Thomas Cudworth has been ably putting the arguments I have previously made against the woolly theology on BioLogos in a series on Uncommon Descent. He did it better than I could, even if I had the ear of UD. I’m grateful to see the issue aired so fully, though it has not been mentioned on BioLogos itself, of course.
One issue that’s come up on those threads is the correspondence, or lack of it, between human freedom and the nebulous BL concept of freedom in creation. Thomas was, understandably I think, keen not to restrict his argument to any one Christian tradition about free-will, since his purpose was to show that no historic traditions, even the Wesleyan, elevate freedom to such a level as to attribute it to the non-human (and the non-angelic) creation. He has resisted attempts (by ubiquitous blogger Bilbo, mainly) to divert the discussion into the theology of human freedom. I agree it’s irrelevant to his series, as I believe it is to most of the general evolution discussion, though it clearly relates to the human sciences and hence to how human qualities like “will” originated.
But since Cudworth has the ground so well-covered on my usual topic, it might be good to clarify here some of what I believe about freedom. This is also partly because Gregory, seeing my Calvinistic slant on human free will in various posts, has expressed a suspicion that I don’t believe in freedom generally. And of course, the contemporary knee-jerk reaction to the mention of Calvin is to start complaining about robots and so on.
What I don’t want to do today is an in-depth study of the definitions of free-will and so on, and how they may cohere philosophically. I did that before to a small extent in an exchange with the sadly nicknamed “tragic mishap” on Uncommon Descent, and you’d be better off reading Baxter or someone on that. I simply want to show the Biblical case that has to be considered. Thomas Cudworth’s own position is that the Biblical teaching is varied and need not be thought internally consistent.
But like other Evangelicals I consider Scripture to be under the general editorship of God’s Holy Spirit, and so do not expect to find genuine contradictions on important doctrinal matters. This, too, was the position of the Reformers, and I should add that that means, essentially, all the first generation of Reformers including Martin Luther, and not only Calvin and his successors. Indeed, the first ever major debate between Protestants and Catholics, at Leipzig in 1519, was not by Luther, but by his assistant Carlstadt, debating free will and grace with Eck, before Luther took the stage. Carlstadt was a poor debater, but Eck, who started from a purely Pelagian position that the will is totally free, had to concede at least the “cooperation” of free will with God’s grace in good works.
What we must remember when we say that Calvinists believe such-and-such about free will is that this is shorthand for “Calvinists believe that Scripture asserts such-and-such.” It’s not a philosophy-driven or even theology-driven position, but a Biblically-driven one. This is an important distinction, for although all the main traditions cite Scripture in support, the Reformed tradition in particular holds to the sola scriptura principle. So what they have wrong, they have misunderstood from Scripture, rather than from reason, or tradition, or the data of science.
So I believe that mankind was created with a will free in the libertarian sense. That follows both from God’s command to Adam and Eve, and their culpability after they sinned. I also believe that the fall led to a moral enslavement of the will – that’s why Calvin objected to the continued use of the term “free-will” for the present. A large volume of Biblical teaching is about the slavery of the will and our need for God’s mercy and grace to liberate, or heal it.
Yet the will, though morally self-enslaved, remains self-determined and therefore, still, a libertarian will. Reformed doctrine takes it for granted that the choice of chips over jacket potato, or of a career in art rather than science, is made freely. It even accepts that choices for good acts over bad are made freely – we can help old ladies across the road or push them under buses. This too is clear from Scripture – people make choices, even morally good and bad ones, throughout the Bible. And all of us are still held accountable for sin, which necessarily implies we determine our own moral choices with reference to God’s judgement.
But our choices are made in practice under the influence of our character, and one universal of character is sin. So we are unable to do anything that is purely good in God’s eyes – anything that merits the reward of enjoying his presence. This is recognised by all the major traditions – we need the specific grace of God in order to do any good works, and especially the fundamental act of having saving faith in Christ. Calvin’s complaint was that many traditions fudge the place of grace, in some cases making it God’s response to our initial willingness, in some cases (like Eck’s) making it a synergistic effort between God and man and in some cases (like Arminians) making it God’s intial response to our foreseen faith. Apart from pointing out the internal inconsistency of some of these positions, he pointed out passages in Scripture that not only suggest God’s inititation of grace, but that even appear to imply his sole agency.
A couple of examples from hundreds: Jer 24.7 (compare Deut 29.4) – faith is seen in terms of God giving a new heart (and remember the heart was said to be the seat of the will in Hebrew anthropology). And see Eph 2.8-9, where both faith, and the works that proceed from it, are described as the work of God, not of us. The resolution of this probably lies in the concept of renewal and recreation: we need to be born again if our wills are, effectively, dead to God. So the primacy of God’s grace is not a coercion of will, any more than our first creation was. Anyone who says, “I didn’t ask to be born” has Isaiah 45.9-10 for his only answer from God.
Once reborn, our willing submission to God’s Spirit is on a par with Christ’s, who similarly said that what he did was not of himself, but of his Father working within him. John Calvin was apt to say, when people raised cavills to such ideas, that they were not arguing with him but with the Holy Spirit. And that remains true today. To dispute their coherence or morality is open to anyone, but an Evangelical reply has to give a better explanation of the words of Scripture, and I find that is less often attempted than bringing in “So you’re saying we’re just robots” arguments.
But the uses for this kind of teaching are obvious: firstly it keeps us from our perennial temptation to boast about our own worth, and makes us attribute every good thing, including our salvation and good works, to God. It’s faith in God rather than faith in us. Secondly it makes for the only sure ground of assurance – if my faith and salvation come from the work of the omnipotent God, rather than from my own good sense in appropriating it, than God’s promises to me make sense – rather than that rather lame assurance you sometimes hear, along the lines, “I will give you grace to resist every trial – so long as you don’t give way.”
This has been long enough, so I’ll save for another post the hardest question of all – God’s role in governing the world towards his purposes when human freedom is in the mix. That’s an important question. But as I’ve said before, it’s not an evolutionary one.