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Calvinism and Robots: A Rebuttal to John Frame

The following is a guest post written by Phillip Mast.

Summary: Joseph Torres with KingdomView blog advises that it is common to hear that through belief in Calvinism humans are relegated to the role of being mere robots. Torres provides comments by John Frame, author of “The Doctrine of God”, as a refutation of this objection. I proceed through Frame’s comments on the issue to see if he adequately dismisses the Calvinist robots objection. I give clarification to the objection on how it applies given certain views of mankind as well.
Clarification on the Objection
When it comes to Calvinism, and its view on God’s sovereignty, is mankind relegated to a role of being human robots? Quickly, I would say no, not necessarily. I say this because within Calvinism one can hold a few different views pertaining to God’s Sovereignty and human freedom that doesn’t necessitate this. A person, for example, could hold to a view of Calvinism that includes Libertarian Free Will. By including Libertarian Free Will, human beings have a genuine responsibility since they are themselves the causal agents of their choices, thoughts, and actions. For example, one such position like this is Congruism. Congruism essentially states that divine grace is efficacious because it is given by God in circumstances which he foreknows to be congruous and favorable to its operation.
As you can see one is not automatically married to the idea of Calvinism entailing human beings as mere robots. The crux of this objection in regards to human beings relegated to the role of mere robots is however aptly applied to a different position. The view, in particular, is known as Divine Causal Determinism (Further referred to by acronym ‘DCD’). On this view human beings merely play out the roles that God determines for them. Their choices, thoughts, and actions are all predetermined and decided by God causally, outside from the individuals themselves. Succinctly, God is directly the causal agent and not the individuals themselves.
Despite DCD presenting some real issues as to the responsibility to the individual for their actions, thoughts, and choices some argue for a position called ‘Compatibilism’. This position, also known as ‘Freedom of Inclination’ seeks to show that mankind being free is compatible with DCD. This is arguably done only after first requiring a redefinition of free will! On Compatibilism it is said that mankind is free to choose but that their choices are always their greatest desire or inclination. Who or what determines this desire or inclination? Does the individual? No. It is God who causally determines even these aspects of the individual. This is why it can be said that Compatibilism is DCD but with extra steps. While this position advocates as a middle ground it fails to provide a real basis for being so.
The language of human beings being relegated to mere robots is an analogy applied to DCD for this reason. If human beings have their choices, thoughts, and actions predetermined for them, outside themselves, the language of their choices, thoughts, and actions being ‘programmed’ is applicable. Like robots, human beings do not have genuine freedom to think, freedom to choose, or freedom to act as causal agents. They would merely play out their scripted programming. In regards to John Frame’s comments, do they rise to the challenge of this objection? Let us look.
The Responses
First John Frame makes some statements on scripture and humans beings compared to clay. He says:
“Scripture is concerned, above all, to glorify God. Sometimes glorifying God humbles man, and those who believe Scripture must be willing to accept that consequence. We covet for ourselves ever more dignity, honor, and status, and we resist accepting a lower place. But Scripture assaults our pride and honors the humble. Scripture compares us, after all, not to sophisticated robots, but to simple potter’s clay.”
Overall I do not disagree with John Frame here. I do think that Scripture is overall concerned with revealing God specifically and that in turn Glorifies God but not really a contentious point. He further makes statements I don’t contend relating overall to the radical depravity of man.
There is one point to note at the very end of this segment and that is when Frame says that scripture compares us to clay, not robots. This, of course, is not an argument against the use of the robot analogy. The most likely reason scripture uses the analogy of comparing men to clay in Romans 9:21-23 is because it was something that could be commonly understood by those in that culture and time. Even so, I think there is a categorical error here. The clay analogy is clearly made to speak about the sovereignty of God in predestining men and not primarily about how God causally determines human beings in their choices, thoughts, and actions. You see this clearly stated as such in verse 21 (in the ESV):
“Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
Who is the potter and who has the right to do as he pleases? God. This right of God directly speaks to the sovereignty, or ultimate authority, of God over us. Importantly, Romans 9:21 is best highlighted when set beside 2 Timothy 2:20-21 where again Paul refers to human beings as vessels. We read:
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”
While in Romans 9 we see God’s sovereignty demonstrated using ‘vessels’ in 2 Timothy ‘vessels’ are again mentioned and the designations of these vessels being for honorable or dishonorable use is seen again. Yet there is a prominent distinction between 2 Timothy’s ‘vessels’ from Romans 9’s in that it is arguably about individual choice. When it says “if anyone cleanses himself” it makes very clear the vessels of dishonor can indeed become vessels of honor. John Frame’s use of the analogy in scripture of mankind as clay is wrongly applied for a type of defense. If dishonorable clay vessels are able to be made honorable “if anyone cleanses himself” then this flies in the face of a DCD position.
The robot analogy is simply conveying DCD in its workings to what robots with programming would be. It is a common example that makes such seemingly complex theological/philosophical positions easily understood by those in our culture.
