“Free Choice” in Calvin’s Concepts of Regeneration and Moral Agency: How Free Are We? -- By: Jonathan S. Marko

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 42:0 (NA 2010)
Article: “Free Choice” in Calvin’s Concepts of Regeneration and Moral Agency: How Free Are We?
Author: Jonathan S. Marko

“Free Choice” in Calvin’s Concepts of Regeneration and Moral Agency: How Free Are We?

Jonathan S. Marko*


This essay will demonstrate that John Calvin (1509–1564), although denying free choice regarding regeneration, teaches that human beings, Christian and non-Christian, have freedom to act morally.1 Similar to many ethicists and philosophers today, Calvin presupposes that, unless there is actual contingency in our choices and we have moral beliefs in our deliberation, we cannot be considered responsible agents and therefore cannot be considered to have freedom to act morally.2 Whenever contingency is used in this paper it will be used, like the early Reformed, to refer to:

an absence of necessity, not to be equated with chance, but rather to be understood as the result of free operation of secondary causes. In a contingent circumstance, an effect results from clearly definable causes, though the effect could be different, given an entirely possible and different interrelation of causes. In short, a contingent event or thing is a nonnecessary event or thing that either might not exist or could be other than it is.3

Likewise, in this essay free choice will be defined as choice “free from external constraint and from an imposed necessity.”4 Acting morally will be understood as externally conforming to the second table of the Reformed recension of the Decalogue.5

This essay encompasses three different issues that have not been treated together explicitly in a published essay on Calvin.6 The first issue, salvation and free choice as taught by Calvin, is generally agreed upon, but misunderstandings in the finer details lead to disagreement. The second issue, concerning Calvin’s beliefs regarding free choice in earthly matters and contingency in general, is well tread, but is often spoken with inconsistent verbiage. Terms such as “determinism” and “free will” are encumbered with nuances unique to each writer. The third and final issue, free choice regarding personal morality in Christians and non-Christians as conceived by Calvin, is one that has been hardly touched by scholarship.

Regarding the second issue, insufficiently precise terms often muddle the conversation. For instance, recent scholarship from Paul Helm and Terrance Tiessen understand Calvin to be a “compatibilist” with regard to caus...

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