St. Paul the Calminian? Combining Truths from Calvinism (Compatibilism) and Arminianism (Libertarianism)

St. Paul was knocked off his horse by a blinding light and audibly heard Christ telling him what he should, and would, do next. These were things he had precious little “free will” about. A Calvinist would say in these cases God exerted irresistible grace on Paul – he overwhelmed his psyche such that he could not deny the truth of what was happening. (They would say all conversions happen this way.) On the other hand, Paul also implies that this vision was something he could have disobeyed (Acts 23:19.) Arminians would say that this verse (and others, of course) prove that God’s grace is resistible. Regardless of the particular psychological experiences that human have – the “sweet promptings” as CS Lewis called them – we can still resist God, if we so choose.

In fact, if we come clean the New Testament is replete with verses which indicate both Calvinist and Arminian teachings as these systems touch on grace, total inability/depravity, free will and predestination. Paul in particular seems guilty of giving with one hand what he theologically takes away with the other. One could hardly blame someone for thinking that he strings together a set of three or four sentences where he apparently contradicts himself. For instance the same God who disposes all things exactly as he wishes still “endures” the vessels of mercy that he himself has “prepared” beforehand for destruction. Or again, although it is not up to the one who runs or wills, and although it is faith alone that justifies – nevertheless we are to work out our own salvation, with free and trembling.

What I am trying to say is that Paul sometimes talks like a Calvinist and sometimes like an Arminian. In short, he sounds Calminian. I want to suggest that maybe that’s because he is. Even if you disagree with either Calvinism or Arminianism in particular, the fact that thousands of brilliant, Scripture-loving individuals have read Paul as being either one or the other pretty strongly suggests that Paul did at least occasionally sound like he could be both.

Now, there seem to me only four possibilities regarding Paul’s theology. a) Paul was a Calvinist at heart, and simply overlooked, rather stupidly, the fact that much of his theology, when understood in ordinary language, plainly contradicted his Calvinism when taken to its logical conclusion. b) Paul was an Arminian at heart, and vice versa. c) Paul was just plain wrong about what he wrote and never really understood God’s grace, human freedom, original sin, and predestination. Or d) Paul’s theology was self consistent and is neither only Calvinist nor Arminian but rather bigger than both. I believe I can make a suggestive case for d).

When a smaller mind or smaller medium tries to incorporate a larger or richer one, it will inevitably fail in incorporating and reproducing all the subtle distinctions that exist in the larger and richer medium. This is because it does not have a vision wide enough or capacity deep enough to capture, and therefore take up and synthesize, all the data that exists in the larger mind. In fact every mistake, every mental incongruity and apparent contradiction, really stems from just this inability to grasp the full angle of whatever it is that is creating the puzzle.

In other words, if all you have is a hammer, all you see are nails. Yet I’m guessing St. Paul had more in his toolbox than just a hammer. Rather than saying he held to one truth of either Calvinism or Arminianism at the EXPENSE of the other, it seems to me reasonable to read Paul as “Calminain.” In particular it seems to me that he affirmed both compatibilism and libertarianism. It is this distinctly Pauline view of freedom – this affirmation of both kinds of freedom – that allows him to hold what appear to us as logical contradictions insofar as Calvinism and Arminianism are supposedly incompatible. I want to suggest that this is Paul’s unique philosophical framework that blows apart all the modern frameworks that try to peg him into a certain shaped theological hole in the free will/determinism debate. 

My question is – could Paul have actually believed in both forms of free will? That is, are compatibilism and libertarianism (henceforth C and L) mutually exclusive theories? Is it logically possible to be both a compatiblist and libertarian?

The answer seems to me obviously yes, so long as both accounts of freedom aren’t affirmed of the same will at the same time regarding the same action. That is, it is impossible to have C-freedom and L-freedom about the same choice at the same time. But it is perfectly logically possible for a will to be C-free with regard to x, and also L-free with regard to y: I am compatibilistically unable to murder my wife, but libertarianly free to be rude to her. Thus, the same person – me – has both compatiblistic and libertarian freedom.

Now this truth is so strikingly simple that it is quite shocking to see how many theologians think that if one affirms either C or L they must simultaneously and categorically reject the other one. But this just does not logically follow. All that logically follows is that one must deny that the will is C-free or L-free at the same time with respect to the same action. But with respect to any number of different actions at different times the will can be BOTH C-free AND L-free. What one is metaphysically unable to do one day, one may become metaphysically able to do another, and vice versa. The mother who cannot help but love her child the day it is born can become the type of person who has nothing but a selfish desire to please herself – and therefore who may eventually become unable to love that same child.

With this philosophical nugget in mind – i.e. that the same will can at one moment be C-free and at another L-free and vice versa – let me unpack what could be an outline of something like a “Calminian” theology as I see in Paul.

