Skip to main content

More Calvinist than Calvin?

I'm working on a paper on the topic of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Occasionally on this topic (or the subtopic of election) you will hear people through out the barb at strong Calvinists that they're 'being more Calvinist than Calvin.' After having read Calvin carefully on the issue I don't think that there's any validity to that charge. I don't see a material difference here between Calvin and say John Piper. Here are several quotes from the Institutes to prove my point.

'All events are governed by God's secret plan.' I.xvi.2

'Governing heaven and earth by his providence, he also so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation.' I.xvi.3

'Nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.' I.xvi.3

Calvin explicitly rejects a limited providence, 'one that by a general motion revolves and drives the system of the universe, with its several parts, but which does not specifcally direct the action of individual creatures.' I.xvi.4

'It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills! Indeed Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him.' I.xvi.6

Calvin tells us, 'when we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness...remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has willingly committed against us was permitted and sent by God's just dispensation.' I.xvii.8

I think it's fair to say that there is strong continuity between modern manifestations of Calvinism and Calvin's thought.


  1. But Piper is the moderate. He accepts a sense in which the atonement is unlimited, in the free offer to all, even though it it limited in only applying to the elect. It's those who deny such potentiality in God who I would call hyper-Calvinists, and indeed they do go well beyond Calvin on such things. There are several other issues in that direction where Piper, I would argue, is closer to Calvin and historic Calvinism, and modern Calvinists are actually being hyper-Calvinist.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I've never thought of Piper as a moderate. Perhaps it's just the circle's I've been in, but I don't see many people denying potentiality in God. People holding views similar to Piper and Carson are about as hyper a Calvinist as I ever run into. So perhaps some people are 'more calvinist than Calvin' I just haven't met them. In my experience, I've heard recoil on the idea that God's will is the source of everything that happens (though not in the same way). What this post was getting at is that this has historic roots in the Calvinist position going back to Calvin himself (and to Aquinas before him - though Aquinas was more careful in his language than Calvin in my opinion - it may go back further - and probably does at least to Augustine - but I didn't have time to read that far back).

  3. I encounter people from time to time telling me I'm not really a Calvinist because I think there's a sense in which the atonement was intended for all (namely that there's an offer to all and that it would cover any who respond in faith if they were to respond in faith). People who hold this view find support from John Owen's famous argument for limited atonement, which when taken at face value does seem to endorse their view.

    I think Steve Hays of Triablogue might hold the view you're saying you've never seen argued. I haven't seen him clearly state it, but his view comes across to me as if he's a hard determinist about regeneration but a compatibilist about sanctification (and that such a position is what monergism requires).

    The basic difference between Augustine and Aquinas on the will is that Augustine thinks we seek whatever we most want, while Aquinas thinks there's a judgment by the intellect that determines which things are most good, and then we choose whichever thing we judge to be most good. The intellectual judgment is where freedom is for Aquinas, and the place for freedom for Augustine is in our choices coming out of our desires. It's not a huge difference.

    Augustine distinguishes his view from Stoic determinism. The Stoics think every event is predetermined by efficient causes. Prior events make all the events right now happen, including my own choices. They insist that freedom is compatible with that kind of determinism. Augustine holds back on that. He says human choices are not caused by efficient causes. They're explained in a different way, by Aristotelian final causes (or purposes or goals). I have a certain goal in mind, the thing I want. I go with it because I most want it, but it's not as if there's an efficient cause pushing me toward that goal. It's rather that the goal is attractive to me, and thus I do move toward it. In later language, we might say it's acting based on a reason rather than a cause. The Stoics would have said it's both.

    So Augustine denies determinism by efficient causes. Nonetheless, his view of divine sovereignty is so strong as to cover every event that occurs. One might argue that it's deterministic if you include final-cause explanations among the ones that explain why you move from one state of the world to the next. Nothing happens without an explanation, and it might well be that for him the state of the universe now explains sufficiently why the next state of the world occurs, just not in a way that makes it happen by efficient-cause determinism.

    That's probably far more than you wanted, but I think the issue is more complicated than just whether God should count as the source of everything that happens.

