Self-Determination, Freedom, and Choice of the Will in Calvinist-Arminian Debate

Arminians (and Open Theists) argue for “libertarian freedom” in their debate against Calvinists. Clark Pinnock explains that “a free action as one in which a person is free to perform an action or refrain from performing it and is not completely determined in the matter by prior forces-nature, nurture or even God. Libertarian freedom recognizes the power of contrary choice. One acts freely in a situation if, and only if, one could have done otherwise…It is the freedom of self-determination, in which the various motives and influences informing the choice are not the sufficient cause of the choice itself. The person makes the choice in a self-determined way.” [Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, A Theology of God’s Openness (Baker, 2001), p. 127]

Roger Olson contrasts the Arminian view of libertarian freedom with the Calvinist view of “compatibilist freedom”. “Most Calvinists, when pushed to explain why persons act in certain ways or choose certain things, appeal to the strongest motive as explanation and then add that motives are not self-determined but given to persons by someone or something. In this theory people are “free” when they act in accordance with their desires, when they do what they want to do, even if they could not do otherwise. This “free will” is compatible with determinism.” [Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP, 2006), p. 129] However, Olson rejects compatibilist freedom because it is incompatible with responsibility, which the Calvinists affirm. Olson dismisses compatibilist freedom because “It is hardly the most common meaning of free will or the meaning of “the person on the street” who talks about being free.” [An Arminian Account of Free Will]

Olson is being simplistic and tendentious when he asserts that for Calvinists “motives are not self-determined but given to persons by someone or something.” This assertion is a caricature of Calvinist belief. Olson also ignores the reality that if “motivation” is the general desire or willingness of someone to do something, people are basically self-motivated as the actions of a person are caused by his desires or personal preferences, intelligence and intentions, all together informing and influencing the will to move towards specific goals.  As the compatibilist Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin emphasizes, “For since the will is a rational appetite, such is its character that it must follow the last judgment of the practical intellect.”/1/ We spontaneously choose according to our strongest motive which is consistent with our habits, inclinations, dispositions, interests and the judgment of the intellect. From the perspective of faculty psychology adopted by Reformed theologians, the whole process comprises the self-determination of a person when his desire, intellect and will are inextricably working together as he makes his choices and actions.

Olson’s judgment is flippant when he dismisses compatibilist freedom on the basis of the perception of “the person on the street”. Since the debate is an intra-mural debate between bible-believing Christians, the terms of the debate should not be decided by what “the person on the street” perceives, which is likely to be generalized and naturalistic. The debate would yield more accurate insights if it is more focused on what the bible teaches about the nature of freedom in the spiritual experience of man. To be sure, the bible does not offer a concise, technical definition of freedom because it does not view freedom in abstraction or in a vacuum. Instead, the bible portrays how the human will makes its choices in an arena where the power of sin is locked in contestation with the power of God to influence human will. In particular, while humans can freely choose, they do so under the limitations of a corrupted will and deficient intellect that result in their inability to choose well.

The Arminian account of libertarian freedom of the will appears plausible when it is discussed in abstraction. However, the deficiency of the Arminian account becomes evident when we take into consideration the dynamics and dilemmas of the will caught in between the power of sin and God. In contrast, Calvin offers a more concrete and nuanced understanding of the will, that is, the will as free, bound, self-determined or coerced.

In his debate with Pighius, Calvin follows Augustine in recognizing that man possesses voluntary, free choice (in contrast to pagan notions of man being subject to fate) but Calvin refuses to liken voluntary, free choice to free will. For Calvin, Adam was created with free will or the power to choose good. However, humanity lost free will in the Fall of Adam. Nevertheless, free will is restored in the elect when the Holy Spirit renews and redirects the will (voluntas)./2/

Calvin identifies four different expressions of the will [emphasis added in italics]:

“If freedom is opposed to coercion, I both acknowledge and consistently maintain that choice is free, and I hold anyone who thinks otherwise to be a heretic. If, I say, it were called free in the sense of not being coerced nor forcibly moved by an external impulse, but moving of its own accord, I have no objection. The reason I find this epithet unsatisfactory is that people commonly think of something quite different when they hear or read it being applied to the human will. Since in fact they take it to imply ability and power, one cannot prevent from entering the minds of most people, as soon as the will is called free, the illusion that it therefore has both good and evil within its power, so that it can by its own strength choose either one of them [in modern language, this would be libertarian free will]…

