Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coercing God

This will be a running commentary on a lecture (“What’s Wrong with Calvinism?”) Jerry Walls gave at Houston Baptist U, available on YouTube. This has gotten lots of high-fives in Arminian circles.

Before commenting on the specifics, I’ll make a general observation.  Jerry talks down to his audience. It’s like he’s teaching little kids in Sunday School. At one point he even feels the need to explain a common idiom (“bite the bullet”), as if his audience lacks a command of conversational English.

Throughout the lectures, he assumes a tone of calculated shock. There’s a steady build-up to the shocking revelations about the true character of Calvinism. For a Calvinist like me, it’s unintentionally comical to listen to him unveil Calvinism in incredulous, scandalized tones.

Jerry says the deepest issue distinguishing Calvinism from Wesleyan Arminianism is not nature of freedom. However, that’s critical to understanding the deepest issue.


He quotes a phrase from the Westminster Confession:  “Determining them, most freely.”

He admits this is coherent, given a compatibilist or soft determinist definition of freedom, which he proceeds to define thusly:

There is no logical inconsistency between freedom and determinism. Freedom and responsibility are compatible with total determinism.

A free act is not caused or compelled by anything external to the agent who performs it. The agent isn’t forced to act against his will

It is, however, caused by something internal to the agent, namely, a psychological state of affairs such as a belief, desire or some combination of these two.

The agent performing the act could have done differently if he had wanted to. Freedom defines in counterfactual conditional terms.

The agent is determined to act given psychological states. Those states are caused by something external. But once you’ve got those, you act freely.

He says this is the definition of philosophically sophisticated Calvinists like John Feinberg.

i) To his credit, Jerry concedes the internal consistency of Calvinism at this juncture. I’ve read Arminians who don’t even attempt to understand Calvinism on its own terms.

Admittedly, this is a throwaway concession on his part, for he’s still going to lower the boom on Calvinism later on.

ii) That said, when you interpret a phrase from a 17C document (e.g. the WCF), you need to define the phrase in terms of 17C theological usage. What did “freedom” mean to the Westminster Divines?

I don’t see that Jerry has investigated the historic usage of the Confession. He just gives us a generic definition of compatibilism.

iii) In addition, his definition is problematic. Compatibilism, as he defines it, is not the only deterministic theory of free agency. There’s a lot of work being done in action theory. So Jerry’s definition is simplistic and dated.

iv) Moreover, Calvinism is not committed to any particular theory of the will. It’s not so much a question of what action theory Calvinism espouses, but what action theory Calvinism opposes. Calvinism opposes any theory of the will that runs contrary to absolute predestination, meticulous providence, spiritual inability, monergistic regeneration, divine hardening, plenary verbal inspiration, and so on.

But as long as a theory of the will is consistent with various Reformed doctrines, Calvinism doesn’t select for any particular theory of the will.

He then says this definition has a “huge implication” that “can’t be overstated.”  He highlights this implication by quoting a statement by Paul Helm:

If we suppose some form of compatibilism, then God could have created men and women who freely (in a sense compatible with determinism) did only what was morally right.

This, in turn, sets the stage for what Walls is pleased to brand the “Calvinist conundrum”:

1. God truly loves all persons.

2. Truly to love someone is to desire their well being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you can.

3. The well being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.

4. God could determine all persons freely to accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.

5. Therefore, all will be saved.

Jerry admits that some Calvinists escape the conundrum by denying premise #1. They deny that God loves everyone.

Jerry says that’s consistent Calvinism. They embraced the “huge” implication “without flinching.” Mind you, he thinks that Calvinists who sidestep the conundrum achieve consistency at an exorbitant price.

Jerry quotes Arthur Pink, McGregor Wright, and John Piper as representatives of this option.

Actually, he quotes Wright as saying: “God never had the slightest intention of saving everyone.”

i) That, however, isn’t equivalent to denying that God loves everyone. Although that’s consistent with such a denial, God might, in principle, love everyone, yet have no intention of saving everyone.

ii) Be that as it may, the quote is more problematic for Arminianism. The Arminian God never had the slightest intention of saving those he foresaw were doomed to hell if he made them. So Jerry’s example circles back and bites his own position in the tail.

There are also problems with his appeal to John Piper:

i) For one thing, Piper is a well-known exponent of the “two-wills” view of God. So it’s not clear that Piper denies premise #1.

ii) After quoting Piper’s statement that God would be just to damn his own sons, Jerry says that “maybe Piper loves sons better than God.”

