Monday, November 28, 2011

The Calvinistic view of Divine Sovereignty and Human free-will

             Calvinism is a view that has been growing in popularity in recent years, due mainly to the writings of some of its most eloquent proponents, John Piper and John MacArthur. Calvinism holds that divine sovereignty and human freewill are compatible. For our exposition of Calvinism we will primarily use the book by Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will,[1] and the book by J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man.[2]

Divine Sovereignty

            Calvinists hold the view that God, by his sovereignty, governs, or determines, all things. Machen says, “How much is embraced in the eternal purpose of God? The true answer to that question is very simple. The true answer is ‘Everything’. Everything that happens is embraced in the eternal purpose of God; nothing at all happens outside of His eternal plan.”[3] In fact, Gods providence extends to even the free acts of his creatures. “According to the Bible, God governs all, and the Bible is particularly clear in teaching that He determines the voluntary acts of His creatures.”[4] God’s foreknowledge is that by which he predetermined everything that happens in this world, from before time began, even the future free acts of voluntary creatures.[5]

Freedom of Will

            Jonathan Edwards’s book, The Freedom of the Will, is the authoritative work on the subject of free will for Calvinism. In this book he purports to explain what it means to say that man has free will, and that God knows all things before they happen, before he even created the world. In defining human freedom of will he begins by defining the will, and then defines freedom.

            Edwards defines freedom as “The power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases…being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing, or conducting in any respect, as he wills.”[6] Freedom, for the Calvinist, is only related to the will in the sense that the agent is free if the agent is not hindered in pursuing the object of the will. The will, however, can be determined without removing the freedom of the agent. Regardless of how a person’s will is determined, the agent is free as long as he is not hindered in pursuing, or acting upon his will.

            Edwards defines the will as “that by which the mind chooses anything.”[7] Concerning the determination of the will, Edwards says that “the will is said to be determined, when, in consequence of some action, or influence, its choice is directed to, and fixed upon a particular object.”[8]

            For the Calvinist, then, freedom of the will means that an agent with the power to do as he pleases (to act freely) is not hindered in pursuing the object of his will. The will of an agent can be determined, or directed, towards something, without removing the agent’s freedom.

Putting Calvinistic Sovereignty and Free Will Together

            The claim of Calvinism is that God determines everything, even the will of every voluntary agent. Man, however, does not lose his freedom when God determines man’s will, because God does not hinder man, in any way, from pursuing and achieving that which God wills man to will. In other words, God determines the will of each voluntary agent, who then acts freely on his predetermined will. Machen says of God, “He does not cause them to do those things against their will, but He determines their will, and their freedom as persons is fully preserved when they perform those acts.”[9] Therefore, the Calvinist claims that divine sovereignty and human free will are indeed compatible. However, Calvinism’s view of free will would be more appropriately entitled, “human freedom of action”.

            The best example that we could use of the Calvinistic view would be that of a modern vacuum cleaner robot. Its purpose and “will”, so to say, are predetermined by the programmer, but in the action of vacuuming, the robot moves freely. Its actions are free due to the fact that it is not hindered in performing the actions that it “wills”. Nobody is moving it, it is moving by itself. On the Calvinistic explanation of free will, this robot could be said to have “free will”.

            Such a conception of free will is at best a pseudo-freedom, for though I am claiming to be technically “free” in my actions; my actions are determined by my will. However, my will is determined by God. Therefore, if my will is determined by God, and my actions are determined by my will, then all my actions are determined by God. This of course, removes any responsibility that I might be said to have for my actions. Can someone really be held responsible for actions that he did not freely, and personally, choose to perform? If I am not responsible for my actions, then how can I be judged according to my actions? In light of this serious problem, we can conclude that Calvinism does not give an adequate answer to the problem of sovereignty and freedom, so, we will now look at Open Theism.




[1]Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (1757; repr., Goodyear, AZ: Diggory Press, 2008).

[2]J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (1937; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995).

[3]Ibid., 35.

[4]Ibid., 39.

[5]Edwards, 66, 78-9.

[6]Ibid., 23.

[7]Ibid., 7.

[8]Ibid., 9.

[9]Machen, 44.