Providence Theology Proper

Considering a self-determinist’s analysis of the error of all forms of determinism

In a previous post, I began to interact with Robert Picirilli’s stimulating book, Free Will Revisited. That post was longer than the first chapter of Picirilli’s book, because I took the time to locate Picirilli’s understanding of free will in the big picture of alternative understandings of the extent to which God controls the details of created history. As an Arminian, Picirilli does not want to speak of his position as indeterministic, but he describes it as “self-determinism” (p. 7). “The things selves do, including the choices or decisions that are the grounds for their actions, are not undetermined but are determined within themselves” (p. 7). This clearly puts Picirilli’s perspective on the incompatibilist side of the watershed which I pictured, whereas my own “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism/compatibilism” puts me on the divine determinist side. In this post, I’ll interact with Picirilli’s second chapter, in which he explains why he rejects a couple of major philosophies or theologies of determinism.

The two major forms of determinism which Picirilli rejects

Naturalistic determinism

Picirilli values highly the benefits of science and he affirms that the empirical method is the way it should be done. But he is justly concerned about the many professional scientists who view their field as more than a method, because “secular science insists that its method—empiricism—is the only way to knowledge” (p. 9). In making this epistemological claim, scientism falls prey to an internal contradiction, because “this truth claim is itself not arrived at or known by the empirical/scientific method!” (p. 10). Such a view leaves no room for beauty, meaning or purpose, moral absolutes, or freedom, since “there is only mechanism” (11). Consequently, Picirilli sees the worldview of secular science as “the true enemy of freedom of the will.” To this, I can only say “Amen.” Though we differ in our understanding of what sort of freedom is necessary to ground moral responsibility, we are both agreed that human beings have been given that freedom by God.

Theological determinism

Where Picirilli and I take different roads, however, is in regard to theological determinism. Picirilli believes that morally responsible human freedom is “in contrast to all forms of determinism,” including the divine determinism which is affirmed by Christian compatibilists. Picirilli accurately defines theological determinism as “the view that everything that happens in the universe, including the apparently free choices of human beings, comes about as a result of the fact that God, before the foundation of the world, deliberately decreed everything that will transpire as part of his all-inclusive plan” (p. 13). All orthodox Calvinists believe this, and I am one of them. As I explained in my first post in this series, however, I make that assertion within a “possible worlds” framework, which I have appropriated from Molinism but made coherent, to address the flaw within the Molinist formulation. To represent the nuance of my theological model, I would therefore tweak Picirilli’s definition as follows: “everything that happens in the universe, including the free, morally responsible, choices of human beings, comes about as a result of the fact that God, before the foundation of the world, chose to actualize this particular world and its history, in every detail.”

One of the particularly interesting things about Picirilli’s book is that he has chosen to put forward his own incompatibilist understanding of human freedom, in the form of a conversation with three prominent theological determinists: Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. He chose those three because each of them wrote a book against “free will.” As I observed in my last post, however, we must not lose sight of the fact that the free will which those three were vigorously rejecting was the freedom to do morally good deeds without divine agency. Humans, since Adam’s fall, are slaves to sin. In our society today, where the sense of free will is less restricted, Calvinists assert that humans do have free will, because to deny this would entail the sort of fatalism which naturalistic determinism propounds. The critical difference between compatibilists and libertarian incompatibilists is in our explanation of the nature of the freedom which is necessary for agents to be morally responsible, and in the incompatibilists’ belief that the kind of freedom necessary for moral responsibility does not allow God to have the meticulous control ascribed to him by compatibilists.

