Can a Calvinist Embrace the Free Will Defense?

In 1955, atheologian J. L. Mackie argued the logical problem of evil renders belief in God “positively irrational.” [1]  Mackie claimed the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence of the God of traditional theism are inconsistent with the existence of evil in the world.  Rebutting this claim, Alvin Plantinga proffered the response known as the free will defense.  Articulated in his 1977 work God, Freedom, and Evil, the free will defense is the most effective defense the theist has against the logical problem of evil.  Upon reviewing the defense, Mackie conceded the following in 1982:  “Since [the free will defense] is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not after all show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” [2]  Thirty-five years later, opponents of theism still fail to sufficiently respond to the free will defense.

Alvin Plantinga

While Plantinga’s work delivered a heavy blow to atheologians, his conception of human freedom also troubled reformed theologians.  The metaphysical libertarian conception of human freedom, on which the defense relies, is often conflated with Arminian theology.  Believing the defense to require the adoption of an Arminian theology, many reformed theologians consider the free will defense inconsistent with Calvinism.

Accepting the importance of the free will defense as the only conclusive rebuttal of the logical problem of evil, and acknowledging Calvinist’s concerns for the defense’s employment of libertarian freedom, ample evidence suggests a thoroughgoing Calvinist has grounds upon which to embrace the free will defense.  Further, it can be said that many historical Calvinists have held the very conception of freedom necessary to coherently adopt the free will defense into reformed theology.

The Requirement of Contrary Choice

Plantinga contends that for any moral good to exist, it is required that a creature has the ability for meaningful choice in at least one morally significant decision.  Removing the creature’s ability to choose evil simultaneously eliminates any ability the creature has for choosing good, and thus, ethical choice both good and bad are consequently lost. [3]

Calvin and Hobbes…named after theologian John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes…weighing in on determinism.

This type of meaningful choice requires a conception of freedom that grants human agents the ability for contrary choice, also referred to as libertarian freedom.  This means that in at least some actions an agent performs he could have instead refrained from performing the chosen action.  Stated another way, in at least some choices an agent could legitimately perform either A or not-A.  Therefore, to embrace the free will defense, a person holding a reformed soteriology must embrace a view of human freedom that grants agents the ability for contrary choice.  Many modern Calvinists will argue the adoption of this understanding of freedom is not possible for the reformed theologian.  This position is, however, misinformed.

Traditional Calvinism and Paradox

The historic Reformed tradition honors the simultaneously affirmed biblical truths of God’s meticulous sovereignty and human responsibility.  This is what J. I. Packer calls the “antinomy” of Scripture.  Packer writes, “God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught to us side by side in the same Bible; sometimes, indeed, in the same text.  Both are thus guaranteed us by the same divine authority; both, therefore, are true.” [4]  As Charles Spurgeon articulates, “The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. . . These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil . . . but they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God.” [5]

While convincing a Calvinist to accept the predestination of God is rarely an issue, there is considerable debate regarding the manner as to how Calvinists define human freedom and subsequent moral responsibility.  Most adherents of modern Calvinism are committed to a view of freedom called compatibilism, most notably championed by Jonathan Edwards.  Put simply, compatibilists state that “we are free when we choose to do what we want.  But it stands to reason that if we choose to do what we want, then at the moment of that choice, we are not ‘free’ to do otherwise.” [6]  Compatibilists explicitly deny this human ability for contrary choice.

freeWillHowever, Calvinist historian Richard Muller points out, that unlike Edwards, Calvinists historically saw human responsibility as requiring the same contrary choice adopted by Plantinga in the free will defense.  Muller writes, “[Historically] the Reformed deny chance . . . but affirm contingency as something that could be otherwise given that its causality is contingent and, in the cause of human choices, defined as contingency by potencies of will to more than one effect.” [7]  This ability to “will to more than one effect” is contrary choice. [8]   According to Muller, the Reformed position of the 16th and 17th centuries, whether one looks to Calvin or to Turretin or to the Westminster standards, involves a conception of human will that can choose between A or not-A. [9]  The potency of the will to multiple effects, and freedom of contrariety appears throughout reformed writings until Jonathan Edwards associates this language strictly with Arminianism in Freedom of the Will. [10]  “This shift in language and understanding between the older Reformed orthodoxy and the teachings of Edwards was identified by both proponents and opponents of his views.” [11]

Working from Turretin’s Institutio Theologiae Elenticae, Muller shows that at least one prominent Genevan professor held a freedom of “simultaneity of potencies,” such that the “otherwise” does exist as a pure potency not actualized in this world, but pushed back into the divine mind and resident in a possible world that God does not will to actualize.  For Turretin, this yields contingency defined by a multiplicity of potencies. [12]  In his own words Turretin insists, “The will of itself is so prepared that it can either elicit or suspend the act (which is the liberty of contrariety and of specification).” [13]  Turretin was not alone in Geneva.  Samuel Maresius, who studied at Geneva at the time of the Synod of Dort, agreed that indifference persists “as long as the intellect remains doubtful and uncertain where to turn itself.” [14]  Both Turretin and Maresius affirm alternativity and place free choice in the last determinate judgement of the practical intellect. Hence, these men of the 17th century Academy of Geneva, conceived of reformed theology as including contrary choice.

