by R. K. McGregor Wright –
The recent appearance on the Evangelical scene of a view of God much reduced from that of historical Christian orthodoxy, may seem to be a new phenomenon, but it is only a resurgence of ideas first developed by generic paganism, and more recently, by the Socinians after the Reformation. A Methodist teacher in the 1800s called Lorenzo McCabe, also tried unsuccessfully to reintroduce such views, but the then still evangelical Methodists were not having it. It has been revived in the last decade by Dr. Clark Pinnock and a coterie of scholars, many claiming the label “Evangelical.” The view is called the “Openness of God” after a book of essays edited by Clark Pinnock, by that name. This is the theory that God must be limited in his knowledge of the future because our “free will” guarantees that future contingencies are in principle unpredictable. Likewise, God is not omnipotent, for because he created us with this free will, many areas of action are no longer within his ability, and he must continually reassess the state of affairs, and adjust his plans to fit each new situation as it comes along. He is often as disappointed as we are that things don’t turn out as he had hoped. Such a deity is essentially finite.
What would motivate an otherwise well-respected evangelical theologian to promote so radical a departure from the evangelical thought of the past? The answer to this question is, that Dr. Pinnock and his supporters, like Dr. McCabe 150 years before them, are simply following out to its logical conclusions, the ordinary view of libertarian free will taught by the Arminians ever since Dordt in 1619. The Socinians did the same in the 16-1700s, but most Arminians were held back by their other orthodox views from taking these further steps.
By “libertarian free will” is meant the view that the human will has the innate power to choose with equal facility, either of any two alternatives presented to it by the mind, whenever a choice must be made. The whole point of this theory is that the will is ultimately free from all causation impinging on it from outside or from within the soul. Arminians do not deny that such causes and influences and psychological pressures might exist, but they also claim that the human will can always rise above them, to act freely from any causation. Accordingly, they often refer to their idea of free will as a ‘liberty of indifference.” Their main motivation for holding this view of human nature comes from the half-dozen arguments listed below. The purpose of this essay is to suggest some reasons why none of these arguments are valid, and that some of them are incompatible with the Bible it self. An alternative view of the human will and of human freedom will then be outlined.
It is important to note from the out set that I agree with the Openness thinkers that if their view of free will is correct, it follows irresistibly that God’s omnipotence in history, his sovereignty in the salvation of sinners, and his knowledge (especially of the future), must be far more limited than historical Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy has taught. In fact, if we have the kind of autonomist free will that Arminians and the Openness theologies have assumed, God must essentially be finite. If Openness thinkers are unwilling to follow their assumptions to this further logical conclusion, and admit that their God is finite, I can only point out that I am sympathetic with their hesitation, but I notice that they are balking at the results of their own theological method, just as the evangelical Arminian Methodists did before them when they rejected the identical logic of Lorenzo McCabe. But the internal dynamic of autonomist free will did not go away just because the Methodists mostly ignored McCabe. It remained to fester and to contribute to the theological liberalization of Methodism far beyond anything that Dr. McCabe could have imagined. It is now having the same effect on modern Evangelicalism. Freewillism behaves much like a computer virus, slowly disintegrating any program it infects. The only solution is to find it and delete it.
There are two important and controlling assumptions underlying modern Openness theology. The first is that the orthodox view of God is controlled by a “Greek” theory of Gods “unchangability,” and abstract “perfection,” which is incompatible with those parts of the Bible that speak of God changing his mind, learning, reacting to human behavior, and reacting to his creation in the flow of time. We may think of this as their negative critique of orthodoxy. The second is their autonomist or “libertarian” view of free will, which support s their entire positive construction rather like a pyramid standing on its apex.
In other words, to call either of these two assumptions into question is to collapse the entire theory at a stroke. This essay will not concern it self either with refuting their criticism of the usual view of God, or with demonstrating that the Arminian idea of a “freedom of indifference” entered the Christian tradition primarily from S toicism, although since it is not found in Scripture, its source does need to be identified in passing. In the meantime, as the libertarian theory of free will is particularly vulnerable, we will concentrate on that.
Invalid Reasons For Believing In An Autonomist Free Will
“Free will” (whether clearly defined or not), is usually assumed without question. It is virtually a privileged assumption, which nobody tries to prove. However, reasons amounting to proof are sometimes given in an academic context, such as in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article “Free Will.” The following list of reasons for believing in it is probably representative:
1) That we have this kind of free will is so self-evident that only a nitwit (or a Calvinist) would want to question it. It has sometimes been described as a “primary datum” of the human consciousness.
But “obviousness” is a subjective state, not an objective property of a theory. The mere fact that “proofs” have been sought at all shows that reasonable people have questioned the theory. Once the arguments against it are known, its truth is no longer so obvious. Besides, it is also “self-evident” to the atheist that the idea of a God is absurd, but that doesn’t make the atheist right. And if the God of the Bible should happen to exist after all, the consequences for believing in false views about him may be very serious indeed. The same is true for free will.
