Questions for Calvinists



(The FreeThinking Theist)


June 27, 2017

I used to be a 5-point Calvinist! Not only did I hold to each petal of the TULIP, I also rejected the idea that humanity possessed libertarian freedom in any form or fashion. I held to the position that not only did God causally determine salvation and damnation, but also that God causally determined everything. If one chose to drink Coke instead of Pepsi or if one chose to eat at McDonalds instead of Burger King: God caused all things to happen exactly as they happen.

Moreover, I also believed that God determined every person’s beliefs about all things. I was a theological determinist who believed in divine exhaustive determinism. In fact, if one believed Calvinism were true, it was not up to the person, but it was up to God. If one favored Arminianism over Calvinism, that was causally determined by God as well.

I was a follower of John Calvin and if he was against free will, then I would reject it too! Calvin had this to say regarding free will:

How few are there who, when they hear free will attributed to man, do not immediately imagine that he is the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil?… Of this, the very term in question [free will] furnishes too strong a proof…. I think the abolition of it would be of great advantage to the Church. I am unwilling to use it myself; and others, if they will take my advice, will do well to abstain from it (2.7.7-8).

Needless to say, I took Calvin’s advice for well over a decade and rejected free will. I bought it and taught it as a pastor until William Lane Craig challenged my thinking. I initially resisted, but his arguments were sound and logically airtight. What really got my attention is that he backed up all his Molinistic claims with Bible verses! I eventually freely chose to reject Calvinism.

I have argued extensively against five-point Calvinism over the past few years since becoming a Molinist. However, in many discussions and debates with my Calvinistic brethren (and a few sistren too), I have discovered that not all Calvinists are created equal! That is to say, not all Calvinists affirm exhaustive divine determinism as I did. This might be because Calvin seemed to talk out of both sides of his mouth. The institutes are replete with Calvin quotations affirming what appears as exhaustive divine determinism, but then Calvin also made seemingly contradictory statements. Consider the following:

“that man has choice and that it is self-determined and that his actions stem from his own voluntary choosing” (Bondage and Liberation of the Will, 69-70).

This seems to imply a range of alternatives at least in accord with one’s nature. Calvin also wrote:

“Such is the depravity of man’s nature, that he cannot move and act except in the direction of evil” (Institutes 2.3.5).

This seems to suggest that a person can move and act freely in the direction of evil as opposed to a specific evil choice. That is to say, an unregenerate man can freely choose between several evil choices. From Institutes 2.3.5, Calvin contends:

“Therefore, if the freewill of God in doing good is not impeded, because he necessarily must do good; if the devil, who can do nothing but evil, nevertheless sins voluntarily; can it be said that man sins less voluntarily because he is under a necessity of sinning?”

Clearly Calvin thought God had free choice within the range of good acts, which means it would follow that the unregenerate has free choices to make within the range of evil acts. Kirk MacGregor believes this range notion was likely Calvin’s view. Anyone who could read these passages and claim that Calvin believed the unregenerate person necessarily must do one specific sin as opposed to another sin bears an extremely heavy burden of proof.

In his book, Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge, MacGregor points out that Calvin held to what MacGregor refers to as “theological compatibilism,” which is different from philosophical compatibilism. Theological compatibilism means that one can freely choose within the range of options available to one’s nature. Of course, this is the same as soft libertarianism which simply means libertarian free will regarding some choices.

Calvini Opera 7.191:

“Our capacities to discern, to will and to do this or that are a natural gift.”

And the same work, 7.183:

“The soul never ceases to remain in its essence and to retain that which is inseparable from its nature according to the order God has constituted.”

With all of these Calvin quotes in mind, MacGregor does not think that Calvin was an exhaustive divine determinist — or at least not a consistent one. He contends that Calvin was an outstanding exegete, but a poor philosophical theologian. MacGregor notes that it has been said many times by secular Reformation scholars that one wonders if Calvin the exegete ever met Calvin the theologian! With this in mind, A.N.S. Lane concludes,

“Did Calvin believe in freewill? Even Calvin himself could not give a clear and unequivocal answer to this question. . . Calvin’s teaching on freewill is very close to that of Augustine. . . Augustine, while clearly teaching the bondage of the will and the sovereignty of grace, took great care to preserve man’s freewill. Calvin . . . was reluctant to talk of freewill. What Augustine had carefully safeguarded, Calvin grudgingly conceded.” — “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 72-90.

It seems as if Calvin, perhaps without realizing it, affirmed soft libertarianism — libertarian free will in some things. This has led me to soften my approach in recent months. In fact, I am coming to see how one could be a Calvinist and a “mere Molinist” simultaneously.

The Calvinist Quiz

Before continuing, I have a few questions for the Calvinist to answer:

1- Did Satan possess libertarian freedom to reject God?

2- Did Adam and Eve possess libertarian freedom to not eat of the forbidden fruit?

3- Do unregenerate sinners have libertarian freedom and an ability to choose between a range of sinful thoughts and actions?

4- Do Christians possess the ability to resist temptation in thought and action as per 1 Corinthians 10:13?

5- Do Christians have the libertarian ability to choose between reading a red Bible or a blue Bible? (If John Piper chose to read a red Bible, could he have genuinely chosen otherwise and read the blue Bible?)

6- Do Christians possess the libertarian freedom to deliberate and rationally think things through to reach conclusions like, “Calvinism is probably true,” or “Molinism is the inference to the best explanation”?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of the preceding questions then you affirm libertarian free will in some form (“soft libertarianism”). If you answered in the affirmative to any of these questions, the next questions raised are the following:

7- Was God surprised by any of these free choices?

8- Did God learn anything new based on these free choices?

