Few themes have been discussed as frequently throughout history as that of fate and free will. The topic in itself seems innocent enough, yet whenever it is discussed all of the rest of philosophy and theology inevitably gets pulled up into it. It is caught up in questions of ethics, of the relation between God and evil, of human responsibility, of salvation and of the sovereignty of God – questions of whether mankind has some semblance of control over his destiny or is merely a machine.
When discussed in the context of Christianity, the discussion often turns to the question of divine foreknowledge, on which there is no shortage of views (some of the more common being open-theism, simple-foreknowledge, Molinism, and the Reformed view).
As we wade through these views it must be noted that each argument accounts for certain aspects while neglecting others. Thus:
- the Open-Theist claims the issue is over the content of reality but allows for some determined events; yet having any determined events at all falls into the same inability to explain the interaction between freedom and foreknowledge that plagues every view.
- the Simple-Foreknowledge view – where God elects those he foreknew – only succeeds in making election and predestination meaningless and redundant when placed beside of foreknowledge; that is, election and predestination become words without content.
- Molinism, rather than having God as puppet-master, makes him the great manipulator, rigging circumstances and the environment so that people will do as he wills; while this may help answer logical problems, it fails to address the moral dynamic of the dilemma.
- the Reformed view is often the most honest in addressing its own deficiency, with authors such as Paul Helm stating that “we cannot at present see how these parts cohere, that we cannot demonstrate their consistency.” Yet even Helm requires the individual to redefine their view of the will before presenting the mystery; that is, Helm answers the question, but does so by changing what the words in play mean (and thereby bordering on the fallacy of equivocation).
Regardless of whether one goes down the road of the Arminian or that of the Calvinist, the Molinist or the Open-Theist, eventually a certain impassible fog will be reached that the thinker will be forced to resign to mystery.
However, rather than find that each road has its own fog at some point in the distance, would we be justified in simply marking the mystery at the outset? As G.K. Chesterton says, the Christian “has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.”
Before resigning ourselves to mystery, however, we must take into account a variety of factors, factors such as the limits of reason, the notions of divine foreknowledge and free will, and the impact of Scripture on the topic. Objections to the position as well as its practical out-workings must also be addressed.
The topic can be narrowed before proceeding. So while it is necessary to discuss the human will, the related question of whether man may freely choose good or evil is a matter of election, which is a distinct discussion (for even if man possesses an innate bias towards the things which are evil, this does not necessarily suppose that his choices are all determined or causally necessary – rather, he may in this instance be freely and contingently choosing between things which are evil; this biased yet contingent freedom would still offer up the philosophical problems offered in the discussion of foreknowledge and preserve God’s sovereignty in salvation).
Indeed, it is not necessary for us to consider the fallen will of man at all – in appealing to the Garden we do away with the problem of the fallen will altogether. Thus it can be found for one in the writings of Augustine: “For it was by the evil use of his free will that man destroyed both it and himself.” Anthony Hoekema reflects this saying: “Though man had been created with true freedom, they lost that freedom when they fell into sin.” It is with the free will as present in the Garden which must be contended, regardless of what sort of will is present today.
It will suffice to say that it was present once, for if such a free will ever was present then the same issues arise as if it were present today.
With the scope narrowed one may begin to consider the will in itself, but in doing so one must take into account the limits of reason. We must ask whether our faculty of reason even has the capability of answering this question sufficiently; as C.H. Spurgeon wrote in regards to fore-ordination and human responsibility, “it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other.” The solution from the Reformed perspective is a theory called compatibilism. This is accomplished through defining ‘free will’ not in the manner of libertarian free will but rather in offering a view similar to what James Smith calls ‘positive free will’, this is a ‘free will’ where “freedom isn’t just the ability to choose, but the ability to choose well, to choose rightly.” However, this in itself does not liberate the Reformed perspective from its difficulties, for supposing that Adam had the ability to choose either rightly or wrongly it must still be explained how he came to choose wrongly, especially if God is the ultimate cause of his actions. Furthermore, this only succeeds in taking a dilemma between the interaction of sovereignty and free will and moving it back, making it into a dilemma between sovereignty and responsibility.
