Calvinism’s Problem of Morality

I’ve become interested in the Moral Argument for the existence of God as of late, because it makes some interesting claims. First, it claims that objective morality exists–that there is a moral nature or order that is essentially good that exists above our minds and imposes its obligations on all our situations. Second, it claims that this moral order is part of God’s nature, that it is not arbitrarily uttered by mere words. Thus, we can know what is moral, make moral claims, and live by moral standards because God’s nature is foundational to all of morality. To deny God’s existence doesn’t mean one must be immoral, but that to have objective morality one draws upon divine resources.

No matter what we think of the argument, the general idea is that God is essentially good. Goodness is simply part of God’s character, and his commands follow from that nature. In other words, the nature is foundational to the commands, not the other way around.

But when I was reading an interview of a Calvinist theologian this morning, I saw that one of my suspicions was confirmed; that the Calvinist answer to the Problem of Evil seems to imply that evil doesn’t really exist. Consider the opening question of the interview that suggests that it may be “misleading” to speak of the problem of evil. Why would it be misleading? From the following premises (1) God is all-powerful, (2) God is all-good, and (3) [inferred from (1)]) God brings about everything that comes to pass, including our choices it follows that there can be no evil. For God, what it means to be good is to do only good; there can be no metaphysical foundation for one of his creatures to call something he ordains bad. Evil doesn’t really exist.

Nevertheless, we still experience evil and have some kind of knowledge of it. How do we come to this knowledge? Perhaps it comes from what God calls evil by name. This seems to be intuited by one of the commenters who writes, “I’ve always thought more thought should be given to letting God define ‘good” and ‘evil.'” He goes on, “Most often, something we think is ‘evil’ is really part of something ‘good’ in God’s economy.” And, “But, perhaps God does not have a ‘problem of evil’, but rather we have problems understanding his ways.”

Notice how this comports with the logic above: God doesn’t really have a problem of evil, because evil really doesn’t exist. Yet there is a glaring inconsistency: on what basis does God call something evil? If everything that comes to pass is brought about by God, and everything God does is good because he is essentially good, then there is no metaphysical foundation for calling something evil. Yet God calls things, things that he ordains, evil. Thus the argument for objective morality as essential to God is undermined.

If my suspicions are correct, this could potentially be a very powerful argument against Calvinism since it would show that it 1) undermines objective morality, 2) undermines moral epistemology, and 3) falsifies biblical theology’s claim that evil exists. We would then have several good reasons not to adhere to Calvinism.

21 thoughts on “Calvinism’s Problem of Morality

  1. “If my suspicions are correct, this could potentially be a very powerful argument against Calvinism since it would show that it 1) undermines objective morality, 2) undermines moral epistemology, and 3) falsifies biblical theology’s claim that evil exists. We would then have several good reasons not to adhere to Calvinism.”

    What does it mean to be objective? Omniscience right? God gets to define what morality is in the Calvinist system. Your construction is Platonic, as if there were some standard over and above God’s mind to which he was bound to choose from or operate according to.

    The same consideration applies to epistemology. How does man know what is evil? By God’s commandments that dictate morality to man. That God is not subject to the laws He commands men to follow does not imply that man cannot know what God considers to be good and evil as it concerns human willing and acting.

    Finally, with the proper distinction between God’s willing (decree) and God’s prescriptions (commands) to men, the claim of biblical theology that evil exists affirms the culpability of humans to the Law that God commands of them.

    Frame expressed himself poorly in the interview on points 5 and 6, but that just goes to show you that even a Calvinist can be inconsistent with the implications of Calvinism.

  2. Joshua,

    To be objective, or to define objective morality, is to recognize that there is a universal standard of justice that is not relative to our situation or culture. This standard is not invented, rather it is discovered. It is not dependent on might or strength; might does not make right, for the rightness would be subjective to the degree of mightiness.

