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GOTT-February 14, 2007

Calvinism − A Report (“All’s Quiet”) from the Philosophy Front

As has already been discussed here at GOTT, the September 2006 issue of Christianity Today contains an interesting article by Collin Hansen, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” that discusses how Calvinist theology is growing in popularity within American Protestantism.

This was very interesting to me, because it’s my sense that among Christian philosophers, Calvinism (at least where that means Divine Determinism and aspects of Calvinist theology closely related to that) seems to me not at all popular, even among Calvinists (those who identify with other aspects of Calvinism not so closely related to Divine Determinism)!

Dean Zimmerman, a Christian philosopher who teaches at Rutgers (one of the world’s best philosophy departments), recently sent me a draft of a paper of his which contains in its set-up a very interesting paragraph commenting on this curious situation.  I thought this might be of interest to some GOTT readers, so, with Dean’s permission, and inserting a footnote of Dean’s in brackets at the relevant point in his paragraph, I’m pasting that paragraph here:

Calvinistic theology seems to be growing in popularity, at least among conservative Protestant intellectuals in North America.*  [*A large proportion of American Evangelical churches can trace their roots to Wesley via Pentecostalism or the Holiness Movement — all staunchly Arminian — but anecdotal evidence suggests that many leaders within these churches are attempting to steer their flocks toward Calvinism.  The battles between Calvinistic and Arminian Baptists go back to the earliest days of their movement; but, today, the Baptists’ largest denominations and loudest voices side with Calvin.  For a battlefield report, see Hansen (2006).]   But it is not for everyone.  It will not appeal to Christians who hope to hew closely to orthodoxy within Catholicism, Anglicanism, or the many Protestant theological traditions that come down on the side of Arminius rather than Calvin.  And increased enthusiasm for Calvinism is not detectable within philosophy.  It appears to me that most Christian philosophers — including many who, like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, see themselves as belonging to Calvinist theological traditions — reject Calvin’s teachings on grace and predestination.  Why does Calvinism have much less appeal for Christian philosophers than theologians?  I do not know; but here is an hypothesis:  Most Christian theologians are trained in and continue to teach at Christian colleges and seminaries; whereas most Christian philosophers study and teach in more secular environments.  I suspect that one result of this difference is that the problem of evil, as an obstacle to faith for contemporary people, looms larger for the philosophers.  Libertarian theories of freedom provide a means for explaining the point of a great deal of evil in a way that at least makes sense to our skeptical colleagues and students — even if they reject libertarianism.  In my environment, at any rate, it is hard to make the God of Calvinism seem truly benevolent and worthy of worship.

Posted by Keith DeRose in Theology | Permalink


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very interesting thoughts.

I’m wondering if perhaps it also has to do with the difference between common grace and redemptive grace. Calvinist philosophers play up the common grace (reason/intellect) shared among philosophers and there subject, while Calvinist theologian play up the redemptive grace (predestination) particular to the Gospel.

Another thesis is that those Calvinist theologians that I know of are mostly engaged with a reactionary struggle with other theologies which they see as giving away the gospel (emerging church, pentecostal, etc.). Not to get too suspicious, but I wonder if there is a not a psychological/social aspect to staunt Calvinists?

Posted by: Geoff Holsclaw | February 14, 2007 at 06:44 PM

A fascinating post. I have my own suspicions regarding insitutional environments and the intellectual concerns they foster. Could we accept that truth-seeking Christian intellectuals are so sensitive to their disciplinary environments? I certainly could.

Posted by: Gerardo Marti | February 14, 2007 at 11:33 PM

Interesting observations. It’s true that, the more philosophy I study, the less inclined I am towards Calvinism’s insistence on divine determinism. It’s just far too problematic in the realm of the problem of evil.

Does this mean that Calvinism (inasmuch as it insists on divine determinism) is destined down the path of fundamentalism?

Posted by: Matt Wiebe | February 15, 2007 at 09:48 AM


Thank you for this post. My own background is Southern Baptist (yes the kind that spits & slobbers when we preach). In our faith community, there has been a steady increase in interest and adherence to classic Calvinism since at least the late 70’s. Indeed, during the Conservative Resurgence (CR, 1979-1991), Calvinists were the intellectual gun powder for the thrust of Inerrancy.

Now, however, since the CR has embedded itself deeply in Southern Baptist culture, Calvinists have become more aggressive in going further in the “reform” of the SBC; they see us going back to the 19th Century Calvinism of many of the SBC founders–Boyce, Manly, etc.

