Free will and divine sovereignty

The reconciliation of the paradoxical realities of human free will and divine sovereignty has challenged theologians for two millennia. Various systems have been proposed, tending variously to emphasize either free will or sovereignty; all most likely missing the truth to greater or lesser degrees. While biblical teaching on the intersection of free will and sovereignty is sufficiently equivocal to render doubtful any claim of certainty, a lack of absolute confidence in any one position should not prevent us from concluding that certain views are clearly false.

One such view emphasizes divine sovereignty at the expense of human free will to such an extend that the individual’s moral choices are viewed as ultimately originating only from God’s will, to the exclusion of man’s. This position is usually associated with Calvinism, though it is doubtful if a majority of Calvinists now or throughout history have espoused it. In fact, the great Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon offered a different perspective on free will that is worth noting:

I see one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. (Emphasis mine.)

It is when divine sovereignty looms so large that we deny the reality of human free will that we fall into the error I am now addressing: to paraphrase Spurgeon, God predestines, and that is all. In the following paragraphs, I will consider what is meant by “free will,” how real human freedom can exist in a universe ruled by a sovereign God, and finally, why God’s testimony regarding his own nature tells us that humans possess free moral will.

When I speak of a creature having free will, I mean that its choices originate within itself; in other words, that the mind which chooses for the creature is in fact its own. This idea of free will forms the basis of our concept of criminal intent. If someone carried out a crime while under hypnosis, we would pity him as a victim, not condemn him as a criminal, because he was not acting on the basis of his free will. It was not his mind which chose to commit the crime.

If human free will is real, then when Cain killed Abel, King David slept with Bathsheba, and Judas betrayed Jesus, they did so because they chose to. It was their minds which decided to commit the act. This means they could have also chosen not to do so, because choice cannot exist without real options. We laugh at Henry Ford’s promise that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” because it is oxymoronic – a choice without a choice. We can only say that Judas chose to betray Christ for 30 pieces of silver if we also believe he might have chosen not to do so. Otherwise, we can only say that Judas did betray Christ, much as one says that a flat tire caused a car wreck or a spooked horse caused a broken arm.

If we affirm this view of free will, are we diminishing divine sovereignty? After all, if the creature’s mind determines its actions, then the Creator’s mind does not. Only one ultimate cause is possible. Either God decided that Cain would kill Abel, or Cain decided that Cain would kill Abel. Even if God decided that Cain would kill Abel, while causing Cain to think he came up with the idea on his own, Cain’s perception does not alter the fact that his intention ultimately originated in God’s mind. If free will is real – if Cain decided “out of his own head” to kill Abel – then not all events originate in the mind or will of God.

If this means that human free will forms some sort of inviolable barrier to God’s will, divine sovereignty is certainly diminished, or rather, destroyed. (There is no such thing as semi-omnipotence.) However, free will does not necessarily entail a diminution of divine power. An NFL linebacker who refrains from flattening his son in a game of backyard football in no way diminishes the strength he chooses to restrain. Similarly, an absence of divine determinism is better understood as “God does not,” rather than “God cannot.” God’s covenant with Noah means he will never again send a worldwide flood, not because some obstacle prevents him, but because he chooses not to. If God chose to sovereignly grant to men the capacity to make free moral choices, the subsequent existence of human free will testifies not to a diminution of his power, but only to the fact that with God “there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

As a practical matter, however, it may be difficult to see how God could truly command the course of history while allowing humans the freedom to choose their actions. What if Judas had chosen not to betray Jesus? Let us suppose God had a “second-string betrayer” lined up. What if he also chose not to betray the Christ? And so on. If men are truly free to choose, how can any future event be certain?

While a full explanation of how this might be possible is beyond the scope of this article – and perhaps beyond the scope of the human mind – we catch an interesting hint in Mordecai’s words to Esther when she feared to approach the king on behalf of her people. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther’s choice determined her fate, but God’s will would ultimately be fulfilled regardless.

Jesus seemed to make a similar assumption when he told his disciples, “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” Jesus would be betrayed. He would die. That much was settled. But the man who did the betraying would still bear the responsibility for his choice.

