One of the core tenets of Calvinism is the belief that there’s no such thing as free will, particularly in regards to matters of salvation. What strikes me about this doctrine is that I’m not sure anyone really believes it. I realize that sounds odd, but consider: even those, like Luther and Calvin, who claim that the will is in total bondage contradict themselves throughout their writings, while St. Augustine (who Luther and Calvin considered the father of the doctrine) expressly denies it. Let’s consider each man in turn:
Martin Luther’s 1525 book On the Bondage of the Will argues that free will is an illusion, and that men are either the slaves to God, or the slaves to Satan:
Title Page, Martin Luther’s
On the Bondage of the Will
But this false idea of “free-will” is a real threat to salvation, and a delusion fraught with the most perilous consequences. If we do not want to drop this term [“free-will”] altogether – which would really be the safest and most Christian thing to do – we may still in good faith teach people to use it to credit man with “free-will” in respect, not of what is above him, but of what is below him. That is to say, man should realize that in regard to his money and possessions he has a right to use them, to do or to leave undone, according to his own “free-will” – though that very “free-will” is overruled by the free-will of God alone, according to His own pleasure. However, with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he has no “free-will”, but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.
Read that passage carefully, and consider the numerous ways in which Luther disproves his own point:
- If man has no free will, how can he choose to drop the term free-will altogether, as Luther suggests? For that matter, if man has no free will, how can he even want to drop the term free-will altogether? Desire, after all, is tied to the will.
- When Luther speaks of dropping the term free-will as being “the safest and most Christian thing to do,” how can he speak of actions on a spectrum of goodness? That is, how could one Christian option be any more safe or more Christian than another, if each is the direct result of the will of God? How could one of God’s actions be any safer or more Christian than any of His other actions?
- If man has no free will, how can Luther speak of us as teaching anything “in good faith”? Likewise, if man has no free will, how can Luther encourage men to “credit” themselves with free-will in respect to what is below them?
- Finally, and most centrally, Luther argues that “in all that bears on salvation or damnation, [man] has no “free-will”,” yet still claims that a particular doctrine (the doctrine of free will) “is a real threat to salvation.” If every man is a mere captive to the will of God (the saved) or the will of Satan (the damned) on matters of salvation, how could any doctrine pose a threat to salvation?
If the saved are completely slaves to God, unable of doing anything contrary to His Will, how would the existence of a false doctrine overcome the will of God? [The Calvinists ultimately recognized this absurdity, and created the doctrine of “Perseverance of the Saints” (and the related doctrine of being “Once Saved, Always Saved”) in response.]
(Sistine Chapel detail) (1510)
Another Protestant Reformer who talks himself in circles on free will is John Calvin, who carries Luther’s doctrines against free will to their logical end-point. Calvin, like Luther, denies the existence of man’s free will in regards to issues of salvation. But that poses a real problem for anyone who reads the numerous portions of the Bible that call us to convert. For example, Ezekiel 14:6 says, “Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” Now, that’s pretty plain Scripture, showing the clear existence of an authentic free will related to salvation: that the Israelites are capable of repenting, of turning away from idols, and turning away from abominations.
You might think that since Calvin denied such a will existed, he’d find some way of shirking the plain meaning of the passage. Nope, on the contrary, Calvin’s exegesis of the passage only reinforces these realities:
Now God shows why he had threatened the false prophets and the whole people so severely, namely, that they should repent; for the object of God’s rigor is, that, when terrified by his judgments, we should return into the way. Now, therefore, he exhorts them to repentance. Hence we gather the useful lesson, that whenever God inspires us with fear, he has no other intention than to humble us, and thus to provide for our salvation, when he reproves and threatens us so strongly by his prophets, and in truth is verbally angry with us, that he may really spare us.
Consider something that actually lacks a free will, like a robot programmed to perform certain tasks. Does it make any sense to threaten, to terrify, to exhort, to inspire, to humble, or to reprove that robot? Of course not. If we yell at our computers, it’s because we’re acting in irrational anger. Yet this is exactly how Calvin describes God.
More than that, Calvin says that God does all of these things to and for us, so that we should repent, so that He may spare us. If one believes in the existence of free will related to salvation, Calvin’s exegesis makes perfect sense, and is quite good here. But if you deny the reality of such a free will, as Calvin himself did, then this exegesis makes no sense.
The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 (1890).
For example, in his famous City of God, he writes of how when the Visigoths pillaged Rome, they raped “not only wives and unmarried maidens, but even consecrated virgins.” Augustine is aware that these women are guilt-ridden, feeling “shame, lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some assent of the will.”
In response, he assures them that they needn’t be ashamed, and indeed, that they haven’t violated their vow of virginity, since “the purity both of the body and the soul rests on the steadfastness of the will strengthened by God’s grace, and cannot be forcibly taken from an unwilling person.” He explains this conclusion from the following principle:
Let this, therefore, in the first place, be laid down as an unassailable position, that the virtue which makes the life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will; and that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin.
Now, this is pretty basic Christianity. Fornication is a mortal sin, but a person isn’t guilty of fornication (or any sin) by being raped. These women were victims, not sinners, and Augustine goes to great lengths to make that unambiguously clear. Yet to take Luther and Calvin’s arguments seriously, the difference between fornication and rape would disappear, since no free will exists in either case.
Augustine’s argument echoes those Fathers who came long before even his own time. For example, St. Justin Martyr wrote, back in 151 A.D., denouncing the pagan view of immutable Fate:
“We have learned from the prophets and we hold it as true that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are distributed according to the merit of each man’s actions. Were this not the case, and were all things to happen according to the decree of fate, there would be nothing at all in our power. If fate decrees that this man is to be good and that one wicked, then neither is the former to be praised nor the latter to be blamed.”
Put another way, if the Lutheran-Calvinist view of the bondage of the will were true, every bad action we commit would be as far beyond our control as the rape of the Roman virgins was to them. And just as they could not be justly condemned for actions that they could not resist, neither can we be condemned for the actions we cannot resist.
Admittedly, free will is a bit of a mystery. We don’t fully grasp what it is, or how it works. It puzzles theists and atheists alike. But we can be sure that it exists, in part because it is necessary for God’s Justice, and in part because we cannot coherently speak of it not existing (any more than we can coherently speak of a self-caused universe arising without God).
As St. Justin Martyr notes, free will has to exist for God’s rewards and punishments to be Just. St. Augustine reaffirms this, and applies this principle, explaining that those actions done to us that we do not will, cannot be imputed to us as sins. What matters is not what happens to us, but what we will. Thus, it is wrong to condemn the virgins of Rome as fornicators when they were raped. It would be infinitely more wrong to send them to Hell for being raped.
All of this, in addition to being logically necessary, is self-evident. That is, each of us experiences free will, even if we choose to deny it. It’s for this reason that even those, like Luther or Calvin, who set out to deny free will (at least as pertains to issues tied to salvation) cannot help but speak as if it exists. Because it does. And we can observe it does.