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The in house debate about free-will in Christian theology has been particularly big in the West. Arguments about Calvinism and Arminianism can sometimes turn quite heated. Also it seems that Reformed theology has been making a resurgence over the past few years. Great, God-loving men and women adhere to the Reformed faith. I used to myself. However it is now my belief that Reformed theology is mistaken. It’s denial of libertarian free will, has many moral and theological implications that are questionable. I discuss the Nominalist roots of such moral issues in my previous article (1). Often times, Calvinists will give scriptures that seem to make their view difficult to escape. Especially when it comes to passages that deal with the nature of man. People who affirm free will are often accused “Pelagianism” or “Semi-Pelagianism.” They’re accused of trying to “earn-salvation” or saying that “Christ’s work on the Cross wasn’t enough.” In their view, God predestines, determines and guarantees who will end up in heaven or hell, before they’re born. God on this view choses, not based on anything they’ve done. But simply on His will (again, the Nominalism is strong here). On this view, God’s grace is decisive and irresistible, when he wants to save someone. And his reprobation (predestining to destruction) is just as certain.
In examining Eastern Orthodoxy, I’ve uncovered hidden assumptions that I had which made Reformed theology inescapable for me. But when these foundations were examined, not only did I see that Reformed theology wasn’t the only Biblical option. But that certain of its assumptions may not be Biblical at all. I hope to lay out some of these assumptions and their implications in this article. Though much more could be said. This isn’t comprehensive. But it is quite broad. I’ll try and synthesise many of the things I’ve learned as best as I can. I hope this helps you better understand the issues, and helps you make up your mind.
Instead of getting into big philosophical definitions about what Libertarian Free Will is, I’ll keep it simple. It all depends on what view one has on the relationship between natures and wills. Do natures compel (determine) actions. Or do they qualify or circumscribe what is possible for that person to do, but don’t actually determine what they will do (LFW). Some Christian Determinists (Calvinists) will try and say that people still have free will on their view. How so? Because freedom on this view means the will is not determined by external manipulation/effects. Rather the strongest compulsion of their nature or strongest desires do determine their choices. So they did what they wanted to do. However, on this view, what they wanted to do is determined by their nature. In effect, persons are reduced to self-aware natures. The consciousness doesn’t actually choose anything. Rather their natures gives the impulse by which they have to act. Meaning that choice is an illusion. One may think they are choosing but they are merely being aware of the direction in which their nature is bringing them. They may deny this is what they’re saying, but it’s the logical out working of their position.
This is how, some Christian Determinists say that man is free while at the same time, God determines their choices. God simply affects their natures, which in return will affect the direction it brings the person (choices). God determined what the person would do by affecting the nature, which in return changes direction to wherever God decided. The person then, under the compulsion of their natures *wants* to move in said direction and does. So the Christian determinist under this schema can say God determined it and the person wanted it. Those who hold to this position are called “Compatibilists”. Because they hold that free will and determinism are compatible. Yet that is free will as they define it. Ironically, this is view of free will is compatible with Naturalism. On this view, humans are but atoms in motion. Everything, even our wants, have been predetermined by the laws of physics. Either on a macro or quantumn level. The Calvinist simply substitutes God for physics.
I believe that this position actually destroys and goes counter to the narrative of scripture. Not only that, but if one wants to believe the narrative of scripture while being a Compatibilist, they will end up contradicting said Compatibilism (this will be discussed on the last part of this article). The only way to stay consistent would be to posit a very questionable moral dilemma. Which some will posit God can still do because He’s God. For example, saying that God had* to create a world where evil exists in order* to display all his attributes and get the max glory. Hence why he predestines some to Hell. To display his wrath and justice. This however presupposes a Nominalist view of morality (1). And it also makes God’s glory contingent on evil. A view which again, in my opinion, contradicts the narrative of scripture. One needs to then ask the question if God was incomplete before creation with no evil to exist for Him to enjoy his full glory? This is not an insignificant objection. Trinitarians offer the same defence for the Trinity, saying that God has to be multi-personal in order to be eternally loving. Otherwise love is not a necessary characteristic of God or God needs creation in order to love.
