Some thoughts of Calvinism and Free Will

There have been at least at least two blogs I’ve come across that tries to harmonise Molimism and Calvinism in the last 48 hours. This is a great time to capture some of my thoughts as one who is, for the most part, a Reformed Thomist (Amyraldian). Some may chose to call me a “Moderate Calvinist”.

A) What Calvinism is not

Normally, it is weird to start out defining something as what it is not. But when dealing with things of grave consequence (like apophatic theology!), starting with what something is not is helpful.

i) Calvinism is not only Augustinianism.
The New Calvinists love their Augustine: Luther was an Augustinian monk. But it was important to know that the Reformers were not monolithically Augustinians. Vermigli and Zwingli were educated as Thomists, and John Owen (English Puritan) was a Thomist. Calvin was educated as a Scholastic Lawyer so he may have a mix of Thomism and Scotism – not entirely sure.

What does this mean? At the minimum, there were nuanced (but important) differences between Augustinian and Thomistic Predestination and notions of depravity, and disagreement with Augustinianism cannot be a carte blanche denial of Calvinism proper.

ii) Calvinism is not just TULIP
Yes, the stock standard contemporary New Calvinist response is to say there is TULIP from the Synod of Dort. But consider the following from Calvin’s commentary

On his commentary on Acts 7:51 (“You stiffed-neck people, you resist the Holy Spirit.”)

“Whereby it appeareth what great account the Lord maketh of his word, and how reverently he will have us to receive the same. Therefore, lest, like giants, we make war against God, let us learn to hearken to the ministers by whose mouth he teacheth us.”

On his commentary on 1 John 2:2:

“Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ [63] suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.”

Prima Facie, Calvin both rejected Irresistible Grace (in favour of Irresitible Grace *for the willing*), and Limited Atonement (in favour of Available Atonement: Christ died potentially/sufficiently for the world, but efficiently/actually only for those who were in Him.) in his commentary.

This site/blog is also excellent in sustaining that Available Atonement, in rejecting Limited Atonement that Christ died only for the elect, is not a prerequisite of the Reformed tradition. Note that Available Atonement, to me, is not the same as Universal Atonement – that Christ died universally for everyone in now everyone can universally enter heaven.

In short, if anyone who consider those who reject any of the five point of TULIP is no longer a Calvinist, you’ve just out-Calvin’ed John Calvin himself.

iii) Calvinism is not just Christian Idealism
Jonathan Edwards was a philosophical idealist. Cornelius Van Til and Herman Dooyewaard were Idealists who paved the way to Presuppisitional Apologetics. Those two were the precusors to the Neo-Calvinists and the New Calvinists.

But on the Classical Theist side of the Reformed Spectrum, you also have Bavinck and Louis Berkof. R C Sproul himself is a Classical Theist who rejected Van Tillian Presuppositionalism and spoke highly of Aquinas. 

The sharpest distinction between the two is the issue of Divine Simplicity. Calvin, Baxter, Owen, Bavinck etc. were Divine Simplicitists. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms simplicity. But When is the last time you heard McArthur and Piper wrote on Simplicity?

In fact, my thesis is that TULIP and Divine Simplicity clash. Reason being: if you hold strongly to simplicity, God’s power is His Knowledge is His Mercy: simultaneous to God’s will of appointing the believers is God’s knowledge of them individually and whether they would have chosen God if God had effused them with healing grace and the quiescence of the will, without which all would reject the Gospel carte blanche. If any person knew of some way to save someone but chose not to, that is far removed from the concept of mercy and grace which we understand to be positive qualities, which hence must apply to God via positiva/eminentiae. The Canon of Dort appeared to favour God’s Power over His Mercy and His Knowledge rather than dealing with Divine Simplicity first and the entailment of co-equalness and simultaneity of those qualities. And if God’s power is co-equal with his omniscient and omnibenovolence,it is impossible for God to “pass anybody up” if he could have inclined them to believe in the first place, “however obstinate.” God has to determinately know and knowingly determinate simultaneously: that’s why “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48). Salvation has both an intrinsic factor (which leads to joyness) and extrinsic factor (God’s appointment and election) that is simultaneous.

