Paul Helm debates William Lane Craig on Calvinism and Reformed theology

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

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.

MP3 of this show

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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

11 thoughts on “Paul Helm debates William Lane Craig on Calvinism and Reformed theology”

  1. If this review is accurate, here are the statements by Helm that seem implausible:

    “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”

    That is just a poor misunderstanding of the distinction between foreknowledge and predestination.

    “Helm: God has mysterious resources – which I cannot specify – that reconcile his sovereignty with human responsibility for wickedness”

    LOL! Appeals to mystery when another theory de-mystefies?!? One of the things I do not like about Catholicism is all of the appeals to mystery. Yes, mystery IS in play, but not when there are rational explanations that are highly plausible.

    This statement by Craig was spot on – I have been told by deathscorts that they do NOT want to go to Heaven:

    “Craig: God will not exercise any divine coercion to force people to go to Heaven against their own will”

    “Helm: I think that middle knowledge can he included in God’s natural knowledge and free knowledge”

    Is that not a concession?


  2. “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”

    Molinism seems like a lighter version of Calvinism to me because it still gives a person an excuse at judgment and avoids creaturely responsibility.

    If God has future knowledge that a person will use their free will to reject salvation and so He puts them in area where the gospel will never reach, then the person could ask God, “Why did you even create me?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. See, I don’t have a problem with that, because God is allowed to create those people if they are useful for his plan of salvation for others who would believe in certain situations. There’s actually something in the new testament about this, “the Potter’s Freedom”. God is allowed to create people who he knows would never freely choose to accept him in any situation. It’s not God who causes them to reject him and that’s the important thing – they choose it. The choice to create is not the cause of the rejection.

      Maybe I’m just too much a Cold War spy personality, but I’m fine with this. I kinda side with God in these cases because human rebellion anniys me so much when I see it in people around me. The laziness, the self-deception, the desire to be liked… I just don’t have any allegiance with people who reject God.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Definitely an issue, but less so than the person whom God creates specifically for damnation.

      In the Molinist case, the person cannot say that he or she was created specifically for the purpose of being damned. So, he or she cannot say that they played no role in their damnation whatsoever.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The worst mass murderer in the history of the world was also its greatest evangelist: Mao Zedong. Because of his Cultural Revolution, in which 60 million Chinese died, the underground church in China was born, and now numbers over 100 million. From it, believers are saving souls all over the world, especially in Islamic regions, where they are viewed with far less suspicion than Western missionaries. The church in China is so vibrant and thriving that Chinese Christians there ask their supporters in the West not to pray that their persecution ends, but that they will stay faithful to Christ, for it is the persecution that purifies them and grows their numbers.
    An excellent book on this subject is Jesus in Beijing, by David Aikman. If God can bring so much good out of the free-will actions of a monster like Mao, then He can use anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe this is what the Psalmist meant when he wrote: “Even the wrath of men shall praise Thee” (Ps. 76:10).


    2. It is why the left is wrong to beleive they can make the Christian church disappear through laws even in americas.

      Persecuting the church only removes the chaff (fake christians) and causes the true church to grow stronger in the truth without the internal fight of those that hate God within the church watering everything down


  4. WK said: “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.”

    I had to snicker on that one… Would you also add that Calvinists are predestined to have no sense of humour?? Personnally, the predestination/free will opposition seems to be a paradox in Scripture, two sides of the same coin… Both are TRUE though not easily figured out rationally.


    1. Check out Molinism at William Lane Craig’s website, It brilliantly solves the paradox of predestination vs. free will.


  5. I have never met anyone that claimed to be a five point Calvinist. I know many that agree with a few of the five points. .

    I will strongly defend eternal security as a point, but I have never been as concerned about the other points to hammer down my view to the rest of the view.


  6. Thanks for including this interview Knight!

    Soooo revealing.

    I’ve been utterly confounded by Calvinists reasoning over the years. They do not SEE it. They just Cannot See it and I can’t understand why.

    They have so much in common with the Atheists, which makes me conclude that many of them *Don’t want to see it.

    Now, at least some, have this screw loose in their capacity to reason in relation to Time & Foreknowledge. I’ve talked to many atheists over the years and they blab out the same thing, but it seems nothing will allow them to see you can know the future without crippling Freewill.

    At this point, I would advise anyone to not get too frustrated trying to teach them on this point, because 50+ years has yielded very little results – hahaha.
    There’s a Neuron connection missing or a nerve bundle out of place between the two hemispheres or something. They cannot or will not comprehend and it causes them to conclude Freewill is not possible.


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