Jerry says this as if it’s self-evidently outrageous to imagine that a parent might love his own child more than God loves his child. But what’s surprising or incongruous about that possibility?

a) To begin with, some mothers and fathers are blinded by parental love. They take a “my child right or wrong” approach. No matter what their child does to anyone else, they always side with their child. But although that may be psychologically understandable, that’s not ethically admirable. They so completely identify with their own kids that they ditch elementary moral standards where their own kids are concerned.

b) In addition, Arminianism traditionally affirms everlasting punishment. So does God love the damned less than their parents? Would parents damn their children?

Jerry says that according to Calvinism, the vast majority is destined for damnation. He doesn’t cite any Reformed creed to that effect.

Having outlined consistent Calvinism, Jerry surveys inconsistent Calvinists who “waffle” on the alleged conundrum.

He singles out J. I. Packer. Packer says human beings are divinely controlled, yet morally responsible agents. Packer says that’s a mystery.

Jerry attacks that position. He objects to Calvinists like Packer who “punt to mystery” under the “guise of superior piety.”

Jerry distinguishes real from apparent contradictions, explicit from implicit contradictions, and offers his own definitions of mystery and paradox.

Now, I myself am one of those Calvinists who denies premise #1. So the alleged conundrum doesn’t apply to me.

However, there are Calvinists who think the Bible teaches both reprobation and God’s universal love or universal salvific desire. Although I don’t agree with that position, if a Christian genuinely believes the Bible teaches both, then it’s proper and pious for him to invoke divine mystery or paradox. They defer to the authority of Scripture, as they understand it. That is a mark of superior piety, compared to Jerry’s position. 

In the same vein, Jerry attacks Packer’s claim that the Gospel is “freely offered. God gives all free agency (voluntary decision-making power), so that we are answerable to him for what we do.”

He considers that to be “confused.” But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Packer’s position is confused? Unlike John Feinberg or Paul Helm, whom Jerry previously cited as examples of “philosophically sophisticated” Calvinists, Packer is not a Reformed philosopher or philosophical theologian. Packer is a systematic theologian with a predilection for historical theology–especially the Puritans. If Packer’s position is incoherent, that may simply mean he lacks the philosophical aptitude and training to formulate a logically consistent position. He has his limitations. He’s better at systematic theology and pastoral theology than philosophical theology. Big deal.

Having mentioned the offer in the gospel in reference to Packer, Jerry segues into a segment on “Core Calvinism”

1. Only the elect can actually accept the offer of salvation

2. Not all are elect

3. Not all persons can actually accept the offer of salvation and be saved.

He raises the stock Arminian objection that the offer of the gospel is insincere or dishonest unless every sinner could “really” could respond or “actually” accept the offer.

He ignores standard Reformed rejoinders:

i) A bona fide offer is a true offer. Since the offer is conditional (“If you believe, you will be saved”), the veracity of the offer is not contingent on whether a would-be respondent is able to respond, but whether he would receive what the offer promises in case he responded.

ii) Assuming the classic Arminian doctrine of divine foreknowledge, God foreknows that everyone to whom the offer is made will not respond. So does that make the offer disingenous?

iii) God doesn’t offer the gospel directly, but indirectly, through preachers and evangelists who, in the nature of the case, don’t know the disposition of the sinner.

iv) In addition, Jerry’s description of the “universal” offer is equivocal. The offer of the gospel isn’t universal in the sense of offering the gospel to all, for the gospel isn’t offered to every human being who ever lived.

Of course, Jerry subscribes to postmortem evangelism. But that’s not how the offer of the gospel is framed in the NT.

Jerry then discusses “Ambiguous Calvinism,” by which he means Calvinists who allegedly “slide back and forth between a libertarian view of human responsibility and a compatibilist view of divine sovereignty.

In that connection he quotes a statement by Calvin (Institutes, 3.24.8) about how rejecting the offer of the gospel aggravates the guilt of the sinner. However, Jerry fails to explain how that’s ambiguous.

And, in fact, we have examples in Scripture where OT prophets are told ahead of time that their warnings will fall on deaf ears. In that event, the warning is not intended to convert the sinner. The effect would be to aggravate his guilt.

Jerry then discusses Calvin’s position in relation to backsliders and the “dreaded false hope.” However, the notion that a professing believer can entertain false assurance of salvation is hardly unique to Calvinism. In most theological traditions it is possible for professing believer to be self-deluded.

