Sunday, September 18, 2005

Free Will

Last week we noted Joe Carter's list of fifty propositions that comprise his religious creed. Evidently, some of his readers have questioned him about a couple of those theses, focusing their criticism on #38 and #39. Joe seeks to answer their concerns here.

The discussion is essentially over whether God determines or predestines who will be saved and who will be lost. Joe accepts the Calvinist view that one's eternal destiny is completely chosen by God.

I have enormous respect for those in the Reformed tradition, which embraces the Calvinist view of predestination, but even though there are verses in the Bible which support their view of predestination, I have problems reconciling that doctrine with other things that the Bible teaches about God. Let me try to explain:

The question of whether we are free to choose in the sphere of morals or religion is perplexing because for one thing it's hard to describe what a completely free choice would be like. It certainly wouldn't be an uncaused choice so if the choice is caused then we need to ask whether the cause determines or compels the choice. If not, how do explain a choice which is caused by something, say, environmental factors, but is nevertheless free.

The second reason it's perplexing is that the Bible in some places certainly seems to teach that our spiritual fate is predestined (eg. Rom.8:29, 30). Yet in other places it seems to strongly imply that we have freedom to choose our destiny for ourselves (Rev. 3:16). So there's a tension that has troubled philosophers and theologians for two thousand years. Let's start with a basic premise upon which all Christians can agree:

God is perfectly good and supremely just.

We might also agree that since we are made in God's image our concepts of both goodness and justice are similar to His and there's no conflict between them. If there were then it would make no sense for God to adjure us to love goodness and justice since we'd have no idea what exactly He was talking about and what was expected of us.

Now what follows from this? If God has predestined every choice people make in their lives, then:

1. God is responsible for our evil choices. He has predestined them to happen. It's not merely that He allows evil as a consequence of man's Fall, it's that He actually produces it Himself from before the creation of the world. Christians often attribute suffering, grief and death caused by human volition to man's wickedness, or to Satan, but if predestination is true the source of these evils is neither of those. It's God. This, however, seems impossible to reconcile with God's perfect goodness.

2. If God has predestined who will be lost and who will be saved, then God has, in effect, created some of us to live for a relative few short years, programmed us to reject Him and His plan of salvation, and then He punishes us for doing what He compelled us to do by condemning us to suffer hell forever. Imagine writing a software program for a computer which the computer runs perfectly but with which you, the programmer, are dissatisfied. Where is the fault? With the computer or with the programmer? The Calvinist says it is with the computer, and that the programmer is being completely reasonable if he destroys the computer because it did what he programmed it to do. This seems to me to be incoherent.

3. There is no real moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires personal, metaphysical freedom. Someone who suffers from Tourette's syndrome is not at fault if he blurts out obscenities. His condition robs him of control over certain behaviors so we absolve him of blame for them. Likewise, if we are incapable of choosing to do good then we, like the Tourette's sufferer, are not really responsible for what we do choose.

Reformed theologians respond by saying that we are free to do what is right, but that because we have a corrupt nature (which, of course, we can't help), we don't make good choices. We don't chose to do what is right. We had no alternative but to be what God destined us to be, but we're nevertheless free to choose what He has destined us to choose, which is to do evil. How this constitutes genuine freedom and responsibility escapes me.

The only way I can see to reconcile God's goodness and justice with predestination is to adopt the doctrine of universal salvation which would mean that ultimately God saves everyone, no matter who they are and what they did. If no one is punished for their sin, if no one is eternally lost, then God might be just in making us to be whatever kind of person He wants us to be, since our "wickedness" would be but an infinitesimally brief period of time relative to eternity. However, since I don't think universalism is Biblical, I don't think that particular solution is open to the predestinarian.

Predestinarians recognize these difficulties, but they insist that God's sovereignty is such that we have no right to question Him. They will often cite Rom. 9:19 - 21 where Paul says that the pot doesn't ask the potter why he has made it thus. Nonetheless, whatever Paul is talking about in this passage, if he's talking about our personal salvation then its hard to see the aptness of the analogy.

A clay pot does not have an eternal soul, it doesn't have feelings, it's not loved by others, nor does it experience pain and suffering. It's one thing to mold clay for whatever purpose one pleases, it's something else entirely to create a human being only to have it live a few years and then be damned for an eternity. As I said, I have difficulty reconciling that with what I believe about God's goodness and justice.

The Calvinist believes that the sort of human freedom we're talking about here would somehow diminish God's sovereignty, but our freedom to choose is a gift God Himself bestows. He could revoke it if He wished. His sovereignty consists in being able to do whatever He cares to. His sovereignty is in no way subject or subordinate to our freedom.

In summary, there are two basic positions on the question of human free will and predestination: The Calvinist or Reformed view is largely the product of the work of John Calvin (1509 -1564) who believed that man is totally corrupt and cannot do anything to save himself. If he could then he would not need God and Christ's sacrifice was unnecessary. If a man could save himself, the Calvinist believes, then salvation would be based on what he did, it would not be based on faith, and the man might have something about which to "boast."

Thus God chooses some from among those He creates to work in their hearts. He changes their heart so that they are then able to accept Christ's offer of eternal life, which they will inevitably do since God has predestined them to do so.

The other view is called Arminianism after James Arminius (1560 - 1609). According to this view man is lost, as if stuck in quicksand. He's sinking and can't extricate himself. All men are in this predicament, but God reaches down and offers each a hand. Some reach up to grasp it, some refuse it. The choice is up to each. Those who take God's offer of rescue are not doing anything meritorious, any more than a drowning man can claim some sort of virtue in seizing the life preserver thrown to him. He may not recognize the seriousness of his peril, but he knows he's in trouble, so he takes hold of the hand offered to him.

Which of these two views is correct, I can't say for certain, but for the reasons I discussed above, I lean strongly toward the Arminian side. If it should turn out, though, that the Calvinist position is correct then I can hardly be blamed for not accepting it. God will have predetermined me to believe what I do, and I never really had any choice in the matter.

Carter closes with a question aimed at the Arminian Christian. He asks this:

If Christians believe that God is omniscient then it is only reasonable that he would know, even before they were born, which people would accept him and which would reject him. Since this is the case, why would he even bother to create those He knows will reject the gift of salvation? Why didn't he merely decide to only create those who will accept his gracious offer, providing, in effect, universal salvation?

This is the question that plagues non-Calvinists. They must either reject the notion that God is omniscient or they must proffer an explanation for how God could have known who would be saved if it is completely within the human's will to accept or reject him.

It's a bit surprising that Joe would ask this question since he's familiar with the arguments of Alvin Plantinga and others which show that there's no genuine logical conflict between human free will and God's foreknowledge. To know in advance that a particular choice will be made is not inconsistent with the freedom of the agent to do otherwise than what God knows he will do. Viewpoint has previously discussed the problem here and here.

Another answer to Carter's question is that offered by what is called Open Theism which is discussed briefly here.