    Omniscience means that all truths are known and no falsehoods are believed. This can mean one of two things for morality: 1) God perfectly comprehends the truths of moral reasoning (like the same way he comprehends logical reasoning) and believes nothing that would not comport with them; or 2) God knows his own nature (that may contain all the ontology of morality spoken of in the first option).

    In the first case, God may have knowledge of a Platonic form that represents objective morality, and for whatever reason complies with it. He is not obligated, however, to do so, because merely positing “the Good” does not entail obligation. So there is no reason to think that the Good is “sovereign” over God. If he decides to abide by it that is his sovereign choice.

    In the second case, God has the comprehension of his infinite being and metaphysical properties. One of these properties is what Plato might call “the Good”–goodness is an attribute of his nature.

    To say that “God gets to define what morality is in the Calvinist system” falls on the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. Is what God defines as morality moral because God defines it, or does God define it because it is moral? If you go with the first horn of the question you render God’s definitions arbitrary. They are rooted in nothing other than divine caprice, and are subject only to the might makes right theory of ethical formulation. Morality, then, is completely subjective.

    I take the view that God’s nature is inherently moral and that all his commands flow from it. This view avoids the problems of the dilemma because it avoids being arbitrary and it retains the sense of obligation for what is obliged is rooted in both what is good and enforced by God’s sovereign authority. Thus there is nothing above God or below him. Since it is God’s nature to be faithful, he cannot be faithless; since it is his nature to be truthful, he cannot lie, and so on.

    God’s decrees and his commands can be different from one another, but they cannot contradict. As you say on your blog, “It is patently absurd to say that God decrees all that comes to pass, yet He does not desire sin or evil to occur.” I have tried to demonstrate why this absurd above by arguing that given Calvinism’s presuppositions evil cannot really exist.

    You can see this problem arise in other areas Calvinist teaching. God desires none shall perish, but he desires that they do. He takes no pleasure in the death of wicked, but it is his good pleasure to damn them. If the latter propositions are true, the former ones are false. Many Calvinists want to affirm both, which is impossible to do.

  3. @ Joshua: Uh…I don’t see what’s wrong with some kind of Platonism. I’d submit that the laws of logic and mathematics are things that God has no power to “define.” God couldn’t have made the Law of Noncontradiction other than what it is. God couldn’t have made 2+2 equal anything other than 4. No one can. God’s power (on the most generous reading) extends only to what is metaphysically possible. Why shouldn’t moral truths be metaphysically necessary? If they are, then God has no power of their truth.

    Moreover, I don’t see why we ought to invoke special revelation in our moral epistemology. You gotta remember that the Ten Commandments were the exclusive property of a ragtag bunch of ex-slaves. Even so, the goyyim still managed to have a semblance of moral civility. Call it common grace or whatever.

    The distinction between God’s will and decree has always struck me as a wretched subterfuge. Sure, there is a conceptual difference between the two, but have we really solved the problem when we admit that (1) God decreed that Pharaoh be a jerk and (2) God commanded that Pharaoh not be a jerk? This just makes God sound schizophrenic.

    @ Ochuck: Since I’m a philosopher, I like explicit arguments, with numbered premises and everything. Is this a generous reconstruction of your reasoning?

    1. There is evil in the world. (premise for reductio)
    2. Whatever God wills is good.
    3. God willed everything. (premise that Calvinists accept)
    4. Nothing is both good and evil.
    5. Therefore, there is no evil. (from 2, 3 and 4).

    (1) is inconsistent with (2), (3), and (4)—since it is inconsistent with something they jointly imply; so at least one has to go. (2) is a conceptual truth, and part of the creed. (4) seems eminently plausible. So (3) goes.

    I figure that Calvinists will want to reject (4). Maybe they can. I’d have to think more about it.

  4. I happen to be a supporter of the the Calvinist view on morality, but rather than the non-existence of evil being a problem, it’s actually part of the rationale. Evil qua Evil does NOT exist. Following Augustine, evil is a privation of good, not an existence of it’s own.

    In others words, there is no platonic form of “Evil” but Evil is the language that is used to describe a relationship that is anti-social.

