Why the Theory of Compatibilism Falls Short

change_mindThere is no shortage of speculation as to the nature of man in relation to the sovereignty of God.  I call it “speculation” because for the most part much of this discussion is just that, “speculative.”  The scripture was not written by Jonathan Edwards or CS Lewis.  It does not clearly lay out all the in-depth philosophical workings of infinitely divine characteristics as they relate to the finite world.  That in itself should be a clue as to what God wants us to understand about the subject.

He may inspire anthropomorphic language, but consider the reason He did so.  To make the infinite simple for us to grasp, right?  So, what makes us think we need to undo what God did by complicating it with our confounding theories?  Why not understand God in the manner He chose to reveal himself? Ever wonder why it was okay with God for the scripture’s author to say that God “changed his mind,” but for some reason that is not acceptable today unless we add a five thousand word dissertation as a qualification explaining that is not really what is meant?

With that said, I would like to offer a simple explanation as to why I reject some of the philosophical speculations being popularized today.  For the sake of brevity, I want to focus this post specifically on my ever-growing doubts about the philosophical view call “compatibilism” (a view most often held to by Calvinistic believers).  This view claims that one can affirm free will (as they define it) and divine determinism, as these two are considered “compatible” according to the claims of this perspective.Gen-1825

Compatibilists (Calvinists) attempt to maintain that men are free in the sense that they are “doing what they desire.”  However, this appears to be an insufficient explanation to maintain any sense of true freedom considering that compatibilists also affirm that even the desires and thoughts of men are decreed by God. (i.e. WCF: “God has decreed whatsoever comes to pass.”)

This is an important circularity in the claim by Calvinists that humans can be considered genuinely free so long as their actions are in accordance with their desires (i.e. “voluntary”).  Given the long-held Calvinistic belief that all events and actions are decreed by God, then human desire (the very thing that compatibilists claim allows human choices to be considered free) must itself also be decreed. But if so, then there is nothing outside of or beyond God’s decree on which human freedom might be based. 

Put differently, there is no such thing as what the human really wants to do in a given situation, considered somehow apart from God’s desire in the matter (i.e., God’s desire as to what the human agent will desire). In the compatibilist scheme, human desire is wholly derived from and wholly bound to the divine desire. God’s decree encompasses everything, even the desires that underlie human choices.

This is a critical point, because it undercuts the plausibility of the compatibilist’s argument that desire can be considered the basis for human freedom. When you define freedom in terms of ‘doing what one wants to do’, it initially appears plausible only because it subtly evokes a sense of independence or ownership on the part of the human agent for his choices.

But once we recognize (as we must within the larger deterministic framework encompassing compatibilism) that those very desires of the agent are equally part of the environment that God causally determines, then the line between environment and agent becomes blurred if not completely lost. The human agent no longer can be seen as owning his own choices, for the desires determining those choices are in no significant sense independent of God’s decree.

For this reason, I feel human desire within the compatibilist framework forms an insufficient basis on which to establish the autonomy of human freedom (and from this the legitimacy of human culpability for sin).

puppetleavesSome compatibilists, such as John Hendryx on monergism.com, do not refute these arguments, but simply embrace them by admitting that compatibilism is “no less deterministic than hard determinism.”  And compatibilism “simply means that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is ‘compatible’ with voluntary choice.”  In other words, he is virtually saying “Mankind is doing what they want and what they want is determined by God, so get over it, He is God and can do whatever He wants!”

If I cast a spell on John causing him to desire what I decided that he should desire, would he still deem his own choices to be voluntary? I seriously doubt it, but if God virtually does the same thing, then the term “voluntary” is acceptable, I guess?  It is quite baffling.

Think about it.  According to this premise, guys like Jeffrey Dahmer “voluntarily” molested and ate his victims because God unchangeably determined for him to desire it.  James 1:13 teaches God does not even tempt men to do evil, yet Hendryx wants us to believe God unchangeably determined our desires which in turn determine our choices to do evil? Really?  Why would anyone want to go with that answer rather than to simply appeal to mystery? Anthropomorphism is looking better and better, isn’t it?

Hendryx’s rebuttal to these types of questions is to point people to God’s determination of the crucifixion, “the worse evil of all time.” His argument goes something like this: If God determined the worse evil of all time without blame then we should be able to accept that God can determine all evil events without blame.  First, I have no problem ‘blaming,’ or should I say ‘crediting,’ God with the redemption of sin as accomplished through the crucifixion!  While I agree that God did determine the cross by actively intervening in our fallen world to ensure it came to pass, I fail to see how that proves God likewise determined and actively worked to bring about all the sin that needed redemption on that cross.  Are we to believe God determined to redeem his very own determinations? Again, it is quite a baffling perspective and I’m not sure how it is somehow better than the alternative of appealing to the mystery of God’s infinite ways.  Give me God’s inspired anthropomorphisms over that any day!  I’ll gladly live with people accusing me of being too “simple minded” to accept such audacious speculations about our Holy God.

