Jun 7, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 1

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

[Part 1]

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]

4 comments:

Jason Dollar said...

Steve, a few points.

1. Great post on an issue that constantly needs clarification for the purity of the church.

2. Thank you for drawing the distinction between Libertarian freedom and moral responsiblity. This is seldom done in these discussions.

3. Question: in light of the view espoused here, with which I agree, what part do believers have in the sanctification process? (If the answer will be visible in part 2 and 3, disregard the Q).

4. Can't wait for more...

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Jason Dollar asks, "in light of the view espoused here, with which I agree, what part do believers have in the sanctification process?"

My answer will have to be brief. The main concern of this blog article is to defend God's sovereignty and critique libertarianism. Presenting a postive case for human moral action may have to await a later time. But, basically, our responsibility in the sanctification process is to make conscious moral effort to pursue holiness, knowing that God works in us to do and will his good purpose (Phil. 2:12-13).

It needs to be stressed that an affirmation of divine sovereignty and a denial of libertarian freedom does not entail that we are robots who make no choices. We do make choices. It is just that our choices are ultimately ordained (but not necessarily caused) by God. It is also to affirm that our choices do have causal antecedents that may in some sense be beyond our control. But, nonetheless, we still choose--we choose what we want to choose at the moment of choice. In fact, this is the point of the text from Philippians. We can choose to "work out our salvation" as (and insofar as) God works in our hearts to give us holy desires and intentions.

Adsum Peccavi said...

Steve,

A couple of questions,

I can certainly see and understand that mankind, as descendents of Adam, are fallen creatures corrupted by his federal representation of us in the garden and will not chose to love God or do “good” without His intercession. I see little difference in the end result if we “will not” (the lack of desire) and “cannot” (the lack of ability). Is there a theological distinction between “cannot” and “will not” as it relates to God’s sovereignty and libertarian will?

This is a distinction that twists me into knots trying to resolve. Here is how I have always thought of it:

We, as Calvinist, generally accept the doctrine of total depravity. However, we often reject that man is absolutely depraved (i.e. that man is as bad as he could possibly be.) We say that is quite obviously false. But why? What Biblical justification do we have to say that man is not (in and of himself, without God) absolutely depraved? We often counter that man is constrained and held back from such an absolute depravity by the common grace of God. This is true, but what does that mean? Do we lack adequate definitions of the different types of depravity to deal with this properly?

Here are some types of “Total Depravity” that I will generically name to avoid confusing words that have definitions from other prior sources. I am sure there are more, but these capture enough for discussion

Type 1: Man does not have the freedom to choose to do “good” and never does.
Type 2: Man does not have the freedom to choose to do “good” and only does so by God’s force against man’s will.
Type 3: Man has the freedom to choose to do “good”, but lacks the ability to choose “good” and even I he did have the ability would never do so unless our “will” is transformed and informed by God’s intercession.
Type 4: Man has the freedom and ability to do “good”, but would never do so unless our “will” is informed by God’s intercession.

Types 1 ignores the obvious, and Type 2 rejects free agency and would seem to make condemnation for sin, “unjust.”

Type 4 presents an interesting situation because it seems to postulate that lack of knowledge, but not ability. However, if our will is not able to make a proper choice due to a lack of omniscient information, why does that not constitute a lack of ability? While Type 4 might be tempting to the flesh, Romans 8:7-8 says, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.” Therefore, any biblical position of the current state of mankind must include inability.

I personally select Type 3, this resolves a multitude of issues and weaves a wonderful tapestry that I *think* is consistent with scripture.

Although we always “will/choose” incorrectly without God’s intercession, it is still our free choice to do so. God never chooses for us to do evil, and then forces us to do so. God chooses to passively tolerate evil from us and we happily hee-haw ourselves to our just condemnation. Therefore, does God’s sovereign foreordination of when he intercedes then predestine our actions? Absolutely!

But what about Adam’s will? How does God sovereignty related to the choice made by Adam? Was Adam, as a limited creature predestined to sin as well, but more under Type 4 situation? Why was God’s creature, Adam, “good” if he could sin?

I have a ton more questions…

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Adsum comments:
"I can certainly see and understand that mankind, as descendents of Adam, are fallen creatures corrupted by his federal representation of us in the garden and will not chose to love God or do “good” without His intercession. I see little difference in the end result if we “will not” (the lack of desire) and “cannot” (the lack of ability). Is there a theological distinction between “cannot” and “will not” as it relates to God’s sovereignty and libertarian will?"

I don't think so. I do not believe that libertarian freedom can be made consistent with God's soveriegnty either before or after the Fall. Nor can libertarian freedom (as I will show in later posts) provide an adequate ground for moral responsibility. I do not believe that mankind EVER has libertarian freedom. But, he ALWAYS has compatibilist freedom (the ability to do what he wants in a given situation), before the Fall, after the Fall, and in his redeemed state.

Adsum goes on:
"I personally select Type 3 [Man has the freedom to choose to do “good”, but lacks the ability to choose “good” and even I he did have the ability would never do so unless our “will” is transformed and informed by God’s intercession], this resolves a multitude of issues and weaves a wonderful tapestry that I *think* is consistent with scripture."

I agree. What you are doing, I think, is making the same distinction that Jonathan Edwards makes between "natural ability" and "moral ability." Sinners have the natural ability to do good because they have all the natural faculties requisite to making choices. However, because their minds and hearts are bent on evil, they lack the moral ability to exercise their natural faculties to make a good choice.


Adsum asks,
"But what about Adam’s will? How does God sovereignty related to the choice made by Adam? Was Adam, as a limited creature predestined to sin as well, but more under Type 4 situation? Why was God’s creature, Adam, “good” if he could sin?"

This is the toughest question of all. I do beleive that we have to say that God foreordained the Fall, and that Adam could not do other than Fall--but not in such a way that God himself coerced his will or made him sin. How Adam could develop an intent to sin, then, is a mystery. It may help to note, however, that we should not say that Adam was morally perfect in the Garden. All we need affirm is that he was innocent, created without a Fallen nature and without any evil desires. But, somehow he developed some evil desires--and all as part of God's eternal plan.