God, Creation, and the Presence of Sin: Calvinism’s Dilemma

The Bible is clear that God loves righteousness and holiness, abhors sin, and desires his creation to choose righteousness and holiness. This is evident prior to the fall (Gen 2:17), immediately subsequent to the fall as seen in his swift judgment upon sin (Gen 3:14–24); the repeated calls for holiness prior to his covenant with Israel (Gen 7:1, 15:6, 18:19), to Israel (Lev 11:44, 19:2, 20:7), in the gospels (Matt 3:2; 5:6, 20, 48; 6:33; 11:20), and to the church (Eph 5:3–9; 1 Pet 1:15–16). Calvinists unwaveringly claim to believe this as much as Extensivists do.[1] However, their commitment to decretal theology and compatible freedom of mankind with its resultant micro-determinism, upon closer scrutiny, does seem to eviscerate such obvious teachings of Scripture.[2]

Their reliance upon secondary causes is insufficient to adequately distance God from being the ultimate reason for sin because if God endowed man with compatible freedom and man chose to sin, then God did, in fact, have to desire to create man to inevitably sin. To wit, while it is, according to compatibilism, technically true God did not cause sin, it is equally true he did desire for man to sin. At the outset, I am rejecting “it is a mystery” as a satisfactory answer to this inevitable dilemma generated by consistent Calvinism. Consider the following commitments in Calvinism.

Calvinism’s commitment to decretive theology and compatibilism means God’s foreknowledge consists of that which he foreordained rather than including actual contingencies of libertarian free beings (the results of otherwise choice). Given that Adam and Eve did choose to sin and God endowed them with compatible freedom, we can say God created them so they would unalterably freely choose to sin. This assurance is evident in light of a proper understanding of compatibilism. In point of fact, according to compatibilism and consistent Calvinism, God did not have to create them so they would freely choose to sin. Nevertheless, he did so choose to create them where they would inevitably freely choose to sin. This choice was by God’s design to disallow the freedom to have actually chosen not to sin in the moral moment of decision, given the nature and past God gave to Adam and Eve.

Accordingly, Calvinists’ references to Scriptures that teach God abhors sin, desires man to live holy and abstain from sin, and holds man responsible for his sin are, in a substantially significant way, inconsistent with the essential elements of consistent Calvinism. While Scripture does portray all of the aforementioned elements Calvinism proclaims, it also teaches man’s choice to sin was against God’s desire and will for him. This means man’s sin is due to an incalculably egregious misuse of his freedom. Such is the result of God comprehending the permission to misuse libertarian freedom in his coextensive creation-redemption plan without desiring that man would so choose.

Calvinist William T. Shedd says permission to allow sin “is one that occurs by a voluntary decision of God, which he need not have made, had he so pleased. He might have decided not to permit sin; in which case it would not have entered the universe.”[3] (italics added) We all agree nothing, including sin, is outside of the sovereign governance of God, and that nothing can exist apart from his will, which includes permitting things that are contrary to his consistent desire for holiness. The difference is in Extensivism, God created man knowing he would choose to sin but had so designed man that it was not predetermined that he would ultimately choose to sin. It also includes God surely did not desire for him to sin. In Calvinism, however, the word desire is determinatively impregnated well beyond God’s mere knowledge of libertarian contingencies.

If one is unfamiliar with the unflinching determinism of Calvinism and the compatible freedom of man, this distinction can be easily missed when reading statements like the one above from Shedd. Consistent with compatible freedom, God could have created man without the possibility of sin if that would have pleased him. In other words, according to Calvinism because of its commitment to compatibilism, the reality of sin is not inextricably connected to the creation of man and the cosmos. This means Calvinism necessarily believes God desired to create and also desired his creation would be wracked by sin when he did not have to desire the latter. Importantly, note that Shedd says nothing of God’s decision to disallow sin in the universe requiring man or Lucifer not be created. Such might be the case when the same consideration is made in light of man being endowed with libertarian freedom, but that is not the case if man is endowed with compatible freedom, as Calvinists believe.