As noted, the Reformed tradition has the advantage of acknowledging this relationship as one of the mysteries of God. Yet, the simple-foreknowledge position also acknowledges mystery in its system. As Roger Olson states: “Arminians know that their belief in libertarian freedom is a mystery.” The Reformed tradition acknowledges a mystery between sovereignty and responsibility, the Arminian tradition acknowledges a mystery within libertarian freedom itself. Olson acknowledges both of these mysteries, but prefers his own because he feels it saves God from being the author of evil. One position he rejects, however, is the position that the will is determined but free, for this “begs further explanation.”
From the outside it might be contended that both the Reformed and Arminian options “beg further explanation.” Perhaps it should be stated that the relationship between divine sovereignty and free will is the mystery. G.K. Chesterton has already been quoted as sharing a view similar to this; Jerry Bridges puts forth the same idea, stating that “while the Bible asserts both God’s sovereignty and people’s freedom and moral responsibility, it never attempts to explain their relationship.” Such a placement of the mystery may also be seen by Anthony Hoekema, who states “To be a creature means that I cannot move a finger or utter a word apart from God; to be a person means that when my fingers are moved, I move them, and that when words are uttered from my lips, I utter them,” and goes on to say that “denial of either side of this paradox will fail to do justice to the biblical picture.”
Regardless of which road one goes down eventually an impassible fog is reached that is deemed a mystery, the goal therefore may be to state the mystery at the outset.
If the justification of placing the mystery at the point suggested is to be addressed, the nature of the human understanding of the will must be addressed. In order to address the human understanding of the will it is necessary first to address human understanding in itself. It is noted by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy that “It is always perilous to the mind to reckon up the mind,” and again that “The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything.”
One begins to see an initial problem at the very outset of analyzing the will. This problem is brought up by John Kemeny in stating that humans “are part of the universe about which we make predictions.” Not only is there the problem of the mind attempting to reckon up itself, and the problem of being part of the system which is being analyzed, but there are further problems in the very nature of the analysis.
From what very little may be said of the mind, it may be asserted that it is the nature of the mind in analysis to look for causal connections, indeed, logic and science can operate by no other method – but when this is the method it cannot help but lead to determinism. The idea is put forth by such thinkers as Paul Roubiczek, who states “[Determinism] is the natural outcome of the scientific method; it is bound to work in the direction of establishing causality,” and again that “As the method is designed to disclose necessity, freedom can never be proved in this way.” That is to say, reason and the scientific method must necessarily look for causes, and can only operate in the language of cause and effect, therefore they are incompetent to discuss something that is posited as having no set cause (free will).
Not only can the mind only search for causality, but as David Hunt has noted, we lack “an adequate theory of causation… we don’t really understand what is going on when one thing causes another.” F.H. Jacobi offers the most concise statement, simply that “Every avenue of demonstration ends up in fatalism.”
However, while thinkers such as Roubiczek appeal to experience to solve the problem that reason cannot solve, Jacobi appeals to revelation, stating: “every proof presupposes something already proven, the principle of which is Revelation.” It is held that the mind is distinctly unqualified for rationalizing the advanced and technical causalities (or lack thereof) of its own nature, because not only does this amount to attempting to measure the system of measuring, but also because the process itself is built on seeking necessity and causality and is therefore supremely ill-equipped for analyzing something deemed contingent.
There is in fact no shortage of precedent for placing these things outside the nature of human reason. The writings of Immanuel Kant provide one sort of justification for this limit to human reason, stating that the conflict of these dogmatic doctrines are such that “no one assertion can establish superiority over another” due to each having “grounds that are just as valid and necessary.” This dynamic is pointed out by Ronald Nash in his book The Word of God and the Mind of Man, stating “[According to Kant] all who attempt to extend reason beyond its limits become involved in absurdities and contradictions and become prone to the disease of skepticism.”
One need not share Kant’s system as a whole to recognize his argument when it comes to the antinomies he presents, one of which is causality versus freedom. H.G. Wells attempted to account for this discrepancy in his essay The Scepticism of the Instrument, by positing that “various terms in our reasoning lie, as it were, at different levels and in different planes.” The comparison made by Wells was one between the world of an atom and the world humans normally experience, where the rules of the different worlds cannot be made to coincide. Here, he said, the instrument – the mind – fails. Yet where Kant posited that the answer cannot be known at all, and Wells explained it through analogy to science, the Christian may take the view that such truths are revelational, and “the revelation of God in Christ would not have been guaranteed to those who followed unless He completed it in an adequate medium of transmission.” Both the Arminian and the Calvinist recognize limits to knowledge when they acknowledge mysteries in their systems, the point here is simply to place the mystery at the beginning rather than within the woodworks of a grand system.