Consequently, our Convention now is beginning to show signs that resurgent Calvinism may soon be very prominent. Ironic that philosophical determinism–from what I know, undergirds quite nicely theological determinism–is weakening at the very time Calvinism is making a come back.

Thanks again, Keith. With that, I am…


Posted by: peter | February 15, 2007 at 11:18 AM

This is a very good post, and I think there’s probably something to Geoff’s hypothesis that the reactionary stance of many evangelical theologians is at play in the difference of attitude between theologians and Christian philosophers. As a former student of John Sanders, I unfortunately had to experience the nastiness of those who opposed his open theist position up close and personally. From my experience, almost all the bitterness was coming from the theologians who saw a crucial need to defend the gospel against “heresy.” The philosophers, even those many who fundamantally disagreed with him, were always far more civil, probably deriving from their different understanding of what challenges their Christian work should meet, as Prof. Zimmermann suggests.

Posted by: Nathaniel Wood | February 15, 2007 at 12:34 PM

Interesting post. I’ve wondered the same thing myself given that there are high-profile “Calvinist” philosophers such as Plantinga who defend libertarian accounts of freedom.

In fact, it seems to me that nearly all contemporary Christian (analytic) philosophers defend a libertarian view of free will, whereas most of the great classical theologians (Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin, etc.) defend some form of determinism and/or compatibilism. In addition to the problem of evil motivation already mentioned, I think contemporaries have a lot of trouble with the view articulated by Augustine and Calvin that God could be completely just in condemning you to hell even though it’s not possible that you could’ve done anything different to avoid that fate.

Posted by: Lee | February 15, 2007 at 04:22 PM

There are a number of contemporary analytic philosophers of religion who are compatibilists and/or theological determinists. Lynne Baker and Derk Pereboom come to mind. But I think it is true that the majority tend to be libertarians.

Posted by: Kevin Timpe | February 15, 2007 at 04:38 PM

I usually just lurk around here, but I thought I’d just throw my 2 cents into the mix for consideration… I make no thought quality guarantee!

I wonder what kind of research, if any, has been done with regard to the possible connection between the resurgence of Calvinism and the current political climate? I have heard it mentioned several times (anecdotally) that there may be a link between the post-9/11 nervousness and the rise of American neo-Calvinism. This makes sense to me; I can see why people of faith in uncertain times might tend toward beliefs that appear more “solid”, which often involves adhering to a more rigid theological perspective.

I know this doesn’t relate directly to the article but it seems to me that that many philosophers and theologians, given the nature of their constant queries into the “big questions”, would be less likely than the public at large to rely on rigid religious posturing, even in times of great national stress. Or am I assuming too much?

Posted by: Geoff | February 15, 2007 at 06:35 PM

I don’t know if we “divine determinist” philosphers are quite a dying breed… it may just be a moment of stillness before a fabulous comeback.

Posted by: Baus | February 16, 2007 at 12:16 PM

I hope so, Baus!

Posted by: Paul Robinson | February 16, 2007 at 02:48 PM

Clearly, if we are honest, even the most analytical among us remains immersed in the environment in which our independent thoughts swim, breathe, react and respond. And as has been pointed to, one of the things secular people and institutions bring to our thinking milieu is a critical perspective on the Christian presentation of God; in particular the way certain aspects of determinism associate the Christian image of God with motives and actions that intuitively seem evil to our deepest contemporary sensibilities.

I am convinced it is not only the pressure to come up with satisfactory “answers” for a secular context, but the resonance of secular questions with the buried queries of our own hearts surrounding the question of evil and the nature of God; queries which perhaps were once brushed aside in the apriori sweeping assumptions impacted in a non-critical (culturally, politically and nationalistically influenced) view of “God’s sovereignty.”

Should we question our dissonance with divine determinism because our deepest contemporary sensibilities are influenced by the persistence of secular critique, or should we question the acceptance of a non-critical passive reception of ideas handed down from theologians equally influenced by the social, psychological and political milieus of their day?


As a side note, it is interesting that while divine (redemptive) determnism is fading in secular philosophy, it is increasing in stature within the secular disciplines of science as we discover more about genetics. Perhaps the ancients observed the power of genetic predisposition on both physical attributes and psychological predispositions (including responsiveness to God and/or spiritual experience) and theologized that these day-to-day realities much originate within the context of God’s sovereignty, and therefore be the direct result of divine determination.


