Tangential thoughts on the will

I find the concept of “free will” to be a very unfruitful one, as I have argued, for example, here. (I’m considering now not the philosophical issues relating to physical determinism, quantum randomness and what not, but the daily experience of choice and its theological consequences). The Bible doesn’t even mention free will, which ought to be significant. It assumes men makes choices, according to common experience, and holds them accountable for them even to the point of acceptance or rejection before God. But it deals with this in relation to character, not to freedom. Its concept of freedom on the other hand, beyond the commonplace and trivial, has to do with the accordance of our wills with God’s, by nature or through salvation; never autonomy.

The “autonomy” idea of the will breaks down completely when considering God himself, who is free to do all he chooses, and always chooses consistently with his Being: God is the ultimate free agent, simply because his being and his will are one. To raise as a “problem” (as some do) that God’s freedom is compromised by his goodness is proof of a warped, Promethean understanding of freedom.

Likewise the human freedom of Christ consisted in his always doing the exact will of his Father. To will is simply to want, or to choose, and to choose, as Jesus did, the path of constant obedience leads to freedom. Likewise the Augustinian phrase non posse peccare (inability to sin), applied to the resurrected saints, proves unfortunate in a libertarian context because it suggests a privation of freedom, whereas it is the final recovery of freedom in biblical terms.

Conversely, to act against God’s will (aka to sin) is frequently described in the Bible as “bondage” – though paradoxically as culpable bondage, because it arises from the corruption of character, and character arises from choices. Such corruption of character, in the Bible, can be attributed not only to individuals but to communities:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

To nations:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”

To the whole human race:

“All have turned away, they have together become worthless.”

My thinking about this was prompted by a current debate amongst some pillars of the internet about whether atheists are culpable or justified in not believing in God. One participant cited Romans 1.21-23 to show that there is an innate knowledge of God in all humans, and that therefore atheists are willfully excluding him (though of course the passage mainly refers to the origins of idolatry rather than just atheism). In reply, a couple of others said that atheism can be the genuine result of considering the evidence rationally and rejecting God “in good faithlessness”, as it were. God would therefore not blame them for this honest error.

My own take on that is that God might, nevertheless, blame us for judging before the time (1 Cor 4.5) by presuming we can second guess God’s verdicts.

But here I want to concentrate only on some considerations arising from this discussion, about the usual arguments made in favour of libertarian free will, not least because the argument above seems to be based on the idea that there is some moral virtue in the “genuine choice” to disbelieve in God, that outweighs its being (a) mistaken and (b) dishonouring to our Creator. God will not judge someone who has made the best choice they judge to be available to them. Does that actually make sense?

One principle underlying the concentration of theological focus on the kind of “free will” that I reject is the claim, going back to the original 17th century Arminian Remonstrants who introduced it, that to be truly free the will must be entirely unconstrained:

The will of man ought to be free from all kinds of internal and external necessity in its actions. (Quoted by both John Owen and Richard Baxter).

This is an interesting line of argument, for the “ought” in it comes from being certain about their own concept of exactly what the will is (anybody care to let me in on the secret?), which is then imposed on their whole theology. It becomes the ruling principle, as in those tracts that major on evil being the result of God’s inability to make us robots.

Taken to its limits (which it is, surprisingly often, nowadays) it brings “free will” not only into the field of liberty, but of randomness, for only that which happens by chance can be entirely undetermined. Hence the invocation of quantum principles to give it a physical justification.

But that aside, the Arminians must either have meant that the will actually is free from necessity, or else that God was duty-bound to make it so, whether he did or not. Their main aim was to escape the Reformed (and before that, scholastics like Aquinas) concept of God’s grace as prior to human will. In that way man retained principal responsibility for choosing or rejecting God. But of course, that which excludes the Creator and Saviour’s imposition of “necessity” on the will also excludes more mundane influences such as personality, habits, education, torture etc.

