ, or perform any other acts dependent upon the new creative power of the Holy Ghost, is, on the one hand, to imply creature power, and on the other, to deny the doctrine of special redemption.” Similar, and stronger, statements could be supplied from the pens of other hyper-Calvinists.

Thus, to maintain a plausible libertarianism, and save the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, libertarian Calvinism has the odd consequence that it looks like “a species” of hyper-Calvinism! Of course, LC can affirm duty-faith, but then it runs into the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ problem (and compounded sourcehood problems).8

3. Conclusion

In this post I raised three objections to LC. That it’s either contradictory or highly implausible. That it must deny ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, and that to look plausible and escape some of these criticisms it has to climb into bed with hyper-Calvinism. I take these problems (coupled with one’s I raised previously) to be very serious objections to LC. It’s not clear, to my mind, that LC can recover. I suggested a few moves on LC’s behalf, but these moves incur heavy costs (such as being implausible, denying source incompatibilism, denying ‘ought’ implies ‘can), and it’s far from clear why one would want to pay them to have the privilege of being a libertarian Calvinist. But if LC can recover, I suspect that the thing that emerges will have found it necessary to drop the ‘C’.


1 This reference is inspired by Crisp, who uses Hal Jordan as an analogy for his libertarian Calvinism.

2 WCF 10.1: “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power…”

3 See, e.g., Steven Cowan, “Compatibilism and the Sinlessness of the Redeemed in Heaven.” Faith and Philosophy,Volume 28, Issue 4, October 2011.

4 See Kevin Timpe and Tim Pawl, “Heavenly Freedom: A Response to Cowan.” Faith and Philosophy 30 (2):188-197 (2013).

5 There’s another problem here, one I once raised to Robert Kane. What about infants who die in infancy and go to heaven, where they are now glorified and unable to sin? We can’t trace their free action back to some prior libertarian choice of theirs. At the time, Kane said he didn’t have an answer. I had hypothesized that protestant libertarians would need to invoke something like purgatory, where they infants go and are given a chance to form their wills. And, providentially enough, I started finding protestant philosophers making exactly this move. However, this position would not seem to be open to the LC, though I won’t explore this here.

6 The argument in this section and the next is inspired by Greg Welty’s comments on a doctoral dissertation about Calvinism and Molinism that I read. Welty related them to certain biblical passages, but in reading the WCF I found his comments could be adapted to fit there too.

7 I mean ‘can’ here in its metaphysically strong, incompatibilist sense.

8 It’s important to note, though, that not all of my objections in §2.3 rest on “duty-faith.”


  1. YnottonY says:

    Speaking of quibbles, you say:

    “Duty-faith is, simply, that all people have a duty to have faith in God and his Son.”

    Duty-faith has in mind a particular kind of faith and repentance, namely evangelical or saving faith. The teaching is that all those that hear the gospel offer and call are duty-bound to savingly or evangelically believe. Hyper-Calvinists do not deny that all men have a legal obligation to repent and believe. They think “legal repentance” involved “an external change not associated with [evangelical] salvation,” as Robert Oliver notes in his criticism of Nettles on Gill.

    You’ll notice that the Gospel Standard statement that you quote above speaks of “savingly repent[ing],” etc. They’re denying that all men who hear gospel preaching are duty-bound to savingly believe in the evangelical sense. That’s an important distinction, and Nettles is an example of someone who has regularly missed that and significant point in his discussions on hyper-Calvinism, and so others have had to bring it to his attention, such that he has had to hesitatingly backpedal, saying (in an obscure footnote) that “there may be compelling evidence that Gill held to the distinctive Hyper-Calvinist tenet [i.e. the denial of duty-faith].”

    Anyway, I thought I would let you know about that important qualification, even though it is off topic. Since it is a subject beside the point, I would not mind if you deleted it. I just thought you might want to carefully qualify on the point in the future.

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks Tony. To my mind, I had the duty to have saving faith in mind even if, I guess, Nettles didn’t—I’ll take your word on that.

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October 2014


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