One may turn from looking at the mind of man to looking at divine foreknowledge and the mind of God, yet difficulties will still be found. Just as Chesterton wrote that the mind cannot look at its own light, Cornelius Van Til points out that as one doesn’t use a candle to discover the light of the sun, but the reverse, so “we cannot subject the authoritative pronouncements of Scripture about reality to the scrutiny of reason” for “it is reason itself that learns its proper function from Scripture.” And again, “man’s mind is derivative. As such it is naturally in contact with God’s revelation. It is surrounded by nothing but revelation.”
Divine foreknowledge, therefore, like the nature of the free will, seem outside the scrutiny of reason. Rather, the mind of man must rely on revelation across the board in this area of knowledge – as it is said by Jonathan Edwards “Revelation not only gives us the foundation and first principles of all learning, but it gives us the end.”
It has been posited thus far that the mind is not qualified to analyze itself without falling into contradiction, both because it is its own light and because it is part of the system it is analyzing, as well as the point that the mind in its mechanisms is only capable of searching out causality, which inevitably leads its workings in the direction of determinism.
Furthermore it has been posited that not only can the mind not reckon up itself, but there are also limits or bounds to what it can reckon outside of itself without ending in contradiction. The workings of the divine mind are noted as being one of these areas outside the limits of reason, for just as the mind cannot analyze its own light, neither can it analyze the light that supplies its light.
This leaves the thinker with only revelation to depend on, with experience potentially acting as a route of verification. For Roubiczek, as mentioned above, this is one avenue which is available, for “theories prove to be of no excuse; in spite of them, responsibility remains; we still feel responsible and insist that man ought to feel responsible.” It is this feeling which must be accounted for in his system, and thereby brings him to the notion of free will. The end point of this train of thought is that the thinker is not justified in moving down any of the roads presented to him and is therefore justified in declaring the mystery outright.
With this justification established one other point must be made regarding arguments for and against free will or determinism. When divine foreknowledge is brought into discussion, the first question inevitably tends to be what effect this has on free will, for if God knows what we are going to do, then how can we be free in doing it?
This objection as regards foreknowledge in particular may be met, even if one cannot explain the relationship between sovereignty and freedom or the nature of freedom in and of itself. One way in which this may be accomplished is the route taken by Augustine, stating that “For when He has foreknowledge of our will, it is going to be the will that He has foreknown,” and continuing “Nor can it be a will if it is not in our power. Therefore, God also has knowledge of our power over it.” Thus it might be properly said along with A.W. Pink that “It is persons God is said to ‘foreknow,’ not the actions of those person.” Although he does technically know the actions as well, that is secondary to his knowledge of humans as willed people.
Another way in which this objection might be met is by pointing out the tautology of it. People hear that “what will be will be” and in turn believe that this truism demonstrates some fact or fatalism. As A.J. Ayer points out “It does not follow, however, that the event is necessitated in any but this purely verbal way.” The recognition of this tautology does not prove any real fatalism, for it may be stated just as easily that our actions “too, indeed, are what they are and their consequences will be what they will be.” According to Ayer this sort of ‘fate’ is reduced to the triviality of ‘if a statement is true it is true’.
A truism proves nothing, especially one which may be stated both ways; what will be will be, and our actions will have their effects.
The position presented has no problem dealing with the above objection, nor is it toppled into the same corner as Reformed positions often are of implicating God in evil. To borrow a term from H.G. Wells, on the one plane the position may appeal to the freedom of the will as the source of evil, that is, something within man rather than something distinctly put there by God. On the other plane the position may appeal to the same sort of presupposition that is used by Reformed theologians such as Jonathan Edwards or Gordon Clark.
This sort of apologetic makes the goodness or evilness of an act dependent not upon the cause but upon the nature of the act. Thus Edwards states that “to have a virtuous heart, is to have a heart that favors virtue,” or “that which makes vice hateful, is its hateful nature.” This view is compatible with the view presented, for as was noted towards the beginning, even if man possesses an innate bias towards the things which are evil this does not necessarily suppose that his choices are all determined or causally necessary; he may be freely willing between evil things.
