calvinism puppets robots

One argument against Calvinism is that if God is completely sovereign, that would mean people are merely puppets and robots. Here is the answer to this objection.

Inanimate Objects vs. Humans

Inanimate objects like puppets and robots are in a completely different category than humans. This is how Gordon Clark defines “choice”:

Choice then may be defined, at least sufficiently for the present purpose, as a mental act that consciously initiates and determines a further action. The ability to have chosen otherwise is an irrelevant matter and has no place in the definition.

Making a choice or a decision involves “a mental act that consciously initiates and determines a further action.” By this definition, choice does not require the ability to choose otherwise—the key is that a choice or a decision is made.

When we recognize this definition of “choice,” we recognize that whereas inanimate objects like puppets and robots do not make conscious choices, humans do make conscious choices.

Puppets and robots behave in a manner that is mathematical, mechanical, and forced by their creator. In contract, humans have consciousness, and consciously make choices and decisions that have real consequences.

That humans are not free from God’s sovereignty does not negate the fact that they make real choices that are not “forced” by God. In other words, God does not “force” people to do things against their will; the choices that people make are decisions that they consciously want to make.

Gordon Clark on Calvinism, Puppets, and Robots

Below are some of Gordon Clark’s thoughts on the subject of Calvinism, puppets, and robots.

The Argument Against Calvinism

Clark quotes Professor Stuart C. Hackett’s The Resurrection of Theism to present his objection against Calvinism.

Thus the presuppositionalist approach lands one in an extreme Calvinistic atmosphere. If one feels comfortable there, let him remain with this God who has created rational men as mere puppets of his sovereignty.

The Resurrection of Theism, 174.

Clark summarizes the argument in this way:

Here there are two points. The minor point is that Professor Hackett in arguing against presuppositionalism adopts his own presuppositions. Of course, his presuppositions are Arminian, but even so he has not escaped presuppositionalism. The major point, however, is that Calvinism is supposed to reduce men to puppets.

The Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism on “Free Will”

Next, Clark discusses how the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Shorter Catechism treat the topic of free will. He points out particular phrases that have led to confusion.

Such an objection could arise only upon an ignorance of Puritan writings. Perhaps the objector has seen a chapter in the Westminster Confession On Free Will; or he may have read in the Shorter Catechism that our first parents were left to the freedom of their own wills; then, without reading the literature of that day he assumes that official Calvinism is more moderate than the view defended here, and that a denial of free will is hyper-Calvinism. A creed, however, is not a detailed philosophic treatise, and its phrases must be understood in the sense in which the authors meant them. If this meaning is not clear from the creedal context itself, it must be sought in the literature.

Now, the Westminster Confession indeed speaks of the natural liberty of man’s will. The first paragraph of Chapter IX is: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good or evil.”

The Meaning of “Natural Liberty of Will” and “Absolute Necessity of Nature”

Clark then clarifies the meaning of the phrases, “natural liberty of will” and “absolute necessity of nature.”

Reformation Principles

These phrases could seem to be accommodations to the theory of free will, but they can seem so only because the meaning of the phrase “absolute necessity of nature” has been mistaken. The Reformation Principles, a part of the standards of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, makes a clearer statement when it condemns as an error the view that man “is necessarily impelled to choose or act as an unconscious machine.” Even the earlier seventeenth century phrases must have seemed unambiguous when they were written, for they were chosen against the background of a century of discussion. They are certainly to be taken in a sense consistent with the Confession’s chapter on the divine decree. Here again the Reformation Principles is quite clear, for the immediately following error denounced is “that he can will or act independently of the purpose or the providence of God.” If the meaning of these phrases has been forgotten by some present-day writers, the remedy lies in reading the discussion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

John Gill

John Gill was a Baptist pastor, biblical scholar, and theologian who lived from 1697 to 1771. Clark uses his writings to help explain the phrases “natural liberty of man” and “absolute necessity of nature.” Clark intentionally uses non-Presbyterians to demonstrate that these views were not just Presbyterian, but more broadly Protestant.

The actions of glorified saints, [Gill] says, are done in obedience to the will of God; these acts proceed from the saints freely, though their will are immutably determined so that they can never do otherwise—sin is impossible in Heaven. By these phrases Gill shows that the term freely is consistent with immutable determinism.

That action, he says again, which is voluntarily committed against the law of God is blameworthy, though the will may be influenced and determined to it by the corruption of nature; because sin is no less sinful because man has so corrupted his way that he cannot do otherwise. Thus Gill connects responsibility with volition or will, but the will is not a free will because the man cannot do otherwise.

In opposing the materialistic philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, John Gill states that the question is whether all agents and events are predetermined extrinsically without their own concurrence in the determination. The dispute with Mr. Hobbes, he continues, is not about the power of the will to do this or that, but about the natural liberty of the will. This line of argument makes the natural liberty of the will to consist in its freedom from extrinsic or materialistic causes. Hobbes, if anyone does, makes man a puppet, because man’s actions are completely determined by physicochemical causes. This is, of course, one form of determinism, but it has never been Calvinistic determinism; and to charge against Calvinism what may no doubt be properly charged against Hobbes only shows ignorance of the Calvinistic position.