B) What then is Calvinism/Reformed Theology?

Since it can be demonstrated that Calvinism is not just TULIP, Augustinianism, and the sort of Christian Idealism that Van Til (maybe Schaeffer even) expouse, the definition of Calvinism/Reformed will need to be evaluated. Furthremore, the issue of simplicity within the Reformed circles is also looming in the background.

What drew an Augustinian Monk (Luther), a lawyer trained in Scholasticism (John Calvin)    , a Thomist-Anabaptist (Zwingli), and many other of disparate background together? The key doctrine appears to be “Salvation by faith through Grace” that is through God alone, and the key approach to their theology is a love of expositional preaching and teching for the laity.

C) Calvinism and Free Will

If Salvation by faith through grace is a necessary foundation of Calvinism/Reformed theology, what then of free will?

Contemporary Calvinism (e.g. John Feinberg) has casted free will as the freedom to do as one desired by nature. As long as God can predestine things without violating your freedom/nature, both divine sovereignty and human freedom is compatible. When you slip in the doctrine of Limited Atonement, well, unless God supernaturally intervene, you are really just going about your merry way into condemnation. This fits well into the Synod of Dort, and why many of the New Calvinists embrace it:

“That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, “For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world,” Acts 15:18. “Who worketh all things after the counsel of his will,” Ephesians 1:11. According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while he leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, and merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.”

The issue here is that it rejects moral culpability. IF it’s in your nature to sin, how can you be held respondsible for sinning? Can Scripture legitimately even ask  “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” per Joshua 24:15?

This is another kicker: this modern adoption of compatbilistic free will that seemingly divorce moral culpability is not from Calvin: it is from Jonathan Edwards, and differs from Calvin.

Now, many of those who wish to affirm moral culpability in humanity in accepting or rejecting Christ, in their move to deny the Edwardsian compatibilism, would then embrace Libertarian Free Will, and often using Molinism as a platform to harmonise God’s grace with human decision. I used to be one of them. Libertarian Free Will, for the purpose of this article, is defined the following way citing from the SEP:

“A libertarian is an incompatibilist who believes that we in fact have free will and this entails that determinism is false, in the right kind of way (van Inwagen 1983). Traditionally, libertarians have believed that “the right kind of way” requires that agents have a special and mysterious causal power not had by anything else in nature: a godlike power to be an uncaused cause of changes in the world (Chisholm 1964). “

There are at least two issues at stake:

1) If, in Calvinism/Reformed Theology, you already affirm that there is such thing as a human nature warped by sin, then our human actions already has a trajectory pre-configured by our sinful nature. Romans 7:15-30 even suggest that our nature causes us to do what we don’t want:

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

2) What exactly does it mean by the word “will”

The Edwardsian compatibilists would equal the “will” as the “desire” and define free will accordingly so. What does the “will” in LFW means?  Molinists certainly associate LFW with creaturely freedom, so LFW has something to do with freedom. But just because I want to be free to fly like a bird does not mean I can. So what does that mean for LFW since our nature has causally determined what we can and cannot do?

In fact, without the Aristotelian-Thomistic differentiation of causes, can LFW actaully tease out the formal causation that our nature denies vs the efficient/agent causation that we still have in our powers as perscribed by our nature? I am personally inclined to say they Kant.

C) A sketch towards Thomistic Compatibilistic Free Will

In (A), lots were said about Thomism and its participation in Reformed history. The following is my brief sketch of what the Thomistic view of free will entails, as a neophyte Aquinian:

1) Our understanding and our nature interrelates with our will
Aquinas in S.Th 1, Q82 A4:


In this way the intellect moves the will, because the good understood is the object of the will, and moves it as an end.

2) Our will is free to decide what is good for us, but that understanding of what is good for us is an interplay between intellect* and our apettite, and our apetite can bent our reasoning:

By intellect, Aquinas does not mean “the leaning of our own understanding” (as I can see the Augustinians objection from a mile away). Instead, “Intellect, paraphrasing from S.Th 1Q54 and Q79, is merely the “power of understanding” – specifically, the ability to understand potentiality and actuality, form and matter ,essence and existence which comprises of being. In short, the intellect is “the knowing of anything.” in Aristotelian-Thomistic speak.