“Total inability” is a doctrine that seems not only a clear teaching of Paul, but also of Scripture, insofar as the teaching states that all humans everywhere are inevitable sinners. It’s not that humanity has the power to refrain from sin, but simply freely chooses not to. Rather, humanity cannot perfectly obey the law: we cannot perfectly refrain from sin. Even the most robust Arminians waffle on this point. Typical Arminian theology holds that all humans have libertarian free will with regard to sin. Yet if that is really true, it follows that not all humans necessarily need forgiveness or salvation from sin. In fact, it is theoretically possible that there could be people – any number of them – that have never sinned and never will. Each newborn child is, on the Arminian scheme, perfectly able to resist every temptation and live a perfectly sinless life. Why, then, the need for the universal reptenance and forgiveness preached in the Gospel? And aside from all the Scripture that speaks about the impossibility and inability of keeping the law perfectly and the logic of Christ being the only perfect and sinless human, what about the experiential data? We don’t even need divine revelation to tell us that sin and guilt are universal human experiences: a secular sociology book could do that.

(As an additional aside, there seems a possible logical contradiction in supposing that any created being could be potentially morally perfect. If a human could be morally perfect, or really could keep the law perfectly, doesn’t that in some sense equate them with God? It seems to me at least possible to suggest that for any finite being God created, it may also be an implicit consequence of their finitude that they necessarily sin. For to say that they even have the ability to be perfect seems like saying God has the power of creating another perfect being, another God – which is a self-contradiction.)

On the other hand, Paul clearly seems to think we can respond to God’s grace. He pleads for us to “resist not” the Holy Spirit, and tells us to “work out our own salvation.” One moment he is rapturously telling us how God saved him from his ignorance, and another he is praying that he himself will not be a castaway. So where the Arminians waffle on our inability to keep the law perfectly, Calvinists waffle regarding our true ability to resist God’s grace. As much as Paul says we are at times willingly unable, he also says at times we are willingly able to to resist sin. Let us also not forget the very curious passage in Revelation which tells us that the same names that were written in the Book of Life “before the foundation of the world” can also be blotted out. If all absolutely our acts are compatibilistically determined (rather than only some) how is that possible?

So the question is, how do we synthesize these views – the fact that we are at times unable to keep from sinning and at others able to keep from it? Are they even reconcilable?

It seems to me that they are. All we have to do is separate the times and things to which our will is acting either C-freely or L-freely. Why can’t it be the case that, all humans ever born are compatibilistically incapable of keeping God’s law; but that God, through his grace, grants them the libertarian freedom to be able to respond, in faith, by surrendering their wills to Himself, and so find forgiveness? It seems to me that such a doctrine could affirm both a) Total Inability; and b) Resistible Grace and still be logically coherent. Humanity in their natural state cannot but fall. God lets them experience this, so that he may extend mercy and grace to them. But God’s very grace enables us to freely – that is libertarianly – respond to him and repent of our sin. There is nothing logically contradictory in such a Calminian teaching.

I can anticipate a rebuttal. “But why did God make all humans compatibilistic sinners? Why not just make them all libertarianly free in the first place, thereby possibly saving some of them from sinning if they so chose?”

Now this is a very good objection. The answer to it consists in two parts:

i) the typical “free will defense” which states that love requires entirely libertarianly free creatures is incomplete. Does not the mother love the child even though she cannot help but love the child? In truth, love can be expressed both compatibilistically and freely. We must remove from our minds the idea that it is “only” a L-free willed creation or a creation that is utterly L-free that God thinks is worth creating. God willed a creation with both kinds of freedom. (That may require a bit of retooling regarding the problem of evil but so be it. I hope to get to such retooling later.)

And ii) it’s not as though God “made” or forced humanity to be necessarily sinners or imperfect. That is imagining things as if “first” there was a race of perfect creatures called humans, and “then” God chose to corrupt them by implanting in them an evil desire they couldn’t resist. But that is thinking of it in the wrong way. The way to view it is by thinking that “humanity” as such exists first in God’s intellect as its own idea: a race of beings who by nature sin. God can then go to work on that idea. He can create humans on such and such a planet, under such and such conditions, etc. But to think he could instantly “make” humans who are naturally sinners naturally perfect is to really just imagine him as thinking of a different race of beings altogether. Think of it like this. Suppose God wanted to make a triangle. Now, he can either make a triangle or make some other shape. But, insofar as he wants to make a triangle he cannot fail to make a shape with three equal sides – that is he cannot fail to make a triangle. In the same way, if God wants to make a race like us – and do not forget if he chose not to create us we never would have existed – he cannot “make” us ex nihilo non-sinners by nature. As distinct ideas we are fundamentally finite, sinful beings. He could of course think of other ideas and instantiate them all throughout the universe (in fact he probably has), but insofar as he wants to create us, sinners is what we must initially be.