I think the first thing that needs to be understood is the distinction between a nature (essence) and a person. In fact to be a historical, Trinitarian one needs makes that distinction. For we posit that God is one in essence but three in hypostasis (persons). The three persons enhypostasise (make real, give concreteness) to the essence. In other words, human nature would not exist in reality apart from any humans to *be/exist* in order to give that nature *being/existence*. So in the Trinity, there is one God, and yet 3 persons, because each person shares the same essence. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in essence. They’re distinct but not divided. So right there in orthodox Christian theology, one must affirm the distinction between natures and persons.
For humans, our natures are created by God. He only creates things for good ends, giving them the required nature to meet that end. And God being loving and all knowing, would never desire that anything he created remain in a state that opposes such purpose. Hence why God does not unconditionally elect people to damnation (1). Therefore human nature is made for good ends and is naturally drawn to them. Every good that we seek, finds its ultimate fulfilment in God Himself. So that is God’s intended desire for all people. But they must come freely, since real love cannot be coerced. It also has to do with being made in the image of God and the nature of character as I’ll mention later on. But what about total depravity? Doesn’t the fall make our natures evil? Doesn’t the fall of Adam mean that his descendants no longer have free will? Well no.
Not only does the fall not make our natures evil. But the very idea is impossible given Christian teaching. Original sin posits that we are imputed the guilt of Adam and a sinful nature. This sinful nature is often meant to insinuate that people are born wicked. However, there is no connection between Adam and the rest of humanity that warrants the imputation of guilt. Considering that other than Eve, no other human persons existed. Imputing guilt confuses natures and persons. We are not the same person as Adam. Therefore to impute guilt to those not even born is to treat them as if they are. There is a big difference between saying that Adam represented humanity and therefore we suffer the consequences of his decision, and saying that each human upon existence is seen in the eyes of God, as if they had committed the sin of Adam. Even before they commit any sin. Hence why some who hold this belief, say that God can (and does) damn infants, even if they die in the womb. Some who may not hold to the idea of this imputed guilt (and some who do) would posit that even without this first guilt will, each person born is still wicked by nature. And hence condemnable. But again, this confuses natures and persons. It is also Nominalist view of morality that allows this imputation of guilt, with no ontological basis (no basis in anything real) for doing so.
The idea of evil natures is also misguided. Natures (substances/non personal parts) are only good or bad to the degree that they conform to their design. A good car works, a bad car doesn’t, none of which are of moral value. Evil comes about by the deliberate misuses of natural properties. All creatures from the moment of creation need to deliberate about what is good and how to go about that good. How to best use their natures. This state of uncertainty is called “the Gnomic will”. It’s the gnomic state of willing which involves deliberation and uncertainty (2). Which makes them deliberate about what is good since we lack experience/character. We don’t know how to will as we ought. It has to be learned hence sanctification. This gnomic will/state of uncertainty about the good won’t exist in the end/eschaton. So our natures circumscribe or qualify our choices. But they don’t determine which choice is acted upon. That’s the Person who does that. Thus they’re choices are not just happenings or events in a long chain of causation, already determined. Rather the agent, determines what direction they will go in. Free will therefore must be agent causation not event causation.
That’s what character is about. Adam and Eve were not created with a moral nature, but a functioning one. They were united to God by grace (God’s power working in them) in order to live as they were meant to. Living virtuously by the proper use of their natures. Being free to enjoy all the goods that God had for them. That’s why sanctification is important. And that’s why creatures are free. Since character is a personal property of a persons use of their will, God cannot make you have it without forfeiting freedom. So since righteousness is an attribute of persons, and thus of the will, Adam couldn’t have been created with a righteous nature, but a functioning one. He was in a state of righteous (justified- right with God) but had to himself become righteous in character, acting in accordance with what is good for his nature, in order to remain in that state of Grace (connected to God).
