MetaphysicsTheology & Spirituality

The Calvinist Conundrum

When Calvinists argue against the conceptual validity of libertarian freedom, they undermine their own theology of God.

First, let’s clear up some terminology. Libertarian freedom, according to Robert Kane, has two main components: “We believe we have free will when (a) it is ‘up to us’ what we choose from an array of alternative possibilities and (b) the origin or source of our choices and actions is in us and not in anyone or anything else over which we have no control.”1 Libertarianism insists that free will is incompatible with determinism. Agents can perform free actions, and these actions are not merely causal links in a predetermined chain of events.

Christian thinkers who generally ascribe to a Calvinist understanding of sovereignty argue against the legitimacy of libertarian freedom. In contrast, they propose a version of theistic determinism in which all human actions are predetermined by God. This particular discussion of free will comprises much of the core of the (in)famous debate that dominates the halls of Christian dormitories around the US: The Calvinism-Arminianism debate.

My aim in this article is not to tease out all of the complex nuances of this discussion (a project doomed to fail from the start), but to respond to one particular argument Calvinists raise, namely that libertarian freedom can’t exist because it’s conceptually incoherent. As a case study, I will focus on John Frame’s arguments in The Doctrine of God.

According to Frame (among other Calvinists), we’re wasting our time arguing whether or not humans can have libertarian freedom because libertarian freedom is a theoretically incoherent concept. However, I intend to show that Calvinists cannot consistently defend this argument because, at the very least, they must believe that God has libertarian freedom.

The Calvinist Critique

In The Doctrine of God, Frame critiques the legitimacy of libertarian freedom on the grounds that it is unintelligible and does not provide the sufficient preconditions for an agent’s moral accountability. In order to articulate his point, he imagines a character, Hubert, who decides to rob a bank. Frame maintains that, if Hubert’s action was not already predetermined by his motives and desires, then his actions are ultimately arbitrary:

If Hubert’s action could be shown to be independent of motives, then he would likely be judged insane and therefore not responsible, rather than guilty. Indeed, if Hubert’s action was completely independent of his character, desires, and motives, one could well ask in what sense this action was really Hubert’s.2

In a subsequent footnote, Frame anticipates and responds to a libertarian objection to his thought experiment:

One libertarian reply is that the will was Hubert’s, and so the action was his. But what is meant by ‘will’ here? Does Hubert’s will have a character? Does it have preferences or desires? If so, then we are back to actions controlled by one’s nature, which libertarianism rejects. Does it have no character at all? Then how is it any different from a mere force that acts at random and is quite separate from anything in Hubert? On that supposition, how can it be Hubert’s will?3

Thus, Frame presents the theoretical problem of libertarian freedom as the horns of a dilemma: Either Hubert’s actions were predetermined by his motives or they are the product of random chance. Conceding the first would necessitate a Calvinist and deterministic understanding of freedom, while conceding the second would make choices arbitrary. Neither route is open to the libertarian.

Frame’s argument is not easy to refute. The charge of arbitrariness has been lodged against libertarians for centuries, and libertarians struggle to present a positive picture that coherently outlines how non-deterministic actions and choices are not arbitrary. But my aim is not to answer Frame’s argument, but to show that his theology, as well as those of his fellow Calvinists, face the same problem as the libertarian.

The Problem of God’s Freedom

In order to maintain God’s aseity, or self-sufficiency, it seems that God must have some form of libertarian freedom. After all, if God’s choice to create was predetermined by God’s nature, for instance, then creation plays an essential role in God’s nature. While some thinkers, such as process theologians, are comfortable with this implication, Calvinists are not going to compromise God’s aseity. If God is to be utterly self-sufficient, God must have been free, in a non-deterministic sense, to refrain from bringing creation into existence.

John Frame concedes that “there is nothing in God’s nature that required him to create and redeem. And there is a strong reason to believe that he was not so required, namely, the sheer graciousness of grace.”4 But once he acknowledges this, he finds himself caught in the same horns of a dilemma that he placed the libertarian. His response is to admit that he can’t provide a conceptually coherent account of God’s non-deterministic freedom:

This discussion leaves some difficult questions unanswered. One may well ask, if God’s free decisions are not determined by any of his attributes, then where do they come from? If these decisions are not libertarian random accidents, then what accounts for them? I can only reply, with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33).5

It’s important to note that Frame relies on a straw man in this response. Libertarians do not maintain that free decisions are “random accidents.” Rather, they insist that they are neither random nor predetermined. The struggle, for libertarians, is to clearly and coherently explain how that kind of freedom actually works.

But Frame grants a greater deal of charity to himself than he does to his opponents, to the extent that he draws arbitrary lines in the debate. While he does not want to admit it, Frame ascribes a form of libertarian freedom to God. But in so doing, he relies on a double standard: When Frame can’t explain how God’s libertarian freedom operates, it’s just a sign of his finitude in the face of God’s incomprehensibility; yet when libertarians can’t explain how libertarian freedom operates, it’s because their position is philosophically bankrupt. One need only substitute the term “God” for “Hubert” in his earlier thought experiment to show that his objection to libertarianism undermines his own theology of God.

The Necessity of Freedom

Ascribing libertarian freedom to God does not, of course, settle the overall debate about free will. After all, the Calvinist could argue that while God has libertarian freedom, humans do not. However, this discussion clarifies that Calvinists cannot maintain that libertarian freedom is conceptually incoherent without undermining their own theology. As far as I see it, Calvinists must acknowledge that God has libertarian freedom if they do not want to give up the doctrine of God’s self-sufficiency. And so long as that’s the case, denying validity and existence of libertarian freedom is not a valid option.

In other words, so long as Calvinists do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, they are not “free” to ditch libertarian freedom.

View Sources
Jacob Quick

Jacob Quick

Jacob is a displaced Texan who lives in Belgium, where he and his wife, Annie, are students. Jacob recently completed an MPhil in continental philosophy at KU Leuven. Jacob earned an MA in analytic philosophy from Northern Illinois University in 2015 and a BA in theology from Moody Bible Institute in 2012. Jacob enjoys travelling, reading, and discussing theology and philosophy with friends. His particular interests center around the intersection of philosophy, Christianity, and animal ethics.

Previous post

Why “The Prince of Egypt” Is the Bible Movie Viewers Deserve

Next post

Scripture as "Language" and MLK50