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To Will or Not to Will, There Is No Question

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins. Tim is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Jonathan Edwards was by any measure a brilliant man, and his book Freedom of the Will is an excellent demonstration of his intellect at work. The book is at least in part a response to what Edwards saw as a false understanding of the Will and Man’s ability to choose, but also partly Edwards’ assertion on the proper understanding of the Will. As a result there are both negative (the will is not. . .) arguments alongside positive assertions (the will is. . .) with sections sometimes starting with the negative and concluding with the positive, but other chapters entirely devoted to the one or other.

Jonathan Edwards was very much a product of his times. His arguments are very much framed in a cause-effect model. Indeed he spends several chapters establishing his argument that every effect has a cause and that every act of will finds its cause in the motive (Part 1 Sec 2; Part 2 Sec 3; Part 2 Sec 10). This model is inherent in most of Edwards’ arguments.

Edwards makes a few very strong arguments for his determinist view of the will. One argument which Edwards uses well is that of the life of Jesus Christ. In countering the “Arminian” argument that determinism negates the basis for praise or blame, Edwards argues that it was impossible that Jesus would sin or fail in doing the Father’s Will. This was because to do so would invalidate the salvation of all who had preceded, and would make God a liar through the failure of all the promises and prophesies concerning Jesus Christ. Therefore Jesus’ actions were necessary and determined, yet they cannot be criticized as not being praiseworthy. Another related argument is that if neither blame nor praise can be assigned because of acts of necessity then “he [God] is deserving of no commendation or praise; because he is under necessity, he can’t avoid being holy and good as he is; therefore no thanks to him for it.”(p.278)

While refuting the idea of the praiseworthiness of decisions from indifference, which he represents as essential for a decision/action to be virtuous rather than determined, Edwards posits what I can only call the praiseworthy sociopath. He argues that if one ponders committing criminal actions from a Vulcan dispassionate indifference (ok he didn’t actually say that but that is the picture he paints) then one is closer to committing those crimes than if viewing them from a predisposition of disgust and horror. Furthermore, Edwards gives the example of seeing a friend in deadly danger and with that same Vulcan dispassion pondering whether or not to assist them. He argues (and rightly so I believe) that in such situations an indifference to saving or leaving is not virtuous but rather worthy of condemnation.

I must confess that not all of Edwards arguments are so easy to agree with, including his argument regarding God’s foreknowledge and decrees.  Here is how he lays out the argument. First Edwards posits that if God foreknows something that event is certain to happen. He goes to great lengths to emphasize the absolute certainty of God’s foreknowledge: if God foreknows something it WILL happen, no possibility to the contrary. This certainty is so strong that there is nothing that could make it stronger. If God decrees something it will happen with absolute certainty. Both God’s foreknowledge and His decrees have an absolute certainty of coming to pass. Since God’s foreknowledge is not incompatible with human freedom because of its certainty, therefore God’s decrees likewise must not be incompatible with human freedom.

It is at this point that I shock everybody with my confession that I am not a Calvinist, so I admit to a certain presuppositional bias. Yet it seems to be that Edwards is making a logical fallacy here. I am certain that the Calvinist/determinists out there will see nothing wrong with the argument as it is laid out, but it seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between foreknowledge and decree. Yes, one could argue that the result is the same, the foreseen or decreed event occurs exactly as it was foreseen or decreed, but they are different starting points. Decree is inherently causal, foreknowledge is not. And as such then assumptions and qualities for the one do not necessarily carry over to the other. Foreknowledge in and of itself does not seem to necessitate decree. To get from one to the other there must be some glue, some logical bridge connecting the two. In my view the certainty of result is insufficient to make that connection.

Aside from stirring up that tired old argument between determinists and non-determinists, I have a few other criticisms of Edwards arguments.

  1. His “greatest desire” model seems simplistic, and unable to deal with passages like Gal 5:16-17.
  2. One of his arguments regarding the incompatibility of contingency and foreknowledge is that knowledge must have evidence, because it must be evident to the understanding (p.258). This is already a weak argument, built around an undefined term: understanding. But Edwards then continues on to argue that because there is no necessary connection between a contingent future event and the present. This boils down to a manufactured argument for contingency cannot work with foreknowledge because I say it cannot.