In light of compatibilism, it seems Shedd is quite clearly advocating that God could have created angels and man without sin entering the universe. Such statement is an accurate portrayal of the presence of sin if man has a compatible freedom. That is to say, God desired to create beings so they would freely choose to sin, but they could not have chosen to refrain from sinning, given the nature and past that he gave them. Most precisely, Adam and Eve’s sin, as well as everyone’s, is the consequence of God’s predetermined decision to create beings with compatible freedom, which inviolably leads to beings making a free decision to sin. It is true compatibilism entails the person does freely choose to sin according to his greatest desire that emanates from his nature or past. It is equally true of compatibilism that man could not have freely chosen to not sin in the moral moment of decision—given the same past. This is true both before and after the fall.

This is not to say Calvinists do not speak in terms that seem to argue the opposite, but rather that such talk is inconsistent with compatibilism. For example, Shedd says, “Leaving the unfallen will to its self-determination would not make its apostasy certain; because it was endowed by creation with a power to remain holy as created, and there was no punitive withdrawal of any grace given in creation until after apostasy. How, under these circumstances, a permissive decree which does not operate by direct efficiency can make the fall of a holy being certain, is an inscrutable mystery.”[4] (italics added)

It is only a mystery because Shedd attempts to absolve God of involvement and proximation to sin contrary to the way that decretal theology (God’s foreknowledge is of what he predestines rather than contingencies from otherwise choice) and compatibilism require; consequently, rather than resolving this dilemma, Calvinists neatly place their Calvinistically-generated quandary behind the veil of “inscrutable mystery.” Because, if left unveiled, one must face the entailments of compatibilism and its incoherence with Scripture and the nature of God. This incoherence does not exist with libertarian free humans.

Discussions between Extensivists and Calvinists are impeded by the combination of two pervasive practices by Calvinists. First, they repeatedly denounce libertarian freedom (resulting in contingencies, which are non-determined outcomes) in multiple ways while simultaneously extolling decretal theology, compatibilism, and God’s foreknowledge being virtually identical to foreordination.[5]  Second, Calvinists constantly speak libertarianly in scenarios that expose the incompatible relationship between Scripture and God desiring sin, God as the ultimate cause of sin, and the congruence of God’s universal salvific love and reprobation. This includes every passage in which God commands man to do one thing when (according to Calvinism) he has already predetermined him to do another. Such passages clearly and repeatedly indicating man is to make a real choice between two accessible options each with concomitant consequences; some of which God does not desire for man.

Commonly we find Calvinists contrasting compatibilism with libertarianism so that libertarianism is discarded as unbiblical and undermining of God’s sovereignty. Then, sometimes in the next paragraph or within the same commentary upon a verse that clearly is in conflict with properly defined compatibilism, they seek to divest compatibilism of its unflinching determinism, or at least speak of it in such a way as to obscure its entailed determinism for most who read their comments.[6] Shedd suppresses the nature of compatibilism when he writes, “The answer is, that God’s predestinating in election and preterition is his making the origin of holiness in an elect sinner, and the continuance (not origin) of sin in a non-elect sinner.”[7] Additionally, Shedd refers to the meaning of the Westminster Confession with regard to the fall and the existence of sin preceding election and preterition when he says, “Election and preterition, consequently, have reference to the continuance of sin, not the origin of it.”[8]

While he may desire to limit the range of compatibilism’s determinism, it does nothing to explain how the same does not include the origin of sin in the household of compatibilism and decretive theology. Citing statements by others does not help because such inaccurate redundancy does nothing to explain how Calvinism’s reliance upon compatibilism can be satisfactorily reconciled with God not desiring (in significant measure) man to sin, and such desire being distinct from merely desiring in a permissive way since desired outcomes are as determined as any other outcome in compatibilism. One must not merely explain the continuance of sin but also its origin.

Even when Calvinists make a distinction between God’s desire and decrees, it does not satisfactorily address the issue because God desired the decrees also. Additionally, when the continuance of sin is reflected upon in a compatibilist sense (determined), one is still faced with God desiring every rape, murder, and act of disobedience of non-Christians and Christians alike. The only way to maintain an approach to Scripture based upon a compatibilism and decretal theology is to speak inconsistently which veils the true nature of compatibilism, thereby obscuring the heart of Calvinism.