Posted by: QuirkyGrace | February 17, 2007 at 04:28 AM

Geoff, neo-Calvinism is a European political theology. It’s not the same thing as the newfound popularity of Calvinism proper among evangelicals in the U.S. I don’t know much about it, but I’ve read enough to know that it isn’t the same thing as Calvinism.

While we’re in the business of naming Calvinists in contemporary philosophy, I have to say that Paul Helm should have been the first person to come to mind. John Feinberg is another. I believe William Wainwright is also a theological determinist. He at least defends Jonathan Edwards on this score. I’m not sure if he endorses Edwards’ views or not. Eleonore Stump isn’t a full Calvinist, but she also denies key claims of libertarianism, and I think several other Thomist-leaning philosophers are in the same category. She certainly wants to identify with the Augustinian and Thomistic philosophical views on the subject (as opposed to the more semi-Pelagian views Aquinas brings out in is biblical interpretation, which I think is at odds with the compatibilism and theological determinism of his philosophical work).

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | February 17, 2007 at 10:08 AM


Stump might deny that one needs alternative possibilities to be free, but she most ademantly accepts the central incompatibilist claim that an agent cannot be determined to act/decide in a particular way by anything outside of the agent and still be free. Given that she thinks it is metaphysically impossible for theological determinism and human freedom to be jointly realized, and the fact that she thinks humans do have free will, I think this clearly makes her a libertarian.

Posted by: Kevin Timpe | February 17, 2007 at 12:27 PM

Right, she holds to a kind of agent causation while denying that freedom consists in the ability to do otherwise. So she holds to one of the two central components of libertarianism and denies the other (and that’s exactly how she presents the view). I don’t think that counts as libertarianism, and she doesn’t herself think her view is the common libertarian view. She does call it modified libertarianism, and she does deny that it’s compatibilism, but it strikes me as only accepting one of the two central theses of libertarianism.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | February 17, 2007 at 01:15 PM

You will find no “determinism” in Calvin (I can’t speak for “Calvinism”) if you read him carefully and charitably (something that can be done without being dishonest.)

Nor will you find it in Barth, who among other things rejected Schleiermacher’s “onmicausality.”

I think Jonathan Edwards can also be read as not entailing determinism, though here I don’t know enough to be completely sure.

For “Calvinism,” I would say those are the Big Three.

What about Turretin and Polanus? My hunch is that they’re too careful to be deterministic.

So what are we talking about? Lesser lights? Popular oversimplifications? Crypto-Pelagian critics? (Sorry about that. I immediately retract the latter epithet.)

Posted by: George Hunsinger | February 17, 2007 at 03:47 PM

if Calvin is not a determinist, then what is he? what sort of a read do you have in mind?

Posted by: Matthew | February 17, 2007 at 04:01 PM


It’s never good idea, I think, to start from pre-determined categories — like “determinism,” “compatiblism” and “libertarianism” — and then to ask which box a theologian like Calvin might fit in.

In effect, he overlaps, negates and transcends them. What can I say? Read the texts.

In any case, Calvin regards the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility (both of which are vigorously affirmed) to be a matter of ineffable and irresolvable mystery. He’s working with a different notion of what counts as “intelligibilty” than we would find in some philosophers.

For Barth, see Ch. 7 in my book “How to Read Karl Barth” (1990). I would state some things differently today, but stand by the basic argument.

Posted by: George Hunsinger | February 17, 2007 at 04:41 PM

I wonder if there might be some disconnect here regardarding what we mean by “divine determinism”? I ask because, given how I use it (a common usage in philosophy), I find it hard to read key parts of Calvin’s INSTITUTES and Edwards’s FREEDOM OF THE WILL without attributing the DD to them (at least so far as those works go), and also because, in the way I’ve learned to use the term, being a divine determinist still leaves open a very wide set of possible views (and lots of room for plenty of mysteries), so divine determinism is no small “box.” Being a divine determinist in this sense doesn’t imply that you deny that humans act freely, that what humans do is often up to them, that humans are often responsible for what they do, that we humans (and perhaps other things too) often cause things to happen, etc. You can be a divine determinist, as I’m using the term, and hold that divine determinism is compatible with any and all of the above, and other things, too. In fact, most divine determinists are compatibilists, with respect to at least most such things. If you hold that God’s decrees predestine everything that happens (and don’t just reflect God’s knowledge of everything that will happen but make it happen–though it’s left open that there may be other causes or “occasions”, too), then you’re a divine determinist. Calvin and Edwards take great pains to argue against those who would say that God merely foreknows everything that will happen. Those are the opponents (whom Edwards calls by the name “Arminians”). No, God doesn’t just foreknow everything that will happen; He… what? It’s hard for me to see how to read the key places where Calvin (at least in the Battles translation) talks of God’s “predestination” without reading that, given what he says around it, as meaning something short of causal determinism. Likewise when Edwards, fighting for more than is given us by the “Arminians” (who already give us God’s comprehensive foreknowledge of absolutely everyting that will happen), insists instead on “an universal determining providence.” They both read (to my philosophical eyes) like classic compatibilists, giving arguments that look like strong arguments (so far as such things go: being a fairly staunch incompatibilist myself, I’m hard to impress here) for the compatibilism of determinism with this and that (blameworthiness, obligation to obey, etc.), but which I just don’t see how to read (what are they arguments for?) if they’re not arguments for such compatibilisms.