This concept of moral responsibility brings us to the crux of my argument that God’s revealed nature requires the existence of human free will. It is interesting to note that in Spurgeon’s comments quoted above, he apparently considered free will so intertwined with moral responsibility that he completely substituted the one for the other by the end, writing only, “man is responsible.” A legal principle going back from our criminal laws through the common law to early Hebraic law is the mens rea, the “guilty mind.” The mind which directs the crime bears the guilt. When terrorists use children or mentally-disabled people to carry out suicide bombings, we direct our horror at those who recruited and directed the attackers, because it was they who planned the carnage. They bear the responsibility. What matters is not whose body carries out the guilty act, but whose mind and will are responsible for it.

This fundamental moral principle creates an apparently insurmountable problem for the view that God’s sovereignty means that he chooses our actions for us. We are told God is so holy that he cannot even tempt us (James 1:13-14), let alone commit evil. If, however, God’s mind is the ultimate originator of every human choice, that means he causes every evil, every perversion, every cruelty, that we see around us. It is not twisted warlords who kidnap and train child soldiers in African. It is God. It is not the serial killer who tortures his victims. It is God. We can only Paul’s cry, in a different context: “May it never be!”

The problem is that twisted evil, like every other effect, requires a sufficient cause. Torture, rape, and murder don’t just spontaneously occur. A mind directs them, and that mind is responsible for them. Either these evils originate with man, or they originate with God. There are no other options. If the latter, then evil flows from God just as surely as does good, and we are forced to ask if we can even meaningfully distinguish between the two. If good and evil originate from the same source, we are left with a pantheistic morality, where good and evil are just different parts of the universal pattern. This is a god who cannot be shoehorned into anything close to the Being we find in scripture.

If a good God cannot be responsible for evil, and God is good, we can safely conclude that he is not responsible for evil. Having already seen that the mind which conceives evil is ultimately responsible for it, it follows that evil cannot originate in the mind of God, which leaves only one other possibility: the mind of man. The choice to do evil, then, is made by man, and man alone. The choice does not surprise our omniscient God. It does not please our loving God. It does not confound our omnipotent God. And it does not originate with our good God.

Is God good?

In Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” he offers the following response to the Christian argument that objective moral standards are inexplicable unless God exists.

[The moral argument] has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.

“Is that difference due to God’s fiat or not?” The problem is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma, taking its name from the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates wonders “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

Both Socrates and Russell offer us a choice between two options. The first says that “good” means “that which God approves.” Love is good because God says it is; murder is bad for the opposite reason. At first glance, this definition may seem acceptable. The problem is that if God’s fiat, or preference, is the only standard of goodness, it seems meaningless to suggest that he is himself good. Imagine a god who declared torture, rape, and murder to be good. If “good” is merely an expression of divine fiat, then those acts would be good, as would the god who sanctioned them. However, if a god who approves of torture, rape, and murder is no less good than one who hates such evil, then the word “good” is meaningless when applied to God. Like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, we may call day night, but only by sacrificing the meaning of both words. When goodness is founded only on divine fiat, we are left with an arbitrary morality dictated by an amoral God.

The alternative appears no more appealing, however, for then we must conclude that goodness is grounded in some standard other than God’s fiat. Love is good because it is, and God approves accordingly. However, if there is some standard of goodness which informs God’s approval of that which we call good, then God is in some measure bound by these external rules. He is not sovereign, for he is merely recognizing an authoritative goodness originating outside himself. We love our enemy because God commands it. If God loves goodness because goodness demands it, is he truly God?

This, then, is Euthyphro’s Dilemma: On the one hand, goodness grounded in the fiat of an amoral God. On the other, goodness constraining a less-than-sovereign God.

Fortunately, these are not the only two options. Russell and Socrates have offered us a false dilemma – an argument inaccurately positing only two options. In reality, Christian theology going back to the early Church offers a definition of goodness that falls into neither of these traps. Instead, the Christian understanding of goodness is grounded in God’s nature.

God is good. This is the Christian premise in understanding goodness. Therefore, that which conforms to God’s nature is good. Love is good because God loves. Forgiveness is good because God forgives. Intelligence, creativity, and even existence are good because God possesses these attributes. Goodness is not predicated on God’s amoral fiat, but neither does it direct him. God does not arbitrarily declare what is good; he is good. He is not bound by an external standard, because he is the standard.

Because the Christian defines goodness in an object (be it human, amoeba, or rock) as correspondence to God’s being within the bounds of the object’s created nature, both horns of Euthryphro’s Dilemma are avoided and we can have a meaningful definition of good grounded in the being of a good and sovereign God.