Upon its founding, Princeton University adopted Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology as the primary textbook for systematic theology.  Turretin’s text remained Princeton’s staple until it was replaced by the systematic theology of 19th century reformed heavyweight Charles Hodge in the 1870s.  In his Systematic Theology, Hodge follows Turretin’s lead by affirming the freedom of self-determination.  Hodge writes, “Concursus . . . contradicts the consciousness of men. . . To act freely implies that we originate our own acts.” [15]  This evidences that the two primary theological texts of orthodox Princeton both affirm, and were written by theologians who affirmed, human self-determination in contrary choice.

Further, regarding the determination of choice, many of the earliest reformed theologians build out the landscape of the earliest reformed notions of freedom.  Girolamo Zanchi (16th century Italian Calvinist) and Lucas Treclatius (16th century Dutch Calvinist) placed alternativity in both the will and the intellect and identified freedom as the free agreement of the will with the judgment of the intellect. [16]  Gulielmus Bucanus (16th century Swiss-French Calvinist) argued the will as a rational faculty and possessor of alternativity that can will, or not will the object presented to the intellect. [17]  John Wemyss (early 17th century Scottish Calvinist) advocated for an “initial act of will that induces [the] intellect to deliberate, followed by the act of freely accepting the determinate judgment.” [18]  17th century Dutch theologian Petrus van Mastricht wrote that “choice occurs according to an inward counsel that is neither intrinsically determined nor determined extrinsically by compulsion.” [19]  Dugald Stewart, Sir William Hamilton, Franco Burgersdijk, Robert Baron, Adriaan Heereboord, and Gijsbert Voetius were also members of that older Reformed tradition [20] that, according to Philip Doddridge, consisted of contrary choice, and when explicitly implicated, distanced itself from compatibilistic definitions of the will. [21]

Evidenced by their theological works, many historical Calvinists divided the activity of free choice into (1) an adjudication of intellect between multiple potentialities, and (2) a free willing upon the choice the intellect has chosen.  Like Aquinas’ account of intellect and will, the willing is free because it is a matter of rational willingness or spontaneity in following the determination of the intellect. [22]  Such assertions of intellective power of choice, two volitional liberties, and contradiction and contrariety seem to very closely resemble the self-determining power and power of choosing differently that Edwards, and compatibilists by extension, vehemently deny.  There is no shortage of early Reformed theologians who affirm a genuine inward alternativity grounded in an interchange of intellect and will.  Thus, for early Reformation theologians, in the case of judgments of the intellect it is possible that a person willing A could have likewise willed not-A.  Further, these men explain the choice in selecting A or not-A as itself belonging to the adjudication of the intellect which provides the last judgment upon which the will follows.  Muller suggests that Edwards’ predecessors have “an interaction of intellect and will that begins in an actus primus indeterminacy and yields a determination, which is also concurrently willed by God from eternity as an aspect of the possible world that he has decreed to actualize.” [23]

19th century theologian John Lafayette Girardeau (Southern Presbyterian author of The Will in its Theological Relations – a 485 page rebuttal to Edwards’ Freedom of the Will) was a confessionally Reformed theologian who insisted that elements of human willing must include the determinate choice of action, whether for one thing or another. [24]  Girardeau was a vehement opponent of Jonathan Edwards’ dismissal of contrary choice, and argued the case for mutability of will from Calvin’s Institutes and the Reformed confessions. He records that Edwards’ thesis that God’s causal determinism is compatible with human free will, “was attended by singular and apparently contradictory results.” [25]

