Theology Proper

My compatibilist proposal

Incompatibilism: the core of Olson’s objection to Calvinism

In our journey through Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, I have drawn attention to the prominence of theodicy in Roger’s objections to Calvinism. In his view, God would be a moral monster if he were meticulously sovereign but deliberately rendered certain the horrific evils that have occurred in human history. Among those evils, the assignment of many human beings to hell ranks high. If the Calvinist account of God were true, Roger asserts, God would be morally responsible for sin and evil and would therefore be an evil being, one whom we could not possibly worship.

At the core of  Roger’s rejection of Calvinism is his belief that compatibilism is nonsense. It is impossible to hold humans morally responsible for their sin when God has rendered that sin certain. That creatures are morally responsible is unquestionably evident to Roger, in Scripture. Since this could not be the case if God were meticulously sovereign, given the incoherence of compatibilism, God is clearly not meticulously sovereign, determining every event of history.

The planks of my compatibilist platform

I don’t deny the force of Roger’s approach. It has led many, indeed probably most, Christians into synergism. But I am a compatibilist, otherwise accurately identified as a soft determinist. As concisely as possible, I will identify the main planks of the structure that constitutes my own particular compatibilist understanding. Much of this will be familiar from Roger’s description of the theology of representative Calvinist theologians, but some of it has a distinct nuance.

1.  When asked to reconcile human freedom with predestination, Charles Spurgeon said: “I never reconcile friends” (cited by J. I. Packer). I concur. Arminians and Calvinists agree that Scripture teaches that humans are morally responsible, that is, that God has given us the sort of freedom necessary to ground moral accountability. We disagree, however, regarding Scripture’s teaching concerning the extent to which God has chosen to be in control of the details of human history. Like other Calvinists, I learn from Scripture, both from its explicit declarations and from its narrative account, that God is completely in control, so that everything that occurs is according to his eternal purpose. God’s comprehensive foreknowledge of the events of history proceeds from his choice to actualize the world with precisely that history, in all its details. Since Scripture teaches both of these, they are clearly compatible with one another. But how is this so?

2.  Although orthodox Christian synergists and monergists agree that humans are morally responsible, they frequently disagree about what sort of freedom that entails. I call “hard compatibilism,” the belief that creatures are libertarianly free (having the power of contrary choice) and God is meticulously sovereign. That view was classically defended by Thomas Aquinas.

Scripture does not explicitly say what sort of freedom God has given moral creatures, but I find most plausible the “soft compatibilism,” that understands humans to be free and morally responsible provided they act voluntarily, without external coercion. Scripture indicates that God knows counterfactuals of human action, but this would be impossible if humans were libertarianly free, so I conclude that we are not. Jonathan Edwards is often cited by Calvinists for his helpful account of soft compatibilist freedom. Edwards spoke of “affections,” I think of it in terms of the complex of our desires, motivations, habits, dispositions etc. All of these, taken together, form our personal being and, when we are faced with a decision, the decision we will take could be predicted by someone who knew us and our circumstances completely. (This is what makes God’s knowledge of counterfactuals possible too.) It is we who make those decisions, but the “we” who makes them is a particular entity who would always decide in that way in exactly those circumstances.

3.  Provided we do what we wanted to do, we are morally responsible for our actions. When we do what is objectively wrong we are objectively guilty. But what God holds us accountable for is subjective guilt, the instances in which we do what we believe to be wrong, even if we are mistaken about that. On such occasions we sin, and we do so because we intentionally, and without coercion, do what we “know” to be wrong. Our motives, therefore, are evil, and it is motivation that gives the moral quality to actions.

4.  In his meticulous sovereignty, God chose this particular world and all of its history, down to the finest detail, including the sinful acts of morally responsible creatures. It is true that, having chosen this world and its history, God rendered that history certain. But he is not himself morally responsible for the sin that occurs, and the evil that results from it, because his own motives in choosing this particular world were pure and good at every point.

5.  Although everything that happens is part of the world God chose, and is therefore “determined” by God, his personal action is not of the same sort in every instance. I posit a kind of moral entropy in the moral realm, similar to the physical entropy that is a fact of the created physical world. Only God has life in himself (Jn 5:26), and everything else that exists does so only by God’s creation and continual sustaining. Likewise, only God is good intrinsically and self-sufficiently. The moral goodness of all moral creatures, like their life, persists only so long as God maintains it. God created everything good, but not self-sufficiently good. I take this to be the substructure of the common Calvinist distinction between those things which God deliberately effects and those which he deliberately permits. He is morally accountable for what he effects, but he only effects what is morally good. He is not morally accountable for the evil he deliberately permits creatures to do because the sinfulness of those actions derives completely from the evil disposition of the creature.

