Human freedom (but no evolution)

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.

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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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13 Responses to Human freedom (but no evolution)

  1. Cal says:

    A couple of things:

    1) It is not fair nor totally correct to say “Calvinism = We think Scripture says…” because as you know Calvinism (a bad term imo) has all shades and colors. Calvin is different from Beza and Turretin, Calvin was not as rigidly scholastic in many manners as some of his successors. Then you also have men like Amyraut and Baxter, who were not just 4 point Calvinists. They challenged the ability to scholastically formulate 5 points TULIP.

    2) Present day Arminians may err and say something akin to what you’ve presented but that’s because most of what passes as Arminianism is more likely semi-Pelagianism. Arminius would say, probably, something like this:
    Indeed Calvin is right, we’re totally dead in our sins, our will is in bondage. However, when the grace of God appears, it is non-coercive, the bonds are not broken yet and choice is presented to further undoing the knot of slavery. It is God all the way doing the saving, not a single thing by man, but he can harden his heart, that is his prerogative. Election is the body of Christ, and faith by grace is the only means to participate.

    I’m not sure I’m with Arminus 100% but he never ceased being Reformed in the sense of the all pervasiveness of grace and the sovereignty of God.

    3) Perseverance of the Saints is not OSAS, but one must keep fighting for the faith. If he/she falls away, which is possible, it was because he/she was never really there in the first place. It was the seed on the rock,road or in the thorns. Calvin gave a stress that we never really know if we were to persevere unless we indeed do. There is assurance and yet still power in the warnings found in Hebrews.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    (1) Fair point – though the disagreements within the Reformed movement (traditionally) would surely have been, “… but what about Hezekiah 15.2?” rather than “…but St Gregory wrote…” or “the Buddhists have a great insight on this…”

    (2) I’m not well-read in Arminius, but I think I’ve represented what was commonplace by the mid 17th century. Still your point makes the limitation of “free-will” even more universal in the Church.

    (3) Agree fully – the OSAS mistake is to forget we’re saved for faith and good works and somehow link it to an altar-call.

  3. Cal says:

    2) Yeah, the Pelagian (poor fellow, his name has been blackened!) error was pretty well rejected by much of the early Church before he came along. We see talk of freedom, but always in the context of liberating grace. They were not so hard and scholastically calvinistic but neither is Scripture(!). I’ll get you a passage from either Arminius or the Remonstrants that describe grace as nothing reactant from God peering into the future and seeing faith ahead of time.

  4. Gregory says:

    Perhaps it’s not that I’m suspicious that you don’t believe in freedom generally, Jon, but rather that the tradition in which you are raised and belong is renowned for its particular views of freedom. What I mean is that Reformed-Calvinism seems to be (and is embraced by some as) a more-deterministic-than-most branch within the Church. Again, even the accepted past tense term ‘Reformed’ speaks to the conclusiveness of something that has happened instead of Semper Reformans, which would indicate a more suitable title for a ‘Reforming’ church. Personally, I find the term ‘Reformed’ also to be a ‘tragic mishap,’ understanding that it is meant as a Noun rather than as a Verb.

    Would you not agree that this (already happened instead of happening view) is part of what makes people conclude that Calvinism (if not the Reformational tradition generally) is a relatively anti-freedom perspective within Christianity?

    Something similar can be said of the ontological position of ID as proving what has been ‘intelligently designed.’ It already happened. There is no way to change it; it is believed as a presupposition rather than as a conclusion of scientific knowledge. ID is a Noun, not a Verb. Calvinist IDers might thus demonstrate the most extreme current example of begging a question using Noun + Noun. Perhaps Thomas Cudworth might label this hyper-determinism a ‘Calvinist maneuver’ wrt ID, that is, if he were not defending ID and thus seeking to place it in the best possible light. The wording “Wesleyan Maneuver” sounds clever, though I’m not as theologically erudite as you and the others here to evaluate whether it makes sense or not (and frankly have very little time these days to investigate).

    You wrote: “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.”

    Of course, Scripture asserts nothing by itself, without human interpreters. Nothing can be ‘biblically driven’ or ‘sola Scriptura’ without human beings, made in God’s image. Sola Scriptura thus seems to make as much sense as freedom while enslaved (or closed while open). I happen to think the ‘sola’ tradition is nonsensical; that it was (ironically) a misunderstanding of Scripture to hold this position in the first place. Scripture teaches us to listen and not just to read, not to privilege our eyes, but to open our hearts in community (including Ecclesia and Tradition). This might be a bit like the ‘information without observers’ approach that some IDers take, though of course ID has no connection with religion or theology (wink!).

