Arguing Over the Holidays at Calvin’s Place

By Dave Oldham


January 31, 2020

Family times over Christmas and New Year’s can spawn interesting conversations and sometimes heated “discussions.” This was true at the Johann Calvin home, where his daughter Connie and son-in-law Erasmus had gathered to celebrate the holidays. Erasmus had received his Ph.D. in philosophy from UA (the University of Arminia), and his view of human freedom was diametrically opposite of his theological professor father-in-law’s deterministic theology. Usually when the debate between them got intense, Dr. Calvin’s wife would retreat to the kitchen to do some baking, but their only child Connie, enjoyed the bantering back and forth and would enter into the discussion trying to make peace by helping them both to define their actual differences, to identify the strong merits of each of their arguments, and/or to call for a pause when necessary. She was quite a good thinker herself, because she was a contributing editor for the prominent magazine Compatibilism Today. Christmas 2019 was exceptionally interesting to her because she took the initiative in the discussion. Unlike other debates, this time she baited the debate (she would say she “guided” it) by providing for her dad and her husband a preliminary dialogue they were to look at after breakfast on the 26th. (Her mother went shopping!) She said it wetted the discussion like never before, and her editor at the magazine agreed and decided to publish an excerpt in the January issue. The following synopsis from that publication is given with permission.

Connie’s preliminary dialogue: (Interruptions noted in parentheses)

For centuries the expressions in Moses’ history of Pharaoh as recorded in Exodus and similar ones have baffled both Bible students, theologians and scholars. How does one harmonize statements like God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the contrasting expression that Pharaoh hardened his own heart? The former certainly appears to express a divine determinism (like you, dad). Others, who are squeamish about making God appear at the least as a participant in a decision which at the same time would result in his judgment, put emphasis on the human act and thereby make persons responsible for their own actions. (That’s what I hear you saying, my dear Erasmus.) Still others, who also want to soften what they see as an offensive act of God, can’t find solace in simply noting that the person does play a role too, as if that solved the contrasting positions, which they long have struggled to harmonize. Too often the final resting place becomes what Turretin concluded:

God on the one hand by his providence not only decreed but most certainly secures the event of all things, whether free or contingent; on the other hand, however, man is always free in acting and many effects are contingent. Although I cannot understand how these can be mutually connected together, yet (on account of ignorance of the mode) the thing itself is (which is certain from another source, i.e., from the word) not either to be called in question or wholly denied (1679:512).

(Now let’s start the discussion with what I think you both can agree): no human being can respond to God on his/her own, as Pelagius taught. God’s grace alone makes it possible. And regardless of one’s position on God’s sovereignty and human freedom, the believer must acknowledge that Scripture declares that God is the Creator and, therefore, his creation, his creatures and even history itself are contingent. The Bible also declares that all creation is moving to a climatic finale, when evil doers, evil, and all its associated ills—sorrow, death, suffering, etc.—will be forever banished and the kingdom of this world will have become the Kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ. To say that another way, God is directing things according to his eternal plan. God eternally exists before time and inhabits time. Therefore, regardless of one’s understanding of HFW, God, as part of his sovereignty, can and does act within and on his creation.

(But one must go further): There can be no question that God sovereignly acts because in Exodus through Deuteronomy he does things with which he is the evident source: the plagues; the path through the Red Sea, which meant escape and deliverance of Israel and destruction to the army of Egypt; the miraculous victory over enemy attacks; the supernatural provision of Manna, quail, and water; etc. Joshua and Judges continue with similar accounts in which God is the source of deliverance. And there are many, many other biblical texts which could illustrate God’s sovereign acts.

(Now Erasmus—though he has followed closely what his wife had written—is a very level-headed young man; he is not blown over by his wife’s summary, though he has noted his father-in-law’s smile of approval of it all! And he shows that he agrees with much that his wife has written):

I agree that no one can put God in a box; he does sovereignly act, when and how he wishes. And, I agree that no one can respond to God without his grace; it is unmerited and undeserved. Yes, if I might add, if God were not sovereign, how would our prayers make a difference? Prayer is asking God to act in a certain set of circumstances and/or on the persons involved. And, further, does not the reality of “miracles” imply sovereign action? But while his sovereignty cannot be denied, God’s actions must be seen in many cases as judgments on sin. This is so important! The Apostle James wrote (1:13-17: Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Therefore, no one an blame God as being the source of evil or being a co-conspirator with a person engaged in evil. He is good, just, righteous, and promotes the same: He is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Certainly this should give a person great caution in charging God as being complicit with evil, especially if there is another way of understanding difficult texts.

