Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thinking About Divine Freedom

In my last post I said we'd get to the issue of Divine freedom. Recently Bob Nyberg of New Tribes Mission  sent me a link to an interesting critique of Libertarian freedom, and in it the author affirms what I've concluded about how best to describe God's freedom. But before I get to that, there are a few items in this author's critique that stood out and which warrant a response. In the critique, J.W. Hendryx wrote:
"One of the main objections of Arminians, Semi-pelagians and other synergists to divine election is based on moral rather than exegetical grounds."
This statement is a good example of the warped paradigm that the Calvinist must operate within. That the author considers the view he's opposing to be "synergism" demonstrates a disregard for the notion, as taught by the apostle Paul, that trusting in something is not work, has no merit, has no value. If I trust my neighbor to feed my pets while I'm away, I am not going to be the one feeding my pets. My neighbor gets all the credit for that, I am indebted to my neighbor for doing that work for me. So, this author has a distorted view of Monergism and, as a Calvinist, it is actually he that will end up embracing synergism. For a more in-depth exploration of this distorted view of Monergism, read Monergism Distorted.

There's more in the statement that's worth commenting about. Where do we get our ideas of what is moral and immoral? Is it not from exegesis? Where do we get our ideas of what is just and unjust? Is it not from exegesis? Have we no exegetical basis on which we can say "God is Just?" In other words, to characterize the objection as based on "moral rather than exegetical grounds" is to advance a false dichotomy. If a person's sense of morality comes from exegesis, then their objection is based upon exegesis!

Hendryx also wrote:
"I have heard many of them contend that the Augustinian view of God is morally repugnant since God could and would never force humans to do something against their will."
Here, the author mischaracterizes the objection. If God created humans without free will, there's nothing morally repugnant about that. God created lots of things which lack free will. That God would create humans without free will, and then hold them responsible for something… that is morally repugnant.

If someone created a robot and programmed that robot to kill another person, would it be just to hold the robot responsible? Of course not! We would know that the robot was merely doing what it was programmed to do and we would prosecute the person who programmed the robot! If the only way to understand God's sovereignty is to say that He determines our actions and we lack the freedom to choose, then why would God hold us responsible for doing things when He was the one who caused us to do it?
"We all know that the Arminians teach that man has a free will in the libertarian sense. What this means, simply is that they believe man has the ability to choose otherwise. That is, they affirm that human beings are free to choose between opposites ... to make choices uninfluenced any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. They believe the will, being neutral, can just as easily choose good or evil. On the surface this may seem reasonable but when you think about it for a moment it makes no sense because deep down we know, and the Scriptures affirm, that a person must always choose according to what he is by nature, otherwise how could the choice be rightfully said to be his own? Let us never forget that the nature of a person is not a thing he possesses. It is something he is. For example, When a person loves evil by nature, he will always make choices in line with what that nature desires most."
This paragraph contains at least a couple examples of deliberate distortions of Libertarian freedom. The author claims that under Libertarian freedom the will is "neutral." But this is not necessarily the case. There is no denial that the will is inclined toward evil. But Libertarian freedom simply allows for the possibility of making choices contrary to that inclination. That's not the same as neutrality.

The author is quite confident that a person "must always choose according to what he is by nature." And yet, it's quite clear that even fallen, unregenerate people choose against committing sin at least on occasion. And we also know that Christians choose to commit sin, something that is contrary to their new nature in Christ. So the ability to choose contrary to our nature--whether unregenerate or regenerate--is demonstrable. So, the author's statement that:
"When a person loves evil by nature, he will always make choices in line with what that nature desires most."
…is demonstrably false.

Then the author asks:
"The question is, does God have a free will in the libertarian sense? i.e. Is God able to …choose good or evil? And if not does this mean human beings have more freedom than God?"
This is a very interesting question. Is the ability to choose good or evil necessarily superior to the ability only to choose good? Is that what we want to say? This is what is implied by the author, is it not? He believes that if we think of humans as having Libertarian freedom, then humans have more freedom; a superior kind of freedom, when compared to God. The author would be right to expect that God's freedom should be superior to man's freedom. But superior in what way, exactly? Perhaps we shouldn't jump to conclusions about what kind of freedom is superior.

