Chapter 4 – Why the Calvinist Views of Sovereignty and Salvation Are Certainly False

Having sufficiently elaborated on what constitutes Calvinist doctrine and belief in chapter 3, we can now delineate the many problems inherent in Calvinism.

In answer to the bold claim of the title of this chapter as to why the Calvinist views of sovereignty and salvation are false, they are false because they cannot stand the probative force of logical and moral assessment.  To show that this is the case will be sufficient for most people to reject Calvinism.  Most people will come to the conclusion that if a theological position can be shown to be logically and morally incoherent, then even though there is an exegesis provided in support of that position, the responsible conclusion to draw is that there must be a problem in that exegesis, not that the text itself presents logical and moral incoherence.  That is to say, that for most people, incoherence is a sign of misinterpretation.  Why the logical and moral incoherence of Calvinism does not convince the Calvinist that his exegesis is in error will be discussed in due course.

Several people have asked me for a simplified version or condensed explanations of the problems with Calvinism.  (Surprised?!  Yes, I know I am wordy!  I’m trying really hard to do better.)  Due to the complexity of the issues involved, and the need to represent Calvinism fairly and accurately, such summary explanations are difficult to provide.  In chapter 5 you will find my attempt at it.  I hope it helps those who want an outline of the issues.

But before this, I want to provide you with the best brief exposition of the logical and moral problems with Calvinism that I have come across.  It is Dr. William Lane Craig’s assessment of Calvinism which he accurately describes as a “universal divine causal determinism.”  This should suffice for those who do not have the time for the longer essays and critiques on this site and elsewhere.

This exposition was given by Dr. Craig in his Defenders 2 Bible study class.  I provide the full text of that lecture here with my comments.  You may read it (3 pages) or listen to the lecture on Dr. Craig’s website. [1]

William Lane Craig’s Five-Fold Critique of Calvinist Determinism

In his Defenders Bible study class Dr. William Lane Craig offers a five-fold critique of Calvinist theology and soteriology which he describes as “universal divine causal determinism.” It is crucial to note that the reasons Dr. Craig gives for rejecting Calvinism rest upon the logical and moral entailments of the Calvinist’s own interpretations which the Calvinist claims are the proper exegesis of the relevant texts.  What Dr. Craig does is examine what is entailed in the Calvinist’s theology which they claim to be the proper interpretation of Scripture. Dr. Craig demonstrates that Calvinist theology lacks logic and moral coherence, consistency and non-contradiction with other commonly held biblical truths and our human experience.  This goes to the heart of this controversy.  It has to do with whether or not we are going to take these logical and moral entailments as reliable determiners of the validity of the Calvinist’s exegesis.  I think if we are to include the deliverances of philosophical deliberations and moral intuitions in our hermeneutic, then we must declare the Calvinist’s exegesis to be flawed and invalid.  On the basis of the problematic logical and moral entailments of Calvinism, Dr. Craig concludes that the Calvinist’s “universal divine causal determinism” is “unacceptable for Christian theology.”  He writes,

“Let’s begin with a critique of the Calvinist view which you will remember I described as universal divine causal determinism – God determines everything that happens in the world.  It seems to me that there are five very powerful reasons for rejecting this view.”

  1. Universal divine causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.

“First of all, universal divine causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.  You will remember we saw that the Scriptural data affirm both a very strong view of divine sovereignty as well as human freedom and contingency and responsibility.  Causal determinism simply can’t make sense of both streams of biblical tradition.  The classical Reformed theologians recognize this.  They will typically acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with those texts affirming divine sovereignty is simply inscrutable.  This is a mystery which we cannot understand.”

Dr. Craig states that “the Scriptural data affirm both a very strong view of divine sovereignty as well as human freedom and contingency and responsibility” but the causal determinism of Calvinism “simply can’t make sense of both streams of biblical tradition.”  It is important to note that Craig incorporates logical coherence in his hermeneutic.  Any interpretation of Scripture that claims to be valid has to be able to coherently account for all the biblical data, in this case, divine sovereignty on the one hand and contingency, human freedom and responsibility on the other.  A valid interpretation of each must provide coherence between them.  Incoherence declared a mystery so as to maintain one’s interpretation is not an option.

