Coherent Calvinism? A response to Mike Ovey

This is a response to the lecture Mike Ovey gave at the THINK Conference in 2012. He spoke on more than one occasion on that day so I will limit myself just to Session 2 which had the title ‘Is Calvinism Incoherent?’. I am not going to give a complete overview of this entire lecture but instead respond to some of the points he made in this talk which I think are most significant and problematic. Please do listen to his lecture if you have not already. It can be found here:


Ovey starts by laying out Calvin’s views on the relationship between human beings and God and especially how our concepts to both parties are reciprocal. Ovey states that Calvin saw the doctrine of human beings and the doctrine of God as interrelated so much so that if one is going to have a grand view of God then one must have a small view of human beings. Here, Ovey uses the analogy of a seesaw: if one side of the seesaw is elevated, then the other end of the seesaw must go down as a consequence. Using this analogy Ovey goes on to argue that, in order to have a concept of a God who is completely free, one must therefore question whether human beings have libertarian – that is, “not determined by God” – free will. If God’s freedom is high then human freedom must be low. Ovey then asks his listeners this question: “Whose freedom do you prefer? The freedom of God or the freedom of human beings?” It appears to follow, though he does not say this, that if God has the maximum amount of freedom possible then human beings must, on this line of reasoning, have the minimum amount of free will possible – that is, none whatsoever.

It is, of course, the Scottish atheist philosopher David Hume who is famous for questioning the strength of arguments based on analogies. He thought we should be wary of such arguments, and I wonder if this is a case in point. Is it possible, perhaps, to question the seesaw analogy? Is it really true that in order to have a high view of God’s freedom one must have a very low view (virtually a non-existent view, in fact) of human freedom?

If the seesaw analogy works, then it should theoretically work with all of God’s characteristics, and not just freedom. That seems like a reasonable inference to make, since it’s not clear at all why it would only apply to freedom. One would certainly need to make a case for this and I do not see how that could be done without special pleading. So what happens when we apply the analogy to other aspects of our doctrine of God and humanity? Take “value”. For those of us who take Scripture as our authority on the doctrine of God it appears clear that the “value” of God is without any equal. God is the only being of whom it can be said that without him nothing else would even exist. God is the only being worthy of worship. Our doctrine of God’s value could not, therefore, be any higher. But on the seesaw analogy, if God is at the highest possible extent of value, then the value of humanity must be as low as it can possibly be. If God is of infinite value, then humanity is worthless. This, clearly, is not the biblical position.

So the seesaw analogy, when used elsewhere, appears to lead to unbiblical conclusions. Should we not, then, be wary of applying it to the concept of divine and human freedom? Perhaps freedom is not a zero-sum game. Perhaps divine and human freedom can co-exist.

So, if I now return to Ovey’s question, “Whose freedom do you prefer, the freedom of God or the freedom of human beings?”, I am inclined to think I’m being offered a false dichotomy. I suspect this question is more pertinent: if God’s value is not diminished by human beings having great value, then couldn’t it be true that God’s freedom is not diminished by human beings having great freedom? Or even: wouldn’t a God who is not free to create free people (as Ovey maintains) be less free than a God who could? Just whose freedom are we concerned about here?

So I’m not persuaded by Mike Ovey’s key analogy, and I think that calls some other aspects of his presentation into question as well.

When he first touched on the question of the holocaust, Ovey suggested an answer which does not appear to fit with his view of divine control over human free will. In reply to the obvious questions about evil in relation to the holocaust, Ovey said simply, “the question is not about God – it’s about humans.” That appears, to me, to be exactly the kind of response which generates the criticism that Calvinism is incoherent, because it takes one position when doing apologetics compared to another when doing systematic theology. If human beings are totally depraved, and they are that way according to the will and planning of God, then the question is about God, isn’t it?

