Divine Knowledge Providence Theology Proper

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.

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.”)

Locating Picirilli and me on the watershed

As we get into the conversation about the nature or extent of God’s control in the world, particularly as it relates to the kind of freedom God has given to moral creatures (human and angelic), a diagram locating various classic perspectives on the watershed between synergist/indeterminist/ incompatibilist/risk models and monergist/determinist/compatibilist/risk models may help. Picirilli and I sit on opposite sides of this great divide.

The Watershed in Regard to Models of Divine Providence

Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards were all compatibilists, as that term is generally defined, and I use it with the meaning I specified in my Glossary: “Compatibilism contends that a person can act freely even though that action is determined by God.” This perspective is variously identified as determinist, monergist, compatibilist, or no risk (the term introduced to the conversation by Open Theists), but I find “compatibilism” the most helpful in my own discussion of this very important theological issue. I have identified three forms of compatibilism, and those will likely come up on occasion in the process of my interaction with Picirilli’s work.  (Any time you find yourself wondering what I mean by a term I use, checking my Glossary would be your quickest way to find an answer.)

Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, all 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 meticulous control of the world according to his detailed eternal plan, and human responsibility, are deemed compatible with one another. By contrast, Picirilli works within an incompatibilist framework. Though this is not a term he uses much in the book to describe his position, he states explicitly in this first chapter that: “possessing a [libertarianly] free will – or a will, for that matter, as I would contend—rules out determinism and compatibilism” (p. 4.)

Incompatibilism “insists that people do not act freely if their action is determined by God, even if they act willingly” (Glossary).  Incompatibilists believe that humans could not be held morally accountable if God governed the world in a way which ensured that the history of creation would turn out exactly according to his eternal plan or decree, made before God created anything. Picirilli self-identifies as an Arminian, so his voice in the conversation is from this perspective, although there are other forms of incompatibilism, to which I will refer at various points in my review.

Since Picirilli is professor emeritus (New Testament and philosophy) at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee, he 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).

Between the top three positions I have identified above, on the incompatibilist side of the watershed–-Molinism, classic Arminianism, and Open Theism—the key differentiating factor is their understanding of God’s knowledge.

 Molinists believe that God has middle knowledge, which entails his knowledge of the counterfactuals of human libertarianly free actions. God knows this, not necessarily or naturally, but as his knowledge of the moral creatures. This is a “middle knowledge” because it comes at a logical (though not chronological) moment between God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge, which is his knowledge of his own eternal decision to actualize this particular world rather than any of the immense number of possible worlds which he knew in the middle moment.

 Classic Arminians, like Picirilli himself, believe that God has simple foreknowledge. He just knows, comprehensively, the entire future of creation, not because he determines what it will be, but because it is the future which will come to be through the choices and actions of God and of his free creatures.

 Open Theists affirm that God is omniscient in the sense that he knows everything which can be known. But they deny that the libertarianly free actions of moral creatures can be predicted, so the future is open for both God and ourselves. We act libertarianly freely in pursuit of our own purposes and, without coercing us, God seeks to persuade us to act in ways which will contribute to the achievement of his own desire and purpose.

Defining “free will”

Picirilli’s definition of 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 choose 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 agents (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. Picirilli states that 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.

Why Calvinists now affirm that people have free will, even though Calvin denied it

Before we get any further into the book it is important that we take note of the fact that when Luther, Calvin, and Edwards denied that humans have “free will,” they used that term in a sense very different from the way this important term is understood in our own context. Consequently, Greg Forster is correct when he says that “Calvinism clearly and unambiguously insists that we have free will” (The Joy of Calvinism, pp. 30-31). As Forster explains:

Today, the phrase ‘free will’ refers to moral responsibility. When we say people have free will, we mean that they are not just puppets of exterior natural forces such as their heredity and environment; they are in control of their own choices and are morally responsible for them. In our language, the opposite of “free will” is “determined will”—a will whose actions are naturally determined by things outside itself.

