Church HistoryReformedTheology & Spirituality

The Necessity of Contingency

One of my favorite aspects of writing for Conciliar Post is the chance to engage with others of ecclesiastical traditions and theological persuasions different from my own. This requires the willingness to have my own convictions critiqued, and attempting, when able, to respond with all the charity and clarity that a sinner like myself can muster.  

AJ Maynard, in his recent post, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and the Pitfalls of Calvinism, has offered another opportunity to do just that. Therein, he presented a fairly common critique of “Calvinism” that, surprisingly, many self-professed Calvinists fail to answer well. I hope that I may briefly offer an answer to AJ’s well-taken criticism of a theological position that I hold to, whilst reflecting the model of Christian discourse that John Ehrett outlined earlier this week. AJ always brings stimulating ideas to the table in is posts, which I appreciate.  As I have done in the past, (though not with AJ specifically) I aim to use AJ’s post as an excuse to correct a regular misconception regarding Reformed doctrine. 

Calvin and Calvinism

Before getting to some of AJ’s main points I must set the stage for my eventual answer by addressing a problem of terms, or labels. This is not a critique of AJ’s argument, but of a broader issue which is nevertheless featured in AJ’s post. Colloquially speaking, we usually know what someone means when they label someone, or something, “Calvinist.” This label typically has reference to the doctrines of predestination, limited atonement, and the sovereignty of God. Yet, this label is fundamentally problematic for several reasons. In short, it yields imprecision and misconception.

To elaborate, when one refers to “Calvinism” this implies that either 1) Calvin was the proponent of unique and innovative doctrines without precursors, and not otherwise found in the theology of his contemporaries; or 2) that Calvin was the dogmatic center or the preeminent leader of the non-Lutheran wing of Protestantism; and 3) employing the label of “Calvinism” today suggests that what was produced by Calvin is the end-all-be-all of Reformed doctrine and that no subsequent development and clarification resulted thereafter.

Richard Muller has done much to disabuse those in his own theological and scholarly camp from this amorphous idea of a “Calvinism” for some of these very reasons. First of all, we must remember that self-consciously, Calvin himself was attempting no innovations. “[T]he only truly unique theologian,” says Muller, “who entered Geneva in the sixteenth century, Michael Servetus, did not exit Geneva alive.”1 Unlike our modern day, innovation was not synonymous with industriousness or brilliance in Calvin’s day and, accordingly, was not rewarded. Muller continues: “If, for example, there is anything unique in [Calvin’s] doctrine of predestination, it arose from the way in which he gathered elements from past thinkers in the tradition and blended them into his own formulation. But the fact is that his formulation is strikingly similar to those of [Martin] Bucer, [Pierre] Viret, [Wolfgang] Musculus, and [Peter Martyr] Vermigli.”2 The names listed by Muller will likely be unfamiliar even to most modern professors of “TULIP”,3 but Muller’s point is that Calvin was, at most, the first among equals, and that he did not do theology in isolation, but rather in conversation both with the grand tradition of Western Christianity and his fellow Reformed Protestants.

Hence, his particular expression of doctrines like predestination may have been unique, in which case, Calvin himself is the only Calvinist that has or will ever live, but his basic dogmatic convictions were shared by his Reformed brothers-in-arms. And the influence was not one-way. Indeed, Muller notes, for example, the evident influence of both Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon on Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.4

In the same vein, neither the contemporaries of Calvin nor those immediately subsequent to him would have identified as his followers. This is true even for his successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza. Both Calvin’s contemporaries, like the ones noted above, and Reformed theologians of the ensuing generations after Calvin’s death, like Zacharias Ursinus, Jerome Zanchi, Caspar Olevianus, and Amandus Polanus, would have all identified as members of a larger tradition of which Calvin was merely a noteworthy part. In fact, it was arguably Martin Bucer who enjoyed greater notoriety in Calvin’s day than Calvin and Vermigli (who had the reputation as the better scholar). As Perry Miller observed that in the seventeenth century, “If we measure by the number of times a writer is cited and the degrees of familiarity shown with his works, Beza exerted more influence than Calvin, and David Pareus still more than Beza.”5 If modern Reformed Protestants want to understand the theological development of their own camp, and their confessional heritage (more below), they would do well to acquaint themselves with some of the relatively unknown names referenced above.