In defense of the Free Will Theodicy

I recently read Winfried Corduan’s No Doubt About It and was surprised by his argument that the Free Will Theodicy is invalid. (In a nutshell, this response to the problem of evil argues that moral evil exists in the world because God granted human beings the freedom to make significant moral choices.) Corduan argues, “The idea of freedom prohibits God’s directly influencing our choices, but there is another way of making sure of the desired outcome, namely by limiting the circumstances within which we choose.”

Corduan begins his argument by making the legitimate point that we do not have absolute freedom because our choices are constrained by external circumstances. “I cannot sensibly choose to be a world-class oboe player or the olympic gold medalist in butterfly swimming; I just do not have what it takes. I cannot reasonably choose to spend next semester on Mars: the laws of the universe and the policies of my university will not permit it. In short, pure unbounded freedom of choice does not exist. If we do choose freely, it is still within the limit of options given us.”

Because our choices are constrained by our situation, Corduan argues that God “could have arranged our available choices in such a way that we would be free but would only freely choose to obey Him.” As an example, he suggests that God could have created the Garden of Eden without the tree of temptation, thereby avoiding giving Adam and Eve the opportunity to rebel against him.

I believe a twofold response to these assertions is possible. First, Corduan misses a significant element of the Free Will Theodicy. The emphasis should not only be on moral freedom as intrinsically good, but also on free moral choices rightly made as a means for spiritual development. As James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Can courage come in the absence of danger? Patience or hope in the absence of trials? Forgiveness without sin? Even love itself is best cultivated when directed towards one who has wronged us (Matthew 5:43-47).

The decision to choose the right when confronted with a genuine choice is the only way to cultivate many of the greatest virtues. For a perfect being – God – such moral development is not necessary. However, God in his wisdom chose to create mankind capable of moral growth, and such growth appears to only be possible in the presence of real temptation.

This is not to say that sin is necessary for moral development. One need not ever play the coward in order to be courageous, but courage in the absence of danger is no great virtue, nor will it create a more courageous creature. Adam and Eve did not need to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to grow morally, but they did need to be able to choose not to eat.

With this in mind, it seems that a universe so arranged that mankind was free to choose, but only from an array of virtuous choices, would miss the point of free moral will. Further, however, I believe Corduan’s position has a second and even more fundamental flaw, because the possibility of evil is inherent to the creation of a morally free, self-aware being.

Satan did not need a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to fall. All he needed were two things: himself and God. As soon as a being with free moral will is aware of itself as not-God, it can choose to value itself above God. And that is evil. If God’s only act of creation was to craft a disembodied mind floating in nothingness, that mind could not not be capable to sin if it was (1) morally free and (2) aware of itself (3) as not-God.

Because the nature of evil makes it logically impossible for a morally free, self-aware creature to exist in any set of circumstances without the possibilty of sin, even an omnipotent, omniscient God could not create such a situation. (See “Things God Cannot Do”.) God could choose not to create. He could choose not to create a self-aware creature. He could choose not to grant that self-aware creature free moral will. But he could not choose to create a self-aware creature with free moral will that could not sin, any more than he could create a circle that was square, or an inanimate object that was alive.

Because the real possibility of sin is necessary for true moral freedom, and because creation of a morally free, self-aware being necessarily makes evil possible, Corduan’s response does not adequately refute the Free Will Theodicy.

Things God cannot do

One of the most interesting speeches I assign to the students in my Intro to Logic and Rhetoric class is the question, “Does God’s omnipotence mean he can do absolutely anything?” Both Scripture and Christian tradition respond in the negative. There are, of course, several Bible verses that indicate things God cannot do:

  • He cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18).
  • He cannot be tempted by evil, or tempt anyone (James 1:13).
  • He cannot disown himself (II Timothy 2:13).

We could summarize these propositions by saying that God cannot do evil. There is also a second set of things God cannot do: he cannot do illogic. God cannot create a square circle, or make 2+2 equal 5. He cannot create another infinite being (because an infinite being that was created is logically contradictory). He cannot create nothing (since something must be created, if creation occurs).

Our initial response to this assertion may be a feeling that God’s sovereignty is diminished. After all, does this mean that the laws of logic constrain God? Certainly not, any more than the earlier list of things God cannot do implies that the laws of morality bind him.

