Calvinism, Part VI: Are You A Puppet Or A Free Moral Agent?

May 9, 2009

As we have noted in the previous articles, the ramifications of Calvinism simply boil down to determinism, or to be more exact, pre-determinism.  The Greeks, in essence, regarded all of nature and man as "determined" as pawns on a chessboard.  Augustine merely put God's face on a Platonic worldview and maintained that God "pre-determined" all of mankind.

No matter how one stands on his views of Calvinism, or whether he/she comes down on the side of 1, 2 3, 4 of 5-point Calvinism, consistency, logic and the theological assumptions as a whole demand that pre-determinism is the glue that holds this soteriology together.  One cannot be a partial Calvinist!  It is inconsistent and contradictory. 

This final article in the series will take a closer look at the ramifications of Calvinism on the morality of man.  If man has been pre-determined, he cannot be a moral agent.  Man would merely be a puppet in God's theater of history.

As I noted as the end of my first article I encountered a theology student at Westminster Theological Seminary prior to my enrollment there who, when asked how he would feel if he knew ahead of time that God pre-determined his six-month old daughter to be consigned to perdition.  When he said "Praise be to God for He alone is sovereign," I began to see just how this doctrine literally brainwashes its adherents.  It's as if Calvinism pre-determines a mindset that is in bondage, much like Martin Luther once regarded the human will. 

When "debating" the issue the obvious inconsistencies in Calvinism became apparent.  To Calvinists (2 to 5 point Calvinists), God alone picks who is to be saved and who is to be condemned.  Also, if one is not among the elect, he/she cannot help but sin.  And yet God blames sinners and punishes them for their unbelief even though they cannot act otherwise.  Round and round this young man and I went as we argued matters like this, but the debate always seemed to reach an impasse.

What I have discovered over the years since Jerry and I debated that week in June of 1980 is that there are a number of philosophical categories that shed new light on my numerous encounters with him and other Calvinists.  Let's look at the categories and try to understand them.  They all pertain to the nature of freedom.

Philosophical analysis often only makes explicit and precise what is implicit and general.  Scripture of course does not explicitly state these categories, but that should not count against them in any way.  It is also the case that Scripture does not explicitly state the orthodox doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity, but most evangelicals would readily assent to the historic creeds that make the explicit and defend them as crucially important statements of our faith.  The classic doctrinal statements on the Trinity and the incarnation employ philosophical categories to make explicit what is implicit in Scripture and help us to interpret it in a coherent fashion.

There are three categories I will address here.  They are as follows: hard determinism, libertarian freedom, and soft determinism (which is often called compatibilism).  These three terms represent three significantly different views of freedom in relation to determinism.  Before I can define these terms properly let me define determinism.

Determinism, simply put, is the view that every event must have happened exactly as it did because of prior conditions. Given these prior conditions and circumstances, the event could not have happened any other way.  In philosophical language, these prior events and circumstances represent a sufficient condition for the event to occur.  When such a condition is present, the event must occur exactly as it does.

A sufficient condition must be distinguished from a necessary one.  To illustrate: A necessary condition for a match to ignite is the presence of oxygen.  However, the presence of oxygen is not a sufficient condition for a match to ignite.  There are lots of matches - wet ones for example - that do not ignite in the presence of oxygen.  However, suppose that in addition to being in the presence of the necessary oxygen, the match is also dry and is properly struck or otherwise exposed to heat.  In this case, we have a sufficient condition for the match to ignite.  Given these circumstances, it not only will ignite but must ignite.  Given these circumstances, it is a matter of causal necessity that the match will light.

To put it another way, determinism affirms what philosophers call the principle of universal causality.  In essence this principle claims that all things that happen are caused by sufficient conditions in which nothing that happens could vary in even the slightest detail.  Nothing lies outside the pale of universal causality.  All events are part of an unbreakable causal chain that stretches back perhaps to infinity.  Every link in the chain is strictly caused by the one that preceded it.

Let's consider another picture to help us get a clear picture of the deterministic view of reality.  When one considers the motion of the moon as it revolves around the earth, we can predict with great precision the location of the moon three months from now.  We can do so because we know both the moon's present position and state as well as the laws that govern the motion of such heavenly bodies.  Given these circumstances, it follows as a matter of causal necessity that the moon will be in such and such a location three months from now.

The theory of determinism says that all events are determined just as surely as the motion of the moon and the planets are. Why? Because universal laws govern the rest of the physical world just as they do the motion of the planets.  Everything from the largest planets down to the smallest particles of matter is determined to behave just as it does.  Of course, we do not yet know all the relevant laws, but if we did, it would be possible in principle to know the future with complete certainty.

