Can I be a Calvinist and believe in free will?

Recently as I was speaking to a friend, he happened to ask if I was a Calvinist. In all honesty, I do not like identifying myself as a Calvinist unless that term is properly defined. I would very much prefer the word reformed as that would leave space for some differences in theology.  At the same time I think it does not do justice to the other reformers by using the word reformed and Calvinist interchangeably as though they are exactly identical.[1] But for this particular post I will refer to a Calvinist only as one who holds to Calvin’s view on salvation.

Anyway, going back to the conversation with my friend, I recall him saying that given the Calvinist view of salvation, there is no free will. This made me curious and so I asked him why. His response was that under Calvin’s view, man has no choice as to whether they want to believe in God. If God chooses a person, that person has no choice but to believe. From there he concluded that under Calvin’s view of salvation, there can be no free will. From my interaction with others, I realise that this seems to be the view that quite a few have regarding Calvin’s soteriology. But I would like to challenge this definition of free will.

For starters, if asked whether a Calvinist believes in free will, I think the answer would vary depending on what we understand free will to be. In my opinion, if free will is defined as having the freedom of choice (ie the ability to choose anything we want), then of course the Calvinist does not believe in free will. But given such a definition of free will, not only will the Calvinist deny free will, so will many other Christians. Take a non-Christian as a case study. Suppose the question was asked “Can a non-Christian choose for himself not to sin?” I’m sure most would reply by saying no. The fundamental Christian doctrine of original sin is that man inheriting sinful nature, cannot without the help of God’s grace avoid sin. That is to say, man will sin out of their very own nature. They have no choice but to sin. But anyone who agrees with this would then have to deny free will since man have no choice over whether they sin or not (if you’re a Pelagian, you’re probably excused from this). My point is that given this definition of free will, the Calvinist isn’t the only camp guilty of denying free will.

How then does the Calvinist understand free will? Since the term used here is ‘Calvinist’ I will only be looking at what Calvin said regarding his thoughts on free will. Calvin believed that because the will is intrinsically linked to nature, so long as one retains a sinful nature, he is chained to evil desires.  “…the will, because it is inseparable from man’s nature, did not perish, but was so bound to wicked desires that it cannot strive after the right.”[2] Is man being forced into sin then? Calvin responds “he acts wickedly by will not by compulsion.”[3] By this Calvin means no. The difference between coercion and necessity plays an important part in understanding free will. Man sins out of necessity due to the nature that man has in the same way the devil due to his very nature voluntarily goes against God out of necessity. However, this is not the same as saying that either man or the devil is coerced into sinning. Long story short, the will being so intricately tied to nature necessitates certain outcomes willingly even though there is no coercion involved. What then becomes of man’s will when he is generated by the Holy Spirit? Here Calvin seems to draw a distinction within the will in itself – good will and evil will. The Calvin scholar Anthony Lane comments that based on Calvin’s understanding, “the evil will comes from the Fall and the good will from regeneration.”[4] At this point Calvin does not suggest that the will is destroyed or that it has ceased/begun to exist. “I also say that it is created anew; not meaning that the will now begins to exists, but that it is changed from an evil to a good will.”[5] Rather it seems as Anthony Lane argues that what changes is not the substance but the habits of the will[6]. This regeneration results in man’s voluntary will to do that which pleases God.

In conclusion, can a person hold to Calvin’s view of salvation and still believe in free will? That really depends. If free will is defined as choosing whatever one wants, then the answer together with a whole lot of other Christians from different traditions is “No”. However, if free will is understood to be linked with nature, then I believe it certainly is possible.

 

[1] Muller, R. (2012). Was Calvin a Calvinist? In Calvin and the Reformed tradition: On the work of Christ and the order of salvation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[2] McNeill, J. (1960). The Knowledge of God the Redeemer. In Calvin: Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 1, p. 271). Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.

[3] Ibid., 264

[4] A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 72-90.

[5] McNeill, J. (1960). The Knowledge of God the Redeemer. In Calvin: Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 1, p. 297). Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.

[6] A.N.S. Lane, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 72-90.

 


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