  4. I've encountered people from time to time claiming I'm not really a Calvinist because I accept some sense in which the atonement is offered to all.

    Augustine thinks efficient-cause determinism (of the Stoics, for example) is false. Our free choices are not caused by prior events in the sense that those events make our choices happen. The Stoics insisted that freedom is compatible with such determinism. Augustine denies that.

    But there's a sense in which he still accepts a kind of determinism. He does have God responsible for everything that happens in some sense, and he does think every state of the world is explainable in terms of prior states of the world (and God's intervention along the way). But he says our free choices are not caused by efficient causes. They're explained in terms of final causes -- goals, purposes. Nothing pushes us to choose what we choose. When we want something, we're most inclined toward what we most desire. But it's not as if our desire pushes us to choose it. It's just that we're attracted to it and therefore seek what we most love. This, then, is predictable by God, and he therefore can ground God's ability to predict our actions and adjust accordingly to get a strong view of providence that covers every event.

    So it's not Stoic determinism. But I'm not sure Calvin would endorse that either. A good case can be made that Calvin's view may be fully compatible with Augustine's. If you include final-cause explanations as well as efficient-cause explanations, then there's a sense in which this might still count as deterministic.a

  5. Thanks Jeremy,

    I appreciate you taking the time to leave these comments. Calvin clearly rejects Stoic determinism in the Institutes. I don't remember exactly where and don't have a copy handy, but the spot is pretty easy to find based on the section titles (It's in I.xvii or I.xviii somewhere). It seems to me that what you describe about Augustine is pretty similar to my understanding of Calvin, though he seems to want to talk more about God as a cause than God being a predictor. But I don't find Calvin adequately clear on most of these issues, except the claim that God is the cause and we still bear responsibility for our freely chosen actions. He does resort some to a primary/secondary cause explanation but again he's not precise, certainly nowhere near as precise as Aquinas.

    Aquinas doesn't seem to hold exactly the same view as Calvin in that he makes a greater effort to distance God from willing evil. In Ia.19 (I don't remember exactly where - perhaps question 8?), he makes the distinction that God only wills good. Evil happens by attaching itself to good that is willed by God. The way I understand both Calvin (and Piper for that matter) is that God somehow (and this isn't clear to me how) wills evil to happen but isn't responsible.

    So I agree that there is more involved in the discussion than whether or not God is the cause of everything that happens. I actually think you can make a case both ways (unless you want to say that God causes all free acts because he gave us a free will - but that's not much causation if any) and wanted to show where Calvin fell on this issue. I'll be posting more on what my view is later this week or early next week after my paper is wrapped up (hopefully tonight).

  6. The Stoics originated the primary/secondary causation distinction, so that element is compatible with their approach. But if Calvin rejects Stoic determinism that interests me. I haven't read anything from him on that.

    Augustine says there's a sense in which everything is caused by God, but he's talking about the existence of all things when he says that. God created everything, and every positive existent is intrinsically good, just distorted and disordered. All evil is a falling away from good, and he insists that God doesn't cause that. It's more allowance than causation, but it's predicted, and God still allows it (and has reasons to allow it).

    It is 1a.19.8 where Aquinas says God doesn't will evil. But he also says no one wills evil. When we sin, we will good but make intellectual mistakes about which things are good. The error isn't in willing evil. It's in willing something that happens to be evil but thinking of it as good. The difference with God is that God wills something that turns out to contain evil, but it's the good in it that God is willing, and the evil has to occur, or else some even worse option would result. I think what he's doing is taking God as willing everything that happens, even evil, but it's not the evil in the thing that God is willing. That's just a requirement of the good that God wills. I'm pretty sure this is all Calvin and Piper mean when they say God wills an evil, so I don't think that's a difference in substance.

    The funny thing about Aquinas is in the final section of the Summa, where he traces out his theology from the Bible, and he gives the semi-Pelagian view that the Catholic catechism still endorses. It's not clear to me whether he changed his mind and abandoned divine sovereignty over salvation (he even discusses it as predestination of the saved in Ia.23) or if he simply holds a view in the biblical section that doesn't fit well with what he had earlier arrived at philosophically. I think that's part of why there's so much scholarly disagreement about Aquinas' view on these matters. People can't easily figure out how (or if) they should put those two things together.