Apart from discussing the acts of men, it also discusses the acts of God. According to Scripture, God cannot sin. This is true on the one hand because the “law that defines sin envisages human conditions and has no relevance to a sovereign Creator” and on the other hand because “whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it.” As is echoed in Van Til, “God makes the facts what they are to be.”
Good and evil are defined as what they are in relation to God. There is no standard of good and evil above God, just as there is not scale of being to which God belongs – God is the ultimate. Things are good or evil, sinful or not, because He deems them as such, and being the Creator He has full rights over all of creation to do with as He wills.
Thus we may see many times in Scripture God effectively causing individuals to sin – ie, Exodus 9:12 where he hardens Pharaoh’s heart or Acts 4:27-28 where it is said that Herod and Pilate acted on their own wills but in doing so acted as God’s will had decided beforehand. God’s action in ordaining the actions of people is seen all throughout the Old Testament, such as Deuteronomy 20:4 or Judges 12:3 where it is said that the Lord fights the enemies of his people and gives his people victory. How else could God giving victory work out in practice other than God directly controlling the individuals involved in the battle, either causing his people to fight exceptionally well or the enemy to fight poorly.
God’s will is thus seen as the overarching force throughout the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, and yet God is not culpable in any sin, for the chief reason that it is God that defines what it is to sin. Yet it is this notion which is so offensive to the unbelieving mind, and thus might be seen as the original sin – that is, man attempting to decide for himself what is good and what is evil; yet that standard is not up to man.
Still, the Reformed apologetic presented here still seems troubled, for if the will of God is compatible with doing anything and everything, then the goodness seems arbitrary – if something is compatible with everything then it lacks distinction. This sort of Reformed apologetic also falls into the hole of affirming that the present state of affairs is the best of all possible worlds, simply on account that it is the way that God made it.
Yet this notion not only fails to do justice to human experience with sin in the world, but it also fails to even account for the biblical datum. It fails to account for the fact that the world is ‘cursed’ in Genesis 3:17, that it is said to be “subjected to futility” in Romans 8:20, or the very fact that Christ needed to be sent; none of this makes any sort of sense if the world has been perfect or the best possible world at any point post-fall. If one looks to Augustine he notes that God has arranged His designs such that “the good will of the Omnipotent might not be made void by the evil will of man, but might be fulfilled in spite of it.” This position clearly acknowledges God’s will being accomplished in spite of the will of man, a state which would not be necessary if the will of man was exactly what God willed it to be.
Placing the mystery between free will and sovereignty provides an explanation other than that the entire drama of human history is nothing more than a marionette show where the puppet-master deems some actions of the marionettes good and others evil – the Reformed apologetic may free God from technically being implicated in evil, but it also reduces the relationship between God and the world to something similar to a child arbitrarily deeming one of his toys the good guy and another the bad guy. It is only if some part is truly played by the humans this problem is avoided.
A final defense for this position – or any position positing an unqualified free will – might be made against the traditional Reformed perspective as seen in Jonathan Edwards that “the will itself is not an agent that has a will; the power of choosing itself has not a power of choosing.” It is held that the individual cannot choose differently than what their will is biased towards, for that would be to will otherwise than one wills, and therefore end in contradiction. Firstly, it must be remembered that the mind cannot reckon up itself, and that it may only work causally, and is therefore inept to discover any contingency in the will to begin with. Secondly, one might also look to the consciousness as a sort of template to work off of. For just as the individual is conscious, so is the individual aware of that consciousness – there is, as it were, a consciousness behind the consciousness. So too, perhaps, might there be a will behind the will. It will be agreed with the Reformers that “people cannot want to want God,” but as has already been discussed the fallen will does not of necessity lack contingency.
It was noted in the introduction that it is not necessary in discussing the matter of God’s foreknowledge to bring election into the matter, for in dealing with God’s foreknowledge versus the freedom of the will one need only account for the initial state of the Garden, in which election was not necessary. It is held that if God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty were compatible with the truly free will of Adam, then it is also compatible with any sort of fallen or pseudo-free will which might be posited to humanity today (that is, a will which is inherently biased away from God); bias towards evil does not negate contingency in and of itself, for it does not of necessity determine how that will is used, only that it is not used for the glory of God.
