Reformed Libertarianism: An Alternative to Guillaume Bignon

By Sean Luke

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September 9, 2020

A few months ago, my friend Tim Stratton at FreeThinking Ministries asked me to write a piece responding to Guillaume Bignon’s form of exhaustive deterministic Calvinism. Bignon is a compatibilist; that is, he is someone who believes that the propositions “God determines all things” and “human beings are free in the morally relevant sense” are compatible. What does it mean for God to determine all things? According to Bignon, it means that all that comes to pass is necessitated by prior conditions, natural or supernatural.[1] But what does necessity mean in this context? I take Bignon’s definition of necessity to coincide with his denial of libertarianism (and, presumably, source-hood versions of free will). That is, an agent does what she does because of prior conditions; she is not the source of her actions (insofar as the source of an action is initiator of a causal chain, or the one from whom the action “emanates” as it were). Thus, any action an agent does is necessitated by prior conditions in that those conditions are the ultimate reason why an agent does X.

This is a very different claim than the claim of Molinists, for instance. Molinists would agree that God predestines all things; that is, God decrees the shape of history. He decides what will and what will not happen. But this isn’t the same as Bignon’s claim. For example, someone could hold that God decrees the state of affairs in which an agent is the source of some particular action. This is different than saying that the agent does that particular action as a result of prior conditions. For example, God might decree the state of affairs wherein Adam falls. But, in time, this means that God chooses not to stop Adam from falling when God could have. Adam may well be the source of his actions in this case. To give an example I frequently return to, consider the example of a teacher and her student Timmy. This teacher learns that Timmy is intent on cheating on the next test she administers. So the next hour, she gives her class (with Timmy in it) a test, knowing that Timmy would cheat if given the test. In this scenario, she (in a way) brought about Timmy’s cheating by giving him the test. But it would be absurd for Timmy to accuse the teacher of making him cheat, or causing or determining him to cheat. Timmy is thus the source of his own action, even though the teacher decided to shape that little slice of history such that Timmy’s cheating would be brought about.

Why does this matter? I believe that Bignon’s Calvinism is not the only viable option for Reformed people; in fact, I agree with Tim Stratton (and others) that Bignon’s Calvinism logically absolves humans of moral culpability (and indeed, even places that culpability on God). Briefly, I will re-hash arguments made on Stratton’s blog and YouTube channel.

Bignon believes that the scenarios offered by Libertarians to disprove compatibilism don’t work. This is because, according to him, none of the scenarios offered show the a relevant similarity that would make moral culpability not apply to humans. Thus, consider a dog. A dog might just act on instinct and we don’t hold that dog morally accountable for chewing up paper. Libertarians will try to argue that, if all things are causally determined, then humans are morally analogous to dogs. They’re instincts (or “prior conditions”) are making them do any evil they do. But Bignon has a response to this example. He argues that the relevant difference lies in self-consciousness; a human is self-conscious of the evil act she commits, whereas a dog is not.

But there’s a problem with his analysis: he’s obviously wrong. “Lacking self-consciousness” simply isn’t the property that makes one “not morally responsible.” Let’s formulate this analytically. Call the property “lacking self-consciousness” ~S. Call the property “not morally responsible ~R. Bignon argues as follows:

~S>~R (if not S then not R)

This is identical to the claim ~(~S) v ~R

This in turn is identical to the claim S v ~R, which is identical to ~R v S, which is identical to R > S

Thus, if one is morally responsible, they are self-conscious. But note, this does not imply that S is the only (or sufficient) condition for R. With this, we might agree. But what are some other conditions on Bignon’s account? Well, according to Bignon, it must be the case that an actor freely does what they wanted to do. Thus, if someone points a gun to my head to eat poop, I didn’t exactly eat the poop “freely.” It wasn’t what I wanted to do. We might call this condition (W). Thus, given Bignon’s analysis,

R > ( S · W)

Once again, we might agree with Bignon. But this is not an argument for the contrary: (S · W) > R. That is, just because S and W are necessary conditions for R, does not imply that when S and W obtains R also obtains. But we can go further still. Not only is there no evidence for Bignon’s assertion, but there is evidence against Bignon’s assertion. Let’s assume that:

(S · W) > R

That is, if an agent is self conscious and freely does what they wanted to do, then they are morally responsible. This is identical to arguing:

~[(S · W) · ~R]

That is, it is not the case that S, W, and ~ R can be true together. That is, if Bignon is right (p), then there is no situation where an agent can be self conscious and freely does what she wants to do, and is not responsible (q). The problem is that we can think of a situation wherein an agent is self-conscious, freely does what she wants to do, but is not responsible. (~q) Thus, Bignon is wrong. (~p)

Consider the following scenario: suppose a girl is given a “love potion”—an extremely powerful drug that creates the overwhelming desire to have sexual intercourse with the person who administers it. He sneaks it into her drink. She proceeds to sleep with him, self-consciously and doing what she (in that moment) wanted to do. The next morning she charges him with date rape. Is she morally culpable for sleeping with him? That is, is she morally blameworthy at this moment for fornicating—was it truly her choice?

The answer seems obvious — of course not. But then we have a situation where [(S·W) · ~R]. We have a situation where one is self-conscious, doing what they want to do, but is not morally culpable. What is it that makes this woman not morally culpable for sleeping with the love-potion administrator? Simple: something external to her made her want to sleep with the guy. External factors caused her to do what she did—even if she did what she wanted to do. Let’s call this property E. My contention is: E > ~R. If external factors cause an agent to do what they did—that is, if their action is the product or effect of prior conditions—then they are not morally responsible. We can simply multiply scenarios to show this is the case. Suppose a man hooks up electrodes to her brain, unbeknownst to her, and causes her to want to sleep with him. Is she morally culpable? No, she’s not. Suppose Timmy pushes Little Johnny into Little Bobby, and Little Bobby falls off a cliff. Is Little Johnny responsible? No. Suppose someone controls my limbs and muscles with high-tech machinery, and makes me say all sorts of horrific things to my wife. Am I culpable? No. The common property between all these scenarios is E. E is, therefore, the sufficient condition for ~R.

That’s a problem for deterministic versions of Calvinism. If E entails ~R, and if D (God’s ordination of all things) entails E, then it follows that D entails ~R. That is, Scripture affirms that God ordains all things that come to pass, and that people are morally accountable for their actions. But if D entails E, then D cannot entail ~R. For D > E, and if E> ~R, then D > ~R. But D > ~R is equivalent to ~D v R, which is equivalent to ~(D · R). Thus, if D entails E, then both D and R cannot be true at the same time. This form of deterministic Calvinism cannot consistently maintain both Scriptural propositions at the same time. We need another option.

In the rest of this post, I will offer a Reformed alternative to Bignon’s position. Let’s call this “Reformed agent-causation.” I want to affirm what the Westminster catechism so eloquently affirms: God ordains all that comes to pass, yet so as to do no violence to the will of the creature. That is, God decides what will and what will not happen in history, and creatures are nevertheless the culpable source of their evil actions and genuinely praiseworthy for their good actions. How might this be?

Divine Ordination Does Not Entail Determinism

Divine ordination, as specified above, amounts to the claim that God decides what will and what will not happen in history. There are several ways in which this might happen. One might suggest a form of Reformed Molinism. A Calvinist could hold, along with Molinists, that God does not causally determine the truth-values of the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Yet, with the Reformed, one could also hold that God gives faith as he wills, can produce good in the human heart as he wills, and prevent any evil as he wills. Further, one could hold that the truth values of creaturely freedom are such that, post-Fall, all creatures would freely choose hell apart from God’s gift of faith. On the other hand, one could hold that God foresees (or middle-knows) the course of world history logically prior to his choice to create the world, and consequent to his seeing (or middle-knowing) what world history would be, he decides what acts he will allow, disallow, and circumstances he will change to bring about particular choices in world history. All of this, temporally, might happen in a moment (or timelessly), but the logical ordering of these things nevertheless might obtain as such.  The point of these scenarios is not to say that this is, in fact, how God decrees the course of world history. It is simply to show that God’s providential ordering of world history does not entail his causal determination of all things. That is, it does not entail that the choices of agents in history were wholly caused by the conditions (logically) prior to that agent’s choice.

