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. 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.” Continue reading “Self-Determination, Freedom, and Choice of the Will in Calvinist-Arminian Debate”

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

In my earlier post, Problematic Methodological Premises of “Calvin against Calvinists” Scholarship, I noted that Calvin placed providence and predestination together in book 3 of the Institutes of 1539. Calvin’s decision arose from his preaching and pedagogical interests, as evidenced by his French Catechism (1537), but he was probably influenced by Paul’s teaching of the “ordo salutis”. Richard Muller explains: “In the 1539 Institutes, Calvin shifted the credal discussion forward and placed a revised order of repentance, justification, the testaments, and predestination (now juxtaposed with providence) after his exposition of the creed—and the best explanation for this arrangement remains his accommodation to the Pauline ordo modeled on Melanchthon.” [Richard Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford UP, 2000), p. 136] However, in the final edition of the Institutes (1559), Calvin separated providence from predestination by moving providence to book 1 while leaving predestination as it was in book 3. Continue reading “Why Calvin Separated Providence from Predestination in the Institutes (1559)”

Problematic Methodological Premises of “Calvin against Calvinists” Scholarship

One of the problems with the “Calvin against Calvinists” scholarship is that it is based on questionable theological premises. This includes the claim that there is conflict between the predominantly scriptural and Christocentric theology of Calvin and the theology of later Calvinists or Reformed Scholasticism whose application of Aristotelian philosophy and speculative formulation of the will of God resulted in a doctrine of God which is rationalistic and predestinarian.

However, while the orientations of the two theological approaches are different, they are not mutually exclusive. Neither are they homogeneous systems. Indeed, the intellectual currents of the Reformation era were diverse and complex. Recent scholarship exemplified by the eminent historian Heiko Oberman has brought into question the now superseded view that Reformation thought is sharply discontinuous with medieval scholasticism. A balance reading of the historical sources would give due recognition to the issues of continuity and discontinuity in development of Reformation thought. Without doubt, a new appraisal of the questionable premises of the “Calvin against Calvinists” scholarship is in order. Continue reading “Problematic Methodological Premises of “Calvin against Calvinists” Scholarship”

Election and Middle Knowledge: Arminius’ Gambit and Reformed Response

Recently, one scholar [William Craig] has proposed Molina’s concept of a divine foreknowledge of future contingents lying outside of or prior to the divine will as a possible point for dialogue between Arminians and Calvinists – as if the concept had never before been proposed by Arminianism, and as if the concept actually offered a middle ground between the Arminian and Calvinist theologies. For scientia media to become the basis for such rapprochement, however, the Reformed would need to concede virtually all of the issues in debate and adopt an Arminian perspective, because, in terms of the metaphysical foundations of the historical debate between Reformed and Arminian, the idea of a divine scientia media or middle knowledge is the heart and soul of the original Arminian position. Middle knowledge is not a middle ground. It was the Arminian, just as it was the Jesuit view, in the controversies over grace and predestination that took place in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Continue reading “Election and Middle Knowledge: Arminius’ Gambit and Reformed Response”

John Calvin Against the Philosophers: Providence-Predestination vs Chance (Epicureanism) and Determinism (Stoicism)

The frequent attacks on Calvinism by non-Calvinists in the Web gives the impression that Calvinism is a pernicious Christian sect. The attacks often highlight predestination as a major problem with Calvinism. The Calvinist’s doctrine of predestination is regarded as a rigid and legalistic doctrine that violates our sense of justice. It also robs the believer of his assurance of salvation.

Critics assert that the Calvinist teaching of predestination owes more to alien philosophical arguments rather than the bible itself. This is ironic as Calvinists are often accused of relying on proof-texting and contestable exegesis when they are challenged to demonstrate the coherence of the doctrine.  The accusation that Calvinists rely more on philosophical arguments than the bible doesn’t quite match the observation that the majority of Christian philosophers are not Calvinists, but Arminians and Open Theists.

