Revisiting free will, in conversation with Robert Picirilli (1)

A four-way conversation

Among the theological decisions we must make if we are to have a theology and practice which both have an inner coherence, one of the most far reaching is our choice of model regarding God’s work in the world. How we understand the nature of the freedom God has given to his moral creatures is a key factor in that decision. This is a matter I have studied and ruminated about for decades, and I am not done yet. So, I was delighted when I was given a copy of Robert Picirilli’s  Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. I found this book an excellent read. It is brief but meaty, and it is written in language that should be accessible to educated lay people, despite the complexity of the subject. At the same time, it is not simplistic, so scholars can benefit too. The strategy of dealing with the subject by responding to three major Protestant theologians or philosophers who have each written a book on the subject is also an excellent approach. Readers will learn something of the perspectives of these very important conversation partners, benefiting from both Picirilli’s exposition of their work and his personal critique of their proposals.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards were all compatibilists. They believed that God controls the world, especially in regard to salvation, with a detailed or meticulous sovereignty, but that God gave humans the freedom necessary for moral responsibility. Thus, God’s complete control and human responsibility are deemed compatible with one another. By contrast, Picirilli is an incompatibilist, who believes that humans could not be held morally accountable if God governed the world according to his eternal plan or decree which established, even before anything was created, exactly how the history of that creation would turn out. Picirilli self-identifies as an Arminian, so his voice in the conversation is from this perspective, although there are other forms of incompatibilism, which I may refer to as we go along in this conversation.

Rather than writing the sort of review I would write if this were a book review for a theological journal (as I have often done), I want to expand the conversation by adding my voice to the four whose voices are heard in Picirilli’s book. I will endeavor to represent Picirilli’s own proposal accurately, providing a restatement of his position, but I want to interact with Picirilli’s proposal in greater detail than a standard book review would allow. Consequently, this will happen in a number of posts, though I don’t know how many that will be, nor how long the process might take, given other responsibilities in my life. Bottom line, I want to join Picirilli in “revisiting” the hugely important subject of “free will.” In doing this, I will converse with Luther, Calvin, and Edwards too, but my main purpose is to respond to Picirilli’s own proposal, rather than to the proposals of the other three. Like them, and unlike Picarilli, I am a compatibilist, but I do not completely agree with any of the three compatibilists already in this conversation. I identify my position these days as “hypothetical knowledge compatibilism,” and what that means will hopefully become clear in the process of this conversation. (In my book Providence and Prayer, I called this “Middle Knowledge Calvinism,” but I have since realized the error of that terminology. See: “My part of the conversation with Paul Helm regarding the validity of a Calvinist version of middle knowledge.”)

Since Picirilli is professor emeritus (New Testament and philosophy) at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee, he too has had ample opportunity to contemplate this very important subject. His purpose in this book is to set “the doctrine of free will in its proper, biblical context” (p. viii), and that is my goal also, so I was eager to compare my conclusions with Picirilli’s. Although he self-identifies as an Arminian, he grants that Arminianism has “not always represented such a sound and consistent few of things” (p. viii), so Arminians can read this book with a view to refining their own theology, just as I have read it with a view to refining my basically Calvinist perspective. Like Picirilli, I seek a theological position which is true to Scripture and self-consistent and, as one who has found a theological home in the Reformed theological world, I am keenly aware of my own human fallibility, and so I am always open to further reform (semper reformanda).

Defining “free will”

Wisely, Picirilli begins his study with a chapter devoted to defining “free will.” Here is his working definition:

Free will is a way of saying that a person is capable of making decisions, that a person can choose between two (or more) alternatives when he or she has obtained (by whatever means) the degree of understanding of those alternatives required to chosen between them (p. 4).