The idea of a free will requires close definition, since various theories have been offered as to how it works. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith has a chapter “Of Free Will” describing a view incompatible with the Arminians “freedom of indifference.” It needs to be stated what the term “Will” means, and then what it is “free” from. If this is not done, nobody knows what is being defended. The Arminian assumes that “the Will” is a kind of natural mechanism in the soul that spontaneously decides things more or less independent of internal or external causes. The Calvinist replies that the term “Will” is just the abstract noun for the soul s willing or choosing, and that far from being a neutral mechanism independent of causation, it responds continually to causes and influences both inside and out side the soul. In fact, “the Will” is just the person choosing. Paul tells us that all human choices are either based in faith or in sinful autonomy (Rom 14:23), so there can be no neutral territory in the human soul. Accordingly, only a regenerate person can produce such choices as the exercise of saving faith and of gospel obedience as a way of life. Choices are always of a person, and flow from the character of that person. As Jesus puts is, good people make good choices and bad people make bad choices and it is “not possible” for it to be otherwise (Mat 7:15-20, cf. 12:23). The actions of the W ill are therefore manifestations of a character.
There is no evidence that the will can act without causation. The Arminians’ version of free will requires to be proved, not just assumed. They have no rational right to treat it as a privileged assumption.
2) If we don’t have free will we cannot be held responsible for our actions.
This common assertion presupposes that the concept of responsibility depends on a particular view of free will, but this has never been demonstrated. No argument has ever been written out to show that the usual conclusion “Therefore, we have libertarian free will” can be derived from the assumption that “We are responsible for our actions,” or vice versa. These two propositions are logically unrelated.
The Bible never bases responsibility on any freewill theory. In Scripture we are responsible, i.e., answerable to God, simply because as the sovereign Creator, he can call us to account if he wants to. Our sin is ours simply because it proceeds directly from our sinful choices. We may be more or less culpable because of mitigating factors such as ignorance or an overriding moral necessity, but ultimately, we are answerable to God as our Judge, for anything we do.
In any case, since an uncaused event is indistinguishable from a chance event, and a person can hardly be held responsible for chance event s, belief in free will actually undermines the idea of moral responsibility.
3) God has a free will, and as we are made in his image, we must also have a free will much like his.
This is yet another interesting speculation, but it demands proof. No doubt we are persons rather than machines or animals, because God made us in his image, but nothing in the Bible requires that the “image of God” must include autonomist free will. This is merely assumed. God is also omnipresent, but being made in his image does not make us omnipresent too. No doubt God is an autonomous Creator, but it doesn’t follow that we are too. There are verses in Scripture that suggest that the image of God includes such qualities as rationality, the capacity for language, the ability to give and receive love, and to make moral choices, but it cannot be shown that libertarian free will is required for any of these. It remains to be proved that personhood requires libertarian free will.
4) We must have a free will in order to respond to Gods love with human love, and to obey the commands and warnings in Scripture. The commands of God presuppose our ability to obey or disobey.
No they don’t. This is once again merely the reassertion of the point to be proven. On the contrary, Scripture warns the “natural man” that he is not capable of even understanding spiritual things, let alone obeying them (1 Cor 2:14, etc.) Sinners cannot just “come to Christ” any time they want to, for the ability to repent and believe is it self a special calling of God, a supernatural gif t, not a natural capacity (Jn 6:44, Eph 2:8-10). It was Emanuel Kant who claimed that Gods commands assume an ability to obey, not the Apostles. It was Socrates who held that to know the truth is to do it. He too, was mistaken about human moral ability.
God commands us to do or not do things for a variety of reasons, including to demonstrate to us our slavery to sin apart from his liberating Grace. “We cannot do the things that we would” says Gal 5:17, and “by the Law is [merely] the knowledge of sin,” declares Rom 3:20). Commands may also be the God-ordained means in the hands of the Spirit, by which he causes us to obey him, thus achieving divine ends. Even God cannot achieve ends without putting the needed means into operation. The cause of our obeying God is the work of his Spirit within us, using his Word (Isa. 55:6-11, 1 Thess 1:4-5), not a natural autonomy.
5) If we don’t have a free will, God must be the author of evil, since we cannot be.
Evils, including human sins, do not proceed directly from God, although ultimately even the secondary intermediate causes are ordained by God as an intended p art of his creation (Isa 45:7, Eph 1:1 1).
