Jerry Walls spoke on ‘What’s Wrong With Calvinism’ more than a year ago at a Christian university. I started watching this presentation reluctantly, but found it much more interesting than I expected (not to say it isn’t annoying). If you are a patient person and this subject interests you, I’d encourage you to watch it.

Wall’s major problem with Calvinism turns out to be this: taking God’s nature (Love) together with their view of his all-powerfulness, the only serious conclusion is that God will save everyone — and most Calvinists1 of course don’t accept this. In order to keep their premeses and still avoid the universalist conclusion, they commit all kinds of rhetorical folly, and make God out to be a moral monster.

Interestingly, this is the same problem I have with Calvinism, so I was pleased to hear someone else make the same criticism. The difference is that I take seriously the idea that all might be “saved”, and Walls doesn’t; in fact he takes it for granted that therefore, universalism makes his whole argument an absolute cinch as a reductio ad absurdum. This is turns out to be the biggest weakness in his presentation.

Central to his thinking is this explainer about two competing views of freedom. From the slides in the video:

  • Libertarian Freedom: A free action is one that is not determined by prior causes or conditions. As he makes the choice, the agent has the power to choose A and the power to choose not-A, and it is up to him how he will choose. [10:48 in the video]
  • Compatibilist Freedom: A free act is not caused or compelled by anything external to the agent who performs it. It is, however, caused by something internal to the agent: a psychological state of affairs such as a belief, desire or some combination of these two. The agent performing the act could have done differently if he had wanted to. [11:50 in the video]

In his talk, Walls off-handedly refers to the “libertarian” definition as “common sense,” and, winking and nodding at us as though prompting us with a correct answer, leaves it at that. But this isn’t common sense at all. No one in the world has ever had an experience of making decisions that “aren’t determined by prior causes or conditions.”

Indeed, common sense is the only reason2 I now hold to the “compatibilist” understanding of freedom — the kind of freedom that is fully compatible with a predetermined fate3. Simple observation about how we all live our lives will lead you straight to it. Do you, in this moment, have perfect freedom to choose whether or not to eat a hamburger, or put on a bikini? Or do you find that, faced with the question, your answer was pretty much already decided by your preferences, beliefs and circumstances?

Although understanding and defining freedom is central to his argument, Walls never bothers to directly determine what freedom is. He says that if you’re a compatibilist and not a universalist then your God is a monster; but weirdly, he has nothing to say about universalism, only an implication that the very idea of it must somehow mean “libertarian” idea of freedom is the only correct one. This is a convincing maneuver for many Christian audiences, but not actually conclusive, and actually pretty unfortunate if you actually want to understand anything about your own or others’ freedom.

So for now, my preferred solution for correcting the errors of Calvinism remains the same: all Calvinists should become universalists.

  1. It’s worth noting that the first evangelical I heard offer a statement and defense of the idea that “all will be saved” came from a Calvinist background. Here is some of his writing on the topic (a PDF); if you have the patience for evangelical sermons, you can also see him preaching about it

  2. My views on this subject certainly owe nothing to any theological work. In some ways I am proud of this; more often I find it a little embarrasing to admit. I’ve never read John Calvin’s work, and, I am sorry to say, have no interest in doing so. I did read a John Piper book once when I was too young to make any sense of it. 

  3. If you’ve read my pieces Your Choice and Choose Your Fate you’ll recognize that they are essentially (I now realize) retellings of what Walls is calling the compatibilist idea of freedom. I didn’t know there was a term for this until I saw this video — as far as I could tell, I had puzzled this whole idea out on my own. Experience has of course taught me, though, that any idea I can work out is unlikely to be really original.