Sunday, June 07, 2009

Was Calvin a voluntarist?

An Orthodox blog did a post which, in the course of the feedback, accused Calvin of being a theological voluntarist:

I offered a few comments. The thread has since been closed to further comments, so I’ll post my comments here, along with a final comment:


steve hays Says:
May 22, 2009 at 12:39 pm
A couple of quick points:

1. Yes, Vos was a supra. He makes that plain in his review of Bavinck’s systematic theology.

2. Calvinism typically rejects voluntarism. See Helm’s discussion in Calvin’s Ideas.

steve hays Says:
May 22, 2009 at 6:00 pm
Cyril Says:
May 22, 2009 at 2:11 pm
Calvinism may eschew voluntarism, but Calvin’s theology itself is riddled with contradictions on this very count: essentially his humanist Stoicism fighting with the patrimony of Platonism and Aristotelianism which sits at best in tenuous equipoise in his works. As NeoChal has already here indicated, the Divine Will is antecedent and anterior in and to all things. With regard to the discussion of this thread, I think there is an even more telling passage in Book II.


There’s a reason I referred you to Helm’s detailed analysis. Isolated quote-mining is deceptive. If you can’t bring yourself to read Helm, here’s another discussion of the same issue:

steve hays Says:
May 24, 2009 at 4:41 pm
Cyril Says:

“I had Paul Helm’s Calvin and the Calvinists some years ago and either gave it to my brother or deposited it with the library of the PCA church I then attended. I don’t remember anything that remarkable about the text. Not to say there isn’t, I just don’t remember.”

I wouldn’t expect you to remember since that isn’t the book I referenced. To repeat, I mentioned Helm’s book on Calvin’s Ideas. That’s the title. Try again.

steve hays Says:
May 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm

You quote, and take exception to, the following statement:

[As to that link to Paul Helm (like the blog name), Pr. Helm writes “Second, Calvin adheres to the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God’s nature does not consist of parts which compose it. (Inst. I.13.2) No parts are antecedent to God himself. He exists a se, independently and in an absolutely underived sense. So his will is ‘bound’ to his nature, for it is, strictly speaking, not a separate ‘part’ of it. God necessarily acts in accordance with it.”]

In your opinion, what, exactly, is wrong with this statement? Do you think that God’s nature does consist of “parts”? Is God a composite being? Do you think that in God’s nature, one part is antecedent to God himself? Do you think that God’s existence is derivative? Do you deny that God exists a se? Do you think that God’s will is a separate part of his nature?

What, precisely, is there in this formulation of divine simplicity that’s mistaken?

steve hays Says:
May 25, 2009 at 1:30 pm
NeoChalcedonian Says:

I’m not disputing what you’re claiming; I asked a question: “What basis does Calvin have for rejecting voluntarism?”


Since, on his view, the divine nature is not reducible to any one attribute, God’s decisions and actions are not reducible to a sheer will.

steve hays Says:
May 26, 2009 at 1:56 pm
Perry Robinson Says:

“If simplicity and composition are taken to be opposites and to encompass all possibilities, then a rejection of one would entail an endorsement of the other. To the degree that a thing is unified it is simple and to the degree that it is not unified is the degree to which it is composite. We wish to pick out a notion of simplicity that doesn’t work this way by seprating off unity from simlicity so understood. A plurality is not opposed to unity, only if unity is understood as a complete lack of plurality and plurality entails composition. But we don’t think it does in either case. One of our reasons for thinking so is that in God, the plurality of persons does not compromise divine unity or amount to ‘parts’.”

I take it from this answer that you don’t oppose divine simplicity, per se. Rather, you oppose certain models of divine simplicity.

I also notice that your disagreement with the statement which Neo quoted from Helm (summarizing Calvin) seems to be a rather selective disagreement rather than a wholesale disagreement.

“What Neo seems to be getting at is that to speak of different attributions or predications is a way of speaking for something that is otherwise unified in a way that excludes either all distinctions in itself or all distinctions except for those of a definitional or formal nature.”

Neo seized on a particular statement by Helm. Does this objection follow from the actual wording of the statement he quoted? Does it even follow from Helm’s additional exposition, in the article I cited?

“Either way via act there will be no difference in so far as the thing is in the things that are attributed. They are the same. If that is true to say that the divine nature is not reducible to any one attribution is true but somewhat misleading since the difference is in our way of speaking and not in the object. If God’s decisions and actions are not reducible to sheer will, then are will and intellect in God the same thing? Is the divine essence and the divine will the same thing?”

i) The answer would depend, in part, one how divine simplicity is explicated. Neo seems to be attacking a very specific model of divine simplicity. But the passage he quoted lacks the specific features that you and he are objecting to.

