Compatibilism and Wireless Technology, Part 1: Why Calvinism’s Explanation for Human Freedom and Responsibility Doesn’t Satisfy Me

, posted by Gene Brode, Jr.

In this post I will discuss why Compatibilistic Calvinism really offers no satisfactory explanation of how genuine human choice (in the common understanding of the word) is possible within the scheme of divine determinism. William Birch prompted me to write this based on a comment I left on his post, Compatibilism vs. Free Will. In that post, William gets into the details of why Arminians believe that genuine freedom is actually incompatible with any stripe of Calvinism. I will also propose a new analogy in place of the puppet analogy. In part 1, I will take a look at what Calvinists have taught on the topic of predestination and human freedom and see how it fits into the puppet analogy. Then, in part 2, we will see if compatibilism fairs any better in the analogy of a manufacturer of wireless alarm sensors.


Many Calvinists object to the old analogy of God being likened to a puppeteer, moving people and things around however He wills. They say it isn’t accurate or perhaps that it dishonors God. They say the analogy is weak because humans do have freedom to choose whatever they want and that God doesn’t force us against our wills. They want to cling tightly to the tension between God’s exhaustive determinism and man’s freedom; but this is an unnecessary tension that detractors believe is imposed on the system due to some subtleties behind the scenes.

Analogies are a helpful way of proving a point, but we need to remember that all analogies eventually break down. They can only go so far, usually because they’re meant to make one or two points. Either way, I believe the puppet analogy is still a fair one that non-Calvinists use to help illustrate that if one follows Calvinism consistently, with its overarching decretal theology, then people have no true alternative than to do what has been determined for them to think, say or do. Calvinists insist that all things have been predetermined in a fixed manner and yet people have a type of free will. Arminians and other non-Calvinists simply don’t see this (or other similar Calvinist assertions) as holding much water, both from what we read in Scripture and by way of reason.

Let me be clear. We don’t object because we hate the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. We just have a different understanding of sovereignty. Nor do we misunderstand Calvinism; I once blamed Arminians of this very thing in my ignorance. What I found was that the Arminians I debated understood Calvinism even better than I did at that time. No, we understand it well and we dislike it. Neither do we object because we prefer to be logical, or philosophical, or man-centered. Quite frankly, and most importantly, we believe we have a better explanation of how God operates based on what we understand of the Scriptures. And that causes us to come up with analogies to help others see why we disagree with Calvinism.

What I propose is a new analogy, in a way similar to the puppet analogy, but I think better and perhaps more in tune with the 21st Century. That is, the Calvinist idea of God’s predestination is like a preprogrammed wireless alarm transmitter that sends signals to an alarm panel. Before I get to my analogy, though, I’d like to fill in the backdrop with what Calvinists have said they believe about the topic.

For starters, I’ll restate what the Westminster Confession of Faith says on the matter in chapter 3, article 1:

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.

Here we have the assertion that God has predestined literally everything, without the possibility that it could turn out any other way. There is no way around it. When the confession states “whatsoever,” it means everything. When it says “unchangeably,” it means just that. It then asserts that God is not the author of sin and that people still use their wills freely, essentially without God intruding or forcing their hand. We cannot escape God’s sovereign hand within Calvinism. He causes everything to happen that comes to pass, including second causes. Nothing surprises him. If you doubt this, then you haven’t read enough material written by Calvinists.

William Birch says of secondary causes:

In both hard and soft deterministic positions, there is no tug of war between what God has decreed and what a person actually performs. As a matter of fact, Westminster insists that the “liberty or contingency of second causes” is not taken away, “but rather established,” proving that God has even decreed all of the components which contribute toward a given action. In other words, when Calvinists insist that God has not merely decreed the end but also the means to an end, then that, by necessity, must include secondary causes. (emphasis his)

What I’d like to do is share some commentary directly from three Calvinists who have taught about the definite and unchangeable nature of God’s decrees. This, I believe, has the foremost place in the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty and must be made clear before I get into the theme of this post.

First up, here is what Curt Daniel says on the topic of Predestination. His “History and Theology of Calvinism” audios can be found here (just note that the columns are backwards: download = play, and vice versa). And, by the way, this is a good resource providing a semesters-long course worth of teachings on Calvinism in all its history and varieties. Here, Daniel explains what predestination means:

Simply put, predestination is the teaching that God is the source of everything that comes to pass. Everything that happens, God caused to happen … In other words he is the source, the Creator, but also the predestinator of all things … To sum it up, God ordains whatever comes to pass because He is God. (3:10 mark)

He states that Calvinism is similar to philosophical determinism, but that, “we will redefine it” when it comes to philosophy’s assertion that free choice is an illusion (7:00 mark). That’s fine, but can Compatibilists back up their redefinition Scripturally beyond mere assertion? In other words, is God’s overarching predestination truly compatible with real human choice and responsibility? The answer lies in the way they define freedom; but we’ll get to that later.

Daniel goes on to say,

God is the first cause of everything in existence. Everything is simply an effect that can be traced back to God being the first cause of all things. (7:50 mark. Logically, this means that God must be the cause of secondary causes and really means that all our actions are tied directly to God. There may be second or third causes, but really God is present in every second cause, third cause, fourth cause, and so on.)

