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Predestination or Free Will? (Post 12)

Additional knowledge from other fields, such as philosophy, psychology, and sociology, seem to further count against Calvinism’s understanding of our salvation. These are external conceptual problems for the Calvinist hypothesis, and therefore, further reasons to embrace the alternative hypothesis–Arminianism.

Unfortunately, many have not considered these external conceptual problems, based on a misunderstanding of “Sola Scriptura” (Latin for “Scripture alone”). This is the view, articulated during the Reformation, that the Scriptures are the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. The intended meaning is that if Scripture speaks clearly to the issue, it is the final authority. I agree. 

The problem is some take this to mean that no other knowledge is to be considered, even when Scripture does not speak definitely to an issue (as is the case in the predestination/free will discussion). Luther himself, the first of the reformers, spoke of two “books” of God’s revelation: the Scriptures and God’s handiwork–his creation. 

I agree with Luther. By studying the created order we can gain additional knowledge that helps us interpret biblical teaching (as illustrated last week), including truths concerning our salvation (as illustrated in the next few weeks).  

We Live As If Libertarianism Is True

A first external conceptual problem for Calvinism is discovered as we simply reflect on our default assumptions and intuitions about the nature of our freedom. We think and live our lives as if we are free in the Libertarian sense. We have a strong inclination to understand freedom as the ability to choose between two (or more) live options. This intuition is so strong it is the basis of our moral and legal reasoning. 

Therefore, this fact stands as one independent reason to believe we possess libertarian free will. If so, this fact is an external conceptual problem for soft determinism, and with it the Calvinist view of freedom.

An Illustration of our Libertarian Intuitions

Several years ago I was in an automobile accident while sitting at a traffic light. I was the second of three cars waiting for the light to turn green. A man in a pickup truck roared up from behind, didn’t see we were stopped, and plowed into the van behind me. She, in turn, hit me, causing me to slam into the car ahead of me. The impact was so great that all four of our cars were totaled.

When the police officers arrived on the scene and determined what had happened, they did not cite me for a traffic violation. Yes, I was involved in the causal chain leading to the car in front of me being totaled. However, it was obvious that I did not have a choice in the matter. The causal chain simply “passed through” my car. Therefore, I was not held liable for the damage my car caused. I did not bear moral or legal responsibility for the consequences of my car’s actions.

The fact that no one believed I was guilty (morally or legally) highlights the fact that I, the other drivers, and the police officers all assumed a libertarian view of freedom. It was morally and legally irrelevant that the causal chain passed through my car. I would only be guilty if it was discovered I had a choice in the matter–if I could have done otherwise than hit the car in front of me. The only one who had a choice in the matter was the driver of the pickup truck who chose to not be attentive while driving and slammed into the first car. He could have chosen otherwise. Therefore, he was morally and legally guilty.

These same intuitions arise when we consider all other cases of moral praise and blame, as well as legal praise and blame. This includes moral praise and blame we assign to characters in the biblical narrative, such as our assigning moral blame to David for his affair with Bathsheeba (II Samuel 11), in light of our intuition that “he could have done otherwise.”

Implications for Libertarianism and Soft Determinism

This is instructive when comparing the libertarian and soft determinist views of freedom. On the soft determinist view, if I am involved in the causal chain of events, then I am responsible. As discussed here

On the other hand, the libertarian view argues that we are only responsible if we could have chosen to do otherwise, as discussed here. If a causal chain passes through us, but we have no choice in the matter, it is not our choice, and thus we are not morally responsible.

Given that we live our lives each day assuming libertarian free will in assigning moral and legal praise and blame, we have good reason to believe the libertarian understanding of freedom is the correct view. This intuition that libertarian free will is the right view of the nature of our freedom is prima facie evidence that it is the correct view.

Two Objections 

Yet prima facie evidence can be overturned. To do so an alternative view must meet the burden of proof of showing why it is more plausible. So has the burden of proof been met by soft determinists to overturn the prime facie and intuitive superiority of the libertarian view of freedom? Two arguments are offered by soft determinists to meet this burden of proof. 

The Materialists’s Argument

Materialists (those who believe all which exists is matter) argue there is no such thing as a soul or an “agent” (chooser). We are just matter in motion. Yet libertarianism assumes we make choices, as agents. This requires we have a soul. Therefore, they argue libertarianism can’t be right, and we must be soft determinists. It follows, they argue, that we must reject our prime facie and intuitive sense of libertarian freedom in light of materialism.

But it seems clear that we are more than matter. We are a soul that has a body. (I’ve offered arguments for this here.) For these reasons materialism fails, and with it their argument against libertarian free will. The burden of proof has not been met from materialist quarters.

The Calvinist’s Argument

Calvinists argue that Scripture makes clear that we do not have libertarian free will, at least in decisions concerning salvation. The Fall has so deeply affected us that we are not able to make such a choice. Therefore, in the words of the late Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul, “regeneration precedes faith”–we are made alive in Christ first, and only then are we able to overcome the effects of the Fall and place our faith in Christ for our salvation. 

Therefore, the choice of salvation is still “ours” and “free” according to the soft determinist definition, though God has determined our choice, and given us the beliefs and desires to produce that choice, such that the causal chain runs “through” us and is “ours,” though still determined by God. 

I grant this would overturn the prime facie evidence in favor of libertarian free will if the Scriptures were crystal clear (or even significantly clear) on this matter. However, as I argued earlier, the Scriptures alone (the data set) is not sufficiently clear. Texts can be read in either a libertarian or soft determinist way. 

Though it seems to me the preferable reading of these biblical texts is libertarian and thus Arminian (as I’ve argued in light of the internal conceptual problems for Calvinists here and here), there are many who have a high view of Scripture, have also carefully studied these texts, and yet who conclude the Calvinist interpretation is preferrable. The fact of such widespread disagreement over how to interpret the data is why we must consider internal and external conceptual problems in the first place. 

Therefore, to simply reassert one interpretation of the data (“the Bible teaches soft determinism”) is not an argument, much less an adequate one, against the external (and internal) evidence for Libertarian freedom.


In sum, the libertarian view of freedom is the common-sense view that we employ every day. This gives us reason to think it is correct, and the burden of proof is on the alternative view to show it (soft determinism) is more plausible. This burden of proof has not been met. Thus, the fact that we live as libertarians is support for this view of freedom. As such, it counts as one external conceptual problem for Calvinism, which assumes soft determinism.

Next week I’ll raise a second external conceptual problem for Calvinism. Until then, grace and peace.

P.S. If you were following my friend Drew Trotter’s series Loving Your Neighbor by Watching the Oscar Best Picture Nominees, you can read the final post about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood here.

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