Note: I wrote this article in a theological board many years ago and I know I quoted a portion of it from an article that now I cannot  find in order to reference it properly. If anyone knows of it, please send me a message. I want to give credit where it is due.

14 thoughts on “Why the Theory of Compatibilism Falls Short

  1. I think the term, “compatibilism,” is a term that says little and has been taken to mean much more than it says. It says that God’s sovereignty is compatible with man’s free will. Beyond that , much is up for speculation as it has not been well defined. In your comments above you raise issues of God’s determination of all things in “compatibilist” thought and how this allows free will. So, let me develop compatibilist thought a little.

    Compatibilism differentiates between God’s active involvement in the affairs of people and “passive neglect” of people. For example, God actively intruded into the affairs of people by destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, bringing a worldwide flood, killing the first born in Egypt, impregnating Mary. God choose to “passively neglect” by allowing Adam/Eve to eat the fruit, allowing Noah to get drunk, allowing David to bring Bathsheba to his bed, allowing Stephen to be stoned. “Passive neglect” is identified with free will and people will say that God “allows” such and such meaning that God decides that man should be free to pursue whatever course he wants without interference from Him. Thus, serial killers kill and rapists rape and do so freely as they desire. Of course, restraints on evil exist through the presence of secondary causes: policemen, peer pressure, threats of punishment, etc.

    At the same time God is sovereign and exercises absolute control over everything. This does not mean that God directly (actively) causes everything. God becomes the first cause at Gen 1 when He creates the universe. After that, secondary causes – Satan deceiving Eve, Bathsheba taking a bath on her roof, the brothers selling Joseph into slavery come into play as God allows “free” actions as even these work together for God’s purposes.

    So, above you describe compatibilist reasoning as, “Mankind is doing what they want and what they want is determined by God, so get over it, He is God and can do whatever He wants!” Not exactly. More accurate to say, ““Mankind is doing what they want and what they can do is limited by what God wants, so get over it, He is God and can do whatever He wants!”

    Above you write, “I feel human desire within the compatibilist framework forms an insufficient basis on which to establish the autonomy of human freedom…” Your use of the word, “autonomy,” is critical. Human freedom cannot be autonomous as this requires that people be able to act independent of God. If anything were able to act independent of God, then God would simply not be God. It is because God is God and He alone can be autonomous that people cannot. “Free will” then can only be exercised by people in those areas that God allows. The prisoner in a cell is free to do anything he wants within the confines of his cell and the restraints in materials available to him. Thus, Adam and Eve were free to eat of any fruit in the garden because even though God said not to eat one particular fruit, he still allowed them to eat it if they choose to do so. The Jews were allowed to stone Stephan but not allowed to stone Peter. God allows people to freely engage in what they choose within the constraints of His purposes but they are never autonomous in doing so.

    You also write, “According to this premise, guys like Jeffrey Dahmer “voluntarily” molested and ate his victims because God unchangeably determined for him to desire it.” Jeffrey Dahmer was a sinner. He wanted to molest people and God allowed him to freely pursue his interests. God did not actively cause Jeffrey to be who he was, but when God allowed Satan to enter the garden to tempt Eve, He knew one result would be Jeffrey Dahmer. God ordained that outcome by “allowing” all that preceded it.


  2. Leighton. Thanks for your post but I think you have quite misrepresented the discussion. God only determined men’s desires insofar as man is fallen. Without the Spirit he cannot and will not understand Spiritual truth (1 Cor 2:14) He is cursed and therefore cannot save himself nor does he have the good will to do so. God is leaving fallen men to their own boasted free will, not implanting fresh desires within them. So your article has simply made a false caricature. Man’s voluntary choice is of necessity due to his nature, not because God is coercing him against his will or making him do something he does not want to do.

    So the essence of Calvinistic thought is not about meticulous providence of compatibility but about the face that salvation is of Christ alone. Because fallen humanity is so corrupt and without hope God indeed calls all persons to repent and believe the gospel and whosoever believes will have eternal life. But the problem is that men love darkness and hate the light and will not come into the light (John 3:19-20). Yet even when no people respond positively to the gospel God still yet has mercy on many ill-deserving sinners by opening their eyes, ears and heart to the gospel (Deut 29:4, 30:6;) And Jesus himself declares that “the Spirit quickens, the flesh counts for nothing… that is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me grants it.” (John 6:63, 65). Jesus does not mince words. He does the saving. Yes he offers salvation to all, but being corrupt no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 1:29-31). We cannot ascribe our repenting and believing to our own wisdom, humility, sound judgement or good sense but to Christ ALONE who gives us EVERYTHING we need for salvation, including a new heart to believe (Ezek 36:26; Eph 2:5).

    Just so you know that this is how Reformed theologians have historically understood this please read this quote from John Calvin
    “…we allow that man has choice and that it 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 the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.

