Calvinism has been one of the most popular theological traditions within the church for half a millennia. This reformed view is the tradition in which I was raised. In fact, I believed it, bought it, and taught it as a minister for over a decade.
I was not alone in my pursuit to spread the teachings of Calvin and the five famous points of TULIP to the masses. While many behind the doors of the church bought into Calvinism as I did, there was one group of Christians who seemed impervious to Calvinism’s five points. Who were these heretical church goers? None other than Christian philosophers!
In the recent book, Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, editors David Alexander and Daniel Johnson observe the following:
“Calvinism simply is not a live option for most Christian philosophers.” (1)
Why is this the case? The problem for many philosophers is based upon Calvinism’s commitment to theological determinism — the view that God exhaustively determines ALL things. If Calvinism is wedded to theological exhaustive determinism then God is responsible for all things and humanity is responsible for nothing. If God causally determines all, then this includes all thoughts, actions, beliefs, behaviors, and intentions. If that is the case, then humans are not responsible for any thoughts, actions, beliefs, behaviors, or intentions. Thus, humanity would not be responsible for anything we choose from what we are eating for lunch, to the shirt you are wearing today, and even for our sinful (so-called) “choices.” God is responsible for evil on this view; humans are nothing more than falling dominoes or (to mix metaphors) “toy soldiers” in the hand of God.
This is one of the reasons as to why I came to reject the view that I had held so tightly for so long. In fact, I have come to agree with the vast majority of Christian philosophers — Calvinism is no longer a live option!
If God alone exhaustively determines all thoughts, actions, beliefs, behaviors, and intentions of all human beings (not to mention all events), it follows that God alone is the author of sin and evil. And if God determines the actions of all agents — not to mention all thought and beliefs — then Calvinistic determinism affirms that God alone is the origin of the first sin (not Satan or Eve).
Moreover, how can this deterministic view explain moral obligations of humans, and even human rationality and knowledge?
What about Molinism?
If Calvinism is wedded to a view of divine exhaustive determinism then Calvinism faces several insurmountable difficulties. In fact, I contend that this common view of Calvinism is impossible! By “impossible” I mean it is logically incoherent when held along side of other (essential?) Christian doctrines like eternal hell and God’s omni-attributes.
Since rejecting Calvinism I have come to affirm the view of Molinism. I am not adamant that Molinism must be true, nor am I willing to die for it; however, after considering the Bible as a whole — combined with logic — I have come to infer that Molinism is the best explanation of all the data.
One of these reasons is that the problems Calvinism faces (listed above) are not faced by Molinism. This is because Molinism explains exactly how God can be completely sovereign and predestine ALL things without causally determining ALL things. Calvinists, on the other hand assume that if God predestines all things then He must causally determine all things. I have deductively argued that predestination and causal determinism ought not be conflated (here).
Welty’s Gunslinger Objection
In his essay “Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin,” Welty interacts with one of the main objections against Calvinism. That is, if Calvinistic exhaustive determinism is true, then God is a moral monster and responsible as the author of every evil action. After all, on this omni-causal view, God made the Holocaust happen — not Hitler!
Welty responds with two points: His first response is an appeal to mystery and notes the Reformed confessions,
“leave it a mystery why (for instance) if God ordains everything that comes to pass, and if human sin comes to pass, God is not responsible or culpable for those sins.” (59)
Although “ordains” is wholly different than “determines,” I respect this move. In fact, I have stated that if Molinism happens to be debunked in the future (not likely), then I would appeal to mystery long before affirming a logically incoherent view which detracts from God’s maximal greatness like Calvinistic determinism does. After all, I believe that God would have Christ followers believe “mysterious things” as opposed to straight-up logical contradictions. As I have previously written, when Christians affirm logically contradictory propositions, that is a nice way of shouting “CHRISTIANITY IS NOT TRUE!”
Welty, however, is not satisfied by appealing to mystery and offers a tu quoque argument attempting to show Molinistic hypocrisy. I think this form of argumentation is similar to, “I know you are but what am I?” Or better put: “If I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me!” Here he does not deny that Calvinism reduces God to a moral monster and the author of evil, but rather, he basically responds with, “oh yeah, well so does Molinism.” Here is Welty’s exact quote:
“Molinism makes God the author of sin (in the objectionable sense) if Calvinism does.” (60)
Welty attempts to support his assertion by arguing that Molinism does not get God “off the same hook” upon which Calvinism is hanging.
One thing I find attractive about Molinism is that it avoids implicating God as the direct and sole cause of evil. I have argued that unlike Calvinism, Molinism keeps God perfectly good, holy, and maximally great! This is because, on Molinism, God possesses omniscient middle knowledge and acts in accord with His perfect and exhaustive eternal knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Because of this, Molinists demonstrate that God is not causally determining the agent to think or act a certain way because the agent has the real and genuine ability to think or act otherwise (this “otherwise-ness” is not available on Calvinism). Indeed, if Molinism is true, then agents are genuinely responsible for at least some of their thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors just as 1 Corinthians 10:13 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 seem to imply. That is to say, some of these things are ultimately “up to us.”