Note also that this is a philosophical assessment, and as such seeks to employ the laws of logic to discern the truth of a matter.  Now, if we are going to acknowledge the necessity and utility of the laws of logic – and we must if our thought and dialogue are going to be rational – then a philosophical assessment is a reliable indicator of the validity or invalidity of one’s exegetical conclusions.  Here, therefore, a philosophical assessment can provide insight into the validity or invalidity of the Calvinist’s exegesis of Scripture.  Philosophical reflection bears upon a determination of the invalidity of one’s exegesis.

Calvinists are quick to claim that they are basing their deterministic doctrine of sovereignty on biblical exegesis and at the same time they acknowledge human freedom and responsibility as biblical truths which are also based on exegesis.  The problem is that we have two biblical conclusions, both based on exegesis, but those conclusions are in contradiction with each other.  For Craig this is unacceptable precisely because they are in contradiction.  The point is that one or the other of these exegeses must be in error and that just to have an exegesis does not mean that exegesis is correct.  And equally important is the fact that philosophical reflection on sovereignty defined as determinism renders that exegetical interpretation invalid.

Calvinist Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. in an essay on the sovereignty of God in the Old Testament provides insight into Calvinist thinking in this regard.  He states,

“…I wish to follow Holy Scripture in its strong affirmation of the ultimacy of God over and in all things, including authentic human responsibility.  I will leave to others the further question as to how divine sovereignty and human responsibility dovetail in such a way that the moral significance of human agency is safeguarded while, at the same time and in a deeper sense, human agency in no way whatever limits the freedom and efficacious power of God or renders uncertain the fulfillment of his eternal decrees.  I believe that reality does indeed disclose the infallible effectual unfolding of God’s will through responsible human agency, and I have a few thoughts on how such a wonder might make sense; but here I intend only to ground the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the bedrock of several specific Old Testament passages.  For all who accept the biblical text as their major premise in theological thought, any other questions subsequently raised must be considered in the clear and glorious light of the doctrine of God’s unfrustrated sovereignty, once it is established exegetically.”[2]

As a Calvinist, when Ortlund speaks of “the ultimacy of God over and in all things” and “God’s sovereignty” he means universal divine causal determinism.  But Dr. Craig points out that this determinism “cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture because it “simply can’t make sense” of what the Scripture says about “human freedom and contingency and responsibility.”  This raises the question as to whether “God’s unfrustrated sovereignty” – meaning universal divine causal determinism – can ever be “established exegetically,” that is, on the basis of an accurate exegesis.  If Ortlund does claim that his exegesis establishes a universal divine causal determinism, but that exegesis fails to pass the test of logical reasoning and moral intuitions, then could that exegesis ever be the correct meaning of the text? 

Does Ortlund’s exegesis really establish the biblical definition of divine sovereignty as a universal divine causal determinism if it is incoherent with the clear testimony of Scripture to human freedom and responsibility?  Craig says it does not because of the incoherence it creates.  Now, the question is whether this incoherence is going to matter to Ortlund with respect to his claim that Scripture properly exegeted teaches universal divine causal determinism.  If it matters to him, then he has to face the fact that he has misinterpreted the text.  If it is not going to matter to him, which is the posture most Calvinists take regarding the philosophical and moral objections brought against their determinism, then we have the Calvinist establishing a hermeneutic of incoherence.  Scripture can contradict itself.

When Ortlund states, “For all who accept the biblical text as their major premise in theological thought, any other questions subsequently raised must be considered in the clear and glorious light of the doctrine of God’s unfrustrated sovereignty, once it is established exegetically.”  But this seems to beg the question and dismiss whether or not his exegesis is valid if one of the “questions subsequently raised” is the incoherence his exegesis and interpretation presents with human freedom and responsibility.  Ortlund seems to be saying that his exegesis would stand on its own even if it produces incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction with the exegesis and interpretation of other texts. 

Craig’s critique implies that the rules of logic are suitable and essential for discerning the validity of a proposed biblical exegesis and interpretation when that interpretation leads to incoherence – in this case between deterministic sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility.  So if Ortlund’s exegesis establishes “the doctrine of God’s unfrustrated sovereignty” which we take to mean universal divine causal determinism, then Dr. Craig has provided logical evidence that we have good rational grounds to deem that a flawed exegesis.   

