I listened to this excellent discussion between Dr. William Lane Craig and Oxford University Calvinist philosopher Dr. Paul Helm. I think this is a useful discussion in general because atheists often bring up problems with Calvinism as objections to Christianity in general, such as:
- If God knows the future, then I don’t have free will
- If God controls everything, then I am not responsible for my sinning
- If God has to override my free will to be saved, then I am not responsible for being damned if God doesn’t choose me
If God ordains the future, can humans have free will? Are people predestined for salvation? And what does the Bible say on the matter? William Lane Craig is a Christian philosopher and leading proponent of Molinism, a view of divine sovereignty that seeks to reconcile God’s fore-ordination with human free will. Paul Helm is a leading Calvin Scholar. He defends the view that God predestines the future, limiting human freedom.
Or listen on YouTube:
I was surprised because my Calvinist friend Dina thought that Dr. Helm won this debate, but I thought that Dr. Craig won. So without further ado, here is the snark-free summary of the discussion. I also sent the summary to Dina to make sure that it was reasonably fair and accurate. She said it was biased, but she was predestined to say that. Anyway, there’s a commentary on the debate over at Michael’s Theology blog.
JB: Has Lewis had any impact on your apologetics?
Craig: Not as a scholar, but more as a model of a scholar who leaves a legacy through his published work
JB: How did you become interested in Calvinism?
Helm: Starting from childhood, and lately writing more on Calvinism from a philosophical point of view
JB: How do you view God’s sovereignty?
Helm: Strong view of divine sovereignty, God is sovereign over all events, but that doesn’t mean that they are determined by him
JB: What is Calvin’s legacy?
Helm: He amplified an existing concept of predestination, and wrote on many other topics
JB: What is Molinism?
Craig: Molina affirms divine sovereignty as Paul Helm does, but he also affirms libertarian free will
Craig: Every event that occurs happens by God’s will or by God’s permission
JB: What about open theism?
Craig: Paul and I both oppose open theism
JB: How does Molinism reconcile human free will and divine sovereignty
Craig: God has knowledge of what would happen under any set of circumstances
Craig: God has knowledge of everything that COULD happen, and he has knowledge of everything that WILL happen
Craig: God knows what each person freely choose to do in any set of circumstances and he can place people in times and places where he is able to achieve his ends without violating creaturely freedom and creaturely responsibility
JB: How does this apply to the issue of salvation?
Craig: The circumstances in which God puts a person includes God leading people to him and he foreknows who will respond to his leading
Craig: God has ordered the world in such a way that he foreknows the exact people who will free respond to his leading if he puts them in certain circumstances
JB: Does God want to save the maximum of people?
Craig: My own view is that God does order the world in such a way that the maximum number of people will respond to God’s drawing them to himself
JB: Is the Molinist view gaining ground?
Craig: Yes, Calvinists and open theists are both moving towards it, and Molinism is the dominant view among philosophical theologians
JB: Why has Molinism not convinced you?
Helm: It’s an unnecessary theory, God’s natural knowledge and free knowledge covers what middle knowledge covers
Helm: Calvinism has a stronger view of sin, such that God has to act unilaterally and irrestibly to save them
JB: Are creatures free on your view?
Helm: My view of free will is weaker than Craig’s view of free will
Craig: For the Calvinist, grace is irresistible, but for the Molinist, grace is effective when it is met with a response from the creature
Craig: The Bible affirms the strong view of free will, when it says that in certain circumstances people can freely choose to do other than they do
Helm: But if a person is in circumstances X and they are free, then why don’t they choose something that isn’t what God can foresee
Craig: In identical circumstances, a person has the freedom to choose, and God doesn’t determine what they choose, he just foreknows what they choose
Helm: How can God foreknow what people will freely do if people have this strong view of freedom that allows them to do anything? God would not know what people can freely do if they really are free
Craig: God has knowledge of what his creatures would freely do in any set of circumstances, he has knowledge of subjunctive statements
Craig: The Scripture is filled with statements that show that God has this knowledge of what people would do in other circumstances (e.g. – 2 Cor 2:8)
Helm: I am not denying that the Bible is full of subjunctive statements, but if humans have real libertarian free will, then God cannot know what they will do
Craig: I think God does preordain everything, Molinism has a strong sense of divine sovereignty BUT the foreordaining is done with the knowledge of what humans would do in any circumstances, so that what God ordains achieves his ends, but without violating creaturely free will
Craig: I take at face value the passages of the Bible where it says that God wants all persons to be saved
Craig: When the Bible says that God wants ALL persons to be saved (2 Pet 3:9), the Bible means that God wants ALL persons to be saved
Craig: So either universalism is true OR there is something that stops all from being saved outside of God
Craig: the something that prevents all from being saved is creaturely free will
Helm: Most people don’t have the opportunity to hear the gospel, so God doesn’t want all to be saved
Helm: People can still be responsible for what God “fore-ordains”
JB: Can a person really be responsible for wickedness if they didn’t freely choose it?