I have argued that if Calvinistic determinism is true, then God causally determines the thoughts and actions of all creatures, and thus is implicated in the evil actions of creatures because the creature’s action was “up to” God and not the creature. God is the responsible puppet master on this view.
Bullet Bill & Responsibility
Welty challenges my argument’s conclusion by way of a firearm thought experiment. The first step is to describe a case in which a man pulls a gun on another person and shoots them. Randal Rauser notes the dimensions of the “ordinary gun” case:
the gunman acts to bring about a particular effect, but his actions themselves are not sufficient for the effect since he relies on contingent laws of nature, and his knowledge of those laws which guide his action. The gunman does not determine what the laws of nature are but he is nonetheless responsible for the crime (60-3).
Before proceeding, it is important to note that these “dimensions of the case” seem to assume libertarian free will — that is, this crime was “up to” the gunman (and not something or someone external to the gunman). This is because the gunman’s thoughts and actions are a necessary condition for the trajectory of the bullet, but his thoughts and actions are not sufficient for a bullet to the head because the laws of physics are also necessary. That is to say, if the gunman did not (freely?) choose to pull the trigger, then although nothing changes in regards to the laws of nature, the other man does not get shot by the gunman.
The next thought experiment offered by Welty imagines a gunman firing a special “Bullet Bill” gun that shoots bullets that seem to be living and conscious beings who can make free and informed decisions. (Bullet Bill is a sentient bullet in Nintendo video games and he chases after Mario when fired like a “free thinking”/ heat-seeking missile.) In the first “ordinary gun” scenario the gunman knows what the trajectory of the bullet will be in various situations based on the laws of nature and then (freely?) chooses to shoot the other person with his gun. In the second “Nintendo gun” scenario the gunman knows the trajectory the sentient agent Bullet Bill would freely choose to take in various situations based on his knowledge of the counterfactuals of Bullet Bill’s creaturely freedom. That is to say, the gunman knows with perfect certainty that if he fires the gun (launching Bullet Bill), that Bullet Bill would freely choose to kill Mario, although he does not have to kill Mario (Bill can choose otherwise). The Nintendo gunman also perfectly knows that if Bullet Bill is fired in a different situation, then Bullet Bill would freely choose to kill Luigi instead (although Bill could have freely chosen to kill Mario or no one at all).
What Welty hopes to accomplish here is to refute Molinism by demonstrating that the Nintendo gunman is still morally responsible for killing Mario although Bullet Bill is the one who freely chose to kill Mario. He argues that the gunman is still responsible for Mario’s death even though Bullet Bill possessed the libertarian freedom to choose to kill Mario or not. This is akin to suggesting that parents who know that if they have a child, their child would freely choose to sin, then the parents should be held responsible for the child’s free choice to sin later in life. My parents knew, for example, that I would not be a perfect human being long before they chose to start a family. If I get a speeding ticket should they get one too? Of course not — that is absurd!
In fact, biblically – we see this standard between the separation of the gunman and the bullet in Ezekiel 18:20 [ESV]:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
This passage illustrates that although the father brought the son into existence the son’s free choice to sin broke the “chain of causation,” and thus, the son is independently accountable for his own sin. The son’s father is not responsible for the sin of the son, God is not responsible for the sin of the son — the son is responsible for his sin (it was up to him)!
The gunslinger analogy is dead for at least two reasons:
1- Bullet Bill is not causally determined to kill Mario (it is up to him) if Molinism is true. But if Calvinism is true, Bullet Bill is causally determined by the gunman (God) to kill Mario. That is to say, on Molinism Bullet Bill can freely choose to avoid murder; on Calvinism Bullet Bill has no choice but to kill Mario as God causes Bullet Bill’s thoughts, intentions, and actions.
2- On Molinism, the gunman (God) desires Bullet Bill to freely choose to love Him (the gunman) and all people — from his neighbors to Bill’s enemies. In fact, the gunman (God) actually loves both Bill and Mario perfectly (omnibenevolence)! The gunman (God) actually desires the best for both Bill and Mario for all eternity (John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9) and does not want Bill to choose to kill Mario, Luigi, or anyone else.
Of course, given God’s omniscience, the gunman (God) must know that Bullet Bill could, would, and will freely choose to sin and kill Mario (although he genuinely could have done otherwise). The significant difference here is that in the “ordinary gun” scenario (Calvinism), the gunman (God) actually desires the death of Mario as well as the Nazi Holocaust, Islamic terror, and all the damned who suffer in the eternal fires of hell for choices they were powerless to make.
