The autonomy problem – an historical summary

The Christian theological tradition was built on the truth of the Bible, supplemented by such things as philosophy, reason, practical experience and so on – but crucially, the Bible. That’s easily shown by reading how the theologians used Scripture.

Now regarding human freedom, Scripture clearly assumed it, and specifically in the instance of accountability for sin, and therefore eternal reward and punishment. However, many Scriptures suggested very clearly that God was providentially in control of the world, and in many instances human decisions seemed to be specifically included within that.

Of the great theologians, Aurelius Augustine was the first to study this issue in immense depth and throughout his life, particularly in contention with the Pelagians with their strong emphasis on human freedom. Remember, his controlling principle was Scripture, and his knowledge of Scripture unparalleled at the time. And his conclusion was that the will must be genuinely free in order to be accountable, but that Scripture clearly showed that it was subject to God’s rule. He left the paradox engendered by this in the mystery of God’s Being, which is high above us, and refused to try and resolve it farther – but took God at his word in both respects, ie that man’s arbitrium is genuinely liberum, but that God works everything, including human decisions, according to his will.

Thomas Aquinas dealt with the issue even more analytically, but again on the same principle: his love of Aristotelian philosophy was never allowed to override the witness of Scripture. In his handling of the issues, he made a point of raising, and answering, every possible objection from Scripture. He, like Augustine, agreed that the Bible teaches both genuine free will, and God’s ultimate providential sovereignty over it. He put more philosophical flesh on Augustine’s explanatory bones, showing how what would be coercion in an external agent is part of the creative nature of the God in whom we have our existence, and does not compromise our creaturely freedom. He specifically disproved the contention that God’s influence is limited to the creation of the will in the first place, or the mere sustaining of our ability to choose. As in the case of Augustine, that left an element of paradox to those who wanted everything cut and dried – but like Augustine, he recognised that everything cannot be cut and dried in dealing with the Being of God, and that faith must hold the Scriptural truths in practical tension, just as scientists must hold relativity and quantum theory (though he didn’t use that analogy, of course!).

The Catholic followers of Aquinas varied in how well they understood, or how much they agreed with Aquinas. Paradoxes have a tendency to slump into simplifications – hence the Protestant accusations of Catholic semi-Pelagianism, denied in turn by the Catholic Church. Yet even their worst representatives recognised the issues and therefore qualified free will heavily in their teaching on grace, predestination and so on.

Come the Reformation, all the magisterial Reformers (without exception) sought to return closer to Augustine’s view of free will and grace than was at that time the case. John Calvin is most noted for his in-depth treatment. Scripture to him was the key – to be elevated over any philosphical system, whether Platonic like Augustine’s or Aristotelian like Aquinas’s – his own bias was towards humanism. He found that Scripture taught unequivocally the responsibility of man for his decisions, but equally unequivocally the sovereignty of God over human decisions, particularly with regard to saving faith (do you see where I’m going with this?). The Reformers went to the extent of denying free will – but only in the entirely autonomous, libertarian sense that had come to be the standard definition through the humanist movement of the European Renaissance.

Catholic (and other) critics of Calvin naturally picked on this, and there are certainly differences in the conclusions he reaches about the relationship between God’s will and our will in the process of salvation – but to be frank, having read most of what Calvin wrote and some of what Aquinas and Augustine wrote, there’s precious little to choose between them on the core issue – that the genuineness of our freedom and the genuineness of God’s sovereignty are only resolvable in the hidden depths of God’s Being, which in this life we cannot know, but must accept by faith. Like his predecessors, he refused to go beyond what is written by the Holy Spirit.

Fast forward to modern Evangelicalism and academic theology generally. A different set of criteria now apply. To them, the given is the definition of free will as completely autonomous and libertarian, since it was logically fixed by Enlightenment reason (following the tradition of the humanists of Calvin’s time). Therefore, it became quite unthinkable that the second half of the ancient paradox – the sovereignty of God over human free will – could be true.

The most thorough Evangelical way to take that forward is to reinterpret the “awkward” Scriptures in libertarian ways – thereby adopting the meanings that towering Biblical theologians like Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin had rejected as untenable. Fortunately, it becomes easier to bypass such passages once “Biblical Inerrancy” has become sidelined – one way or the other, the hard exegetical work theologians used to do can be avoided by variations on the idea that men wrote Scripture and therefore it is irretrievably self-contradictory. Bible writers like Paul, Isaiah (and Jesus) wanted to stress both the accountability of man and the power of God, and got themselves (the feeling is) in a logical paradox. Fortunately, reason can easily resolve it by retaining only the most fundamental truth – that man is free and that God loves freedom above all things.

The problem is that once that move is made, the rest of historic theology collapses like a house of cards. What are deemed new “insights” are nothing but the logical outworking of rejecting half of the biblical witness and refusing to hold on to biblical paradox. Once absolute free will must be maintained at all costs, the whole chain of reasoning outlined in the last post follows. You have to have a hands-off Creator because our freedom demands it. And therefore you must have a kenotic God, because omniscience (it is concluded) compromises freedom. Even the authority of Scripture is an inevitable casualty – had God really “spoken” through the Bible writers in an exhaustive way, they wouldn’t have been free … to write the errors about God’s authority that they did.

Theistic personalism, in turn, only makes sense when God isn’t, any longer, intrinsically mysterious – and indeed, mustn’t be allowed to be. So God can be known thoroughly enough by our freely reasoning about him, or maybe by knowing him as a friend. He can be a mere designer who works by trial and error (in the opinion of some ID people) or a mere CEO who doesn’t have the time or obsessionality to bother with details (in the opinion of many TEs).

Grace, of course, cannot be seen in other than vague general terms, because to create my will anew would be an abuse of my freedom to rebel against God, even if it frees me from sin and fits me for heaven. And as for predestination … well, that’s the longest term casualty of all since Arminius’ time, though at least for him the word (used specifically in Scripture, of course) retained some vestigial meaning through foreknowledge (ignoring Aquinas’ debunking of that possibility). But since even God’s foreknowledge has now been sacrificed on the altar of liberty in Open Theism, the word “predestined” sits there in Romans and Ephesians like an orphaned child. Fortunately it can now be attributed to Paul’s over-enthusiasm and put out for adoption outside theology.

And so we see that the resolution of a biblical paradox has led to a whole theological system at odds with actual biblical teaching – which has generated incoherence – or at least, paradoxes of its own, such as how God could both be the Creator of all things but the designer and maker of none. But, as Dennis Venema of BioLogos commented regarding that a year or two ago, it’s OK to live with a degree of paradox.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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