Calvinism and Choice

Note: I inadvertently posted this in unfinished form when I intended merely to save an edit. Please take the updated version below as the final. Forgive me if this causes any confusion! 

The philosophy department at Tyndale University College has a blog called Every Thought Captive that is worth having on your Feedly (or whatever blog reader you use). I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Paul Franks, one of the members of the department, a number of times, and brief though those times were, I enjoyed our conversation. I have not met Dr. Rich Davis yet, but his reputation among students of his whom I know is high. I am thankful that they teach at my local Christian university and are having an impact for the gospel in my locale and abroad.

Drs. Franks and Davis have done of a number of good series on their blog. I’ve particularly appreciated the detailed critique that they have provided of Brian McLaren’s work called “The McLaren Files.” I look forward to reading their critique of Dave Fitch in “The Fitch Files.” They are also writing a series of posts critiquing Calvinism, their most recent is what I would like to offer some thoughts on.

In “The ‘C’ in Calvinism,” Dr. Davis shares his concerns with the notion of choice and whether it is a real option given Calvinism. He asks whether choice and “determinism” are compatible. The Calvinist of choice (pardon the pun) who functions as the foil for this essay is R. C. Sproul of Ligionier Ministries, a well-known popular expositor of Reformed theology. At hand is Sproul’s notion of “Edwards’ Law of Choice” (ELC) that was outlined in his influential book Chosen By God. ELC is so-named due to its earlier articulation by the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) in his work Freedom of the Will.

Dr. Davis’ piece is, as to be expected, from a philosophical point of view. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I would like to reply to this theologically. Not because I think that free will and sovereignty are questions that only theologians can answer, but because theology is the discipline whose methods I am most familiar with. I do not think this keeps us (that is, the philosopher and the theologian) from coming to shared conclusions because the question posed by Dr. Davis, and indeed Calvinism (whatever that is), is relevant to both the philosopher and the theologian. I also think that some of the problems in the essay are theological, and need to be addressed as such. I come at this as someone sympathetic to Reformed theology, and so my thoughts are largely critical.

First, when I read the essay it struck me that it was a sophisticated way of asking a simple question, one that most Calvinists and non-Calvinists who have reflected on the question of choice have asked: Is there such thing as free choice if God is sovereign? This is something we have all wrestled with, I know that I certainly have. The essay takes this a step further by evaluating the Edwardsean answer, the so-called ELC. But it is important to remember that this is not a new question and that there are plenty of resources available giving various answers to the problem.

Second, I am not totally sure why Dr. Davis has decided to take on this particular answer (ELC) to the question of free choice. My suspicion is, due to some of his comments at the beginning of his essay about the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR), that he might see in Sproul, and by extension Edwards, a key element and that a criticism of him/them is a de facto criticism of the broader movement. If this is the case, I do not value this kind of argument as it tends to make a movement like YRR seem monolithic, which it is not. Nor is Reformed theology, historically or at present. Arguments such as this can unfairly paint a disparate group of people with one brush. But it may not be the case that Dr. Davis has taken this approach.

Third, ELC is not the only answer given in the history of Christian theology to the problem of choice and sovereignty. In fact, it is not one that all Reformed people buy into. Even those Reformed theologians who do, also buy into other arguments. Popular conceptions of Calvinism may not make this apparent, but there is an at-times sharp distinction between Edwardseans and traditional Reformed theology. The former is generally viewed as “deterministic,” due to the influence of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke on his thought. As we will see, Reformed theology should not be tarred with determinism. Whether Edwards can be viewed this way is up for debate, but it’s significant that this distinction be made. If Dr. Davis is aware of this, I wish that it had been stated, because it can run the risk of making unsuspecting readers think that to knock down ELC is to knock down Calvinism (whatever that is) as a whole.

Fourth, what is Calvinism? Is the Edwardsean version of Calvinism the only one? Is it the true one? Is Dr. Sproul’s version? Is Calvinism even a legitimate term to use? There are a host of assumptions in Dr. Davis’ essay that make readers such as myself wish that the sophistication of the philosophical language had given way to a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues. This is not meant as an insult, Dr. Davis is much smarter than I am, and I have the fullest confidence that he has the chops to do more.

