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Libertarian Calvinism?

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James Anderson




Can a confessional Calvinist affirm a libertarian view of free will? Is “libertarian Calvinism” a live option? I suspect most Calvinists today would say no, but in chapter 3 of his book Deviant Calvinism, Oliver Crisp argues for the affirmative.


One of Crisp’s central claims is that the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most widely endorsed Reformed confessions, doesn’t rule out a libertarian (i.e., incompatibilist) view of free will. In this post I want to take issue with that claim on two fronts. (What I say here overlaps to some extent with the criticisms raised by Paul Manata in his series of blog posts: here, here, here, and here.)

Let’s begin by understanding how Crisp defines libertarian Calvinism (hereafter, LC). LC is Calvinist because it affirms (1) that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass (i.e., comprehensive divine providence) and (2) that God determines (indeed causally determines) that his elect will come to Christ for salvation (i.e., unconditional election and effectual calling). So LC is strictly monergistic with respect to salvation. But LC is also libertarian because it affirms (3) that free choices require the ability to do otherwise and therefore cannot be determined by prior factors (such as God’s decree) and (4) that some human choices are indeed free.

As Crisp explains:

t might be that divine ordination includes both the determination of certain actions and the bringing about of states of affairs in which other actions are foreknown and permitted by not determined. This, I suppose, is what the libertarian Calvinist wants to affirm. God does cause (or otherwise effectually brings about) certain things, such as the salvation of a certain number of fallen human beings through union with Christ. The fallen humans in question are incapable of performing this action for themselves apart from divine intervention, because this class of action is placed beyond their reach by original sin. So, God has to ensure their salvation by determining that outcome. (p. 88)

It looks like libertarian Calvinism is a sort of mixed or complex view about human freedom and moral responsibility. Divine ordination includes elements of determinism (with respect to choices leading to the salvation of an individual) and indeterminism (with respect to many other mundane choices). . . . This does not appear to be incoherent, though it does mean divine ordination is a complex of two different sorts of thing. (p. 89)

It’s important to see that LC is committed to an incompatibilist view of human free will (see, e.g., p. 91). On this view, free will and moral responsibility are incompatible with determinism — specifically, with divine determinism. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, there are many different types of determinism, and thus one could be a compatibilist with respect to one type of determinism and an incompatibilist with respect to another type of determinism. Even so, it’s clear that the determinism Crisp has in view is divine causal determinism.) According to LC, then, no free human choice can be determined by God; any human choice determined by God must be unfree.

In addition, LC is committed to the claim that at least some human choices are free and therefore undetermined. Since LC is committed to incompatibilism, it has to deny what we might call comprehensive divine determinism (i.e., the notion that all events, including all human choices, are ultimately determined by God). So LC is committed to both of the following:

1. Compatibilism is false.

2. Comprehensive divine determinism is false.

As I noted above, Crisp claims that the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t exclude LC, because it doesn’t commit one to compatibilism or comprehensive divine determinism. On the contrary, I will argue that the WCF implicitly affirms both compatibilism and comprehensive divine determinism. If I’m right about only one of these, then LC is not consistent with the WCF after all.

Comprehensive Divine Determinism


Consider the following statements from the Confession regarding God’s eternal decree:

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. (3.1)

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (3.2)

The Confession is clear that God ordains or decrees (the two terms are treated as equivalent) whatsoever comes to pass, i.e., all events within the creation. Crisp observes that divine ordination as such doesn’t entail divine causal determinism; in principle God could ordain some events without determining them (e.g., he could ordain them by passive divine permission). However, the Confession also states that God’s decree doesn’t depend on knowledge of what will or could take place, or knowledge of what would take place if certain conditions were met (i.e., knowledge of hypothetical conditionals of the form if X were to occur then Y would also occur). The central thrust of WCF 3.2 is that God’s decree isn’t conditioned, even in part, on factors within the creation that are independent of him, factors that do not find their ultimate origin in him (which would include, of course, libertarian free-will choices). God alone is the source of his eternal decree; God doesn’t ‘consult’ anything extra se when he formulates his decree.

