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Calvinism, human free will, and divine sovereignty explained

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

In Jerusalem and Athens, Prof H.G. Stoker wrote,

Our self-contained God is the final reference point of everything created. On account of his counsel, creation, control, governance, and providence as well as his interpretation, every fact as well as the plan of the universe is precisely what it is.

This small paragraph, written about 50 years ago, perhaps captures in a very succinct manner that which Calvinists confess about the sovereignty and providential control of God that has been contained in the confessions for centuries at this point in time.

Article 13 of the Belgic Confession, titled The Doctrine of God's Providence, written almost 500 years ago reads:

We believe that this good God, after creating all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement...

Also, chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession, titled Of God’s Eternal Decree, written almost 400 years ago reads,

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.
Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions; yet hath He not decreed any thing because He foresaw it as future, as that which would come to pass, upon such conditions.

The truth contained in these three quotes is profound. It simply states that God via His creative decree and providence controls whatsoever will come to pass in the future.

The Westminster Confession clarifies that God's knowledge of future events does not come from Him "looking through the corridors of time and seeing what will happen", but that it is completely based on His decree. Hence, God's knowledge of the future is not dependent on any principles that lie outside of Himself.

Another way of stating this is to say that God never learns anything new. His knowledge of Himself and what He can accomplish (His natural knowledge) is exhaustive, and His knowledge of creation (His free knowledge), flows from His natural knowledge when He decided to create [note this is a logical, not a temporal distinction], and hence is also exhaustive from the point of creation [1].

There is no equally ultimate principle that stands next to God, or a principle that stands over God that He does not control (e.g. a principle of chance), or from which He must draw His own definition that can compromise His knowledge or His plan for creation. There are no rogue molecules. Perhaps Cornelius Van Til states it best when he writes:

[We may never subvert] the clear teaching of Scripture on the all-controlling if ultimate and mysterious power of God. The moment a Christian theologian admits that anything happens in the whole course of history, whether by devil, or man, or power of nature, without the will of God, that moment the foundations of a Christian theology are shaken. For to admit that anything happens outside the will of God is to admit the pagan notion of chance. God by his plan controls whatsoever comes to pass.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology.

Once we allow the existence of rogue molecules (anything that is not under the control of God, that exists, happens, and finds its meaning apart from God), Van Til says, we are shaking the foundations of our Christianity. The reason for this is that it severely compromises our doctrine of God by bringing Him down to the level of a creature, making Him dependent on a greater context that encapsulates both Himself and His creatures. Reality becomes ultimately mysterious to both God and man. God no longer governs history but is forced to react to it.

A problem?

Once this truth is made explicit, it won't take long for questions to arise with regard to its effect on the meaning and value of human choices, knowledge, and responsibility. If it is the case that God controls whatsoever comes to pass, doesn't that make us robots, puppets, or marionettes [2]? It would seem to be the case. If God has determined at the point of creation exactly what my life will look like, I really don't have a say in the matter: I must be doomed to live out the predetermined path with no hope to change my destiny.

Perhaps a more concerning implication seems to be that this doctrine of God's creation and providential control makes Him the author of evil and sin [3]!

When Adam and Eve sinned, they really didn't have a choice in the matter. Whenever I sin, that sin has been predetermined in eternity past. Since nothing happens outside of God's will, it must then be the case that my sin is God's will for my life at the time of sin! Hitler's choices during the second world war (perhaps the best illustration of human evil and destruction) really find their origin in God's eternal decree. This seems outrageous. In a recent video released by the South African Theological Seminary, the problem was described as "Calvinism puts God behind the mask of what the devil is doing, and this cannot be because it goes against God's revealed attributes: God is love. But we cannot reconcile love with what we see in evil. So the determinist [Calvinist] is ultimately left to say that God determined rape and the murder of babies".

Lastly, this doctrine seems to have severe implications for human knowledge [4]. Given the truth of Calvinism, whatever we know, we know because we've been pre-determined to know it as such. But, some people believe false things, and if they've been pre-determined to know something that's really false, they can't do anything about it. Does this seem to make God a liar that makes people believe false things? Timothy Fox (of FreeThinkingMinistries) writes, "If all of your thoughts and beliefs have been predetermined for you, how do you know if any of them are actually true? You can’t freely test them or reflect on them".

Van Til asks the question: What are to do with these charges [against the Calvinist]? Are we to tone down the all-determining character of God’s plan in order at least partway meet the critics? Are we to preserve so much of it as is necessary for the idea of order in the universe and then counterbalance it with a measure of indeterminism in order to save face with the defender of human freedom and morality? This is the policy of the Roman Catholic and of the Arminian, but we aren't Romanists or Arminians - we are Calvinists.

Before we discuss these objections, we need to lay down certain principles we must adhere to when providing our answer.

Defining terms

Before we attempt an answer, it will serve us well to first define some of our terms. Notably, we need to define determinism, indeterminism, moral responsibility, determinism, compatibilism, incompatibilism, free will, and libertarianism. The necessity to be clear in the terminology we use has been brought to my attention in Guillaume Bignon's groundbreaking work (and PhD dissertation) titled 'Excusing Sinners and Blaming God' (You can support Apologetics Central and Bignon by purchasing the book using the preceding Amazon Affiliate link). For the below definitions, I will be drawing heavily from this work.

A. Determinism

The view outlined in the introduction of this article when we quoted from the Belgic - and Westminster confession can be taken as our definition of determinism. More accurately, it can be described as theological determinism. Stated in simple terms, theological determinism can be defined as:

God providentially determines everything that comes to pass, including human choices [5].

B. Indeterminism

Indeterminism is basically the negation of determinism. In the context of theological determinism, we can define it as such:

God does not providentially determine everything that comes to pass, [or at least not all human choices].

C. Moral responsibility

A person is morally responsible for a given action if and only if that action is morally significant. An action is morally significant if it involves "good" or "bad", "right" or "wrong". It is morally significant if a person deserves blame or praise for their action. Bad actions deserve blame, whereas good actions deserve praise [6].

D. Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the thesis that determinism is compatible with moral responsibility. This is the Calvinist position.

It means God has granted us the ability to act freely (that is, voluntarily without being coerced into doing something we don't want to do), but not independent from God nor free from our desires, but to act according to our desires and nature. In other words, voluntary choice (to choose to act as we please) is compatible with determinism.

That we act according to our nature and desires is Scriptural (Luke 6:42-45), but we'll get to that later.

E. Incompatibilism

Incompatibilism is the denial of compatibilism. It is the thesis that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility: If human agents are determined, they cannot be blamed for anything that they choose to do.