On this misapplication in which clay and robots are wrongly equated Frame continues on:
“What if it turns out that we are robots, after all—clay fashioned into marvelous robots, rather than being left as mere clay?”
This comment simply doesn’t resolve any of the objection and it feels to be a “So what?” answer. As I already critiqued, there is that difference between what the clay analogy is about and what the robot analogy is about. Frame then ask:
“Should we complain to God about that?”
Unfortunately, I think Frame has further missed the point here. The robot analogy was never about complaining but rather helping to explain a particular position, namely DCD.  Further, this appears to be a response commonly heard whenever one questions positions like DCD. Many can recall a Calvinist retorting Romans 9:20 “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” This may not be Frame’s intent but if so this confuses your opponents critiquing your theological positions verses questioning God’s sovereignty. It simply isn’t the same thing.  
Continuing Frame says:
“Or should we rather feel honored that our bodies and minds are fashioned so completely to fulfill our assigned roles in God’s great drama? Some creatures are born as rabbits, some as cockroaches, and some as bacteria. By comparison, would it not be a privilege to be born as an intelligent robot?”
This begs the question. Is our assigned role in God’s great drama to utilize the free will he gives us or simply act on our prescribed paths set before us aside from any choice? Also, Notice Frame inputs “Intelligent robot”. Does he mean a self-aware artificial intelligence? Such a robot wouldn’t be running off of preset programmed software but rather be genuinely choosing as a causal agent. Frame is simply not clear here what he is meaning. There is no disagreement that all of creation is created to glorify God in one way or another. That being said it is for certain that mankind was alone created in the image of God and therefore has a significantly different role than simple rabbits, cockroaches, and bacteria.
In seeming contemplation Frame comments:  
“Indeed, what remarkable robots we would be—capable of love and intimacy with God, and assigned to rule over all the creatures. Is it not a wonderful blessing of grace that, when we sinned in Adam, God did not simply discard us, as a potter might very well do with his clay, and as a robot operator might well do with his malfunctioning machine, but sent his only Son to die for us? Risen with him to new life, believers enjoy unimaginably wonderful fellowship with him forever.”
Robots capable of genuine love and intimacy wouldn’t be mere robots following preset programming. Conceivably, Frame comparing God to a robot operator with a malfunctioning machine seems to undermine his rebuttal as if the robot malfunctioned because it was capable of doing so apart from any preset programming (i.e. DCD). It is as if the machine had a genuine choice! Instead would it not be more accurate of Frame to say the robot ‘malfunctioned’ because it was programmed to do so by the robot operator? Again given the robot analogy explaining DCD, any of mankind’s choices, thoughts, and actions occur because they are causally determined outside the individual (robot).
Frame finishes up with:
“As we meditate upon these dignities and blessings, the image of the robot becomes less and less appropriate, not because God’s control over us appears less complete, but because one doesn’t treat robots with such love and honor.”
Honestly, I couldn’t agree more with Frame here. Given the dignities and blessings God has bestowed upon man, despite his thorough failings, does go against, not the robot analogy, but against the DCD position. In this God’s sovereignty or control, is no less complete either.
Wrapping Up
Overall John Frame has not sufficiently dismissed the overall objection with his comments. The language of love and intimacy with God is one of reciprocation, one that God initiates and provides to us first. God loves us, not for a programmed response, but a free response that he makes possible. A free response entails free will. A person does not have to hold to Divine Causal Determinism just to uphold God’s sovereignty. God remains the ultimate authority even if men have free will and this is because it is God who bestows free will to mankind. God not only provides a way for men to be saved but also provides the way that they can sincerely respond as a genuine love relationship requires. God is truly omnibenevolent and so he de facto desires all men to repent and live even if not all do. This is naturally something you cannot derive from mere robots and therefore DCD.
An Alternative  
If you want to consider a view in regards to God’s sovereignty and human freedom that doesn’t relegate human beings to the role of mere robots than you need a position that allows for Libertarian Free Will. Such a position that satisfies this need is known as Molinism. Molinism takes its name from the 16th Century Roman Catholic Jesuit theologian Luis De Molina. It is a view that has a strong stance on God’s control of all things with an equal stance on humans being free. From scripture both stances are prima facie true and are accomplished by God’s use of his ‘Middle Knowledge’ or Scientia Media. On this view of God’s omniscience, or knowledge, God inherently knows what any free creature would freely do in any given circumstance. In this, God sovereignly utilizes genuinely free human choices to accomplish his eternal plan.
I would take seriously Molinism’s theological and philosophical points. Molinism goes a long way to satisfying the debate raging on to reconcile God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom.
Phillip Mast is an aspiring Christian apologist with special interest relating to soteriology after becoming a Molinist approximately two years ago. Currently he pursues various personal studies while being active in a local church body in which he leads the ‘Sheepdawg’ ministry. He is a Husband to his beautiful wife Courtney of 11 years, Father of 5, and has an active career in Law Enforcement. He also admins on the Facebook page “Theist Thug Life” which focuses on highlighting evidence for God’s existence, God’s Sovereignty, and Human Freedom.
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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Celad

