From the Wikipedia article on Determinism:

Determinism is the philosophical view that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have sprung from diverse and sometimes overlapping motives and considerations. The opposite of determinism is some kind of indeterminism (otherwise called nondeterminism) or randomness. Determinism is often contrasted with free will, although some philosophers claim that the two are compatible.[1][2]

Determinism often is taken to mean causal determinism, which in physics is known as cause-and-effect. It is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state (of an object or event) is completely determined by prior states. This meaning can be distinguished from other varieties of determinism mentioned below.

And from the Wikipedia article on Causality about the topic of volition:

The deterministic world-view holds that the history of the universe can be exhaustively represented as a progression of events following one after as cause and effect.[13] The incompatibilist version of this holds that there is no such thing as "free will". Compatibilism, on the other hand, holds that determinism is compatible with, or even necessary for, free will.[17]

If we define the volitional state of a person as all the contents of their consciousness, their thoughts, emotions, desires, intentions, plans, decisions, tendencies, habits, etc., at a specific point in time, would Reformed Calvinists then say that all volitional states of a person are causally determined by prior causes in time?

More formally, if we define

  • V(p,t) as the volitional state of person p at time t,
  • U(t) as the state of the universe at time t, and
  • t1 and t2 as any two different points in time such that t1 < t2,

would Reformed Calvinists agree that V(p, t2) is causally determined by U(t1) for each person p in the universe?

  • Any comments accompanying the downvote?
    – user50422
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 14:08
  • 1
    The WCF answers this pretty straightforwardly right? apuritansmind.com/westminster-standards/chapter-9 Please do more research before asking questions. This really looks like you're not trying.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 14:09
  • @curiousdannii - so the answer would be: "for any t prior to the fall the answer is no, and for any t after the fall the answer is yes", or is the answer more nuanced than that?
    – user50422
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 14:12
  • The answer is a blanket no! At all points in time humans have genuine real wills.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 14:13
  • 2
    I don't see that the WCF directly answers the thrust of this question. Upvoted +1 Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 15:15

2 Answers 2


N.B.: My "answer" is not really an answer to the question as asked. Forgive me. The following response can serve, however, to re-frame the question in a less complicated and easier to deal with way. As I will suggest, the middle ground in a controversy, as outlined by the OP's question, is sometimes the best place for disputants to resolve their seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints.

One of the reasons, I suggest, Christians and non-Christians alike get bogged down in protracted and often vociferous sessions of intense fellowship (as a pastor friend of mine called them) is because they are uncomfortable with paradox.

  1. A statement that seems to contradict itself but may nonetheless be true: the paradox that standing is more tiring than walking.

  2. A person, thing, or situation that exhibits inexplicable or contradictory aspects: "The silence of midnight, to speak truly, though apparently a paradox, rung in my ears" (Mary Shelley).

  3. A statement that is self-contradictory or logically untenable, though based on a valid deduction from acceptable premises.

The root cause of some of the serious schisms that have divided Christians over the centuries, I believe, is their discomfort with paradox. One method that Christians have used to deal with their discomfort with paradox is to come down hard on one truth to the virtual exclusion of the other corresponding truth. Of course, disputants on both sides of the schism are reluctant even to grant that the "other side" is true.

Where would Calvinism be, for example, without its U (as in T-U-L-I-P) in unconditional election, and where would Arminianism be without its corresponding C in conditional election (also referred to as category election)? The two sides' refusal to accept as truth the corresponding (dare I say opposite?) side of the paradox has divided Christians for centuries. Entire denominations have sprung up in response to and as evidence of a certain way of drawing a theological line in the sand.

Not that the formation of denominations over theological disagreements is necessarily a bad thing. Quite often, the opposing sides have agreed to disagree agreeably, as long as the other side hews to the essential tenets of the faith, as summarized, for example, in the Apostles' Creed. Keeping the main thing the main thing--namely, growing the church universal through the preaching of the kerygma--has served to benefit the holy catholic church, in spite of her theological differences, emphases, and nuances.

Regarding the subject of CDV, which zippy2006 has defined as the belief that "All of a person's volitional states are causally determined by prior causes in time," I suggest that human existence as it was designed by God is both deterministic and indeterministic--a classic case of not "either/or' but "both/and." Personally, I am quite comfortable believing that both perspectives have validity, given their proper premises. As to where to "draw the line" between the two perspectives, well, is there really a line to be drawn?

Just as God has endued our physical existence with characteristics that are beyond our control, as evidenced in the outworkings of our autonomic nervous system when it is functioning normally, so also has he endued us with a measure of freedom which we can all express within the parameters of his permissive will. Interestingly, we can also express our freedom within the parameters of his decretive will by obeying him. We choose to obey Him out of our love for him and for our neighbor. We can, however, choose not to obey him, thus cheating both Him and our neighbor of the obedient love they are due.