More at length John Gill says that the necessity we content for, that the will of man lies under, is a necessity of immutability and infallibility with respect to the divine decrees—which have their necessary, unchangeable, and certain event: All which is consistent with the natural liberty of the will. We say that the will is free from a necessity of coaction and force and from a physical necessity of nature, such as that by which the sun, moon, and stars move in their course.

Although this has not been a continuous, verbatim quotation, the phraseology is Gill’s; and as it is very instructive, it should be strictly noted. The natural liberty of the will consists in a freedom from physical necessity. Choice is not determined as the planetary motions are. Physical or mechanical determinism, expressible in differential equations, is applicable only to inanimate objects; but there is a psychological determinism that is not mechanical or mathematical. The Calvinist repudiates the former but accepts the latter. Hence he may without inconsistency deny free will and yet speak of a natural liberty.


Clark writes that Gill noted a similar view among the Stoics.

And Gill adds, we agree with the Stoics when they assert that all things that happen are determined by God from eternity. Some of the Stoics were very careful to preserve the natural liberty of the will, as we are; for example, Chrysippus taught that the will was free from the necessity of motion.

Augustus Toplady

Augustis Toplady was an Anglican cleric who was a major Calvinist opponent of John Wesley.

John Gill was a Baptist. In order further to avoid dependence on Presbyterian sources and to show that these are the doctrines of Protestantism, a few lines will be taken from the enthusiastic Anglican, our previous friend, Augustus Toplady—now as a theologian rather than as an historian. The first reference comes at the end of section eight of his history. To the sentence, “Calvinism disclaims all compulsion, properly so called,” he appends a footnote in which he defines compulsion as taking place “when the beginning or continuing of any action is contrary to the preference of the mind… In the supernatural agency of grace on the heart, compulsion is quite excluded, be that agency ever so effectual; since the more effectually it is supposed to operate, the more certainly it must engage ‘the preference of the mind.'” The footnote continue son this theme for several more lines.

Space forbids the reproduction of a great amount of material, but one further reference may be taken from Toplady. In a work entitled The Scheme of Christian and Philosophical Necessity Asserted, there are the following sentiments.

Let us, he says, by defining as we go, ascertain what free agency (in opposition to free will) is. All needless refinements apart, free agency, in plain English, is neither more nor less than voluntary agency. Now, necessity is to be defined as that by which whatever comes to pass cannot but come to pass, and can come to pass in no other way than it does. I acquiesce, says Toplady, in the old distinction—adopted by Luther and by most of, not to say all, the sound reformed divines—between a necessity of compulsion and a necessity of infallible certainty. The necessity of compulsion is predicated of inanimate bodies and even of reasonable beings when they are forced to do or suffer anything contrary to their will and choice. The necessity of infallible certainty, on the other hand, renders the event inevitably future, without any compulsory force on the will of the agent. Thus Judas was a necessary though voluntary actor in that tremendous business.

Conclusion: Calvinism, Puppets, and Robots

In the theological literature, free agency—or natural liberty—means that the will is not determined by physical or physiological factors. But free agency is not free will. Free will means that there is no determining factor operating on the will, not even God. Free will means that either of two incompatible actions are equally possible. Free agency goes with the view that all choices are inevitable. The liberty that the Westminster Confession ascribes to the will is a liberty from compulsion, coaction, or force of inanimate objects; it is not a liberty from the power of God.

Perhaps the matter can be made clearer by stating in other words precisely what the question is. The question is, “Is the will free?” The question is not, “Is there a will?” Calvinism most assuredly holds that Judas acted voluntarily. He chose to betray Christ. He did so willingly. No question is raised as to whether or not he had a will. What the Calvinist asks is whether that will was free. Are there factors or powers that determine a person’s choice, or is the choice causeless? Could Judas have chosen otherwise? Not, could he have done otherwise, had he chosen; but, could he have chosen in opposition to God’s foreordination? Acts 4:28 indicates that he could not. The Arminians frequently talk as if the will and free will were synonyms. Then when Calvinism denies free will, they charge that men are reduced to puppets. Puppets, of course, are inanimate dolls mechanically controlled by strings. If the opponents had only read the Puritans, if they only had known what Calvinism is, they could have spared themselves the onus of making this blunder.

Choice and necessity are therefore not incompatible. Instead of prejudging the question by confusing choice will free choice, one should give an explicit definition of choice. The adjective could be justified only afterward, if at all. Choice then may be defined, at least sufficiently for the present purpose, as a mental act that consciously initiates and determines a further action. The ability to have chosen otherwise is an irrelevant matter and has no place in the definition. Such an ability could only be argued after the definition has been made. We cannot permit the Arminians to settle the whole matter simply by selecting a definition. A choice is still a deliberate volution even if it could not have been different.

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