Free will or Free will

Just a quick rider to the last few posts (clearly not even a basic handling of a deep subject).

Some may not have fully realised that there are two radically different ideas of “free will” in Christianity. The commonest one in the US and UK, owing to the ascendency of Arminianism in Evangelicalism after Wesley, is that the will is a necessarily undetermined, arbitrary and self-governing principle. For it to be limited in any way is to deny it and imprison it.

One outworking of this is that we are always equally free to decide to sin or not to sin, to live for Christ or not. Two corollaries to that are that the fall could not, ultimately, limit our will, and that even God must not meddle with it in any way, lest he reduce us to robots. In this view, arbitrariness or randomness is closely associated with the “freedom” of free-will. That’s why quantum mechanisms have sometimes been invoked to try and account for it.

In the context of Open Theistic Evolution, this view explains a lot. First of all, it makes the idea of “the freedom of the created order” more plausible. It just means true randomness is introduced. If randomness and indeterminacy are at the heart of our own freedom, then it’s logical for it to be just an extension of what we see in nature. If it can be creative in us, it must be creative in evolution.

This is also the reason why, in this view, God’s rule is constrained by the free choices of human beings, which he can neither foresee (since they are contingent) nor affect (since they are self-governing). Otherwise, it is said, we would be robots. God’s will is very much like ours – after all, what could be the fundamental difference if they are both undetermined and self-governing?

This Arminian view of the will was challenged in the 17th century by many including John Owen and Richard Baxter, whose works I linked to previously. But it was also soundly confuted both on theological and philosophical grounds by Jonathan Edwards in America during the following century. Interestingly he even countered the “robots” argument long before the word, or the concept, was in existence.

The other view, the one I hold myself, is that the freedom of the will is a more limited, and less absolute, thing. It is the freedom God gives to moral agents to make free choices according to their material and moral nature. I pointed out in an earlier post how many constraints there are in practice upon our freedom of choice. This causes a problem for the Arminian view, but not at all for the other: our freedom is relative, not absolute. And none the worse for that.

Morally, since we were originally created with a good, holy nature, our free choices were indeed determined, but only by that selfsame good and holy nature. We did what we wanted to do, but we wanted to do what pleased God. So it was no more bondage to be unwilling or unable to curse God than it is to be unable to jump up to the moon.

How the first sin was able to change that is one of the deepest mysteries of theology. I’ve heard it likened to falling off a bicycle on a straight road – not impossible, but not to be expected, either. Nevertheless, since that first sin humanity is described as being in bondage, not because we have no free will, but because we are now free only with regard to the sinfulness of our nature. “Out of men’s [evil] heart come evil thoughts” etc.

For God, by grace, to free us for righteousness is not, then, as I read only yesterday, to “force” us and destroy our free will. It’s to renew our nature to its original affinity for God so that we freely choose according to our re-creation. “Irresistable grace” is not an assault upon an undetermined right, but the repair of a damaged faculty. Which is how it feels to us when we become Christians, right?

That is why God’s freedom (contra many Arminians) is not limited because he “can” do only what is good. His nature is perfect, so his will and the decisions it makes are perfect. Avoid the category error, and you avoid the problematic theology.

You also avoid the dubious conclusion that for God to determine nature is to destroy its freedom and creativity. Inanimate nature may have randomness, but its nature doesn’t include the freedom to choose. That’s why it’s inanimate, stupid. Is it bothered? But God, in sharp contrast, has the freedom to create from his creative and wise nature, and just loves to do it. And that’s why the world’s here, and why we are here. The triumph of loving freedom over impotent matter.

Now that we are here, we have genuine freedom of will  – but only the freedom appropriate to our limited human nature, and that is a nature created for the love and service of God, once fallen into the slavery of Satan and sin, but recreated in Christ for good works (which he prepared in advance for us to do). Is that such a dark dungeon to be in? I know a snake who might say it was, but I’ve a feeling it’s not true.

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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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3 Responses to Free will or Free will

  1. Cal says:

    Funny how modern day Arminianism has become Pelagian when the Remonstrance and Arminius (along with Wesley) would’ve disagreed with it very much so. His point was not that we have a free choice, arbitrarily, but God must open our eyes and presents us Grace, at which we can harden ourselves or choose it. I think it would be that grace, while making a new creation, is also a piecing back together of a broken image, so, while seeing through a glass darkly, we may not want it.

    But there we go, trying box and systematize YHWH with logical constructs, sifting Scripture via “free will” and “election”. It starts rising big problems such as, the calvinistic doctrine of “sovereign election” which runs straight into the face of many Scriptures that teach Christ pulling all, paying the salvation of all and one must repent and believe. But then the Arminian is in a predicament (a logical outworking is OT, mind you) that it sure seems God fails (which there is no point to) to open the eyes to present grace and via His forknowledge, did the same thing the Calvinist is accused of, not making all really mean all (ie offering something that not everyone really is able to choose).

    It really is a confusing lot when you try and build a system!

    As for me: I can’t subscribe to any systemic approach to figuring it out, but I know I was saved by grace poured out in the cross and resurrection. I have a soft-universal bent (can’t say all will be saved, can’t say any will be lost), but it is the action of Christ that saves. And when we start trying to rip Scriptures apart it becomes a gnostic race to who can know the secrets, my freewill or some pre-planned council to elect me to salvation. This whole endeavor makes Christ some intellectual medal that says you made it, instead of realizing He is the whole of Salvation.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal. I’m inclined to agree that some modern Arminianism has tended to move from being semi-Pelagian to Pelagian – simply by writing God out of any active role to speak of. But the roots of the former are pretty early: John Owen quotes the original Remonstrants as writing: “The will of man ought to be free from all kinds of internal and external necessity in its actions.”
    “All” is an interesting word, as all the world knows.

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