Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Freedom, Liberty and the Westminster Confession

In his recent book Deviant Calvinism (Fortress Press, 2014) Oliver Crisp considers the idea that there are two philosophical theories of human agency jostling side by side in the Westminster Confession. He couples this with the fact that there have been Calvinists who have been libertarians. He mentions John L Girardeau, the Southern Presbyterian theologian. If this idea is plausible, then it in turn suggests that in the hey-day of Puritanism, in the middle of the 17th century, there were two competing views that were tolerated in their ranks, a libertarian and a compatibilist view, and that subscribers to the Confession are free to take one or the other view, one view on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the other view on the other days of the week. Nor are there two views in the sense that some expressions are definitely and clearly libertarian, others definitely and clearly compatibilist.

Not two views but one

Here I am not going to take sides on the question of which view of freedom is the preferred one, compatibilism or libertarianism, but to try to show that whichever it is the Confession is consistent on the question. There are not two views, but one. William Cunningham had the opinion that subscribers to the Confession could understand its statements on human agency either in a necessitarian way, or in a non-necessitarian way, in good faith. (See ‘Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity’ in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.) He meant, I think, that the Confession’s statements were not explicit on the question, but in effect they mumbled when this topic came up, or obfuscated, and so can be taken either way.

But this is rather different from saying that the Confession teaches two incompatible views. (We should also bear in mind that the Confession does not use the terms ‘compatibilist’, ‘libertarian’ or even ‘necessitarian’. Though it does refer to what God ‘determines’, though sparingly. Not with anything like the enthusiasm of those who these days blithely talk of ‘theological determinism’. So caution is needed in this area.) It is certainly true that the Confession does not develop one view or the other in explicit terms. Crisp makes that point.

Crisp cites some remarks of Jerry Walls. He (Walls) appears to hold that the statements of the Confession in one place commits it to:

(1) Because a person is determined to do an action by God making him will to do this, the person is able to do the thing.

This is taken, I assume by Jerry Walls (I haven’t seen his book), to imply libertarianism and not compatibilism.

The chapter on effectual calling (Chapter 10) is cited as evidence. Perhaps these words from that chapter:

This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man; who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and so embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (S. II)

And perhaps by other statements found in the Confession. Walls asserts that the Confesssion is also committed to

(2) A person is enabled to do that thing by God, but it is up to the person whether he does that action.

and this is taken by Walls to be consistent with libertarianism. (Though that these words clearly only libertarianism is in my view a bit of a stretch.)

Perhaps it is thought that this passage from Chapter 10 commits the Confession to (2):

…renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ, yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.(S. I)

If so, the divines are envisaged as committing themselves in section (I) of Chapter X in the space of a few lines, not only to two distinct theories of human freedom, but also both to Augustinianism and to semi-Pelagianism,. (Perhaps they did not notice the fact, or perhaps it was a  matter of policy.) Maybe. But do you think that was likely?

But apart from the implausibility of one of the interpretations of part of Chapter X, there is another reason why all this is not likely. To see this, we must make a more thorough induction of the language of the Confession. We find that the choice of words to describe human agency is quite interesting. Here (I think) are all the relevant references:

The Confession on human liberty and freedom

An attempt will be made to show not that there are two rival metaphysical views of human freedom side by side in the confession, but that language about freedom and about liberty is in fact doing two distinct jobs. First let us look at ‘liberty’ then at ‘freedom’.


Decree III.1 ‘neither is the liberty or contingency of secondary causes…’

Creation IV.2 ‘being left to the liberty of their own will’

Of Free Will, IX.1 ‘God hath endued the will of man with that natural  liberty….’


Of Free Will, IX.2, ‘man in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which is good….

IX.4 ‘….he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good…’

IX.5 ‘The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only’

Effectual Calling, X.1 ‘….yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace’.

This survey excludes the wordings in Chapter XX, ‘Of Christian liberty, and Liberty of Conscience’. But here ‘liberty’ is being used in a political or social sense as it is in ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, for example, and is not relevant to our discussion.


Otherwise than in the Chapter on Liberty of Conscience, I suggest that in the Confession, ‘freely’ has invariably to do with spiritual ability, the enjoyment of the effects of divine grace. So in heaven the saints have perfect and immutable freedom to do good, and those who are effectually called are such as they come to Christ most freely, being made willing by his grace; not metaphysically willing in some respect, but morally willing. And so on. The opposite of such freedom is not a metaphysical state, because in the Confession ‘freedom’ does not denote a metaphysical view, but a moral and spiritual state,  often referred to as freedom (to some degree) from the ‘bondage’ of the will.

So while at first sight we might suppose that  ‘freely’ in the occurrence of ‘yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace’ refers  either to compatibilist or libertarian freedom, I suggest that the use of ‘free’ and ‘freely’ here has its source not in metaphysical debates about the will, but in the operations of divine grace, and in the usage of the New Testament. For example, ‘So If the Son shall sets your free, you will be free indeed.’ (Jn.836. See also v.21) , and ‘where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’, (2 Cor. 3.17) and ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom.8.21). Freedom is linked to certain graciously-given states of the people of God

What about ‘liberty’ in the Confession? When this word is used by the divines, its use is much more general. The context of its use has to do with the capacities of human beings in general. `The liberty of second causes’ has to with those individuals endowed with intelligence and will, by comparison with the behaviour of animals, insects and vegetation, other kinds of secondary. This is the liberty which God has endowed us, as men and women. In addition the Confession states that without divine assistance to keep them on the straight and narrow, the pair in the Garden were ‘left to the liberty of their own will’, whatever the character of that willing may have been. It is not that the pair had freedom to choose good or evil, but they were created good, and therefore biased toward the good; yet not immutably so, and being left to the liberty of their own wills, that is, without receiving divine enabling, they lapsed, succumbing to devilish temptation, and ‘brought death into the world and all our woe’. But in the glory to come, the Confession states, ‘the will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.’ Notice again the connection between freedom and a state of grace.


So what is being suggested is that the choice of words in the Confession follows a  deliberate policy and that that policy is consistent and intelligible. If this suggestion is plausible, there is no need to resort to the debate between libertarians and compatibilists, important though that debate is, or to indulge in to what Oliver Crisp calls ‘a subtle sleight of hand’ (80), to make out this intelligibility.