Perhaps Compatibilistic Calvinism is the Answer … Perhaps Not

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Relatively recently, Arminian scholar Jerry Walls has engaged Calvinist responses to his 2011 article, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist.” Steve Hays, of Triablogue, attempts to undermine the classical Theist nature of the theology of Jerry Walls. No response is needed because Hays is not an accomplished and published scholar. Bloggers rarely are quoted by published scholars. Calvinist scholars Greg Welty and Steve Cowan criticized the tone of the article, as well as its content, in their rebuttal: “Pharaoh’s Magicians Redivivus: A Response to Jerry Walls on Christian Compatibilism.” To which Walls responded: “Pharaoh’s Magicians Foiled Again: Reply to Cowan and Welty.” Greg Welty has responded to Walls in “Won’t Get Foiled Again: A Rejoinder to Jerry Walls.” To which Walls intends to respond, once he is allowed to do so, being freed from completing his forthcoming book.

Calvinists who demur from adopting meticulous exhaustive “hard” determinism perceive of Compatibilistic Calvinism as the softer, kinder, gentler Calvinism. Calvinist John Hendryx, as noted below, sets the record straight: compatibilism is no less deterministic than “hard” determinism. Calvinistic compatibilism proffers that two seemingly contrary ideas are both true: 1) that God has meticulously and exhaustively decreed what shall take place in history; and 2) that we freely do what God has decreed (some use the term foreordained) for us to do. First, to use the term foreordain in lieu of decree is one of mere semantics, for the word ordain and the word decree are used synonymously in theological contexts. The word ordain is no less a threatening or daunting term within the framework of determinism than is the word decree.

Second, we think that the notion of people freely doing what God has decreed they do is tantamount to the logic of a married bachelor, a contradiction in terms. To suggest that, though people freely do what God has decreed they do, yet they want to do what they do in no sense alleviates God from all the consequences associated with eternally decreeing that even their desires to do said action were also, by absolute consistency and necessity, decreed, ordained, or foreordained by God for them to do. If God has decreed, and even influences our desires, as Calvinists argue,1 then in what sense possible can we freely possess and, hence, enact those desires? In both “hard” and “soft” (compatibilistic) determinism, there is no such notion as free will, or freedom. Though deplorable, and condemned by the early Church, at least the hard determinist Calvinist view is consistent. Compatibilistic philosophy demands we maintain a contradiction and employ double speak. For an example of both, see Leighton Flowers’ piece, “Reflections on My Discussion with Matt Slick.”

God’s relationship with not only His universe but also the creatures whom He created in His own image has been debated throughout history. The range of theological options spans from various branches of pagan philosophy (e.g., the will of the gods), Deism, Open Theism, Process theology and Arminianism to Compatibilism (soft determinism) and meticulous or exhaustive (or hard) determinism and hyper-Calvinism. These last two concepts are held by no Christian Church father prior to St Augustine in the fifth century; meaning, for nearly the first four hundred years of the history of the Church, no Christian theologian holds to such a novel theory. Which means, further, that anyone attempting to substantiate such a view cannot merely appeal to it as being the theology of St Paul or St John or any other saint in Scripture, not even Christ, since such a tradition is not passed on from the first-century saints to their successors, nor to their successors, and so forth.

The Presbyterian confession known as the Westminster Confession of Faith, by no means a high Calvinist, hard deterministic confession, holds, as do the Reformed scholastics, a focus on “God in God’s self and not in covenantal relations. God foresees all things because God decrees them eternally.”2 (emphasis added) In both hard and soft deterministic positions, there is no tug-of-war between what God has decreed from eternity past and what a person actually performs in time. 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. So, while they clamor that the so-called contingency of second causes is not removed from the concept, what is absolutely necessary to confess is that God also decreed the secondary causes. That is to say, that, the alleged freedom to which the compatibilist attempts to concede is disingenuous at best given that even the alleged freedom to choose what God has decreed the person to choose was also decreed by God for them. Compatibilism, then, is a theory involving mere words but no reality.

Furthermore, though God knows with certainty whatsoever “may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions,” which is Molinistic thinking, originating with Luis de Molina (1535-1600), He has not “decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions,” but solely by His foreordained plan or decree of that which He desired to come to pass, through which all things are brought to pass by Him. So that, whatever event occurs in the earth, such was decreed by God in the most strict sense possible. Still, compatibilists strenuously argue, God is not the Author, Originator, Instigator of sin or evil. How? Merely because they say so.

Calvinists dodging hard determinism propose this theory and they perpetually demand an answer from their detractors. Still, they cannot escape what their exhaustively-deterministic brethren insist, that “this position,” i.e., compatibilism, is “no less deterministic than hard determinism — be clear,” demands Calvinist John Hendryx, “that neither soft nor hard determinism believes man has a free will.” (link) Ask the Compatibilist exactly how God executes His eternally-decreed plan among mortals while, at the same time, people do what they, allegedly, freely desire to do. Appeals to mystery will not suffice as an answer. That is merely a cop-out. They boast much about this theory but cannot offer a plausible explanation as to how God can get people to do what He has decreed for them to do, while they freely want to do what He has decreed for them to do, without conceding the philosophy that God utilizes divine mind control to accomplish His will.