Block quoting Aquinas from S.Th 1 Q84:

I answer that, Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain. In order to make this evident, we must observe that some things act without judgment; as a stone moves downwards; and in like manner all things which lack knowledge. And some act from judgment, but not a free judgment; as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment, because it judges, not from reason, but from natural instinct. And the same thing is to be said of any judgment of brute animals. But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectic syllogisms and rhetorical arguments. Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will.
Reply Obj. 1. As we have said above (Q. LXXXI., A. 3, ad 2), the sensitive appetite, though it obeys the reason, yet in a given case can resist by desiring what the reason forbids. This is therefore the good which man does not when he wishes—namely, not to desire against reason, as Augustine says (ibid.).
Reply Obj. 2. Those words of the Apostle are not to be taken as though man does not wish or does not run of his free-will, but because the free-will is not sufficient thereto unless it be moved and helped by God.
Reply Obj. 3. Free-will is the cause of its own movement, because by his free-will man moves himself to act. But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.
Reply Obj. 4. Man’s way is said not to be his in the execution of his choice, wherein he may be impeded, whether he will or not. The choice itself, however, is in us, but presupposes the help of God.
Reply Obj. 5. Quality in man is of two kinds: natural and adventitious. Now the natural quality may be in the intellectual part, or in the body and its powers. From the very fact, therefore, that man is such by virtue of a natural quality which is in the intellectual part, he naturally desires his last end, which is happiness. Which desire, indeed, is a natural desire, and is not subject to free-will, as is clear from what we have said above (Q. LXXXII., AA. 1, 2). But on the part of the body and its powers man may be such by virtue of a natural quality, inasmuch as he is of such a temperament or disposition due to any impression whatever produced by corporeal causes, which cannot affect the intellectual part, since it is not the act of a corporeal organ. And such as a man is by virtue of a corporeal quality, such also does his end seem to him, because from such a disposition a man is inclined to choose or reject something. But these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason, which the lower appetite obeys, as we have said (Q. LXXXI., A. 3). Wherefore this is in no way prejudicial to free-will.
The adventitious qualities are habits and passions, by virtue of which a man is inclined to one thing rather than to another. And yet even these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason. Such qualities, too, are subject to reason, as it is in our power either to acquire them, whether by causing them or disposing ourselves to them, or to reject them. And so there is nothing in this that is repugnant to free-will.

iii) We need God’s grace to rise above our sinful nature and to do good. (That put Aquinas in the Augustinian tradition. Semi-Augustinian at the very least)

S.Th I-II Q109

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Hæres. lxxxviii.) that it is part of the Pelagian heresy that they believe that without grace man can fulfil all the Divine commandments.
I answer that, There are two ways of fulfilling the commandments of the Law.—The first regards the substance of the works, as when a man does works of justice, fortitude, and of other virtues. And in this way man in the state of perfect nature could fulfil all the commandments of the Law; otherwise he would have been unable to sin in that state, since to sin is nothing else than to transgress the Divine commandments. But in the state of corrupted nature man cannot fulfil all the Divine commandments without healing grace. Secondly, the commandments of the law can be fulfilled, not merely as regards the substance of the act, but also as regards the mode of acting, i.e., their being done out of charity. And in this way, neither in the state of perfect nature, nor in the state of corrupt nature can man fulfil the commandments of the law without grace. Hence, Augustine (De Corrept. et Grat. ii.) having stated that without grace men can do no good whatever, adds: Not only do they know by its light what to do, but by its help they do lovingly what they know. Beyond this, in both states they need the help of God’s motion in order to fulfil the commandments, as stated above (AA. 2, 3).