But in the sixteenth century, at the very beginning of the Reformation, one of the key debates was over “free will” in a completely different sense. The question then was whether the will is, by nature, enslaved by sin and in captivity to Satan. In this context, the opposite of “free” is not “determined” but “enslaved.” Believing in “free will” meant believing that human beings are not born as slaves of Satan. Denying “free will” meant believing that they are.

. . .

In these debates, nobody was questioning that the will is “free” in the sense of self-controlled and morally responsible, as opposed to being determined by exterior forces. Everyone agreed that people have “free will” in this sense, but people didn’t call it “free will” because that phrase had a different meaning for them. Calvin even called the slavery of the will to Satan “voluntary slavery.” Fallen man is a slave of Satan precisely because, when given a choice, he always chooses to love sin more than God. It is his own voluntary choice (his exercise of “free will” in our modern sense) that keeps him a slave to Satan (thus lacking “free will” in the sixteenth-century sense (pp.31-32).

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion [Bk 2, chap. 2, sect. 7; cf. the end of sect. 5 and the beginning and end of sect. 8],

Calvin actually turns aside from a diatribe against “free will” to make this very point. He notes that the phrase “free will” could also be used to refer to a morally responsible will that is not naturally determined by forces such as heredity and environment, and he says if “free will” means that, then he agrees we have “free will.” But, he goes on to argue, that’s not what most people (at least in his time and place) would understand that phrase to mean, so it would be misleading for him to use it that way (Forster, p.32).

Commenting on the Calvinist denial that “free will means the ability to choose between alternatives,” Picirilli suggests that “many people—to some degree with justification—take this to mean the same thing as a naturalistic mechanism or fatalism” (5). I have met such people myself. I believe that they have misrepresented the Calvinist perspective, but their misunderstanding serves to remind me that, in our affirmation of God’s meticulous control of everything in creation, we Calvinists must not be fatalists, which would be a completely non-Christian or even non-theist stance. Perhaps this is a benefit of approaching decisions with the conviction that we do need to choose carefully, because we could choose well, or we could choose badly. But those of us who have strong faith that God is completely in control, and that he will bring about his eternal purpose in all things, do need to be careful that we ourselves do not wander into fatalism (an attitude more Islamic than Christian), and that others are not misled to think that we have done so, or even to take that route themselves through misunderstanding of our position.

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 denies 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 overly deterministic, on the mistaken belief that God’s comprehensive knowledge of what each person will do, at every moment of time, robs creatures of the freedom to act otherwise. But Open Theists are wrong in that complaint, as are many Calvinists. Believers in simple foreknowledge rightly assert that what God foreknows is what the creature will do, so God’s knowledge would have been different if the creature had acted differently now. True propositions are tenseless. That is to say, the present tense proposition, that something is true today, will be true tomorrow in the past tense, and it was true yesterday in the future tense. God knows all true propositions, and his foreknowledge is not (within the incompatibilist framework) causative or determinative.

As a Calvinist, I differ from classic Arminians, in that I understand divine foreknowledge not to be God’s simply knowing ahead of time what creatures will do. Rather, he knows the future because he knows what he has eternally determined (or decreed) and, in that future, moral creatures act voluntarily (and hence morally responsibly) most of the time. To this traditional Calvinist framework, as a hypothetical knowledge compatibilist, I add the great usefulness of God’s natural knowledge of counterfactuals in God’s forming of his decree. Calvinists have always believed that God knows all counterfactuals, but they have rarely taken that knowledge into account when they describe God’s decision-making process in his choice to create this particular world, including its entire history. I believe that taking this divine knowledge more seriously, in our model of God’s governance of the world, 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.

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, however, 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 concerning “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 (Eph 1:11; Rom 11:33; Heb 6:17; Rom 9:15, 18): 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). (3.1).