Concerning the fall of the angels, which is the real beginning of sin in the universe, Shedd says, “When God placed some of the holy angels upon probation, and decided not to prevent their apostasy by extraordinary grace, they might, nevertheless, have continued in holiness, had they so willed. The origin of their sin is not, therefore, fully accounted for by the merely negative permission of God.”[9]

There are two things to note. First, he says, “God . . . decided not to prevent their apostasy by extraordinary grace.” This seems to mean God could have created angels to live in a holy state forever by simply supplying more grace; apparently, the same could be said of humankind, had God so chosen. That is to say, there is enough grace available for God to have created angels (and I assume mankind) so they would not sin, but sin happened because God decided against a universe with angels and mankind without sin and its inevitable suffering. Second, granting the angels who were tested by God could have continued in holiness if they “so willed” implies a libertarian view of free will, but Calvinism holds to a compatibilist view; they are mutually exclusive.

Therefore, minus the obfuscating language, Shedd is saying they could have continued in holiness “had they so willed,” but the reality is they could not will to do so without God having created them with a past or nature that emanated such desires, according to compatible moral freedom. These are disquieting realities within Calvinism. In addition, it appears only some angels were put to the test, which I understand to mean granted the ability to choose apostasy. This seems to bolster the evidence of God’s desire for freely chosen sin among only some of the angels.

Notice also God’s permission to sin (according to compatibilism and decretal theology) does not fully answer the question about the ultimate responsibility for their freely chosen sin, which they could not by God’s design have freely chosen not to commit. The idea of the permissive will of God within a compatibilist framework disallows any suggestion of otherwise choice; consequently, their ability to will to not sin is only hypothetically true and not actually true in the moral moment of decision.[10] Accordingly, once more, we see the ever-present Calvinistically-generated dilemma. God did, in fact, desire to create man to predeterminately freely choose to sin when he did not have to do so. Because if it had pleased God, he could have desired to create man to inviolably and freely choose not to sin, and both outcomes are reflective of compatibilism.

The explanation I am presenting is precisely consistent with compatibilism; consequently, it does not make the error of saying God “caused” man to sin, (i.e., that man did not freely choose) or that God does not employ secondary or tertiary causes. It simply explains the very nature of compatibilism and the reason there is the presence of sin in our universe. According to compatibilism, man freely chose according to his greatest desire and is therefore responsible, but in the moral moment of decision, he could not have actually chosen differently than he did.

This immediately raises the question of ultimate responsibility, which most plausibly seems to lead to only one place, and that is God. God’s creation of man with compatible freedom evidences God’s permission to allow sin and his actual predetermining desire for sin to happen to be synonymous; thus, the Calvinist’s difficulty of expounding the origin of sin in a consistently understandable way that removes any and every sense of God’s responsibility. They simply choose to remain compatibilists and declare such an “inscrutable mystery”.

For clarity’s sake, we all agree creation could only come about by God’s desire (including even the permission for libertarian beings to choose to sin when they did not have to do so). The dilemma of Calvinism is the desire of God included the unnecessary dimension of his desire for sin and all of its horror to exist, which was neither necessary to nor included in the simple desire to create moral beings as understood by libertarians and evidenced in Scripture. Moreover, since God could have created beings with compatible moral freedom with a different past, he could have created man, according to Calvinism and compatibilism, in which man’s greatest desire would have always been to not sin.

An element of confusion that compatibilists, and in our case, Calvinists, frequently employ is the idea of a hypothetical desire to do otherwise (as seen in Shedd’s explanation). If I would have desired to choose differently, I could have. However, the use of this idea actually fails to extricate Calvinism from its deterministic quandary, but it does give the appearance of doing so to the unsuspecting.[11] An essential element of their claim is, that yes, hypothetically, the individual could have chosen to do other than what he did, in fact, do if he had so desired (because choosing according to compatibilism means that the actor is considered to be morally responsible when he freely chooses according to his desire). But in every situation of reality, his desire from which he freely chose was developed by determinative antecedents of his past. For that reason, in reality, his desire could not have been different given the same past; therefore, his choice could not have been actually different in the moral moment of decision.

What Calvinists should say because it is the actual meaning of their claim, if my past would have been different, I would have had different desires, and I could have chosen differently. But given the past I had at the moral moment of decision, I could not have chosen differently. These statements highlight the fact that the claim (could act differently) is only hypothetically true (if another state of affairs would have existed), and not actually true (given the exact same state of affairs). Additionally, had the past history, laws of nature, or God’s determinative design been different, they not only could have chosen differently, but they necessarily would have chosen differently because they would have had a different greatest desire. Compatibilism’s desires are always the result of determinative antecedents.

