I will be using the Westminster Confession of Faith as a standard of reference for representing Calvinism accurately. The Westminster Confession is by far the most predominant confessional statement of Calvinist theology in the Western world. With that established, I now present to you the Five things that most non-Calvinists assert about Calvinism, but which Calvinism does not teach.
1. Calvinism does not deny that we have free will.
The Westminster Confession has an entire chapter named “Of Free Will”. Here is the first complete section of that chapter:
God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, byany absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil. (WCF 9.1)
That’s as clear as you’ll ever get to the affirmation of free will. There’s also a chapter on God’s providential guiding of His creation earlier in the Confession in which the authors again affirm their belief in fee will:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3.1)
When the Confession refers to “second causes”, human will is included in that category. Yet, asserting the liberty of “second causes” in general wasn’t enough for the authors of this Confession. They also insisted that in God’s providential control of events there is no “violence offered to the will of the creatures”. Section 3.1 of this Confession is not exclusive to Calvinism. The belief that God ordains everything that comes to pass is just Theism. Every Christian theological tradition agrees on this point. The differences come about when one confronts the following questions, like the relationship between God’s ordaining of events and his foreknowledge of them.
Now, a lot more can be said about this topic, but that aside, the important point is that Calvinism clearly and unambiguously asserts that we have free will. If this is true, then why do so many people think Calvinism denies free will?
Today, the phrase “free will” refers to moral responsibility. When one says people have free will, one means that they are not merely puppets of exterior natural forces such as one’s heredity and environment; one is in control of one’s own choices and is morally responsible for them. In modern-day language, the opposite of “free will” is “determined will”, that is to say, a will whose actions are naturally determined by things outside itself.
However, in the 16th century, when the Reformation first began, one of the central debates was over “free will” in a completely different sense. Back then, then question was whether the will is, by nature, enslaved by sin and in captivity to Satan. In this context, the opposite of “free” is not “determined” but “enslaved”. Believing in “free will” meant believing that human beings are not born as slaves of Satan. Denying “free will” meant believing that they are.
Erasmus, one of Luther’s most insightful and influential critic, reinforced this use of the term “free will” in his book The Freedom of the Will. Erasmus reasoned that the crucial issue between Luther and Rome was whether we are born as slaves of Satan or born free to choose whether to serve God or Satan. Luther strongly agreed that this was in fact the crucial issue. He praised Erasmus for being the only proponent of Rome smart enough to comprehend this. Luther then replied to Erasmus’s book in his own book entitled The Slavery of the Will. Later, Calvin picked up on this theme, taking Luther’s position and entitled his own book on the subject The Slavery and Liberation of the Will. Denying “free will” in this particular sense was one of the earliest defining positions of both Lutheran and Calvinistic theology. It was an important element of the Protestant view.
In these debates, no one was questioning that the will is “free” in the sense of self-controlled and morally responsible, as opposed to being determined by exterior forces. Everybody agreed that one has “free will” in this sense, but they didn’t call it “free will” because that phrase had a different meaning for them. Even Calvin called the slavery of the will to Satan “voluntary slavery”. Fallen man is a slave of Satan precisely because, when given a choice, he always chooses to love sin more than God. It is his own voluntary choice (his exercise of “free will” in the modern sense) that keeps him a slave to Satan (thus lacking “free will” in the 16th century sense).
Furthermore, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his theological masterwork, Calvin departs from his criticism of “free will” to make this very point. He notes that the term “free will” could also be used to refer to a morally responsible will that is not naturally determined by forces such as heredity and environment, and he says if “free will” means that, then he agrees that one has “free will”. Yet, he goes on to argue, that’s not what most people (at least in his day and age) would understand that term to mean, so it would be misleading for him to use it in that manner.
The problem is that Calvinists who study the 16th century debates frequently use its terms into the discussions and debates of today without adjusting for the change in meaning. Now, it’s natural and right for scholarly study of these theological issues to be molded by the great books that were written during the 16th century Reformation debate. And yet, many times we don’t contemplate carefully enough how those books continue to form the English language, especially when one talks to an audience of people who don’t read 16th century books on a normal basis. And now a days, the term “free will” has a completely different meaning from the one it had in the context of the 16th century Reformation debate.
Calvin said that he used the phrase “free will” the way he did because he desired not to cause a misunderstanding. But now a days when one uses it that same way, misunderstanding is precisely what one creates. One would do better to imitate Calvin in his desire to avoid misunderstanding rather than in his particular lexicographical choices.