Calvinism’s Misplaced Culpability

calvinismCalvinism and TULIP go hand in hand. When you think of the one, it’s rather hard not to think of the other. However, certain qualifications are in order. “The truth is,” says Michael Horton, “there isn’t a central dogma in Calvinism” [link]. We can’t reduce Calvinism to a single doctrine. Nor can it be limited to TULIP. It is more than the acronym. Thus, John S. Feinberg notes that “God’s sovereign control [is] not only over election to salvation, but over all else,” including the future [link]. Well, that goes beyond TULIP proper, which is fair enough. If there is a difficulty for Calvinism, it lies not in its cleaving to the fact of God’s sovereign control, but rather in its proposed control mechanism which, I will suggest, creates more problems than it solves.

The “Nagging” Problem

On the Calvinist view, everything that occurs in human history (each and every event down to the smallest detail) is under God’s sovereign control. Not only is our salvation status predestined before the foundation of the world, so is everything else. Feinberg bids us to consider Ephesians 1:11 –

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

Notice, says Feinberg, the text says “all things”—not just some. If that’s right, there is “no room for indeterministic freedom” (30); that is, Genesis 3:5-6 freedom—the sort of freedom in which  Eve acted freely precisely because she was the author of her action (the taking of the fruit), she undertook it for a reason (it was aesthetically pleasing, good for good, and would make one wise if eaten), and she could have done otherwise. Only God’s causing everything will guarantee God’s being in control of everything. For if we embrace Genesis 3:5-6 freedom, God’s sovereignty is compromised. For then:

God cannot guarantee that what he decides will be carried out. No matter how much God inclines someone’s will toward what he has chosen…[it] can never be sufficient to produce God’s decreed action…I see no way for God to be in control of the world as outlined in Ephesians 1:11 [link].

Thus the “Calvinist/determinist’s point,” says Feinberg, “is to ask how God can really know…that something will occur if in fact it is not set” [link]. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is that he can’t know all things, he can’t know the future, unless it is set. And the setting mechanism is causal. “How does God accomplish all things?” Feinberg asks. As follows:

Some are done directly and exclusively by God without use of other agents, but most are accomplished through the agency of others (humans, angels, and so on) [link].

This falls in line nicely with Calvin, who writes:

His will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are…it pertains to his might to rule and control everything by his hand (Calvin, Institutes [John Knox Press, 1960], 949, 956).

On the Calvinist view, then, God has total foreknowledge of the future because he knows all the future events he intends to cause—either directly or indirectly. These include large-scale events like the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, as well as small-scale events like your thought that this post is about Calvinism. If he didn’t know these things in this way, they wouldn’t be “set” and God wouldn’t know them. So far so good.

But there is a snag. For as Sproul discerns, there is a potential problem here for God’s foreknowledge of future, sinful acts and events. Does he also know these by causing them? We don’t want that, do we? Thus Sproul:

The Bible clearly teaches that God did, in fact, harden Pharaoh’s heart…But we are still left with a nagging problem. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and then judged Pharaoh for his sin. How can God hold Pharaoh or anyone else accountable for sin that flows out of a heart that God has hardened? [link]

The “Knowing” Predicament

Sproul is absolutely right. This is a nagging problem. Even worse, the problem isn’t singular; minimally, it presents us with a three-fold difficulty. Let’s consider each problem in turn.

The Causal Problem

First, if God’s will is “the cause of all things that are” (Calvin), that is, if he causes each and every event, then it certainly looks as though God is the author of sin. For some actions and events ought not to have occurred:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, [20] idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [21] envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these (Galatians 5:19-21)

Not a pretty picture. But now recall how, on Calvinism, God guarantees (and thus knows) that the elect will freely choose Christ. (What follows is the thumbnail sketch. The details are due to Sproul.) We choose freely when we “make choices according to our desires” [link], and “[w]hichever desire is greater at the time of decision is the desire I will choose [link]. “It’s that simple,” he says. Accordingly,

[I]n regeneration God creates in us a desire for himself…we will continue to function as we always have functioned, making our choices according to the strongest motivation at the moment. If God gives us a desire for Christ we will act according to that desire. We will most certainly choose the object of that desire [link].