Much earlier than Picirilli’s three conversation partners, in the fifth century, Augustine faced the same issue they did, in the church’s conflict with Pelagius. In that process Augustine identified two different senses in which we might speak of “free will,” and I think it will be helpful for us to keep his distinction in mind, throughout our consideration of Picirilli’s own case for “free will.” Augustine distinguished between true liberty (vera libertas) and free will (libero arbitrio), and he wrote:

Freedom of choice [arbitrii libertatem] has brought it about that human beings are sinful. But this defective state that is a punishment and has arisen from freedom has produced a necessity. As a result, faith cries out to God, “Deliver me from my necessities” (Ps 25:17). Having become subject to these necessities, either we cannot know what we are to will or, despite our willing, we are unable to do what we know. Freedom [libertas], after all, is promised to those who believe by him who sets them free. He says, “If the Son sets you free, then you will truly be free [vere liberi]” (John 8:36). For conquered by the vice into which it has fallen by its will, our nature lacks freedom. Hence, another scripture passage says, “For one has become a slave to that by which one has been defeated” (2 Pet 2:19). Just as “it is not those who are in good health who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12), so it is not the free, but slaves who need one to set them free. Thus gratitude for freedom [libertatis] says to him, “You have saved my soul from necessities” (Ps 31:8). For that healthiness is the true freedom (vera libertas) that would not have been lost, if the will had remained good. But because the will sinned, there came upon the sinner the hard necessity of having sin until its illness is wholly healed and it has received freedom [tanta libertas]. That freedom will be so great that, just as there necessarily remains the will to live happily, so there will exist the voluntary and blessed necessity of living well and never sinning [“The Perfection of Human Righteousness,” inAnswer to the Pelagians, 4.9149].

Isaiah Berlin describes Augustine’s distinction as the difference between “negative freedom,” which is the absence of obstacles, barriers, constraints or interference from others, and “positive freedom” the presence of control, self-mastery, self-determination or self-realisation (Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in Four Essays on Liberty, 169-181. [I am indebted for this, and the above quote from Augustine, to someone whom I am unable to name, because of the sensitive nature of the project in which these appear.]) Berlin’s depiction of Augustine’s distinction reminds me significantly of Jonathan Edwards’ distinction between natural ability and moral inability, a concept appropriated by many Calvinists today. With this distinction in mind, we can affirm both human freedom and its absence, in different senses, but this sometimes generates misunderstanding. I agree with Augustine, that we have “free-will” (liberum arbitrium) in the negative sense, that we are free from external barriers and constraints but, without the grace of God, we do not have the true freedom (vera libertas) which only comes through Christ.

Picirilli demonstrates a good understanding of soft determinism, which he sums up as the belief that “persons are free to act in accord with their motivation, but motivation is of such a nature as to allow for just one course of action” (p. 14). I also commend him for his modest assertions regarding the extent to which incompatibilistically free agents make free choices. He acknowledges that what soft determinists posit of all our choices is sometimes the case: “Given everything that contributes to who we are and how we think at a particular time (some of which we may not be aware of), only one choice may be possible” (p. 15). He also grants that, sometimes, “even our moral choices are limited because of prior choices. We really can, by wrong choices, get ourselves in a set of circumstances, at times, when no right choice is even available,” yet Picirilli grants that, in such circumstances, we can be held accountable. “If a prior bad choice made it so that a present choice must be bad, we are guilty on both counts” (p. 15).

“What primarily makes Picirilli doubtful that this determination is true of all of our choices (as Calvinists assert), is the biblical account of God’s dealings with human beings, but he observes that this doubtfulness also fits well with our own experience, when we feel “the pull of two different possibilities” (p. 15). We experience “strong desires both ways” and, sometimes, we choose “against our own desires,” or we “choose the way we prefer in spite of knowing that it is wrong” (p. 15). Critically important, however, is that “we almost always, in such battles, experience going with one choice while being certain that we could have made the other choice,” and this is true, both in the case of “matters of indifference” and “things with eternal consequences” (p. 15).

In my earlier post, I included an excursus on “a compatibilist’s experience of decision making” and I described my experience very much as Picirilli has described the situation. In chapter 2, Picirilli indicates that he is aware of this phenomenon in compatibilist experience, and he correctly describes how I (and many other compatibilists) analyze our experience: “regardless how much we think we could have made the other choice, we really did not have that freedom. If we just understood the weight of all the factors that affected our thoughts and feelings at the time (our motivation), we would realize that only one choice was possible: namely, the choice we made” (p. 16). Yes, indeed, he knows us well, and he correctly points out that we have “retreated into what we may call an unfalsifiable position.” We have not made a further argument for our view, we are “merely reasserting [our] position in the face of another testimony” (p. 16). I grant this to be true, but I don’t know how many of my fellow compatibilists would concede it.