I am happy that Picirilli defines “free will” traditionally, accepting it as the power of alternative possibilities (PAP) or libertarian freedom. Some key incompatibilist/indeterminist theologians and philosophers have moved away from that understanding, which has been dubbed “leeway incompatibilism,” to “source incompatibilism.” From my compatibilist perspective, I think that has seriously muddied the waters, so I am glad that my dialogue with Picirilli need not get into that conversation. I agree with Picirilli that it is doubtful that a coherent incompatibilist position can be framed which does not, in effect, entail a libertarian understanding of creaturely freedom; the power of alternative possibilities (or contrary choice) is at the heart of incompatibilism. The incompatibilistically free agent (human or angelic) must have been able to do otherwise than they did, in a particular situation, or their freedom was not truly incompatible with meticulous divine providence. Both Arminius and Molina clearly understood this, in their own work on this issue. As Picirilli states, this is precisely why theologians in the Calvinistic wing denied “that fallen humanity possesses free will” (p. 5). So, in the contexts of the compatibilists with whom Picirilli is conversing, incompatibilists like Arminius and Molina, and compatibilists like Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, all concurred that “free will” entails the power of alternative possibilities. For incompatibilists to shrink from this definition of free will only confuses the situation.

Picirilli argues that, to be morally responsible, “the one who chooses between two (or more) alternatives must at least perceive what those choices are and that he can choose between them” (p. 5). I agree. But our decision is pre-determined because, being who we are, we could not do otherwise in each particular situation than we actually do. Nonetheless, there is nothing outside of us which determines the decision we make, we  do, and we are responsible for our decision But, unlike God, we lack the comprehensive knowledge of ourselves and of the principles of agent causation which God necessarily possesses, and so we are not aware of how we will choose until we actually do.

Our decision process is not merely illusory and it sometimes includes great inner turmoil, during which we often pray for God’s wisdom in our  decision-making. Even after having made the decision, we cannot discern the factors which made it the only decision we could make in that situation. We are not, and we do not feel like, mere pawns which God is pushing around the cosmic chess board. We choose between real alternatives, and those decisions matter greatly, particularly when they have a moral character, or when they significantly affect the way we will choose in the future. When Joshua challenged the leaders of Israel, at Shechem, to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15) he was not certain how each of them would choose, and some of them might possibly have been wavering and struggling about what they would do, though Joshua had made his own choice to serve the Lord, and he hoped to influence them to join him. That decision was critical, not just in that moment of history, but for its eternal consequences, and only God knew for certain how it was going to turn out, but everyone was responsible for the choice they made freely (i.e., voluntarily).

Picirilli views the compatibilist position as a form of fatalism, an understanding in which “human choices determine nothing” (p. 5). In Providence and Prayer, I devoted a chapter to the fatalist model, as the strongest of the models, though it could hardly be deemed compatibilist. I did this, not because I considered it a serious option affirmed by any Christian theologian, but for three reasons (Providence and Prayer, p. 272) which are important for our conversation here, given Picirilli’s perception. My reasons were:

(1) There are positions that are clearly headed in this direction, although their proponents back away from the conclusion, and I examined two of those, the concepts of single causality and of the embodiment of God (pp. 278-81).

(2) The accusation is often heard that the positions I presented under the Thomist, Barthian, and Calvinist models are fatalistic, and

(3) It is apparent that people who are taught those models may unwittingly lapse into fatalism.

Given this real danger within the incompatibilist theological framework, I think that Picirilli’s perception is an important wake-up call for us compatibilists. We must not be fatalists, which would be a completely non-Christian or even non-theist stance, and we need to beware that we ourselves do not wander in that direction, and that others are not misled to think that we have done so and to take that route themselves. Furthermore, some who mistake our position as fatalist may deny fundamental truths affirmed in the Christian tradition in order to avoid the fatalism they think our position entails. I have observed, for instance, that the Openness model of theology comprehensive divine foreknowledge of actual future events, specifically to avoid the fatalism that they assume such a belief entails. In this case, even classic Arminianism’s affirmation of simple divine foreknowledge is deemed fatalistic, on the mistaken belief that God’s comprehensive knowledge of what each person will do, at every moment time, robs creatures of the freedom to do act otherwise. But believers in simple foreknowledge assert that what God foreknows is what the creature does, so God’s knowledge would have been different if the creature were to act differently now. Foreknowledge is not causative or determinative. Even some Calvinists charge Arminianism with determinism, but many of us, like me, grant that divine foreknowledge is merely God’s knowledge of his own eternal plan, in which moral creatures act voluntarily. To this, as a hypothetical knowledge compatibilist, I would add the great usefulness of God’s natural knowledge of counterfactuals in God’s forming of his decree. It maximizes creaturely agency, and minimizes the need for God’s intervention, without robbing God of his sovereign divine prerogative to choose this particular world from all of the possible worlds which he might have chosen.