This theory of determinism had its heyday in that era of modern science when laws of nature were being discovered with dizzying success and when it seemed that everything could be explained in terms of natural law.  More recently, the deterministic view has been shaken by the discovery of fundamental indeterminacy at the quantum level of physics, not to mention chaos theory and the like.  Whether this indeterminacy is a serious problem for determinism at the level of larger objects is not clear.

But the point is that the ambition of deterministic theory was to embrace everything under its purview, including human actions!  After all, our bodies are physical objects and as such are constituent parts of the larger cosmos governed by natural law.  In theory then, our actions are determined just as the motions of the heavenly bodies are, even if we have not yet discovered the relevant laws.

There are other factors besides natural law that are often cited to account for why our choices must occur as they do. Augustine believed that the only factor was God.  After all, God set up natural law by his command. 

Now what about the three main categories of determinism mentioned above?  First, let's start with Hard Determinism


The fundamental assumption of hard determinism is the principle of universal causality: Every event has a sufficient cause and is part of an unbreakable causal chain with a very long (perhaps infinite) history.  Second, hard determinism has a distinctive understand of a free act: namely, a free act is one that has not cause and thus no causal history.

One does not have to be a Ph. D. in Epistemology to see what follows from these two claims.  If every event has a cause and a free act has no cause, then clearly there are no free acts.  This is what hard determinists readily conclude.  We are not free, they claim; and moreover, we are not responsible for our actions.  Consequently, one deserves neither blame nor praise for one's actions, since all actions are the necessary result of natural law.

Let's put the argument connecting freedom and moral responsibility using this syllogism:

Premise A: If we are morally responsible for our actions, then we must be free.
Premise B: We are not free.
Conclusion A: Therefore, we are not morally responsible for our actions.

In denying that we are free, the hard determinist does not mean to deny that all of us have a subjective sense of freedom - we feel we are free.  But these feelings are illusory.  In reality, all feelings and the resulting choices were determined by factors long before one is born.  Actions are part of a causal chain that stretches back indefinitely into the past and unbreakably forward into the future.

In this view, the hard determinist will insist will so that there would be no rational grounds to blame anyone morally or to scold or punish anyone who breaks the law or commits egregious acts against man or nature.  After all, if no one is free and responsible for his or her actions, then no one else is freer to punish anyone who commits a crime.  Therefore, no one can be moral who has not already been programmed to be moral.  Furthermore, morality, in and of itself, is relative.


The essence of this view is that a free action is one that does not have a sufficient condition or cause prior to its occurrence. It also holds that some human actions are free in this sense. 

Defenders of libertarian freedom hold to this view for a number of reasons, the chief of which is the common experience of deliberation that assumes that our choices are undetermined.  When we deliberate, we not only weigh the various factors involved, we also weight them.  That is, we decide how important different considerations are in relation to one another.  These factors do not have a preassigned weight that everyone must accept.  Part of deliberation is sifting through these factors and deciding how much they matter to us.  All of this assumes that it really is up to us how we will decide.

Second, it seems intuitively and immediately evident that many of our actions are up to us in the sense that when faced with a decision, both (or more) options are within our power to choose.  Of course, our feeling that we have this power could be illusory, as determinists claim.  We have to decide between conflicting claims.  As is often the case with philosophical judgments of this sort, we must decide which claim is more certain.  Libertarians argue that our immediate sense of power to choose between alternative courses of action is more certain and trustworthy than any theory that denies we have this power.

Third, libertarians take very seriously the widespread judgment that we are morally responsible for our actions and that moral responsibility requires freedom.  They would assent to the first premise of the argument spelled our above.  However, they would deny the second premise and replace it with another one, and then draw a different conclusion, as follows:

Premise A: If we are morally responsible for our actions, then we must be free.
Premise D: We are morally responsible for our actions.
Conclusion B: Therefore, we must be free.

The issue debated between the hard determinists and the libertarian is which second premise is true.  According to the libertarian, the deeply rooted human belief in moral responsibility is a strong indication that we are free.

Calvinists may agree that our legal system requires us to be free in the sense necessary for moral responsibility.  However, they may object that the freedom involved need not be libertarian freedom and that it is begging the question to assume libertarian freedom in this context.

Here is a major parting of the ways between Calvinists and Arminians or Wesleyans.  Both rely on contested philosophical judgments at this point.  The conclusions reached by those who believe that people are morarlly responsible even if they are not free to do otherwise will be very different from the conclusion reached by those who are convinced that moral responsibility requires such freedom.


The driving motivation behind this view is twofold.  First, this view accepts the principle of universal causality and therefore hold that all things are determined.  Indeed, the soft determinist is no less committed to determinism than the hard determinist is.  It's important to underscore this point because the term "soft determinism" can be misleading to readers unfamiliar with it.  The term suggests to them a partial or halfhearted determinism, a sort of quasi-determinism.