More to the point, the Reformed of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries vehemently rejected the name “Calvinist,” almost always insisting on being called “Reformed Catholics,” i.e. the members of the true Catholic Church, distinct from the un-reformed Roman sect of the universal church.6

And though “Reformed Catholicism” represented a generally unified set of doctrines, or rather, nuanced continuity, 1) it did not stand in a relationship of repudiation with the vast majority of what had come before, but rather dissented from the Roman Church on a narrow but important set of issues; and 2) there was a significant level of diversity within the Reformed tradition, increasingly so in the seventeenth century.

Calvin was not unique or innovative to the extent that is implied by the label “Calvinist” as used today. He was a leader but not the leader of the Reformed branch of Protestantism (one will remember that Bullinger and Zwingli “led” their own respective Reformed factions). And there was both a basic continuity between medieval theology and the Reformed, diversity within continuity amongst the Reformed themselves, and subsequent development after the death of Calvin. Richard Muller, of course, has provided much more extensive critique of the Calvinist label, but I trust my desired point has been made here, which is that a reference to a “Calvinist” doctrine runs into some problems.

What is more helpful, in the interest of clarity, is to refer to the Reformed tradition. To flesh out the content of this reference one can, it seems to me, take one of two approaches. Either they can attempt to delineate the continuities and discontinuities between particular theologians throughout the past several hundred years, eventually arriving at a general but nuanced consensus on a particular doctrinal point (this is more or less to embark on the lifelong project of Richard Muller himself); or, more preferably, one can look to the Reformed confessional tradition, which represents the consensus of collectives rather than the particular views of individuals (which views were often formulated in response to those who differed from them—e.g. The Canons of Dort (1619)). In short, the confessional documents represent the best summary of what the traditional Reformed believed.

These documents were products of whole hosts of theologians and church representatives who arrived at doctrinal formulations by often long processes of debate and compromise. It is allegiance to one of said documents, whether it be the Westminster Confession (1646), the Second Helvetic Confession (1562), the Thirty-nine Articles (1571), or the Three Forms of Unity (1619), to name a few, that defines one as “Reformed” and thus standing in the theological lineage of what came out of the sixteenth century Reformation. The fealty to the particular formulations of a single theologian, however helpful said formulations might be in elaborating on accepted Reformed doctrine, is not very helpful in this regard. Furthermore, it is the confessional tradition that exhibit the aspect of catholicity of the Reformed faith in a way that a single theologian, depending on the aims of a given work, cannot.

The label of “Calvinist” may remain useful, though not preferable, if all of the above points are kept in mind and somehow made inherent in the term. What must be remembered is that Calvin belonged to a much bigger world and much grander tradition than is typically acknowledged. There was certainly continuity between Calvin and his fellow reformers, and between Calvin and the later tradition, but this was not “because of the individuality of Calvin’s thought,” as if everyone followed him as a singular standard, but because, says Richard Muller, of his “catholicity.” The Puritan John Norton best expressed the basic outlook of the generations of Reformed Protestants living after Calvin: “We may oppose Calvin’s authority with reason. It’s not the authority of Calvin that concludes for…but the reason…according to truth, that determines the question.”7

The Bandersnatch God

Now to return to AJ’s post from January. Therein AJ employs the illustration of Black Mirror’s interactive episode Bandersnatch, wherein the viewer is presented a range of options at key points that dictate the decisions of the protagonist, Stefan—and, by extension, the plot. AJ describes the key bone-chilling-but-obviously-intentional feature of Bandersnatch: “As the story progresses, our young developer [Stefan] begins to realize his choices are not his own; at one point acting out in a futile attempt to refuse the path laid before him.” The very human (and understandable) reaction of Stefan, upon the realization of his free will being radically frustrated, if not eradicated, is clearly meant to affect the viewer-player. I’m glad that for AJ at least, the experience of Bandersnatch impressed him to provide content for CP and to put a common-but-important question to those of the Reformed position regarding free will, depravity, and God’s sovereignty.