From there, Jerry shift to “Misleading Calvinism.” He says Calvinists who tell unbelievers that God loves them are dishonest. He singles out D. A. Carson, who distinguishes between different senses of divine “love”:

1. Providential love, viz. rain falls on just and unjust (common grace).

2. Whosoever will, may come

3. Effective selective love towards elect.

I myself don’t think it’s necessary to tell unbelievers generally that God loves them. However, there’s nothing dishonest about distinguishing between differing degrees of “love.” We don’t love strangers or enemies as much as we love our spouse, or mother, or son or daughter.

Jerry exclaims: “Isn’t that the gospel, for crying out loud? Christ died for the world.

i) That objection assumes an Arminian definition of the “world.” But in Johannine usage, the “world” is not synonymous with “everyone.” Indeed, the “world” is often set in contrast to Christians. Exclusive rather than inclusive.

ii) Moreover, did Jesus give his life for pagans who lived and died before the advent of Christ? What does that mean, exactly?

God called Abraham out of paganism, but he left the rest of Abrahams countrymen in darkness. God made a covenant with Abraham and his posterity. Eventually that would redound to the benefit of future gentiles.  But most gentiles were consigned to ignorance, idolatry, and superstition. 

At one point Jerry says that if a Reformed preacher explained to the unbeliever what he really meant, if he told him that, “for all you know you may be damned for all eternity,” the Calvinist resurgence would lose its popularity in two years.

But that’s really an objection to everlasting punishment rather than Calvinism. Wesley believed in hell.

He then asks: “Does God love those he sends to hell unconditionally?”

i) God doesn’t “unconditionally” send anyone to hell. There are no innocents in hell. Everyone there is a sinner.

ii) Speaking for myself, I don’t think God loves the damned.

iii) But we could turn Jerry’s question around: Does God love those he send to hell conditionally”? Eternal punishment isn’t remedial punishment. It’s not for the benefit of the damned.

Jerry then attacks a position he imputes to Calvinism:

God can’t do this because he wouldn’t be fully glorified if he didn’t damn some.

God gets more glory out of determining people to blaspheme, to commit horrendous sins, then punishing them forever.

For his nature to be wholly manifest, God must damn some. He needs eternal evil to be fully God.

But that’s a straw man:

i) God doesn’t “get more glory” by reprobating sinners. God doesn’t need evil to be fully God.

Manifesting his nature is hardly equivalent to “getting glory” for himself or needing evil to be himself. And the manifestation is for the benefit of others, not himself. God hardly needs to manifest his nature to himself.

ii) To my knowledge, Jerry rejects annihilationism. So Jerry believes in eternal evil.

Jerry then says “Calvinists are all about power.” That’s just slander. Jerry is an Arminian bigot. 

Jerry says that Calvinism subordinates Love to will. But that’s just his jaundiced characterization. God loves the elect. God ensures their salvation. That’s far more than the Arminian God does for the lost.

Jerry says “Calvinists favor imagery of God as sovereign, king.”

I don’t know where Jerry comes up with this stuff. Calvinists affirm all of the theological models for God in Scripture.

Jerry makes the odd comment that the first person of the Trinity is called “Father” rather than “Lord.”

i) Of course, Jewish fathers were authority-figures.

ii) Does he think “Lord” is not a proper title for God the Father?

iii) Conversely, the second person of the Trinity is typically called “Lord” rather than “Father.” So where does that leave Jerry’s argument?

He objects to Calvinists who say “Who are you to question God?”

But, of course, Calvinists are simply repeating Paul’s riposte, in Rom 9.

He then says the proper question is “How would a God of perfect love express his sovereignty?”

Well, that’s a good question to turn back on Arminians. The Arminian God is far less loving than he could be. For instance, why doesn’t the Arminian God give advance warning of natural disasters? Advance warning wouldn’t infringe on freewill or destabilize the natural order. Indeed, advance warning would give humans more choices.

Likewise, why does the Arminian God let the powerful abuse the weak? How is that loving to the weak? 

Early in the lecture, Jerry contrasted compatibilism with the libertarian theory, which he tendentiously dubs the “intuitive” or “common sense” theory. He defines libertarian freedom thusly:

A free action is one that is not determined by prior causes or conditions. As he makes the choice, the agent has the power to choose A and the power to choose not-A, and it is up to him how he will choose.

One problem with this definition is that not all freewill theists define libertarian freedom as choosing between alternative possibilities. For instance, William Lane Craig is a prominent freewill theist who rejects that definition of libertarian freedom.

But there’s a bigger problem. Towards the end of the lecture, Jerry says there are some things God can’t want to do. God can’t choose to love or not to love. For God, loving everyone is necessary rather than optional. Jerry also says that he could never strangle his own granddaughter. 