If true, and the will does have such radical autonomy, it would mean that all the “evidence” against God presenting itself to our hypothetical atheist is axiomatically insufficient to determine his choice to reject God. Their choice was entirely free, and therefore willfully wrong (the will being the sole governing factor), and therefore culpable.

The alternative (under the “free will” scheme) is that Romans 1.21-23 is true in some ideal world, where the will would be undetermined, but owing to circumstances beyond God’s control (or a willful error on his part?) ones choices in the real world are actually determined by all kinds of necessity – in the case in hand, by “evidences against God.”

God therefore cannot justly judge atheists for their unbelief. But minimal consideration shows that, once one says that the will ought to be free of necessity but isn’t God can’t actually judge anybody. For as common experience shows, if we’re honest, all our choices are determined by “internal and external necessity” of one sort or another. And the most crucial internal necessity (and fortunately also the way out of the dilemma) is character.

The old insistence that “free will must imply that I could have done otherwise” is actually pretty empty – “possible worlds” don’t exist, only this one, which is where we do our choosing. It may be true that if I was a different “me” in a different world I would choose differently. But I’m not. To will one thing is to reject all others, even if motivations or evidences were in conflict with each other before the will acted to determine my reality.

When I was fourteen, I’d been a (weak) Christian for just a year, and was at a Christian camp. One of the kids was sick, and I went to see him. The guy had been bed-bound for a couple of days, and the leader in attendance asked me – as a test as much as anything, I think – if I would be willing to carry away the bowl of his excrement for disposal at the other end of the field. And despite a strong sense of “ought”, charity was outweighed by “yuk”, and I declined. I failed the test.

No doubt my will (which definitionally is simply the choice I made de eventu) would have been changed if I’d been offered a lot of money, or threatened with some kind of shaming punishment. But under the actual circumstances the decision I made was simply because the character of Christ had not yet been sufficiently formed in me.

Being asked to do yukky things is a sufficent reason for a fourteen-year old to refuse to clean up after a sick friend – but only because that fourteen-year old has spent his life cultivating self-interest rather than Christlike love. At that point there was no other factor to give the “freedom” for me to will otherwise, though that does not remove it from the sphere of moral accountability – as my conscience kept reminding me long afterwards.

The question of the hypothetical atheist’s “evidence” needs to be judged, therefore, in the context of the atheist’s whole life – and since only God sees that, God is the one who may judge it. It’s not rocket science, though it is, perhaps, related to philosophy of science. For as we all know from Kuhn, or should, “evidence” is what is chosen (by the will) from the mass of reality as supportive of a prior theory, and theories, as we also know, are human constructs.

We’re all familiar with the internet atheist who says, “There is no evidence for God”, and that he doen’t really mean “the evidence is insufficient”, but “my theory/worldview does not allow me to see any phenomenon in favour of God’s existence as evidence”. To him there is, literally, “no evidence”.

The question, then, is what forms the theory that determines the will to regard, or disregard, evidence? The answer, surely, is “character”, in its broad sense of “all the prior choices that make up our inner life.” The self-made fascist will find social Darwinian theories of race persuasive. The egalitarian will not. I’m not sure we have enough deep knowledge of even our own motivations and influences to be able to untangle them from the beliefs that we form: they determine those beliefs. And in so doing they determine what we regard as evidence. How that fits into “free will” I’ve no idea, except to make it look even more incoherent as a concept.

In closing, let us explore the case of the atheist who changes his mind about Romans 1, and chooses to know that God’s power and deity are real. If what I’m saying is true, the principle factor at work in such a case is not a change in evidence, but a change in his character. Such a change could not come from within himself, for it is his self that chooses to reject God, governed by the character he has created over a lifetime. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

The change must therefore be from without, though resulting in a changed character that  now chooses to accept God. And this we call “God’s grace”. Those who remember such a change in their own lives will know, therefore, why Paul says faith is “not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

And maybe they’ll see that the Remonstrants were a bit confused in saying this ought not to be since thereby the will’s freedom is compromised and necessitated by God. The gift, friends, by an act of new creation, was a whole new will.