Knowing that many incompatibilists can see no difference between the Calvinist model and the fatalist model, we who are compatibilists need to communicate our theology very carefully lest we cause others to stumble. In his book on The Providence of God, G. C. Berkouwer referred to deterministic tendencies in Luther and Zwingli’s protests against free will, by which I presume he meant “hard determinism” (rather than the “soft determinism” of compatibilism). But Berkouwer posits that, in Luther’s case, it was not an issue of determinism vs. free will but an attempt to “focus the entire problem of freedom on the central, religious relationship of man to God, which relationship is defined, not by the concept of necessity, but by the antithesis between sin and grace” (The Providence of God, p. 148).

When Luther wrote about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as an act within God’s providence, Berkouwer perceives that “he seeks to distinguish between two kinds of necessity: one that implies a blind coercion and another that implies only that something must occur.” It is the latter that Luther affirms in order to magnify God’s rule, independence, and majesty. Judas betrayed Christ freely and without coercion, and when Luther expresses his conviction regarding free will, “he speaks not about a determining first cause which excludes freedom of the will, but about the wrath of God revealed from heaven against man’s suppression of the truth in unrighteousness.”  Luther did not base his argument against Erasmus on the relationship between first and second causes, “but on the fettered, fallen will of man and on the wrath of God. The argument against free will was not a logical deduction from the all-embracing activity of God” (Berkouwer, The Providence of God, pp. 149-50).   

As an indication that classic Reformed scholars carefully avoid fatalism, Karl Barth cites H. Heidegger, who identified five points of distinction between the Christian doctrine of divine world governance and fatalism (cited by K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3, pp. 162-63):

(1) divine governance is located in God himself, but fatalism places fate in things, in the series of causes and effects;

(2) in the Christian view, God is a free agent, whereas fatalism imprisons God within the order of causes;

(3) faith distinguishes between the eternal (divine) and temporal (immanent) necessity of world occurrence, but fatalism confounds the two;

(4) although faith has room for both ‘contingency in general and for a freedom for the human will in particular,’ fatalism ‘involves a mechanization and destruction of the two’; and

(5) in a proper theology God’s governance extends to sin but not in a way that makes him its author, but in fatalism ‘sin is one of the necessities posited by God side by side with others.’

Although Picirilli is “opposed to all forms of determinism, including soft determinism (compatibilism),” he does not want to be dubbed an “indeterminist,” but prefers to be called a “self-determinist.”

Physical events can be explained by cause-effect laws that determine them or make them necessary, but personal events are often of a different nature and cannot always be explained in that way. Thoughts and decisions can arise in the mind without being determined by entities outside ourselves (p. 7).

Picirilli notes that Jonathan Edwards “objected strongly to this [notion] and ridiculed the idea of self-determinism.” Edwards did this on philosophical grounds, and Picirilli will take that up in his chapter on Edwards, so I will wait until then to enter more deeply into discussion about it. But Picirilli simply asserts here that “the concept of free will,” as he has defined it, “implies self-determinism, and that this in turn means that much (not all) of human behavior involves contingencies rather than necessities,” which “are things that can be only the way they are” (p.7).

The Westminster Confession sought to tread the narrow way between indeterminism and hard determinism, with its first statement concern “God’s Eternal Decree”:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin (Jas 1:13, 17; 1 Jn 1:5), nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Acts 2:23; Mt 17:12; Acts 4:27, 28; Jn 19:11; Prov 16:33). Arminians are likely to consider this an incoherent and self-contradictory statement, but we must grant that the Westminster divines were aware of the errors which others might attribute to them, and they sought to avoid them.