  7. I'd appreciate any references you might have to where Calvin discusses the Stoics. I'm also curious if you have any thoughts on where Edwards is on these issues in comparison to the others. It's been a while since I've read through "The Freedom of the Will", even though it was one of the things that really solidified my views on these things long ago.

  8. I'll look up the reference in Calvin. Since this surprises you I'll look more precisely at what it is he's rejecting to see if it's the substance of Stoic claims or if it's what he sees as some unacceptable implications that they developed. That would be an important distinction. Either way I'll post a comment later tonight with the section I had in mind.

    That's also helpful information on Aquinas. I've only read Ia.18-23. I came to the conclusion that there's a lot of misunderstanding surrounding Aquinas. Now I know that it's legitimate. :)

    Unfortunately I didn't get time to get into Edwards either so I can't be of much help there. Our directive was to focus primarily on the data in Scripture and secondarily on philosophy and the tradition. I do intend to do some further reading so if I do dig into Edwards I'll let you know what I find.

    In your mind are Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards sort of the 'big 4?' Who else would you categorize as a must read?

  9. Thanks for the clarification on Ia.19.8 in Aqunias. That adds some precision. I'll have to mull that over a bit more. I'm not completely convinced that he and Calvin are on the same page there, but it does seem more likely now.

  10. On these general questions, I'm not sure I'd add anyone. Maybe Luther, but I don't think he got into these things quite so precisely. He tended to deny free will and then not explain what he meant, but he said enough to suggest that he wasn't a hard determinist in the end. He just wasn't as careful and hadn't had as much access to the historic philosophers. He was more focused on the biblical texts themselves and his contemporaries.

  11. Hey Jeremy,

    The section I had in mind where Calvin rejects Stoic determinism is I.xvi.8. He also lumps himself with Augustine by rejecting it. Here's a quote,

    'We do not, with the Stoics, contrive a necessity out of the perpetual connection and intimately related series of causes, which is contained in nature; but we make God the ruler and governor of all things, who in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do, and now by his might carries out what he has decreed.'

    Is he rejecting Stoic thought altogether or just that they attribute necessity to nature?

    Thanks again for your earlier comments. I feel like I have a stronger paper than I would have had otherwise.

  12. That quote isn't clear at all.

    1. He might just be denying the idea that these causes occur without providential control (although that would get the Stoics drastically wrong, since they do consider all efficient causes to fit into a final-cause scheme with the world-God deliberately ordering all things within itself, toward goals leading to a more perfect world). One reason to take him this way is the "but" clause seems to be contrasting the view he's denying with God being the ruler and governor of all things.

    2. One thing he might be denying is their view of the connection of all things. Since they take God to be the world, they consider all aspects of the world to be intimately related in more ways than just one thing causing another. They have the strongest egalitarianism I've seen in the history of philosophy, and they see all of us as little gods as part of the big divine mind, where everything works out because all the causes are working together as part of God's mind. Their strong opposition to Epicurean atomism was in part because they saw every part of the universe being interconnected and hated the idea of individual atoms standing on their own.

    3. He could be denying the necessity of the Stoic view, if perhaps he's taking them to hold that there's only one possible way things could be. This, again, would be getting them wrong. They do sometimes talk in necessity-terms, but the best of the Stoics also insist that it's possible to do things that are not the actual thing we'll do. It gets technical after a while, and the leading Stoics (especially Chrysippus and Cleanthes) held slightly different views on this, but they tended to want to defend the notion of possibility and contingency despite saying that the current state of the universe will guarantee the next state of the universe. By Calvin's time, determinists were perhaps more likely to be represented as necessitarians, but Stoics didn't like such terms. So maybe he's importing that into their thought.

    4. He could be resisting the material element, since the first part he denies talks purely in terms of the connection between causes, and it's contrasted with God's plan and control.

    I found an online version, and I don't think the context helps much. If I had to guess, I'd say it probably involves more of 1, 3, and 4. I'm not sure he's being fair to them, and I think he'd have to know them well to get 2. The most fair thing he could be saying is that he's denying the idea of the universe itself being deterministic without an external God guiding things along. The least fair thing he could be saying is that he's insisting on final causes, providence, and some sense of possibility and contingency (all of which they insist on).