Given what we have just been saying, therefore, it appears that incompatibilists and compatibilists both, characteristically, have a sense that they have the power of alternative possibilities when they are in the process of making difficult decisions about important matters. The key difference between us appears, therefore, to be that incompatibilists accept their experience as reliable, and Calvinistic compatibilists live within a theological framework in which we necessarily reject the incompatibilist reading, because we are convinced that Scripture clearly teaches both God’s meticulous determining of the whole of human history, and  the moral responsibility of humans and angels, whether or not we are able to explain how these two truths are compatible.

In conclusion of this second chapter, Picirilli identifies the nub of the issue as “whether soft determinism offers freedom at all” (p. 17). Contra compatibilists, Picirilli is convinced that only libertarian freedom qualifies as “real” freedom, and he believes that this perspective “is in better accord with human experience and the teaching of the Scriptures” (p. 17).  This highlights for us the great importance of Picirilli’s third chapter, “Free Will in a Biblical Perspective.” That must be the subject of another post, and both compatibilists and incompatibilists should be eager to hear what Picirilli has to say next, as he sets out to demonstrate, on biblical and theological grounds, that self-determinism is “the proper alternative to determinism, whether naturalistic or theological” (p. 17).

The condundrum of original sin

Toward the end of this chapter, Picirilli observes that “we cannot avoid the problem of original sin and depravity” (p. 16). I certainly agree with him. It is a topic with which I frequently wrestle personally, when I’m considering the nature of the freedom which constitutes humans morally responsible for their actions, given our natural bondage to sin. He plans to devote more attention to this later, so I will not say much about it now. I am just glad that he has put it on the table, so that we don’t ignore the “elephant” in the room.

More like Arminius than some who followed him, including Wesley (if I recall rightly), Picirilli is ready to acknowledge the seriousness of human depravity after the fall of Adam. He writes: “We are in a condition where our motivation, by nature, is to sin and our understanding has been so darkened that the judgments we make will lead us astray” (16). So, in regard to universal human depravity, Picirilli’s starting point is not different from that of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. We are, by nature, sinners. As an incompatibilist, however, Picirilli wants to emphasize at this point that we have not “lost the capacity to choose between alternatives,” but we are prone “to exercise that freedom” badly (p. 16).

Then comes a critical assertion: “Even so, our situation results from free choice. Given that we sinned in Adam (Romans 5:12), the situation is precisely one where our ‘first’ choice made it so that our freedom is restricted” (p. 16). But, Picirilli is confident that Adam “could have made the alternative choice” (p. 16), and “if we sinned with him, we also exercised free will in that” (p. 17).

Of particular interest to Calvinist compatibilists like me, is Picirilli’s assertion that even Calvin affirmed that Adam, as created, “exercised free will” (17). Picirilli will return to this in his chapter on Calvin’s understanding of the will, so I’ll leave my own thoughts on the matter until then. It is enough for me to say, at this point, that although I recognize some ambiguity in Calvin’s writings, depending on the position from which his critics were coming at him, I think that the direction taken by later Reformed compatibilism is clearly continuous with Calvin’s own thought. Certainly, Calvin believed Adam to have been given sufficient freedom to warrant his personal responsibility for his choice to disobey God’s command, so that God could not be held accountable for Adam’s sin. But Calvin also insisted, and Picirilli denies, that the fall was part of God’s decree and that, ultimately, it came about because he had not chosen to give Adam the constancy to persevere. In short, Calvin did not believe that Adam had the libertarian freedom which Picirilli and other incompatibilists believe is necessary for moral responsibility. We’ll get back to this when Picirilli does.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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