I am not trying to open the contingency argument here, just to point out that not all of Edwards arguments carry the full impact that he seemed to think they carried.

Overall I would call Freedom of the Will a mixed bag. Edwards has some strong arguments, he has some weak arguments. There certainly has been plenty of material for me to reflect on.  But is there someone who can help me wrap my apparently not sufficiently deterministic mind around how to make the connection between foreknowledge and decree? I know the sovereignty passages, I am not even necessarily arguing against decree as it is used. But I just don’t see the connection that makes what is foreseen necessarily (to use the term in the Edwardsian sense) decreed.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will

Why did I choose to follow Jesus? Did God reach out and cause me to want to follow Jesus? Or, did I weigh the various options and choose to follow Jesus as one choice among many?

Why did I pick up my coffee cup and drink just now? Did something cause me to drink? Or, was it a relatively arbitrary expression of my own free choice?

Is there a difference between these two scenarios?

According to Paul Helm, Jonathan Edward viewed both of these from basically the same perspective. And, in the process, he departed from earlier Reformed theologians in significant ways.

As I’m getting prepared for my seminar on Jonathan Edwards this summer, I’m going to blog occasionally on any interesting resources that I’ve run across. Today, I read Paul Helm’s post on “Jonathan Edwards and the Freedom of the Will.” According to Helm, Edwards’ understanding of free will was driven by the “all-encompassing metaphysical principle” that nothing happens without a cause. So, if I make a choice, that choice must have a cause. And, for Edwards, the cause in that case would be my desires. I chose X because I wanted X. And, this same basic framework holds no matter if we’re talking about choosing God or choosing coffee.

For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.

All events must have causes.

Helm argues that this is a very different argument from that offered by earlier Reformed theologians. Looking specifically at Calvin, Helm contends that earlier theologians in the Reformed tradition focused more narrowly on “the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall.” This isn’t because Calvin disagreed with Edwards (which would be hard to do, since Edwards wasn’t alive at the time), but because the nature of the free will debate was different in Calvin’s day. They weren’t concerned with the broader issue of whether every particular event must have a cause, but on the narrower question of whether the human person is free to choose God.

The difference between Edwards and Calvin, according to Helm’s argument, is really the scientific/philosophical context that Edwards operated in. With the rise of modern science and the philosophical turn that took place with John Locke, the issue of causation took a much more prominent place in discussions of free will. So, it’s not that Edwards and Calvin necessarily disagreed on the free will. Helm actually argues that one can find ” clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook” in Calvin’s theology. But, it does mean that they addressed the issue from very different cultural contexts, and that we need to understand these historical/cultural differences if we are really to appreciate what they were saying.

For more resources on the subject of free will see:

Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come FromContemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From

My daughter is a compatibilist – where did I go wrong?

My nine year-old daughter came home from school today with a question: “If someone invites you to do something, you want to do it, and you can do it, do you have to do it?” Apparently this is a question that she randomly came up with at school today and tried with several of her friends. And, she’s annoyed because people keep answer it incorrectly.

I got it wrong.

According to my daughter, you do “have to” do whatever is involved in this scenario because you want to do it and nothing is preventing you from doing it. Implicit in her argument is the classical compatibilist notion that our actions are always driven by our affections. Thus, the corresponding action is “necessary” (i.e. determined by your affections), while still being “free” (consistent with your own desires). I don’t know where she came up with this, since I’m pretty sure they don’t teach theories of human volition in her fourth-grade class, but apparently my daughter is a classical compatibilist.

Now I just need to figure out how to explain the consequence argument, the complexity of human affections, and the absurdity rooted deep within fallen humanity. At the rate she’s going, though, she’ll probably figure that all out by next week anyway. So, maybe I’ll just wait.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/1)

  • Mark Galli’s article, “Insignificant Is Beautiful,” has gotten a lot of attention and is a timely warning about the dangers of aspiring for significance.

We should honor any generation that strives for significance, especially if it is a longing to make a difference in the world. Better this than striving to make money and live a comfortable life! But the human heart is desperately wicked and the human soul subject to self-deception, and this colors even our highest aspirations. Even the best of intentions mask the mysterious darkness within, which is why we need to be healed also of our best intentions.

