John Calvin and Free Will

I do not profess to be an expert on Calvinist theology nor have I read all that Calvin ever wrote.  But even a small dive into his beliefs will quickly run into the topic of free will.

Calvin did not profess that we had no free will regarding anything.  He didn’t believe that God directed all of our moves like puppets on a string.  We decide many things for ourselves – what profession we’ll have, whether or not we’ll marry, where to live, what we’re having for dinner, and the list could go on and on.

But Calvin did believe that in matters of salvation, our free will plays no role at all.  God alone chooses who is saved and who is not, and we have no say in that whatsoever.  Nor is there any “reason” we can know why God would choose to save one person and let someone else perish.  In Calvin’s view we have been “predestined” by God for all eternity either for heaven or hell.  If you are one of the “elect” you are given the gift of faith by which to believe, and the grace needed to both believe and to persevere in faith is “irresistible.”  If you are not one of the “elect” you are predestined by God to hell, and there is nothing you can do to alter that path.

Calvin’s belief is rooted in his understanding of the sovereignty of God.  He could never reconcile the idea that God was all-powerful with the idea that someone could spend eternity in hell, unless that was God’s choice for them.  He saw any other option as a limitation to God’s power.  So, he sacrificed the idea of man’s free will playing any part in our eternal destiny to his understanding of God’s omnipotence.

The Catholic view of God’s omnipotence is that God’s power is not arbitrary.  He can only do that which is “in his just will or his wise intellect.”  This is not seen as a limitation to His power but simply the consistency of His nature.  So God cannot commit an evil act not because of a limitation to His power, but simply because it’s not within His nature to do so.

You might also remember this quote from CS Lewis from that previous post:

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to his power….It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of his creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because his power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

If we ask why God would create us with free will, the answer to me has always seemed rather obvious.  If God truly wants us to share in His divine life, that means we must learn to love as He does.  And love always involves a choice we must make.  It is impossible to truly love someone unless you have the ability to choose to not love them at all.  It is the definition of two mutually exclusive alternatives.  You can create a creature without free will, but you cannot also endow that creature with the capacity for love.  And you cannot create a creature with free will without also giving them the possibility to abuse that free will.  This is not a limit to God’s power as Lewis points out.  But to believe it’s possible to create someone with the capacity to love who does not have free will is nonsense, even if we talk it about God.

As the catechism says about God’s omnipotence, “In God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom, and justice are all identical.  Nothing therefore can be in God’s power which could not be in his just will or his wise intellect.”  (CCC271).  For Catholics creating humans with free will isn’t a limitation of God’s power.  It reveals to us something about His nature.  That action is consistent with God’s will, intellect, wisdom and justice.

The belief that humans were created with free will especially in matters of salvation is foundational to Catholic theology, and the belief that humans have no free will in matters of salvation is foundational to Calvinist theology.  As we begin to work through the five main points of Calvinism the impact of this foundation will become more clear.

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