In short, God knows with certainty how the elect will freely and actually choose because he creates in them a desire for Christ (a strongest desire), and it’s just a fact that “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment” (Edward’s Law of Choice [link]).

If we generalize this model to all actions, we have a serious problem. For obviously the desires behind “the works of the flesh” are sinful. God cannot be the cause of these desires without being the author of sin, which is impossible.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. [14] But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. [15] Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

But if God cannot cause these sinful desires, how can he know what sinful choices will be made? They won’t be “set” because God hasn’t caused them, in which case (on Calvinism) they won’t be known.

Now here we must consider an objection that runs as follows. “You say that God causes Pharaoh’s desire, D, to harden his heart (HH), and that D in turn causes HH. It by no means follows that God causes HH. For this inference assumes the following principle:

TRANSITIVE:  If A causes B and B causes C, then A causes C.

This is no doubt true in general, but it surely fails in the divine-human hardening case.”

But why should we think so? Well, perhaps you think there is a sharp distinction to be made between causation on God’s part and causation on the part of human agents. Call the first G-causation and the second H-causation. These are fundamentally different kinds of causation, you say. God G-causes Pharaoh’s desire, D, to harden his heart. Still, he doesn’t G-cause the hardening; rather, HH is H-caused by D. So there is no single, univocal sense of ‘causes’ that allows us to say that in causing D, God thereby caused HH.

Unfortunately, the distinction at work here is spurious. The critic of TRANSITIVE is running together the relation of causality with its relata. The fact that God—one relata—causes a desire in Pharaoh doesn’t in any way show that there is a separate and unique relation: God-causation. There is simply God’s standing in the causal relation to something he has created. The same thing goes on the human level. Pharaoh’s desire, D, doesn’t human-cause his hard heart. It simply causes it. Indeed, insects also cause things. Are we going to reify that fact and say there is a special relation of insect-causation as well? I should think not. Causation looks very different on the divine, human, and insect levels. That is to be expected. But all that means is that different kinds of things have different causal powers—not that there is a different causal relation associated each natural kind.

The Culpability Problem

Now here the proponent of Calvinism is not without reply. Even if we must grant TRANSITIVE, and admit that God does cause the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, it doesn’t follow that he’s thereby culpable. God is responsible for the hardening in the sense that he caused it. But he’s not culpable for doing so because his intent wasn’t bad; it was good. You’re only culpable for causing a sinful state of affairs if your intent in doing so is bad.

Here there are difficulties along several lines. First, consider the event hardening one’s heart against God (HH, for short). HH has the property of being sinful; that is uncontroversial. Further, HH has this property essentially; it has it and could not have lacked it. But if so, God’s causing HH (via D) can’t bring it about that HH is good. For HH–that very event–is essentially sinful. Therefore, in causing D, God knows he is intentionally bringing about not just the potentiality of a sinful event but it’s actual occurrence. And for that he is surely culpable.

Still, perhaps God has a greater good he is trying to achieve by causing Pharaoh to sin—one that would justify his doing so. Surely, that must be his intent in causing HH. Alas, however, this response isn’t encouraging, since it partakes of consequentialism (and all of its ills): the action or event, in itself evil, is justified in terms of its long term results. John Stuart Mill, had he been a Christian, would have been delighted. But it’s not a biblical position.

Here’s what we know. God did harden Pharaoh’s heart; the text says so. But as Sproul rightly notes, the bible doesn’t explicitly say how he did that [link]. Direct or indirect causation is one answer. We also know that God can and will bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28). What he can’t do is cause the evil to achieve the good. Why not?

