Nov 2, 2014

A word on Oliver Crisp's "Deviant Calvinism"

Can a Calvinist believe in a libertarian view of free will? Even just a little bit?
I suppose it depends on what one means by Calvinism. It is usually thought that Calvinism excludes any and all “libertarian” (indeterminist) understanding of free will, and requires instead some sort of universal causal determinism, wherein God providentially determines the outcome of all human choices. At the moment of choice, and given God’s full providential activity, there is one and only one option that the human can possibly choose, that is the one which God has predetermined to occur, and hence it is the one which will occur. Nevertheless, Calvinists are also normally “compatibilists”, which is to say they affirm that this sort of theological determinism is compatible with the moral responsibility of human beings. God determines the outcome of all their choices, but humans remain praiseworthy and/or blameworthy for making them.
Oliver Crisp’s recent book “Deviant Calvinism”, in its third chapter, assumes the well-intended burden of broadening the meaning of the word “Calvinism”, stretching it widely enough to fit views that teach that at least some human free choices are libertarian—that is, indeterminist. On this “deviant” Calvinist view, some human choices would be performed with a libertarian free will, and some (other) choices would instead be determined by God, but the whole thing would be properly called Calvinist, or reformed, thereby “broadening” the scope of reformed theology.
It is doubtful whether Oliver Crisp himself believes this hybrid view, but it is somewhat irrelevant to his stated goal, which is not to show that such a view is true, but rather that it is compatible with Calvinism. That is a much more modest burden to carry.
The answer to that question, however, inevitably depends on which minimal commitments one requires for a view to qualify as “Calvinist”. To that effect, in his discussion, Crisp supposes that a view can be called Calvinist if (and presumably only if) it is compatible with the teachings of the classic confession of reformed theology, the Westminster Confession of Faith. That standard is fine by me (at least on the issue of divine providence, since I would think my being a credo-baptist contra the Westminster Confession doesn’t exclude me, a 5-pointer theological determinist, from being called “Calvinist” over against Arminian views). Oliver Crisp thus endeavors to show that the doctrinal commitments of the Westminster Confession of Faith do not require determinism.
Given that he frames the question in light of an objection by Wesleyan-libertarian philosopher Jerry Walls to the effect that the Westminster Confession at times would demand a libertarian view of free will, it is not clear once again whether Crisp concedes this much (does he or does he not think that some libertarianism is required by the Westminster Confession?) But that question need not detain us. Oliver Crisp’s former PhD supervisor Paul Helm (who incidentally is now my present PhD supervisor, though we haven’t spoken much about Crisp’s contentions) has already written to defend the coherence of the Westminster Confession without the need to affirm any libertarianism. (
And though I might have worded the case a bit differently than Helm, I agree with the thesis that nothing in the Westminster Confession calls for libertarianism as long as one is a coherent compatibilist. (Note: Crisp also might be with us on this point, since he himself begins his chapter with a quote from William Cunningham to the effect that the confession neither precludes nor requires “the doctrine of philosophical necessity”).
But what I want to show here is that far from demanding any amount of libertarianism, the Westminster Confession in fact excludes it altogether. Contrary to Crisp’s modest contentions, I insist that the confession is not doctrinally under-determinative on this matter, and that one cannot consistently affirm the confession together with any amount of libertarianism, even for choices that do not affect salvation, election, and/or predestination in the way Crisp carefully restricts things to preserve a fully Calvinist view of at least salvation. Let me then justify this friendly disagreement.
To that end, the first relevant section of the confession is its classic statement that:
“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
It is here said that God ordains not just some human choices thereby leaving others to be outside of His control, but very much all choices, “whatsoever comes to pass”. Crisp doesn’t dispute this, but says that though God “ordains” all things, it doesn’t follow that He “determines” all things. And so if there were a possible way for God to “ordain” without “determining”, then that would still leave room for this divine ordination to involve some degree of libertarian free will.
To assess whether that is in fact possible, one simply needs to survey the possible options available to a theologian on the issue of divine providence over human free will.
The most straightforward account of divine providential control of human free choices is the Calvinist view of the “not-deviant” kind, involving theological determinism and compatibilism: God determines the outcome of the human free choice, and so there is no question that He ordains it; its outcome is part of God's determinate decree, His ordination of all things.
If a human free choice is libertarian, on the other hand, there are 3 (and only 3) possible views as to which sort of providence God exercises over that free choice. I shall call them the open view, the simple-foreknowledge view, and the middle-knowledge view.
On the open view, God lacks foreknowledge of the outcome of the libertarian free choice. Free will is such that prior to the moment of choice, there is no truth as to what the human will freely choose, and hence God (even in His omniscience), does not (indeed cannot) know what will come to pass. On this view, it goes without saying that the outcome of such a choice is not “ordained” by God. At best God is trying to bring about some outcome; He might be said to influence the free choice one way or another, but there is no proper meaning of the word under which one can say that He “ordains” the outcome. So this view won’t do for a coherent albeit deviant Calvinist.
On the simple-foreknowledge view, God does possess the foreknowledge of what will  be chosen prior to the occurrence of the free choice, but nothing in His providential control is changed from the open view. As others and I have argued elsewhere, God may know in advance what will transpire, but He exercises no more control over free choices than on the open view. Once God foreknows what will be chosen, it is “too late”, logically speaking, for Him to do anything about it: He can no longer prevent the choice from being made, or that would not truly be part of His divine foreknowledge after all, which is absurd per hypothesis. Whether or not simple-foreknowledge has any providential usefulness (which is a somewhat contested question), at the very least when it comes to providence over human free choices, simple foreknowledge affords God no advantage over the open view, and therefore it cannot properly be said that God “ordains” the choice by merely possessing simple-foreknowledge of its outcome.
The final brand of libertarianism available is the middle-knowledge view, that of the so-called “Molinists”. On this view, God not only has foreknowledge of what humans will freely choose in the libertarian sense, He also has a so-called “middle-knowledge” of what they would freely choose in any hypothetical set of circumstances. This is undoubtedly the best hope for a libertarian to rescue a high degree of divine control over human libertarian free choices. Prior to creation, God knows how humans would choose, if He were to place them in certain circumstances. This gives Him the opportunity to decide which envisioned scenario He prefers, before He commits to one of them, and actualizes the proper circumstances, thereby bringing about the ensuing free choices while preserving their indeterminist, libertarian nature.
Leaving wholly aside the question of whether this middle-knowledge view is coherent, I think we can grant that if it is, it succeeds in rescuing at least some meaningful sense of ordination, according to which God would be “ordaining” the outcome, without “determining” it.
So our survey of the options yields the conclusion that if a choice is not determined by God (i.e., if it is a libertarian free choice), for it to be nevertheless ordained by God, it cannot be based on an open view or a simple-foreknowledge view, but rather would have to involve God’s middle-knowledge of the relevant counterfactuals, and in their light, His weakly actualizing the choice in question.
What then prevents the “deviant Calvinist” à la Crisp to affirm exactly that?
Response: -the Westminster Confession.
The Westminster divines did not leave open the question of how God ordains whatsoever comes to pass; they very carefully excluded the simple-foreknowledge and the middle-knowledge views when they added the following qualification, cited by Crisp himself:
“Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.”
This is impressively explicit: God’s foreordination is not made on the basis of simple-foreknowledge (His seeing things as future), nor middle-knowledge (His seeing that which would come to pass upon such conditions).
The two above excerpts of the confession taken together, we see, jointly entail determinism. The first one, teaching that God ordains all things requires libertarians to affirm at the very least middle-knowledge, and the second passage explicitly excludes it. A proponent of the Westminster Confession must therefore, if he is to remain coherent, affirm theological determinism to the exclusion of any libertarian free will.