    The next paragraph, I see, does defend Augustine's language about God both ordering and allowing. Some things God doesn't simply do but allows us to do, which requires not being a compatibilist of the sense that God causes everything in equal ways. Evil has to be caused in a way that could be described as God allowing it. Whether that means Calvin is not an efficient-cause determinist but just a final-cause determinist, as Augustine and perhaps Aquinas are, I'm not sure. But he does seem to think Augustine is all right to talk that way, even if he resists (as he's right to resist) interpreting Augustine in a way that removes God's sovereignty over those events.

  13. Interesting thoughts. I don't think that he has #2 in mind either. For what it's worth, as I read Calvin he seems to be a compatibilist, though he does minimize free will more than most.

  14. The more I think about it, I don't think he's denying #4 either given that it'd be impossible for anyone to attribute that view to him if they had read the prior sections.

  15. Helm thinks the difference between the Stoics and Calvin is that Calvin sees God as transcendent, and the Stoics see their world-god as merely immanent. That's plausible.

    In the quote he gives about the prophecy of Jesus' bones being broken, this actually gets to the dispute I mentioned above between Chrysippus and Cleanthes. Calvin's view there is that of Cleanthes (and the one I endorse and that Augustine and Aquinas end up taking), that future contingents are contingent because they didn't have to occur, even if some other thing guarantees them (in this case God's providence, but Augustine usually discusses it in terms of foreknowledge). The reason they're contingent is that the cause of them didn't have to occur. God could have used a different means or sought a different end. But given that God ordained those events, it will happen. Chrysippus put it together in a different way. He thought of the past as necessary but then insisted that contingencies can follow from necessities. I think that view is nuts, and it never took. Cleanthes won out on this one by simply denying the necessity of the past. The past could have been different from what it was. Calvin seems thus to be in the mainsteam of philosophical thought from Augustine on on this question.

    Helm does get the Stoics wrong, though, taking them to be deists. They were pantheists, but they were pantheists with a very strong view of providence.

  16. There's one reason Calvin might distinguish his view from the materialism of Stoicism. If he thinks their materialism is what makes their view bad, and he thinks the objection he's responding to only takes effect in materialism, then he might say what he said in order to distance himself from materialist determinism.

  17. Thanks for the link. I think Helm's suggestion is plausible too.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Paul's Argument in Galatians 3:15-29

15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. 19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one. 21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! Fo…

Commentary Series Overview

When I write commentary reviews, one of my main goals is to assess how well the commentator hit the intended audience of the commentary and utilized the format of the commentary. This often necessitates cluttering up the post discussing issues of format. To eliminate that, I thought that I would make some general remarks about the format and audience of each of the series that appear in my reviews. Terms like liberal, conservative, etc. are not used pejoratively but simply as descriptors. Many of you are familiar with Jeremy Pierce's commentary series overview. If you don't see a particular series covered here, check out his post to see if it's reviewed there. I am making no attempt at covering every series, just the series that I use. Additionally, new series (such as the NCCS) have been started in the five years since he wrote his very helpful guide, so I thought that it might not be completely out of order to have another person tackle commentary series overviews. This…

Commentary Review: Daniel

In my opinion, Daniel is not the best covered Old Testament book as far as commentaries go. This isn't an uncommon phenomenon among Old Testament books. Though I've looked at them, I'm not going to review some of the older Evangelical Daniel commentaries (like e.g., Baldwin). They don't provide much that you can't get in either Longman or Lucas. If you're unfamiliar with the series that one or more of these commentaries are in check out my commentary series overview.

It was a very close call but my favorite commentary on Daniel is Goldingay's. While there were a few places where I disagreed with his interpretation, I found the commentary to be exemplary. If you're going to teach Daniel, especially the apocalyptic portions, you need a commentary that provides you with a lot of background material. Goldingay, while not as broad as Collins, certainly provides you with quite a bit. His exploration of the background to the apocalyptic symbolism is very helpfu…