Theology Proper

Compatibilism: a puzzlement for both Arminians and Calvinists

It has dawned on me that, despite the strong Arminian criticism of compatibilism, their statements regarding justification are actually an affirmation of the essence of compatibilism!

Hopefully, though both groups charge one another with incoherence, we can be thankful that essential truths of Scripture are being affirmed, even though we can’t figure out how.

The puzzlement of Calvinists

Calvinists are used to strong objections from Arminians that their belief in God’s meticulous divine control of the world is compatible with the belief that humans act morally responsibly. Regularly, we hear our position described with images like a chess game in which God moves people around like pawns, or we are told that God is responsible for all the evil acts of his moral creatures if they do not have libertarian freedom, and if they can not use it in ways that result from an intentional self-limitation on God’s part.

I am not alone in finding it difficult to give an account of just how these two facts taught in Scripture (strong divine sovereignty and authentic choice by moral creatures) are compatible. Some Calvinists appeal to mystery, to the hiddenness of God and his ultimate incomprehensibility, thereby discouraging attempts to explain compatibilism, which must be affirmed simply because Scripture teaches both truths. Many appropriate the framework offered by Jonathan Edwards in this regard. And some offer additional suggestions of ways in which the tension between these truths may be reduced, if not eliminated. It is to this end that I have ventured my hypothesis regarding universally sufficient enabling grace, and my suggestion that it is helpful to assume that God makes use of his natural knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely free action in his choice of the world he actualizes. This reminds some of the Molinist effort to help out Thomism, by postulating divine middle knowledge, but it differs very importantly, because it ascribes to moral creatures only the freedom to act voluntarily, not the freedom to have acted otherwise than they do, in any situation where they are morally responsible.

Whether Calvinists assert that explanation of compatibilism is both impossible and unnecessary, or whether one suggests ways in which its coherence is defensible, compatibilism itself always looks to Arminians to be irrational and impossible. Some would even say that it is “dangerous,” because of their conviction that it impugns the goodness of God.

In Who Can Be Saved? (250-57),  however, I discussed briefly an interesting indication that Calvinists themselves sometimes feel the force of the objection to monergism that is fundamental in most forms of synergism (e.g., Molinism, Arminianism, and open theism). It sometimes comes up in the way in which Calvinists speak of the process of sanctification. Anthony Hoekema’s statement that, “Though sanctification is primarily God’s work in us, it is not a process in which we remain passive but one in which we must be continually active” (Saved by Grace, 201 [emphasis mine]). His speaking of sanctification as primarily God’s work might leave the impression that it is secondarily ours; hence, we would work together and God’s work would not be determinative, as it is in justification. Hoekema, however, later sums up his treatment of the doctrine with a clear rejection of synergism in sanctification, but he is aware that not everyone has avoided this error in their manner of speaking. He writes: “Should we say, as some have done, that sanctification is a work of God in which believers cooperate? This way of stating the doctrine, however, wrongly implied that God and we each do part of the work of sanctification” (201 [emphasis mine]). It is significant, however, that, among the “some” who have done this, Hoekema identifies the venerable Louis Berkhof, citing his Systematic Theology (p. 534).

More recently, Calvinistic Baptist Bruce Demarest has written: “Sanctification is a cooperative venture; the Spirit blesses believers with sanctifying grace, but the latter must faithfully cooperate therewith. Faith alone justifies but faith joined with our concerted efforts sanctifies” (The Cross and Salvation, 425). I cite other instances of this from noted Calvinists (Who Can Be Saved?, 252n61), but I will not provide further details here. I go on to tell the story of my own change of concept and language on this matter, thanks to lengthy correspondence on the subject with Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday (253n62). I had taught for some years that justification is monergistic but sanctification is synergistic, having followed the lead of Calvinist theologians from whom I had learned. But I came to realize that

if we import synergism into our doctrine of sanctification to address this perceived problem [the mystery of compatibilism], we commit theological suicide as monergists. If we insist that salvation is all of grace, it will not do to argue that although our justification is accomplished by monergistic efficacious grace, our sanctification is achieved through a synergistic cooperation between God and ourselves. If the latter were the case, then final salvation would be brought about through a synergism, and all monergist complaints that synergism undermines the absoluteness of God’s grace in salvation would come back to haunt the Calvinists who describe sanctification synergistically. (Who Can Be Saved?, 253)

I say all this simply to give evidence that Calvinist theologians feel the tension generated by compatibilism, and sometimes highly competent Calvinistic theologians wander into synergism.