I think the author is right when he says that God's freedom should be described as "Compatibilist" freedom. I think Compatibilism is a very good way to describe God's freedom as long as we are careful to point out that we do not believe that God's decisions are determined by any external cause. And, because of how Compatibilism is sometimes defined, this can be difficult to do. The very name "Compatibilism" refers to a supposed "compatibility" between determinism and free will, which essentially means it would affirm both.

But wait a minute… determinism is the idea that choices are determined by an external entity. For example, a marionette's actions are determined by the puppeteer; they are not the product of the marionette's will. The marionette, in fact, has no will. So, to the extent that Compatibilism affirms determinism, we cannot use Compatibilism to describe God's freedom, can we? How could God be God if His actions were determined by some external entity?

So, some care must be taken when it comes to defining Compatibilism if we're going to use that term to describe God's freedom. It seems like the aspect of Compatibilism that the author has in mind is the idea that God's own character or nature constrains God's choices. To use the author's example, God is not free in the sense that He cannot choose to lie. And I agree entirely with the author on this point. We might say that God freely chooses to do good, but only good. The choices to do evil are not available to God, but only because of His nature, not because some external entity is preventing Him from going in that direction.

We could use J Warner Wallace's term for Compatibilism, which is "self-fettered free will." Wallace uses the term "unfettered free will" as an alternate term for Libertarian freedom. With these terms, it's easy to see that God's will is "self-fettered." His own character, His own nature, constrains His choices. And yet, since no external entity is determining His choices for Him, we can say that He is truly free.

J Warner Wallace describes Compatibilism (self-fettered free will) this way:
  "Humans have the ability to choose something, …but they always are restrained by their pre-existing nature… You are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose [those things which are contrary to your nature]. You only choose WITHIN YOUR NATURE."
And of course, he's talking here about human freedom. But I think it's obvious that God is restrained in His choices by His pre-existing nature. He will not choose those things which are contrary to His nature, He only chooses within His nature. But is this an apt description of human freedom? Well… certainly not in this life. For more analysis of this question, please read here and here.

If our nature inclines us toward evil and we are unable to choose contrary to that inclination, then how do you account for the fact that unregenerate people do not commit sin at every opportunity they're given? It ought to be impossible for an unregenerate, "natural" man to choose against committing any particular sin at any point in time.

Also, we know that regenerate (born again) persons choose to commit sins, even though this is clearly contrary to the new nature that they've been given. As a description of human freedom, Compatibilism utterly fails to explain this, while Libertarian freedom seems to accommodate it quite comfortably.

And by the same token, Libertarian freedom would be an inappropriate description of God's freedom because if God had Libertarian freedom, then He would not be constrained by His nature and, if He wasn't constrained by His nature, then He wouldn't be God.

So, perhaps the author here has jumped to a conclusion about which freedom is superior. If God is the greatest possible being (and I think He is) and God has Compatiblist freedom, then Compatibilist freedom must be the greatest possible kind of freedom! And because we affirm that mankind is made in the image of God, and yet isn't God's equal (read this for more about being made in God's image) then we should expect that man has an inferior kind of freedom.

So maybe it's wrong to say that Libertarian freedom is a superior kind of freedom. Maybe the ability to choose contrary to one's nature should be viewed as a defect, not an advantage!

There's still one remaining issue, though… human freedom in Heaven. We're not given many details about Heaven, but we are told that we will be free from sin. And that's difficult for any of us to imagine. But I think that some of the mystery goes away if we anticipate that when we receive our resurrection bodies, we will lose our defective Libertarian free will and our freedom will become like God's in the sense that we will freely choose to do those things which are consistent with our new, glorified nature. At that point, Compatibilism will become an apt way of describing human freedom. We will be free from the Old Sin Nature and the new nature will reign absolutely.


  1. Excellent critique. Always appreciate your insights & ability to spot the fallacies, Pete.