The “C” in Calvinism?

calvinismIn 2009 Time magazine ran a story entitled “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” (Thursday, March 12). Not surprisingly, the top two spots were occupied by new trend setting thinking on career/workplace and life in the suburbs. However, the no. 3 spot was definitely a shocker: “The New Calvinism.”

The New Calvinism

According to the one-page entry, “Calvinism is back…Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination.” “Everyone knows,” says Ted Olsen, managing editor at Christianity Today, “where the energy and the passion are in the Evangelical world” – namely, with prominent teachers and authors like John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Albert Mohler, and The Gospel Coalition (founded by Donald Carson and Timothy Keller). I read, listen to, and enjoy all of these authors and teachers.

And yet while the resurgence of Calvinism (in print and pulpit) has been an effective antidote to the troubling evangelical drift to the left on traditional doctrines (e.g., hell, salvation through Christ alone, etc.), it is not wholly without controversy. Thus, Michael Horton notes:

new Calvinists enter what we call ‘the cage phase’. Like any new convert, we can be hard to live with when we’ve just experienced a radical paradigm shift…In this condition, enthusiasm can turn to frustration and even to arrogance and divisiveness (Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011)).

That certainly rings true in my experience, but it’s hardly an objection to Calvinism—taken as a theological system. At best, it’s an ad hominem attack and thus rightly dismissed. Or again, Al Mohler comments:

The moment someone begins to define God’s [being or actions] biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist” (Time 12-Mar-09 ).

The clear implication here is that if you’re not a Calvinist, you are defining God’s being and/or actions unbiblically. In fact, according to the Time article, “some of today’s enthusiasts imply that non-Calvinists may actually not be Christians.” Not surprisingly, that has led to the charge of divisiveness. But that, too, is ad hominem; for it is people who are divisive, not doctrines. Doctrines are simply true or false, reasonable or unreasonable.

Still, there are a few actual challenges for Calvinism to overcome–for example, the unjust distribution of irresistible grace. (Dr. Franks and I have previously explored that here.) In what follows, I’ll briefly survey another major sticking-point in the debate over TULIP Calvinism, namely, the issue of predestination and what room (if any) that might leave for free choice and moral responsibility.

This question emerges quite naturally from reflecting on the Calvinistic mechanism for predestining the elect. The elect (but not of course the non-elect) are given irresistible grace (IG)—grace that cannot be resisted and that “unfailingly brings about the act of saving faith” (Piper).

The question arises: If God’s bestowing IG on the elect unfailingly causes them to believe, then in what sense have they freely responded to Christ? Similarly, if I am non-elect and God abandons me to my desires, which irresistibly and infallibly cause me to reject Christ’s offer of salvation, how is that a free decision for which I am responsible? One thinks here of Jesus’ words to the lost sheep of Israel:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37).

It’s rather difficult (on Calvinism) to make sense of these poignant words. If the reason for Jerusalem’s being unwilling is God’s not having given them IG, why chastise these people for their unwillingness? If they are non-elect, then as Sproul says, God “abandons them to their own desires” (147). Here the people are simply acting in accord with those desires. If God had wanted them to be gathered unto Jesus, he should have granted them irresistible grace and a new set of desires. But he didn’t.

Edwards’ Law of Choice

Its Characteristics

As far as contemporary theologians go, we need look no further than R. C. Sproul for a clear and sensible statement of the doctrine of predestination and its entailments. In his widely respected book Chosen by God [Tyndale House, 1986; rev 1994], Sproul identifies the prima facie difficulty:

Predestination seems to cast a shadow on the very heart of human freedom. If God has decided our destinies from all eternity, that strongly suggests that our free choices are but charades, empty services in predetermined playacting (51).

This is the way things seem, says Sproul. It looks like there is no “C” (choice) in Calvinism. But appearances are actually deceiving. For if we attend to what a free choice is, we will see not only that it is perfectly compatible with our being causally determined, but also that our being thus determined guarantees that our choices are free. Some explanation is in order.