That being the case, if the hypothetical moves into the real, it will be as determined as all other choices within compatibilism. Grasping what is clearly meant is crucial to preventing the hypothetical from obscuring the unflinching deterministic nature of the reality of a decision being made in the moral moment of decision (such as Adam and Eve at that point in time).

Another way to see the hollowness of their claim is to point to a real person. Let us call him Tom, who, in a real situation, chose to steal Sally’s watch. Then ask the compatibilist if Tom, given reality as it was (his past) at the moral moment of decision, could have chosen not to steal Sally’s watch instead of what he did in fact do. If the compatibilist understands compatibilism, he will have to say no. Therefore, claims that rely on the hypothetical otherwise choice only mask the determinism of compatibilism and Calvinism but do nothing to actually mitigate it.

A better alternative to the Calvinist position, which necessitates that it pleased God to create man to determinatively freely choose to sin, is God created human beings in his image with otherwise choice (libertarian freedom). Such a state of affairs seems to include the reality that one cannot guarantee such beings will not use their freedom to sin so long as that possibility is within their range of options (which is essential to the concept at the point of creation and is not so at the point of eternity). By God’s essential omniscience he foreknew everything, which included all contingencies of libertarian beings, one of which is that man would choose to sin.

His knowledge of such an eventuality was without his desire for that to be the choice of man beyond the desire to permit man to so misuse his freedom. God knew man would misuse his good gift of free will and choose to sin. He also knew he would overcome sin and all of its horror.[12] He freely chose to love, create, and redeem man by his coextensive creation-redemption plan. In view of that, we say God desired to create man in his image, with otherwise choice (capable of undetermined love, responsibility, blame, and honor) reflective of his own undetermined choice to create, redeem, and love.

Again I draw attention to Alvin Plantinga’s concept of “transworld depravity” which is reflective of the concept that it may very well be impossible to create beings with otherwise choice and guarantee that they will not use such freedom for evil so long as such a choice is within their range of options at the time. He writes, “What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong—that is, a world in which he produces moral good but no moral evil . . . Obviously it is possible that there be persons who suffer from transworld depravity. More generally, it is possible that everybody suffers from it. And if this possibility were actual, then God, though omnipotent, could not have created any of the possible worlds containing just the persons who do in fact exist, and containing moral good but no moral evil.”[13] This is a similar way of presenting the same truth as I have argued in that God permitted sin, but never desired for man to sin and suffer the horrors of his own choice.

Accordingly, within Calvinism, as God’s voluntary decision to not regenerate some could have been different if such would have so pleased him, in like manner, he could have created man so he would not have sinned had such been what God desired (so pleased him) as well; therefore, Calvinism entails the truth that not only could God have saved more than he did or even everyone, he also could have created man without sin. The only reason he did neither is because, according to the entailments of compatibilism and Calvinism, such simply did not please God, a disquieting reality.

[1] Extensivists, Extensivism is used in this article for those who reject Calvinism.

[2] Compatible moral freedom, compatibilism, says determinism and moral freedom (responsibility) are compatible. A person is considered to make a free choice so long as he chooses according to his greatest desire. However, determinative antecedents establish his desires. So he makes a free choice (chooses based upon his greatest desire), but his desires were determined by his nature, past events, or God. Therefore, the person makes a pre-determined free choice.

[3] Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, 94.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] MacArthur writes, “God’s foreknowledge is not a reference to His omniscient foresight but to His foreordination. He not only sees faith in advance but ordains it in advance.” Romans 1–8, 495.

[6] An example is professor emeritus Terrance L. Tiessen’s definitions of compatibilism that obscure the determinism of compatibilism as well as what libertarian freedom means and the mutually exclusive nature of libertarian freedom and compatible freedom, http://thoughtstheological.com/glossary/, accessed 7/13/17.

[7] Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, 91.

[8] Ibid., 92–93.

[9] Ibid., 419–20.

[10] Formally called “hypothetical analytical otherwise choice.”

[11] Regarding the use of the hypothetical or conditional “could have done otherwise,” Bernard Berofsky says, “The first prominent philosopher of the twentieth century to advance a compatibilist solution to the free will problem based on a conditional or hypothetical analysis was G.E. Moore (1912). Berofsky, “Ifs, Cans, and Free Will,” 182.

[12] See my article “Can Man Endowed With Libertarian Free Will Live Righteously Forever in Heaven? for more on how libertarian freedom coalesces with man living without sin in Heaven.

[13] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 48.