Dr. Craig is considering the logical and moral entailments of the Calvinist’s exegesis on the sovereignty of God to discern the accuracy and truth of that exegesis.  To claim that one’s interpretation is based on an exegesis of the text doesn’t mean that that exegesis is correct.  And how would we know whether it is correct or not?  The point is that we can know it is not correct when we see that it creates incoherence with other teachings of Scripture. There is, after all, good exegesis and bad exegesis.  Coherence is necessary to good exegesis.  When coherence is violated we know we have bad exegesis. 

Ortlund says he is going “to ground the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the bedrock of several specific Old Testament passages.”  Question.  Can philosophical reflection overturn that exegetical grounding, demonstrating that it is not a valid interpretation due to the logical and moral incoherence it generates?  I think so.  Dr. Craig thinks so.  What if philosophical thinking shows Ortlund’s exegesis to be fallacious and exposes it as nonsense?  Would this not negate Ortlund’s belief that he has established his view of sovereignty exegetically?  If not, why not?  What other tool would we have at our disposal to determine the validity of an exegesis than sound reasoning based upon the principles of logic and our moral intuitions?

It certainly seems that an interpretation which claims to be the result of the grammatical-historical method must also be subject to the canons of reason, otherwise the interpreter can claim that whatever their exegesis produces is the correct meaning of the text.  But surely exegesis comes in better or lesser degrees of competence and accuracy depending upon how well it deals with things like literary genre, the immediate and broader literary context, flow of thought, authorial intent, vocabulary, grammar, history, social and religious context, theological themes, etc.  The question is whether we need to include in this list coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  I think this should go without saying.  But the fact that it needs to be said means that the Calvinist does not think these are essential to a sound hermeneutic.  When exegesis is done well we should arrive at interpretations that exhibit coherence, consistency and non-contradiction.  According to non-Calvinists, these logical and moral entailments will determine whether or not the Calvinist has properly exegeted the text regarding the sovereignty of God.  To dismiss incoherence as interpretively insignificant is simply to permit intellectually irresponsible exegesis.

Again, Dr. Craig states, “Causal determinism simply can’t make sense of both streams of biblical tradition.”  He is saying that exegetical conclusions that produce identifiable nonsense cannot be valid interpretations of the text.  Our exegetically based interpretations of the text have to at least demonstrate coherence between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.  Our accounting for both biblical teachings must be one that is coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.

Calvinists will seek to maintain their universal divine causal determinism and human responsibility by proposing what they call compatibilism.  That is, the Calvinist defines human freedom of the will as being able to do what you desire to do.  Yet the Calvinist maintains that God determines what you desire to do.  Hence, the Calvinist preserves their deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty while also claiming that man is free.  Dr. Craig explains,

“You can reconcile these texts by simply interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms.  You will remember we said last time that everyone agrees that human beings are free.  The real question is: is freedom consistent with causal determinism or not?  Compatibilists maintain that you can be causally determined to do what you do and still be said to be free.”

Again, note how the Calvinist does this.  The Calvinist defines human freedom of the will as being able to do what you desire to do.  Yet the Calvinist maintains that God determines what you desire to do.  Hence, the Calvinist preserves their deterministic definition of God’s sovereignty while also claiming that man is free.  Is this convincing?  Craig’ continues,

“If you interpret freedom along compatibilist lines, then there is no problem in reconciling freedom with universal divine causal determinism.  Indeed, compatibilism entails determinism.  According to compatibilism, if you are free you are causally determined.  However, the problem with this solution is that adopting compatibilism achieves a reconciliation of these Scriptural streams of tradition only at the expense of denying what that one stream of tradition seems to affirm; namely, genuine indeterminacy and contingency.  Because on compatibilism, there really isn’t any contingency or indeterminacy – everything is causally determined.  So I don’t think that universal divine causal determinism gives a coherent interpretation of Scripture.  It affirms divine sovereignty but it is forced to ride roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.”