F. Free will

Someone has free will if they have the power or ability to make morally responsible choices.

Bignon notes that this definition importantly says nothing about the choices being determined or not. Free will does not necessitate indeterminism. Free will can be used by both determinists and indeterminists to refer to what they take to be morally responsible choices and actions [7].

For example, Calvin, in examining the question of free will, says that if we mean by free will that fallen man has the ability to choose what he wants, then of course fallen man has free will [8].

G. Libertarianism (libertarian free will)

Libertarian free will is the ability to make free choices that are not determined by prior conditions. It is the sort of free will that persons must have if incompatibilism is true: it is a free will that is not determinist, and it is the sort of free will that Calvinists must reject.

Libertarianism will be understood to mean that free choices are indeterminist and that indeterminism is necessary for moral responsibility [9]. Libertarians, therefore, when asked what caused the person to choose one action over another, will answer that a free act is when no causal, antecedent, laws of nature, desires, or other factors are sufficient to incline the will decisively to choose one option or another. In other words, within libertarianism, we could acceptably choose to receive Christ apart from a desire to receive Him.

In other words, according to libertarianism, it is necessary for a person to have the categorical ability to do otherwise if they are to be held accountable for their actions. The Calvinist position is that the categorical ability to do otherwise is not necessary for moral responsibility, but the conditional ability is - that is the ability to do otherwise if you wanted to.

Laying the groundwork

The way we go about exploring a possible solution to the apparent dilemma above is of utmost importance. If we have the wrong starting point, the answer we might arrive at will have severe consequences for our doctrine of God and our Christian theology.

The only starting point that will allow us to reach anything that resembles a true answer to the dilemma, is the starting point where we take God's Word as our guiding light on these matters (Psalm 119:105-112). We must start with the frank acceptance of whatever God has revealed in Scripture, even if it seems paradoxical (seemingly contradictory) to us at first glance. The reason for this is simple: God is the sole determiner of possibility and impossibility, not some abstract law of non-contradiction that itself somehow defines God.

Interestingly, it is only the Reformed view that is willing to assert Biblical truth and go about their thinking from there. All other views compromise on this, absolutizes the laws of logic as something independent of God (at least implicitly), and end up reworking the plain readings of Scripture to fit a preconceived view of how the world ought to be. If we do this we ultimately end up compromising the doctrine of God and invariably end up rejecting the Creator-creature distinction (by postulating principles beyond God's control) as discussed in the opening of this article.

A practical example of this in history can be seen in the controversy between John Calvin and Albert Pighius. Pighius was a Dutch Roman Catholic theologian who (just like modern anti-Calvinists) accused Calvin's doctrine of the all-inclusiveness of God's decree that it makes God the author of sin [10]. In response, Calvin clearly stated that the sin of man proceeds from man and that God cannot be considered the author of it (in the sense that God moves His creatures to sin against their will), and, hence, God cannot be blamed for the sin of his creatures. The reason Calvin was able to say this was not based on his "supreme intellect and ability to develop philosophical systems independently of God's Word", but simply because he accepted what he plainly read in Scripture.

Calvin, in his Institutes, makes this plain when he introduces the subject of predestination and the providence of God. He writes:

Once we grasp the idea that God's Word is the only path that allows us to investigate all that we may lawfully know about Him, and is likewise the only light by which we behold all that may lawfully be seen of Him, it will stop us from acting impulsively. For then we will realize that by going beyond the bounds of Scripture we will be straying off into the darkness, and inevitably with every step wander, stumble and trip up. Above all else, let us firmly set this truth before us: to desire a knowledge of predestination beyond what God's word provides is no less mad than to choose to walk over insurmountable rocks or to see in the darkness. Let us not be ashamed, where this topic is concerned, to be ignorant of some things in which a degree of ignorance is more learned than the knowledge itself.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, The predestination and providence of God

So, what does Scripture say? We'll discuss a few verses with the very important caveat that the presented Scriptures are in no way exhaustive of the verses that indicate God's providential control over human choices and, human responsibility for their choices. Thereafter we'll get a bit more philosophical, offering a critique of libertarianism (and incompatibilism), and a vindication of compatibilism.

Luke 22

”But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.

Luke 22:22-23, ESV

These verses are perhaps my favorite when it comes to the current topic. Jesus knew that it is the case that He will be crucified (go as it has been determined), yet the person who betrays Him will be morally responsible for his betrayal. It is also interesting that the disciples did not take offense at Jesus' statement - but rather started questioning each other, trying to figure out who the betrayer is going to be.

Furthermore, the betrayal of Judas is included in many other passages as part of God's decree (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Yet, Judas remains fully responsible for his betrayal of Jesus.

Proverbs 16

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.

Proverbs 16:4-5, ESV

The fascinating part of the Proverbs text is that the two verses appear right next to each other. It affirms that everything was made by God for a purpose, including the wicked. Yet, in the very next verse, the writer affirms that the wicked will not go unpunished.

Later in Proverbs 16:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

Proverbs 16:33, ESV

Isaiah 10

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation [Israel] I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder...
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.

Isaiah 10:5-15, ESV

God uses the Assyrian king as His instrument to punish Israel but thereafter punishes the Assyrian king for his wickedness. Therefore, the Assyrian king remains responsible for his actions, despite being used by God for the specific purpose of punishing Israel.

I Kings 22

But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he [King Ahab] said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.”

I Kings 22:20-22, ESV

God is in charge of seemingly random events. The wicked King Ahab believed he could thwart God's prophecy (which was that he would be killed in combat) by riding into battle in disguise, only to be hit by a "random" arrow that was not intentionally aimed at him.

I Samuel 10

I recently read 1 Samuel 10 in preparation for Sunday school class on the history of Israel, with a focus on the coronation and life of Saul. After Saul was anointed as King of Israel, Samuel gave Saul instructions:

When you depart from me today, you will meet two men by Rachel's tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah, and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has ceased to care about the donkeys and is anxious about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’
Then you shall go on from there farther and come to the oak of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from their hand.
After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying.

I Samuel 10:2-5, ESV

How is it that Samuel (acting as God's prophet) can know where these different groups of people will be, and what they will say even before the events have happened? God has ordained that the events Samuel describes will happen, and therefore, God knows the future as it is based on His creative decree. Moreover, (and this is going beyond the text a bit), the events and people Samuel is describing to Saul happen because the individual people made their own free choices to meet Saul at the described locations, and they freely choose to say the words that Samuel predicted they will say to Saul. They were not coerced to do so.