    Euthyphro’s question is only legitimately engaged within the polytheistic framework that it was spawned in. Euthyphro’s dilemma was a direct attack on the legal charge of “un-godliness” which within a polytheistic setting, where gods warred with each other, and committed all kinds of “ungodly” acts without arbitration or punishment.

    Monotheism only becomes subject to the question when we try to pit one aspect of God against another; cf. “could God make a rock so heavy that even He couldn’t lift it?”

    Trinitarian monotheism escapes the question with the realisation of the socially relational nature of God being precisely that which is expressed by the language of “Good”.

  5. The supposed Euthyphro dilemma applies to your consideration of God’s nature being inherently moral, it only pushes it back a step. Who determines God’s nature, God or something else? If God is self-determined, then He also defines evil and good. It is not subjective or arbitrary (in the sense of meaningless or without reason) for God to determine right from wrong and evil from good according to His free choice.

    As for the passages you identify, they affirm or express the distinction between command and decree, and they are evidence of figurative speech.

    The so-called problems of Calvinism pale in comparison to the illogical position of libertarian free will affirmed by Arminians and Molinists.

  6. Alex, thanks for the feedback. I think what Josh Ballard says about evil may be a possibile way of denying premise 4. I will have to think about it more, though I am inclined to believe that the privation theory will not make much of a difference in the end.

    Joshua, I do think my answer to Euthyphro has some instructive things to say about God’s nature. God’s nature simply IS. For example, he did not determine himself to be trinitarian. The regress of determinism stops with God since he is a necessary being.

  7. Alex,

    I don’t deny all Platonic constructions, but the Platonic Forms are incompatible with God’s self-determination.

    As for epistemology, it is impossible to prove knowledge without an a priori point of departure. Special Revelation is the departure point of Calvinism. Epistemology is a separate point from the universal recognition of the moral law, which is an ontological category of being human and created in the image of God. You are confusing categories and trying to make something innate nature a matter of justifying knowledge.

    However, your biggest confusion arises in the last statement: “The distinction between God’s will and decree has always struck me as a wretched subterfuge. Sure, there is a conceptual difference between the two, but have we really solved the problem when we admit that (1) God decreed that Pharaoh be a jerk and (2) God commanded that Pharaoh not be a jerk? This just makes God sound schizophrenic.”

    For God to will one thing and will another thing is schizophrenic, or better, illogical. That God would decree one thing and command another is neither schizophrenic or illogical. What makes it wrong for God to command what He knows the creature cannot accomplish? To you that may seem intrinsically unfair, but then, how are you going to establish what is fair? The issue always comes back to who has the authority to determine the definition of anything. Calvinist affirm God’s Sovereignty to do as He pleases. Others wish to justify themselves (i.e. their own personal construction of the definition) as the standard.


    You missed the point. When I say that God is free to determine what is good or evil I am affirming that He is determining according to His nature (as the one who freely determines all things). You seem to think that God is undetermined because He is eternal. But what does it mean to be undetermined, i.e. to have no definition? You probably are confused and wish to affirm God’s self-determination, which is what I’m affirming. The inconsistency is that you allow God to be self-determined as to His attributes, but not according to His decrees to create evil in the world.


    You are right that a Calvinist would deny premise #4. Things can be good according to God’s decree, but evil according to His commandments given to men.

  8. As for denying premise 4, I would have to agree. At least, that is partially my intent, although Alex’s response was still awaiting moderation when I penned mine. I would even want to qualify further premise 1.

    Essentially, my statement boils down to the idea that the only reality which can be called “Good” is the ultimate reality of God, which happens to be socially oriented.

    In horribly simplistic terms, I think that the use of the term “Good” as a noun rather than a Pronoun is ultimately illegitimate, although linguistic conventions allow us to borrow the term when speaking of relationships that affirm that which trinitarian relationship affirms.