To AJ, the interactive viewer in the Bandersnatch scenario plays the role of a puppeteer God and Stefan the role of the finite human. This, he argues, mirrors the claims of “Calvinism,” which is “a theological worldview that, among other things, eschews any concept of genuine free will.” And I would partially agree with AJ that, if true, ” this means, in a very real sense, the obfuscation of reality and the eradication of moral responsibility.”

The moral implication of such a theology, especially in a post-Holocaust world, is represented by AJ’s closing quotation from Roger Olsen’s Against Calvinism, “Someone has said that no theology is worth believing that cannot be preached standing in front of the gates of Auschwitz. I, for one, could not stand at those gates and preach a version of God’s sovereignty that makes the extermination of six million Jews, including many children, a part of the will and plan of God such that God foreordained and rendered it certain.”

The problem is that AJ’s representation of the Reformed position is not quite right, and therefore, its ability to make sense of sin and the human condition is more able than is implied. It does not “eschew any concept of genuine free will” nor “moral responsibility.”

I doubt I will convince AJ, nor Roger Olson, the latter being a convinced Arminian. But, a more accurate representation of Reformed convictions must be presented in the interest of edifying discourse.

I would add that, in my opinion, Olson’s own Arminianism does not solve the Auschwitz problem, either. Though he may feel that the Remonstrant position better preserves radical human freedom, he would still be forced to admit that God, before time, selected the possible world wherein Auschwitz would in fact occur, through the series of circumstances and human choices that he foresaw but could not (or willed not to) dictate directly.7 (footnote: this position is, of course, denied by the WCF 3.2: “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.”). In my view, the kind of exoneration that Olson is searching for eludes him, but I digress. I would add that if Arminians like Olson insist that there is no precedent for the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty and decree prior to “a heretic named Gottschaulk” (a problematic slight in itself) I would direct them to Richard Muller’s Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought.

“But Rather Established”

Given what I have said above, I point to the confessions as the starting point for assessing Reformed theology regarding God’s sovereignty and providence in relation to man’s free will. Westminster Confession 3.1 (WCF) says:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

The Second London Confession (1689) (SLC) adds a final clause, “in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.” The paragraph was taken almost verbatim by the Westminster divines from the Irish Articles (1615), and the Savoy Declaration (1658) and SLC followed suit. The same basic idea is present in a host of other Reformed confessions.8

The first thing to point out is that, as Herman Bavinck wrote, Scripture assumes that God, as the first and a se (from or by oneself) being, is the foundation of all derivative existence. And thus, all that comes into existence is a “realization of God’s thought and will and has its model and foundation in God’s eternal counsel.”9 Any affirmation of human deliberation, freedom, and rationality must assume the same in God, for a being cannot give what it does not have. “Rationality in the world presupposes rationality in God.” So, for man to have any version of rationality, intellect, will, and power, these things must be confessed of God in a way that is commensurate with his a se nature.

Furthermore, since God is simple and immutable (as confessed in WCF 2.1), his intelligence, will, and power are unified—or rather, indistinct in the godhead. As actus purus, that which comes from God is both conceived and decreed in one single “act” of the will and intelligence. Being immutable and perfect in power, and given, unlike finite (i.e. dependent) creatures, there is no separation between God’s power and God’s will, such an act cannot be frustrated or coerced (Ps. 33:9).

Next, though God’s will is supremely efficacious, and what he decrees necessarily will happen, we must differentiate between the decree of God and its execution.

The decree is a work of God ad intra; an eternal, “extratemporal” act, “eternally completed and eternally ongoing outside of and above time.”10 Inside of this single and simple ad intra work is all things that will exist or occur. All of it is grounded in God’s good pleasure. “And thus,” says the French Confession (1559), “confessing that the providence of God orders all things, we humbly bow before the secrets which are hidden to us, without questioning what is above our understanding.”   

But according to the execution (ad extra) of the decree inside of time, it unfolds in a succession of temporal moments and in a creaturely fashion, so to speak, and “in a vast multiplicity of things and events.”11 It is the ad extra work that has been typically referred to as “providence,” distinct from predestination or the eternal decree.