On Molinism, however, the gunman also knows that all of these freely chosen evil actions will eventually be used for the ultimate eternal GOOD (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28; 2 Cor 4:17). The Calvinistic determinist cannot make the same case (click here for more). With this in mind, it seems to me that Molinism is not hanging on the same hook as Calvinism.
The gunman, on Molinism, never desired for Bill to kill. In fact, the gunman never shot the bullet in the direction of Mario; rather, the gunman merely placed the bullet on the table. The gunman did not project the bullet in either direction, both directions were perfect alternatives and neither of Bill’s choices contained deterministic factors. God allows Bill to make His choice freely.
Predestination ≠ Determinism
I believe one of Welty’s mistakes is conflating God’s exhaustive predestination of all things with God exhaustively causally determining all things. Welty assumes that if God is responsible for creating a world including people who can freely choose to do good or evil, then God is to blame for people freely choosing to sin (although people could do otherwise). He reasons that the Molinist’s view of God is just as bad as the Calvinistic view because God created a world in which He knew how free creatures would freely choose to act. That is to say, Welty thinks that God is responsible (and guilty of evil) whether He causally determines all thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors (ordinary bullet: Calvinistic determinism) or if He knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom and how these creatures would freely choose to think and act if He creates them (Bullet Bill: Molinism).
You see, on Molinism, God created a world in which He knew that the gunman would freely choose to pull the trigger. Thus, the gunman did not have to pull the trigger (he possesses the genuine ability to choose not to pull the trigger). However, since God is perfectly omniscient and knows the truth-value to all propositions, God must know (logically prior to His creative decree to actualize this world) exactly what the gunman would freely choose to do in all situations (moreover, for all we know, this world might be the best of all logically feasible worlds which include the good of true and eternal love).
With this in mind, it is vital to remember that knowledge does not stand in causal relation, so a human gunman with free will is genuinely able not to pull the trigger, therefore, a human gunman is respons-ABLE for pulling the trigger.
Sure, on Molinism, God is “responsible” for creating a world in which creatures can freely choose to do good or evil (which is a logically necessary “side effect” of creating a world where eternal true love can be obtained), but if creatures are not forced or causally determined to do evil, then they are responsible agents and guilty of their evil deeds — not God. God is a necessary condition for the death of Mario (after all, God created a world in which Mario lives and can be killed), but He is not the sufficient cause because Bullet Bill has a real and genuine free choice to make. God knows what Bullet Bill will freely choose to do, but Bill is not causally determined or forced to behave one way or the other (unlike Calvinistic determinism).
Similarly, if it were not for the sun, then humans could not exist on planet earth. Thus, the sun is responsible (in a necessary but not sufficient sense) for the existence of humans and the evil we freely choose to do. Should we hold the sun responsible for Hitler’s evil actions? Of course not, that is absurd and silly. With that in mind, why should God be held culpable for the evil actions in which humanity is directly responsible and freely chooses?
Consider Bullet Bill once again. If Bill chose to kill Mario, but was genuinely able NOT to kill Mario, then Bill was respons-ABLE for killing Mario. If Bullet Bill did not have the freedom to choose to kill Mario (or even the freedom to “take his thoughts captive” and not want to kill Mario — even if he could not do otherwise), then the gunman who launched Bullet Bill is responsible for this evil; Bullet Bill is innocent. (This gets us into Welty’s problematic views of compatibilism or semi-compatibilism.)
Yet, God, by creating this world, still elected and predestined the gunman’s sin (and Mario’s death), although He did not causally determine the gunman to sin and kill Mario (that was up to Bullet Bill). So, in a sense, all things are contingent upon God (just as human life on earth is contingent upon the sun), and the fact that free creatures exist (who can freely choose to love or do evil) is up to God and contingent upon Him. God is responsible for their existence. God also middle-knows that free creatures (who can freely choose to love) would use this libertarian freedom to choose to do some evil things. God decides to create this world filled with free choices anyway because a world where eternal true love can be obtained is better than a world consisting of only puppets. With this in mind, it quickly becomes clear that it is very GOOD that God allows evil.
God has very GOOD reasons for creating a world where humans can freely choose to do evil actions: (i) libertarian free will is a necessary condition for true love and the possibility of evil is a logically necessary side effect; (ii) light momentary afflictions of evil prepare us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). You see, unlike Welty, God has eternity in mind!
To reiterate, consider the first good reason: God is responsible for creating a world where free creatures can choose to engage in evil thoughts and actions (1 Cor 10:13; 2 Cor 10:5; Col 2:8). This is because this is the only kind of world in which true love is possible (not to mention human morality, rationality, and knowledge). So, if God desires to create a world where humans can love, be moral, and possess knowledge (which all seem to be GOOD things), then, logically, God must create a world in which persons possess free will so that we can choose to love (unlike robots or puppets). If free will really means free will, then humans can freely choose to love God above all — and our neighbors (and enemies) as ourselves — or we can freely choose to shoot Mario!