I Chronicles 10

The last example that is also fascinating to think about relates to the death of Saul. After a hard-pressed fight against the Philistines, Saul realized that he had lost the battle:

Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.

I Chronicles 10:4, ESV

Hence, we learned that Saul, overwhelmed with his defeat decided to take his own life. Yet, a few verses later we read:

So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.

I Chronicles 10:13-14, ESV

Therefore, although Saul killed himself (and freely chose to do so) it is God who put Saul to death in an ultimate sense. Although Saul is responsible for taking his own life, he did not do so apart from the will of God.

God is in control, and we are responsible for our actions

The texts discussed above are only a unique few (and there are many more) where we can see God's control and man's responsibility discussed together. There are many more where God's control is discussed without necessarily talking about human responsibility and vice versa. For a great discussion of God's sovereign control of all events, see Poythress' Chance and the Sovereignty of God.

From Scripture, we must hold to at least two statements or beliefs at the same time:

  1. God providentially controls whatsoever comes to pass (this flows from the texts as well as from the doctrine of God in general). Note, however, that neither the Calvinist nor the non-Calvinist believes that we sin against our will. We can confirm this from personal experience. We sin because we want to (at least in the moment of weakness).

  2. We are responsible for our actions.

We cannot budge on any one of these beliefs as they are in Scripture as clear as day. We have no right to deny the first, nor the second, even if it means that we must accept the seemingly contradictory.

It is the case, however, that non-Calvinists believe (1) and (2) to be outright contradictions, they, therefore, tend to deny (1) to try and save (2). But this is not allowed. God, not us, is the final determiner of possibility and impossibility, and if (1) and (2) are revealed to us in Scripture, we have an obligation to accept it as such even if it means that we must rest with mystery, knowing that for God there is no mystery and contradiction in the matter. It is, therefore, the case that compatibilism (the Calvinist position) is true, and that incompatibilism is false simply based on Scripture. That is our starting point and it will govern the extent to which we can venture in seeking a vindication of the Calvinist position.

How then can we go about attempting to find an answer? We'll first offer an internal critique of the incompatibilist position (in the same way that we'd do an internal critique of unbelieving worldviews). Thereafter, we'll try and expound the work of prolific Calvinists who did some work on this question and showed how the paradox of divine determinism and human freedom can be vindicated by showing how they actually imply each other.

An internal critique of Christian libertarianism (and incompatibilism)

For more detailed critiques, see John Frame, The Doctrine of God; John Hendryx, 11 Reasons to reject libertarian freedom; John Piper & Justin Taylor, A God-Entranced Vision of All Things.

Incompatibilism is the denial of compatibilism. It is the thesis that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility: If human agents are determined, they cannot be blamed for anything that they choose to do.

Incompatibilists are usually libertarians, and we will assume this throughout the article. The libertarian (in contrast with the Calvinist) believes that not all human choices are determined: God is not in complete control of history. If He is in any position of control, it's only as a high-level guide that leaves His creatures to be for at the very least one or more of their decisions. These choices made by men can be in no way determined by God or any principle according to the libertarians.

According to libertarians, God might act as the first cause of the universe in general, but in the sphere of human actions, we are the first cause. We have godlike independence when we make our free choices [11]. In this view, who we are (our character) and our desires may influence our choices, but we always have the power to choose contrary to these influences. Hence, there is a part of human nature that acts completely independently of every other aspect of our being. The human will is, therefore, free from any necessary causation (you don't always choose X because of Y. Sometimes you just choose X), autonomous from any outside determination.

It should be clear why this position will ultimately lead to what is called "open theism". In open theism (as defined by Gregory Boyd), God is omniscient" about "settled" reality (that is the past), but the future God "leaves open" and can only be known by Him as an open "possibility" without specific foreknowledge [12]. Therefore, God must "wait and see" what His creatures will do before He can truly know it. In other words, God might know what is possible for his creatures in different circumstances, but He cannot know what they will actually do in those circumstances.

Although other positions that hold to libertarian free will (like Arminianism and Molinism) reject open theism (attempting to hold that God does actually know the future [but does not determine it]), they are merely inconsistent. It remains for them to demonstrate how God can know the libertarian free choices of man before the choices were actually made (since per definition there can be no determining factors on the choice made [like their God-given character]). Some answers have been offered to this (e.g. God experiences all future and past events simultaneously as the present), however, these solutions still compromise the doctrine of God as we'll discuss later.

Now that we've defined the position and what we believe to be its logical outflow, we can present the critique:

  1. It removes human responsibility.

  2. It does not offer any comfort for those afflicted with suffering.

  3. It compromises on the doctrine of God.

  4. It removes the glory rightfully due to God Himself.

  5. It wants to afford man a type of freedom that not even God has

  6. It is contrary to the Scriptural witness.

1. Libertarianism removes human responsibility

It might seem like a counterintuitive point to make, as the whole point of libertarianism is to "save" human responsibility from the supposed pitfalls of determinism. However, it actually accomplishes the opposite.

There could be no responsible proximate cause (human choices) unless there was also an all-comprehensive remote cause (the determining plan of God).

When the libertarians try to “liberate” themselves from the background of the absolute plan of God, they have to start their moral activity in a perfect blank, they have to continue to act as a moral blank and then have to act in the direction of a moral blank. This follows from the fact that there can be no determining factors on the choices that we make given the libertarian position, as discussed. Nor can subsequent choices be determined by prior choices.

The question before us is exactly how the Libertarian can believe that a choice without a sufficient cause can secure any sort of responsibility. If there are no reasons for ultimately choosing one course of action over another, the only other option left for us is chance. If human choices are undetermined then we would be reduced to a series of expressions that can merely be linked together by chance [13].

And a string of choices made by mere chance cannot offer much of a picture of moral responsibility. Indeed, if a person decided to murder someone "just because", they will most likely not be judged as guilty (as if their actions are the outwork of a morally depraved character), but rather as mentally insane as the unity of the person making the choices is destroyed.

Even if we were to try and "help" the murderer, there is no way for us to know if the murderer would be any less likely to murder in the future, for to try and determine a likelihood of good or bad behaviour is to assert determinism.

John Frame in The Doctrine of God makes a similar point with Hubert the bank robber. If libertarian freedom is needed to prove that Hubert is guilty of robbing the bank, Frame argues, it would have to be shown that Hubert's action is without cause, independent of any divine decree, his own nature, or motive. But this is of course impossible to prove [14].