Here’s another way to put this point. If the idea of “creatures who by nature sin” is even a possible thought in God’s mind, then it is something he can logically create. In order to say God couldn’t create beings who sin by nature you would have to show that the idea “sinner by nature” is a logical contradiction, like a squared triangle or married bachelor. However, if the idea is even possible, God can therefore cause it to be. He could also cause other ideas to be. He can make a universe with all sorts of creatures and shapes and colors. But insofar as he creates a particular idea, it must be that idea, and no other.

Back, then, to Calminianism. So far it seems logically possible to believe that we are a) unable to be perfectly sinless on our own since we have a natural, C-freedom irresistibly drawn to sin; and also b) that God can grant us natural sinners L-freedom with regard to surrendering ourselves to him through faith. Notice with regard to a), on the doctrine of the divine ideas, we don’t even need an Adamic fall to explain sin’s universality (though of course we could still use it if need be: i.e. it is not excluded either.). Rather, it is simply part of the “species” of “humanity” as it exists eternally in God’s mind that we are sinners. And notice with regard to b) that, if God so sovereignly decided to reward such a puny, unmeritorious act of “surrendering” he could do so and thereby use such a surrender as the justification and conduit by which he then fills our wills with irresitibly good desires. In other words, God can still be the ultimate source of all our goodness, peace, joy, and all the other fruits of the spirit on this view. We humans do not naturally generate these things (again it could be a metaphysical contradiction to suppose a created, finite being could generate goodness). In fact what we naturally generate is sin. But God has gifted us with the ability to surrender and thus be able to channel his goodness.

Much more could be said about “Calminianism.” If I got paid to write I’d go through the New Testament with a fine toothed comb and tally up verses that support both Calvinist and Arminian theologies and argue that therefore the New Testament itself cannot support one at the exclusion of the other but that it must contain a systematic larger and more comprehensive than either one in isolation. I would then go on about God’s predestination and show how logically there is nothing wrong with supposing that God gives both resistible and irresitible graces at different times to the same person. God could predestine absolutely everything about someone except what they ate for lunch on their 40th birthday if he wanted. There is nothing incoherent about that. He could predetermine through created C-freedom any percentage of choices he wanted and thus make predestination as general or as specific as he wanted, extending it to whatever consequences he wanted. I would next show how this leads to the fact that God can foreknow with absolute certainty all that he has predetermined with C-freedom and at the same time have an Open Theist knowledge of possibilities regarding L-freedom.

We must do away with the “either-or” as regards the doctrines of Open Theism, Calvinism, and Arminianism. Scripture teaches truths from all three. Once one realizes that God can give both kinds of freedom however he wants the ways of combining these doctrines are endless.

Perhaps in a future post I will also explore how both C-freedom and L-freedom connect to the problem of evil, and how God, knowing that evil would result, and knowing that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world (because humans are necessarily and naturally sinners), still created us because he knew that a) he could connect us to Christ’s death by having us also experience pain and suffering; and because he also knew b) that he would offer us grace whereby we could still freely surrender our natural selves over to him. I would also like to explore one weakness of the free will defense regarding the permission of evil and the mistaken “asymmetry” involved in thinking that because God grants some the ability to freely love that this necessarily entails that, if the being chooses not to love, therefore some other party must experience suffering. I don’t see why giving “the ability to freely love” must also carry with it “the necessity of another suffering if the one chooses not to love.” Suppose I CAN cook a meal for a homeless man, and therefore feed him. Why must it be the case that if I do not cook it, he will starve? Can’t someone else? I don’t see why a universe metaphysically “has” to entail this sort of asymmetry: the ability to do good freely oneself therefore necessarily implying that if that one does not do good ANOTHER suffers. In fact if God ever unilaterally intervenes in Nature to do miracles it seems this is NOT a metaphysical necessity. And furthermore, we humans prevent various consequences of free willed acts all the time which we evidently think is a good thing to do. I would prevent the child-rapist’s freedom from being exercised regarding the rape if I had the power. So either God does not have the power (in which case miracles would be impossible) or he does not prevent it for some other reason. Miracles are possible so he must therefore have some other reason for permitting the evil.

Anyway, I wish I could polish these closing thoughts into a nice package and present them to hungry minds. Maybe in the future. The purpose of this post has rather been to present a basic outline of Calminian theology – by that I mean specifically a Pauline notion of free will, as that relates to our inability to keep the law perfectly and also our ability to freely respond to God’s grace. It seems to me we can suggest that far from being either a libertarian or a compatibilist, Paul was both. He seemed to affirm both truths regarding the will. This is logically possible insofar as we keep a distinction between what acts and at what times C and L freedom extend to. Thus in this way it seems possible to suggest a Pauline-Calminian notion of free will itself. This notion rises above the modern division of C and L freedom, and also the teachings of either Arminianism or Calvinism in isolation. It is a system which, I believe, can incorporate truths from both theologies.


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