Similarly, speaking specifically of salvation, in the statement regarding “Effectual Calling,” the Confession states:

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call (Rom 8:30; 11:7; Eph 1:10-11), by His Word and Spirit (2 Thess 2:13, 14; 2 Cor 3:3, 6), out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ (Rom 8:2; Eph 2:1-5; 2 Tim 1:9,10); enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor 2:10, 12; Eph 1:17, 18), taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26); renewing their will, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good (Ezek 11:19; Jn 6:44, 45), and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ (Eph 1:19; Jn 6:44, 45); yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (Cant. 1:4; Ps 110:3; Jn 6:37; Rom 6:16-18; emphasis supplied) (Conf. 10.1).

As Greg Forster observes:

The Confession makes a point of insisting that the Spirit does not encounter resistance on our part and overcome it by force, or in any other way, violate our free will (Joy of Calvinism, p. 175). . . . God is in control of events, but in a way that is consistent with human free will. However, it draws a distinction between God’s supernatural “determining” of our hearts through the Spirit, and natural “determining” of the will by heredity and upbringing [cf. Conf. 9.1] ( p. 177).

Arminians are likely to deem these statements to be incoherent and self-contradictory statements, but we must, at least, 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, 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 key is to recognize 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.

If Calvinists now affirm that people have free will, what differentiates us from Arminians?

Calvinists are as convinced as Arminians are that God has given moral creatures the sort of freedom which is necessary for them to be morally accountable. But we disagree about what that freedom entails. Soft compatibilists generally assert that creatures are morally responsible, i.e., decide and act freely, so long as they act voluntarily, without any external coercion. This is obviously a very different sort of freedom from the libertarian freedom which Picirilli, and other Arminians, insist is essential to moral responsibility.

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 deduce from the fact that God knows what any moral creature would do in any hypothetical situation, that those creatures cannot be libertarianly free. Here we have the famous “grounding objection” to the Molinist concept of middle knowledge, an objection upon which some incompatibilists, such as Open Theists, and all compatibilists agree. If creatures are libertarianly free, statements about what they would do, in hypothetical situations, have no truth value.

There is a critical difference between foreknowledge of the actual future, based upon what creatures will do, and foreknowledge of the possible future, in which no decisions have yet been made. If creatures are libertarianly free, by definition, they could act differently than they do. So, it is impossible to predict with certainty what such  creatures would do in a purely hypothetical situation, though an omniscient God would know the probability of particular decisions by such hypothetical characters.  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 am indebted to the work of Molinist theologians for my own current position.  I might be a Molinist, if I believed that their position was coherent.

In accordance with the grounding objection, I believe that 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, along with countless other counterfactuals of creaturely voluntary action, so it seems clear to me that God has not given moral creatures libertarian freedom. Some Open Theists (such as Gregory Boyd) have rightly recognized this, 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 even only one percent probable is a huge number, given the number of decisions that all humans and angels make in just one day. The sum total 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, and it is for this reason, consequently, that I must also reject Picirilli’s proposal that God had to give rational creatures libertarian freedom, in order to constitute them morally responsible.

Essentially, compatibilism is the same thing as “soft determinism,” which affirms that everything is determined by God, but it denies that this can be understood in regard to moral creatures in a mechanistic fashion analogous to the form of determinism that may occur in the physical world (i.e., “hard determinism”).  In my study of the compatibilistic models of God’s action in the world, I have discerned three forms of compatibilism, which I have defined in my Glossary this way:

1) To the soft compatibilist, actions are free if the actors do them voluntarily or willingly, without coercion by anything outside of themselves., even though their actions may be predictable as an expression of their own desires.

2) Hard compatibilists, on the other hand, affirm that moral creatures are libertarianly free but that their freedom is consistent with God’s determination of all their actions.

3) Mysterian compatibilists may be agnostic about the nature of the freedom God has given to human creatures, but they are sure that humans are morally responsible even though they always act according to God’s eternal purpose, and they affirm that Scripture does not explain how these truths are compatible with one another.