But in that event, Jerry has conceded that God lacks libertarian freedom. Moreover, that humans like Jerry lack libertarian freedom.


  1. "Compatibilism... is not the only deterministic theory of free agency. There’s a lot of work being done in action theory."

    Where can this work be found?

  2. MSC, aside from the fact that 'compatibilism' isn't a theory of free will or moral responsibility—it's a statement of logical or metaphysical compossibility—the elipses obscures the relevant qualification, viz., Jerry Wall's statement of how they are compatible. For starters, he claims the most philosophically competent compatibilist theories are classical compatibilist theories, but this is false. Most contemporary compatibilists reject this construal. In any event, while this is somewhat dated, Michael McKenna's, Compatibilism: State of the Art, will prove helpful:

  3. Note also then Wall's definition is at odds with compatibilist agent causal accounts, where the agent is the cause, not some belief-desire complex.

  4. What's annoying is when Walls (like other critics of Calvinism) refer to the elect as saved and the reprobate damned as if it's already the case that they are saved or damned. As if election is itself salvation. Or non-election/reprobation is itself damnation. Election is UNTO salvation, not salvation itself. Reprobation is UNTO damnation, not damnation itself (regardless of whether one's Calvinism is supralapsarian or infralapsarian [and so believes in preterition and the "passing over" of the non-elect]).

    I suspect Walls understands these distinctions but for some reason isn't careful enough in his discussions to make that clear. I don't know if he's doing it on purpose or not, but by not speaking precisely enough in a way that recognizes the distinction he's 1. giving a false impression of Calvinism for those who aren't familiar with it enough to discern the error, and 2. he's making himself look bad in the eyes of Calvinists who do know the distinction.

    For the former group, it makes Calvinism look really bad and evil in that it appears that God unjustly damns the wicked before they're ever born or able to commit a sin.

    1. When Walls does inaccurately represents Calvinism in these ways, I suspect it's usually an accidental slip of the tongue because he's just being passionate in his critique of Calvinism. But it's precisely because he's a philosopher that he should be that much more careful and precise in his communications.

      Here's an example of him speaking of reprobation as if it were itself damnation.

      He says, "For all I know you may be damned to hell for [or maybe he said "from" instead of "for"] all eternity."

      Regardless of whether he said "for" or "from", but especially if he said "from", he seems to imply that non-election is itself damnation.

      Maybe I'm being overly precise and picking on something picayune and trivial. But he's a philosopher speaking to non-philosophers. He should know to be more careful, precise and accurate.

    2. Here's another example:

      Walls says, "...[T]here's in Calvinism this notion of two different kinds of 'call'. There's the 'effectual call' which is only for those that are saved. And then there's the general call, which goes to everybody."

      He says, the effectual call "is for those that are saved". He should have said the effectual call is for the elect that they would be saved. The elect are not saved until after they have heard the effectual/internal call and responded to it in faith. Before receiving the effectual/internal call, the elect are not yet saved. They are still lost.

    3. Of course, the minority of Calvinists who affirm "eternal justification" might disagree with me on this. I'm open to the concept of eternal justification if understood in a certain way. Otherwise, I avoid the term and the concept because it makes things more confusing to most Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike.

    4. Another example of inaccurate imprecision that gives the wrong impression of Calvinism.

      Walls says, "What if God gives you every material blessing for 70, 80, 90 years and then sends you unto hell unconditionally?"

      In Calvinism, when God sends someone to hell, they are sent there CONDITIONALLY. On the condition of their being sinners guilty of punishment. God doesn't send anyone to hell who is innocent.

    5. Now, when it comes to the question of whether reprobation is conditional or unconditional, I'm personally still confused and not sure what to believe. I've read different commentators on Calvinism say different things. For example, in various blog posts, Steve seems to say that it's conditional (even on supralapsarianism). For example, at this blog:

      I don't understand what "predamnation" is.

    6. I believe I understand "predamnation" now and why some Calvinists believe reprobation is conditional. Here's a link to some quotes I've just collected by various Calvinists who believe reprobation is conditional or unconditional. I'll be adding to the list whenever I find a relevant quote.

  5. BTW, I just found out that Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology is freely available online to read at


    1. Thanks, AP.

      By the way, if you click on here you can get a printer-friendly version of the book, which you can print off as a pdf, etc.

      Also, Berkhof's Summary of Christian Doctrine is available to read online here. As well as to download as a pdf or epub.

    2. Thanks. Summary of Christian Doctrine is one of the best summaries. Now anyone can have it on their ebook reader. :))