The fact that God wishes to give grace and glory is due simply to His generosity. The reason for His willing these things that arise simply from His generosity is the overflowing love of His will for His end-object, in which the perfection of His goodness is found. The cause of predestination, therefore, is nothing other than God’s goodness. (Providence and Predestination, 116)

  • And, the October 2010 biblioblog rankings are out. We’re down a bit since classes started in September, but still doing quite well. Thanks everyone for taking the time to read and comment here.

Quote of the day

“I agree with everything Pelagius said.”

……….~Billy Cash


I heard this with my very own ears (I’ve tried hearing with other people’s ears, but it doesn’t work very well), so I can verify this to be a true and accurate quote.

Now, to be fair, I should place the quote in context. Billy and I were discussing Augustine and the issues of free will and salvation. Does that make it better?


Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From

I found it ironic that the week I sign up to post my blog is the week that we deal with anthropology, a topic that means we must engage with the timeless dilemma of human free will. As far as I know I am one of the few ThM students who, with unashamed humility, will admit to being a Calvinist (although I’m sure that Brian LePort is a closet Calvinist and Andreas Lunden is one who simply refuses to admit it).  Alas, God’s sovereignty would have it no other way than for me to post during this week, although it may be to highlight continued areas of my theology that need some fine tuning, something this ThM program has a PhD in.  That being said, let me start by saying that I in no way intend to come across as the “arrogant Calvinist” I hear so many speak fondly of.  I am fully aware that engaging this particular topic is like pulling the pin on a theological grenade, rolling it into a room, and closing the door (as seen in the recent resurgence of activity on Marc’s question about “Why Non-Calvinists Hate Calvinism So Much,” a post that simply will not die.  Arminians seem to keep coming up with more reasons.)

At this point the only article I have had much time to engage with is Marc Cortez’s article on free will.  I think he does an excellent job accurately engaging with both sides of the dilemma and pointing to strengths and weaknesses (I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss either).  However, I initially disagreed with his statement that “classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from…”  One possible explanation that is gaining more support from guys such as Bruce Ware and Alvin Plantigna, is with the concept of middle-knowledge.  This is the idea that God not only knows what could be and what will be, but that he also knows what would be if certain circumstances were put in place.

The critique of many classical compatibilist towards middle-knowledge in libertarian free will is that it is incoherent because choices are made arbitrarily.  If all things are equal, and choice A is just a likely as choice B, then God could still not be sure that any set of circumstances would bring about the desired result.  There is no necessary connection between choices and circumstances so God could not know an individuals choice by simply knowing the circumstances.  Thus, God’s foreknowledge is compromised.  However, inside of classical compatibilism middle-knowledge is a viable option.   The classical compatibilist holds that choices are not made arbitrarily, but that men always choose what they desire most.  Therefore, using middle-knowledge God would know accurately what set of circumstances would produce what result.  There is a connection between choices and circumstances.  If this is indeed accurate, then classical compatibilism has an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from.   It would appear that desires and beliefs stem in some way by antecedent factors that God himself orchestrates.

However, upon further inspection, it seems that Marc foils this stance with his “Consequence Argument.”  This argument states that if men are not in control of the particular circumstances that stimulate the strongest desire, then men cannot be held responsible for the choice that is made when a certain set of circumstances is presented.  At this point, it seems that I am left to fall on the defense that this removal of other possible choices due to specific antecedent conditions does not deny moral responsibility to the agent, because the agent still acts freely based upon their greatest desire.  This seems to be the case with Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, and the King of Assyria in Isaiah 10.  Circumstances are orchestrated so that Joseph’s brothers and the Assyrian King carry out their greatest desires, which also happen to be the plan of God, yet God holds them culpable for the sin.  They exercise their freedom of inclination, and God exercises his sovereignty.  I’m not sure if this is just one of those hard truths we must accept, while scratching our heads, or if more light will be shed on this in the future.  According to the Consequence Argument I still have yet to solve the problem.  Maybe I should take Marc’s stance as a true Barthian theologian and give way to a true dialectical theological method: simply shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know”………yet.

A hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

According to Roger Olson, there’s a glaring hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will. And, it’s a hole that Calvinist’s generally refuse to acknowledge.