All existence (creation) comes from God, according to the counsel of his unchangeable will, and is governed by his providence. Per John Owen, “There is nothing which he hath made, that with the good hand of providence he doth not govern and sustain.”12 Indeed, God’s continued activity in the world is what undergirds the laws of nature and sustains the very existence of the world. And the expanse of God’s providence covers both the physical and moral spheres of life.

In saying this, the Reformed often invoked Romans 11:36, and were doing no more than affirming Aquinas: “All things are subject to divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual selves… All things that exist in whatsoever manner are necessarily directed by God toward some end.”13

Though God’s will cannot be impeded, nor his glory stifled, the Reformed have always emphasized that in executing his decree inside of time and creation, God does not violate the nature and faculties of his creation, but rather upholds and works through them. God is a God of means, so the saying goes. He works through secondary causes, which of course are themselves a part of his creation. Understanding this on a deep level is, as Owen said, “beyond the reach of mortals.”14 But the point is that God does not abrogate or degrade the natures of his own creation for the sake of accomplishing his desires. Such an approach would suggest a God who could not get his plan right from the outset. Rather, God works through, for example, human beings to accomplish his desired end (ultimately, his glory) through them. And he does so in a way that does not violate their rational faculties or free decisions.

It is not a contradiction to affirm God’s absolute sovereignty and providence and that some things are contingent and freely chosen by creatures.15  Nor is it problematic, in the Reformed mind, to affirm man’s free agency and God’s sovereign providence.

To invoked John Owen again, providence is the working out of God’s will, according to his own secret counsel. But he works through “some agents, as the wills of men,” which are

Causes most free and indefinite, or unlimited lords of their own actions, in respect of their internal principle of operation (that is, their own nature), [and] are yet all, in respect of [God’s] decree, and by his powerful working, determined to this or that effect in particular.

However, says Owen, it is not the case “that they are compelled to do this, or hindered from doing that, but are inclined and disposed to do this or that, according to their proper manner of working, that is, most freely.” Owen declares that Scripture is replete with supportive references.

Again to argue the basic continuity (and catholicity) of doctrine between the Magisterial Reformers and their progeny, we see (for example, in Calvin’s Institutes 1.15.8 the same ideas that Owen later expressed against the Socinians and Arminians, and that the confessions enshrined. He notes that God endowed man with the immunities of intellect, reason, will, and choice. But Adam fell because of his pliable will. Thereafter, the inherent problem in man was not so much one of the intellect, although sin had darkened that as well, but the will and the affections. Man does not choose God because he no longer desires him. The will is in bondage to sin. Providence isn’t the problem. Man’s sin is. But even post-Fall, God’s providence is not cold and mechanical, as Calvin sees it, but a warm expression of his care for creation.

Calvin, too, acknowledged that man experiences contingencies in life. From our limited perspective, the end is uncertain.16 Accordingly, we must comfort ourselves with the truth that God is sovereignly provident. Hence, our choices are real acts of volition, but they never can foil God’s providence. Man’s sin, therefore, is of his own free making, but nevertheless, God uses it for good, to the praise of his glorious grace. Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the reality of man’s choice and contingencies are necessary for the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereign providence to remain Scripturally consistent.


I conceded at the outset that I would likely not satisfy AJ’s criticism of Reformed doctrine in this regard. But hopefully I have shown that, at least in their own minds, the first several generations of Reformed theologians were adequately preserving room for human moral agency and free choice, whilst insulating God from authorship of evil and sin. The confessions reflect this conviction. At the same time, God’s unstoppable decree, executed inside of time by his providence, cannot be denied. Here the Reformed have always acknowledged that God works through the means of his own creation (secondary causes) to bring his will to fruition. And he does this without doing violence to the respective nature that he has assigned to his created beings. Addressing the theonomy problem specifically would require another post but the goal of this post is merely to exonerate Reformed doctrine (e.g. “Calvinism”) of the claim that it denies human freedom and choice and that it makes God the author of evil. The Reformers acknowledged that the origin of evil could not be truly known but insisted that because of the reality of free will in man, his sinful choices were of his own doing. At the same time, God is able in his sovereignty to use those sinful acts for good

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.

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