Well, think again about the James 1 passage. Notice the distinction in the text between (A) God’s being the cause of temptation, and (B) our “own desires” being the cause of temptation. These are contrasted by James. They are presented as two different sources of temptation. James flatly rules out the first. It is easy to see why. God cannot tempt because this would implicate him in activating desires in human beings that give “birth to sin.” And that’s simply impossible for God given his nature. That’s why our “own desires” have to be the cause of our being tempted.

In other words, God can’t do what Satan did in the Garden. He can’t tempt Eve to take the forbidden fruit and disobey him. A fortiori he can’t cause Eve to do what Satan tempted her to do. But now consider: if God can only control everything by causing everything, then the relationship between James’ two sources of temptation isn’t that of contrast but rather connection. God causally and culpably implants the sinful desire which “gives birth to” future sinful choices and actions. This is just the sort of concession the atheist was always hoping to wring from the Christian. And Calvinism freely delivers it up.

The Compromise Problem

Now the reply here, of course, will be that God doesn’t cause evil desires and the choices and actions they determine. He merely permits these things. There is a big difference. If he caused them, he would be culpable. He simply permits them; so the culpability remains with human agents. In principle, this is (I think) the right thing to say. It’s just that when coupled with Calvinistic principles, it compromises both God’s sovereignty and his foreknowledge.

First, it compromises God’s sovereignty. For if there are actions and events God doesn’t cause but merely permits, these aren’t determined by God (directly or indirectly), in which case God isn’t in control of whether they occur or not. That is, they’re not “set” in advance. But if not, then as Feinberg says, God won’t know them.

Moreover, if God doesn’t determine my desires, then it might be that my engaging in some sinful course of action is necessary (given God’s long-term purposes), but I don’t desire to perform that action. Then God must impose the sinful desire on me to guarantee (and know) that the action will take place. Calling upon total depravity here won’t help. For even if I suffer from that affliction, it doesn’t mean that all of my desires are evil all the time. Compare Jesus’ words:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11)

Note: Although they’re described as evil, these people are still said to give good gifts to their children. On Calvinism, that means they chose to perform that good act (gift giving)—a choice determined by a prior desire, which we can hardly classify as evil.

Secondly, it compromises God’s foreknowledge for the Calvinist to say that God permits but doesn’t cause evil. According to the Calvinist philosopher, Paul Helm, for God “to knowingly and willingly permit an action is not to cause that action” (“The Augustinian-Calvinist View” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views [IVP, 2001], 180 [link]). For Helm, then, God isn’t the cause of evil.

This raises the question: how, then, does God know in advance that (say) Judas will betray Christ for thirty pieces of silver? How does he know that will be his strongest desire on that occasion? Matthew 26:15 – “‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.” If “Edwards Law of Choice” is true, God will know that Judas’ “will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment” [link]. Furthermore, assuming that Judas is non-elect, God knows that Judas won’t be receiving irresistible grace, and thus abandoned to his desires, Judas will ultimately reject Christ.

But this hardly explains how God could know that Judas’ strongest desire on that specific occasion will be to betray Christ for exactly thirty pieces of silver, as opposed to forty, fifty, or a hundred. How is that specific detail supposed to be deduced from the general fact of Judas’ having unregenerate desires? Wouldn’t that be like trying to figure out the specific church I attend from the general fact that I’m a Christian? It’s a hopeless business.

If we say God foreknows Judas’ specific betrayal because he has an exhaustive knowledge of the laws of nature + the past states of the universe, which together cause his betrayal, then we end up absolving Judas of his sin altogether. For obviously, Judas has no choice about what the laws of nature are, nor what went on before he was born. His act of betraying Christ is then an act for which he isn’t responsible, since it wasn’t up to him. He’s neither the author of that betrayal; nor could he have done otherwise. The strongest desire in him on the occasion wasn’t “his own desire.” It was imposed on him from without.

In a strange twist, therefore, Calvinism actually locates the culpability for evil in the wrong place. It absolves human agents of their sin and wrong doing, while laying the blame precisely where the atheist wants it—squarely at God’s feet.

Note: This article has been reposted by the ‘Society of Evangelical Arminians‘ (May 14, 2015) here.

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