So we see that the relationship between God and Man was always synergetic to begin with. Hence why after the fall, natures didn’t change (we are still humans), nor become evil but rather corrupted (functioned out of order- this view is called Ancestral sin). This is due to the lacking the original grace that Adam lost for all. The effect of Adam’s sin meant that man’s entire being became corrupted, heading back towards non-being (Death). Had it not been for the incarnation, humanity would have faced annihilation of soul and body. It should be now noted Eastern Orthodoxy does not hold that the soul is immortal in and of itself. But only by virtue of the work of Christ. The idea in Christianity that the soul in and of itself is immortal, is said to be an influence from Greek philosophy which viewed the spiritual as good and the material as bad. Also from now on, I will refer to this view (of free will, grace and nature) as the “Synergist” view (I say this because I’ll be giving the Eastern Orthodox position on these issues. There are other synergists like Roman Catholics. However, they incorporate a theology of merit with their synergy. This often is mischaracterised as earning salvation. While the East understand where they’re coming from, they see no need to add merit into the equation).
Understanding these issues shows why the incarnation is so important. Jesus Christ took on human nature. But being grace Himself, He healed it. He faced our corruptions in his own body and but never let them move Him. Christ then faced death. Which is the unfortunate consequence on humanity that occurs due to Adam’s misdeed but also personally earned by virtue of their own sins. Christ by his Resurrection defeated death, bringing immortality and future resurrection to all people. However only those who respond to God’s grace with repentance and faith will Blessed with His fellowship. All people then are redeemed and bought on the level of nature (immortality/resurrection) but they must comply with grace in order to receive personal redemption. In order to be made fit to enjoy and partake of the blazing Glory of God’s presence. It is this same divine Glory that will bring joy to the redeemed but will be experienced as torment by those who do not accept God’s grace. It is not because God has changed or His love for them is no more. But they have not chosen to be in harmony with God’s goodness and love.
This distinction between person and nature, is key to making sense of the Bible’s doctrine of Man and Christ. It helps explain how Christ can be fully like us in every way (Hebrews 4:15), and yet impeccable (it was impossible for Him to sin). All creatures from the moment of existence have to deliberate about what is good or bad, forming their character via their choices. But Christ is a divine (uncreated) Person**, with a divine nature** and a human nature**. He is an eternal person with omniscience, who always freely acted according to his essence (nature). And since character is personal property, he kept it at the incarnation and lived as a man always willing what was good according to human nature. He always had personal righteousness. Hence why Christ was impeccable at the incarnation and yet free. Not because his nature compelled him, but rather the he had the character of an eternal, omniscient person who never deliberated about what is good. Who always freely acts in accordance with his nature, under no compulsion.
Reformed Christians often label any synergetic view of salvation as “Pelagian” or “Semi-Pelagian”. Pelagius was a 4th Century British monk who also taught that man could work with God’s grace in order to be saved. And he was condemned as ha heretic. But it wasn’t because he taught synergy. It was a particular type of relationship between God’s grace and humanity which was condemned. Far from being Pelagian, in and of itself, synergy is how God and Man were always meant to relate. In fact, it is the Reformed and Pelagius share the same assumptions, which lead to their problems. Namely, the confusion of personal and natural properties. Pelagius deduced that since man is made in the image of God, he must have a righteous nature that cannot be changed, since God is immutable, God’s image in man must also be. For Pelagius, before the fall, Man’s nature already had grace intrinsic to it. His nature was righteous. All grace therefore was extrinsic, the Law. This only told man how to live but he had in and of himself the power to live that way. Hence Man was always under a Covenant of Works (obey the law to earn eternal life).