Calvinists are puzzled when critics charge them of relying more on philosophy than on biblical revelation. How can Calvinists be guilty of subordinating the bible to philosophy when they defend tenaciously two propositions which many philosophers instinctively regard as logically incompatible with one another – that God’s choice in predestination is unconditional but man is still held responsible for his decisions – because the bible says so. Obviously, Calvin’s conception of predestination is not defined within the limits of human rationality; in fact his doctrine is offensive to reason. Continue reading “John Calvin Against the Philosophers: Providence-Predestination vs Chance (Epicureanism) and Determinism (Stoicism)”

Calvin and Calvinists on the Extent of Christ’s Atonement

Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement. And, it could be added, there is a sound reason for this.
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R. T. Kendall argues in his provocative book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford UP, 1979), that the doctrine of salvation taught by the Puritans is cold, legalistic and introspective, in contrast to John Calvin’s warm and spiritually vibrant doctrine of salvation. In this regard, the Puritans who promoted a distorted form of Calvinism were influenced by Theodore Beza who succeeded Calvin in Geneva.

Kendall highlights two problems with Beza and his Puritan followers: First, Beza and his followers taught a novel doctrine of limited atonement, that is, the idea that Christ did not die for everyone in the world, but only for the elect. Kendall claims that this is a radical departure from Calvin who taught that Christ died for all but that he intercedes only for the elect. Second, Beza and the Puritans reduced the act of faith to an act of the will which contradicts Calvin’s view of faith as a persuasion of the mind. Kendall argues that the doctrine of limited atonement inevitably results in legalism and loss of assurance of salvation. Kendall presses his claim by arguing that assurance of salvation is possible only if it is grounded in Christ’s universal atonement. Continue reading “Calvin and Calvinists on the Extent of Christ’s Atonement”

Paul Teaches that Election to Salvation is Individual, not Corporate. Ephesians 1:3-14

The Augustinian view of election of believers outlined in the comments on Eph 1:4 in particular has come under challenge recently from scholars who defend a view they term “corporate election.” Brian J. Abasciano explains:

Most simply, corporate election refers to the choice of a group, which entails the choice of its individual members by virtue of their membership in the group. Thus, individuals are not elected as individuals directly, but secondarily as members of the elect group.… Individuals are elect as a consequence of their membership in the group.… On both the individual and the corporate level, election is contingent on faith in Christ.

This view is proposed over against the historic Augustinian/Calvinist view, which, we are told, “refers to the direct choice of individuals as autonomous entities” and leads to a “maverick Christianity” of isolated individuals rather than to a healthy, unified church.

Furthermore, we are told, the insights of the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) have bolstered this corporate view of election as consistent with E. P. Sanders’s homogenized view of Second Temple Judaism, in which corporate Israel was elected gratuitously and individuals enjoyed this election and predestination only insofar as they maintained their status within the group through personal covenant fidelity, i.e., obedience to the law. It should be noted that not everyone agrees that the radically diverse groups in Second Temple Judaism can be homogenized quite so easily.

The argument for corporate election as it relates to Ephesians concentrates on Eph 1:4a (καθὼς ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ, kathōs exelexato hēmas en autō, “insofar as he chose us in him”), where ἡμᾶς (hēmas) (“us”) is said to refer not to individuals but to “the church as a whole, especially as it was uttered in a collectivist cultural milieu in which the group was seen as primary and the individual as secondary, embedded in the group to which he belonged and referred to as a result of his membership in the group.” Continue reading “Paul Teaches that Election to Salvation is Individual, not Corporate. Ephesians 1:3-14”

Sovereign Grace, Regeneration and Humble Calvinism

Salvation is Solely the Work of God
One of the hallmarks of Calvinism is monergism, that is, the biblical conviction that we are born again by God working alone (mono = one). God is the only active agent in our rebirth because the depravity of sin has rendered fallen man totally unable to believe in Christ. God’s sovereign grace actualizes salvation, beginning with effectual calling and regeneration, the process whereby the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit recreates fallen human nature and enables sinners to believe in Christ. In this regard, regeneration precedes faith. In contrast, synergism (Arminianism) teaches that we are born again by divine-human cooperation, each contributing its part to accomplish regeneration (syn = together). Synergism is possible because sinners retain sufficient ability to believe in Christ. Effectively, this mean that God offers potential salvation which is actualized only when a sinner believes.