Thomas Aquinas carefully laid out a hard compatibilistic model. I studied it carefully, hoping that Aquinas would convince me of the correctness of his construct. I think it unquestionable that a poll of most westerners would find that they agree with Picirilli’s basic contention that people can only be held morally accountable if they have the power of contrary choice. Sadly, the essential building blocks of Thomas’s theological construction, namely absolute divine timelessness and the simultaneity (rather than precedence) of divine action with human action, do not fit into my own theology.

Consequently, I have devoted my best efforts to the construction of a soft compatibilist understanding of God’s meticulous control of the world, one in which creatures are free to choose without coercion and are therefore morally responsible for their choices. This soft compatibilist understanding is very common among Calvinist theologians. In my own case, and I suspect I am not uncommon, though I am best satisfied with the soft compatibilist understanding, I am keenly aware that we are dealing with a theological mystery which is at least as difficult as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation of the eternal Word. I cannot pretend when I have done my best to state my understanding of the compatibility of God’s meticulous control with human responsibility, that I have explained the doctrine in a way which removes any hiddenness of the truth.  (The most concise statement of my compatibilist proposal can be found in this blog post: “My Compatibilist Proposal”[Mar 1, 2012].)

At the popular level, I suspect (though I have no data to support this suspicion) that most Christians who affirm a compatibilist model consider it to be a mystery understood only by God. The decision made by some very fine Calvinist theologians (like J. I. Packer) to abstain from attempting to answer the tough question of how we can have free will, if God is totally in control, indicates to me that they may also be mysterian compatibilists. They clearly affirm compatibilism, but they never define the nature of human freedom. That may be the wisest course, but I have frequently admitted to my students that I have a fairly low level of tolerance for mystery. I don’t deny that there are theological mysteries, some of them, like the Trinity, being very foundational to our faith. But, I am reluctant to concede mystery too quickly, and I think some pastors and teachers may be doing that. In Greg Forster’s book on The Joy of Calvinism (which you have likely noticed I have been reading recently ?) I find an unapologetic appeal to mystery. In his Appendix, item 5, “What about free will? How can we have free will if God ordains everything,” Forster boldly admits:

Beats us. We don’t know. Color us stumped. All we know is that it happens; we do, in fact, have free will and God, in fact, is in control.  (pp. 171-72)

Forster draws an analogy to science:

I, for one, don’t see how it could possibly be true that subatomic particles can physically exist but not be subject to what we normally call the “laws” of physics. . . . some subatomic particles exist but do not occupy specific points in either space or time. . . . They even exert causal force on one another, . . . even though they are separated in space and there appears to be nothing to transmit the causation from one to another.

. . .

I cannot understand how that can be true. But I don’t think God’s freedom in making the universe is limited by my ability to understand his work. (p. 172)

Let me encourage you, however, not to settle too quickly for “mystery,” and when you do retreat to that confession, that you not give up trying to understand what God has revealed to us. Much worse than pleading “mystery” in the face of deep theological matters would be to abandon one or the other of two theological affirmations which you believe are clearly taught in Scripture, simply because you do not know how to reconcile both of them. (I am reminded of an anecdote about Charles Spurgeon when he was asked how he reconciled divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He replied: “I wouldn’t try; I never reconcile friends” [cited by J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p. 35]). Few qualities are more important to the healthy pursuit of theological truth than honest humility about our ignorance and puzzlement, while we endeavor to gain a fuller understanding of the almighty God who created all things and sustains everything that persists. Both the older and the newer Testaments teach us that what God most wants from us is that we love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. But God has revealed himself to us in his inspired Word, and he gives us his Spirit to lead us ever deeper into our knowledge of God and his revelation.