Again, we run up against the mutual exclusivity of the Calvinist’s deterministic definition of sovereignty with human freedom on philosophical grounds, that is, universal divine causal determinism fails to give a “coherent interpretation of Scripture.”  So Dr. Craig identifies the same flaw of incoherence in the Calvinist’s attempt to remedy this incoherence with “compatibilism.”  It does not solve the problem “because on compatibilism, there really isn’t any contingency or indeterminacy,” which are aspects of reality that that Scripture clearly affirms.  Defining freedom as being able to act according to your desires and having God determine your desires does nothing to avoid the conclusion that “everything is causally determined,” that is, “there really isn’t any contingency or indeterminacy.”  Craig is right, compatibilism “affirms divine sovereignty but it is forced to ride roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.”  Compatibilism still leaves us with an interpretation that is incoherent and therefore certainly mistaken.

“Compatibilism,” therefore, is just an incorrect use of the word by Calvinists because it does nothing of the sort.  Note that the word “compatible” means rational consistency, congruity and harmony in one’s position.  This is what the Calvinist is meaning to achieve by “compatibilism.”  But in their redefinition of “human freedom” we can still detect on the basis of a philosophical assessment, that is, on the basis of logical reflection, that we still have the incoherence with the biblical testimony to contingency and indeterminacy.  So “compatibilism” only makes human freedom and determinism “compatible” by riding “roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.”  Therefore, it does not make determinism and human freedom compatible.  As contradictory propositions they never could be compatible.

Interestingly, implied in the Calvinist’s search for “compatibility” is an acknowledgment that one’s position should strive to be consistent, congruent and harmonious.  It assigns interpretive value or weight to the matter of coherence.  So we see here the Calvinist’s recognition of and struggle for coherence.  But the Calvinist’s reasoning fails to achieve this compatibility or coherence.  Again, Craig’s observation is worth repeating when he says, “…adopting compatibilism achieves a reconciliation of these Scriptural streams of tradition only at the expense of denying what that one stream of tradition seems to affirm; namely, genuine indeterminacy and contingency.  Because on compatibilism, there really isn’t any contingency or indeterminacy – everything is causally determined.”  Therefore Craig concludes, “So I don’t think that universal divine causal determinism gives a coherent interpretation of Scripture.  It affirms divine sovereignty but it is forced to ride roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.”

The point here is that philosophical reflection can establish that the supposed exegesis upon which a doctrinal claim is founded is flawed.  The conclusion is that if the Calvinist believes that his exegesis of Scripture has led to a definition of sovereignty as universal divine causal determinism then this is not a valid exegesis because it is incoherent with what the Calvinist also affirms about the biblical witness to human freedom of the will and human responsibility.  An exegesis must prove valid, and one essential way it does so is by showing itself to be coherent, consistent and non-contradictory.

So whatever “logical” compatibilist maneuvers the Calvinist attempts to make to avoid their problem of determinism, universal divine causal determinism can never be part of a coherent interpretation of Scripture.  The Calvinist cannot escape the vortex of incoherence that their determinism produces.  No matter what exegetical support the Calvinist claims for their universal causal divine determinism, the validity of that exegesis is defeated by its incoherence with human freedom and contingency.

Note therefore, that the crux of the matter comes down to whether the Calvinist is going to acknowledge this incoherence as interpretively significant.  The bottom-line to this controversy is therefore a matter of hermeneutical principle – whether coherence, consistency and non-contradiction are essential to proper interpretation.  The Calvinist will either incorporate the canons of reason employed in philosophical reflection, or more commonly understood as just clear thinking, into their hermeneutic, or reject it.  And if these canons of reason can ultimately be jettisoned and the logical and moral problems in one’s position be re-designating as “mystery,” then this would be to beg the question and endorse interpretive relativism.  But philosophical reflection, or clear thinking, will be what continues to defeat Calvinism as Craig demonstrates in his next four points. 

  This brings us to Craig’s second point.

  • Universal divine causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.