After half an hour of describing predestination in several biblical terms (ordain, appoint, predestine, purpose (verb form), and plan), Daniel comes to a very interesting term to describe God’s predestination of all things: that of God’s program. As someone might program a computer, so God programs history. He states, “The universe is simply preprogrammed by God. It’s going to happen according to God’s preprogram already in advance.” (33:45 mark) He explains that God works from a program or blueprint, just as the wise man makes his plans before he begins to build (Luke 14:28). So we can see clearly here that there is no room for change in this Calvinist’s mind. What has been planned, purposed, programmed, ordained, etc., will certainly come to pass.

This is the historical position and interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Loraine Boettner, in his classic work, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, would concur. While I find Curt Daniel accessible and tolerable, even inviting, Boettner is another story. He drives his position very hard, pressing the point that everything is directed by God quite meticulously, right down to the details. But then he’ll shift his language subtly, slipping in words like “permit” when it comes to human activity. He even goes as far to say that, “If the perfection of the divine plan be denied, no consistent stopping place will be found short of atheism.” (p. 25) In other words, no one but the Calvinist has it right.

It’s hard to choose which words to quote from Boettner since there are so many instances of hardcore determinism that make it impossible for man to have any kind of real choice in life. But here are some of my favorites:

“This doctrine of Predestination represents the purpose of God as absolute and unconditional, independent of the whole finite creation, and as originating solely in the eternal counsel of His will. God … has appointed the course of nature and … directs the course of history even down to its minutest details. His decree is eternal, unchangeable, holy, wise and sovereign. It extends not merely to the course of the physical world but to every event in human history. … It embraces the whole scope of creaturely existence, through time and eternity, comprehending at once all things that ever were or will be in their causes, conditions, successions, and relations. Everything outside of God Himself is included in this all-embracing decree. … It provides a providential control under which all things are hastening to the end of God’s determining. …” (p. 13, emphases mine)

There is no wiggle room in Calvinism’s predestination. He claims strict planning, appointment and determining by God, but then he changes his language in an attempt to free God of the guilt of evil when he says that “nothing can come to pass contrary to what He expressly decrees or permits.” (p. 14) And yet permission has very little meaning when he presents such a hard line in God’s determining every detail. How can God “permit” a thing which He has carefully and actively planned from all eternity, as if it were out of his control? Both Boettner and the WCF state that God foresees such events only because he ordained them, so it comes down to God whose plan is “absolute and unconditional, independent of the whole finite creation.”

And because God is thus infinite His plan must extend to every detail of the world’s existence. If we could see the world in all its relations, past, present, and future, we would see that it is following a predetermined course with exact precision. (p. 20, emphases mine)

His plan must, therefore, include every event in the sweep of history. (p. 22, emphasis mine)

In recognizing that the eternal God has an eternal plan in which is predetermined every event that comes to pass, the Calvinist simply recognizes that God is God, and frees Him from all human limitations. (p. 23, emphases mine)

While Curt Daniel and Loraine Boettner prefer to use the term predestination for God’s ordination of all things that shall come to pass, Wayne Grudem reserves the term for the topic of election, and instead uses the term providence for our topic. His discussion of God’s providence can be found in chapter 16 of his Systematic Theology. This chapter offers an in-depth look at the topic and addresses some common objections from the Arminian camp. Here he defines God’s providence as:

God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.” (p. 315)

He breaks the above three elements of God’s providence into three subtopics: “(1) Preservation, (2) Concurrence, and (3) Government.” (p. 315) On number 1, both Arminians and Calvinists can agree. This is basically God sustaining all things and preserving them as they were created. Thus, water remains water and sky, sky. Number 2, concurrence, draws the dividing line between Calvinists and Arminians. I’m going to break this next quote in half:

The doctrine of concurrence affirms that God directs, and works through, the distinctive properties of each created thing, so that these things themselves bring about the results that we see. In this way it is possible to affirm that in one sense events are fully (100 percent) caused by God and fully (100 percent) caused by the creature as well. However, divine and creaturely causes work in different ways. The divine cause of each event works as an invisible, behind-the-scenes, directing cause and therefore could be called the “primary cause” that plans and initiates everything that happens. (p. 319, emphases his)

So God makes his creation do things and takes 100 percent responsibility for their cause, and also gives the created thing the same 100 percent responsibility. We give praise when we see a beautiful sunrise, and yet the sun and earth worked together to allow a sunrise, because that’s how God made them and continues to sustain them. We can praise God for the loving actions of His people, yet they were the ones who performed them physically. But turn the topic to sin, and suddenly God has no causal part in it whatsoever. Why? Because the WCF says so, that’s why. What happened to God’s invisible causation of that creature doing sinful deeds? He just called God the “divine cause of each event” who “works as an invisible, behind-the-scenes, directing cause and therefore could be called the ‘primary cause’ that plans and initiates everything that happens,” so why is he now switching gears?