    God elected to actuate this reality – therefore he elected me, and he interacts dynamically in my life. It is not just an academic epistemological exercise. At least Calvinism acknowledges a wonderful paradox of how God can be sovereign of time and place, timing and placing, and act into time dynamically without being constrained by it. Molinism only gives the impression of getting your head around God. But he is bigger than that.

    Not the most fun of the multitude of co-instants in my life, perhaps, but perhaps one of the most amazing to wonder at, how he orchestrated it all without violating anyone's free will and 'planning' it to occur in linear time:

    An especially sweet one:

    “You have to believe in free will, you have no choice.” I.B. Singer.

  2. br.d

    John Frame
    Scripture compares us, after all, not to sophisticated robots, but to simple potter’s clay.

    And that serves as a red-flag that the general narrative of scripture – does not affirm the notion of Divine Causal Determinism which is the core and foundation of – and unique to Calvinism.

    John Frame
    Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”

    Correct. But what the Calvinist does with this verse is to read Divine Causal Determinism into it. And what he ends up with is a divine external mind who meticulously determines every impulse that will come to pass within the human brain. Making every impulse occur infallibly and thus irresistibly. And any adult can see how that fits the functional model of a robot.

    John Frame
    Should we complain to God about that?”

    This question assumes a degree of human autonomy which doesn’t exist in Calvinism.

    In Exhaustive Divine Determinism (aka Calvinism) the only reason a human would complain – is because an impulse called “complain” was decreed to infallibly come to pass within that human’s brain – which would not be permitted to do otherwise at pain of falsifying that infallible decree.

    The question is designed to paint a FALSE PICTURE of human autonomy which doesn’t exist in Calvinism.

    John Frame
    Or should we rather feel honored

    Same answer as above.
    This question again assumes a degree of human autonomy which doesn’t exist in Calvinism.
    It therefore paints a FALSE PICTURE

    John Frame
    Indeed, what remarkable robots we would be—capable of love and intimacy with God,


    Because in Exhaustive Divine Determinism (aka Calvinism) there is only one DETERMINER in existence. And that DETERMINER is a THEOS – not any human.

    And TRUE love requires two options from which to choose
    Too love or to NOT love.
    And in Exhaustive Determinism (aka Calvinism) multiple options do not exist – because only one option can be RENDERED-CERTAIN.

    A robotic vehicle is said to be able to make “choices”.
    It can make the “choice” of turning left or turning right.
    But that choice is ultimately determined by a programmer.
    Interestingly enough, Calvinists instinctively use the term “ultimate” to describe the divine determiner of their system. Thus Calvinist language manifests their internal conceptual model of robotic functionality for humans.

    John Calvin
    Hence they are merely instruments, into which god constantly INFUSES what energy he sees meet, and TURNS and converts to any purpose at his pleasure. (Institutes)

    Calvinist Paul Helms
    Not only is every atom and molecule, every thought and desire, kept in being by God, but every twist and turn of each of these is under the direct control of God (The Providence of God pg 22)

    Calvinist Robert R. McLaughlin
    “God merely *PROGRAMMED* into the divine decrees all our thoughts, motives, decisions and actions”
    – The Doctrine of Divine Decree

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