I have yet to see in the combox here an exposition of Calvin’s doctrine of divine simplicity which would give rise to these objections, and further underwrite the claim that Calvin was a voluntarist. What I see, rather, is a bare conclusion in which all of the key steps of the argument leading up to that conclusion are missing.

ii) Even if, for the sake of argument, we stipulate the absence of “real” distinctions in the Godhead, that doesn’t get you to voluntarism. For that model of divine simplicity doesn’t select for one particular attribute as the defining attribute of the Godhead. Equating all the attributes is not the same thing as singling out one attribute in particular (e.g. the divine will) as the overriding principle. Divine simplicity doesn’t isolate one particular attribute, then subsume all other attributes to that one particular attribute. There’s no directionality to divine simplicity. It doesn’t privilege God’s will over God’s justice or God’s mercy or God’s omniscience or God’s omnipotence, &c. It doesn’t prioritize the will of God as the dominant principle.

What’s actually going one here seems to be the use of “voluntarism” as a pretext or stalking horse to target the real quarry–which is a particular version of divine simplicity. And if you can connect the two, you can also transfer the odium of theological voluntarism to divine simplicity.

“Here I am not asking how we must speak but of what in fact is the case. If they are the same thing then modal problems seem to appear rather quickly. If we retreat to talk of the necessity of the divine essence relative to itself as a terminus as distinguished from the “things on the way” to that terminus which are conditional we have made two useless mistakes. First, we have gone back to the way of speaking and not to the reality itself. Second, if the routes to the terminus are not the same act as the self subsisting act and are God, then we have compromised the proposed simplicity with two acts. If they are the same act, then the modal problem arises again with a necessary world and panentheism looms large.”

Right now I’m not here to either defend or oppose Calvin. At this stage of the discussion an evaluation of his position would be quite premature. We can’t begin to properly evaluate a position until we accurately state what that position is. Thus far I haven’t see anything resembling a detailed exposition of Calvin’s position on voluntarism–much less his position on divine simplicity, even assuming the two are internally related.

From what I’ve read, Calvin’s position on the divine will is highly qualified. In the discussion, thus far, I don’t see that any allowance has been made for his qualifications.

“You ask if God exists a se. Well this would presuppose adherence to a notion of existence or rather being to which we do not subscribe. We do not take God to be self subsisting being. So we deny that God exists as se, but without the consequence your questions imply for they suppose that God fids his place somewhere on a spectrum of being or as either of its terminal points. On our view the entire spectrum, even with its ‘zero’ and maximal points are not applicable to God ad intra in the first place. This is what it means in part to say that God is beyond being.”

That depends on whether you’re going to invest terms like “being” and “existence” with a very specialized conceptual meaning. In and of themselves, these are very generic terms.

To say that God “exists” doesn’t range God along a continuum of existence, as if there are degrees of being, and God simply has more of that property than a creature. It’s not drawing a quantitative distinction–a difference or degree rather than kind.

i) Rather, it’s a distinction between something and nothing. Entities or nonentities. Existents or nonexistents. Is there a God?

ii) The terminology isn’t meant to carry much specific metaphysical baggage. In common discourse, a “being” often functions as nothing more a grammatical object or verbal placeholder–like any noun or pronoun. A referring term, like “something” or “someone.” We can’t talk about something without naming it. And there are times when we prefer the most generic terminology available to avoid prejudging the nature of the referent. Or because it isn’t relevant to what we want to say at that point to use a more specific descriptor.

iii) We prefer to call God a “being” rather than a “thing,” someone rather than something, because “thing” language carries the connotation of an inanimate object.


Your primary objection seems to be that Calvin’s repudiation of voluntarism is in tension with his commitment to divine simplicity. That’s possible. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that his overall position is subtly inconsistent on this point, there is, of course, more than on direction in which the inconsistency could be relieved.

“If I thought that something and nothing were the two ends of the spectrum that encompassed all possibilities, I might agree with you, but I don’t.”

Why do we have to view something and nothing as two ends of the spectrum? Doesn’t that statement imply a chain-of-being, with degrees of being? But how does asserting that God “exists” commit one to such a model?

I myself think that there are different modes of being, but not different degrees of being.

“Moreover, it is by this underlying idea that Reformed arguments form foreknowledge to foreordination move since willing and knowing in God are the same.”

Divine simplicity is one way to make that move. But there is, as you know, another way to make an equivalent move. If God knows x, then x cannot be otherwise. While that is not the same thing as metaphysical determinism, yet–at an epistemic level–x is a determinate object of knowledge. So epistemology has the same cash value as ontology at this juncture. That, however, holds true whether or not divine simplicity (or some particular version therefore) is true or false.

“‘Something’ is not some general category to which God is subsumed as a member.”

Unless you define God in terms of absolute alterity with respect to the created order, then God and creatures do share certain things in common–in which case membership in a general category would not be inherently objectionable.

This doesn’t mean, however, that God and creatures are both property-instances of some abstract universal which subsists over and above both of them. Rather, they would share certain things in common because God is the exemplar of certain properties which the creature exemplifies.

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