“Secondly, universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.  When you think about it – there is a sort of dizzying self-defeating character to determinism.  For if you come to believe that determinism is true, then you have to believe that the reason you have come to believe it is simply because you were determined to do so.  You haven’t been able, in fact, to sift through the arguments and the evidence and to freely weigh them and make up your mind on the basis of the argument and the evidence.  It is just that you have been causally determined to believe in determinism.  So, the difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and becomes a determinist and the person who weighs those arguments for determinism and rejects them is simply that the one was determined to believe in them and the other one was determined not to believe in them.  So when you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and even your present realization of that fact – you come to realize that your belief in determinism is itself determined – then there is a sort of vertigo that sets in.  Everything you think – even the very thought that you are thinking about that – is itself determined.  It is outside your control.  You were just determined to believe in it.  So while it would be the case that determinism could be true – maybe determinism is true – nevertheless it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed.  Determinism is literally self-defeating – it is rationally unaffirmable – because its very affirmation would undermine the rationality of that affirmation.  In affirming determinism to be true, you are in effect affirming that that decision is not rationally made but simply determined to be true.  So universal causal determinism, it seems to me, cannot be rationally affirmed.”

Here we cannot simply ignore what reason tells us about the self-defeating and rationally unaffirmable nature of universal divine causal determinism.  To do so would be intellectually irresponsible and to dismiss the very God-given intellectual “tools” by which to discern truth from error.  You either maintain that when a position is self-defeating it must be false, or you abandon the laws of thought by which rational thought and discourse are governed.

Yet Calvinists will ultimately dismiss the reasoning of Dr. Craig’s critique as not interpretively irrelevant.  Presupposing the validity of their exegesis, the Calvinist insists the Bible affirms universal divine causal determinism despite its rational incoherence.  Therefore, the differing weight each side in this controversy gives to the philosophical reflection Dr. Craig has offered here for determining the validity of an interpretation is at the heart of this controversy.  The Calvinist doesn’t assign much weight – if any at all – to such arguments.  The non-Calvinist does.  This is the hermeneutical divide.

While the Calvinist continues to dismiss the deliberations and critiques of logical and moral reasoning as applied to their theology, they forever perpetuate this hermeneutical divide and controversy.  For to dismiss the canons of reason and moral intuition from lending their input into determining the validity of an interpretation is to terminate all productive thought and discussion on this matter.  But to acknowledge that philosophical reflection and moral intuition are significant as to interpretive validity is to bring to light the intended meaning of the relevant texts and end the debate. The Calvinist’s insistence that the proper interpretation of Scripture on divine sovereignty is this universal divine causal determinism while their interpretation discounts its incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory results, is to establish a hermeneutic of incoherence.  It just doesn’t matter that our interpretations accord with logical and moral sense.  For the Calvinist, universal divine causal determinism is biblical because our exegesis establishes it as biblical.  But does exegesis really establish this doctrine as biblical, or is it held as the non-negotiable traditional doctrine Calvinist’s cherish as the “pride crusher” and litmus test of humility?

There is no other rational place to go once the incoherence of universal divine causal determinism is pointed out.  The Calvinist will not even consider alternative exegeses that are coherent, consistent and non-contradictory because the deterministic definition of sovereignty holds absolute sway.  If this determinism is surrendered, God is no longer God to them and the Reformed “doctrines of grace” collapse.

But on philosophical grounds the evidence against Calvinism mounts and has to be dealt with by Calvinists.  Both intellectual and hermeneutical integrity demand it.

Dr. Craig continues with the third problem.

  • Universal divine determinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility.

“Third problem: universal divine determinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility…On the deterministic view, even the movement of the human will is itself determined by God. God causes people to choose evil and they cannot do otherwise.  God determines their choices – he makes them do wrong.  If it is evil to make another person do wrong then on this view not only is God the cause of sin and evil but he becomes evil himself which is absurd.  He would not only be the cause of evil in the sense that he is producing it, but he is making other people do evil.  And if you think that is wrong – to make another person do evil, if that is itself evil – then God becomes evil on this view which is absurd.  By the same token, all human responsibility for sin is removed on this view because our choices are not really up to us.  God causes us to make them.  So we can’t be responsible for our choices because nothing that we think or do is up to us.  It is determined by God.  I do think that the oft repeated claim that Calvinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility really does stick.”

