Friday, April 11, 2008

Libertarian Free Will

Libertarian free will is the concept that men and angels have the ability to make real choices that have not been pre-determined by God. Arminians believe in free will, while Calvinists generally do not.

The Arminian belief in free will is rooted in our understanding of the goodness of God. We believe in free will not because we are interested in usurping God's authority, but instead because we want to protect God's character. We also recognize that free will comes directly from the hand of God. Man has free will because he is made in the image of God. To the extent that man can make any decision on his own, it's only because God has given man that ability, because it pleases Him to do so.

Calvinists instead believe in determinism (or compatiblism) - that from the beginning God has decreed everything that happens. The problem with determinism is that if God has decreed everything that happens, that would logically make Him responsible for evil. Scripture is very clear that God is not responsible for evil. Evil is a result of the disobedience of men and angels. Logically, if there were no free will, there would be no evil. Calvinists are against the concept of free will because they want to protect the sovereignty of God. They argue that if God is truly sovereign then man can't have the final say. They believe that free will makes man independent of God, and if man is independent of God, then God is not sovereign.

It is helpful to recognize that this issue of free will is a secondary concern for both Arminians and Calvinists, and flows from our understanding of who God is. Disagreement over the issue originates from honorable intentions in both theological systems. Each side wishes to protect an aspect of God's character, and each side believes that the other side's understanding does damage to the character of God. Arminians believe that the goodness of God requires that man have free will in order to explain evil. Calvinists believe that the sovereignty of God requires that there can be no such thing as true free will, or else God is not really in control. Given that backdrop it is important to understand the motivation of Arminians, and that we do affirm the sovereignty of God. However, we define sovereignty in a slightly different way. This enables us to affirm both free will and sovereignty.

A simple definition of sovereignty is: God does what He pleases. Arminians believe that true sovereignty is based on two things: power and authority. God has both, so He is sovereign. Calvinists instead believe that sovereignty is based on three things: power, authority, and intervention. Calvinists believe that if God does not ordain the actions of individuals in every aspect, then He is not sovereign. Arminians believe that since God created man in His image, it does not please Him to micromanage the affairs of man. It instead pleases God to give free will to man, to see if we will obey Him. God still has the ability to intervene when He desires to, and scripture indicates that He often does intervene. Arminians recognize that regardless of His level of intervention, God still has complete power and authority. He gets the last word. Man has the freedom to break God's law, but man does not have the capability of avoiding the consequences of breaking God's law. Thus God is sovereign.

So the key to understanding sovereignty is knowing that God does what He pleases.

It pleases God to give free will to man.


The Seeking Disciple said...

I have been reading Norman Geisler's book Chosen But Free and I found his arguments for free will to be along the thinking of us Arminians despite his unwillingness to view it that way.

Good post here and keep up the good work.

Pizza Man said...

Thanks for stopping by Roy, and for the kind comments.

I agree with your take on Geisler, he does not define himself as Arminian, but he seems to have a lot of good things to say that come from a similar perspective. I haven't read his book yet myself.


Dawn said...

Great post, Kevin.

Matt O'Reilly said...

I appreciate your reflections on the sovereignty of God. I have found Roger Olson' discussion of a freed will helpful. It affirms that we are not born with an inherent free will. Our will is in bondage to sin. However, through prevenient grace God frees our will to respond either positively or negatively to his calling. What do you think? Matt

Pizza Man said...

Good distinction Matt. I agree.

kangaroodort said...


Great post. Like so many things, Calvinists define "sovereignty" in a way that is foreign to normal word usage. You will be hard pressed to find a defintion of sovereignty that means "maticulous control over another" except among Calvinists themselves.

God Bless,

Pizza Man said...

Yup. Thanks for dropping in Ben.

Robert said...

Hello Kevin,

Very good and succinct presentation on free will.

I agree with your definition of sovereignty as: God does as He pleases. This is in fact the biblical definition of it and how it is presented in scripture.

At one point you wrote:

“Calvinists believe that the sovereignty of God requires that there can be no such thing as true free will, or else God is not really in control.”

This is a key point as the calvinist makes the mistake of **equating** sovereignty with exhaustive determinism. For the calvinist unless God has exhaustively predetermined every event, he is not sovereign. And so for the calvinist anyone who does not believe in exhaustive determinism does not believe in God being sovereign. This is false. All genuine believers believe that God does as He pleases and so we all believe in His sovereignty. Most of us however, deny that He has exhaustively determined every event.

And we should not allow the calvinist to dictate the discussion or frame the debate by defining God’s sovereignty as exhaustive determinism or not being sovereign. This is a false dilemma and again the biblical definition of sovereignty is that He does as He pleases not that he exhaustively predetermines all events.

A major problem for the exhaustive determinism view is the obvious and universal reality of choice both in our daily experience and in scripture. Choice cannot exist if everything is predetermined. But it does exist, so everything has not been predetermined.

You also wrote about calvinists that: “Calvinists are against the concept of free will because they want to protect the sovereignty of God.”

The sovereignty of God is either true of God or it is not. He does as He pleases or He does not. God’s sovereignty does not need to be protected as it is what it is. The reason the calvinist must argue against free will as ordinarily understood is because if free will exists then exhaustive determinism (which is what the calvinist really wants to believe) is false. You see for the calvinist it is all about protecting and defining exhaustive determinism.

On the other hand, if sovereignty refers to God doing as He pleases. Then the question becomes: did it please God to create human beings with free will as ordinarily understood? And this can be answered in the affirmative by examining the early chapters of Genesis where the evidence for the reality of choices/free will as ordinarily understood is explicit and clear (if you want me to explain this further I would be glad to, just ask).


Pizza Man said...

Thanks for the comments Robert. Sure, I would be interested in your insights on Genesis if you have the time.

On a related note: you ever think about doing a blog yourself? I always enjoy your stuff, and think you would do a good job. :)

God bless,

Robert said...

Hello Kevin,

“Thanks for the comments Robert. Sure, I would be interested in your insights on Genesis if you have the time.”

Sometimes calvinists make the outrageous claim that the bible does not teach libertarian free will anywhere. Now if they mean that the bible does not use the words “libertarian free will” they are correct, you will not find that specific phrase in the bible. The key is not whether those specific words are present, but whether or not the concept, or the reality to which the concept points, is present in scripture.

In the early chapters of Genesis before the fall of Adam we see precisely what God designed mankind to be, exactly what the divine design plan really is (recall after completing the creation He declared everything to be good). Two statements in particular clearly point to the reality of libertarian free will from the very beginning of man’s experience.

The first statement is made by God to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17: “From **any** tree of the garden you may eat **freely**; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”

If I told a child at Toys-R-Us: “you can have **any** toy in this store except for the X toy”. Will the child believe and conclude that they could only choose the X toy? What will the child be justified in concluding from my statement? He/she will conclude that they have a wide range of choices, multiple alternative possibilities each of which they could choose (apart from the **one exception**/toy X). The child’s choice is not merely between choosing the X toy or refraining from choosing the X toy. No, the child is correct to understand that with the exception of the X toy, any other toy in that store is a possibility which they can actualize by making their choice of one of those other toys. That is lots and lots of choices, with each and every one being up to the child to decide.

The other statement that makes the same point about the reality of free will in Adam’s initial experience concerns the event concerning the naming of the animals in Genesis 2:19: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what **he** would call **them**; and ***whatever*** the man called a living creature, **that** was its name.”

In this case, there are no exceptions or limitations placed on Adam’s choosing. Instead, ***whatever*** He decides to name an animal will be its name. According to Gen. 2:19 God left the many and multiple decisions concerning the names of the animals to Adam. That is a lot of choices and all of these choices are up to Adam. If I told a little girl that she could name her doll any name that she wants to name it. I am giving her the choice of what to name the doll and I am leaving it up to her. It is her decision, her choice, not mine.

And this is the nature of libertarian free will, that multiple possible and accessible choices are available to us and we select one rather than another (though we could make either selection in that situation). This means that while we may end up choosing one possibility rather than others, we also could have chosen those other possibilities as well (i.e., we could have done otherwise than what we end up doing).

Let’s call this ability to actualize one or more of two contrary possibilities: the ability to actualize either of two binary contrary pairs (“binary contrary pairs” because at least one choice is present, the choice to do something or to not do that something; though it could also be more than two possibilities, there could be three, four, or . . . possibilities). The thing to note about actualizing of two binary contrary pairs is that if you have libertarian free will then in a particular situation you are able to actualize either possibility of the pair (though not both simultaneously). Take a simple example: there is a motion for a vote on the floor, if you raise your hand that indicates that you approve the motion or vote for it/if you keep your hand down that indicates that you reject the motion or vote against it (the contraries are to vote Yes or vote No and you cannot vote both Yes and No, you have to make a selection, choose one possibility to actualize while choosing not to actualize the other possibility). Libertarian free will is the simple notion that in that situation where you are choosing to vote for or vote to reject the motion, you could choose to actualize either possibility (if you wanted to you could raise your hand and if you wanted to you could keep your hand down; though since they are a binary contrary pair you could only do one action or the other action, not both simultaneously).

With this notion of libertarian free will (the ability to actualize either possibility where a binary contrary pair is present) we ask whether or not that seems to have been Adam’s experience in the early chapters of Genesis. When told not to take from the one tree, could he choose not to take that fruit but to take fruit from other trees? From among the other trees that he was allowed to choose, could he choose say the lemon tree or the orange tree? Or could he also choose from the apple tree or the lemon or the orange tree? He may not be able to select fruit from each of the different trees simultaneously, but could he choose fruit from any one of these other trees? Could he choose freely from which tree he would take fruit or was his action necessitated so that he had to take a particular fruit? Likewise when he was given the complete freedom to name the animals anything/WHATEVER that he wanted to name them, would this naming process involve binary contrary pairs of choices? Could he call a particular animal a blip, blop, blug, blat, etc. etc.? Wouldn’t his choosing the names for each of the animals have involved lots and lots of choices, and lots and lots of binary contrary pairs, and free will as ordinarily understood?

Again, if we were simply reading the bible attempting to interpret it according to standard rules of exegesis and using common sense, how could we not conclude that Adam was created with a capacity to do his own actions, make his own choices (i.e., he was created with a capacity for free will in the libertarian sense, the capacity to actualize one choice from a binary pair and not the other, and that he existed in an environment in which different possible alternatives/multiple binary pairs were available to him and left to him to actualize or not actualize). It is also significant that these two clear statements indicating the presence of libertarian free will in Adam’s experience, are only a few verses apart and both in the context of the original creation of mankind. In other words, from the beginning of man’s existence, God intended and designed for him to have libertarian free will, to make his own choices from available alternative possibilities, to have the ability and opportunity to actualize possibilities where binary contrary pairs were present. The statements could not be any more clear that Adam had libertarian free will and that God intended this to be true in Adam’s experience.

And in fact when we today make those kind of statements and tell people that the naming of something is completely up to them, or that they are not to make a certain choice but that others are available for them to choose, we are affirming libertarian free will in exactly the same way as was present in Genesis in Adam’s experience.

If God spoke in that way to Adam in Genesis, when in fact Adam did not have choices, his actions were completely predetermined by God and he could not do otherwise but only could do what he was predetermined to do (he could only actualize the possibilities that God had predetermined that he would actualize), then God was being deceitful with Adam and us in those scriptures. God would be using language in the ordinary sense in the way we would take to be presenting libertarian free will, to describe the situations that were present when in fact libertarian free will was not present. I do not believe that God misrepresents things to us in this way, or lies to us in this way, nor would he present things one way in a way that any ordinary person would take things to be, when the reality was different.

Now if someone wants to engage in semantic word games to evade these verses, that is itself a choice. But they make that choice not based on reasonable interpretation of the biblical text, but they make that choice in order to defend and maintain an unbiblical and false system of theology: theological determinism/calvinism. Instead of choosing to affirm libertarian free will as the bible clearly does, they are instead choosing to defend a false theological system that claims contrary to these very scriptures that libertarian free will exists.

“On a related note: you ever think about doing a blog yourself? I always enjoy your stuff, and think you would do a good job. :)”

Thanks for the kind words, however, I am not that computer literate and besides, there are already existing great blogs such as yours to post on, as well as the new site: The Society of Evangelical Arminians.


SLW said...

That was excellent, especially in dealing with the Arminian side of the equation. Glad I stopped by to read it.