We cannot even ‘get God of f the hook” for allowing evils, because he could always have done more to prevent them. He could have prevented the Fall in Eden simply by turning up and arguing with Adam and Eve that agreeing with the Serpent was a bad idea. If mere “moral suasion” can convince a sinner to believe, no doubt it could have prevented the Fall in the first place. God is not the “author” of evil, simply because sin proceeds directly from the sinner, not God, although he is the ultimate cause, just as my father is not the “author” of this article, although he is certainly one of its causes. As for God being “responsible” for allowing evils, there is nobody for him to be responsible (answerable) to, even though he is the ultimate creating cause. The bottom line is (Rom 9:14-23) that God is not answerable to me whether I like everything he does or not, for I am not the standard, and God knows best whatever I think. There could be no place in a finite universe for a finite creature to stand (no pou sto, as Archimedes put it) to pass judgment on his Creator. Everything God does is right by definition, simply because he is the origin and reference-point for the meaning of the terms right and wrong. The assumption of an autonomous will is no help with the problem of evil. It just leaves the problem where it was.
6) To these common arguments, W. G. Ward (a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism in the mid-1800s), added the following consideration, that because we are often able when called upon to do so, to contradict even strong and habitual tendencies within ourselves in order to choose to do something unusual, we must have a will able to free it self from the common influences of our own settled character. Ward held that this is what we mean by “free will.”
Unfortunately, this argument too, begs the question. In order to be cert in that a particular act of the will is wholly uncaused, one would need to be omniscient, for many spiritual influences might cause the will to act, of which we are simply unaware. Ward’s example rather shows that the will can be caused to act in a particular way, even contrary to its habitual uses, by sufficient moral influences, and arguments provided by the mind. But this is still a form of causation.
Attention cannot be given here of how freewillism undermines the omni-attributes of God, the doctrines of the Trinity and of salvation by grace through faith alone. The interested reader can follow these issues up in the further arguments presented in the book No Place For Sovereignty (IVP, 1996), and in the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter of that source.
The Biblical Alternative
The first thing we must reiterate is that there is nothing in the Bible asserting an autonomist free will. There are plenty of commands and warnings, plenty of references to, and examples of, human decisions, but the Bible never suggests that the explanation for human choices is a free will. The idea of a libertarian free will is simply not there. “Free will” is not a biblical category of explanation. It is an extra-biblical theory whose roots can easily be traced from Greek thought (especially Stoic sources) into the writings of the early church fathers, who used it just like the Greeks did, to “get God off the hook” in the Problem of Evil, and to off-set pagan fatalism. The various ancient terms for free will (such as the Greek autexousion) never appear in Scripture, not even once during it’s over 1400 years of compilation. Not a single term or expression in Scripture requires this notion in translation, although the English word does occur in some translations, such as in the sixteen KJV references to freewill offerings (in God s invitation to give additional voluntary offerings above and beyond the tithes prescribed by Law). What the Anglican translators of the KJV actually thought of the freewill theory may be gathered from their Thirty-nine Articles, Arts. 10 and 17, published less than fifty years before the KJV appeared.
Of course, the Bible uses words for the human W ill many times. The question before us here is not whether we make real choices or not (for nobody denies we do), but whether our faculty of willing and choosing is free from causation or not, especially whether it is autonomous from God’s control and direction. Rather, the Bible indicates clearly enough that human freedom is a fruit of regeneration, not a natural autonomy of the soul or “will.” True freedom is the state of having been freed by the Son of God (Jn 8:31-36), of being in-dwelt by his Spirit (2 Cor 3:17), not an autonomous property of the soul. In other words, for the New Testament writers, spiritual freedom is the state of ethical submission to God. Disobedience is slavery, while obedience is freedom. Sinners are enslaved to their sin (Jn 8:34, Rom 6:16-20, 2 Pet 2:19), until God supernaturally frees them by regeneration. Then as Augustine famously put it, they become posse non peccare, “able not to sin.”
1) The usual theory of Free W ill is of a libertarian or autonomist freedom unknown in Scripture, being borrowed from Greek thought, and assumed as an unquestionable axiom of human nature by Openness thinkers. It may be thought of as the natural mans “commonsense” view of his own abilities, about which he is fundament ally mistaken.
2) Like all other “thoughts,” this definition must be either exegeted from the Bible, or proved from prior considerations. In fact, neither of these can be done. The Arminians’ “freedom of indifference” is a Greek myth; one of those intellectual citadels which Paul tells us must be demolished as part of our apologetics and evangelism (2 Cor 10:3-5).
3) The Bible presents a view of human freedom which is ethical rather than metaphysical, a fruit of the Spirit’s work in the heart, not an abstract innate natural ability.
4) Openness theism presupposes a false view of free will incompatible with Scripture and contradicting the very same attributes of God which distinguish him from his creation.
5) No valid proof of autonomist freewill has ever been demonstrated, and the Openness theories which depend on it should be rejected as incompatible with the most basic doctrines of God and the Gospel. No compromise is rationally possible in such a case.
R.K. McGregor Wright (Ph.D.) is the co-director of the Aquila and Priscilla Study Center in Johnson City, Tenn.