This is one reason why Arminians don’t agree with Calvinism — its theology must shift in any given sentence, twisting this way and that in order to cast blame on the creature, or to clear God’s name who almost (thanks to the WCF — phew!) got blamed for causing his creatures to do what He commanded them not to. He continues his thought:

But the created thing brings about actions in ways consistent with the creature’s own properties [which God unchangeably gave and sustains], ways that can often be described by us or by professional scientists who carefully observe the processes. These creaturely factors and properties can therefore be called the “secondary” causes of everything that happens, even though they are the causes that are evident to us by observation. (p. 319)

His explanation only serves to tighten the noose around his own theological neck. If a creature is given the properties that make it act in certain ways, say a duck that waddles, swims and flies, and it carries on as it was created to do throughout its lifespan, we can observe it and take notes. We can write reports on the duck and say that it waddles because of the way its skeleton and body fit together, allowing it to move around in any medium that has a hard surface, liquid or air. We can study it scientifically and understand a lot about the creature, and the Christian can look to God as its Creator and see that God’s creating and sustaining power have been at work. It will not one day become a snake and slither under a rock. It will not bark like a dog, but predictably quack. It will always, until it dies, be a duck. If the duck decides to swim in my pool in the spring because I was too slow at removing the algae-filled cover, I will end up with duck poop and feathers on my cover. God was the primary cause of the duck pooping and dropping feathers, albeit invisibly and behind the scenes, while the duck was the secondary cause.

Let’s now turn Grudem’s teaching onto another of God’s creatures, and, using our God-given faculties, let’s see what it will look like. For example, if a man rapes a little girl for years and, just days before his trial the victim’s house suddenly burns down killing her and her grandparents, and he shows up to court with makeup-covered burn marks, what is the primary and secondary cause of such an atrocity, assuming he is guilty as charged? The secondary cause is easy. The perpetrator of evil deeds is fully responsible for his actions, “100 percent” as Grudem might say. But what, or who, is the primary cause of this child’s tortuous life and death? The Calvinist who is consistent must answer by saying God is the primary cause. What other primary cause is there in the universe? None.

Someone might appeal to the fall and our sinful nature, but wasn’t God the primary cause of that, too? Yes, of that too. Or else he is not sovereign and has no control over the events of his creation. And as these Calvinists assert, God had predestined this atrocity to happen unchangeably. And what if the girl and her family didn’t know Christ? Then God also had to have predestined them to hell for eternity. This is what you’re left with when you press so hard on God’s predestining of all things in the system of Calvinism. There are no other conclusions.

Or are there? You can appeal to mystery and keep asserting that God is Sovereign and man is responsible. Just like Boettner does in his book, he drives a hard line on sovereignty until he gets to the part about man’s sinful actions, then he changes his vocabulary ever so subtly to remove the guilt from God.

Let’s press the point some more with Grudem’s thoughts on scriptural examples of God working and humans working simultaneously. He touches on multiple passages and states that these examples

lead us to conclude that God’s providential work of concurrence extends to all aspects of our lives. Our words, our steps, our movements, our hearts, and our abilities are all from the Lord. But we must guard against misunderstanding. Here also, as with the lower creation, God’s providential direction as an unseen, behind-the-scenes, “primary cause,” should not lead us to deny the reality of our choices and actions. Again and again Scripture affirms that we really do cause events to happen. We are significant and we are responsible. We do have choices, and these are real choices that bring about real results … our choices are real choices and do have significant effects, because God has made us in such a wonderful way that he has endowed us with the property of willing choice. (p. 321)

As Grudem affirms from Scripture, our choices are real choices (like choosing to repent and believe in Christ when God’s Spirit convicts and draws you and they have significant effects like receiving praise from God when you make righteous choices (Matt. 25:21). This is exactly where Calvinists and Arminians can talk past one another. Notice that Grudem says we have been “endowed … with the property of willing choice.” When compatibilists talk about willing choice or having freedom to make real decisions, we must not forget that in Calvinism our desires have been preprogrammed. Compatibilists maintain that we make decisions based on our desires, and that we won’t choose anything contrary to our nature. They deny Libertarian Free Will, or the power to choose otherwise. We always choose according to our (God-ordained) desires, and what we desire is evil unless God irresistibly regenerates us prior to our exercising faith in Jesus (which is another conversation entirely).

So when we talk about making real choices, we are talking about two different things. The compatibilist wants us to believe that, while God has predetermined our desires, we make free choices based on those desires. Going back to primary and secondary causes, which is pretty much meaningless jibber jabber in the scope of Calvinistic determinism, God is the primary cause of human desire while our acting on those desires is said to be the secondary cause in reality. There really is no way to separate the primary cause from the secondary. If God has predetermined my desires, and if I am unable to act against my desires, then how on earth could I ever in a million years make any other choice than the one God wanted (wanted because the facts of reality would prove his real desires, as opposed to what he commanded) me to make from all eternity? It will be impossible for me to do other than what the God of Calvinism has foreordained that I do. This includes my sinful behavior as a believer.

In the next post I’ll introduce the wireless technology analogy and you can decide if it fairs any better than the puppet analogy. Read Compatibilism and Wireless Technology, Part 2: The Wireless Transmitter Analogy.

Article by Gene Brode, Jr.