Helm: Even though God is the only one who can act unilaterally to make save people, the people who act wickedly are still responsible
Craig: Molinism provides an answer to the problem of why not all people have heard the gospel, because by using middle knowledge he is able to know who would respond to the gospel if they heard it and he places those people in the times and places where they will hear it
Craig: That solution means that NO ONE is lost because they have not heard the gospel
Craig: There is Biblical support for (Acts 17:27) God choosing the times and places where people will live SO THAT they will be led by him and be able to respond to his leading
JB: Is God the author of sin, on Calvinism?
Craig: If Calvinists define providence to mean causal determinism, then he is the cause of every effect including human actions, and he is the one who causes people to sin
Craig: This view (determinism) impugns the character of God
Helm: I don’t think that sovereignty requires determinism
Helm: God has mysterious resources – which I cannot specify – that reconcile his sovereignty with human responsibility for wickedness
JB: But if God is the cause of people doing wrong things, then how can they be responsible for it?
Helm: Well, humans do cause their own actions
Craig: Helm is right to say that God has resources to reconcile God’s sovereignty with free will and human responsibility, and that resource is not an unknown mystery, it’s middle knowledge
Craig: I can affirm everything in the Westminster Confession except for the one clause where they expressly repudiate middle knowledge as the mechanism for reconciling divine sovereignty and free will
Helm: Well, Calvinists have a strong view of sin so that humans cannot respond to God’s leading
Craig: Yes, and that’s why humans need prevenient grace in order to respond to him
Craig: God has to take the initiative and draw people to himself or they cannot be saved, but that grace is resistible, and that’s what the Bible teaches (Acts 7:51), so humans are still responsible if they resist God
Helm: My view of grace is that it is monergistic and irrestible, it is a unilateral action on the part of God, like pulling someone out of an icy pond which they can’t get out of
JB: If humans freely choose to respond to God’s drawing and leading, does that diminish grace?
Helm: Many are called but few are chosen
Craig: Molinism does not require synergism – which is the idea that humans are partly responsible for their salvation
Craig: In Eph 2:8, Scripture is clear that faith opposite to works, and responding to God’s drawing is not meritorious
JB: So receiving a gift is not meritorious?
Craig: It’s the passive acceptance of what someone else has done for you
Helm: But doesn’t this mean that you can lose your salvation, because you can accept and resist the gift of salvation?
Craig: That’s a separate question that Christians can differ on, but if the Holy Spirit indwells a person and seals them, then that would argue for the view that salvation cannot be revoked
JB: Doesn’t Romans 8 teach Calvinism pretty clearly?
Helm: This is called the “golden chain”, and it does support Calvinism
Craig: Actually, this text is no problem for Molinists because the first link in the chain is foreknowledge, which, if it incorporates middle knowledge, is no problem for Molinists
Craig: What God is electing in Romans 8 is a specific group of people that he knows in advance of creating the universe will freely respond to his drawing them to him
Craig: In Acts 4:27-28, it is talking about God’s foreknowledge, which involves and incorporates knowledge of what any individual would freely choose if placed in those circumstances
JB: If God actualizes a set plan with set circumstances for everyone, isn’t that very similar to Calvinism?
Craig: Yes! It’s a strong statement of divine sovereignty
Helm: Foreknowledge doesn’t mean that God knows what people would do, it’s just refering to God “knowing his own mind” about what he wants to do
JB: How do you respond to the fairness of God unilaterally and specifically choosing some people for salvation and choosing other people for damnation (because he refuses to act unilaterally for them)?
Helm: God ordinarily bypasses other people in the Bible, like when he chooses the Jews as his chosen people
Craig: The problem with that is that the Bible clearly teaches that God has a genuine will that all will be saved and he makes a genuine offer of salvation to all people
Craig: Also, just being a Jew and a member of the chosen people doesn’t mean you were saved, because some Jews rebelled against God
Craig: And there were also people outside of the Jewish people who were righteous and in a relationship with God, like Job
Helm: “the fabric of our faith” depends on God’s choice and his not-choice, it is fundamental to the Bible and to God’s character, and choosing them “effectively” (irrestibly and unilaterally)
Helm: The idea of God considering “possible worlds”, some of which are feasible and not feasible, with conflicts between the wills of free creatures in different circumstances, and then actualizing one world that achieve these ends is very messy
Craig: Some worlds may not feasible for God to create, for example a world in which everyone is saved – it is logically possible, but may not be feasible
Craig: God will not exercise any divine coercion to force people to go to Heaven against their own will
Helm: If God chooses a world because it is feasible, then he doesn’t love me directly, he is choosing a world, not individuals
Craig: Well, when God actualizes a world, he specifically knows which individuals will be saved within that world, but without disrespecting free will
Craig: The world isn’t primary, the individuals are primary
Helm: I think that middle knowledge can he included in God’s natural knowledge and free knowledge
Craig: The knowledge of what people would do in different circumstances is based on the freedom of the individuals
JB: Make your conclusions!
Craig: Molinism is a Biblical model for reconciling divine sovereignty with human freedom
Helm: It is intellectually mystifying to introduce this strong view of human freedom and it is not Biblical