    “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.” – Jon

    Many people do think it is an evolutionary question. Daniel Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” is a case in point. Why do you say it is not an ‘evolutionary question’? Are you placing theological limits on the meaning of ‘evolution’ in contrast to folks like Penman who are speaking of an ‘evolutionary creation’? For the EC position, all of creation ‘evolves,’ including human freedom. What makes human freedom different? Or what makes theological limits on evolution differ from (natural) scientific or philosophical limits on evolution? My questions to Penman would involve the difference in ideology between creation and creationism; isn’t one a responsible (and gigantic!) topic of study while the other is unnecessarily limiting and divisive?

    Hopefully that’s not too rough written in short time,

  5. Cal says:


    One correction (from one who does appreciate the articulation of the sola’s):

    You’ve misunderstood sola scriptura and interpreted as solo scriptura. Sola Scriptura is that scripture alone is the ‘canon’ (ruler) and authoritative in terms of understanding Kingdom. I think we both would say Scriptures make objective claims (against, saying, it is whatever you make it), despite flawed interpretation. These understandings are indeed helped by outside sources in understanding. They act as guideposts to illuminating what indeed the Canon says. This is all Sola Scriptura.

    Solo Scriptura says you don’t need anything else, just the Scriptures to understand the Scriptures. There is an element of truth in this. Someone could open up the Gospel of Luke, read it, and understand who Jesus is. The flaw is that it shuts itself up in a box and fails to allow self-understanding of imparted worldview to be analyzed. It will lead to misunderstandings. This is wrong and something you critique.

    The Orthodox and Catholic positions says, well it doesn’t matter that Scriptures don’t say such-and-such as necessary for the Church (ie. priestly celibacy, magisterial bureaucracy) or this-or-that doctrine (ie. assumption of Mary). The Tradition of those Doctors of the Church have said it and thus it is enough.

    This I don’t see warranted and sometimes leads to grevious errors that impact not just superficial upkeep of things that are true, but harm people physically, emotionally, spiritually. Same with Solo Scriptura.

    A little bit of a tail-spin on that with my own opinion 🙂 . Point is Sola Scriptura is not so full of contradictions or block-headed as you seemed to imply.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Oh dear, Gregory – so many assumptions and generalisations in one post!

    First, thanks to Cal for clarifying sola scriptura – I’d only add that even the “Bible sufficient in itself” understanding is a modification of the Reformer’s views – but there’s a good Wikipedia article on it, which should help you get the picture better.

    There’s also a good article on semper reformanda, which should remind you that the idea started with Luther and was formalised by the very Reformers you critique, though later adopted by the Roman Church with a different slant.

    But the past tense, noun-verb stuff! That doesn’t make for a good analysis at all. I’ve already discussed the content and current creativity of “Reformed” with you elsewhere – but if it means “backward looking”, what about the “tradition” you want to add to “sola scriptura” (and which is already implicit in the term as used, as Cal says)? And if the “Reformed” label implies a pretence that theology got fossilised in the 16th century, then “Orthodox” must imply that the Eastern Church is sole and entire custodian of truth, and “Catholic” that all true Christians belong to Rome.

    ID is a noun? So is “evolution”. Both are derived from acive verbs: orgnaisms evolve, and/or God designs them.

    Finally, I wasn’t raised in the Reformed tradition – I have been persuaded by its theology – though as for the paramount authority of Scripture, I have to confess that was a direct, and sudden, work of the Holy Spirit in my life 6 years after I became a Christian, so I’m not going to be easily persuaded by appeals to tradition or ecclesia in competition with it. As for “renowned for its particular views of freedom” … Wesley was renowned for being a mere enthusiast, the Puritans for being miserable and Polycarp for being an atheist. Bring me substance, not popular reputation.

  7. Gregory says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thanks for your attempt at clarifying re: Sola Scriptura and the Orthodox and Catholic non-Sola Scriptura positions.

    My Latin is very limited, but isn’t ‘Solo Scriptura’ simply bad Latin – an ‘o’ ending for a feminine word? Iow, it’s just a made-up phrase that Protestants in the Reformation tradition use when people question the lack of Kingdom holism in the intended meaning of Sola Scriptura. It’s a way of admitting that ‘Sola Scriptura’ was and is only a partial principle to respond to revelation.

    This is not about Han Solo and Star Wars, but about a simple grammar error made by ‘Reformed’ Christians.

    The main topic of this thread is human freedom (but no evolution). Thus the points about ID as Noun vs. Verb might be relevant also (rather than us engaging in Branch debate). Are we ‘free’ to be (spiritual) co-creators, even if our (read: humanity’s) bodies have ‘evolved’ in natural history?

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Are we ‘free’ to be (spiritual) co-creators, even if our (read: humanity’s) bodies have ‘evolved’ in natural history?

    Now, that is a relevant question, to which the answer must be a resounding “Yes”. Co-creativity (or better, perhaps, subordinate creativity) is what at least is entailed in the imago dei. If we had not sinned, we would be completing what might be lacking in God’s original creation (hence the “rule and subdue” of Genesis 1). Given sin, the outcome is more ambiguous – we tend to create monsters like deforestation (in ancient times) or … genetic monsters (in these enlightened times), as well as the beauties of art and culture.