This is exactly the same thing the Reformed teach. The difference being Pelagius saw that since man was made in God’s image, and God is immutable, then so must his image be. So the fall didn’t change it. So man doesn’t need internal grace after the fall, he just needs external grace, an example i.e Christ. It’s not a matter of grace or man having to be renewed from the inside, since grace is already intrinsic to man’s righteous nature. Christ then came to be our example. Pelagius is monergistic (Monergism = one energy/work), because man has all he needs, he just lacked an example, so then man seeing Christ, can by his own power be saved. Man does all the wok. It’s not that he denied the need for grace, but that it’s already in man by nature.The Reformed say that man had a righteous nature, but bite the bullet and say that at the fall, the image of God was changed/deformed, hence the nature was no longer righteous. And since natures compel persons, man cannot do anything to go towards God at all. It has to be 100% the monergistic work of God. This is why both Pelagius and the Reformed are Monergists in regards to human to the relationship between God and human will in salvation. They just differ on who is doing the work, i.e is salvation 100% of God or 100% of Man. Ironically the Reformed are closer to Pelagius than the Synergist, who makes the nature person distinction. Avoiding thee errors on both sides.
This idea of the Covenant of works also shows the difference of emphasis in the meaning of the incarnation, atonement and justification for each paradigm. They both start off with different views on the nature of Man. Hence the fall affected said natures differently. Each view then requires a different solution. On the Monergist view, an external relationship with God’s law is seen as foundational. The Covenant of Works. This is why they view any human effort in salvation as “works salvation”, “works righteousness” or “earning one’s way to heaven”. The Reformed and Pelagius both agree that Adam was under this obligation since he had internally all he needed. The Reformed just switch and say that after the fall, Christ fulfils this obligation for us. This he does by taking on pre-fallen human nature (since he can’t take on this view the post-fallen nature is wicked) and is in the exact same position as Adam. On the Cross, God imputes all our moral guilt to Christ. He suffers not just physically but also faces the wrath of God the Father. Those who trust in Christ, God then credits Christ’s merits to our account. Imputing Christ’s righteousness to us. Declaring us justified (in good standing with Himself). Faith then is not seen as having virtue in and of itself. Faith is as it were a tube, which connects Man to Christ, allowing the righteous credit to flow to his account. God then sees him as if they did the work of Christ. And Christ suffers as if he sinned like the Man sinned. The Father sees these merits and declares you to justified (in right relationship with Himself). You’re not personally righteous but God treats you as if you were, because of Jesus. So once the external obligation has been met Man is right with God. Then internal change is seen as making real said declaration in the life of the one declares. This view makes the external created works of Christ as a Man, the unifying bridge between Mankind and God.
On the Synergist view, an internal relationship with God Himself (Grace) is seen as foundational. Grace is favour. But it’s more than an attitude or disposition of God towards you. It is the gift of God actively at work in you by the Holy Spirit. This work/activity/energy of God (in Greek called energia (3)) is called grace.
Colossians 1:29: For this I [Paul] toil, struggling with all His energy (energia) that He powerfully works (energizes) within me.
Ephesians 3:7: Of this gospel I [Paul] was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working (energizing) of His power.
Christ bore our sins by taking on human nature, healing its corruptions, dying and taking on death, bringing salvation to human nature with immortality, giving fellowship to all who repent and by grace restoring the likeness of God in them. Salvation then is about you co-operating with God’s grace and being healed of sins corruptions. Anticipating the ultimate healing that is to occur at the final Resurrection. Justification then is about the presence of grace in your heart. This grace creates the faith that God finds pleasing. Putting you on good terms with himself. You can turn your back on God’s grace and leave said justification (because you’re no longer in good standing). Salvation is about participating in a relationship that you can grow into or severe.
With this in mind, see how these passages are viewed in light of these different paradigms:
1 Peter 2:24 “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (Did Christ take on our corruptions and heal them? Or was he imputed sin and bore the punishment, putting us in a position for God to heal us?)
2 Corinthians 5:21 “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (Did Christ partake of human nature and heal it, so that we may partake of Him and be transformed? Or did God impute sin to Jesus and credit us with his merits (righteousness)?)
In fairness to the Monergists, they were being consistent with the Bibles teaching that the fall of Adam brought a significant internal change to humanity. And in fairness to Pelagius, he was correct to assert that the image of God in man, does not change. Their confusion comes with conflating the image of God in man’s nature, with the grace needed in order for man to live up to that likeness. (Let us make man in our image and likeness (Genesis 1:26)). A simple illustration on the relationship between grace and nature in the various views is that of a lightbulb.