The puzzlement of Arminians

It was perhaps about a year ago that it suddenly dawned on me that Arminians feel a puzzlement, in regard to their incompatibilist soteriology, not unlike the one that Calvinists experience concerning their compatibilism. Whereas evidence of the tension for Calvinists comes out in their doctrine of sanctification, it dawned on me that Arminians experienced it in regard to justification. In the doctrine of sanctification,  Calvinists feel the pull of synergism, but in the doctrine of justification, Arminians feel the pull of monergism.

On a number of occasions, over the course of many years, I have had conversations with Arminians about what Calvinists commonly perceive to be a problem in their synergistic soteriology. I talked about this briefly in Who Can Be Saved? (238-39).

It seems to us that if salvation is realized through cooperation between God and the person saved, the absolute graciousness of salvation is compromised. Since the difference between those who are saved and those who are not lies within the action of the believer, it seems that these believers have cause for self-congratulation and that God’s glory in salvation has been compromised (Eph 2:8-9). Thus, Ardel Caneday and Thomas Schreiner complain that “if we are ultimately responsible for our faith, then we can brag about our decision to believe” (The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, 318).

In many conversations about this, Arminians have argued that believers cannot boast because they simply accepted a free gift. Although I acknowledged the significance of grace in most synergistic theologies, I observed that the critical difference between those who believe and those who do not is found in the believers rather than in God’s gracious work. As I wrote,

Since God enables all equally, the outcome is determined by the people who must respond to God’s initiative. I fail to see why believers should not be commended for having responded to grace. However small their contribution has been, it was the decisive factor. (Who Can Be Saved?, 239)

What struck me, as I pondered the issue earlier this week, is that Arminians are struggling with a tension in their theology of justification that is analogous to the tension Calvinists have evidenced in regard to sanctification. It has dawned on me that, despite the strong Arminian criticism of compatibilism, their statements regarding justification are actually an affirmation of the essence of compatibilism!  They are trying to hold together the “grace aloneness” (sola gratia) of justification with the decisiveness of the human decision to believe. This “compatibilist” construction looks as incoherent to Calvinists as the Calvinist compatibilism (between efficacious grace in salvation and human responsibility for unbelief) looks to Arminians.

A plea for respect and charity between evangelical brothers and sisters who differ about whether monergism or synergism most faithfully represents God as he has revealed himself to us

Since I wrote Who Can Be Saved? (in 2004), I have become more sensitive to Arminians’ protest at the Calvinist contention that they diminish the graciousness of God’s saving work. This is not because I now think that their doctrine is coherent, or that I am less puzzled at their insistence that people who place their faith in Christ for salvation have done nothing worthy of congratulation; it is because I respect the sincerity of their desire to magnify the grace of God, and I am delighted at this. Even though their doctrinal construction looks incoherent to me, I am grateful that they want to give all the glory for their salvation to God and his grace, considering themselves as having done nothing about which they can boast.

In the last couple years, I have read (and cited in earlier posts on this blog) statements by synergists who charge Calvinists with portraying God as evil, and as responsible for all the evil done by the creatures whom he governs. In Calvinism they find it difficult to distinguish between God and the devil. I understand that they find compatibilism incoherent, and that they believe that its logical trajectory absolves humans of sin and attributes the guilt for evil doing to God. I recommend, however, that they make a clear distinction (as I have heard some of them do), between what Calvinists believe and where Arminians think the logic of the Calvinist position should take them. Calvinists need to do the same in regard to Arminians. As I have learned to rejoice that Arminians want to give glory to God alone for their salvation, so I hope Arminians will learn to be thankful that Calvinists believe that human beings have a freedom that warrants their moral responsibility for their actions, and that they believe that God is genuinely responsive to people. To people of both theological schools, the theological construction of the other looks incoherent, but we can rejoice that members of the other group does not believe what we think their theology should lead them to believe. Hopefully, though both groups charge one another with incoherence, we can be thankful that essential truths of Scripture are being affirmed, even though we can’t figure out how. 