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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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6 Responses to Tangential thoughts on the will

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon wrote:
    We’re all familiar with the internet atheist who says, “There is no evidence for God”, and that he doen’t really mean “the evidence is insufficient”, but “my theory/worldview does not allow me to see any phenomenon in favour of God’s existence as evidence”. To him there is, literally, “no evidence”.
    [end quote]

    Atheists who have become sensitive to your charge here may begin to more carefully nuance their view by allowing that there is “insufficient evidence”, but in their abundant unguarded moments they equate this with “no evidence” as in no evidence that they accept as *scientific*. So I think your charge is exactly confirmed. I remember listening to an online screed for a self-styled “friendly atheist”, who proceeded to mock theistic religion as having exactly zero real basis whatsoever, but his mockery was delivered with a winsome smile, so I guess that made him friendly. Actually, in fairness to him, he was also targeting new atheists with exhortations to desist in certain behaviors that make atheists look bad or that inadvertently encourages their enemies. But in the end, he too, remains a case-in-point for your observations here, Jon.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      In one sense it wasn’t even a criticism of atheists – just an application of philosophy of knowledge. Once you have decided there is no God in your worldview, there can be nothing that counts as evidence. In that sense there is no “choice”.

      But we then have to look at the choices that formed the wordview in the first place over a lifetime – which is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 1. Or he may be suggesting even more: that there has been a corporate human turning away from God, so that each new person imbibes godlessness/idolatry as a “package deal” rather than following the conscious, voluntary sequence described. We are still accountable for what we believe.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    On proving that God does or does not exist, I prefer to consider Kant and his dialectic – briefly Kant showed that one may provide equally compelling arguments for either case. Philosophically this shows us that we as human beings may exercise our reason and have a profound capacity to come to a reasonable decision. This is an additional reason to accept that we are free to exercise our intellect, and also understand that it is for God to decide in His infinite wisdom, who would be the recipient of His Grace and comprehend Him.

    These days I often think of Paul who said that God chooses the foolish to puncture the vanity of intellectuals who are so eager to make their anti-theistic declarations.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Maybe there’s a parallel with those conundrums philosphers set themselves, like the difficulty of proving there is a world “out there” at all. Rationally one might easily be persuaded of solipsism by the arguments, but in practice the only people who live as if it were true are mad. Not all knowledge comes from that kind of proof.

  3. pngarrison says:

    Jon, I think you and I basically disagree about freedom as it exists in the series of choices that lead us to or away from God (I strongly suspect things really could have been otherwise for anyone,) but I don’t really want to argue about it again. Here I just want to provide a quote which I dug up recently after watching the Gregory Peck movie version of Moby Dick. There are some great quotes in the movie which I think are somewhat modified from Melville, but they sent me in the direction of this one from Captain Ahab. Knowing you a bit, perhaps this will send you off seeking a great white blog post to harpoon.

    “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I? By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man? Who’s to doom, when the Judge himself is dragged to the bar?” – Captain Ahab

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Preston

      Whether that’s a quote from Melville or Greg Peck’s screenwriter it’s very Ahab isn’t it? Much of the deep theme of Moby Dick revolves round the obsession of Ahab, and its relation to “irrestible fate” dragging him and a host of innocent bystanders to their doom, which is far removed from any respectable Reformed doctrine of the relationship between divine and human will.

      Not being a literature buff, the most I can say about the book is “what a complex novel”, but Melville is clearly pushing against received Christianity as he found it, exploring the “fate” theme clearly in the context of Calvinist predestination, showing sympathy for the head-hunter with his own, simple, private religion, and focusing, somewhat ambiguous, on the “sailor’s preacher” in port, based I believe on a real character. Sometimes it seems the whale is the determiner of his fate, rather than the divinity.

      Mixed with all that is apparently pure nautical lore – a lengthy discussion on whether, as some said, it was possible to hunt whales to extinction. Melville came down on the side that stocks would always hold up, so that’s an area where human choice can get it badly wrong…

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