To begin with, says Sproul, free will involves “the mind choosing” between alternatives (53). For “[i]f the mind is not involved then the choice is made for no reason and with no reason. It is then an arbitrary and morally meaningless act” (53-54). Hence “every decision you make is made for a reason” (55) and “according to [y]our desires,” (75) which play “the vital role of providing a motivation or a reason for making a choice” (54) and without which you wouldn’t be able to make any choices. Thus Sproul:

Now for the tricky part—a human being is not only free to choose what he desires but he must choose what he desires to be able to choose at all (54).

In fact, not only do we choose in keeping with our desires, but our strongest desires determine our actual choices. This follows from what Sproul calls “Edwards’ Law of Choice”—dubbed in honor of Jonathan Edwards (d. 1758), the pre-eminent Calvinist theologian:

ELC:     The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment (54).

“It’s that simple,” says Sproul (56).

Its Corollaries

Well, what follows? Two things. First, “every choice is free and every choice is determined…This sounds like a blatant contradiction” (54). But it’s not. For

“determined” here does not mean that some external force coerces the will. Rather, it refers to one’s internal motivation or desire” (54).

This is to be sharply distinguished from coercion:

Coercion involves acting with some kind of force, imposing choices upon people that, if left to themselves, they would not choose” (57).

Now, at first glance, this makes it sound as though free will and coercion are incompatible. But Sproul actually denies this:

Even external acts of coercion cannot totally take away our freedom (57).

External forces can severely limit our options, but they cannot destroy choice altogether (59).

In short, causally determined choices are still free because they are determined by our desires, “which is the essence of freedom” (54). Thus, the non-elect freely reject Christ. They act on their strongest desire (which, apart from God’s irresistible grace, they cannot resist). Their choice is completely determined; but it’s also free because it’s what they desire. The same thing goes for the elect. They act on their strongest desire (the irresistible desire for Christ that God implants in them) and so embrace Christ. Again, the choice here is totally determined (there is no doing otherwise), yet it is free since it is in keeping with their strongest desire.

Problem solved.

Calvinistic Choice?

It’s true. If Edward’s Law of Choice is true, free will and determinism are compatible and the Calvinist is in the clear. Or is she? Consider for a moment the following apparently recalcitrant facts.

The Coercion Problem

First, the Sproul-Edwards account of choice implies that God’s giving irresistible grace to the elect is coercive. To be sure, Sproul does say that it is a “misconception of irresistible grace” (122) to think it involves people being coerced “kicking and screaming against their wills.” Rather, they desire Christ because God “plants a desire for Christ” (123) in them.

Unfortunately, that’s not Sproul’s definition of ‘coercion’. For him, coercion involves “imposing choices upon people that, if left to themselves, they would not choose” (57). And in fact God does that to the elect. For God imposes an irresistible desire on the elect (for Christ), and as Sproul says “our choices are determined by our desires” (54). Therefore, God imposes choices on the elect by imposing irresistible desires on them. Moreover, these choices are ones they wouldn’t otherwise have made, since apart from irresistible grace no one can choose Christ.

So both the elect and non-elect are coerced in their “decisions.” And if we know anything at all about free choices, it’s this: they’re not coerced. Caused, perhaps; but a free coerced choice is a contradiction in terms.

The Content Problem

Second, Edwards’ Law of Choice is either completely devoid of content (i.e., it doesn’t tell you anything) or it is an unprovable assertion. According to (ELC) “our choices always result from our strongest desires.” But how do we know that is always the case? Here is a possibility. We know that triangles are always three-sided because that’s part of the definition of a triangle. Perhaps Edwards (and Sproul) are simply defining a choice as “that act of will resulting from our strongest desire.” In that case, (ELC) reduces to the following:

ELC*:   The act of will resulting from one’s strongest desire results from one’s strongest desire.

This is true of course, but it’s an empty (analytic a priori) assertion. It can’t be used to prove anything important (e.g., what sort of grace is needed to overcome depravity).

Another possibility is that Edward’s Law is not true by definition, but rather always confirmed in our experience. But then it seems to be an unprovable claim. How are Edwards and Sproul going to show that every choice for every person (past, present, and future) has always been based on one’s strongest desire? It seems a hopeless business. Indeed, there are cases where we seem to choose contrary to our strongest desire. Consider, e.g., Gideon’s choice:

That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it. [27] So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him. But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night (Judges 6:25, 27).