So, on Molinism, God creates a specific kind of world and thus predestines the evil in that world because of LOVE! Launching a world into existence where all humans could experience eternal true love — and many will — is drastically different than a mere gunslinger firing a bullet.
Therefore, this gunslinging view of God is disanalogous and dead!
Calvinistic determinism, on the other hand, implies not only that true love is impossible (since humans possess no freedom to choose to love), but worse: God is not omnibenevolent (all good and loving) Himself. There is no love on Calvinism! I have argued that even considering the idea that God is not perfectly good and all loving is a terrible sin — perhaps the original sin!
The danger of arguing by way of analogy is that all one must do to avoid it is point out at least one relevant difference. I have pointed out striking dissimilarities, and thus, this gunslinging objection has no teeth in Bullet Bill’s bite. Molinism’s view of providence and predestination is NOT sufficiently analogous to sufficient causation via deterministic means.
I appreciate Welty’s clever attempt to use Nintendo characters to make his point. However, his argument fails for multiple reasons. Moreover, Welty does not deal with the implications of the major and most important “hook of evil” — the problem of eternal hell in a deterministic world. The Omni Argument demonstrates that the only way for the Calvinist to avoid an evil divine puppet master is to reject either God’s omnipotence or His omniscience. As I have said in the past, “pick your poison, but either way, God is NOT a maximally great being on Calvinistic determinism.” As my former professor Clay Jones taught me, “We must keep eternity in mind!”
With eternity in mind we can craft the following argument and reach several deductive conclusions:
1- If a Maximally Great Being (God) exists, He is all-loving (the property of omnibenevolence).
2- If God is all-loving, He desires an eternal true love relationship with all mankind (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
3- If true love is to be attained with all mankind, all mankind must possess libertarian free will.
4- If mankind possesses libertarian free will, then mankind can freely choose to do evil.
5- If a Maximally Great Being (God) exists He is all-powerful (the property of omnipotence).
6- Therefore, God could prevent evil actions by eradicating human libertarian free will (He would have the power).
7- If God eradicates the libertarian free will of humanity, then He eradicates the possibility of true love with humanity.
8- Eternal love with God is the ultimate good humans can experience & humans freely choosing to love God brings Him ultimate glory.
9- Therefore, preventing love would be evil.
10- Therefore, it would be evil to eradicate libertarian free will.
11- Therefore, it would be evil for God to eradicate evil.
When we keep eternity in mind, Welty’s gunslinger objection is out of ammo. We see that God has very good reasons to allow evil. The Calvinistic determinist has no access to the same conclusion.
Randal Rauser wrote that if Welty’s argument is successful,
… it certainly forces the Molinist’s hand: either bite the bullet (if you’ll excuse [the] pun) and accept that the Molinist has no advantage over the Calvinist, or retreat to Open Theism.
In response I want to ask why can’t the Molinist appeal to mystery if the Calvinist can? Moreover, if Welty thinks the two views are basically the same, then why argue against Molinism?
With that said, I do not think the Molinist’s hand has been forced in the slightest. First of all, as I said above, if Molinism happened to have no advantage over Calvinism, it does not mean that Calvinism has suddenly become logically coherent. That is to say, Calvinistic determinism is still logically impossible and falls short of the maximal glory of God. Deterministic Calvinism is simply not a live option for a clear-thinking Christian.
Moreover, consider this: if humans do not possess libertarian free will and God causally exhaustively determines every thought, action, belief, and behavior of every single human being, then no human being has a genuine choice to choose either Calvinism or Open Theism. God would causally determine who would be Calvinists and who would be Open Theists (not to mention who would be Christians and who would be atheists). That choice would not be up to us. Thus, if Calvinistic determinism and Open Theism are our only two options to choose from, and we assume we can really make genuine choices between the two, then the logical choice would be to choose Open Theism over Calvinistic determinism since up to us choices are only possible in regard to the former but are illusory regarding the latter.
Thankfully, Molinism still stands strong as a third option — and a live option at that!
Bottom Line: it is vital to understand the philosophical difference between predestination and causal determinism. Many pastors, Sunday school teachers, churchgoers, and apparently a small minority of philosophers who should know better conflate these two different concepts. This leads to erroneous and imperfect thinking about the nature and character of our perfect and maximally great God.
*Edit (May 11, 2017): Greg Welty responded directly to this article on his website. I followed that with a final response to his response. I believe “Bullet Bill” has been defeated. See the details in my article entitled Gunslingers & Guilty Minds.
- Thank you, Johnny Sakr for reminding me of Ezekiel 18:20.
- Thank you Kirk MacGregor for teaching me so much about Molina’s views!