    Creation as “Good” is only a valid linguistic expression when Creation is (for lack of a better word) “Pro-Social”. Introduce anti-social influences, and it is no longer “Pro-Social” and no longer “Good”. The head trip part is when you start to explore redemption, resurrection and recreation/renewal as God’s “pro-social” act towards creation.

    The idea for me, that all creation will confess that Jesus is Lord, is an indication to me that even the condemned, will be restored into an appropriate (although existentially-subjectively unfavourable) relationship with God’s Glory which simply is His Being. (remembering that I am still leaning towards a Piper-esque understanding of the Purpose of Creative history)

    All of that to say: The question of evil is legitimate within a closed system. In fact, within a closed system, the concept of forgiveness and grace seem to be unjust. The fact of God’s interaction and intervention opens the previously thought-to-be-closed system. God’s usage of our narrowly or even illegitimately defined concept of evil to accomplish a socially positive outcome, overcomes the concept of evil.

    The idea of God’s “undetermined-self determinisation” is a particularly woolly one that I don’t want to get into as I don’t have the brainpower to process such a concept.

    So my argument is:

    1. Evil is a problem within a closed system.
    2. Forgiveness and Mercy (contingent on Evil) are a problem within a closed system.
    3. Human experience (or substitute Creative History) seems to be a closed system (via death/degradation).
    4. Hence, Evil within Human experience seems to be a problem.
    5. God interrupts the perceived closed system of human experience (via miracles and resurrection).
    6. God overcomes our perception of the closed system with his own reality which is infinitely-absolute (resurrection and glorification).
    7. The perceived closed system is no longer perceivable as closed (God is God in All).
    8. Evil ceases to be a problem. (Death is Swallowed up in Victory, and God’s enemies are subjected under His feet)
    9. Forgiveness and Mercy are no longer perceivable as a problem (eg. as an illegitimate Legal Fiction etc.)

    I hope I don’t come off as a universalist or anything, as that is not my intention.

  9. Joshua,

    I am not sure what your point is. I think there is some confusion on your end about God’s nature being “undetermined.” I have argued that God commands things according to his nature, which cannot be changed. I am not sure where I have argued for “God to be self-determined as to His attributes.” I have said no such thing. You seem to think that God has the ability to determine his nature, correct? Does he determine himself to be trinitarian? Does he need to cause his own existence? I affirm God’s “self-determination” with respect to what he wants to do, but I don’t extend that to what he can’t do–such as make another god equal to himself, be ignorant of a truth, or do what is evil–things which are contrary to his nature.

  10. Adam,

    You are the one who is confused. If God does things by His nature, and His nature does not change, then He is determined by His nature, which is to say, He is self-determined. As to all your questions, the answer is yes, God wills to be all that He is. The question that usually follows this (well couldn’t God choose to be otherwise than He has chosen to be?) is meaningless because it relies upon the philosophically impossible (because contradictory) notion of libertarian free will.

    As for God’s self-determinism, you affirm this proposition (unkowningly it appears), but deny its necessary implications, while affirming a contrary proposition. God is not bound, by His nature, to obey the commandments that He gives to men. To argue such is to transgress categories of comparison. Man is not in the same category of God, neither are God’s commands in the same category as His attributes, or nature. Man is under the command not to take the life of his neighbor, but God is free to craft vessels for His wrath as He pleases.

  11. but God is free to craft vessels for His wrath as He pleases.

    God creating people for wrath…because it pleases Him.

    Like pulling the wings off flies…who are souless?

    Comparing God to a cruel child, taking joy in destruction, is itself an argument for Adam’s point about this aspect of Calvinism.

    “It’s not evil if God does it.”

    Yet….we have a theology that God is making us “like him”…filling us with His Spirit….being brothers and sisters with Jesus….transformed to think as He thinks, to love as He loves, to act as He acts.

    To say that we cannot know the difference between “evil” and “good” simply because it is God who is acting, and not man, implies that those promises mean nothing. Christians essentially cannot trust their moral intuition, supposedly endowed to them by God, to direct their opinions.