Girardeau used the prelapsarian couple as his model in arguing that the historical church universally believed the couple had the ability of deliberate election.  He references the fourth chapter of the Westminster confession which says, “[God] created man . . . with reasonable and immortal souls . . . having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it . . . being left to liberty of their own will,” as well as the ninth chapter which states that “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will . . . mutably.”  Girardeau finds agreement in his interpretation of the Westminster Confession from William Cunningham.  Considered by many as the ablest defender of Calvinism in the first half of the 19th century, Cunningham mediated a balance between libertarians and compatibilists.  He asserted that while “nothing precludes men from holding the doctrine of philosophical necessity . . . there is nothing in the Calvinistic system of theology, or in the Westminster Confession, which requires men to hold the doctrine of philosophical necessity.” [26]  Stepping into Cunningham’s opening, Oliver Crisp points out that a reading of the Westminster Confession (chapter 10 most specifically), through the lens of contrary choice, highlights that “the Confession does not say that God determines all things in the strictest sense. . . God certainly knows all future conditionals,” but “this does not mean God determines all things in the strictest sense. . . What is more, the Confession does not deny that humans have libertarian free will in [non-salvific] choices. It denies only that humans can freely choose salvation absent prevenient divine grace.”[27]

John Girardeau made the further claim that Calvin had in mind a libertarian conception of freedom.  Calvin himself wrote, “We allow that man has choice that is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing.  We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of will and cannot coexist with it.” [28]  This alone does not conclusively demonstrate that Calvin affirmed contrary choice, but that man has “self-determination,” agent causation in morally significant acts.  In the Institutes, however, Calvin says, “We admit that man’s condition while he still remained upright was such that he could incline to either side” (2.3.10), and “Adam could have stood if he wished . . . his will was capable of being bent to one side or the other” (2.15.8).  This seems to indicate that Calvin considered Adam capable, in the power of his own determination, of choosing A or not-A prior to the fall.  If this is correct then Calvin allows for a libertarian free will for prelapsarian man – an allowance Edwards and compatibilists deny.  Further, Unitarian priest Joseph Priestley elsewhere states that in the time before Edwards, “none of the Calvinists had ever concluded that, prior to the fall, Adam had been under any necessity of sinning.” [29]

These examples find themselves in agreement with the thinking of Martin Luther as well.  Timothy George suggests that Luther “never denied that the free will retains its power in matters that do not concern salvation. . . Understood as the God-given capacity to make ordinary decisions, to carry out one’s responsibilities in the world, free will remains intact.  What it cannot do is effect its own salvation.” [30]  Luther wrote, “Free choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him. . . In relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive.” [31]  Like his Reformed successors, Luther believed that it is only when the will has been acted upon by grace that “the power of decision really become[s] free, in all events in respect to salvation.” [32]  Regarding ordinary decisions “below” or not “pertaining to salvation,” however, Luther held that man has “free choice.”


It should be evident from the historical survey that it was well within the breadth of the historic reformed tradition to honor both the meticulous sovereignty of God and the contrary choice of man.  Therefore, a Calvinist should feel he has full warrant to embrace the contrary choice necessary to adopt the free will defense.  The appropriation of the free will defense need not require the abandonment of Calvinism, but merely the abandonment of compatibilism and the determinism on which it depends.  In so doing, the Calvinist finds himself in good standing with the rich tradition of reformed thinkers.  In abandoning compatibilism, Calvinists lose the theologico-philosophical reconciliation between God’s sovereignty and human freedom that a system of philosophical necessity provides, but is instead allowed the embrace of the greatest defense against the argument that evil disproves God’s existence.  This exchange requires a value judgment that weighs the importance of reconciling determinism with human freedom against defending God’s existence and thwarting arguments that depict Him as unknowing, unloving, and powerless in the face of (or causally responsible for) evil.  Whether one chooses to adopt contrary choice or the free will defense, it should be clear that those Calvinists who do are well within the confines of the historic reformed tradition.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, church deacon, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.




[1]J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence” in Mind, New Series, vol. 64, no. 254 (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, April 1955), 200-212.

[2]J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 154.

[3]Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

[4]J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 23-27.

[5]C. H. Spurgeon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility” (sermon 207, Royal Surrey Gardens, August 1, 1858),

[6]Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory:  The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004), 80.

[7]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin on Necessity, Contingency, and Freedom of Will.  In Response to Paul Helm,” in Jonathan Edwards Studies, vol. 4/3, (2014), 272.

[8]For this study, it is important to note that libertarian freedom is not a term uniformly used by historic theologians.  Prior to recent discussion there was no uniform terminology used by theologians to refer to libertarian freedom and contrary choice.  The terms contrariety, alternativity, freedom of deliberation, simultaneity of potencies, multiplicity of potencies, contingent causality, self-determination, and determinate choice are all variations used to refer in some capacity to a freedom that involves contrary choice in at least some decisions.

[9]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice:  A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” in Jonathan Edwards Studies:  vol. 1/1 (2011), 3-22.


[11]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice,” 21.

[12]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin,” 276.

[13]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elenticae (Whitefish, MT:  Kessinger Publishing, 2009), X.iii.4.