2. Libertarianism offers no comfort for those afflicted with suffering

Perhaps the most tangible of our critiques is that by removing God's providential control over human choices (or denying compatibilism), libertarians believe that they've effectively gotten God "off the hook" for human evil as He is in no way involved in it. Earlier we referred to a video where the following was mentioned as a slam-dunk against Calvinism: "So the determinist [Calvinist] is ultimately left to say that God determined rape and the murder of babies".

So, what would a world look like where God's providential control is removed? This would be a world where:

  1. Evil exists.

  2. God did not know about specific evils prior to it happening (therefore it happens without any reason).

  3. When it happened, God did not stop it.

  4. Since it had no reason for happening, it is puzzling why God did nothing to stop it.

Take the example of a woman who was assaulted by a man (the example provided by the video). The libertarian's comfort to the woman cannot be that God is in control, that God had a purpose with the attack, and that He works all things for the good of those who love Him. For the libertarian, God is the ultimate gentleman, not intervening in the wills of men even when He sees them committing ultimately purposeless evil. God has no real purpose with the evil of men (and cannot have if libertarianism is true). It must be that God regards the attacker's libertarian freedom as more important than the dignity and safety of the woman being attacked. This is simply not the Biblical picture of God: God does not sit idly by as His creatures run rampant in His creation.

As another example, according to libertarianism, there was no real purpose with the Holocaust (the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II). The libertarian free choices of the men who took away the freedoms and lives of 6+ million other people are more important to preserve than to stop the evil that resulted from their choices. The Calvinist, on the other hand, can look at the evil of the world and know that God is in control, that all things serve His purposes and that God's purposes are good even if we can't comprehend it. Calvinists (and other Biblical Christians) can look to God and rest in Him. The libertarian is stuck with the fear that some principle of chance might come along and wreak havoc in his / her life with God in no way having a purpose in the suffering that might come (how could He, since the choices made ultimately originate from creatures).

The alternative (to God's foreordination) is this: If God wasn't in control of [all] events (the murder of a young girl) because they are contingent [libertarian] free acts... if God is in control then we dare not pray, because you can say "God, don't you also hope that she lives too?"... but then who does God pray to and who do I pray to in order that prayer can actually do something about [evil]?
[Rather], we pray to a God who sovereignly controls everything, so that God is in control of every event, then God can actually do something to prevent evil and preserve life. Now, if I pray that God may preserve life I must pray as Jesus prayed before He went to the cross: "Neverthelss not my will, not my desires [because they may be selfish]... as I may not be concerned for you Kingdom at this moment, but your will be done." That means that we know God can work His will in any way that He wants, and that we're in no postion to tell Him how to do that.
... The sad thing [on the alternative] that you must tell a man that lost a child is that it didn't serve any purpose whatsoever. It couldn't have served any purpose because even God couldn't have prevented it [as it's a libertarian free act]. And, if you live in a universe where not even tragic events can serve a purpose, then you live in an absurd and desparing universe. I really believe on this point that while the Arminian [or libertarian] on the surface appears to give a more loving and comforting doctrine, he in the ends gives us something that is too horrendous to live with. That it's choas and old night* and not God's world after-all, not a place where God calls the shots, but a place where who-knows-what calls the shots.

Greg Bahnsen, Foreordination and responsibility

* Choas and old night: From a poem by John Milton. Chaos rules a realm of confusion on the edges of Hell, with his silent consort, Night, and a troop of unsound courtiers including Chance, Rumour, Tumult, and Discord.

Purposeless suffering is incomparable to purposeful suffering for the greater good. On the contrary, purposelessly losing a baby, purposelessly losing a husband, purposelessly losing a wife is ultimately devastating and a horrendous thought to live with. The soldiers who died at the battle of Somme river in 1916, the soldiers who gave their lives storming the beaches of Normandy in 1941, or the martyrs of the Christian church who were thrown to the lions under the reign of Nero, did not die purposeless deaths.

As a brief caveat (and we'll get into this more later), this is not to say that the Calvinist believes God to be morally responsible for the evil in this world because He has a purpose in evil and suffering. Both the Calvinist and the Arminian believe God to not be morally responsible for the evil actions of His creatures. The discussion at this point lies solely with regard to God's foreordination and purposes.

Admittedly the words in this section might sound harsh on the libertarian, but we must keep in mind that the libertarians use no less harsh words when describing their issues with Calvinism - it is the only way we can try and bring our respective points across. We do believe, however, that most libertarian Christians do rest in God, and do believe that He governs His world according to His will. But this is a happy inconsistency on their part, and in actuality they are closet Calvinists, only being Arminian in theory.

3. Libertarianism compromises the doctrine of God

This idea of the self-limitation of God is quite commonly put forth as a solution to the problem of human responsibility. Yet it is plainly a compromise with the anti-theistic motif. In the first place it would be self-contradictory for God to limit himself. It is of his very essence to be self-determinative. And since he is eternal he cannot be self-determinative at one time and no longer self-determinative at another time. The idea of self-limitation of God sacrifices the self-sufficiency of God. It is the self-sufficiency of God in which our whole hope for any solution to any problem lies. The more you break it down the more you work into the hands of the enemy. And for that reason it is that, so far from establishing freedom for man by reducing this relationship to the plan of God, you are destroying his freedom and therewith the responsibility of man by doing so.

Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics.

God is the self-contained Trinity. To allow the idea of libertarian freedom in creatures is to break down God's self-contained nature, as now there are principles (e.g chance) and events (actualized by the libertarian free creatures) that God did not know, could not know before they actually happened, and cannot control. Therefore, God can rightfully be said to learn from His creatures.

The standard escape usually provided by Arminians is that God experiences all past, present, and future moments simultaneously as the present. Therefore, He can infallibly know the future choices of libertarian free creatures because He experiences those future choices as the present, even though from our perspective those choices have not yet been made.

It is certainly true that God is above time and eternal, however, as Geerhardus Vos argues in Reformed Dogmatics Part 1: Theology Proper, the eternity to which they appeal is simply overthrown by the doctrine of the absolutely free will [libertarian freedom] that is withdrawn from God's decree. If God must expect an increase in His knowledge in any way from things outside Himself, if He must, as it were take up within Himself the influence and knowledge of the temporal, then this destroys His eternity and aseity [16].

4. Libertarianism removes the glory rightfully due to God Himself

God always makes choices according to His holy nature. All members of the Trinity have acted in sinless perfection. God cannot even desire an unholy act, nor can He lie, for He would no longer be God if He did. In fact, His choices are so wrapped up in His nature and essence that He could not do otherwise than act righteously.