The term Calvinism is fraught with historical and theological problems. It assumes that Calvin is the sole progenitor of this brand of theology. Historians of the Reformation have put this misunderstanding to rest, and is why many of us do not particularly like the appellant “Calvinist.” We get stuck using it because of its general, popular use, but it is a term that would be better left behind. This might sound like a mere semantic quibble, but it poses serious definitional problems. How does one define Calvinism? Is it Edwards’ version? There is a lack of evidence in Edwards’ corpus that Calvin was a significant influence. The Reformer’s writings do not even appear in the catalogue we have of Edwards’ library. I would argue that the best place to go for such answers about the nature of Reformed theology—a more satisfying term—is the confessional documents of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. We also need to take into account the broader range of Reformed writers who contributed to the development of Reformed theology such as Bullinger, Musculus, Junius, Ames, Ussher, Owen, Turretin, and a host of others. There are a goodly number of theologians today who have done this, why not interact with them to get a truer picture? Or at least acknowledge that this is the case so that readers are not given the idea that Calvin is it for “Calvinism.”

Fifth, why use a secondary source to tell us about so-called “ELC”? Dr. Sproul’s ministry has been of incredible use to the church in popularizing Reformed theology, making some of the tough language easy for the lay-person to understand. Indeed, when I wrestled with these issues over a dozen years ago, it was Chosen By God that was a key book that helped me come to grips with the doctrine of election. My comments here are not meant to disparage Dr. Sproul at all. I am only making an historians’ point that when telling us about Edwards’ views it would be better to use Edwards’ own work. In the case of Edwards, this is particularly easy to do because Freedom of the Will, where ELC comes from, is readily available online at Yale’s site dedicated to Edwards’ Works (here). This is not say that Dr. Sproul misinterprets Edwards’ view of choice. It is to say that Edwards’ treatise is much longer with more detailed argumentation and defenses than Chosen By God because they were written for entirely different purposes.

Sixth, Dr. Davis, in his discussion of the power of contrary choice, seems to assume libertarian free will (LFW). This is not surprising, as most contemporary evangelical philosophers hold to this view (think Plantinga). This assumption contrasts LFW with Reformed theology. But is this necessarily the case? The answer to this depends on the view one takes of Reformed theology. While I do not personally espouse this, Oliver Crisp has recently argued that libertarianism can be consistent with the theology outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). At the very least, we can say that WCF statements on these matters allow for either a necessitarian or non-necessitarian view (see here). It would have been good for Dr. Davis to acknowledge this to see how it may have augmented some of his conclusions.

Seventh, Dr. Davis at a number of points refers to the Reformed view as “determinism.” This is an unfortunate use of terms and does not accurately reflect the way the Reformed tradition views itself on these matters. This is so because the term was not known in the early-modern period; opponents of Reformed theology referred to it as “Stoic fate.” Ironically, this puts more clearly the misconceptions that critics of Reformed theology have. However, to use that language would be as bad as me calling Dr. Davis a “Pelagian,” as the Reformed sadly would refer to their opponents. Such terms are unfortunate, and I hope that moving forward Dr. Davis (and others) would refrain from the term determinism when describing Reformed theology generally, because it does not accurately reflect our self-understanding and the nature of our argument.

Eighth, Dr. Davis  suggests that Calvinism (I’ll use this term as it’s the one he uses) makes no sense of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. Erasmus made this argument as well in his debate with Luther. Dr. Davis says, “If the reason for Jerusalem’s being unwilling is God’s not having given them I[rresistable] G[race], why chastise these people for their unwillingness? … Here the people are simply acting in accord with those desires.” Some thoughts: First, this does not take into account that this is Jesus in his human nature speaking. It says nothing of the divine will. Second, were it to speak of the divine will, Dr. Davis does not take into account the notion, as argued by John Piper, that God has two wills. This is well-reflected in Luther’s distinction between the hidden and revealed will of God. Third, it is exegetically misguided to think that this text has any bearing on the question at hand. Jesus has outlined in a series of parables and confrontations the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In Matthew 23 he pronounces a series of prophetic woes against the hypocrites. It is not a text like Romans 9, which would be a much thornier text for Dr. Davis to deal with, that has direct bearing on this question. Specifically, it answers the “control problem” that he points up later. A helpful rejoinder to the Arminian understanding of Matthew 23 is given over at Triablogue that I would suggest readers consult.