In any case, it does not even seem to agree very well with the usage of Scripture. For freedom and bondage are mutually contradictory, so that he who affirms the one denies the other…When Paul describes the state of the saints, he affirms that they are bound as prisoners with the chains of sin insofar as they have not yet been set free by the Spirit of God. And when he speaks of man’s nature, he says that he is sold under sin…For in the sixth chapter he gives thanks to God that the Romans have been set free from sin, to which they were previously in bondage. We see how before regeneration it is not the remnants of the flesh but the whole person which he yields up to bondage. Therefore anyone who claims that choice is free uses a different expression from that of the Holy Spirit…

But since Pighius is always craftily confusing coercion with necessity, when it is of the greatest importance for the issue under discussion that the distinction between them be maintained and carefully remembered, it is appropriate to note how the following four [description of the will] differ from one another: namely that the will is free, bound, self-determined, or coerced. People generally understand a free will to be one which has it in its power to choose good or evil, and Pighius also defines it in this way. There can be no such thing as a coerced will, since the two ideas are contradictory. But our responsibility as teachers requires that we say what it means, so that it may be understood what coercion is. Therefore we describe [as coerced] the will which does not incline this way or that of its own accord or by an internal movement of decision, but is forcibly driven by an external impulse. We say that it is self-determined when of itself it directs itself in the direction in which it is led, when it is not taken by force or dragged unwillingly. A bound will, finally, is one which because of its corruptness is held captive under the authority of evil desires, so that it can choose nothing but evil, even if it does so of its own accord and gladly, without being driven by any external impulse.

According to these definitions we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity wills in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which it follows that it is self-determined. Now you see how self-determination and necessity can be combined together, a fact which Pighius craftily tries to conceal when he thinks that man’s freedom consists of acting (whether well or badly) without necessity.” [John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Baker, 1996), pp. 68-70]

Olson’s assertion that for Calvinists “motives are not self-determined but given to persons by someone or something” implies that the Calvinist affirmation of free will rests on dubious foundations for a will cannot be genuinely free if its motives are not self-determined but given. It is ironic that Olson is prepared to contradict what would appear to be self-evident truth to the “the person on the street” (to use Olson’s own words), that is, that one’s thoughts, motives, desires, and loves are not simply given by “someone or something”, but that they are the personal functions which belong to a concrete, individual person. Finally, the Calvinist nuanced understanding of the conjunction of intellect rendering judgment and the will directing itself and making voluntary choices under different conditions surely belies the simplistic criticism of Arminian critics like Olson.

Previous Post
Why Calvin Separated Providence from Predestination in the Institutes (1559)

/1/ Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1992), vol.1/3, p. 663. Practical intellect: “the function of the intellect or understanding that identifies the good in the limited or present sense of what is good or beneficial at a particular moment.” Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985, 2017), intellectus practicus, q.v. In describing Turretin as a compatibilist, I am following Paul Helm, contra. Richard Muller.

/2/ * Voluntas: will; i.e., the faculty of will resident by nature in all spiritual beings; the appetitive power (potentia appetitiva) of a spiritual being. Will is distinct from intellect (intellectus, q.v.) in scholastic faculty psychology. The intellect is that which knows objects; the will is that which has an appetite or desire for them. Will and intellect are the two highest spiritual powers…

Will, defined as the appetitive faculty in human beings, must also be distinguished from choice (arbitrium, q.v.). The will is the faculty that operates with the intellect in an act of choosing any particular object. Arbitrium is the function or faculty of making a judgment, choice, or decision and can be identified either as belonging to the intellect or as belonging to both intellect and will. Thus the will can be viewed as essentially free and unconstrained but nonetheless limited by its own nature or natural capacity in choosing particular things and, in view of the restricting and debilitating effects of sin (peccatum, q.v.), in bondage to its own fallen nature.
Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, voluntas, q.v.

One thought on “Self-Determination, Freedom, and Choice of the Will in Calvinist-Arminian Debate”

  1. > Olson’s judgment is flippant when he dismisses compatibilist freedom on the basis of the perception of “the person on the street”.

    When you lay out the differences between the two forms of freedom to the person on the street, who is not up on said debates, you will find that FW in accordance to desires is actually what makes sense to the person on the street. Neutrality or indifference does not make sense.

    In Him,
    ~ Raj

Comments are closed.