What I want to put on the table myself, at this point, is that I too affirm self-determinism, but not in the way Picirilli does, because he considers it to include genuine contingencies in the sense of “the power of alternative choice.” I affirm it, however, because I think that one is only morally responsible for what he does voluntarily. This is essential to compatibilism, or God would be responsible for all the evils done within his eternal plan by creaturely moral agents. If a person were coerced to act in some way, against his own will, then he could not be held morally accountable for that action. The rub is that God knows exactly what a particular “self” would do in every conceivable possibility. I spoke of this earlier as God’s knowledge of “the principles of agent causation.” So, that particular self would never have chosen differently in those particular circumstances. Otherwise, God could not, and therefore does not know counterfactuals concerning the acts of morally responsible agents who act voluntarily. Here we have the famous “grounding objection” to the Molinist concept of middle knowledge, an objection which some incompatibilists (such as Open Theists) and all compatibilists agree upon. This is extremely important in my compatibilist affirmation of God’s comprehensive knowledge of hypotheticals. God knows all such counterfactual truths concerning what morally responsibly free creatures would do in any possible situation, and he knows this necessarily or naturally, because he knows the principles of agent causation.

I agree with Picirilli that the Bible does not define the nature of the freedom God has given to humans and angels, which constitutes them morally responsible for their actions, but I can deduce from what I know about God’s knowledge that it is not libertarian freedom. It is impossible to know what a libertarianly free creature would do for certain, in situations which never occur, that is, in hypothetical situations or possible worlds. Propositions such as: “if the rulers of this age had understood God’s wisdom, they ‘would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Cor 2:8),” would have no truth value, if those rulers had libertarian freedom. But God did know that, and countless other counterfactuals of creaturely voluntary action so, clearly, God has not given moral creatures libertarian freedom.

Open Theists (such as Greg Boyd) have rightly agreed that the grounding objection to middle knowledge, and so the most they assert with regard to God’s knowledge of counterfactuals is that God knows the probability of a particular “self” acting in a particular way, in particular circumstances. Boyd calls these “might counterfactuals,” as opposed to “would counterfactuals.” If that were true, however, God’s providential governance of the world would be hugely limited, because the sum total of all of the occasions in which his moral creatures do what was only one percent probable is a huge number, given the number of decisions that all humans and angels make in just one day. The conjunction of the unlikely actualization of all those improbables would create great uncertainty for God. Does such a limitation of God’s knowledge cohere with what we read in Scripture? I don’t believe so.

Unfortunately for classical Arminianism, simple foreknowledge is useless to God in terms of his governance. Since, in eternity, God knew everything that would happen in time, including what he would do, his rule in history is simply the watching of events transpiring as he knew they would, without his having an opportunity to affect those events. For this reason, I suggest that Open Theism actually depicts a more dynamic theology of divine action than classic Arminianism does. I say that, not to commend Open Theism to anyone as a good theological option, but to point out the problem that faces classical Arminianism’s affirmation of simple divine foreknowledge. Further on the book, we’ll see how Picirilli attempts to avoid this problem without denying divine foreknowledge as Open Theists do.

Now you know how Picirilli and I define human freedom, and you are ready to listen in on, and contribute to, the discussion which will be underway as I work my way through Picirilli’s fine book, revisiting “free will” with him. I am grateful that he wrote this book. This is an immensely important conversation, and I hope that it will be spiritually beneficial to all who read or participate in it. I do not aim to win logical victories in a debate. I pray that my own understanding of God and his truth will be refined through the process of this conversation. Having finished reading Picirilli’s book, I have not been persuaded that he is right, but I am open to having my mind changed as I go through the book again while formulating my response. Like Anselm and many other theologians, I have a faith which seeks understanding, even when that entails correction. From the truth, we have nothing to fear; knowing it, will set us free (Jn 8:32).

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