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Augustine and the Problem of Free Will

Picture in your mind something that you think is a really bad idea. (I’m picturing a cat.) Now imagine someone using something that you wrote many years ago to defend this heinously awful idea. How would you feel?

That’s exactly what happened to Augustine. By the latter part of his life, Augustine had developed a clear reputation for defending divine sovereignty, predestination, original sin, and the “bondage” of the will. But when he was younger, Augustine had written some things, particularly in De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), that sounded to many like he used to believe something very different. Indeed, some of statements sound very libertarian. And, much to Augustine’s chagrin, his critics used these earlier works against him, contending that they were just saying what himself he used to teach.

That had to have been annoying.

And, it raises a key question: Did Augustine have a consistent position on free will throughout his life, or were his opponents correct that his later position was a dramatic departure from what he wrote in his earlier works?

Those are the issues that Billy Cash dealt with in the paper that he presented to the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last month, “Augustine and the Consistent Trajectory of Compatibilism“. (Billy is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a regular contributor to this blog.) And in the paper, Billy contends that Augustine’s early writings are consistent with his later writings, and that we should understand Augustine to be a consistent compatibilist throughout his life.

Billy starts things off by arguing that although Augustine does sound libertarian at times in De Libero Arbitrio, he is still operating from a largely compatibilist framework. Two arguments in particular ground this conclusion:

First, in book three of On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine asserts that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden consigned all men to a life of “ignorance and difficulty,” a life in which they would find themselves unable to choose the good….

Secondly, although the grace of God is not center-stage in this particular treatise, it is not absent.  In his Retractions, Augustine reminds his readers that he does in fact claim in On the Free Choice of the Will, “that anything good in a human person, including any goodness in the will, is a gift of God.”

So, although there are some differences between Augustine’s early and mature writings – differences that can be partially accounted for by the Manichean controversy that Augustine was addressing in his earlier writings – there is enough continuity to conclude that there is a clear and consistent “trajectory” leading from the one to the other, rather than a marked “departure” in the later writings.

In the last part of the paper, Billy turns his attention to an interesting argument presented by Eleonore Stump, which she calls “modified libertarianism.” I won’t go into the details of the argument here, but the essence is that Stump is looking for a way to understand even the later Augustine within the broader framework of a libertarian view of free will. And, although she presents a creative argument, Billy contends that her position is ultimately incoherent (or at least inconsistent).

So, at the end of the day, Billy concludes:

Development in theology does not necessarily imply change, as seen in the early church’s development of doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ.  That Jesus was the divine Son of God was never denied by the Orthodox Church.  There was development, however, in how that divinity was to be understood, and this development led to a distinction between what was to be considered true or heretical.  Likewise, in Augustine’s mature theology he believed that the will of man was free to choose what it desired, but the desire of will to choose the good was enabled by the grace of God, prior to any choice or merit found within the individual.  Although his early theology was not as developed and Augustine did not give grace as prominent a position in influencing the will in On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine himself says that the grace of God was not absent, just not the focal point of his argument.  In light of the affirmations of the will found in his early writing, On Free Choice of the Will, it may be stated with surety that the trajectory of his argument was compatibilist in nature, and was not altered from early to later works, just more thoroughly developed.  Since this is the case, any attempt at construing a libertarian view of the will in Augustine is misleading.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

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

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.

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).