The theological importance of this assertion in 3.2 is that it preserves God’s aseity and independence. In this regard, it’s instructive to connect 3.2 with what is stated in the preceding chapter of the Confession (“Of God, and of the Holy Trinity”):

There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy,
most free, most absolute
; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; […] (2.1)

God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself;
and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made
, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest,
his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature
, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. […] (2.2)

If God’s decree were conditioned on factors within the creation independent of him, then God would not be “most free, most absolute” — there would be external constraints on God’s decree. To use a crude computing analogy: God would be receiving ‘inputs’ from his creation. Likewise, if God’s decree had to incorporate factors within the creation independent of God, God would not be all-sufficient: the decree would depend on factors external to God which aren’t ultimately determined by him.

What’s more, the Confession explicitly states that God’s knowledge is not dependent on the creature, which would seem to rule out views such as Molinism (according to which God’s decree is based in part on his knowledge of what his creatures would freely choose if placed in particular circumstances) and Simple Foreknowledge Arminianism (according to which God’s decree — if we can speak of a divine decree at all — is based in part on his passive knowledge of what his creatures will choose).

In sum, the Confession teaches not only that God decrees all things but also that God’s decree is not conditioned or dependent on anything external to him, such as the libertarian free choices of his creatures. But if that’s the position of the Confession, it’s hard to see how some version of divine determinism can be avoided. If God ordains all things according to an infallible and immutable decree, and that decree originates entirely in God (i.e., it is not conditioned on any factors external to God), how could it not be the case that God — and God alone — determines all things?

But if the WCF is implicitly committed to comprehensive divine determinism, by way of its commitment to (i) an all-encompassing divine decree and (ii) divine aseity and independence, then it cannot be reconciled with libertarian Calvinism.



The second point can be dealt with more briefly. LC rejects compatibilism, according to which a human free choice can be causally determined. But consider what the Confession says in its chapter on effectual calling:

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh;
renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone,
not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein
, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (10.2)

It’s clear that the Confession teaches a monergistic view of conversion, according to which God acts supernaturally and unilaterally to bring spiritually dead sinners to life, not merely so that they can come to Christ but so that they actually do come to Christ. In short, God determines (indeed, causally determines — effectual calling is presented here as a direct divine intervention) that the elect come to Christ. And yet, the Confession says, the elect “come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” So the Confession affirms that those who choose Christ are divinely determined to do so, but they still choose freely and willingly. If that isn’t an explicit affirmation of compatibilism, it’s about as close to one as you can get.

It’s worth comparing here what the Westminster Larger Catechism says about effectual calling:

Q. 67.
What is effectual calling?

A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds,
renewing and powerfully determining their wills
, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby
made willing and able freely to answer his call
, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.

Once again we find the Westminster Divines affirming both sides of the compatibilist coin: divine determination and human freedom.

It’s hard to see, then, how one could affirm the WCF and WLC statements on effectual calling without accepting compatibilism. (If there is even one free human choice that is determined by God then compatibilism must be true.) But in that case, it’s hard to see how libertarian Calvinism could be consistent with the Westminster Standards.

A couple of closing remarks:

1. I should make clear that Crisp doesn’t personally endorse LC in Deviant Calvinism (although he doesn’t reject it either). He only means to explore whether it is a coherent position as such and whether it is consistent with confessional Calvinism. He’s probing the boundaries of confessional Reformed theology, and that I take to be a valid and worthwhile project, even if I disagree about where those boundaries lie.

2. I haven’t argued here that LC is false (although, of course, I do believe it is false!). I’ve argued only that it is inconsistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith. If I’m right, however, anyone who thinks that the Confession’s statements on God’s decree, God’s knowledge, and God’s effectual calling are true (because they accurately express the teachings of Scripture on those topics) ought to reject LC as false. Westminster Calvinists are not free to be libertarians.

Edited by William

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