In Edwards’s case, much depends on his explication of the type of “necessity” that he insists God’s decrees bestow on all that will happen. It does seem to me that his explication of the relevant sort of “necessity” makes it strong enough for him to count as a divine determinist (plus, given the variety of actual views held by those Edwards labels “Arminians,” I don’t see how he could responsibly oppose them all in one fell swoop without himself upholding something like divine determinism), but rather than getting into the particular passages that motivate me to read him as holding DD, I’ll stop here, since I think it may well be that my use of “divine determinism” in the original post was just underexplained.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | February 17, 2007 at 09:42 PM

If you hold that God’s decrees predestine everything that happens (and don’t just reflect God’s knowledge of everything that will happen but make it happen–though it’s left open that there may be other causes or “occasions”, too), then you’re a divine determinist.

Could such a view be consistent with libertarian freedom where libertarian freedom means that a. there are alternative possibilities for an agent, and b. no event, desire, etc. causally determines an agents free decisions? I have in mind, say, Hugh McCann’s account in “Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will” here. Would such a position be an instance of “divine determinism? On the one hand, it would seem rather odd to call a view which purports to be consistent with libertarian freedom divine determinism. On the other hand, God is the reason, though not a causal explanation, that explains human free decisions.

Of course, you may criticize McCann’s account of libertarian freedom; but as a self-identifying Calvinist, I find it rather persuasive as a defense of a strong view of God’s sovereignty as well as libertarianism.

I know this isn’t Calvin’s or Edwards’ views; but it does seem consistent, at least to me, with their respective views of God’s sovereignty, redemptive plan, etc.

So is this view “divine determinism”?

Posted by: Michael | February 18, 2007 at 08:45 AM

What’s in a name? Perhaps a fair amount.

I don’t like the term “divine determinism,” which I think is peculiarly unfortunate as a description of the sort of position held by Calvin and Edwards (and Barth). “Compatibilism” is perhaps less unfortunate, though it often seems to presuppose “determinism” as one of its given poles.

I would say we’re looking at some sort of totus/totus asymmetrical relation when we’re talking about how to define and interrelate divine sovereignty and human freedom from a broadly Calvinist (not to say biblical) perspective.

Posted by: George Hunsinger | February 18, 2007 at 11:25 AM

One thing to beware of is that some people hear determinism as a view about laws guaranteeing things in the physical world, where miracles as interventions would contradict determinism. Calvin and Edwards may not be determinists in that sense.

Determinism also classically involves efficient causes. Augustine thinks human choice always has a cause, but if it’s free it’s a result of final causes. It’s not causal determinism in terms of efficient causes, but Augustine has God overseeing which final causes operate in human wills at which times and which are strongest that pull you toward an action for a reason. Does that count as determinism? It depends on what you mean by the term.

I’d say the same for Calvin. I think he might at least be open to such a view. So I don’t have a problem calling Augustine a Calvinist in this sense (even if the term is a bit of an anachronism, but I’m speaking of the view and not whether he follows the person).

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | February 19, 2007 at 12:35 PM


McCann’s account views God’s willing that person P freely do x as the very same event as person P freely doing x. With humans, there is a split between a decision and its coming about, but that is not the case for God. Rather, the content of what God wills is accomplished merely by God willing it. Thus, that God wills and the content of his willing are one and the same event. Thus, there can be no causal connection at least in contemporary usage (perhaps your right that it is best to restrict this to efficient causes?) between the content of what God wills and God’s willing. According to this sort of view, human decisions would be free in the sense I specified above (a common characterization of libertarian freedom) and God is the ground or explanation for those decisions.

This biggest problem for this view is the problem of evil. But I don’t know that a standard free-will defense approach gets God off the hook.

Posted by: Michael | February 20, 2007 at 08:08 AM

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