If you answered “no” to these questions — because God is eternally omniscient — then it follows that God knew that these free choices would be made logically prior to His creative decree. If that is the case, then God possesses middle knowledge. This is how God can be completely sovereign over the soft libertarian free choices of humans. God chooses to create a world in which He knows how persons would freely choose. God predestines all things without causally determining all things!

Thus, even if you are a Calvinist, you still affirm “Mere Molinism” by affirming the two essential pillars:

1- God eternally possesses middle knowledge.

2- Humans possess libertarian free will.

So, salvation and moral issues aside, one can be both a “soft” Calvinist and a “mere” Molinist in this sense. If you agree that God is both eternally omniscient and that humans possess soft libertarian freedom, then congratulations: you are a “Mere Molinist!”

Building Bridges?

I hope this can start to build bridges between Calvinists and Molinists. In fact, the more I study these issues, the closer Molina’s views seem to align with some of Calvin’s (at least the important ones). Moreover, I believe the Molinistic framework can be completely monergisitic as opposed to synergistic. Both Calvin and Molina would affirm that God does ALL the work in the salvation process.

I think the only major thing Calvin and Molina would disagree on is if God’s grace is resistible or not.

Think of it like this: if an unregenerate sinner is free to act in accord with his depraved nature, then he is free to do everything within the spectrum of nothing to extreme rebellion against God and anything in between. The Calvinist is usually quick to contend that the sinner cannot do anything to achieve salvation; they can do nothing. Molina would agree and say that as long as the depraved sinner does nothing (as long as they do not resist or reject the flirtatious advances of the Holy Spirit “along the way”), then God’s grace will eventually get them to a place where they will be regenerated and they will say “YES” to Jesus (even if it is logically possible to do otherwise — they will not).

While thinking this through, I asked my wife, Tia, if there was ever any thought in her head of saying “no” to my marriage proposal when I got down on my knee and offered her a diamond ring. She said she had zero thoughts of saying “no” at all — only “yes, Yes, YES!”

Now, Tia had the ability to say “no” to my marriage proposal with no deterministic or causal strings attached. It was logically possible for her to decline my offer. Although logically possible, there was no way she was going to say “no thanks” to my proposal.

However, consider this: If I would have asked Tia to marry me on our first date, she said she would have said “No way, are you crazy?!?” If I would have asked her one month into our dating relationship she still would have said “no” to my marriage proposal. However, I flirted with her, showered her with love and attention, and I pursued her to such an extent that I knew she was eventually at the “point of no return” — I knew she would say “YES” and freely choose to marry me if I proposed to her! However, if she would have resisted my flirtatious advances along the way or if she would have had a restraining order placed against me, then I could not have lovingly pursued her.

In similar fashion, God does the same with each and every one of us. The Bible is replete with passages affirming that God loves all people and desires all to be with Him in an eternal marriage (Ezekiel 18:30-32; 33:10-11; 1 Timothy 2:4;2 Peter 3:9; Romans 5: 15-18; John 3:16). The Bible is also clear that this “divine flirtatious grace” is offered to all people (1 John 2:2; Titus 2:11). If we do not resist — if we just sit back and do NOTHING — then God will eventually draw each and every one of us to the point of no return. Although logically possible to reject Christ at that point, as long as no one resists God’s grace along the way to that point, God knows that no one will reject his “eternal marriage proposal” once He brings us to that point!

Side note: One might object and assert that God does not need to take individuals on a grace journey “along the way” and that just merely being in the presence of the Holy Spirit is sufficient to irresistibly draw all persons instantaneously. We have biblical data, however, to reject this claim. After all, if this were the case, then why did Adam, Eve, Satan, and a third of all the angels choose to resist and fall away from God?

In his book, The Great Divorce (which I highly recommend), C.S. Lewis agrees:

There are only two kinds of people: Those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way.”

Lewis seemed to believe that God is pursuing all people and the only people who are damned are the ones who continually resist God’s amazing grace! William Lane Craig offers additional insight:

When a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart.

Both Lewis and Craig agree with Luis de Molina on this issue. However, surprisingly, Molina’s view is much like Calvin’s in that humans cannot do anything to gain salvation. However, unlike Calvin, Molina affirmed that humanity can resist the advances of the Holy Spirit along the way (as Lewis and Craig affirm). I agree and think God’s grace is AMAZING; however, it is not irresistible. The following argument deductively concludes the same:

The Omni-Argument Against Irresistible Grace

1. If irresistible grace (the “I” of T.U.L.I.P.) is true, then for any person x, if God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to heaven and not suffer eternally in hell, then x will go to heaven and not suffer eternally in hell.

2. If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then for any person x, God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to heaven and not suffer eternally in hell.

3. There is at least one person who will not go to heaven and suffers eternally in hell.

4. Therefore, one cannot affirm both (i) that irresistible grace is true and (ii) that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient (a maximally great being).

5. God is a maximally great being.

6. Therefore, irresistible grace is false.

This logically deductive conclusion corresponds perfectly with the biblical data.

In Conclusion

In my educated opinion, Kirk MacGregor is the world’s leading authority on Luis de Molina. After all, he wrote Molina’s biography. MacGregor informed me that Molina affirmed the following propositions:

1- God is completely sovereign.
2- God is the author of salvation (from beginning to end).
3- God predestines all things (including individuals).
4- Human beings are totally depraved.
5- God genuinely desires all to be saved (this is affirmed cover to cover in the Bible).
6- Humans possess “soft LFW” and can only freely choose in accord with their nature.
7- Jesus died for all people.
8- God gives a measure of grace to all people.
9- God is eternally omniscient.
10- The damned freely choose to resist God’s grace.

If you agree with Molina’s propositions, then congratulations: you are a Molinist!

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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