Gideon’s strongest desire, I take it, was not to knock down his father’s idols. He was scared spitless. Why, otherwise, did he do it at night? Still, he obeyed the Lord—contrary to his most powerful impulse. We can deny this, of course, by claiming that after the Lord spoke to him, Gideon’s new strongest desire was to obey. But this reply simply retreats to the earlier position: we know that Gideon’s strongest desire was to obey because that is in fact what he did. Not only does this beg the question, it presupposes ELC*–the empty tautology.

The Control Problem

Third, Edwards’ Law of Choice implies that it is logically impossible for the non-elect to be saved. And if that is right, they can hardly be blamed for their non-belief. For they couldn’t (logically) possibly have done otherwise. Consider Judas. On Calvinism, he is surely among the non-elect. A question arises: is it possible that Judas be saved—not that he is, but that he could have been? Well, that depends on whether God could have given him irresistible grace. But given (ELC), there is a powerful reason for thinking God could not have done this.

According to Edwards’ Law, “the will always chooses according to its strongest inclination” (54). But of course God’s choice of the elect is a choice. That means that God’s election of the Eleven (but not Judas) was his strongest desire. Now God’s strongest desire won’t be random, arbitrary, and without foundation. As Sproul says, every decision “is made for a reason” (55). But then the same goes for the desires that determine the decisions God makes. They, too, must have a reason, basis, or foundation.

We now have a dilemma. Is the reason for God’s strongest desire (to elect the Eleven but not Judas) based on something external to him or internal to him? It can’t be based something external (say, God’s foreknowing how they will choose), since by all accounts election is unconditional. Therefore, if God’s strongest desire has any basis, it must be one internal to God. Here there are two possibilities to consider:

(1)  God’s strongest desire is based on his will. God wills himself to have that desire.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t get us very far; for then we must ask, “Why does God will things that way rather than another?” There must be a reason for that; otherwise, his desire here will be arbitrary. What we need here is something more foundational–an ultimate basis–to ground God’s desire. So we might try:

(2) God’s strongest desire is based on his nature. It is part of God’s nature to have that desire; it is essential to him, along with his omnipotence, omniscience, and the like.

If (2) is true–and it’s hard to see (in this case at least) how it wouldn’t be–it is impossible that God not have the ‘Eleven-But-Not-Judas’ desire, so that (given (ELC)) Judas could have been saved only if God could have elected differently. In that event, however, God’s strongest desire about whom to elect would have to have been different. But that’s just not possible if that desire is grounded in his nature—something over which God has absolutely no control. (Even Descartes would agree with that.) So we must face the fact that Judas could have been among the elect only if God’s could have brought it about that he had a different nature (and thus in fact didn’t exist). This is a bit much to put up with. The upshot is that (given (2)) it is logically impossible for Judas to be saved. The poor chap can no more be blamed for choosing to reject Christ than he can for failing to square a circle or for causing God (a necessary being) not to exist.

If there is a “C” in Calvinism, I don’t yet see it.

Note: This article has been reposted by the ‘Society of Evangelical Arminians‘ (April 22, 2015) here.

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5 comments on “The “C” in Calvinism?

  1. […] Davis, “The ‘C’ in Calvinism?” On the New Calvinism… and its problem that it’s logically impossible for the non-elect to be […]

  2. br.d says:

    I would argue that Sproul is conflating the characteristics of Libertarian Freedom with compatibilistic freedom. It is well established that in compatibilistic freedom PAP “Alternative Possibilities” do not exist. As Peter Van Inwagen states: “Determinism may now be defined: it is the thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.” In Theological Determinism – the creature choosing an alternative to what the THEOS determined would falsify/negate the THEOS’s determination – which is logically impossible. So in determinism there is no such thing as multiple options available to the creature. As Van Inwagen states – there is only one physically possible future – (i.e. that option which the THEOS determines). Additionally since that is the case – any creaturely perception of multiple options (e.g. alternative desires) is a ILLUSION. And that is why John Calvin teaches “Go about your office *AS-THOUGH* nothing is determined in any part”.

  3. […] my “The ‘C’ in Calvinism?” (reproduced here), I set out three difficulties for Calvinistic choice. In his “Calvinism and […]

  4. […] than it can possibly hope to solve. If you’re so inclined, you can read about why I think so here and […]

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