If it is the case that the categorical ability to do otherwise (Libertarianism) is required for moral responsibility (incompatibilism), it means that God's actions are not praiseworthy because He could not do otherwise.

However, the Bible is quite clear that God is praiseworthy for His righteous deeds. Most of the Psalms praise God for what He has done and is doing.

Therefore, God deserves praise for actions he could not have otherwise done.

5. Libertarianism wants to afford man a type of freedom that not even God has

This section ended up a bit more beefy than intended and the anticipated objection is not trivial to answer.

An argument can be made that libertarian free will is what Satan or sinful man can only dream of having. It is a will that's completely independent of God that God cannot hope to control (by definition). It's a fallback on an ultimate principle of chance that wipes out the Creator-creature distinction, and truly makes God dependent on the creature. This type of freedom seems to be idolatrous. The contention in this section is that not even God has this type of freedom (mainly because of its incoherent nature, and the Scriptural witness to the contrary).

Following on point (4) above, we know that God is good and that God cannot act contrary to His nature (e.g. God cannot lie, Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, God's actions are determined by His nature. He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

We know that God is free in the sense that He is not constrained by anyone other than Himself (Psalm 115:3), and therefore He is at least free in the compatibilist sense (i.e. has the ability to choose what He wants). We cannot follow the libertarians in saying (if we believe God to have libertarian freedom) that God performs actions apart from and sometimes against His desires - as that is absurd. In all that God does, He seeks to achieve His purposes and goals. His actions are directed by His wise counsel (Ephesians 1:11) [17].

Furthermore, if this sort of freedom were ascribed to God, we would have no reason to expect that God could or would realize His intended aims for creation, for He might, in a thoroughly indeterminist fashion, choose to abandon them at some future point [18].

This does open us up to a possible counter-attack from the libertarian: If God is determined by His nature, in what sense can we regard creation as a free act of God that in no way was necessitated? If we believe that God's actions are determined by His nature, it would seem that we must hold to the necessity of creation, and that is to make creation at least semi-divine (and correlative to God). Moreover, it would mean that God's grace and mercy are no longer free, but that He is necessitated to provide grace and mercy to His creatures (via the cross). This is to collapse the free knowledge of God into God's natural knowledge.

It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 4, Of Creation

According to the confession, God did create because it pleased Hom, not because He was somehow determined to. To the remind reader again of what is meant by God's free knowledge and natural knowledge, Van Til writes that God’s knowledge of himself may be spoken of as necessary knowledge. He himself exists as a necessary being, therefore, His knowledge of himself is necessary in the sense that it is knowledge of himself as a necessarily existing being. And it is because God has this full and extensive knowledge of himself necessarily, and therefore exhaustively, that he also has a comprehensive knowledge of all possibility besides himself.

This possibility itself depends upon God’s plan with respect to it. God is free to create what he pleases. This knowledge that God has of all possibility beyond himself may therefore be called the free knowledge of God [15]. Idealistic philosophy, Van Til continues, does not make this distinction, but believes that God necessarily expressed Himself in creation (which the Reformed outrightly reject).

So, how can we offer an answer to the seeming contradiction we're facing when claiming that God does not have libertarian freedom, yet also claiming that creation was a free act of God that is not determined?

John Frame has a lengthy discussion of the subject in his Doctrine of God on pages 230 - 237. In this, he rejects that God has libertarian freedom (because the concept itself is incoherent). He also remarks that God is in a sense constrained by His nature (He cannot lie) and that God was able to both create and not create. If God was required to create, creation would cease to be a free act and it would be as if God needed creation for His self-expression - which is impossible based on the doctrine of God's aseity and self-contained nature. In the same way, God was not required to show us grace, else we would have been able to claim it from Him (in which case it ceases to be grace).

After these remarks, Frame points us back to the incomprehensibility of God's nature. We cannot ever know the nature of God exhaustively, and what we know of it will always be known as creatures (hence analogically). We must think of God in the way that He has revealed Himself, and His Word does not allow us to teach of any constraining factors on God outside of His own nature. Frame confesses that his answer might not be satisfying as it still leaves us with questions, but he falls back on Romans 11:33 with the apostle Paul, praising God for the depths of His riches and knowledge.

Lastly, we'll take a look at some of Van Til's writing on the subject. Chapter 14 of Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology is titled, 'The Apologetic import of the incomprehensibility of God'. In this chapter, Van Til discusses some of the critiques against predestination and determinism raised by J. Oliver Buswell. Buswell's concerns are identical to our hypothetical challenge of Calvinism collapsing the free act of creation and God's grace into a necessity. Buswell distinguishes between the will of God and the nature of God and maintains that the will of God acts independently of His nature to an extent (which sounds like libertarianism). Buswell writes:

If, on the one hand, the will of God is completely determined by the nature of God, then God is not free in his saving work and God’s redemptive program is not a matter of grace, but a matter of necessity. If, on the other hand, all wisdom, holiness, righteousness, goodness, and truth in the nature of God are completely determined by the will of God, then the moral law in every aspect is a matter of mere power, then God’s redemptive program is purely arbitrary, and there is no ontological reason for the sacrifice of the Son of God. God might just as well have arbitrarily accepted the offering of Cain as the offering of Abel, and God might just as well have arbitrarily decreed redemptive value through the robbery of Barabbas as through the sacrificial death of his Son.

J. Oliver Buswell, What is God?

Van Til finds the basic error of Buswell in the fact that he is seeking the freedom of God's will by contrast to God's nature. God's freedom is God's freedom [19]. What is God apart from His nature? Van Til writes: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. God as the Spirit is the self-contained personal God. His personality is nothing apart from his nature. God is free not in spite of but because of the necessity of his nature. God’s necessary self-existence constitutes his freedom. [20]

Van Til brings us back to Calvin and reminds us of the Creator-creature distinction. God's freedom is God's freedom and is not the same as human freedom. We can't comprehend God's nature and never will, and it is perhaps here where we must rest with mystery as the mystery in this case is better than knowledge.

5. Libertarianism is contrary to Scriptural witness (cont.)

In addition to the sections of Scripture discussed above where we have already attempted to establish the falsity of libertarianism, we will present a few more Scriptures we believe to go against the Libertarian conception from a different angle.

Ephesians 1
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will...

Ephesians 1:11, ESV

Libertarians usually try and escape the implication of the opening of Ephesians by limiting the scope of "all", which is ironic as they tend to complain when Calvinists do the same in different contexts. For example, one Arminian website writes on Ephesians 1:11: "God’s purposive or decretive will does not include all things that happen in the whole scope of nature and history." Feel free to read their reasoning by following the link above - however, Ephesians 1:11 remains clear in what it's saying.