Locating the biblical balance point between divine and human control

The positions on the two sides of the watershed, in my diagram above, could be laid along a straight line on which those positions, moving from right to left, move the balance point between divine and human control steadily further from the extreme of hard determinism or fatalism, in which real human agency is non-existent, toward the Deism which depicts a world in which God does not act at all. All incompatibilist positions assert a measure of divine self-limitation. The sovereign and omnipotent God could have chosen to be the only active agent in the world, but he could not achieve his purposes for all of his creation in that way. In creating angels, and then humans who bear God’s image in the world, God gave them genuine agency. This is basic orthodox Christian belief, but we do not all agree about whether or not God chose to let moral creatures determine some or much of human history, even though they chose contrary to God’s desire and purpose. That is the line between compatibilism and incompatibilism. But how much power God has given moral creatures to determine the course of history is a hotly disputed question, and the answer we settle on, and live according to, greatly effects our prayers, our evangelistic activity, our response to suffering, and many other important aspects of our lives. Note, however, that the nature of the freedom God gave to moral creatures is not, in itself, determinative of where the balance point between divine and creaturely control is located. After all, Aquinas affirmed creaturely libertarian freedom but was a compatibilist, whereas most incompatibilists do not think that can be done.

Excursus: A compatibilist’s experience of decision making

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” (5). This reminds me of something that has long intrigued me. Soft compatibilists like me frequently assert that we only need to act willingly, making choices ourselves, and without coercion from outside, to be morally responsible for our choices. We believe that our decisions are pre-determined because, being who we are, we could not do otherwise than we actually do, in each particular situation of our lives. Yet, it seems to me that many of us face times of decision making as though we were libertarianly free. Does this indicate incoherence between our beliefs and our actions? Perhaps, but I don’t think this is necessarily so. This is where we find ourselves very much aware of the mysteriousness of the truth about which we are thinking and speaking.

Unlike God, we lack comprehensive knowledge of ourselves and of the principles of agent causation. God has this knowledge necessarily, by virtue of his being God. Just as Picirilli stated, we are faced with alternatives between we must choose and we analyze those alternatives carefully, viewing them all as decisions we could make. But we are not aware of how we will choose until we actually make the choice. Consequently, our decision making process is not merely illusory, and it sometimes includes great inner turmoil, during which we often pray for God’s wisdom. Even after having made the decision, we usually cannot discern the factors within us which made it the only decision we could have made in that situation.

In short, 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 range of choices will be open to us 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 each person who had to respond to Joshua’s challenge would choose that day. Only God knew how it was all going to turn out, so every individual taking the challenge seriously was faced with the need to make a good decision and keenly believed that they could choose well or badly.

I suggest to you that a sense of anomaly between our theory and our practice is not unique to compatibilists. I see it at work also among Arminians. If this is a proposal that catches your interest, you might want to take a look at my post dealing with the doctrine of justification, entitled “Compatibilism: A puzzlement for both Arminians and Calvinists” (Nov 22, 2012).  I also suggest that a similar experience is evident in the thought of some Molinists. Two of my other blog posts may be of interest to you in this regard: “W. L. Craig’s understanding of freedom: Molinism or monergism?” (Jan 31, 2013), and “How would Molinism work without the affirmation of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities?” (Apr 14, 2016).

Looking forward in this blog series

I need to point out, first,  that my restatement and response to Picirilli in this first post has been restricted to his first chapter. In the process of locating both him and me on the theological watershed, however, I have been more expansive in laying out my own position. This has taken me into areas which Picirilli did not address in his first chapter, but which he will speak to in later chapters. I hope that you will stay with us, therefore, as this series proceeds.

Now you know how Picirilli and I define human freedom, and you are ready to listen in on, and even contribute to, the conversation into which Picirill has drawn me, as I work my way through his fine book. I will be revisiting “free will” with him. I am grateful to him for having written this book. This is an immensely important subject, and he has chosen three fine conversation partners, so I hope that it will be spiritually beneficial to all who read this book. I will continue to state my own understanding of the subject, but I don’t intend to provide a polemic for my own position. 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 process entails correction. From the truth, we have nothing to fear, because we know that it will set us free (Jn 8:32).



By Terrance Tiessen

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,569 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments