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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. 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. But I would like to examine some of the foundational assumptions about human nature being made in order to support these doctrines.
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.
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.
And now for the following, which are excerpts from conversations I’ve had with people. They will cover the two main points which I find problematic with Calvinism.
1) Calvinism confuses what is attributed seperately to nature and persons.
2) Calvinism implies that Creation and Evil are necessary
The conversations will deal with these issues respectively. And then the final part of this post will apply some of these ideas to Biblical text. To see the logical implications and possible contradictions.
*If a sentence is in between qutations (“) or a slashes (/) it means they’re not my words.*
Before we get into the conversations, an important concept needs to be understood. The distinction between nature and person is a huge part of historical Christianity. The Christological controversies of the Ecumenical Councils were due to trying to articulate the Trinitarian revelation brought by Jesus Christ. That God was both one and three. And that one of the three became man and yet remained God. By making the distinction between person and nature, the Fathers of the Church recognised that they were ultimately dealing with a mystery. The doctrine of the Trinity states that God is one in essence, but three in person. One ousia, three hypostasis. But it was not always so defined. Much theological and philosophical work had to go into forming the right terminology to express the doctrine correctly. This included the radical innovation in what it meant to be a person. The person is not a part or quality of their nature. But rather is a reality with the nature, which gives the nature it’s grounding in reality or concreteness.
The idea that persons are not reducible to the sum total of their nature, is a matter of Christian revelation. For God who is one in essence and yet three in person is the centre of the faith. And the key act of Christianity, the incarnation, displayed that it is possible to predicate action to one member of the Trinity, that is not applicable the others. If essence equals person, and God has only one divine essence, then God is truly only ever one divine person (the heresy of Modalism). It would be just as true to say that the Father died on the Cross at it would be to say the Son (the heresy of Patripassianism). And it would mean that at the incarnation, the one we call Christ is two persons, one a divine nature and the other a human nature, working together (the heresy of Nestorianism).
Keeping this in mind, there are somethings that you can say about persons, that you can’t say about natures. And vice versa. The confusing of personal and natural properties, is one of the key reasons that I find Calvinism problematic.
Conversation 1 – Mixing Nature and Person
“Adam and Eve, prior to the fall, had the ability to sin, and the ability to not sin. This was their created nature.”
Well everyone agrees that they were able to sin or not sin. I’m saying that given reformed anthropology and compatibalism, that really isn’t possible. Not any way that I can see. The Reformed position is inconsistent on this matter.
Really the key is to make a distinction between nature and person. You need only ask answer two questions:
1) Do natures compel persons?
2) Is righteousness a natural property ? (can you say someone’s nature is righteous, and not just that someone is righteous?)
If you say yes to both, then you’re saying that Adam and Eve were compelled by their nature (compatibalism) and that it was a righteous nature. In which case you’re stuck now by trying to work out how one who is righteously compelled could sin? Not only that but since the Bible does teach a fall, this question is side stepped as a mystery. And then the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity now says that *nature has changed* from being righteousness to being wicked. That’s how you’re able to justify infant damnation (if God did it) by saying that they are in a state of wickedness. Because you’ve attributed a personal property to a nature. Essentially teaching that evil is a substance. But evil is not a stuff that exists, it has no substance. It is not therefore a natural thing, and all natural things are created by God, John 1:3 “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” If you want to say that evil is a substance, then according to John 1:3 you’ll have to admit that God created evil the same way he created the world.
So then what is evil? All created things have a nature and correct design/use (telos) for that nature. Sin then is to “miss the mark” by misusing what God has created. Such as lust, the desire for sex is good, but the way in which it is sought is not. Even when we sin, we do it because we think we are choosing a “good” in that moment. So evil is the action of a Person (personal property), misusing their will to put themselves in a state that is contrary to the design of their nature and therefore harmful to themselves and contrary to God’s will and design for creation. It’s a distortion.
In light of these two questions asked at the beginning, the consistent Reformed position should require that no fall ever occur. Human or Angelic. But of course a fall has occurred, so the Reformed person consistent with Total Depravity and compatibilism would have to say that the nature itself is evil and thus evil is a substance.
Backing up one step further, saying yes to both questions would mean that there was nothing in Adam or Eve or even Lucifer, that should have brought sin into being. So the only other place one can look for is… God. In fact, if one takes the compatibilist view of the will’s relationship to nature and applies that to God. They would have to say that there is something in *God’s* nature that compels Him to cause evil to be. Since it can’t be in Adam or Eve or the Angels. Again this position to is inconsistent because if God’s righteous nature compels him, and he creates creatures whose righteous natures compell them, then how can evil even *be*? Unless of course… Righteousness and evil are intrinsically tied together somehow. A sort of eternal dualism. I don’t know why a Christian would defend that position or how Biblically they could.
But the fact is that there is evil in the world. But given Reformed Theology’s compatibilism, God could have created a world in which everyone freely did only good. Found satisfaction in God. As John Piper says “God is is most Glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him.” Then one has to ask why God would then choose to “freely determine” people to sin? Or that evil and suffering exist?
The common response is that God made it this way for his Glory. Not just for his Glory, but that in order to get the *maximum* Glory, he ordained that evil be. Problem is, that this makes God’s Glory contingent on evil. It again, ties evil and good together. It’s makes God, who is the source of all good, insufficient to be that *good* for His creatures, without evil having to be. One then has to ask if the Trinity were not able to enjoy or have said maximum Glory manifest to one another without evil having to exist? Without having a creation in order for evil to exist? This is akin to the argument that says that in order for God to be love, He has to be at least two persons. Otherwise God needs creation in order to love or Love is not an essential or defining characteristic of God. Also, free will is not just a dichotomy between good or bad. If it were then no one, not even God has free will, and creation would be necessary. Why? Because, if free will is always a choice between good and bad, and God chose to create, then it means he had to do it, or else to choose otherwise would have been wrong.
Now, I’m not saying that God can’t be Glorified even when evil occurs. But there is a stark difference between saying He can get Glory out of evil and that he needs evil in order to get the *maximum* Glory.
So it comes back to this:
1) Do natures compel persons?
If yes, then how could a righteously compelled person sin? If no then why not admit that Libertarian free will and Synergy between man and God is the correct position?
2) Is righteousness natural property? If yes, then good and evil are substances as well as characteristics of a person. Hence you can posit that people have a wicked nature. And can be damned even before sinning. Infants included. Plus God created evil. If No, then corrupt nature =/= wicked nature. Hence no Total Depravity. People who haven’t committed sin can’t be considered as wicked. So how can they be damned?
So not only do I find Reformed theology inconsistent but the implications of it are morally questionable in light of anything found either in human experience or in scripture. So one positing Reformed theology either has to say that God made the world with evil in it, because He needs evil or because he prefers evil. I don’t know which is worse. Only given LFW do I see the possibility of a third answer.
Conversation 2 – Making Creation and Evil Necessary Due to God’s Nature or Character
//I wasn’t denying His freedom in creating, but rather suggesting that in creating the world, it is by nature an out working of His nature and intrinsic attributes, and that as a result it is the only possible world.//
I think I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that God didn’t have to create, but that if he created, the world could only be one way. In which case, what is it about God’s nature that constrains him to only this choice?
//And while creation necessarily happened because God willed it, I wouldn’t say that it was necessary FOR God. Merely that it was an out working of His intrinsic attributes.//
If it wasn’t necessary for God to create, but he did then you’re saying God has libertarian free will. Otherwise, the same argument holds, and given Compatibilism, God’s nature being the way it is determines both that He *had* to create and that it *had* to be a certain way if he did create it.
//What do you mean that it would be a problem if the nature and person of God were conflated?//
If God has libertarian free will, then nature and person are not the same. Which means that his nature doesn’t determine his actions. But rather gives the range of options possible. Eg, the fact that by nature I have legs, doesn’t mean I have to walk. I could decide to be lazy and wait for someone to get the remote for me.
So if you wish to say that this world is the only possible world for God to create, you’ll have to say:
God is determined by his nature to create (Compatibilism).
He could have chosen to create or not to create (Libertarian Free Will), but given your view, the way in which he creates is limited to this world being the only option. But since you don’t wish to say that God had to create, but if he did, this world is the only option possible. Then you’re left with only one explanation. You’d have to say that the reason why the world can only be this way, is because God’s character is only consistent with this world. And so he will not choose to make it differently. Which means, for some reason, God’s character is only consistent with a world where evil exits. And of course, in order to make sure this world comes into being in this way, his creatures can’t have libertarian free will. Unless you wish to be a Molinist 😛 [this is ironic because the conversation began as a denouncement of Molinism]. I think there are serious issues with which ever option you take, but I’m wondering which of the two views you’re espousing. Or maybe you have a third.
Only in a view where both God and Man have LFW could you affirm both that
//I’m not really going to bother going down the rabbit hole of Compatibilism with you, because I believe that to be a clear implication of the teachings of scripture, and you do not.//
I hope I’ve made clear why it isn’t actually a rabbit hole. And I don’t wish to debate with you whether or not Compatibilism is true. Rather I’m assuming for the sake of your argument that it is, and then looking at the implications of the position. Which is what I was doing last time. So the question is, to whom do you ascribe this mode of willing? To God, man or both?
Applying some of these ideas to Biblical text:
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 (1).
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 for the Compatibilist or Monergist there is problem. Given the promises that God’s grace will 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) Alexander Pruss: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ie/search/label/Reformed%20theology