Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate
Posted by Marc Cortez
I’d love to get Augustine and Pelagius in a room and listen to them debate free will. That would be a sight. At least PG-13. Or, better yet, Augustine and one of the great Greek theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus or John Chyrsostom. Perfect.
We’ve been debating free will for a very long time. And, if you read some of the more recent discussions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we haven’t made much progress. The arguments of today sound just like the arguments of yesterday (and the day before).
Despite the lack of progress, free will remains an important issue. Your view of free will impacts how you understand salvation, discipleship, ethics, humanity, and even the nature of God himself (e.g., see the recent exchange between Roger Olson and Michael Patton on whether God has free will), among other things.
So, since free will is both important and contentious, I thought it would be worth writing a few posts on the subject. But, let me be clear. I’m not going to try and resolve the debate (if that’s even possible). Nor will I be arguing for one position over another. Instead, I’m going to offer some thoughts on what we need to do if we’re going to have discussions about free will that are characterized by both clarity and charity, two things frustratingly lacking in many of these debates.
First, a few of definitions:
- Free will: The most important term in the whole debate, “free will” is also the hardest to define. For our purposes, it will suffice to say that “free will” refers to the capacity to choose among various options in such a way as to be responsible for those choices. The concept thus includes both choice and responsibility. And, indeed, much of the debate revolves around what constitutes a real “choice” and what things are necessary to hold a person “responsible” for their choices.
- Determinism: The standard definition for (causal) determinism is that a particular event (e.g. a “choice”) is necessitated by antecedent events/conditions together with the laws of nature. Thus, it was causally determined that the ball would break the window (event) as soon as I hit with with the bat at just the right angle and velocity (antecedent event/conditions), assuming that God doesn’t miraculously intervene (laws of nature). And, these antecedent conditions can be entirely natural (materialistic determinism) or supernatural (theistic determinism). Either way, the antecedent causes/conditions necessitate the particular event.
- Libertarian: A view of free will is libertarian if it holds that “free will” (i.e. choice + responsibility) is incompatible with determinism. In other words, if it is true that all human actions/choices are fully determined by antecedent events/conditions plus the laws of nature, then, quite simply, we are not free beings. We are simply billiard balls careening around the table, every action determined by the collision of the balls around us.
- Compatibilist (soft determinist): A view of free will is compatibilistic if it holds that “free will” is compatible with determinism. In other words, one can fully affirm that we are free moral agents, responsible for all of our decisions, and still maintain that all of our actions/choices are completely determined by antecedent causes/conditions. (This view is often called “soft determinism,” to distinguish it from “hard determinism,” or the view that since our actions/choices are fully determined, we are not free beings.)
In Protestant theological circles, the real debate is between those holding a libertarian view of free will (broadly “Arminian”) and those with a compatibilist view (broadly “Calvinist”). I should say that using theological labels like Arminian/Calvinist actually tends to confuse the issue, since those labels are far too imprecise to be terribly helpful, and they include much more than just particular views of free will. But, there’s no getting around the fact that these labels are importantly involved in the free will debate. So, we shouldn’t just ignore them.
With these definitions in place, the rest of the series will focus on developing greater charity and clarity in the free will debate. I may not succeed, but I intend to try anyway. I’ll add the links as the series develops, but here’s a quick rundown of where we’re going.
- 5 Things (Nearly) Everyone Agrees about in the Free Will Debate
- 8 Things that Everyone Should Stop Doing in the Free Will Debate
- 5 Arguments that Calvinists Should Stop Using against Libertarian Free Will
- 5 Arguments that Arminians Should Stop Using against Compatibilist Free Will
- Some Concluding Reflections on How to Approach the Free Will Debate
Stick around. It should be fun.