    John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70


    1. Joe, you start saying, “Leighton. Thanks for your post but I think you have quite misrepresented the discussion.” Yet, you fail to engage with the scholar’s words that I’m discussing. Instead you presume your view into this conversation… I’m quite sure Hendryx holds to a ‘higher’ view of Calvinism than the one you are attempting to represent. If not, make your case but please use Hendryx own words because he is the type of compatiblistic scholar I’m addressing (Why? because he is a ‘consistent’ one).

      You asked, “is there a relevant difference between causing and permitting/allowing evil?”

      Yes. God allowing free choices, and the consequences of those choices, is a far cry different from God determining choices and their consequences.


  3. Also , is there a relevant difference between causing and permitting/allowing evil? It is usually evil to permit evil as well as to cause evil. For example, it is evil to allow a toddler to walk into a swimming enclosure and fall into the pool and drown when you are standing two feet away, just as it is evil to push a toddler into a swimming pool and hold his head under while he drowns.

    Next since even according to your view God already know how men would decide even before He created them then from the beginning the outcome could not have been otherwise. Why did God create them that way? Likewise if Jesus has exhaustive foreknowledge then even in your view He already know who would and who would not benefit from his atonement even before He went to the cross. Can you then honestly say that Jesus is still TRYING to save all men when he already knows they will not come? If all you mean is that he gives all hearing people an opportunity to believe then we do not disagree but if you are saying it was His intent to save those he knew would never be saved then you are being disingenuous.


    1. As demonstrated above…Calvinists typically resort to the “you too fallacy” which attempts to show that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it.

      For example, suppose I swatted a dog for misbehavior and then you shot it between the eyes. Then, upon my objection to shooting the dog you reply by saying, “You hit the dog too,” as if the objection is equal.

      Calvinists often do this to non-Calvinists. We object to their troubling claims and they attempt to make the case that our claims are just as terrible. How can they make such an argument? They appeal to a philosophical presumption, not an actual affirmation of our doctrine. They say something to the effect of, “If God knows everything before creating it, then He must have predetermined it to be, so you have the same problem.”

      See the fallacy? We object against an actual claim of their doctrinal system (see Calvin’s quote on double predestination) and they object to a linear philosophical presumption imposed upon a divinely infinite characteristic of our mysterious Creator (i.e. no quote from our scholars). Do non-Calvinistic scholars ever actually claim that God’s infinite knowledge necessitates determinism? Of course not. That is their view, not ours. We affirm the mystery of infinite knowledge while accepting that our finite limitations prevent us from drawing hard conclusions in regard to the causality of that which is merely known. In other words, they are objecting against a conclusion we never draw…a conclusion they FEEL is necessary based upon their own finite calculations.

      So, philosophically they attempt to claim we have the same problem that they have while imposing their linear presumptions unto us. And biblically they attempt to claim their problem is the one Paul is anticipating and answering in Romans 9, when in reality the problem Paul is answering is a much, much less troubling doctrine than “double trouble = more glory” imposed by TULIP’s systematic.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “God is deemed omnipotent…because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so OVERRULES ALL things that NOTHING happens without his counsel….[T]here is NO random power, OR agency, OR motion in the creatures, who are so governed by the SECRET counsel of God, that NOTHING happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed…[T]he world is governed by God, not only because he maintains the order of nature appointed by him, BUT because he takes a special charge of every one of his works. It is true, indeed, that each species of created objects is MOVED by a SECRET instinct of nature, AS IF they obeyed the eternal command of God, and spontaneously followed the course which God at first appointed.”

    John Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.3 (4,6)


  5. Good article. Compatibilism is another strange thing Calvinists do, and I think it shows just how strong “free will language” is in the Bible that they have to find a way to explain it sounding so “free willish” yet still cling to their determinism. They use specific instances that sound like God using evil human choices to accomplish his will, but these are debatable and wouldn’t prove a universal method anyway. Compatibilism really is Calvinists having their cake and eating it too, a way they can excuse away passages about free will by some “super top secret” control of God behind-the-scenes that I guess someone figured out somewhere, so it’s not so secret anymore. I thought the secret things belonged to the Lord? I guess this one slipped out. It is literally claiming a logical impossibility, but generally Calvinists won’t say the freedom part of man, really is free in any sense. It’s not so much that logical contradictions can’t exist (though in general it seems to be the exception rather than the rule), but the fact that this particular contradiction involves more than just the logic of it, but involves attribution of moral blame. Under a strict combatilibist definition, if you ask me about any action I do, I can honestly say “both I and God did it!” For this peculiar of a claim we would simply need more Scriptural support than just the 3 instances of God using particular evil actions in a good way.


  6. Calvinism: I create a robot. I program the robot to take a single step forward. Then I command the robot to cook me lunch and do the laundry. Nothing happens. I issue another command to the robot to cook me lunch and do my laundry. Nothing happens. I repeat the command several times and the robot still doesn’t cook me lunch or do my laundry. Finally I destroy the robot. Someone asks me why I punished the robot for doing what it was unable to do and I interject, “No! The robot was UNWILLING to cook me lunch and do my laundry!”


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