The Synergist says that human nature is like a lightbulb in a flashlight. It’s good and made just as it was supposed to. All it needs is power (grace) in order to produce light. This power isn’t natural to the lightbulb but is an addition. With it, the bulb can shine and the flashlight can fulfil its purpose.
Pelagius says the power is natural to the lightbulb. It always has light. The fall then didn’t change anything. The flashlight merely fell to the ground. The only thing it needs, is to be pointed in the right direction of where it needs to shine.
The Reformed also say that power is natural to the lightbulb. But the fall broke the bulb. You can still kind of see how it used to be, but it is now completely useless. It has to be replaced completely.
See how important it is to make the distinction of natures and persons or natures and grace?
St Augustine fought against Pelagius by making the distinction between nature and grace. The presence of grace in Adam aids him but does not compel him to do what’s right. Grace has to be worked with synergistically:
“The first man had not that grace by which he should never will to be evil; but assuredly he had that in which if he willed to abide he would never be evil, and without which, moreover, he could not by free will be good, but which, nevertheless, by free will he could forsake. God, therefore, did not will even him to be without His grace, which He left in his free will; because free will is sufficient for evil, but is too little for good, unless it is aided by Omnipotent Good. And if that man had not forsaken that assistance of his free will, he would always have been good; but he forsook it, and he was forsaken. Because such was the nature of the aid, that he could forsake it when he would, and that he could continue in it if he would; but not such that it could be brought about that he would. This first is the grace which was given to the first Adam (4. St Augustine).”
Philosopher Perry Robinson (5) further points out how the conflated view of nature and grace causes these problems.
“The primary error of Pelagianism is the identification of nature with grace. For Pelagians, nature is grace, completely. Because they thought this was so, Adam was not deprived of anything at the Fall and children inherit no deprivation of divine power or corruption. Adam’s nature is impenetrable by sin since grace or righteousness is intrinsic to it. The only way for this not to be so along Pelagian lines is for Adam’s nature to be fundamentally changed, for him to then possess a sinful nature or a nature of sin. But Pelagians thought this was impossible since God created Adam intrinsically righteous. Consequently, for the Pelagians, Adam only requires not power to achieve salvation, but a good example to follow. The effect of the Atonement could only be an extrinsic moral influence according to an imposed law. The Law then was a grace, but only an extrinsically effective one which is why it required a free consent. Pelagianism denied then the necessity of grace if by grace one understands it as something that is not an actualized power intrinsic to nature from the beginning of creation. Adam was then perpetually under a “covenant of works” since he intrinsically possessed the requisite power to fulfil it. This is why incidentally the Reformed doctrine of the Covenant of Works is essentially Pelagian.”
Even Semi-Pelagianism, a term used by the reformed to label any soteriology of synergy, is usually a misuse and an ad hominem. It’s a historical term that has been hijacked to mean something else. “Semi-Pelagianism is the notion that man, by his natural desire and free will alone***, is able to begin to turn to God, who then responds by giving grace to increase man’s faith and elevate man by making him a partaker of the divine nature (6).” Pelagius said that Man didn’t need extra grace. Period. Semi-Pelagians said that Man could come to God without grace, but grace was needed in order to be saved once he came.
So far, I’ve been dealing with the presuppositions one brings in interpreting scripture. I hoped to have made a case as to why free will and the nature person distinction make good sense of the Biblical Narrative. I’ll now demonstrate from scripture the kind of problems one gets by confusing natures and persons. And saying that natures compel decisions.
If you’re a Christian, the Bible promises that God will always provide a way out, every time temptation arises. In fact every temptation is one you do not have to succumb to.
1 Corinthians 13
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
You are also told that you can be given grace in order overcome it.
