The neutral zone is an area that is no larger than the width of a football. It is the zone that separates the offense and defense before the play starts. When a defensive player enters the neutral zone and causes an offensive player to commit a false start (move before the ball is snapped) they are flagged with a penalty known as a neutral zone infraction.This is also a penalty that Calvinists are quick to charge Arminians with as well.
In “A Calvinist’s Understanding of Free Will”, C.Michael Patton writes (emphasis added) that
Arminians, […] believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will so that the inclination toward sin—the antagonism toward God—is relieved so that the person can make a true “free will” decision.
Later he writes that a “neutralized will amounts to perpetual indecision.” Patton asserts (emphasis added) the same thing in “Why I Reject the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace“:
Prevenient grace neutralizes the will, making the will completely unbiased toward good or evil. Therefore, this restored “free will” has a fifty-fifty shot of making the right choice. Right? This must be. The scales are completely balanced once God’s Prevenient grace has come upon a person.
If the will is free to choose other than it has chosen, would that not suggest that it is as inclined to choose what it does not want as it is to choose what it does want? Would that not suggest that, according to this view, the sinner is in a state of absolute neutrality?
Why do Calvinists throw the penalty flag?
When the referee throws a penalty flag it is because, from their vantage point on the field, that is how they saw things. This is often true in all theological discussions and why working through definitions is very important. Calvinists, like the referee who has a specific view of the playing field, throw the penalty flag because of the way they understand “free will,” which is called “compatibilism.”
What is compatibilism? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “a thesis about the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism” or the “unencumbered ability of an agent to do what she wants.” The following are common characteristics of compatibilism:
- assumes that determinism is true such that given a set of prior circumstances (c) at time (t), the person (p) will always choose to do X. Further it will not be possible for the person (p) to choose otherwise (not-X) at time (t) unless the prior circumstances (c) are also changed.
- requires the absence of external coercion and external restrictions for an action to be free.
- requires the ability to choose what we most want (strongest desire) for an action to be free.
The choice of the mind never departs from that which, at that time, and with respect to the direct and immediate objects of that decision of the mind, appears most agreeable and pleasing, all things considered. — Edwards
How does Compatibilism work within Calvinism? Kevin DeYoung, a Reformed writer known for being able to explain complex topics, describes the idea in “Does Calvinism Teach Puppet Theology?“
While we believe that God’s grace is irresistible and flows from his electing love, we must be clear that this grace renews us from within. It does not coerce us from without. God is not a puppet master pulling on our strings so that we do what he wants apart from our own willing or doing. His will precedes our will, but it does not eradicate it.
Monergism is clear. When a person is regenerated, God has given them the strongest desire, which is to be saved through faith. Since this is now the strongest desire it necessarily follows that the person will choose to place their faith in Christ.
DeYoung argues that Augustinian and Calvinist thought “vehemently reject[s] any notion of necessity which entail[s] external coercion or compulsion.” We need to catch that important distinction. As long as the compelling occurs from within us then it will be considered a free act. Even if this internal desire is the result of an external agent, God, using His powers of “omnipotence [to] potently and infallibly bend man’s will to faith and conversion,” which is how the Canons of Dort describe this process.
With this understanding of “free will,” the Calvinist has a hard time grasping the Arminian view of Prevenient Grace. It is inconceivable for a person to have the choice to either accept or resist the Gospel because that choice is determined by the strongest desire. To have the ability to accept the gift of salvation (X) or reject the gift of salvation (not-X) implies that there is no strongest desire. The only conclusion is to throw the flag and charge synergists with a neutral zone infraction.
Picking up the flag?
If the Calvinist wants to object to Prevenient Grace on the grounds of a neutralized will they will have to step up and explain their ruling just like the referee in the game. They need to admit that they are “throwing the penalty flag” based on how they see the field, or in this case understand “free will.” However, Arminians understand and define free will very differently.
At this point in our football analogy, another referee sees the flag on the ground and comes running from across the other side of the field, waving their arms. The play looks a lot different from where he was standing. The penalty only makes sense if people choose according to their strongest desire and cannot re-order their desires.
In Disputation #11, Arminius described free will as “a freedom from necessity, whether this proceeds from an external cause compelling, or from a nature inwardly determining absolutely to one thing.” Many proponents of LFW (libertarian free will) would argue that the person making a decision, although influenced by numerous internal and external factors, is able to wrestle with numerous competing desires. In this view the person chooses the desire that is strongest and therefore determines the desire upon which they will act.
The person can “count the cost,” fight temptations, prioritize information differently, apply what they have learned, react to how they are feeling, and choose what they will focus on during their decision-making process. It is during this “processing” that the person will decide which desire they will act on.
The Calvinist does not have to accept the LFW definition of free will. But their objection to Prevenient Grace based on a neutral will comes from using their definition of free will and imposing that on the Arminian view. It is not something the Arminian view teaches. A neutralized will only makes sense if one understands free will in a compatibilistic way.
Things should become more interesting with the book, Deviant Calvinism, which argues for the idea of Libertarian Calvinism.