I will present in three parts a paper I read a couple of years ago at the Birmingham Southern Baptist Founders Fraternal dealing with the thorny issue of the relationship between God's sovereignty and human freedom. I hope the readers find it useful. Comments welcome.
RECONCILING DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND FREE WILL?
By Steven B. Cowan
God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass. . .
Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence. . .
(The Second London Baptist Confession, 3.1, 5.2)
These statements from the Second London Confession reflect the biblical testimony that God is absolutely sovereign over his creation. Nothing happens apart from his will, his control. Since most of you here today would agree with this doctrine, I will not rehearse the biblical texts which support it. But, let me simply go on record as saying that I think that the Bible teaches this doctrine most clearly and unambiguously.
Of course, as our Arminian brothers will be quick to remind us, the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and meticulous providence poses a threat to human freedom. If God ordains everything that comes to pass, including the future actions of human beings, then it seems that human beings cannot do other than what they in fact do. And, that being the case, how can they be free? How can they be morally responsible for their actions? The Arminian, as you know, thinks that if God is this sovereign, this much in control, then we cannot be free and responsible. And thus he chooses to preserve human freedom by mitigating God’s sovereignty in some way. Most often this is done by saying that God chooses to limit his sovereignty to allow room for human freedom.
Now those of a Reformed or Calvinist persuasion are not comfortable with this solution primarily because of our conviction regarding what the Scriptures teach about God’s sovereignty. Yet, I have heard many Calvinists, faced with this apparent conflict between God’s sovereignty and human freedom say something like this: "Well, I know that the Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign. And it sure seems that the Bible also teaches that humans have free will. The Bible teaches both, so I must affirm both. I can’t explain how they fit together. It’s a mystery. So, we must be content to hold sovereignty and free will in tension."
Before I go any further, I need to point out that both the Arminian and the Calvinist who takes this approach to the problem have something very significant in common. They both share the same view of free will—that is, they both affirm the libertarian definition of free will. On this view a person has free will when he has the ability to do otherwise. In other words, imagine a person who stands at a fork in the road, who is deliberating on whether to go right or left. Now suppose that he chooses to go left. According to the libertarian, the person’s choice was a free choice if, in the very same circumstances, he could have gone right instead. This is what we mean by the ability to do otherwise. And this view of freedom, obviously, entails that a free choice will not be determined in any way.
The Calvinist who wants to hold free will in tension with God’s sovereignty does so because he cannot see any clear way to reconcile God’s sovereignty with freedom understood in this libertarian sense. And I want to suggest that he cannot see any clear way to reconcile them for good reason: they cannot be reconciled! God’s sovereignty and libertarian freedom are undeniably and immutably contradictory! If God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, then it follows with irresistible logic that nothing other than what he ordains can come to pass. And this means that if God ordains that Steve Cowan give a lecture at the Birmingham Founders Fraternal on April 25, then Steve Cowan cannot do other than give that lecture. So, if God is sovereign, then neither Steve Cowan nor anyone else has the ability to do otherwise—that is, no one has freedom in the libertarian sense.
The upshot of this, of course, is that, since contradictions cannot be true, God’s sovereignty and human free will cannot be held in tension. On this score, the Arminian is right: we must choose between God’s absolute sovereignty and libertarian freedom. The Arminian, of course, will say that we ought to choose libertarian freedom and mitigate or diminish God’s sovereignty. However, I suggest that we go the other way; that we choose God’s sovereignty as clearly taught in the Bible, and say goodbye to libertarian freedom.
There are three reasons for this. First, I think it needs to be pointed out, despite what many people believe, that the Bible nowhere directly teaches libertarianism. Search the Scriptures to your heart’s content and you will never find that the Bible affirms that humans have the ability to do otherwise. Now what you will find is that the Bible clearly and strongly affirms human moral responsibility. God gives us commandments and he expects us to keep them. And when we don’t, he holds us morally accountable. So, there is no denying that the Bible teaches moral responsibility.
Now the reason that many people think that the Bible teaches free will (in the libertarian sense) is that they assume or presuppose that moral responsibility requires libertarian free will. In other words, people come to the biblical text with an a priori philosophical presupposition that libertarianism is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. But, the Bible nowhere affirms that presupposition. But, of course, someone might say that even though the Bible doesn’t directly affirm that libertarianism is a necessary condition of moral responsibility, it is certainly plausible to believe it is. The Bible doesn’t teach libertarianism, but there are lots of things we believe and ought to believe that the Bible doesn’t teach, e.g., that 2+2=4. So, perhaps we ought to accept libertarianism any way. This leads me to my next two reasons to say goodbye to libertarianism. . . [to be continued]