“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
The Compatibilist has a real problem when dealing with these passages. For them, natures compel persons. In which case how could 1 Corinthians 10:13 be true? No way of escape means anything to the believer if God doesn’t change his nature enough so that they take that escape. The orientation of the nature will determine the orientation of their decision. If God provides a way of escape but they cannot take it, then it is pointless. Not only so, but the scriptures say that this grace, is enough that they may be able to endure. How are they able? If natures compel decisions, the only way they would able is if enough grace is given to compel the right decision. Which means that on the Compatibilist view, in order for this scripture to be true, grace would not only have to make victory possible, but also inevitable. This is obviously not the case, since Christians still sin. On the Compatibilist view, there is no such thing as an “able” which means possibility. You either do or don’t. And your nature determines which. God then either gives what’s needed to make the decision or does not.
Only on the libertarian free will view can these passages make sense. Grace makes overcoming sin an option to the believer. But it doesn’t not determine their decision. The person can choose whether or not to sin. Grace expands what they’re able to do. However they’re decision matters because it will form character. This character will make future moral decisions harder or easier to go through with. This formation of character may also make future moral decisions impossible. That’s a weighty responsibility. Right and wrong are in your ability. But for a consistent Compatibilist, when you sin it is always beyond your ability.
The same thing goes for the Hebrews passage. Given Compatibalism, God determines people’s decisions in a way that on this view still makes them free. According to Hebrews, we are then to come before God and ask for grace to overcome temptation. This is what it would look like on the Compatibilist view if a believer does this and still sins: God determines to put you in a situation that you’ll where you’ll be tempted. God then determines you’ll ask for grace.
Problem 1) God then determines not to give you enough grace to overcome, making 1 Corinthians 10:13 false.
Problem 2) God then determines to gives enough grace to overcome, meaning you never sin. If you sin, it means you were never a Christian. Since Christian on this term must mean “One who never sins” Otherwise 1 Corinthians is false.
For further reading on this problem of sufficient grace and Compatibalism, read Alexander Pruss’ blogpost (7).
In light of all that, if grace wasn’t irresistible for Adam, one who was innocent, connected to God and had a well-functioning nature, then I fail to see how it would be for one with a corrupt nature and twisted character. I believe therefore that divine grace can bring one where choice is possible, but not compelled. Man truly has free will. But to be a Compatibilist or Monergist, given the promises that God’s grace to be sufficient, either God gets all the blame and praise or man gets all the blame and praise. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
1) How Calvinism is Nominalistic https://yoshuascribes.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/determinism-vs-free-will-are-you-a-nominalist-or-a-realist/
2) For more on the Gnomic Will http://arathersillyblog.com/2014/01/18/the-concept-of-the-gnomic-will-in-st-maximus-the-confessor/
3) God’s Essence and Energies (Energia): Eastern Orthodoxy denies Simplicity unlike Thomism. On Divine Simplicity there is no ontological difference in God. But this leads to many problems. God’s essence = his will = creative act = necessary creation. The possibility of a different creation or no creation would = different will = different essence. Which is impossible. The advocates of Thomism and Divine simplicity are motivated by not wanting to make God dependent on anything. Eastern Orthodoxy bypasses this worry and denies simplicity by affirm the Distinction between God’s essence and his energies (activities). It does not equate God’s essence to his activities for many reasons (e.g there would be no real participation in God only a created effect/grace for to participate in his energies would mean union with the essence). So in Orthodoxy God is in his energies which are uncreated thus to participate in them is to participate in God. But the essence remains beyond our ontology and epistemic categories.
4) Extract from Augustine’s Retractations, Book II. Chap. 67, On the Following Treatise, De Correptione et Gratia. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1513.htm
For more on the distinction between nature and grace http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2011/10/protestant-objections-to-the-catholic-doctrines-of-original-justice-and-original-sin/
5) Perry Robinson is brilliant when it comes to the philosophy of Trinitarian and Christological issues. This blog post shows how Pelagius and the Reformed share the same anthropological assumptions. And the confusion of natures and persons implicit in said theology https://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/we-have-met-the-enemy/
6) More on Reformed Theology being Pelagian
7) Alexander Pruss: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ie/search/label/Reformed%20theology