So what is the difference between soft and hard determinism?  The difference is in the second motivation that drives soft determinism.  In addition to affirming universal causality, soft determinists also believe that we are responsible for our actions, and they agree that we must be free in some sense if this is the case.  In other words, soft determinists want to affirm both complete determinism and freedom.  This position is also called compatibilism because it holds that freedom and determinism can be compatible.

Confused? Well, to avoid this confusion one needs to know that soft determinists define freedom differently than do both libertarians and hard determinists.  Clearly, if a free act has no cause, as hard determinists claim, then we cannot coherently affirm both that there are free acts and that everything is causally determined.  Just as clearly, if a free act has no sufficient cause prior to it occurrence, as libertarians say, then we cannot coherently hold both that there are such free acts and that all things are determined by prior causes and conditions.

Fortunately for soft determinists, they are guilty of no such incoherence.  They offer a very different account of freedom, one that is carefully crafted to ensure that it is compatible with determinism.  To do this, their arguments define an act as free if it meets three conditions:

1 - It is not compelled or caused by anything external to the agent who performs it.
2 - However, it is caused by something internal to the agent who performs it, namely, a psychological state such as a beef. a desire or, more precisely, a combination of these two.
3 - The agent performing it could have acted differently, it the agent had wanted to do so.

Although this definition seems rather straightforward, I offer these words of explanation.  First, to say an act is compelled or caused by something external to the agent is to say that the act was forced against his will.  For instance, suppose someone picked you up, carried you into a voting booth and forced your hand to push a button indicating a vote for Barack Obama. This would not qualify as a free act because it would violate the first condition.

Second, an act is free if it has the right sort of immediate cause - in particular, a psychological internal to the agent.  Now given the thesis of determinism, these psychological states are themselves caused by prior conditions and states of affairs. Indeed, given those prior conditions, no other psychological states are even possible.  Something external to the agent ultimately caused these internal psychological states, but at the time of the act, these thoughts, desires and so on are owned by the agent in such a way that he willingly acts on them.  In other words, the agent is merely acting in character when he chooses as he or she does.  His character determines the choices, and he could not will or act otherwise given his character.

Finally, we must keep these points in mind to understand the third condition for a free action in the soft determinists' definition, or else we may be misled by the condition concerning the agent's ability to have acted differently if he or she had wanted to do so.  The crucial point to keep in mind is that the agent could not want to do otherwise than he or she in fact does.  If the agent had wanted to do differently, he could have done so, but it was impossible for him to want to do differently, given the prior causes and conditions that strictly determined his psychological states and character.

The implication in the soft determinists argument simple is that even though a person is not compelled against his will to commit a crime, rather the immediate causes of his crime were internal psychological states, flowing out of the character that had been formed in him.  Moreover, he could have chosen differently if he had wanted to do so.  But he could not have wanted to choose differently, given the character he actually had.  But it is still true that they could have chosen differently if he had wanted to do so, that is, if he had been determined to have different desires, a different character and so on.

The point is that it does not matter what causes our character and the internal psychological states and beliefs involved. According to determinism, everything that happens is causally necessary.  Given prior conditions, things could not happen any differently than they do.  Causal chains are often complicated, and it makes no difference what links make up the chains that produce our character.

Theologically, the difference between soft and hard determinism would be, simply put, that soft determinism gets God off the hook and therefore cannot be blamed for a man's sins.  Hard determinism, by extension, demands that God is the author of evil and is responsible for man's sins.

Calvinists insist that God is sovereign.  So do Arminians and Wesleyans.  Calvinists preach that God is all knowing.  So do Arminians and Wesleyans.  No matter what side of the determinists argument the Calvinist comes down upon, determinism denies free-will (ironically so does Arminianism) and leaves not room for a person to be free to make choices (which is where the Arminian departs from the Calvinist).

This philosophical and logical assumption of Calvinism is that we are all puppets on a string, pawns on a chessboard, trick dogs in a circus and robots being manipulated in one sort or another.  I must assert here that I believe that if this is true, God is not a God at all, but a insidious and demonic individual who is not exercising his sovereignty, but playing games with His creation much like a little boy playing with his army men in a trench and blowing some of them up at will.

Calvinists would say, God can do that!  Arminians and Wesleyans do say, but God so loved the world that He wanted people, viz. mankind, to make a choice to have a relationship with Him.  To put it succinctly, from a human point of view, one cannot have a relationship with puppets, marionettes and army men, He can and does have a relationship with those who freely give their lives to Him.  Then them, God gives eternal life.

NOTE:  There will be a series to come on Eternal Security entitled: "Do We Loose Our Freewill at Conversion?" coming this summer.  This series will address that final point of Calvinism which is held dear by almost every Southern Baptist and, by extension, all conservative Baptists around the world.

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