Misunderstanding “Calvinism”?

I greatly appreciated reading Timon Cline’s recent piece, The Necessity of Contingency, written in response to AJ Maynard’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and the Pitfalls of Calvinism. In fact, I wish I’d read something like Timon’s piece a few years ago, during one of my more vitriolic anti-Calvinist stages. Indeed, over the last few years, I’ve come to learn (to my chagrin) that I’ve been trafficking in mischaracterizations of historic Reformed thought. In my concern to avoid the awful specter of hard determinism coupled with a doctrine of double predestination, I fell prey to a certain misconception about the nature of free will and God’s sovereignty: the notion that Reformed thinkers’ talk of “God willing all things” referred to a kind of arbitrary divine interference—like an agent among other agents—with the normal operations of human existence. This is incorrect.

The critical point Timon draws out in his article (though not in these exact terms) is the distinction between primary and secondary causality—a distinction that sounds archaic at first glance, but when clearly spelled out, makes a great deal of sense. Primary causality refers to God’s eternal sustenance of the world in being. Both Scriptural witness and serious metaphysical reflection testify that all things ultimately originate from God—understood in orthodox Christian theology as actus purus, the absolute, simple, infinite fullness of being. God’s creative act is eternal and immutable, and what God wills must come to be. In this sense, God is indeed the cause of everything that happens in the world, because “cause” is understood here in the sense of a dependency relation—not as an intervening force within creation that compels a particular result. Secondary causality, by contrast, is what we normally think of when we conceive of cause and effect—X results in Y. If I drop a package filled with fireworks and a bystander is injured, my action is the cause of their injury.

If all this sounds obscure, consider two people who decide to conceive and bear a child. That child, when grown, becomes a bank robber. Who is responsible for those robberies? In one sense, the parents who chose to procreate were the cause of the bank robberies, insofar as the robber—had he not come into existence—could not have committed any robberies at all. But our laws, and our moral intuitions, reflect the fact that the robber still retains a capacity for independent choice. The robber is the sole party who may properly be held responsible for his actions, even though others were responsible for the creative act that brought him into existence. (The analogy is obviously imperfect, but I think it does a reasonably good job of illustrating the essential point.) A more nuanced way of thinking about causality, while it undoubtedly raises questions of its own, goes a long way toward addressing how God’s perfect goodness and providence can coexist with the reality of moral agents who do evil.

So far, Timon and I are in agreement. But it seems to me that there’s an important issue still on the table: an enormous number of prominent “Reformed” and “Calvinist” writers do not share the classical-theist premises that render the primary/secondary causality distinction intelligible. In his recent book All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (which Timon ably reviewed here), James Dolezal provides a veritable who’s-who list of Reformed writers who have jettisoned certain elements of the traditional doctrine of God—including such luminaries as D.A. Carson, Bruce Ware, J.I. Packer, Alvin Plantinga, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Frame, and Wayne Grudem. Similarly, as Joshua Schendel has explained, leading Reformed theologian K. Scott Oliphint has sharply criticized Thomas Aquinas—perhaps the foremost exponent of these ideas about causality—as insufficiently biblical and too subservient to classical philosophical categories.

Now, to be sure, the eclipse of classical theism and its “negative” descriptive categories—God’s timelessness, immutability, impassibility, infinity, and so forth—is certainly not limited to those who self-identify as Reformed. The position philosopher Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism”—the idea that God is merely a more eminent being alongside us, rather than the genuinely transcendent origin of all origins—is widely held, particularly among American evangelicals.

But Reformed thought undoubtedly differs from other strains of Protestantism in its emphasis on human depravity, absolute divine holiness, and double predestination (not that there’s not plenty to admire in that tradition). And when the core concepts of classical theism—chief among them the idea that God is not the same kind of causal agent as other causal agents—start to be compromised, but the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and the predestination of the non-elect to hell are nonetheless stressed, we start to have a vision of God very like the “sinister” figure AJ critiques. In light of this tendency within the Reformed fold, AJ and I can perhaps be forgiven for (regularly, and often mistakenly) associating “Reformed” theology with what AJ describes as “the voluntarist God of Calvinism.”

Ironically, voluntarism—the notion that “what is good” is reducible to “what God wills,” contra earlier views that saw “God” and “goodness” as intrinsically synonymous—is precisely what a classical Reformed Christian would repudiate. Voluntarism leads to all sorts of bizarre theological consequences, such as the notion that even adultery would be morally good “if God happened to will it so.” (Among other consequences, voluntarism obliterates any possibility of arguments from natural law.) Nevertheless, a tacit voluntarism nonetheless seems to pervade a large number of self-described “Calvinist” texts. And anecdotally, I’ve encountered a fair number of Reformed folks—admittedly, mostly within the “New Calvinist” wheelhouse—who seem to favor a highly voluntaristic “puppet-master theology” that totally neglects the difference between primary and secondary causality.

This tendency, I think, adds a great deal of fuel to the fire in any debate over God’s determining will (and helps explain why so many evangelical teens, myself included, spent the aughts fighting about freedom and necessity). Mixing voluntarism with Calvinism, and thereby making God’s acts essentially arbitrary rather than intrinsically good, leads to the conclusion that God’s choice to save or damn individuals is purely capricious. And that is an ugly thing indeed.

If there’s an obvious solution to this dilemma, I don’t have one. Perhaps contemporary Christianity simply needs a renewed appreciation of its history, in particular where its doctrine of God is concerned (for what it’s worth, these comments on the theology of “popular” Calvinism apply just as readily to “popular” Arminianism, which—when carefully examined—abandons most of the classical categories altogether). Perhaps more Reformed writers need to heed Dolezal’s admonition and return to the “God of their fathers.” But more importantly, perhaps people like me need to do a better job of not judging theologies by their most zealous present-day exponents.


John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

Previous post


Next post

The Theology of Jordan Peele's Us