Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate

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.

Stick around. It should be fun.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 30, 2011, in Anthropology, Metaphysics. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Looking forward to reading all of these. I’ve been reading a lot of open theology lately, so these posts will provide yet another perspective for me.

  2. The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means. Free will is not all it’s cracked up to be but there’s no doubt we have a modest form of it. I prefer to call it “self-determinism”. This self-determinism is empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I’ve found this is hard to explain because so many people assume that any free will must contradict causality and, thus, determinism. I claim that the only free will we have is actually self-determinism and that it isn’t in conflict with causality: in fact, it’s a product of human intelligence interacting with causality. I’ll try to explain . . .

    I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our heredity and experience (which are both products of causality). Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

    Experience represents the past. Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know. With the exception of instinct and reflex, I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act beyond our experience. Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present. This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of consciousness: our identity. Experience influences us so much because it’s been layered into our identity just as the present will be. THAT is the self in self-determinism.

    Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules. We might think we’re in control until that fire or disease or earthquake or tsunami or accident or economic crash changes our lives. Causality is the ultimate big dog. We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure. We can’t anticipate everything.

    So how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)? How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?


    Mental feedback is the key. Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans. Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it. Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback. Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly. THAT is the determinism in self-determinism.

    It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled, libertarian, free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of independent agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future. We’re so good at it, we’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . merely expressions of it.

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