I’ve been pondering a complex issue today without much clarity. Free will always has given me trouble. It is not as though it is just the view I take on free will give me trouble, but any and every view has some significant hurdles that it can’t overcome (at least with our current, limited understanding_.

Every choice has an underlying cause, termed an efficient cause. This cause doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Our decisions arise from the essence of who we are at that moment of choice. Who we are at the time or the choice is made up of a composition of our past choices and our inherent nature (DNA, genetics, etc.).

Unraveling the Threads of Determinism

Rephrased, we are not compelled by external factors to make our choices. The decision originates from the individual we’ve become at that instance. This person is shaped by an unbroken chain of events and the intrinsic essence of our being.

Consider this classic analogy: A rock moves. A stick moved the rock. A hand moved the stick. An arm moved the hand. The brain decides to move the arm, guided by intent. This intent is shaped by desire, which in turn is shaped by an individual’s history. This past is a continuous sequence of cause and effect, much of which we played no direct part in.

The Puzzle of Personal Responsibility

While we might decide to move the stick with a sense of freedom (that is, no direct external force compelling us), the act of moving the stick has been predetermined by countless preceding factors. Yet, it remains an incontestable fact that we, with all our past actions and inherent traits, are ultimately accountable for the movement of the rock.

The Divine’s Role in Determinism

It’s challenging to grasp how every event can be traced back to the Prime Mover (God) who set the ball rolling and not hold Him responsible for all that follows. How do we reconcile our accountability amidst this interconnected web of cause and effect?

The Myth of Choice in Isolation

Reflect on this: Choices don’t exist in isolation. If a decision, like moving the rock, lacks preceding causes or if all prior causes are neutralized, how does one truly decide? Without any internal or external force driving you, you’d remain stagnant, untouched, and unmoved by anything. Nothing can make decisions. There is no “you” doing anything, as all that went into making you “you” is gone.

Moreover, if all these driving forces were somehow nullified and one did exercise an absolute free choice (let’s assume by God’s prevenient grace offering the possibility of a contrary decision) wouldn’t such a choice be random? Wouldn’t it equate to a mere coin toss? How can one be held accountable for a choice made on such whims?

Compatibilism: Embracing the Ambiguity

Admittedly, this is a conundrum that remains unresolved for me, as it does for all honest thinkers I’ve encountered. Yet, one conviction holds firm: God, as the sovereign Prime Mover, governs everything, and we remain accountable for our decisions. This perspective is termed “compatibilism”. It doesn’t promise clear answers but entrusts that God will judge justly, even if He remains enigmatic to our finite questions and challenges.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    6 replies to "This Calvinist’s Primary Paradox: The Problem of Freedom, Responsibility, and Determinism"

      • C Michael Patton

        Sounds like him!!

      • C Michael Patton

        The question is: Is God determining what the atom does or just overseeing it?

      • Scott Harrington

        God submits His Sovereignty to His love and loves everyone not just the Elect. Calvinism is Determinism and Determinism is Satanic Antichrist Atheism. Calvinists must repent of Calvinism to be saved.

        • C Michael Patton

          Not sure you read the post. But thanks for your comment, my friend.

    • Eric Quek

      As usual, your post including this is through, thoughtful examination of this complex topic of free will. You have captured the nuances and complexities of Free Will debate. Due to it’s complexities most of us shy away or have superficial knowledge on this. However, the significance of this topic is enormous and am sure most of us like to hear hear more on this–if we may in spite of your now post. We or at least I would like to know more about 1. Deterministic view—Libet experiment–our choices are determined before we become aware, leading credence to a form of determinism or compatibilism. From Connectome Project–(my view and hypothesis with no experimental backing, just logic, theoretical) Neurons, synapsis, neurotransmitters operate under deterministic laws, The system as a whole may have emergent properties that allow for a form of freedom or adaptability. Thus could be seen as compatible with compatibilism or libertarianism. My question: What is the prime weakness in this argument against Libet experiment. What does he mean “free won’t?”
      My other statement and question: Most discussion on Free Will does not include : Lucretian swerve Could you comment on this in regards to randomness from atoms and how it differ from Calvin’s compatibilism

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