I am comfortable with paradox, and so was our Lord in his teaching. From the relatively easy-to-resolve paradox as found in Matthew 16, Mark 8, and Luke 9 (viz., by losing one's life for Jesus and his gospel we actually gain our lives), to the paradoxes that are virtually impossible to resolve fully, of which the determinism/indeterminism debate is but one, as Christians we sometimes need to appeal to Isaiah 55, where we read,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

In conclusion, who really knows the extent to which God's image-bearers' lives are determined or indetermined? Personally, I think they exhibit characteristics of both, and I am comfortable with that.

  • Hyper Calvinism has a lot to answer for, but we can trust God for his judgments are holy and fair. He knows our motives and what goes on in our hearts, which is more important than what goes on in our heads!
    – Lesley
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 16:52

Preliminary Considerations

In this answer I will talk about Calvin through the lens of Anthony Lane's "Bondage and Liberation in Calvin's Treatise Against Pighius," in Calvin Studies, especially pages 22-25, 31-35, and 37-40. Note that while most Reformed agree with Calvin, some will disagree.

  • CDV = "All of a person's volitional states are causally determined by prior causes in time"

The question at hand is whether Calvin held to CDV.


Calvin did affirm the necessitation of the human will, and he saw this primarily as a consequence of God's providence or sovereignty. Nevertheless, he did hold to CDV as the normal means by which God's providence is carried out in the human realm, and it seems to me that his general anthropology assumes CDV. There is one exception, which I will point out at the end.

(At times Calvin seems to imply that CDV did not hold before the Fall, but it is not clear to me that he opposed CDV so much as depravity before the Fall)

For simplicity's sake we can just focus on Anthony Lane's section, "Necessity versus Coercion" on pages 31 and 32. In that section we see that Calvin believed the will is necessitated but not coerced. By this he meant that the necessity which binds the will precludes any "alternative possibilities," but that there is no external agent coercing us to act in the way that we necessarily must act. Similarly, if you place a rock in a field it will not move. This is because it is in its nature to stay still, not because some external agent is coercing it to stay still. It is the same for Calvin. The human will will always do the one thing its nature has prescribed that it must do. The human will is necessitated by the nature it has been given. There are no alternative possibilities of action.

At times Calvin did, begrudgingly, talk about free will and free choice. His use of these terms is rather misleading. For example, when he says that a fallen human freely sins, he does not mean that they might have chosen to not sin. Indeed, he is emphatic that they could not have chosen to not sin. For Calvin, freedom merely means that they are not coerced. For Calvin the will can be necessitated but also free. For most other theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, this is a contradiction (cf. De Malo 6). In today's terms we would call Calvin a compatibilist.

The One Exception

It could be argued that Calvin dispenses with CDV in the single case of conversion, when God irresistibly intervenes in a person's life to change their heart and their will. It seems to me that this is a legitimate exception for Calvin, and it highlights the fact that for Calvin the necessitation of CDV is secondary to the necessitation of God's sovereign power and providence.

Addendum: Other Calvinists

It should also be noted that Calvin is more interested in talking about freedom and bondage in relation to the general category of sin, rather than in relation to particular human acts. For this reason conclusions about CDV must often be drawn from contexts where Calvin is speaking about bondage and freedom in relation to sin.

That said, modern Calvinists touch on CDV more directly, and are very open about their acceptance of CDV. They consistently do this by opposing libertarianism with deterministic arguments. Let me offer just two scholarly examples to support what has already been said:

Robert Dabney tells us that the will is determined by subjective motives, and that:

"...the act of choice is" [...] "determined by the preliminary states of soul tending thereto; so that volitions are in every case" [...] "not contingent, but efficient and certain" (Systematic Theology, Chapter 7).

Curt Daniel, explaining Jonathan Edwards' doctrine, tells us:

"The will (or affections) is not in a neutral state, as argued by Arminians. That would be a state of indeterminism. But the universe acts on the principle of determinism - for every effect, there was a cause. This means that the immediate cause for acts of the will is to be found in the nature of a man. The order is this: fallen man has a sinful nature; therefore he always sees things from a sinful perspective; therefore he always wills according to the way he sees things - sinfully" (The History and Theology of Calvinism, Chapter 15).

  • "Nevertheless, he did hold to CDV as the normal means by which God's providence is carried out in the human realm, and it seems to me that his general anthropology assumes CDV." What's the evidence for that? Please add quotes from Calvin.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 22:32
  • @curiousdannii Read on to the next paragraph.
    – zippy2006
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 22:34
  • I read the "Necessity versus Coercion" section and a little around it, and really can't see anything supporting CDV. Please explain in detail.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 22:48
  • @curiousdannii For Calvin human nature is the prior cause that determines/necessitates volitional states, and he generally speaks about sinful human nature determining sinful volitional states. I added an addendum with some other authorities for those who are interested.
    – zippy2006
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 23:58
  • 2
    @curiousdannii and zippy2006, this may be a good read: proginosko.com/2014/07/calvinism-and-determinism
    – user50422
    Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 8:33

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