That the Arminians are wrong can be seen from the confession of Nebuchadnezzar when he turned his eyes to heaven after he was made to live like the animals for seven "periods".

... all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and [God] does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

Daniel 4:35, ESV

Matthew 17
So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 17:17-19, ESV

If libertarian free will is a Biblical concept, then the above verses would make little sense. The libertarian holds that a bad tree can produce good fruit against its nature, as the will is completely undetermined from the nature of the tree. In other words, a person with a nature that is completely in rebellion against his / her Creator can actually place their trust in Christ without the need for a new heart (regeneration). As mentioned before, this destroys the unity of the person and goes contrary to the Scriptural teaching that we need to be regenerated (given a new heart) before we can profess faith and bear good fruit (Ezekiel 36).

Romans 8
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39, ESV

Paul's argument completely falls apart in Romans 8 if we insert libertarian free will. If libertarianism is true, then I can separate myself from the love of God (and lose my salvation) if I make an undetermined choice to revoke my trust in God. In his case, God can do everything in His power to save me, but my libertarian freedom can wreck it all in an instant. This means that we should live in constant fear that we might make a choice at any instate to revoke Christ as our savior, and it does not matter if we are a good tree that bears good fruit or a bad tree that bears bad fruit.

No, Romans 8 is clear and extremely comforting. If God has placed His love on us, nothing can separate us from Him. We are eternally secure because He holds us close to Him despite our shortcomings and sanctifies us as we live in communion with Him.

Romans 9
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Romans 9:17-20, ESV

Romans 9 has a famous reputation for being one of the strongest "Calvinistic" verses in Scripture, at least in an explicit form. In this chapter, Paul lays out in the clearest terms the doctrine of election and predestination. Election and predestination flow from God's providential control over history, and hence the two concepts are closely related. What we're most interested in is Paul's teaching that God has mercy on whomever he wills, and hardens whomever he wills. This is to say that Pharaoh could not have done otherwise than rebel against God during the ten plagues documented in Exodus until God has completed His purposes in the plagues. In the same way, our actions are not free in the libertarian sense but have been determined.

What follows is the clearest indicator that Paul is indeed explicating the Calvinist doctrine of God's predestination and providential control. Paul anticipates an objection against his position that sounds eerily similar to some of the objections we introduced at the beginning of this article: "If our actions have been determined, how can we still be morally responsible for them?". Or, as Paul puts it: "[How can God] still find fault (hold us morally responsible), for who can resist His will?"

This again confirms our thesis that the Bible consistently teaches that God has determined the end from the beginning and that we are morally responsible for our actions - even though it remains difficult to understand.

A positive defence of theistic compatibilism

The Reformed confessions indicate the existence of primary (final/ultimate) and secondary (proximate) causes in creation. Indeed, paragraph 3 of the Westminster Confession that we quoted at the beginning of this article states this truth and we mentioned this earlier as well.

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.

WCF, Paragraph 3

Only, it is important to observe that the two causes are not on the same plane. They are not equally ultimate, but one is completely subordinate to another. In every event in the natural world, God has completely accomplished what he willed to accomplish. He is not limited in any way by the forces of nature or by the free actions of his creatures. They act truly, but they truly act only as he has determined they shall act. The correct way, therefore, to express the relation between secondary causes and God, the great First Cause, is to say that God makes use of second causes to accomplish what is in accordance with his eternal purpose [22].

Therefore, God is the primary cause, and our actions are the secondary causes.

Primary (final) causes, secondary (proximate) causes and concursus explained

From here, we will follow Geerhardus Vos in his Reformed Dogmatics: Theology Proper and Van Til's comments on the relevant section in Vos' work.

There is a way (and some have fallen into this trap) to elevate secondary causes to such an extent that they become primary causes (as in Libertarianism). This leaves with at least a semi-deistic view of the universe where God created, and then left the world to be. He is not active in the world (or at least not in all of it), and it manages to run on its own for the most part. The other extreme would be to so negate the reality of secondary causes that everything becomes a primary cause of God. Therefore, there are no forces at work in this universe, but rather, God moves absolutely everything. This is akin to a semi-pantheistic view of the universe (notably, Ursinus [the author of the Heidelberg catehchism] and arguably Calvin apparently held views close to this) [21]. It was Vos and Van Til who brought this error to my attention, as my own thoughts drifted toward the semi-pantheistic view of God's providential control.

Reformed theology navigates between these two extremes by maintaining the primary cause of God in all events, whilst also maintaining the reality of secondary causes at work in the universe as well. Secondary causes work in subordination to God as the primary cause, yet they remain true causes [23]. It is, therefore, not the case that God negates secondary causes in the sense that He is the only cause at work (the popular ridicule being that God pulls the strings and directly creatures His creatures act), nor is it the case that secondary causes are elevated to final causes in the sense that they can bring forth something that is wholly new. And this is proved from Scripture because we must hold that God is the determiner of all things (final cause), yet we are responsible for our actions (secondary causes) as we showed previously.

Another way to state the above is that we must first distinguish between creation and preservation. When we make an object we do not need to exert any continuous activity to keep it from going back to nothingness. This notion we tend to apply to God's creation and thus conceive of creation as such that when it's once there, it is able to stand on its own power [24]. This, however, is deistic. God rather sustains (preserves) every moment of reality after he created it. Nor must we, however, conflate preservation with creation as then we fall back into semi-pantheism. In summary, the objects of creation really exist (are not created anew at each moment), yet depend on God for their continued existence.

At this point, we can introduce the doctrine of concursus. Similar to God's creation and preservation, concursus refers to the workings of the things of creation given their existence. Concursus refers to the simultaneity of divine and human agency in specific actions and events [25]. Just like creation cannot exist (maintain itself) without preservation, second causes cannot work without concursus [26].

That God works in and through secondary causes can be established from Scripture (in addition to the verses supplied already). See (Acts 14:17; Acts 17; Matthew 5:45; Matthew 10:29 Proverbs 21:1).

So again (as in our view of creation and providence) so in our view of concursus, we avoid two extremes of deism and semi-pantheism. Deism maintains that the way creation operates (e.g. laws of nature, libertarian freedom) had its source in God but once existing operate by its own strength. Pantheism sees in the laws of nature only abstractions of the modes of working of the absolute [God (at least as conceived by Hegelians)], such that they become basically divine themselves [27].

So in concursus, we can maintain the Creator-creature distinction: Secondary causes are real and distinct from the Creator, but they don't work independently of God and they can't because of God's absolute and self-contained nature.

