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. (more…)