    That is a shaky foundation to lay, indeed.

  12. Joshua,

    God is determined by his nature to determine his nature? I most certainly am confused! What are you trying to say?

    You make some massive claims that require some argumentation on your end. You say I am confused because I do not accept the “necessary implications” of God’s self-determination. And just what would those be? The creation of the world? The ordination of all that comes to pass? You also say that libertarian freedom is contradictory and therefore nonsense. So tell me, is the creation a necessary thing or a contingent thing? Could God have chosen not to create the world? If you say yes, then you admit that God could have done otherwise and refute yourself. If you say it is necessary because it follows from God’s nature–which is necessary–then you have a massive cosmological problem on your hands that undermines God’s aseity.

    Consider the outworking of your “vessels of wrath” theology. If God’s display of wrath is necessary for his full self-glorification, and if his self-glorification is necessary, then wrath is essential to God. God would not be God without expressing it. Therefore, a world containing sinful creatures to be damned then becomes necessary for his self-actualization.

    Moreover, your creature/creator distinction does not absolve the problem of morality. Morality is not a category that simply applies to humanity. It is something that applies to God as well, since it is his nature to be just and holy. If you press this distiction so far as to say that morality doesn’t apply to God (something you knowingly accept?) you undermine his nature and the basis for objective morality altogether.

  13. Joshua, looking over your comments again, you don’t argue for the objectivity of morality anywhere. You appear to believe that there is no third way beyond the Euthyphro dilemma and choose to fall on the horn that says morality is merely the utterances of God. It is logically possible, in your system, for God to define the rape and murder of children as a moral good. This is because the ground of morality is reduced to mere power; might makes right. Morality, then, is not only subjective but completely arbitrary. If you admit this, then you haven’t said anything that defeats my original argument.

    Yours is the last word.

  14. Ah…the age-old debate. Thanks for outlining the argument Alex. I have to admit that (also a philosopher) my immediate response was, “I’m confused, let’s diagram this argument.” I’ll chime in to the discussion on whether the privation theory of good/evil is relevant to the argument. First off, it seems to me to be irrelevant to premise 4

    4. Nothing is both good and evil.

    One can simply rewrite the premise as:

    4′. Nothing both exists and doesn’t exist.

    However, it does seem to have some bearing on premise 1

    1. There is evil in the world.

    If evil strictly speaking doesn’t exist, then premise 1 may be false. However, I tend to think that this also is a slight of hand in that it doesn’t really get you out of the heart of the problem (there may also be some creative way to restate the premise). I tend to couch the predeterminism/free will debate in terms of providing an adequate answer to the Problem of Evil (or should we call it the Problem of the Lack of Good?). The Libertarian can use a free will defense of the Problem of Evil, sighting a source of evil that is apart from God. The Calvinist seems forced into admitting that God is ultimately the source of whatever we are calling evil. If one wanted to think of it in terms of privation, then God is ultimately the reason that this world is so lacking in good. Now I’m thinking about what implications this has for objective morality…it’s a complex web.

  15. Hmm…I’m now thinking of simmering down my previous argument as ridiculously simplistically as I can, losing a lot of the distinctions in the process.

    1. Relieving yourself in a communal sandbox is inappropriate.
    2. Relieving yourself is not inappropriate in and of itself.
    3. Failing to believe in the existence of the restroom in order to relieve yourself is inappropriate.
    4. Relieving yourself in the restroom is not inappropriate.
    5. Failing to recognize the existence of the restroom, and claiming that relieving oneself is the problem is inappropriate.
    6. Failing to place a restroom in the sandbox is not the problem of the designer of the park.

    At this level it is clearly a distortion of the argument being presented. At the end of the day, libertarian free will seems to require process theology, a god who “evolves” with us and our decisions. I don’t find this compelling, as it forces me to wonder what would happen if the universe unpredictably spat out a particularly powerful individual that such a god didn’t see coming. A Titan perhaps? Establishing or restricting the boundaries of God’s power and knowledge as contingent on our libertarian free will doesn’t work for me, but I’m sure it would be acceptable to a Zoroastrian.