God has created powers in the universe (e.g. gravity), and God concurs with them to maintain them just as he sustains creation as a whole. For example, there is something in the earth by which it exercises an attractive power. God has created it there and connected it in a certain way with the matter of the earth. So just as He preserves the matter of the earth, so he co-works (concursus) with that power joined to the matter so that it endures. It is, therefore, not God in the literal sense that attracts the earth, but the earth itself by the concursus of God [28].

Now, the way God concurs with these secondary causes is not by way of some physical or metaphysical power as that would imply that the relationship between the final and secondary causes is mechanical. Rather, the way God affects His concurrence is by an act of the will [29], (in the same way He created the world). If we believe God works in secondary causes by way of some metaphysical power, we're again open to semi-pantheism. The workings of this world (e.g. gravity) are not of God in the direct/proper sense, but it is a genuine power of this world that is at every moment dependent on the will of God.

These powers or laws (e.g. gravity) are not to be conflated with God's preservation of creation, for that would mean that if God wanted to work a miracle, He would need to "destroy" creation in order to bring forth something that is contrary to the thing created. Therefore, although these powers at work are in harmony with creation, they are not identical to it. This is why God can make something float on water (recall the axehead in the book of Judges) without needing to destroy the matter (reality) of the thing (axehead) floating by replacing it with something else that has different physical properties. Vos explains: "What we call the laws and powers of nature is a reality, a propensity placed in things by God to act and also act in this way and not otherwise. The wills and powers are made suitable to the matter to which they belong, however, we may not think of these powers as being inseparably bound to the matter, as then it would be impossible to change natural law without destroying the substance to which it attaches. By His omnipotent will God can join to the same substance new and different powers than were previously proper to it." [30]

Lastly, concursus is not a partial act. It is not that God and creatures share the activity involved, but rather that the same act is at the same time entirely an act of God and entirely an act of the creature. There is nothing in the act that does not depend on God's eternal will and is not determined by His will. Then, at the same time, it is an act of the creature as by the creature and its centre the will of God causes the act to occur and be manifested in reality [31]. It is here where the Creator-creature distinction helps us again: Just like the infinity of space does not limit or contain the infinity of God but is rather borne by the infinity of God, so the activity is second causes is not the activity of God in the proper sense but is borne by the activity of God without limiting the activity of God. God can do everything, and the creature can do everything at the same time since the spheres of doing are different and need not exclude each other [32].

The providence of God, therefore, extends over all things great and small, at every turn, in every sphere. God is related to finite creation but related in such a way that the finite is not negated through this relation, but realized through it.

Now, how exactly all this works we do not know We can only assert this to be true on the authority of Scripture, and knowing that it must be so by the impossibility of the contrary. As Charles Hodge writes: "It is very evident that since we are able to comprehend neither God’s essential being nor his mode of existence superior to the limits of either time or space, nor the nature of his agency in creating, upholding in being, or in governing his creatures, we cannot by any central principle or a priori mode of reasoning think out a perfect theory of his relation to the universe. We can only state severally the separate facts as we know them, leaving their completer elucidation and reconciliation to the future."

All this is to say and greatly emphasize that according to Reformed theology, it is not the case that human beings are robots or marionettes. Nor is it the case that God moves His creatures to do anything against their wills, but rather works in concursus with their wills.

Two examples of concursus in Scripture can be explicitly seen in Saul's death, the selling into slavery of Joseph, and the afflictions that befell Job.

The death of Saul

Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.

I Chronicles 10:4, ESV

So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.

I Chronicles 10:13-14, ESV

Unless we want to say there's a real contradiction in Scripture (which is impossible), we must say that God was the final cause of Saul's death and that Saul was the secondary cause of his death. It is equally true that Saul's death was fully an act of God and fully an act of Saul.

The slavery of Joseph

The life of Joseph is probably one of the most popular documented history known to us. Joseph was a child that was sold into slavery by the hatred of his brothers, yet became ruler over all of Egpyt next to the Pharoah. We all know how the events in Joseph's life transpired so we need not recount the history here, but of special interest is Joseph's own view of the events. After he reveals his identity to his brother, he says the following:

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.

Genesis 45:4;-5, ESV

And later,

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

Genesis 45:4;-5, ESV

So even here we can see concursus at work. The evil act of Joseph's brothers who sold them into slavery is truly their act, and they are guilty of what they did. Yet, in this same act, there is the co-working of God who brings about good from the evil act. Therefore, guilt truly and rightfully belongs to the brothers for what they did, for they acted on their sinful nature, yet they could not act were it not for concursus. The act was at the same time a sinful act of Joseph's brothers, but also an act God as God had good purposes for sending Joseph into Egypt.

We can see this almost in all aspects of Joseph's story. For example, Potiphar's wife, acting on her sinful desires, wanted to seduce Joseph. Yet, this was also the act God used to send Joseph into prison where he would meet the baker and the cupbearer, who in turn would lead him straight into the palace of the Pharoah.

The afflictions of Job

As the last example, the story of Job gets the attention of an entire book in the Bible. Job was an upright man who was struck with numerous afflictions we would not wish on our worst enemies. Unlike other evil events in the Bible, we get some insights into how Job's afflictions came to be. Satan believed that Job was merely a faithful servant because he was materially blessed by God, he, therefore, approached the throne of God, seeking to strike Job to test his faith. God agreed. We then read how Job lost all his possessions, his wife and children, and was personally struck with severe illness. After all this, we read of Job's confession:

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21, ESV

Whether Job knew about Satan's challenge is not important. That Job's confession is true, is certainly the case.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31, ESV

So again we see concursus. The affliction that Job had to endure is surely the work of Satan, yet it is also the case that "The Lord as taken away". Again unless we want to contradict ourselves or equate God with Satan, we must make the distinction between primary and secondary causes.

The conditional ability to do otherwise

Whereas libertarians hold that man has the categorical ability to do otherwise, Calvinists hold that man has the conditional ability to do otherwise (i.e man could do otherwise than he does if he wants to). That is to say, that we act in accordance with our nature and will. We sin because we want to. No one was ever coerced (or manipulated) into sinning against their will.

Indeed, in his lecture series "Philosophy of Christianity" Greg Bahnsen has a few lectures on God's providence and foreordination. In these lectures, he mentions what we have described as different planes of working for God and man. If we want to make someone do something with absolute certainty, the only way for us to do so is via coercion or manipulation (which will then remove the moral responsibility of the person we coerced). This is not the case for God. God can move His creatures in ways that do not involve coercion, and that maintain the moral responsibility of the creatures. Again, we cannot exhaustively explain how this is possible, nor do we need to. We cannot explain How God created ex nihilo, nor can we explain how He parted the Red Sea. We accept that He did on the authority of what Scripture says.