To see why, Olson points out that many Calvinists contend that incompatibilism as a view of free will is simply incoherent. (There are many different kinds of incompatibilism, but in a nutshell it’s the idea that my having true free will in a given instance is not compatible with the idea that my action in that instance could be caused by some prior event or state of affairs.) The Calvinist contends that if an actually is truly “uncaused,” then it is irrational or random. And, if our actions are irrational and/or random, then they do not come from our choices and they they are not the kinds of actions for which we can be held responsible – i.e. they are not “free.” Consequently, there is no such thing as incompatibilist free will. For the Calvinist, according to Olson, that is an oxymoron; it is incoherent.

But, Olson goes on to argue that this raises a problem for our understanding of God’s free will. If the very notion of incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then God himself cannot have incompatibilist free will. This, in turn, would mean that God’s own actions are caused by some event or state of affairs. And, many Calvinists will agree here, contending that God’s actions are “caused” by his nature. He does the things that he does because he is perfectly the kind of God that he is. But, and here is the real nexus of Olson’s argument, this would seem to mean that all of God’s actions are necessary. He created the universe because he had to; it was an expression of his perfect and immutable character. There’s really nothing else he could have done.

And the problem for Olson is that this account of God’s creative act was clearly rejected and declared heretical by quite a number of early theologians. Most of these thinkers insisted that God’s creative act had to be understood as a free act of his will. God was free to do otherwise, though it was perfectly fitting for him to choose to create.

So, the tension that Olson sets up is this. If you are going to claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then you must also affirm that God’s actions are all necessary consequences of his character. Conversely, if you are going to claim that God has incompatibilist free will, then you cannot also claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent.

I’m sure that Olson is perfectly aware that none of this actually serves as an argument for maintaining that humans actually have incompatibilistically free wills. But, he maintains that it does place the Calvinist in quite the quandry, and he argues that most Calvinists are unwilling to face it head on.

What do you think? Is this truly a hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

Flotsam and jetsam (7/1)

The inadequacy of a “Christian” Anthropology (Acton 1)

The first four seminars at the Acton conference serve to lay out the basic framework that the rest of the seminars will build upon. They focus in turn one:

  1. Christian anthropology
  2. Limited government and the rule of law
  3. Developing an economic way of thinking
  4. The foundations of a free society

Together, these are supposed to provide a fundamental framework for developing a Christian view of human flourishing that can then drive our view of government, law, economics, and society. In other words, if we properly understand what a human person is and what makes for human flourishing in the world, we can strive to orient our governments, markets, and societies around that vision.

Such a project has two fundamental tasks to perform before it can even get off the ground. First, it has to present a compelling vision of what it means to be human and what makes for human flourishing in the world. And, second, it must explain how we move from that vision to specific proposals and actions in the world. I want to deal with how the conference has addressed the first of those in this post.

So, taking up the first of these two tasks, the opening seminar was on developing this foundational anthropology. The speaker began by saying that his intention was to explain how a Christian anthropology is fundamentally different from a “secularist” anthropology, and that he would be doing this primarily by offering a philosophical analysis, rather than a biblical/theological one. His reason for doing so is that it would be “too easy” to identify the differences between these two anthropologies through biblical/theological categories. The differences would be more stark and compelling, he indicated, if we established on the basis of philosophical reasoning (more on this later).

He then went on to argue for five areas of emphasis in a Christian anthropology that demonstrate how it is different from a secularist anthropology:

  1. We are embodied beings, which means that they are neither souls inhabiting bodies (Cartesian dualism) or merely material things (physical reductionism).
  2. We are volitional beings with a will that is both free and determined, rather than being completely autonomous (nominalism) or physically deterministic (hard and soft determinism).
  3. We are creative beings, which means that although we are fully a part of the created order, we are unique within creation in having dominion over creation (understood primarily as the right and responsibility to creatively bring out the full potential of creation).
  4. We are fallen beings, and as such, we can not simply follow our own passions (hedonism) nor place all our faith in the ability of humanity to perfect itself (utopianism).
  5. We are individual/social beings and thus we cannot see ourselves as exclusively individual (anarchy) or social (collectivism).

Although I have some questions/observations about how the speaker unpacked each of these in the seminar, I’ll restrict myself to offering three fundamental concerns about the overall project.