It is with this view of the will in mind that the discussion may be turned towards matters of election and the practicalities of the view being held, for even if for theoretical purposes the discussion need only deal with the fall, for practical purposes it must move beyond that in order to bring relevance to the everyday life of the Christian.
As regards the salvation of men, the typical Reformed perspective is maintained. As it is stated by A.W. Pink, God “‘foreknows’ because He has elected.” Or as it is stated by the Westminster Divines “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners… not for anything wrought in them, or done by them.” Or most pointedly, as it is put by Paul in Romans 9:16: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” This is compatible with a will which is biased-but-contingent, for all that is maintained is that the fallen will cannot work for the glory of God unless God renews that will to a place where it is biased but contingent towards the things of God rather than away from; thus, the will is seen as freely determining between the things of God rather than mechanically responding to individual impulses as they are supplies by God.
Perhaps the most practical aspect of this position as it relates to the average believer is that it is free to give the believer the assurance that “all things work together for good to those who love God” and it might be said along with Augustine that God’s will shall be accomplished in spite of humanity, rather than that God’s will shall be fulfilled because he is the cause of all that is perceived as being wrong with the world but on the grand and secret scale isn’t ultimately wrong because it’s the way God planned it.
Furthermore, this position does not ask the believer to seek out one certain ‘will of God’ for their lives or force them to wonder whether any one action (assuming the action isn’t sinful) is in line with the specific will of God; rather than seek out some specific will, it simply asks that the believer to do whatever they do for the glory of God. Thus when the believer pursues a certain course of action and that course of action turns out badly, they may not accuse God of having led them poorly, or be accused of having discerned God’s will poorly, for on this position the will of God for man is general rather than specific. Man may still make mistakes while being within the will of God, for it is not necessarily a specific course of actions that is being called for, but only a heart that glorifies God in whatever it does.
This means that it is not as cut and dry as ‘God called me to do this or He did not’. God calls us to glorify him, the manner of which is left primarily up to man. Were the calling of the ministry as cut and dry as ‘God called me to do this specific thing’ then statements such as James’ warning about becoming teachers would be to no point, for then James would be warning them to consider whether or not to follow the will of God – but surely the will of God should be followed without question were it so specific. It is therefore maintained that people are within the will of God so long as they are doing whatever they do for the glory of God, but sinful humanity being what it is, even if one is within the general will of God the endeavor may be prone to setbacks; though with Augustine, God will work in spite of humanity.
Although there are many different perspectives on the doctrine of divine foreknowledge and how it relates to humanity, none manage to account for all the facts and each must appeal to some sort of mystery. The position has been maintained that one is justified in declaring this mystery at the outset, rather than following the thought of any particular view only to push the mystery deeper into the folds of the system.
This has been shown by analyzing the limits and inadequacies of the human mind, both in reckoning up itself and in reckoning up the things of God, and its distinct inability to seek out something contingent. It has been shown that this position is not without adherents; bits of it can be found in Chesterton, Hoekema and Augustine.
It has finally been shown its ability to meet the common objections to the doctrine of foreknowledge as well as those of fatalism, and also to be practically applicable for the believer in that it does not back them into the corner of concluding that regardless of the state of the world that this is the best possible world and allows them to avoid the pitfalls of trying to discern some specific will for their life apart from simply glorifying God, which as the Westminster Divines state “is the chief and highest end of man.”
That a strict system is not arrived at should not discourage the believer. Individuals naturally desire to reduce mystery to a system, for systems give them control whereas mysteries force them to trust – as Dr. Larry Crabb notes, with a system “we’re in danger of placing more faith in a manageable plan with predictable results than in God.” It is again with this in mind that is asserted that one might simply declare the mystery at the outset. This is not to say that no area of theology can be explored, that no answers or truths can be attained; truths are posited: the truth that God knows the future exhaustively, that he is completely sovereign, but also that man is fallen but free – not free to love God unless God renews him, but free from necessity, contingently free to choose either how to sin or how to glorify God. This freedom must be taken as a first principle or not at all, and it is held that objections against it as a first principle fail to deliver for the reasons stated above – that is, simply, the mind is insufficient to make the judgment against free will, but experience asserts its presence in spite of all ‘rationality’.