S.Th I,II Q110

For one is common, whereby He loves all things that are (Wis. 11:25), and thereby gives things their natural being. But the second is a special love, whereby He draws the rational creature above the condition of its nature to a participation of the Divine good; and according to this love He is said to love anyone simply, since it is by this love that God simply wishes the eternal good, which is Himself, for the creature.
Accordingly when a man is said to have the grace of God, there is signified something bestowed on man by God. Nevertheless the grace of God sometimes signifies God’s eternal love, as we say the grace of predestination, inasmuch as God gratuitously and not from merits predestines or elects some; for it is written (Eph. 1:5): He hath predestinated us into the adoption of children … unto the praise of the glory of His grace.


The concept of healing grace is unique in Aquinas. While not immediately obvious, it is is closely related to how God ultimately moved the will to choose God without forcing it:

S.Th. I Q105, a5


We proceed thus to the Fourth Article:—
Objection 1. It would seem that God cannot move the created will. For whatever is moved from without, is forced. But the will cannot be forced. Therefore it is not moved from without; and therefore cannot be moved by God.
Obj. 2. Further, God cannot make two contradictories to be true at the same time. But this would follow if He moved the will; for to be voluntarily moved means to be moved from within, and not by another. Therefore God cannot move the will.
Obj. 3. Further, movement is attributed to the mover rather than to the one moved; wherefore homicide is not ascribed to the stone, but to the thrower. Therefore, if God moves the will, it follows that voluntary actions are not imputed to man for reward or blame. But this is false. Therefore God does not move the will.
On the contrary, It is written (Phil. 2:13): It is God who worketh in us (Vulgate—you) both to will and to accomplish.

I answer that, As the intellect is moved by the object and by the Giver of the power of intelligence, as stated above (A. 3), so is the will moved by its object, which is good, and by Him who creates the power of willing. Now the will can be moved by good as its object, but by God alone sufficiently and efficaciously. For nothing can move a movable thing sufficiently unless the active power of the mover surpasses or at least equals the potentiality of the thing movable. Now the potentiality of the will extends to the universal good; for its object is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal being. But every created good is some particular good; God alone is the universal good. Wherefore He alone fills the capacity of the will, and moves it sufficiently as its object. In like manner the power of willing is caused by God alone. For to will is nothing but to be inclined towards the object of the will, which is universal good. But to incline towards the universal good belongs to the First Mover, to Whom the ultimate end is proportionate; just as in human affairs to him that presides over the community belongs the directing of his subjects to the common weal. Wherefore in both ways it belongs to God to move the will; but especially in the second way by an interior inclination of the will.
Reply Obj. 1. A thing moved by another is forced if moved against its natural inclination; but if it is moved by another giving to it the proper natural inclination, it is not forced; as when a heavy body is made to move downwards by that which produced it, then it is not forced. In like manner God, while moving the will, does not force it, because He gives the will its own natural inclination.
Reply Obj. 2. To be moved voluntarily, is to be moved from within, that is, by an interior principle: yet this interior principle may be caused by an exterior principle; and so to be moved from within is not repugnant to being moved by another.
Reply Obj. 3. If the will were so moved by another as in no way to be moved from within itself, the act of the will would not be imputed for reward or blame. But since its being moved by another does not prevent its being moved from within itself, as we have stated (ad 2), it does not thereby forfeit the motive for merit or demerit.

These are by no means an exhaustive picture of Thomistic Free Will, but they contain important sketch of what it is no less than and where it is superior to the contemporary options of LFW and Edwardsian Compatibilism.

In short: Aquinas’ picture has a complex interplay of many components. There is the complexity of the human will – that it is capable of knowing what is good and bad (“God’s law written on their heart”), but does not necessary incline to do good and incline to The Good all the time because of a warped nature that has a warped propensity to decide for the immediate good vs the Ultimate good.  Given this nature, God has to step in in Grace to provide Healing grace for us to rise up against our nature. This healing grace paves the way to… Quiescence of the will: in short, unless we actively refuse God’s grace, God is actively intervening to bring us to Salvation (not just Arminian woo-ing).

Dwight Stainslaw has also done an excellent job here in explaining the Thomistic conception of the human will and its compatibility with divine soverignty.






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