Does Calvin Really Deny Free Will?

This is a guest post from blog friend and fellow Tyndale alumni, Greg Armstrong. 

Does Calvin deny free will?  That’s a question I’ve always thought could be given a quick and simple response: Yes.  This was obviously the case, since don’t we all know that Calvin was a determinist?  For the longest time I thought these questions were like asking whether Ockham was a nominalist or Aquinas was an Aristotelian.

In the couple years when I would have regarded myself as a strong Calvinist I didn’t have time for Calvinists who would say that Calvin or Calvinism affirms free will but just defines it differently than the libertarian.  I still somewhat agree with that mindset: that we should not simply redefine terms so that we can say we also affirm them.  Where I now disagree on this issue is over how we should answer the initial questions on Calvin’s view of free will and determinism.  Calvin does not deny free will; nor is he a determinist.

What got me interested in exploring Calvin’s Institutes in recent months in more depth was my studying of Aquinas and Thomistic metaphysics.  Arvin Vos’ book, Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought: a Critique of Protestant Views of the Thought of Thomas Aquinas, was the real catalyst for getting into Calvin.  Vos explains that, contrary to a common misperception, Calvin’s anti-Scholastic and anti-Sophistic emphases in his thought were not directed against Aquinas.  Actually, it would appear that Calvin had minimal knowledge of Aquinas’ thought and possibly did not study Aquinas’ texts firsthand.  Rather, his response to Scholasticism was a response to his contemporaries and the later Scholastics, who rightly deserved repudiation by Calvin, who castigated them for their hypocrisy (i.e. using their theology to rationalize abuses) and for their heresy.  In the Institutes, Calvin typically characterizes their theological method as excessively speculative and concerned with controversies over the trivial minutiae of precise philosophical distinctions.  Now, I think Calvin was justified in his rejecting people who would obsess over unimportant issues and would draw distinctions to justify sinful behaviour.  But I also think Calvin took this too far because it resulted in him avoiding drawing what are really important distinctions.  His understanding of Aristotelian psychology (i.e. human faculties and operation) is also mistaken in some important places (cf. Institutes, bk.1, ch.15.6-7; bk.2, ch.2.3).  For example, he thinks that the Aristotelian distinction between vegetative, sensitive, and rational souls means that humans have multiple souls (1.15.6).

Given Calvin’s tendency to avoid many of the Scholastic discussions of philosophical distinctions, I thought I should try to read Calvin more charitably knowing better the context of abuses in which he was responding.  That is, I should make a point of trying to understand his own usage of terminology and try to import as little as possible and recognize that his terms might be imprecise and ambiguous.  And assuming Calvin’s minimal direct study of Aquinas’ thought, I realized I shouldn’t read his reactions to Scholasticism as a reaction that necessary related in any way to Aquinas.  On reading him in this light, I came to find that Calvin really did not deny a traditional concept of free will, nor was he a determinist.

One of the most troublesome issues in the Institutes for libertarians is Calvin’s frequent use of the term “necessity.”  For example, Calvin speaks of divine “determination” and that everything is subject to the “necessity” of the divine will—even to the point that Calvin appears to explicitly deny all “contingency” and only affirm that things ‘appear to be contingent to us’  (1.16.6-9).  But Calvin does not, in fact, deny real contingency, nor is he affirming necessitarianism.  At least in many instances, when Calvin says “contingency” he really means “chance”—that is, an occurrence that results without God’s deciding that it would result in that way and causing it do so.  Calvin’s concern is to safeguard God’s ultimate primacy as First Cause of all things; and in extension of this, to safeguard God’s providence over all things, both universally and particularly.  Calvin also speaks of “the necessity of [God’s] own plan” (1.16.9) by which he means to counteract the notion “that the plan of God does not stand firm and sure” (1.17.12) and to affirm that God cannot fail in bringing about whatever God wills to bring about: “whatever God has determined must necessarily so take place, even though it is neither unconditionally, nor of its own peculiar nature, necessary” (1.16.9).  Another way of saying this is that Calvin wants to safeguard the infallibility of God’s will and that the divine decree extends to all things in all their particularity.  

