A Critique of Calvinist and Lutheran Views on Determinism

I also have a podcast episode covering the content of this blog post. If you would like to listen to it, you can do so here:

A Critique of Calvinistic and Lutheran Views on Determinism Logical Theist

In this episode, I give a critique of the Calvinistic and Lutheran views on divine determinism, the belief that God determines all events, whether directly or indirectly.  Read the corresponding blog post here. Podcast theme music by Transistor.fm. Learn how to start a podcast here.

I have addressed divine determinism briefly before in a post on free will, but I believe that this subject is worth further discussion. Here, I will give a critique of two particular views of divine, or theological, determinismthe Calvinist and Lutheran views. Calvinism and Lutheranism are two branches within the umbrella of Protestantism, which is a branch of the religion of Christianity. Both of them arose out of the Protestant Reformation and have had a large influence on the Protestant movement, even today. Although Calvinism and Lutheranism do not place their sole focus on determinism, it is one of the more controversial issues within Christianity and receives a lot of attention because of this. With that said, let’s begin.


This image is in the public domain.

Out of Calvinism and Lutheranism, Calvinism seems to have the louder voice, at least in the United States. Some popular websites that have a Calvinistic leaning, if not fully Calvinistic, are Ligonier Ministries, Desiring God, and Alpha and Omega Ministries. All of these also have corresponding YouTube channels.

Now, traditionally, Calvinism has a five-point formula called by its acronym TULIP, which stands for:

Total Depravity,
Unconditional Election,
Limited Atonement,
Irresistible Grace, and
Perseverance of the Saints.

Total depravity is the belief that humankind is born in a totally depraved, or sinful, state so that it is impossible to do good without divine grace. Unconditional election teaches that God chooses, or elects, those who are saved with no conditions on the part of those elected. Limited Atonement is the position that the death of Jesus only provided effectual grace for the elect. Irresistible Grace is a doctrine that states that God’s salvific grace is irresistible. Finally, perseverance of the saints means that those who have been elected will inevitably persevere in their salvation until the end; in other words, the elect will never lose their salvation.

Looking at these five points, the absence of libertarian free will becomes quickly evident in the system of Calvinism. Now, it should be noted that not all Calvinists hold to all five points, although most hold to at least four. However, it is clear that the system is quite deterministic. This is not to say that all Calvinists deny free will in any form. Some will hold to a compatibilist form of free will. This type of free will is still not true free will, however; for this so-called free will is a free will determined by desire, which in turn is determined by something or someone else. It is called “free” insofar that the choice is said to be determined by the individual’s own desire. However, that desire which is determined by another should not be called one’s own desire. In other words, the compatibilist view of free will is deceiving.

With all of that said, what is lacking in such a deterministic system is real love and real morality. If we as humans can love at all, it must be out of libertarian free-will; otherwise, love is itself only an illusion. This same type of thinking also applies to morality and moral responsibility. If every decision, whether good or bad, is determined, whether directly or indirectly, then individuals are really puppets or robots. It is nonsensical to blame a puppet for any wrong. Similarly, it is nonsensical to blame any human person for wrong if all decisions are ultimately made by God.

Now, some theological determinists who accept compatibilism may say that it is not God who determines the wrong actions of individuals, but rather it is the individuals themselves. These individuals are said to be so bent toward doing evil, that they cannot possibly desire good, so that wrong actions can be attributed to an individual’s free will insofar that free will is determined by desire. However, this argument fails ultimately because these desires become instinctive. In other words, in this view, individuals act off of instinct and not off of true free will. Furthermore, it is within the power of God, according to the fourth point of Calvinism, to irresistibly give grace to individuals so that they can do good, and this raises a question. If God can give everyone irresistible grace so that everyone may turn to good, why is it that he does not? Also, if he can but does not, does God not pass over certain individuals, leaving them to their damnation?


This image is in the public domain.

Lutheranism does not hold exactly the same view of divine determinism as Calvinism. In particular, Lutherans reject double predestination, the belief that God determines which individuals will go to heaven and which will go to hell. Although such a belief seems to be consistent with the Calvinistic system, it is not held by all Calvinists.

Now, the Lutheran view of free will is somewhat similar to the compatibilist view, which I have already discussed. However, Lutherans generally acknowledge that even those individuals who have not been saved can do what they call civil good, that is, societal good; but they reject that any spiritual good can be done by unsaved individuals. This, of course, includes the ability to choose to repent and turn to God.

Because of this, it is still ultimately God who determines who will go to heaven and who will go to hell in Lutheranism, even if Lutherans deny double predestination. It is simply inconsistent to say that God determines who will go to heaven but somehow does not thereby determine that the non-elect will go to hell. Although many Lutherans may call this a paradox rather than a contradiction, it is nevertheless a contradiction. A paradox only at first seems to be inconsistent or contradictory but after further analysis can be shown to not actually contradict itself and to be coherent.

Another so-called paradox within the Lutheran system is that they reject the doctrine of irresistible grace. This is inconsistent within Lutheranism, because Lutheranism teaches that humans cannot choose to accept divine grace but that they still have the ability to resist it. If one can resist divine grace but cannot choose to not resist, unless the grace of God cause the individual to accept or simply not resist the grace offered, the rejection of the doctrine of irresistible grace becomes quite meaningless. Again, this is not a paradox but a plain inconsistency.


In conclusion, neither Calvinism nor Lutheranism offers a view that does not, in some way, make God responsible for deciding both those who will go to heaven and those who will go to hell. Even if those who hold to these systems do not make such a conclusion, it is nevertheless the conclusion which is consistent with both systems. Both Calvinism and Lutheranism are incapable of explaining in a noncontradictory and consistent manner why God is not the one who should be held responsible for the evil in the world and why humans do not have an excuse to reject God. After all, not being chosen by God to salvation, when there is no other way to come to salvation, seems to be a good justification for rejecting God.

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