How might such a form of Reformed Molinism work? Well, suppose God knows that Jones, under the influence of divine grace, will do good action x in circumstance y. Thus, all God needs to do to bring about x is to give Jones divine grace in circumstance y, as well as set up history so that circumstance y comes about. Suppose also that God knows that, if he were to withdraw his divine grace, Jones would freely—of his own accord—do some evil action ~x in circumstance y. All God needs to do to bring about ~x is withdraw divine grace in y. Moreover, suppose God did not determine the fact/cause it to be true that Jones would do ~x in y. Then it would be the case that Jones does ~x in y in a manner wholly consistent with his being morally blameworthy for ~x. Thus, God would know the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom under the influence of divine grace, and without the influence of divine grace; even if God determines the truth value of the former set of counterfactuals, creatures would still be morally blameworthy so long as God did not determine the truth value of the latter set of counterfactuals.

Another way one might construe a Reformed form of Molinism is by co-opting the Arminian concept of God’s foreknowledge. Suppose God, logically (not temporally) posterior to his decision to create, is knowledgeable of what the future will hold. Then suppose that, logically posterior to his knowledge of what the future will hold given his decision to create, God shapes and bends history as he wills—directly causing the good and letting the good have a resultant effect on evil generated by creatures. God, then, would not be the cause of evil although he is the cause of all good.

These two construals of God’s relationship to history simply allow us to show the difference between divine ordination of all things, and divine causation of all things. But let’s go a step further. I think it is coherent to hold to the notion of agent-causation (or what Stratton has called “source-hood” freedom), and exhaustive divine ordination. That is, it is logically consistent to see creatures as the source of their evil actions and God as the Lord of history. God decides what shape history will have in all its particularities. Creatures are nevertheless the source of their own evil actions at minimum. What the above scenarios show is that such a position is at least logically coherent, in that there are no reasons to believe that these two propositions stand in tension.

But let’s go a step even further. In what sense might a creature be said to be morally praiseworthy for their good actions? Creatures, in Scripture, are indeed morally praiseworthy. But if all the good they do is the work of God, then how can this be? Here, we might posit a sort of “aesthetics of grace.” There are moments in my life wherein I’ve found myself to be so overwhelmed by beauty, that it felt like I couldn’t but gaze at the source of that beauty. For example, on a star speckled night sky, the beauty of the sky was so utterly compelling that I found it impossible to look away. What’s going on here? Well, let me suggest that grace doesn’t coerce us, but compels us. That is, the encounter with grace (like the encounter with beauty) leaves us radically changed, and puts us in a benevolent “Frankfurt” scenario, as it were. Frankfurt asks us to imagine a scenario where a choice might be limited by external circumstances, and yet is still feasibly free. So, for example, suppose Henry goes into a voting booth on election day and votes Independent. Unbeknownst to him, a mad scientist had hooked electrodes to his brain, such that if he were to do any other option he would be shocked and forced to vote Independent. Yet, election day comes, and he votes Independent anyway. Frankfurt argues that, feasibly, Henry was still free in his action. It is my contention that the beauty of grace has this incredibly freeing effect on us, such that we find ourselves doing the good. The external circumstance of God’s gracious activity prevents us from being the source of evil (at particular times) by renewing our hearts in the light of Christ, and empowers us as the source of even our good actions. Thus, all good is the work of God; but it is truly done by creatures. Creaturely agency is truly renewed, transformed, and set free unto the good rather than over-ridden by God’s activity. Creatures can truly be praiseworthy, then; and yet, we can also truly thank God for any good that a Christian (or anyone) does.

What I suggest, then, is that divine ordination of all things—good or evil—is utterly consistent with creaturely culpability and praiseworthiness. I offer this an alternative perspective to the compatibilist/deterministic view put forth by Bignon.


Notes

[1] Excusing Sinners and Blaming God (pg 4)

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About the Author

By Sean Luke

Sean Luke is a Masters of Divinity student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who intends to pursue PhD studies in systematic and biblical theology after seminary. He works with Design Movement, a ministry of Cru that seeks to reach South Asian college students (lots of Hindus and Muslims, among other groups) with the gospel. He is a Reformed Anglican who enjoys seeing, savoring, participating in, and proclaiming the beauty of the God of the gospel!