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “Compatibilism: a puzzlement for both Arminians and Calvinists”

Yes, I have had quite a struggle with that problem in Arminian theology—why do some accept the free gift and others don’t? That’s probably THE biggest problem with any “free will theology,” because even with prevenient grace drawing everyone towards God, some resist the call and some do not. What’s the reason for this? If we say it’s because the person who became a believer was smarter, more spiritual, or simply more receptive, than we have to admit that not everyone is on equal ground. If we say it is because the believer got an extra measure of grace, then we might as well call it Calvinism because God chose to give that person enough grace to be saved while withholding sufficient grace for others.

Where does all this get us? How can we respond? Is an Arminian proclaiming salvation by works, meaning her own effort?

No. That won’t do.

I admit it is a frustrating question, and we can place some of the weight (as we always seem to do) on mystery. Which mysteries do we think are healthier, the Calvinist mysteries or the Arminian mysteries? For now, I must be satisfied with saying that, although salvation is completely a work of God, it is offered to everyone while only some accept it. God gives us a free choice and we can accept or refuse it without any merit or work on our part.

As Ken Keathley wrote,
“If all hearers are equally enabled by grace to receive the Gospel, and one person accepts the Message while another person rejects it, then does not this mean that in some way the first person is more virtuous than the second? This is a difficult objection, but two points should be kept in mind. First, this objection seems to see faith as some sort of work while the Bible consistently contrasts faith from works (Rom 3:21-4:8). Faith, by its very nature, is the opposite of works because it is an admission of a complete lack of merit or ability. The beggar incurs no merit when he opens his hands to receive a free gift. Second, the mystery is not why some believe, but why all do not believe. This again points to the mystery of evil. There is no merit in accepting the Gospel but there is culpability in rejecting it” (Salvation and the Sovereignty of God).

Which mysteries do we think are healthier, the Calvinist mysteries or the Arminian mysteries?

I think you hit on the crux of the debate. The ramifications of not being able to answer the “mystery” of synergism, and why some respond to the gospel and some don’t, seem somewhat insignificant, when juxtaposed against the inability of Calvinism to explain how God could condemn someone for doing something that they were unable to do otherwise.

The former raises questions about God’s sovereignty. My understanding is that God’s is sovereign over His sovereignty. Ie. if He is truly sovereign, His sovereignty is not threatened by giving man a choice. Furthermore, factoring His complete lack of insecurity into the equation, this element gives me a greater appreciation for His sovereignty and doesn’t diminish my view of His rule. In other words, He can stack the deck against Himself and still win. This shouldn’t be hard for us to understand and we can easily agree to leave this as “mystery”.

The logical outcomes of the former, however, leave the Calvinist in a much more dicey situation. If we have to try to square the notions of God determining all things and, therefore, selecting some (even if that number is small) to be damned, with the idea that He is still, at the same time, love, we find ourselves in a theological pickle. We are now potentially dealing with another god and not the God of the Bible.

Peter, I think you’ve quite reasonably described the Calvinist position — it doesn’t often happen that one finds an opponent who understands. You’re absolutely correct that Calvinists take it as an axiom that Paul taught that some people may be built by God for the purpose of displaying wrath (Romans 9, of course).

Unfortunately, in all my reading I’ve found zero suggestion of a contrary reading of this. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I should ignore it in favor of context, as though the details weren’t made to support the context.

So I’m reading the Bible, and I find an apostle teaching me about God, and he says that. You tell me that this isn’t the God of the Bible; I tell you… I don’t know. What should I say?

Thank you for writing this article. I myself have come to realise I am no longer Calvinist, nor do I wish to wear a hat labelled “Libertarian Free Will Arminianism.”

The Bible clearly seems to articulate compatibilism and synergism.

It seems most useful to me that we acknowledge God is sovereign, and yet, willingly partners with man. Man is morally responsible for his actions, but without God’s grace, man’s will remains in bondage to sin. The extent to which God is the author of sin is the extent to which he created man capable of sin. The extent to which man is responsible for faith is the extent to which he had preference between bondage of his will to sin or bondage of his will to God. No merit for salvation is to be bestowed upon man, lest also the cost be bestowed too.

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