[14]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elenticae, X.iii.4; with Samuel Maresius, Theologiae Elenchticae Nova Synopsis, Sive Index Controversiarum Fidei ex S. Scripturis, vol. 2 (Groningen:  Joannes Nicolaus, 1646-1647), 12.

[15]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology vol. 1 (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publisher, 1981), 604.

[16]Girolamo Zanchi, De Operibus Dei Intra Spatium Sex Dierum Creatis, in Operum Theologicorum D. Hieronymi Zanchi (Heidelberg:  Stephanus Gamonetus, 1605), III.iii, col. 706; with Lucas Treclatius, Jr., Scholastica et Methodica Locorum Communium s. Theologiae Institutio Didactice & Elentice in Epitome Explicata:  in Qua, Veritas Locorum Communium, Definitionis Cuiusque, Loci per causas suas Analysi Asseritur:  Contraria Vero Argumenta, Imprimis Bellarmini, Generalium Solutionum Appendice Refutantur (London:  John Bill, 1604), 208, dist. 3.

[17]Gulielmus Bucanus, Institutiones Theologicaue, Seu Locorum Communium Christianae Religionis, ex Dei verbo, et Praestantissimorum Theologorum Orthodoxo Consensu Expositorum (Bern: Iohannes &Isaias Le Preux, 1605), Xi.2, 109.

[18]John Weemse (Wemyss), The Portraiture of the Image of God in Man, in His Creation, Restauration, and Glorification, in The Workes of Mr. John Weemse of Lathocker vol. 1 (London: T. Cotes, 1637), 98.  

[19]Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico-practica Theologia, IV.iv.10 (Sumptibus Societatis, 1715), XVII.4.

[20]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice,” 12, 20.

[21]Philip Doddridge, A Course of Lectures on the Principal Subjects in Pneumatology, Ethics, and Divinity; with References to the Most Considerable Authors on Each Subject vol. 1 (London, 1794), 50-59.

[22]Eleonore Stump, “Aquinas’s Account of Freedom:  Intellect and Will,” in The Monist 80/4 (1997), 576-597.

[23]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin,” 285.

[24]John L. Girardeau, The Will in Its Theological Relations (Columbia, SC: W. J. Duffie and New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1891), 43-44.

[25]John L. Girardeau, The Will in Its Theological Relations, 18.

[26]William Cunningham, “Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity,” in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh:  Banner of Truth, 1989), 483.

[27]Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism:  Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 94-95.

[28]John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will:  A Defense of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice Against Pighius (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 1996), 69.

[29]Joseph Priestley, The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated; Being an Appendix to the Disquisitous Relating to Matter and Spirit (London, 1977), 157.

[30]Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2013), 76.

[31]Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, Luther and Erasmus:  Free Will and Salvation (London: Westminster, 1969), 111.

[32]Wilhelm Pauck, Luther:  Lectures on Romans (Philadelphia: WJK, 1961), 252.

192 total views, no views today

The Holiness of God

Dr. R. C. Sproul is, in my opinion, the best Theologian of our day.  In the vein of historic theological giants:  Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, Dr. Sproul holds multiple degrees from Bible colleges and seminaries, a Doctorate and PhD in Theology, and has been a seminary professor or teacher for nearly 50 years.  He has a fantastic theology show on the NRB, Renewing Your Mind .  He has published over 80 books, was the General Editor of the ESV Reformation Study Bible (which has sold over 150,000 copies and is my go-to study Bible), and his sermon, The Holiness of God (also a book) is considered a modern classic on the subject of God’s character.  If you sit in awe of the sovereign majesty of our LORD, as I do, I believe you will find R. C. Sproul’s teaching to be a blessing and an inspiration.


Protestant Confession of Sins

Yes, we are Protestant Christians, and no we do not confess our sins to a priest. The reason we don’t confess our sins to a priest is that Christ was crucified and the curtain in the Temple was torn and we were granted direct access to God. In repentance, we must confess our sins to the Lord. However, we no longer require a human mediator to stand between us and God. The fact remains, public Confession is biblical, and Protestant Christians should do it. We see in Leviticus Chapter 1 that the Jews were to place their hand on the head of their sacrifice and publicly confess their sins before the High Priest.

In the New Testament there is no instruction to confess our sins to a Priest, but James 5:16 tells us the following…

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

We should already know we are all broken sinners, and rather than hiding our sin, and rather than persecuting each other for our sins, we should be open and honest with each other. Then we may not appear as hypocrites or as if we are standing next to the cross looking down at others…rather we should be on our knees at the foot of the cross telling our sinful brothers and sisters there is room for all of us. There are examples in Acts of people publicly confessing sin as well…Acts 19:18 is one.

Also many of those who were now believers came,confessing and divulging their practices.

By:  Chad W. Hussey By:  Chad W. Hussey