    One could even argue that close to the core of the Fall was the usurpation of our own creative programme independently of God, and Christ’s salvation is the completion of all that Adam’s race failed to do – so, presumably, that in the new age we might be truly co-creative..

    “Solo scriptura” was, I believe, Cal’s own pun for the misunderstanding of “sola scriptura” by moderns, rather than any institutional lingusitic error – just as your “semper reformans” is an understandable error for a non-linguist, since it means “always (past tense) reformed” and so is actually a synonym for what you criticised in the first place.

  9. Gregory says:

    Thanks for your correction on my wrong tense of ‘semper reformans’ vs. ‘semper reformanda’.

    “I’m not going to be easily persuaded by appeals to tradition or ecclesia in competition with it.” – Jon

    I’d settle for collaboration or cooperation, instead of competition. ‘Sola’ sounds so lonely and individualistically ‘western’ on my spiritual journey!

    I find the noun-verb stuff to be actually quite important on the evolution-ID conversation (will write about this on my blog sometime in the coming weeks with a practical example). I was thinking more of that topic than the ‘Reformed’ label, which is accepted and acceptable as a proper name alongside of reformational and reforming, as has been discussed here before.

    “ID is a noun? So is “evolution”. Both are derived from acive verbs: orgnaisms evolve, and/or God designs them.” – Jon

    Unfortunately, ID does not claim “God designs them.” Iow, ID is not derived from ‘God designs;’ this is partly what distinguishes it from creationism. It doesn’t identify designer(s)/Designer(s) by fiat. It is a ‘science-only’ theory, according to its leading proponents.

    That is partly why Thomas’ and Crude’s question to BioLogos is deceptively tricky; if BioLogos answers “God evolves organisms,” i.e. one of the common definitions of EC/TE (cf. book PEC), then Thomas would ask for scientific proof of this. If he doesn’t, then what’s the point of the question – it is precisely the same as asking if a person believes in God in the first place. If one believes in God and accepts a (limited) view of evolutionary biology (e.g. Penman, you, Cal, myself), they qualify as believing in governance, sustainability, guidance of evolutionary creation, in one way or another. There’s no way around it.

    Thomas and UD are trying to wedge-out EC based on a USAmerican culture war strategy. There is an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ thing going on between UD (+ DI) and BioLogos. Though evasiveness is surely present at BioLogos, the broader issue of EC making sense (though unlike Penman, I would not accept the -ism, not creationism or being a creationist) should not be lost. No doubt you’ve come across evasive IDers too, have you not, Jon?

    The co-creativity (or ‘subordinate creativity’) we both accept proves more problematic for ID than for TE/EC because it necessarily involves a person’s theology in any discussion of ‘design.’ Yet (strangely and unnecessarily!) ID doesn’t want to involve theology. That’s why Ard Louis said recently: “ID simply isn’t Christian enough.” Iow, it relies on mystery, intrigue and ‘implications’ as much as Falk and BioLogos not being able to say how God is involved in evolution.

    Does this help at all to clear up the human freedom issue wrt evolution?

  10. Cal says:

    If solo were an adjective modifying Scriptura, you’d be correct in saying it is bad grammar. However, in Latin, if an adjective stands on its own it is implied that it is referring to someone, usually a non-descript male.

    Ex. Sapiens is “Wise” but left on its own, it would be translated “Wise Man” or “Philosopher”

    While I think the term was written as a counter to a flawed way of arguing Sola Scriptura, one way of translating solo Scriptura would be “Scripture by man alone” or “Scripture for man alone” or even “Scripture for the lone man”

  11. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Classical forum #n

    I’ve misled Gregory by being too tired to have checked my Latin sources and my memory of Latin grammar correctly (a new blog will explain the faitigue shortly!). The real quotation casts full light on what I meant in the first place. Here’s the lowdown on reforming, Reformation style.

    “Semper reformans” is actually, like a number of other dog-Latin variants, modern and misleading. It’s a Latin gerund, meaning “always reforming”. But the actual motto from the Reformers is this: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei.

    Being interpreted, that means, “The Church reformed, and always being (or obliged to be being) reformed according to the word of God.” This excludes both the “once sorted, always sorted” error of the conservatively traditional, and the “perpetual revolution” idea of the liberals that the Church must change itself to keep up with the times.

    Sola scriptura means the continued primary authority of the Bible as God’s living word to us, which is what Martin Luther meant when he wrote: “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me, it has feet, it runs after me, it has hands, it lays hold on me.” (Heb 4.12-13, note). Implied in that is the Holy Spirit both as author and interpreter – a postmodern “no meaning except in the mind of the interpreter” it is not.

  12. Cal says:


    Like a lot of classical terms, Canon is always good. It is the measuring stick provided to test what angels and men have to say in regards to our Crucified God who is Lord over all.

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