Given this, it is an easy step to see the example of Pharaoh and the other examples Connie has alluded to as sovereign acts of judgment, not some solicitation on God’s part to promote evil. There are times God acts in a specific way to carry out his plan and at the same time permits human freedom to have its own consequences. This is also seen in Genesis (6:3) where God says, My Spirit will not contend with humans forever. God sovereignly acts, though in judgment on man’s wickedness, sometimes with action, other times by letting a person’s disobedience takes its course. An example of the latter is Paul’s thrice repeated statement in Romans 1 (24,26,28): God gave them up [over] to…. Someone put it this way: “A person submitting to God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ Certainly, it is tragic when a person rejects and spurns his grace and God says, ‘Have it your way. Your will be done.’” If there is an extended theological treatise of God acting sovereignly in justice, it is in the books of Kings and Chronicles

I have found Thomas Aquinas’ discussion on human freedom very helpful. He argues that there are no outside causes which determine a person’s behavior. Lack of “alertness” to the tempter and his temptations, however, he says, leads to sinful choices. And more explicitly, he says, there are the “habits” one has developed by the way he has responded to temptations in the past, which shape the future whether for good or evil. When a person makes “wise” decisions, he paves the way for the next similar decision to think and act rightly and wisely, while—on the other hand—giving into unwise thinking and decisions leads to further sin and eventually bondage. It is tragic when the sinner by habit continues to spurn God’s grace. That persistent rejection is spiritual suicide. Divine justice, then, is sovereignly meted out as the consequence of sinfulness. To be sure, the evil one and his minions—with God’s judgment or permission—deceive kings (1 Kings 22:19-23) but also viciously attack righteous Job (Job 1,2). Peter speaks of the evil one as one who prowls around as a roaring lion seeking whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8). But this does in no way excuse bad choices or behavior. If people do not have this freedom, Aquinas writes, “counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain” (ST, I, q83). Without human freedom, such things can only exasperate people and make them ask God, “Why did you make me a slave? I cannot do what you expect because I have not been made with such free choice. I only have the option of evil.”

So, on the one hand, then, God makes it clear that his exertion of power and sovereignty is action based on his mercy and grace. In the case of the multiple examples in Joshua and Judges, it is the decision of sinners to cry out to God for mercy that they do not deserve; that touches the heart of God (e.g., 2 Chron 12:6,7,12; 33:12f). This must never be understood as a response on God’s part based on personal merit: “God acted because I repented!” Instead, the grace of God makes it possible for the person to repent and when that grace is not rejected, God gives more mercy and grace. When his grace is spurned, God disciplines and judges. Aquinas, quoting Anselm, said that “the reason why a person does not have grace is not that God does not give it, but that man does not accept it” (DV, q14,15. Difficulties, 3).

I know this does not solve every question, but it allows me to affirm with you—dad—that God is sovereign and acts in ways I sometimes do not understand. But he also has built into the life of every individual the freedom to make choices: God draws (John 6:44), but people are urged to respond to that drawing grace by believing. God calls, but people by faith are justified (Romans 8:30). This sort of thinking allows me to agree with you, dad, that God sovereignly acts, but at the same time it allows me to hold that his creatures have the freedom to spurn his grace or not. Further, the strength of what I have argued also frees me and others from the “defeater” of making God in any way accountable for a person’s sin. There may be a kernel of truth in “The Devil made (“influenced”) me do it,” but God cannot be blamed either for a person’s sin or for his ultimate judgment.

(Pause! Coffee break to enjoy mom’s rolls. Further discussion was delayed until Easter break. The family decided to invite their neighbor Izla Molina to join their discussion after their annual Easter Egg hunt.)


From the editor of Compatibilism Today: The above dialogue is the opinion of the people involved, not of this magazine. It has been printed here as an opportunity to receive comments, insights, and evaluations from our faithful readers.


About the Author

By Dave Oldham

David Oldham graduated from the University of Illinois (BA), received a M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, and D.Min. from Fuller Seminary (2000). He has done post doctoral with Dallas Willard (Course: “Spiritual Formation”). For 42 years Oldham was a pastor in the Evangelical Free Church of America and then spent 3 years as a missionary in Honduras.