I see nothing wrong with Dr. Craig’s reasoning here.  Yet, despite his observations, the Calvinist will continue to stand upon the fact that they have exegeted the text and because exegesis takes precedence over any of the logical or moral objections the non-Calvinist brings against Calvinism, they will continue to hold to their definition of divine sovereignty as universal divine causal determinism.  Here is the crucial question.  Can an exegesis and interpretation of Scripture be correct if it concludes that God causes all the sinful thoughts and evil actions of every person throughout all time?  Calvinists themselves cannot tolerate such an absurd conclusion, and that is why they must flee to “mystery” as an “explanation” of their interpretive conclusions.  One certainly would have to flee to “mystery” or “incomprehensibility” to avoid the force of the deliverances of Dr. Craig’s logical and moral refection here.  And that is precisely what the Calvinist does.  But that is to put the Calvinist’s exegesis beyond an assessment of these principles of reason and morality.  It is to ignore their input and deem then hermeneutically insignificant.  And this rejection of rational assessment by the flight to mystery would also serve to insulate the Calvinist exegesis from a comparative evaluation by alternative exegetical interpretations of the same texts.  How would we ultimately know which is the proper exegesis of the text if the Calvinist has jettisoned rational assessment in the determination of the validity of their exegesis?  One interpretation would just stand along-side a conflicting interpretation without any way of discerning which one is the better interpretation.  Moreover, the Calvinist could never assess alternative non-Calvinist exegeses on the basis that they prove to be incoherent within the non-Calvinist own soteriology or in relation to other established doctrines or even practical life experience.  Since they themselves have dismissed logical and moral reasoning in interpretation as essential elements for establishing interpretive validity, that option is not open to them as means of critiquing other interpretative alternatives.  What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  So what are we left with to determine the validity of the interpretations?  Suppose one believes they have incorporated all the standard grammatical-historical factors into their exegesis, which certainly are a must, and we still find contradiction, incoherence and inconsistency?  Wouldn’t these tell us that some element or elements of our exegesis are in error?  Wouldn’t these problems be sufficient to indicate that our exegesis went significantly wrong at some point?  Could we just ignore these logical and moral difficulties?  On what grounds?  Certainly not on the grounds that our exegesis produces them and therefore Scripture contains and teaches contradictions and is incoherent and inconsistent within itself.  Certainly not on the grounds that out exegesis makes God the author of evil and evil himself.  I think we would have to pay close attention to such logical and moral indications that tell us our exegesis is flawed and that we are holding to a faulty set of beliefs.  The Calvinist would have to demonstrate how it is that Dr. Craig’s reasoning here, which is the result of the common sense assessment of Calvinism by most folks who hear about it, is somehow flawed or inapplicable.

In that the Calvinist exegesis serves up logical and moral incoherence it indicts Scripture as inherently logically and morally incoherent.  When this happens, the interpreter either goes back to the exegetical drawing board or they must “defend” Scripture from that charge.  The Calvinist will not go back to the text to seek or affirm other interpretations that that responsibly handle the text and are also not incoherent, inconsistent or contradictory.  God’s sovereignty defined as a universal divine causal determinism is the foundation of Calvinism.  Thus the Calvinist, knowing that they cannot address the probative force of logical and moral reasoning against his determinism, has only one other ultimate option – flee to “mystery” and “incomprehensibility.”  But these are ad hoc and do not rationally or morally justify the Calvinist position or move us any nearer the exegetical truth of the matter.  We are still left with no reason to believe the Calvinist’s exegesis is correct other than their bald assertion that it is, which is question begging.  We are left with no reason to think it is correct and substantial reasons to think it is incorrect.  That is precisely what Dr. Craig is doing here.

If the Calvinist, to deflect us from consideration of these difficulties, asserts that their approach is “faith seeking understanding,” then it is not a distinctively Christian faith we are talking about.  Christian faith embraces human reason, the laws of logic and moral intuitions.  It is not irrational or immoral.  And if this “faith” is seeking “understanding” one wonders what kind of “understanding” the Calvinist is talking about.  What our understanding concludes is that Calvinist determinism is incoherent.  When this is pointed out to the Calvinist, they will not acknowledge this but dismiss this understanding as “mystery.”  So what kind of “understanding” is their faith seeking?  Obviously not the kind that Dr. Craig is laying out in this lecture.  But what other kind is their?