A possible response against this is the Scripture warns people many times to not do things they apparently can't help but do given that by nature they cannot please God. However, the command to do something or not do something does not imply the categorical ability to do so. That's a presupposition brought to the text. Sometimes the command to do something that we can't is given precisely that we can realize just that - we are incapable if left to our own devices as we don't want to (i.e. we have the conditional ability). We need a new heart!

Concursus and the vindication of the paradox of divine providence and human responsibility

In this section, we will be taking a look at Bosserman's small chapter on compatibilism in his Trinity and Vindication of Christian Paradox, and bring it into relation with concursus as we described it above drawing from Vos and Van Til.

The main obstruction, according to Bosserman, that usually prevents us from viewing divine providence and human freedom as implying each other rather than contradicting each other, is that it is usually presumed that the sort of causation between man and natural objects (e.g. you and your phone) is the only acceptable model for how God directs His creation (e.g. you can only pick up your phone by exercising a direct force on it). This is the same point that Bahnsen mentioned when we discussed coercion above.

Knowing from Scripture that nature was created as a context for man to operate in and for man to master. That is to say, we cannot reduce the way man moves himself to the way he moves nature around him, as that would fail to recognize the fact that we must master and rule over creation. Unlike the sun that acts upon plants to make them grow, man moves himself in a certain sense and does not need not to be acted upon in a mechanistic fashion to do something. Human actions and choices proceed from within as the author of those choices and actions.

In a creative fashion that is foreign to natural processes, man is able to form visions for how to manipulate the world around him that advance beyond any direct instruction from nature itself, or the mere sum of the information already within him. The products of human reasoning are metaphorically described as “conceptions,” which, like human offspring, are significantly like and unlike the parents who gave birth to them [33].

Behold, the wicked man travails with evil; he conceives trouble and births falsehood.

Psalm 7:14, ESV

In order to explain how this is possible, Bosserman envisions three components at work in the process of human volition.

  1. The ability to generate multiple courses of action in response to man's environment.

  2. The ability to actively reason over the different courses of action and select one. Instead, he is able to actively advocate for any number of the ends before him in such a way that he acts as his own conversation partner (Prov 3:15; 26:12) [34].

  3. A third self or ideal that the previous two must make their aim to realize.

The result of the above three items is a free and self-determined choice.

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:14-15, ESV

Bosserman uses the example of a bachelor that wants to marry. The married man, he writes, as he is represented by the pre-married man in the quarters of his own deliberation, has in certain respect brought forth the choice for marriage from the bachelor.

From the above man knows that he is not the sole cause of his choices, that his choices are not the sole determiners of his character, and that his ideal self is not his own creation. The ideal self does not come from man. If man were originally a simple, faceless individual whose ideal self is but a projection from his original emptiness, or modeled after impersonal nature, he would never be able to engage in the internal conversation from which free creativity flows.

The only sort of person who might function as an archetypal “self,” who imparts to man a vision of an ideal “self” to be pursued, is the self-contained Trinity, whose life is directed by, through, and to persons, and never by impersonal principles.

Therefore, human freedom and divine sovereignty imply one another. Human freedom implies the governance of a foreign power, which is at once person-affirming and yet perfectly efficient in sustaining man as a mysterious unity whose choices follow from, and at the same time realize, a single complex self [35].

There is much more that we can mention with regard to this subject, but for now, we rest, and will be sure to pick up the topic in the future once more. We look forward to having Dr Bosserman discuss this further on our YouTube channel in the future.


[1] God’s free knowledge, on the other hand, is His knowledge of His decree (of that which, in His wisdom, God freely and unchangeably ordained to come to pass). That which God decrees is obviously a subset of all the possibilities that are known to Him. His decree also has its source solely in His mind and will (Ligonier).

[2] Thirdmill. 2022. Q&A: Is Calvinism a robot and puppet theology? [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 January 2022].

[3] The Gospel Coalition. 2022. Calvinism and the Problem of Evil - The Gospel Coalition. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 January 2022].

[4] Free Thinking Ministries. 2022. The Price of Denying Free Will | Free Thinking Ministries. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 January 2022].

[5] Bignon, Guillaume. Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil (Princeton Theological Monograph Series) (p. 5). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid. (p. 7)

[7] Ibid. (p. 8)

[8] Ligonier Ministries. 2022. What Is Free Will? by R.C. Sproul from Chosen by God. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2022].

[9] Bignon, Guillaume. Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil (Princeton Theological Monograph Series) (p. 9). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[10] Van Til, and Eric H. Sigward. 1997. The Articles of Cornelius Van Til. Electronic ed. Labels Army Company: New York.

[11] Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God, (p. 138)

[12] Gregory A. Boyd, "The Open Theism View", in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby, Paul R. Eddy, 14 (InterVarsity, 2001).

[13] Bosserman, B.A. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox. (p. 223)

[14] Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God, (p. 141)

[15] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), (p. 235)

[16] Vos, G., 2014. Reformed Dogmatics; Theology Proper. Lexham Press, (p. 19)

[17] Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God, (p. 233)

[18] Bosserman, B. A., The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 223). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[19] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979), (p. 177)

[20] Ibid. (p. 177)

[21] Vos, G., 2014. Reformed Dogmatics; Theology Proper. Lexham Press, (p. 189)

[22] Primary and Secondary Causes | Monergism. 2022. Primary and Secondary Causes | Monergism. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 08 February 2022].

[23] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, Unpublished Manuscripts of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Divine Providence: Occupying The Mysterious Middle [Part 3] - Reformation 21. 2022. Divine Providence: Occupying The Mysterious Middle [Part 3] - Reformation 21. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 09 February 2022].

[26] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, Unpublished Manuscripts of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Vos, G., 2014. Reformed Dogmatics; Theology Proper. Lexham Press, (p. 191)

[29] Cornelius Van Til and Eric H. Sigward, Unpublished Manuscripts of Cornelius Van Til, Electronic ed. (Labels Army Company: New York, 1997).

[30] Vos, G., 2014. Reformed Dogmatics; Theology Proper. Lexham Press, (p. 191)

[31] Ibid. (p. 192)

[32] Ibid. (p. 192)

[33] Bosserman, B. A.. The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (p. 224). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[34] Ibid. (p. 225)

[35] Ibid. (p. 225)


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