But none of this conflicts with human free agency.  All that one needs to affirm is the Scholastic distinction between God as First Cause and all other created causes as secondary causes.  Not only does Calvin recognize this distinction (e.g. 1.17.9), but the Westminster Confession affirms this distinction along with explicitly identifying free agency as a mode of secondary causation: “God from all eternity did…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 creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1).  It also reads: “Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (5.2).

What then of Calvin’s explicit denunciations of “free choice” (cf. bk.2, ch.2)?  Calvin rejects the term “free will” (or “free choice”) because he dislikes it.  He dislikes it because he thinks the term inherently implies the possession of sufficient power to do whatever one might want to do.  For him the “free” in “free will” also sounds “as if man still remained upright” or that he has the ability to rightly reorient oneself to God without divine assistance (2.2.4).  But Calvin recognizes that this meaning of free will is not how all orthodox thinkers have used it, so he concludes saying: “If anyone, then, can use this word without understanding it in a bad sense, I shall not trouble him on this account.  But I hold that because it cannot be retained without great peril, it will, on the contrary, be a great boon for the church if it be abolished.  I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it” (2.2.8).  One person he singles out as using free will in a good sense if Peter Lombard:

“For Lombard finally declares that we have free will, not in that we are equally capable of doing or thinking good and evil, but merely that we are freed from compulsion.  According to Lombard, this freedom is not hindered, even if we be wicked and slaves of sin, and can do nothing but sin [John McNeill comments that Calvin’s last clause is hyperbolic].  [New section:] Man will then be spoken of as having this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will [i.e. voluntarily], not by compulsion.  Well put, indeed, but what purpose is served by labeling with a proud name [note: Calvin’s dislike of the term itself] such a slight thing [i.e. voluntariness]?  A noble freedom, indeed [note: sarcasm]—for man not to be forced to serve sin, yet to be such a willing slave that his will is bound by the fetters of sin!” (2.2.6-7)
In this text, Calvin affirms Lombard’s teaching on free choice, though Calvin does not want to use the term itself.  The remainder of 2.2.7 gives Calvin’s clearest account of why he dislikes the term.  I don’t agree with his concerns about the word, though I think they are at least in part understandable.

The issues over the term “free will” can be summarized as follows.  Calvin thinks the usual impression from “free” in “free will” or “free choice” is that people have the inherent power or ability to act rightly and desire rightly.  In other words, Calvin’s problem with the term is not with Lombard’s usage of voluntariness (as opposed to compulsion) which is an aspect of choice, but with the added Pelagian notion of not needing divine assistance to be reoriented in one’s desires to God and not needing divine empowerment to act in faith and do truly good deeds.  To clarify, Aquinas taught that the will necessarily follows upon the intellect.  In other words, choice necessarily accompanies rationality.  Once a rational being apprehends various courses of action open to him, he can elect one of them over the others.  As thesis 21 of The Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses says:

“The will does not preceded the intellect but follows upon it.  The will necessarily desires that which is presented to it as a good in every respect satisfying the appetite.  But it freely chooses among the many goods that are presented to it as desirable according to a changeable judgment or evaluation.  Consequently, the choice follows the final practical judgment.  But the will is the cause of it being the final one.”

This is why the will of a rational being is “free” (i.e. voluntary and not compelled): the will is informed by the intellect about the different courses of action it can take.  Said differently, that is why rational beings have choice and do not merely act as a result of appetites, instinct, and emotions, as non-rational animals do.  Choice  itself does not imply that the person has the power or ability to carry out the course of action apprehended or that the counsel of his intellect or his desires would be rightly oriented to God—or be able to be so reoriented by means of the person’s own ability.

My advice would be to emphasize using the terms “will” and “choice” over against “free will” and “free choice,” since “choice” itself implies voluntariness and electing between alternative courses of action.