What many Calvinists want to know from their detractors, as did Jonathan Edwards himself, is, “What, then,” if not God’s sovereign decree, “determines the will?” But this is somewhat a vague question. They lament any notion of a “self-determining power” of the will. The question, however, should be framed thusly: “What shapes, particularizes, individualizes, or specificates the volition [the will]?”3 Wesleyan Daniel D. Whedon answers:

The answer is, The Will … The Will in its conditions is a full and adequate cause accounting for the effect, and no adequate cause needs any other cause to make it effective. It causes a particular effect uncausedly, though as we have acknowledged, the prevenient grace of God does work to persuade the will in the issue of repentance and salvation. This is not the same as causing, however.4 (emphases added)

Hence, the authors of the article on Compatibilism at are incorrect in assessing libertarian free will by suggesting that “voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition.” (link) (emphasis added) This is called a straw man argument — arguing against a skewed perspective of libertarian free will. Such Calvinists fail to distinguish between cause and influence: the two are not synonymous. Arminianism favors not so much self-determining as self-causing, since determination and causation are not synonymous concepts, either; and if the will is not necessarily determined by anything, meaning more specifically, God’s decree, even if it can be influenced, then the gratuitous assumption of the Calvinist regarding an infinite series of causes in Arminian theology on the will is rendered entirely moot.5

Even some self-professed “moderate” Calvinists — whatever that means — claim to hold to both “God’s sovereignty and man’s free will,” by which they mean that God has meticulously decreed every minutiae of our existence, including our choices, and, of course, our destiny in either heaven or hell, and at the same time that we freely choose to do what we think and say and actually do. Hendryx, as noted in the linked article above, names such a confused notion an inconsistency. When challenged on the inherent inconsistency of this view, some “Calvinists” either appeal to mystery or antinomy, or they “hold such views in tension.”

But there is no such tension in Arminianism because 1) God’s sovereignty does not entail the false notion that He has decreed what we think and say and do;6 and 2) human beings actually do retain a measure of freedom in thinking, saying, and doing (or not doing) a given action. God is sovereign, yes; He is involved in our lives, intimately, and within His sovereignty we are free to do that which is contrary to His revealed will (or contrary even to His wishes). Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall write:

Arminius makes obvious what he means by human freedom: it is the choice to do some action A or to refrain from doing A … In other words, when Arminius speaks of “freedom,” he means what is now sometimes termed libertarian freedom. Freedom, according to this view, is a real choice between genuine alternatives, unconstrained by necessity, and therefore strictly incompatible with determinism. God is able to determine human wills, but doing so would remove free choice and would violate the kind of relationship that God desires to have with creation.7

This distinction is paramount: In Arminianism, God has not decreed that we, by necessity, choose to do any given action; so that, we are genuinely free to do or not to do an action. In compatibilism, God has decreed not only what a person says, thinks and does, but also has decreed every secondary cause contributing to a given action. Why? Because such is how He wanted history to be carried out. Hence there is no genuine freedom in compatibilism, and any such confession is confused and illusory, but all persons do what he or she was decreed to do, including the desire that such be done, since even the desire was meticulously decreed by God. Compatibilism is nothing else but double speak, inconsistent, and a failed attempt at delivering the reputation of God from the heinous philosophy of hard determinism.

In other words, to maintain that God is sovereign, in the compatibilistic sense, and that we are free to choose what we desire to do, is not only inconsistent but also entirely implausible. Such is inconsistent because choosing what has already been chosen for us does not affirm any sense of a genuine or textbook notion of freedom, which makes the whole claim implausible. The consistent option for Calvinists is hard determinism and supralapsarianism, even though such an historically-heretical view, admits Arminius, renders that God “really sins,” and that He is “the only sinner” in the universe; stating, furthermore, that, in supralapsarian, hard-determinist Calvinism, “sin is not sin,” since “whatever that be which God does, it neither can be sin, nor ought any of His acts to receive that appellation.” Such a theory, and we passionately agree with Arminius here, is “highly dishonourable to Jesus Christ our Saviour.”8 For us, there is no better answer to the question, Why not compatibilism? than the insistence that Compatibilism is inherently inconsistent and, thereby, entirely implausible.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; see also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

2 Donald K. McKim, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 98.

3 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 101.

4 Ibid., 101-02.

5 Ibid., 103.

6 God’s sovereignty refers to His governance but not meticulous decree over every aspect of existence; being defined by Arminius as the “solicitous, everywhere powerful, and continued … inspection and oversight of God, according to which He exercises a general care over the whole world, and over each of the creatures and their actions and passions, in a manner that is befitting Himself and suitable for His creatures, for their benefit, especially for that of pious men, and for the declaration of the divine perfection.” See Jacob Arminius, “Disputation XXVIII. On the Providence of God,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:367. Though God has all power (is omnipotent), He does not always exert that power: “But I refrained from doing so,” said our omnipotent God, “and acted instead for the sake of my reputation.” (Ezekiel 20:22 NET; cf. Ps. 78:38; Isa. 42:14)

7 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 101.

8 Arminius, 1:630. See also W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 69.