If we say, “God cannot do bleh, bleh, bleh,” are we offending his sovereignty? No, because “bleh, bleh, bleh,” is simply a series of sounds without meaning. It is nonsense, an empty phrase. If we think about it, the idea of a square circle or a created infinite being is equally nonsensical. Our mind instinctively assumes it must be meaningful since the phrase consists of two words which both have meaning, but when we apply the modifier “square” to the idea of “circle,” we fall abruptly into meaningless. A square circle is a series of sounds that refers to… nothing.

The common thread that binds these two assertions – that God cannot do evil or illogic – is the fact that God’s omnipotence operates according to his nature. God acts morally because his nature is good. God acts logically because his nature is rational. God’s omnipotence means that he is able to do whatever he wills (which is in accordance with who he is), unbound by any external contraints.

Thoughts on denominationalism

I recently completed a paper on my “Ecclesiological Identity” that afforded an interesting opportunity for thinking through my opinions on a variety of topics. The following is a modified and expanded excerpt on denominationalism.

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes, “After protesting Catholic excesses, Protestants started protesting each other. Whenever a Protestant group manifested a problem – complacency, confusion, weak leadership, whatever – a subgroup would arise from within and protest these failures. Then they would break away, often damning the group which they left, proclaiming themselves the truly reformed, truly protestant, truly pure, truly right, truly true, and so on… This competitive Protestant religious market eventually spawned a kind of infomercial mentality, where each group advertised its unique features, seeking loyal customers for their religious products and services.” The list of things upon which I disagree with McLaren is a long one, but on this topic, as on many others, he is an insightful commentator.

As a member of any Christian denomination, it is possible to divide one’s beliefs into two categories: Those shared with all other Christians, and those distinct to one’s own denomination. There can be only one reason for a denomination to exist, and it rests squarely on the latter set of beliefs; those its adherents hold in opposition to other Christians. Any apologetic for the denomination qua denomination must focus on those beliefs, and only on those beliefs. The more important and central a theological belief is, the less likely that it is crucial to one’s denominational identity, and vice versa. If I am asked why I am a Christian, I point to Jesus. If I am asked why I am a Baptist, pointing to Jesus is irrelevant, for any other Christian can do the same. So I point not to Jesus, but to baptism by immersion. If I am asked why I am a Presbyterian, I point not to Jesus, but to government by elected elders.

Does this mean Jesus is unimportant to Baptists, Presbyterians, or any other denomination? Or that one could not start from Jesus to explain one’s Christian faith, and then work back to more specific denominational distinctives? Of course not. However, by setting up a system in which disagreements with other Christians on matters of secondary importance form the basis for group identity within the Church, we are unavoidably disordering our priorities in a way that sets the stage for the “fleshly… jealousy and strife” that Paul criticizes among those in Corinth whose first allegiance was to Paul or Apollos, rather than Christ (I Cor. 3:3-4).

This is not to suggest that our potentials to be a good Christian and a good Baptist (or Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), are necessarily inversely related. It is certainly possible to hold one’s theological beliefs in a proper hierarchy of importance while using a denominational label as a shorthand description of certain of those beliefs. However, denominational identity so strongly pulls towards a disordering of theological priorities and a fracturing of Christian unity that it may not be worth the risk for a people who are called to remember that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6a).

I will close by attempting to respond to one possible objection: “Disagreement is inevitable among Christians who are forced to squint ‘through a mirror darkly’ in this life. If I disagree with your belief about baptism, church government, or worship, why shouldn’t I join with other Christians who share my beliefs?”

I recently heard a Baptist professor talking about how much he valued the fact that Southern Baptists are able to amicably discuss issues such as the extent of the atonement, the proper place for church discipline, and proper modes of worship. Had I asked him why he didn’t mind disagreement among his brethern on such topics, he doubtless would have responded, “Why not? After all, we are all Southern Baptists.”

And we are all Christians. There is certainly a place for disagreement and discussion, with divine revelation as the final arbiter between varying opinions, but I have to wonder what the Church would look like if we were willing to extend to all those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ the same grace we extend those who share our denominational label. What if we were simply members of the Church seeking the truth together (and it must be the truth we are seeking, unless we want to end in jelly-spined ecumenism), rather than Baptists, Presbyterians, or Methodists defending our religious identity from those on the outside?