Talking Past Each Other

Dr. Braxton Hunter | Professor of Apologetics
Trinity Seminary

We don’t want to talk past each other! This is a common phrase heard when Calvinists and non-Calvinists discuss their differences. Yet, it almost always happens. One of the primary reasons for this is that many non-Calvinists come to the table already under the impression that their Calvinist brothers do not believe that man is free in any sense. Calvinists constantly speak as though their system allows for free will perfectly well. Is this true? Yes and no.

Broadly speaking, there are three understandings of man’s freedom that philosophers speak of when considering the subject:

DETERMINISM –  is the view that no free will of any kind exists. Though you feel as though you are making genuine choices it is all an illusion. Determinism is most commonly held by naturalists who believe that the universe is a closed system of cause and effect. Just as the collapse of the first domino in a chain initiates a causal chain in the well placed pieces such that they all come falling down, the determinist believes that even your decisions are the results of chemical reactions in your body and the firing of neurons in your brain. You are not free in any sense . . . at all.

LIBERTARIAN FREE WILL – is the belief that man is genuinely free to choose between two options. When you indulge in the chocolate cake rather than heading for the treadmill you experience it as though you made a genuine choice because you actually did make a genuine choice. When you consider your options as though you are free to make a selection among them, you actually are free to make a selection among them. In simple language, libertarian free will is what most people mean everyday when they use the term free.

COMPATIBILISM – What is often considered to be a middle ground position between these two understandings is known as compatibilism. Overwhelmingly, Calvinists understand human freedom in this light. On the compatibilist view, man is free to do whatever he wants, but not free to want whatever he wants. That is to say, man has freedom to exercise his will in accordance with his desires, but he has no control over those desires. This will involve a little illustration.

Imagine that Tom is madly in love with Michelle. The problem is that Michelle is entirely uninterested in Tom. Tom isn’t even on her radar, and if left to her own devices Michelle would never love Tom. Yet, Tom is a bright guy. He goes to school to learn chemistry and cracks the formula for the elusive love potion of a thousand fiction tales. Slipping the mixture into Michelle’s morning coffee, Tom is fully aware that Michelle will fall madly in love with the first person she sees. He approaches her office just as she takes the first sip of the mysterious brew and they lock eyes. Success! Michelle indeed falls madly in love with Tom. She begins to demonstrate her affections by running her fingers through his hair, bringing him little gifts and batting her eyelashes at every opportunity. She is doing what she wants, but she is not free to want what she wants. The result of the potion is that she is open to suggestion. Tom, by his ploy, has determined Michelle’s actions by controlling her wants. Is she free? No. In fact, something somewhat like this actually exists. We call it the date rape drug.

Now since I have offered an analogy that will hopefully appeal to our feminine readers, let me turn to the guys. The greatest film saga ever produced is Star Wars. Everyone who has seen the films knows about one of the most quintessential jedi abilities. It’s an old jedi mind trick. Thank goodness in Star Wars it only works on “weak minded fools.” However, in a fallen world perhaps that’s what we all are. Obi Wan Kenobi waves his hand before the enemy and protects his precious robotic cargo with the suggestion, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” The stormtroopers, under a trance, reply, “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for. . . move along . . . move along.” Classic. It’s also a great example of compatibilism. The stormtroopers were saying and doing exactly what they wanted. The problem is that the old jedi had manipulated them such that they were no longer in control of what they wanted. If you change their wants, then their actions will follow.

So before you stand three options. Either 1) determinism is true and there is no freedom of any kind, 2) libertarian freedom exists and we are genuinely free, or 3) compatibilism is true and you are only free in the sense that you do what you want, but since your wants are chosen for you your actions are determined. Now, a clever reader will have already recognized that there is no substantive difference between 1 and 3. Compatibilism, though its advocates try to argue that determinism is compatible with freedom, just reduces to determinism anyway. Calvinists, however, are compatibilists. This allows them to say, “Free? Of course we believe that man is free. Everyone is free to do whatever they want.” This is why so many Calvinists and non-Calvinists end up talking past each other.

So is our Calvinist friend right to say that on Calvinism man is free? Yes and no. Man is not free in the established common use of the term. However, if the Calvinist redefines the term free to mean one can do what he wants, but his wants are chosen for him, then yes the Calvinist can get away with claiming that man is free. The problem is that he has to redefine an established term to make this move. When calvinists say that man is free, they mean something entirely different than actual freedom. Worse, they are actually affirming determinism. On calvinism, man is simply not free.

In case you think I’m overstating the case, consider the words of John Feinberg of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He says, “Calvinists as determinists must either reject freedom altogether or accept compatibilism.” There you have it. If one knows how to navigate the language and avoid the (intentionally or unintentionally) deceptive terminology, what is left is naked Calvinism. Naked Calvinism paints human freedom very differently than what most believers know of it from scripture and personal experience.

For more on this issue, check out the debates page of and listen to my debate with Joe Mira or head over to the Trinity Radio page for my debate with Paul Cooper. For a robust discussion of the issue, listen to “The Problem of Evil Part 3: Remaining Theodicies and Free Will” on the Lectures page.