    I prefer to look at the debate in terms of how God works sovereignly WITH our free will, which God does not directly violate. At the end of the day, we are existentially free. We have moral responsibility due to this freedom. We either choose the “pro-social” via the trinity, or we choose the “anti-social” via anything that denies the trinity.

    If God does not directly violate our free will, but knows that which we most greatly desire, and places those circumstances around us, we will choose based on what we most greatly desire.

    A captured and tortured marine may (ultimately) either choose his own relief and sanity as his greatest desire, or the honour by enduring the torture, or even death, while withholding vital information from the enemy.

    Jesus on the cross demonstrates this for us. He could have rejected his own nature as the Holy One on the cross, or he could embrace it, even when it was far from him.

    Jesus chose the honour of the Father, rather than an establishing an honour of his own as perhaps being the only “perfect” human.

    All of our sin works out this way, and while God places obstacles in front of Pharaoh and Moses alike, they are precisely the obstacles that God places there, knowing what our responses to those outcomes will be. We can choose to die, but we usually won’t, opting for our own anti-social interests instead.

    If we insist on looking at the question of evil, within the limited framework of Human experience, then we will always reasonably come up with the response that God is the problem, either from being the author of, or the helpless victim of sin. If we expand our theological scope to include the pro-social nature of God, WHICH GOD DOES through our redemption and resurrection…then we no longer find that God is the problem, he just takes pain to bring about joy.

    It is the same pain receptors in my fingertips that are letting me know that my fingers are hitting the buttons on my keyboard, as the ones that are letting me know that I’ve stuck my hands on a hotplate.

  16. myles says:

    The problems you identify with Calvin’s conception of God and goodness are only partly Calvin’s problem: mostly, they go back to Augustine, who postulated that evil doesn’t truly ‘exist’, in that only that which is good exists, having been created by God. So, on one level, it’s true, by Calvin’s reckoning that evil doesn’t exist, in that it denies the truth of being, which is that we are created by God.

    But there’s more to Calvin’s worldview than you’re giving him here: Calvin doesn’t identify God as the source of evil (which would be a nonsensical statement given the above definition of God and good), but he does say that all that is is from God, and that fortunes are used by God in the governance of the world. Thus, there is for Calvin an objective morality, in that God stands over all creation, using all things (governments, powers, etc) for the execution of divine will. Furthermore, for Calvin, this will is known through the visible Christ, who affirms that evil must be reckoned with in the cross.

    so, in sum, we do have a strong statement from Calvin (this is all in the Institutes BTW) on objective morality. NOW, whether or not we find that as a compelling presentation of God and the world, or a faithful rendering of the relation of God to the world is a completely different question. I, for one, find it wanting. To render the relationship between God and the world as one of will and knowledge is to limit knowledge and will to intellectual properties first, and corporeal directives second, putting the mind over the body. This is one sense an old patristic model, but Calvin’s version prioritizes the one over the other in a way that tends towards scholasticism rather than dynamic Christianity. That’s a claim that’ll take even longer to flesh out, so I’ll drop it here.

    This is all way too much for a comment box. End of story: Calvin does argue the things you don’t think he does, but that doesn’t mean that his presentation is in any way satisfying.

  17. rey says:

    Anyone who cannot see that a doctrine which turns God into an evil god that would damn infants to hell for someone else’s sin and that asserts that their god does not allow men to have free will but that hi will is unable to be resisted and all men only do what he has decreed they will, that in fact all sin is willed by god and god makes people do it, yet god will punish some (although they did exactly what he forced them to do) and reward some (who also only did exactly what he forced them to do), anyone who cannot see that this is from Satan, or who is too afraid to condemn this doctrine with those exact words, is himself a minister of Satan and will for supporting this blasphemy by his silence share the fate of all who preach this blasphemy with loud clamor.

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