6.  God’s knowledge of counterfactuals significantly enhances the compatibility between God’s determining and human moral agency. God is able to actualize a world whose total history is of God’s choosing, but in which a large part of that history comes about with minimal divine “intervention” and maximal human freedom. This is what makes it possible for God to achieve his purposes without coercing moral creatures or depriving them of genuine agency.

7.  I agree with John Feinberg that “modified rationalism does not demand that God create the best world or even a better world than some other good world. It only requires God to create a good possible world” (No One Like Him, 795). (Interestingly, when I sat in on Richard Swinburne’s seminar on “Providence and Evil,” in Oxford back in 1995, though his own perspective is basically Open Theist, he made the same point.) The concept of a “best possible world,” is incoherent.

8. I also agree with Feinberg’s “integrity of humans defense” regarding evil (No One Like Him, 787-95). Feinberg demonstrates that the compatibilist freedom which God has given moral creatures offers more constraints than libertarians (and probably many compatibilists too!) generally realize. Feinberg asserts that there is “reason to believe it may be harder for God to get us to do right than we think. . . . It might turn out that God would have to constrain many people to do things he needed done in order to organize circumstances to convince a few of us to do the right thing without constraining us. Of course, that would contradict compatibilistic free will for many of us, and would do so more frequently than we might imagine. Moreover, one begins to wonder how wise this God is if he must do all of this just to bring it about that his human creatures do good. Why not at the outset just make a different creature who couldn’t do evil? But of course, that would contradict God’s decision to make humans, not subhumans or superhumans” (790). Feinberg walks us through eight ways in which God might have gotten rid of evil and excellently demonstrates why “none of them would be acceptable” (790-94).

Feinberg then concludes: “This discussion about what God would have to do to remove moral evil shows that God cannot remove it without contradicting his desires to make the kind of creature and world he has made (causing us to doubt the accuracy of ascribing to him attributes such as wisdom) or making a world we wouldn’t want and would consider more evil than our present world” (794).

9.  The most speculative plank in my compatibilist structure is my proposal of universal sufficient grace. This is too complex to describe in detail here, but interested readers can find it unpacked in Who Can Be Saved?,  through the pages I have identified in the Index. In sum, I propose that “it may be that God gives everyone sufficient grace to enable them to believe in him but that he only draws and persuades effectively the elect. Not only does everyone receive revelation sufficient to lead to salvation if responded to with faith, but at least once in everyone’s life that divine revelation is accompanied by a divine enabling that makes a faith response possible, in the sense that people are justly condemned for failing to believe when God is made known to them on that occasion” (Who Can Be Saved?, 239). I think that this proposal has considerable explanatory force relative to puzzling biblical truths such as: (1) the fact that final judgment is on the basis of “acts done in the body,” and is never referred back to original guilt; (2) God is distressed at the unbelief of the non-elect; (3) believers are as holy as God has determined to make us but responsible for not being more so.

Summing up

 I believe God to be good and to have chosen to create a good world. I accept the wisdom of his having chosen to create a world with compatibilistically free creatures. I acknowledge that “moral evil has come as a concomitant of a world populated with human beings” (Feinberg, 795). I admit  that God’s reasons for his choosing this particular world are not ultimately revealed to me but, given the above, I find nothing incoherent in affirming simultaneously that God is good, that he is meticulously sovereign, and that he justly punishes some of the human race and some of the angelic creatures without remediation.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

2 replies on “My compatibilist proposal”

Hi Terry,

Interesting post. I was reading carefully your proposal under number 9 and it brought to mind some thoughts and questions.

1. You say that God has given everyone sufficient grace but only effective for the elect. This is not a new concept if in it you are communicating the concept related to the atonement that says that Christ died sufficiently for all but only effectively for the elect. Is this close to what you are saying? If so, then, who did Christ die for and what does that do to the significance of the atonement?

2. If you are using the word ‘grace’ in this context but it does not actuate faith, is it not closely resembling common grace and not saving grace? And if it is approaching the grace of the saving kind are you not then diminishing the force of the word ‘grace?’

3. If God provides a divine enabling to every human being how does this work if enabling grace is only given to the elect unless you believe that everyone is elect? Is this not just dangling the carrot?

4. How does your proposal of universal divine enabling differ from prevenient grace?

5. If everyone is given sufficient grace whereby a faith decision were possible how does this square with depraved inability?


Tony, you have asked very good questions. I want to answer them adequately, so I hope to respond to your questions in the next few days in a post rather than an as a reply in this comment thread. I have decided that when I do give those brief answers to your questions, I will put together a document, in pdf format, which includes the pages from chapter of my book in which I made this proposal, and the appendix in which I provided the biblical rationale for it.

If you are sufficiently interested to work through my post and that material in the “Documents” section (which won’t be very long), I am hopeful that your questions will be answered. If you need further clarification, however, please raise your follow up questions on the blog post and we can converse about it there rather than here.


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