The fact is that we can understand all too well what the problem is here, but the Calvinist “faith” or rather “the tradition,” simply will not acknowledge it.  The Calvinist doctrine of divine sovereignty, defined deterministically, is non-negotiable.  This certainly appears to be an a priori belief in search of a reason to believe it under the guise of “faith seeking understanding.” [3]  The problem is that there are too many substantial reasons to reject believing this Calvinist version of divine sovereignty.

Dr. Craig gives us a fourth reason. 

  • Universal divine causal determinism nullifies human agency. 

“Number four: universal divine causal determinism nullifies human agency.  In other words, there really are no human agents on this view.  Since our choices are not up to us but are determined by God, human beings cannot be said to be real agents.  Rather, they are like mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect much as a man might use a stick to roll a stone.  The stick is a mere instrument of the man who is the causal agent in this case.  Of course, secondary causes like the stick will retain all of their properties and powers as intermediate causes and the Reformed divines will often remind us of this.  But this is just to say that the stick retains all of its properties and powers which make it suitable for the person who wants to use it to do something like move a stone.  The stick has properties like a certain rigidity, a certain weight, a certain density that make it useful as an instrument for the person to push or overturn the stone.  So Reformed thinkers don’t need to be occasionalists like those Muslim medieval theologians who thought that God is the only cause of everything.  There can be secondary causes in the world on the Calvinistic view, but my point is that these intermediate causes are not agents themselves.  They are mere instrumental causes.  They have no power to initiate action.  They are not agents because they have no power to initiate action; they are mere instruments of an agent.  So it seems to me that it is dubious on divine determinism that there is really more than one agent in the world. God is the only agent that exists and everything else are just instruments of this single agent. The famous Reformed theologian B. B. Warfield of the old Princeton Seminary insists, “. . . the reality and real efficiency of all second causes . . . as the proximate producers of the effects that take place in the world” is affirmed.[4]  He affirms that secondary causes are real and do have power to produce effects as the immediate causes of the event but notice he doesn’t answer the objection that, in a deterministic world, there is only one agent.  These intermediate causes are mere instruments – lifeless instruments – in the employ of an agent who has the power to initiate action.  This conclusion, if it is correct, not only goes against our knowledge of ourselves as agents – I think each one of us senses that he is a causal agent – but it would also make it inexplicable why God would then treat us as agents holding us morally responsible for the things that he caused us and used us to do.  The fact that on universal divine determinism there really is only one agent in the world (and that is God) I think makes real nonsense of Christian theology.”

It is important to note that the Calvinist’s use of “secondary causes” to establish personal responsibility fails in its purpose of avoiding the negative implications of the determinism inherent in their theology.  It is crucial to see this because Calvinists attempt to use “secondary causes” or “God uses means” as ways to avoid the negative implications of determinism on human freedom and responsibility.  But these just push the determinism back a step in the causal chain.  I will deal with this topic in more detail elsewhere.  But as Dr. Craig points out, the logical result of this universal divine causal determinism is that there is only one personal agent responsible for causing all that occurs – God himself.  Here we run up against the biblical concept of personhood and what it means to be made in the image of God.  I will deal with this issue later also, but Dr. Craig reflects upon personhood in his teaching on the trinity.  He states,

“What makes the human soul a person as opposed to, say, the soul of an iguana or a tortoise or even a porpoise?  What makes the human soul a person?  It would seem that the human soul is equipped with rational faculties of intellect and volition which enable it to be a self-reflective agent who is capable of self-determination.  I will repeat that – the human soul is a person, or is personal, because it is endowed with rational faculties of intellect and volition which enable it to be a self-reflective agent capable of self-determination or free will.”[5]

According to this definition of personhood, God is not the only agent in the world as is required on universal divine causal determinism.  The Bible teaches the self-determining personal agency of human beings.  Free will is both taught and everywhere presupposed throughout Scripture.  But such freedom is incoherent with the Calvinist’s universal divine causal determinism.  Dr. Craig’s understanding of personhood, as well as your own experience of being a person, is more coherent with the biblical witness and as such warrants our belief over a Calvinist determinism.

Dr. Craig now states his final point in his critique of Calvinism.

  • Universal divine determinism threatens to make reality into a farce. 