First, there is nothing uniquely Christian about this anthropology. Although the word “Christian” was used quite a bit, there is very little in here that many Jews, Muslims, or even atheists would disagree with. (Indeed, even the argument against the “secularist” in the lecture only works by focusing on the secularist’s weakest arguments – e.g. hard determinism.) Of course, they wouldn’t use words like “soul” or “sin”, instead preferring terms like “transcendent mental capabilities” and “brokenness,” but the fact remains that the basic shape of this anthropology can be found in many belief systems. None of what makes an anthropology uniquely Christian (Trinity, Christology, image of God, the Gospel, etc.) factored into the discussion at all.

That observation in itself would raise some questions, but as I indicated earlier, the speaker did indicate that his intention was to offer a philosophical rather than a biblical/theological presentation. Apparently that means you get an anthropology that is less obviously Christian. The more fundamental problem, though, is that this seminar was supposed to serve as the foundational seminar for the other three. Indeed, all of the other speakers referred to this one as though it had provided that basic Christian view of the human person and human flourishing that could ground subsequent discussions about government, economics, and society. It didn’t.

That lack grows in significance when you remember that many of the people here have no formal Bible/theology training. At dinner last night, I set with a nice young man who is a medical student in Texas. (By the way, during the opening dinner, the Republic of Texas was counted as one of the represented countries.) He thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and had no idea that there was more to a Christian anthropology than he had heard. How is he supposed to engage some of the challenging issues addressed later in the conference with no more than a generic understanding of what a human person is or what constitutes human flourishing.

All of this leads to my third concern. Although it was never said explicitly, I’m fairly certain that the lack of robust theological reflection stems from the presumption that such would hinder, or even preclude, meaningful dialog with non-Christians. That would undercut the idea of social engagement from the very beginning. So, instead of offering us a distinctively Christian anthropology, they gave us an anthropology that they would say is grounded in a Christian “worldview,” but one that can also be communicated to non-Christians and used to ground economic/political/cultural discourse in the public realm. If I am correct, this raises a whole new set of issues that I’ll address when we get to the fourth lecture on the role of the Bible and natural law in public discourse. For now I’ll simply observe that such an anthropology would seem to be “Christian” in a secondary sense (at best), since it is an anthropology with much of its Christian distinctiveness stripped out. And, that seems an unfortunate foundation on which to build an understanding of human flourishing (which they still haven’t defined).

Free will and character are not incompatible

A common critique that I often hear against libertarian views of free will is that they are incompatible with the idea that our decisions can be decisively shaped by our character. I ran across a good example of this critique in a recent blog post. The author is critiquing a definition of free will offered by C. Stephen Evans, in which Evans says, “The possession of free will does not entail an ability not to sin, since human freedom is shaped and limited by human character. Thus a human person may be free to choose among possibilities in some situations but still be unable to avoid all sin.” The author concludes:

This statement is contradictory. If the will must sin of necessity then it is in bondage to corruption, and that which is in bondage is not free. So we must ask, freedom from what? Freedom from coercion, yes, but not freedom from necessity (the necessity to sin in this case). So even the author of the definition himself rejects free will perhaps without even knowing it.

There are at least two things wrong with this conclusion. First, it is simply a mistake to conclude that for a person to have “free will”, even in a libertarian sense, they must not be constrained in any sense. All views of free will recognize that the human will is always constrained in important ways (i.e. there are lots of things that I can’t choose). Evans’ definition simply affirms the fact that believing in free will does not commit you to believing that a person is free not to sin. Most libertarian views of free will do necessitate that there be multiple legitimate options available to the free agent, but it is entirely consistent with these views to hold that all of these options might be sinful. Libertarian free will does not commit a person to maintaining that a fallen human being is capable of performing a truly good and righteous act. That is an entirely separate question.

Second, the criticism misses the fact that at least some libertarian views affirm that some free actions can be fully determined by a person’s character. In other words, it might be the case that my decision to X was fully and completely determined by the fact that I am the kind of person who always does X. But a libertarian can still maintain that this is a free action for which I am entirely responsible if I was responsible for the development of an X kind of character. In other words, as long as I am ultimately responsible for the actions and decisions that led to the development of my character, I am fully and freely responsible from the actions that flow from that character, even if the specific actions that resulted were themselves fully determined. (For a good introduction to this understanding of free will see Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will).

So, if you want to be a compatibilist, fine. But be careful about throwing “logical contradiction” around too quickly. (And, by the way, the same holds for many libertarian criticisms of compatibilism).