Accordingly, if the Westminster Confession of faith is the standard by which we measure whether a view qualifies as reformed, we must conclude that the hybrid view contemplated (though likely not believed) by Oliver Crisp is still too deviant to be Calvinist. 


  1. Thanks. This is helpful.

  2. A quick question. Is the concept of libertarian free will (people making undetermined/unpredictable choices) compatible with God having middle knowledge? In other words, if God really has middle knowledge, this seems to imply that people do not in fact have libertarian free will, because by definition their choices would be unpredictable.

    1. Hello John,
      some folks have argued that libertarian free will is incompatible with Middle Knowledge indeed; some have argued it's even incompatible with simple foreknowledge. I personally don't know if these charges are successful (they very well might be, for all I know), I just don't think I (personally) can formulate the argument in such a way that it's costly enough for a libertarian to reject its premises. Whatever version of the charge I come up with, I end up finding ways in which a coherent libertarian could respond, and I run out of defeaters. So I leave the matter untouched, and let other competent philosophers work that one out without me. I like to focus on other important issues of providence and free will, about which I do have strong and somewhat original arguments to offer.

  3. Hmm. I'm no philosopher, but it seems to me if libertarian free will were incompatible with God's middle knowledge (and/or foreknowledge as you say) then it would also be incompatible with his providence... how could God be sovereign if libertarian free will ultimately reduces him to a reactive rather than a proactive being? If I were a libertarian, I think the loss of God's sovereignty would be costly enough to reject my premise, no?

    1. I think that's right. And of course Molinists would deny the big IF, but if libertarian free will were inconsistent with middle knowledge, one would be really hard pressed to explain how God organized the death of Jesus (Acts 4), the selling of Joseph (Gen. 50), the judgment by Assyrians (Isa. 10), and just about anything that happens in this world under God's control, by the hand of humans equipped with free will.

    2. Just read your latest article, and it was another great read. I don't get though how you can read such dense content out loud to an audience and have them grasp it without a rewind button. Anyway, have you come across any Molinist arguments in defense of libertarian free will's compatibility with God's middle knowledge? I haven't, but then again I haven't been looking either. I remember listening to Bill Craig's debate with a Calvinist on Unbelievable last January and remember this same question coming up in my mind. Bill's my favorite apologist, but so far I've only heard him assume (and not argue for) the compatibility of libertarian free will and God's middle knowledge.

  4. My question : can ANYONE believe in libertarian free will?

    1. They can, and they do.
      I just think they shouldn't :-)