“Finally, number five, universal divine determinism threatens to make reality into a farce.  What do I mean by that?  Well, on this view the whole world becomes a vein and empty spectacle.  There really are no free agents who are in rebellion against God, no free agents whom God seeks to win through his love, no one who freely responds to that love and freely gives his love and praise to God in return.  The whole spectacle is a sort of charade in which the only real actor is God himself.  I am reminded in this connection of a really bizarre cartoon I saw once in which there was an audience pictured listening to a lecture and the lecturer was a marionette – you can see the strings attached to his wooden arms and his wooden head – and, when you looked at the audience, all of the members in the audience were marionettes as well and the speaker was saying, “Now concerning the logical order of God’s decrees of election” and it just made the whole thing a farce.  One Reformed puppet lecturing to other Reformed puppets on the virtues of Reformed theology.  It is just a charade.  So, far from glorifying God, I am convinced that the Calvinist view really denigrates God for engaging in such a farcical charade as this.  I think it is insulting to God to think that he would create beings who are, in every respect, causally determined by him and then treat them as though they are free agents, even punishing them for the wrong actions that he made them do or loving them as though they were not freely responding agents.  God, on this view, would be like a child who sets up his toy soldiers on the battlefield and then moves them about in his make believe world pretending that they are real persons whose every motion is not in fact of his own doing and then pretending that these toy people merit praise and blame.  So it seems to me that this view of universal divine determinism really turns reality into something of a farce.

For those reasons I think that the Calvinistic view of universal divine causal determinism is one that is unacceptable for Christian theology.”

What Dr. Craig has provided here are philosophical and moral reflections on the Calvinist doctrinal conclusions that are the result of their exegesis of the relevant biblical texts.  What is critical to realize is that these philosophical and moral reflections, which do not cite or exegete Scripture, are sufficient to render the Calvinist theology which boasts that it is the teaching of Scripture based on their exegesis and interpretations of the text, “unacceptable for Christian theology.”  The point is that an exegesis can be seen to be in error by the application of sound reasoning to the exegetical conclusions.   The Calvinists exegesis is invalidated by sound philosophical and moral reflection.  The Calvinist will claim that their theology is rooted in the exegesis of the biblical texts and that the non-Calvinist objections to Calvinism are primarily philosophical and moral.  But we can see here that as necessary as exegesis is for properly understanding the text, philosophical and moral coherence are also necessary for validating that exegesis.  The Calvinist creates a false dichotomy between exegesis and the reasoned deliberations of philosophical reflection and moral intuition.  In doing so they establish a flawed hermeneutic.  These deliberations are essential for doing responsible exegesis and interpretation.  As Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell point out, “While logical consistency may not be a sufficient condition to show that a theology is true, it is a necessary condition.”[6]  An exegesis may be coherent and yet wrong, but an exegesis cannot be incoherent and correct.  The necessity that an exegesis be consistent and coherent for it to be a valid expression of the meaning of the text is dismissed by Calvinists when it comes to their own theology.  And this is the hermeneutical divide which is at the heart of the controversy.  It is also the reason why we know, among many other things, “that the Calvinistic view of universal divine causal determinism is one that is unacceptable for Christian theology.” Calvinism contains serious misinterpretations of Scripture and is therefore to be rejected.


[1] The following extended quotes are from William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 Class, Doctrine of Creation: Part 10.  Oct. 21, 2012.  https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-creation/doctrine-of-creation-part-10/  You can read the transcript or listen to the lecture at this link.  Last accessed June 9, 2018.

[2] Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., “The Sovereignty of God: Case Studied in the Old Testament,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 25-26.

[3] Note David Allen’s conclusion regarding the doctrine of limited atonement.  He says, “In the final analysis, I believe limited atonement is a doctrine in search of a text.”   David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), Preface x.

[4] B. B. Warfield, “The Significance of the Confessional Doctrine of the Decree,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. (1970-73; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 1:98-99.

[5] William Lane Craig, Defenders 2 class “Doctrine of the Trinity, Part 8.  Read the transcript or listen to the class lecture at https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-god-trinity/doctrine-of-the-trinity-part-8/  Last accessed June 29, 2018.

[6] Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 156.

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