Ninth, Dr. Davis takes up the Old Testament figure of Gideon as an example of the power of contrary choice. Gideon was given a command to knock down his father’s idols in Judges 6:25, 27, but only did so at night out of fear. Dr. Davis argues that Gideon’s most powerful impulse was fear, but he acted contrary to this impulse in obedience to God’s command. “Why, otherwise, did he do it at night? Still, he obeyed the Lord—contrary to his most powerful impulse.” It strikes me that Dr. Davis has misunderstood ELC in his illustration of Gideon of what we might call Gideon’s Powerful Impulse (GPI). Is it the case that GPI is fear? If Gideon knocked down the idols, irregardless of doing so at night to mitigate his fear, he still acted on the the command to knock the idols down. Is it not the case the GPI is always manifested in the action? Dr. Davis is aware of this answer, but accuses it of question-begging. This is not question-begging, it is simply the relationship between one’s desire and action. GPI overrode his fear and enabled him to follow the command. His will was governed by his desire. It seems as though GPI affirms ELC.

Tenth, Dr. Davis quotes Dr. Sproul as defining ELC as: “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment.” The corollary of this, that appears contradictory but is not (according to Dr. Sproul), that every choice is both free and determined. This appears incompatible, but it is is not because coercion is not involved. Dr. Davis does not agree. He argues that due to the coercive nature of “irresistable grace,” choice is not really free. There is a lot here to unpack, so for the sake of space in an already long post, I would like to offer some brief thoughts. First, if a person is dead in trespasses and sins as Ephesians 2 tells us, how is that person made alive? Is it the spiritually dead person who does it? If not, who? It must be God because Jesus tells us in John 3 that we are born from above (or again) by the Spirit. Was I born according to my own will when I was physically born? No, I had no choice in the matter. Likewise, I do not have the choice in this matter, because of my spiritual deadness, I need to be made alive by force outside of myself (extra nos). Second, coercion here is a change of nature, not a forcing upon me of something against my will. This is called grace for a reason. God, in regeneration, changes my nature so that I can freely choose what before, due to my sin, I could not. I have been released by shackles of sin so that I can now choose the good. In my deadened state, I made free choices, but they were always in conformity with my sinful nature. This is a good thing. Why take it as something bad? Even if it does in fact violate or vitiate my free will, I am glad it does! Third, I am not sure that Dr. Davis has proved the point that coercion (in the sense of regeneration, which is really what we are talking about) violates freedom. The philosophical idea of “compatibilism” gives us the categories to articulate how two seemingly opposed propositions are both true. See the helpful essay by philosopher James Anderson on Reformed views of determinism and compatibilism here for more. Fourth, and related to the third, is that a more helpful way to express this language is that of J. I. Packer in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God where he spoke of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as an “antinomy.” In this case, both seemingly opposed views are held in common because both are clearly revealed in scripture. We see this in the story of Joseph’s description of God and man’s role in his captivity (Genesis 50:20), or in Peter’s description of God and man’s role in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23).

I conclude with a book recommendation. A helpful book on the subject of Reformed theology and the freedom of the will is that edited by William J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde entitled Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology. In it we learn that the Reformed orthodox were very concerned to maintain human freedom, yet they did not want to do so at the expense of God’s freedom as their opponents did. The editors’ introduction opens with a quote by Francis Turretin (1623-1687) that illustrates this: “We establish free choice far more truly than our opponents.” After the (excellent) introduction, there are chapters devoted to freedom in the thought of Zanchi, Junius (my favourite), Gomarus, Voetius, Turretin, and de Moor. The book is a primary source reader for each. It is helpful because it ranges over the stages of orthodoxy and thus addresses variously situated theological and philosophical problems. Despite the different figures involved and the contexts they were addressing, the conclusion the editors come to is that Reformed theology self-consciously upholds the freedom of the human will and does so better than its opponents. This should not be surprising as they are part of the broader anti-Pelagian tradition rooted in Augustine (354-430), who very clearly affirmed libero arbitrio (see especially his “On Grace and Free Choice”).

I hope that this post is taken by all as a friendly rejoinder offered by one brother to another. I am thankful for the chance to rethink my own position due to the challenge that Dr. Davis poses. May my thoughts shared above go some small way towards giving greater understanding between two Christian positions as we work out our theology together in the kingdom of God. Soli Deo Gloria.