Calvinist D.A. Carson Fails to Acquit God of Causing Evil

D.A. Carson says of his position regarding moral freedom, “In the realm of philosophical theology, this position is sometimes called compatibilism. It simply means that God’s unconditioned sovereignty and the responsibility of human beings are mutually compatible.”[1] Commenting on Carson’s practice of improperly defining compatibilism (as he has done here), philosopher Paul Gould says, “Notice, what Carson means by compatibilism’s is just that freedom is compatible with divine sovereignty (not determinism). In other words, he is restating the fact that Scripture upholds both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (and freedom). But, importantly, his compatibilism’s isn’t compatibilism.”[2] That is to say, Carson defines compatibilism improperly–inaccurately.

Compatibilism, compatible moral freedom, actually means determinism and moral responsibility are compatible, hence the name. However, this compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism. Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he has made a free choice for which he is morally responsible; even though given the same past, he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Consequently, the difference between compatibilism (soft determinism) and hard determinism is not to be found in the levels of the deterministic nature of each since they are the same. Rather, the difference is compatibilism contends people are morally responsible for their choices if they are made according to their greatest desire, and hard determinism says they are not. Therefore, moral responsibility is the product of defining free choice as a person choosing according to his greatest desire even though the desire is determined.

There are two fundamental problems with Carson’s definition. First, he presupposes compatibilism in his definition since libertarian freedom,[3] rightly understood, is also compatible with sovereignty.[4] Second, he has confused his belief that compatibilism is consistent with divine sovereignty with the actual definition of compatibilism, but they are not the same. He writes, “I alone am responsible for that sin . . . God is not to be blamed. But if I do good . . . God’s grace has been manifest in my case, and he is to be praised. If this sounds just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response . . . is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is. There is no other.”[5] As with other Calvinists, I appreciate Carson’s attempt to express God’s asymmetrical relationship to good and evil, so that man alone is responsible for his sin, but because of his commitment to determinative foreknowledge and compatibilism, his argument is no more successful.

This is because compatibilism leaves one with the problem of ultimate responsibility, whereas libertarian freedom does not. First, man endowed with libertarian freedom is the efficient cause of his acts and is, therefore, the ultimate cause of his actions. God is the ultimate cause for man having libertarian freedom, and man is the ultimate cause of how he uses his freedom. Second, libertarian freedom is a good gift from God. Sin and evil are the results of man’s misuse of God’s good gift of libertarian freedom. Thus, consistent with Extensivism’s (non-Calvinism) teaching that God endowed man with libertarian freedom, God did not desire for man to sin, which is evidenced by the fact that man could have chosen not to sin, but God did comprehend man’s sin in his plan.

Third, it may very well be, and I think it is, that one cannot create a libertarian free human being with the option to sin and guarantee he will not misuse his freedom.[6] As a part of his free will defense, Alvin Plantinga argues what he refers to as transworld depravity. He summarizes, “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.”[7] He further notes, “It is logically possible that every person suffers from transworld depravity.”[8] Scripture teaches us God overcomes this dilemma through redemptive grace in his coextensive creation-redemption plan; resultantly, Calvinism’s predicament of God being ultimately responsible for man’s sin is theirs alone.

When we consider God creating all humanity with compatible freedom, wherein man would exercise a determined free choice to sin and could not have refrained from doing so given his past, we must remember that God could have given him a past or nature that would have unalterably given man the greatest desire not to sin, and man would have chosen to remain sinless.

Consequently, sin, tears, heartache, disease, crime, loss, and death would not plague our world. Thus, we can see that according to Calvinism, God’s desire for sin to happen means that he desired it in a way that is far more nefarious than merely desiring to allow a libertarian being to sin when God’s true desire was that he would not choose to sin as evidenced by the environment he placed him in and by endowing him to have the ability to choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Therefore, Carson’s Calvinism with compatible moral freedom will only succeed in making man the proximate cause, one immediately connected with the result of evil. But it fails to absolve God from being the ultimate cause of all evil, and that is because he desired every evil act, event, and thought. Because if God did not desire these evil things to happen, according to compatibilism, they would not happen. See my article The Word Permit In Calvinism Is As Micro-determined As Everything Else.

1] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 51. See also Carson’s book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids: 1992 Baker Book House Company, 2006), 148.
[2] Paul Gould, Why Theology Needs Philosophy: A Case Study,, para. 6. Accessed 2/18/20.
[3] LIBERTARIAN: Man is not determined. He has the actual ability to choose between accessible options, at least in some scenarios. Libertarians contend determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility. Man possesses actual otherwise choice and can, therefore, act or refrain in the moral moment of decision, given the same past within a given range of options.

Extensivism argues God endowed man with this ability, which is an aspect of being created in the image of God. God determines the range of options. Adam’s range of options, the result of creative grace, was greater than mankind’s options after the fall. Fallen man can still choose between options, but the range of options is less than man had prior to the fall. This lessening includes losing the ability to make choices that are inherently righteous or spiritually restorative (making one right with God) based solely on creative grace. In order to make an inherently righteous choice or one that is spiritually restorative, God had to provision redemptive grace, grace enablements, which he did.
[4] Some Calvinists juxtapose compatibilism with libertarianism by characterizing libertarian freedom as proffering that man has absolute freedom that can, in some degree, operate contrary to God’s sovereignty, or libertarian freedom must always have the full range of options, i.e., one can do anything, or it does not exist. Neither is true. Thus, their argument is invalid. Moreover, libertarian freedom is not lost when man’s freedom is overridden by man or God, but it only means he is not responsible for that particular decision that was wrought by man or God against the person’s will.
[5] D.A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 189.
[6] This seems to be the consensus of the philosophical writings I have read on the subject. I am not aware of any who cogently argue it is possible.
[7] Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), 48.
[8] Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), 48.

Ronnie W. Rogers