Ovey appears to think that it would be damaging to our view of God if we saw him as unable to intervene in such cases – but surely it’s even more damaging to our view of God if we believe he is able to intervene, and yet does not? Ovey even explicitly asks: “Would it be preferable for Auschwitz to have occurred outside of God’s control?” He appears to suggest the answer is “no”, but I would challenge that. If the events of the holocaust all occurred on the basis of God being in overall control, then I would suggest that the responsibility for what happened during the holocaust can be attributed to God. If God is in control of the Nazi officer shooting Jewish people into mass graves, then it’s possible God has more to answer for than the Nazi officer! I’m assuming Ovey does not think the holocaust is some kind of divine judgement on the Jewish nation, but it appears the only route one can take, if one holds that God had complete control over the events. Even more uncomfortable is a question Ovey never considers. If grace is truly irresistible then the amount of people who will be saved by the will of God is predetermined. If the number saved is predetermined then the holocaust took place, not only under divine intention, but to no avail. No more people could possibly be saved through this event than would be without it. In other words, there is absolutely no greater good which could have come about by God placing it in human history. What kind of God would do that?

However, I do not think that is the best, or indeed the most biblical, route to take. It is far more philosophically coherent to answer these questions using the idea of free will: that God, in his divine freedom, created beings who could exercise a profound degree of libertarian free will. This freedom is indeed part of the image of God in man, and therefore a gift from God himself. Despite the fact that God is omnipotent, he can constrain himself in order to achieve greater goods – and in this case, God constrains himself in the multitude of evil actions we see take place in the world today. In order for people to genuinely have free will, they must have significant freedom to use it, and that means the use of it to do things which God would not approve of.

In fact, Ovey’s description of what he thought was the “free will defense” more accurately described the soul-making theodicy of Irenaeus and, more recently, John Hick. Philosophers tend to make a distinction between a “defense” and a “theodicy”: put broadly, a defense is an attempt to show the mere logical possibility of both God and evil coexisting, whereas a theodicy is more concerned with explaining why God might permit evil. Ovey’s response engaged with the issue of theodicy – why would God have done this? – rather than the logical possibility of both evil and God existing. However, it’s crucial to realise that to do away with libertarian free will means that Alvin Plantinga’s “free will defense” – one of only a very few arguments which has convinced even the top atheist philosophers in current times to abandon the logical problem of evil in favour of more evidential arguments – is no longer an option for the Calvinist.

Contrary to Ovey, I think that free will is not only a biblical concept, but also one which helps answer profoundly difficult questions about the coexistence of God and evil. And I have to admit, I ended up scratching my head at 46 minutes when Ovey started talking about the free will defense. He stated:

“The free will defense isn’t really much good because if God really could stop any of these things then he ought to … He ought, if he could, to stop all these things and it would be irresponsible of God, it seems to me, given that he’s all-knowing if these things are so bad for him to have created a world in which they were possible in some respect.”

But surely that is a case for the free will defense and a free will theodicy! It is the Calvinism Ovey is arguing for which says that nothing can thwart God’s purposes and will, and there was nothing to stop God from preventing the holocaust. So on Ovey’s Calvinism, at least, God could easily have stopped these things, since humans no longer have free will at all, let alone to the extent where they could oppose God’s divinely ordained purposes.

The free will response, on the other hand, is to say that God cannot, at this point, step into history all the time to stop human suffering and evil actions from taking place, because God freely decided to create beings who could oppose him and to give them the gift of libertarian free will. Therefore the holocaust, and every other instance of evil we use as an example, are no longer part of the divinely ordained purpose of God, but are negative outcomes of God giving human beings libertarian free will. As C.S. Lewis once said:

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

More controversially, I would finish by suggesting that this approach would have drawn sympathy from John Calvin himself, if less so from Theodore Beza. In the 1536 edition of the Institutes, whilst trying to explain the rebellious behaviour of people such as Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and Sennacherib, Calvin says this:

“Yet God had aroused them all to carry out all these evil acts. He had turned them, willing evil and thinking evil – or rather, turned their evil will and their evil intention against Israel, and was making it prevail, sometimes to avenge the ungodliness of his people, sometimes to enhance their deliverance.” (1.18.1)

I’m no scholar of Calvin, and perhaps his views changed as the Institutes expanded, but this early Calvin appears to be suggesting God hardened the will of these men. It was their will, and not God’s will. Now that I could agree with! Does that make me a Calvinist? Or does it mean Calvin wasn’t a Ovey-style Calvinist?


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Arminian Theology, Calvinism, Free Will, The Moral Argument, Theodicy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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