The Canons of Dort (1618-1619), which is one of the foundational doctrinal documents of the Calvinist Reformation, resolutely rejects synergism in one of its affirmations. Continue reading “Sovereign Grace, Regeneration and Humble Calvinism”

B.B. Warfield: Use of Evidence in Apologetics Not Necessarily Rationalistic

B.B. Warfield has been accused of being influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, mediated by the Scottish Common Sense of Philosophy. It is further claimed that Warfield’s apologetics is premised on a person-neutral view of reason and criteria of truth. This accusation is incorrect. Warfield stresses that evidence by itself is not sufficient to bring a person to faith in Christ. Nevertheless, the presentation of objective evidence and argument is necessary precisely because the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing saving understanding and saving faith includes opening the eyes of the blind to information which is conducive towards faith.

The passages given below confirm that Warfield’s apologetics is cognizant of the noetic effects of sin and as such, saving faith is the gift of God through the Holy Spirit. Warfield’s dialectical balance between evidence and the necessity of the Holy Spirit in bringing faith should give pause to critics who claim that his apologetics is rationalistic.

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I. No one is in danger of believing that “the evidences” can produce “faith”: but neither can the presentation of Christ in the gospel produce “faith.” “Faith” is the gift of God. But it does not follow that the “faith” that God gives is not grounded in “the evidences.” Of course it is only the prepared heart that can fitly respond to the force of the “evidences,” or “ receive ” the proclamation : just as it is only the eye that can see, as Dr. Bavinck explains, to which the sun can reveal itself. But this faith that the prepared heart yields,—is it yielded blindly and without reason, or is it yielded rationally and on the ground of sufficient reason? Does God the Holy Spirit work a blind and ungrounded faith in the heart? What is supplied by the Holy Spirit in working faith in the heart surely is not a ready-made faith, rooted in nothing and clinging without reason to its object; nor yet new grounds of belief in the object presented; but just a new power to the heart to respond to the grounds of faith, sufficient in themselves, already present to the mind. Our Reformed fathers did not overlook this: they always posited the presence, in the production of faith, of the “argumentum, propter quod credo” [the argument for what I believe], as well as the “principium seu causa efficiens a quo ad credendum adducor” [the principle or efficient cause by which I am led to believe]. From this point of view, the presence to the mind of the “grounds” of faith is just as essential as the creative operation of the Giver of faith itself. Continue reading “B.B. Warfield: Use of Evidence in Apologetics Not Necessarily Rationalistic”

Philosophy and Theology Reading 3/3

Theology Uses Philosophy on its own Terms

[157] Though Christian dogma cannot be explained in terms of Greek philosophy, it also did not come into being apart from it. There is as yet no dogma and theology, strictly speaking, in Scripture. As long as revelation itself was still in progress, it could not become the object of scientific reflection. Inspiration had to be complete before reflection could begin…

Gradually a need arose to think through the ideas of revelation, to link it with other knowledge and to defend it against various forms of attack. For this purpose people needed philosophy. Scientific theology was born with its help. This did not, however, happen accidentally. The church was not the victim of deception. In the formation and development of the dogmas, the church fathers made generous use of philosophy. They did that, however, in the full awareness of and with clear insight into the dangers connected with that enterprise; they were conscious of the grounds on which they did it, and they did it with express recognition of the word of the apostles as the only rule of faith and conduct. For that reason also they did not utilize the whole of Greek philosophy but made a choice; they only utilized the philosophy that was most suited to help them think through and defend the truth of God. They went to work eclectically and did not take over any single philosophical system, be it either from Plato or from Aristotle, but with the aid of Greek philosophy produced a Christian philosophy of their own. Furthermore, they only used that philosophy as a means… Continue reading “Philosophy and Theology Reading 3/3”