Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Calvin on Free Will

In this blog post, I get to tackle Book II, 2.1 - 4.8 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which deals especially with everyone's favorite doctrine of Calvin's, his doctrine of free will, or rather his doctrine of bondage of the will.

Now, before I begin, I think it's necessary to untangle two very distinct doctrines that don't have as strong a connection as one might at first think. Those two doctrines are providence and bondage of the will.

The doctrine of providence was dealt with back in Book I (see my post here). In Calvin's understanding, every event happens not only with God's foreknowledge but by his decree. This is obviously a tough idea to swallow (given that so many bad things happen) but Calvin defends it as scriptural.

The doctrine of bondage of the will described in this section of the Institutes is not the same thing by any means, because Calvin is not talking about our will being subject to the decree of God. Quite the opposite: our will is enslaved by the devil.

There is a relationship between these two doctrines, but ultimately if we're going to understand them both, we have to first uncouple them. I think a simple example helps to illustrate my point.

In the Garden of Eden, according to Calvin, Adam and Eve had free will. Their will was not bound by the power of evil. They had the power to choose good or to choose evil. So Calvin's doctrine of the bondage of the will starts after Adam's first sin.

However, Calvin's doctrine of God's providence starts before Adam's first sin. Calvin would say that even though Adam had perfectly free will in Eden, yet it was ultimately God's decree that determined everything. This is paradoxical and confusing, yet Calvin defends it.

So to me, personally, the doctrine of providence is way harder to understand than the doctrine of the bondage of the will. Bondage of the will in Calvin's theology can be seen in terms of cause and effect: Adam sinned, so human will was corrupted and is no longer free.

Providence, on the other hand, has no such explanation. It is all-pervasive in Calvin's thought. All things, good or bad, ultimately come down to the mysterious decree of God. Even when people have free will still God's providence reigns supreme, in some incomprehensible way.

Just one comment on this before continuing. Many people would wonder, "If it's all up to God's providence, why pray?" But Calvin would surely respond, "Why would you pray if it's not all up to God's providence?"

Calvin definitely believed that God answers prayers, and that the prayers of the faithful can actually change the course of events. How does he reconcile that with his doctrine of providence? In some sense, he doesn't; whatever mystery is lurking there he just ignores.

But in another sense, there's no need to reconcile prayer with providence; for Calvin they go hand in hand. Calvin was no deist. He didn't believe in a far off God who determined everything long ago and is now simply watching. Quite the opposite: for Calvin, God is always close to whatever is happening. This is where prayer makes the most sense.

I could spend all eternity trying to hash this out, but I haven't said anything yet about Calvin on free will. The basic doctrine is simple enough: "Man has now been deprived of freedom of choice and bound over to miserable servitude" (this is the heading to Book II, Chapter 2). Don't you love Calvinism?

I find that Calvin here deals with lots of philosophical arguments in his development of the doctrine. Although he is blunt, he is also aware of and sensitive to many philosophical and theological questions about how we should view free will.

He understands that there are two errors to be avoided:
(1) When man is denied all uprightness, he immediately takes occasion for complacency from the fact; and, because he is said to have no ability to pursue righteousness on his own, he holds all such pursuit to be of no consequence, as if it did not pertain to him at all. (2) Nothing, however slight, can be credited to man without depriving God of his honor, and without man himself falling into ruin through brazen confidence.
Calvin's view, then, is simply the most intensely God-centered you can imagine: None of the credit belongs to us, and all of the blame belongs to us. We justly deserve blame for what we do wrong, but only God deserves credit for what we do right.

He sympathizes with the early Church Fathers who seemed to uphold free will, but from his point of view they were falling into error (1): they thought that if they denied free will, they would relieve humans of their responsibility to be righteous.

He criticizes the philosophers for falling into error (2): they fall into the belief that humans by our own efforts can purify ourselves and become righteous.

Calvin actually demonstrates himself to be a sort of compatibilist, in the sense that "man is necessarily, but without compulsion, a sinner." In other words, humans sin willfully and not because they are forced to; but yet because our very will is tainted, we will necessarily do evil and not good. So we are justly condemned, even though in some sense we can't help ourselves.

I find that discussions of the will are most confusing because it's difficult to talk about something outside of ourselves affecting something that is at the core of who we are. Calvin's doctrine of the will is not about the devil tying up our souls so that we no longer have a choice. It's something much, much deeper and scarier.

One way to gain power over someone is by being stronger and being able to force them to do what you want. The other way, which is much, much scarier, is to be able to lure them in so that they actually obey you even though they think they're doing what they want.

My friend once told me that choosing not to follow traditional moral codes is also a form of self-discipline. Choosing not to restrain one's sexual appetite, for example, is as true a decision as choosing to restrain it.

But if you sell yourself into slavery and call it freedom because you chose it, you're still a slave. That is the way the devil works. He is far more powerful than a strong man. He has no need to attack you. He simply waits while you come crawling to him willingly, thinking that you are exercising freedom in doing so.

This is how Calvin understood the state of the human will. I have to say, it's difficult not to agree with him; I see it both in scripture and in experience. In our world it is not the sin that we feel guilty for that worries me. It is the sin that we feel no guilt for, because we think we are doing right! That is the ultimate slavery.

Still, Calvin is not as unreasonable as some would take him to be on this issue. For instance, he says that it's okay to use the term "free will" if it is understood correctly: "If anyone, then, can use this word without understanding it in a bad sense, I shall not trouble him on this account. But I hold that because it cannot be retained without great peril, it will, on the contrary, be a great boon for the church if it be abolished. I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it."

But what about the good things that people do? Humans aren't utterly corrupt, are they? No, and Calvin actually praises the abilities that God has given people through his Spirit. This is one of the passages in Calvin that I most enjoyed reading:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
In other words, truth, wherever it is found, is God's truth, and all people who have such truth deserve our respect and honor. This is a great theological tradition, and I think we have a constant need in the Church to emphasize it.

But as for spiritual understanding, Calvin stresses that it is only by the Spirit that a person's will can ever be regenerated in order to seek the good. And he emphasizes that this is wholly the work of God, even after regeneration; he does not regenerate us only to then allow us to make up our minds, but he regenerates us completely, so that just as sin once had absolutely sway over our hearts, now righteousness does.

I have to wrestle with these ideas, but I've spent all my time just writing them down. Calvin's theology is so dense that it's hard to break it down into simple concepts that I can work with. The Institutes are 1400 pages long, and yet the only reason they're not three times as long is because Calvin's writing is so focused!

Maybe after I've let these ideas percolate a little while, I'll have more commentary to make.

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