Theology Proper

The nature of God’s freedom

The problem

Since becoming a Calvinist, I have understood human freedom to be soft compatibilist. We act in a free, that is, morally responsible way, if we do what we want to do, without external coercion. Someone (like God) who  perfectly knew us and the situation we were in would therefore be able to predict how we would act. Our actions are soft-determined by our dispositions (the term used by Jonathan Edwards), which I understand as the complex of our habits, desires, motives, values etc. In other words, we always do what we most want to do, but we act freely because it is we who determine our actions.

But what about God? What sort of freedom does he have? It is problematic to assert that God also has soft compatibilist freedom. That would make everything God does a necessity. But Scripture indicates that God does as he wills and that he needs nothing or no one outside of himself. God did not have to create the world, and if he chose to create a world, his nature did not necessitate that it be precisely this world that he has created.

That seemed simple enough. But I often heard Calvinist theologians say, in objecting to the theology of synergists, that creatures can not have libertarian freedom because their acts would then be random or absurd and would therefore have no moral quality.

Now I felt myself to be in a bind, one that Arminians sometimes pointed out to me. If libertarian freedom is intrinsically problematic because it makes decisions random and unreasoned, then how could God have libertarian freedom.

I pondered this dilemma for years, and I asked Calvinist philosophers and theologians about it periodically. In this process, about ten years ago, I became aware of how synergism was making inroads into Reformed thought through the work of Reformed philosophers. I asked a philosophy teacher at a leading Calvinist school what sort of freedom he believed God has. He told me that was simple. God has libertarian freedom, but then so do we. I quizzed him further, and he told me that all 12 of the philosophy teachers at his Calvinist institution believed that humans have libertarian freedom. That was a bit of a shock to me, at the time, because Calvinist theologians had convinced me that humans do not have libertarian freedom, and so I got no help from that Reformed philosophical quarter.

I had good correspondence about this issue with a Calvinist theologian whom I respect very highly. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, he too was somewhat puzzled. In the final analysis, he wondered if it might be that God’s freedom is categorically different from ours in some way, something like his relationship to time.

My current hypothesis

A year or so ago, I arrived at a position that is still my best shot at sorting out this issue. It may not be my final theological resting place, but it is where I sit now. I welcome the perspective of you readers of this post.

Right now, I think that God does have libertarian freedom, and I think, therefore, that a common Calvinist objection to libertarian freedom, the charge that libertarianly free decisions are random, is invalid.

The significant thing about the power of contrary choice, no matter how slight that power, is that people’s decisions are unpredictable with certainty. Contrary to the common soft-determinist criticism of libertarian freedom, however, we need not assume that this unpredictability is the consequence of an absurd or irrational element. I am thinking that, perhaps, on those relatively few occasions when libertarianly free creatures act in a manner unpredictable from all the preceding factors, both internal and external, (i.e., when they do the improbable), we can posit that the decisive factor in that unexpected choice was a reason, but not a reason that was identifiable prior to the decision.

In correspondence with an Open Theist friend some years ago, I had observed that after libertarians have made a decision, they can always tell us why. I cited this as evidence that humans have soft-determinist freedom. He reminded me that reasons are not causes. Now, years after that conversation, I’m thinking that the critical thing about a libertarianly free decision of the unexpected kind is not that the decision was absurd or irrational, but that a reason existed in the complexity of the person’s being that was unknown—a reason that could not be deduced from the complex of factors that compatibilists deem soft determining.

If my proposal here is viable, then it resolves the dilemma of God’s having libertarian freedom but always acting morally. He does, and he can because libertarianly free choices are not necessarily absurd or unreasonable. But, in order to have complete control in the world, God did not give his moral creatures libertarian freedom. He created us soft-determined and is able, therefore, to know counterfactuals and thereby to choose the particular world that he deems self-glorifying, to have that world come about mostly through the uncoerced decisions of his creatures, but to leave room for God to be genuinely responsive.

Working with this construct, I can see the importance of the idea that the notion of a “best possible world” is incoherent. If there were a best possible world, God would be obligated to choose it. But if there is no best possible world, then there is no world most glorifying to God. God is therefore free to choose from a number of good worlds, any of which would have brought him glory, the world that he libertarianly freely chooses. His choice of that world was not determined by the sum of his attributes; it was an act of his will that was consistent with all of his attributes but not determined by them. It was, however, not therefore an irrational and hence amoral choice. God had his reasons, he acted wisely, but he did not act in a way that could have been predicted, even by someone who knew God perfectly (granting that no such being other than God himself exists, of course).

This is a fairly recent development in my own thought and there may be holes in my reasoning that are not apparent to me yet but, so far, this looks to me like an advance in my own struggle to understand the nature of God’s freedom. It allows that God has libertarian freedom which is essential to his aseity, his not needing to create. It grants, therefore, that humans could have libertarian freedom without incoherence. That is an objection to libertarian freedom that I am not now planning to use, though I have appealed to it on previous occasions.

Although I do not think that Scripture reveals/defines the nature of creaturely freedom, I conclude that God has given us soft-determinist/compatibilist freedom because of what I see in Scripture regarding God’s meticulous providence and his knowledge of counterfactuals.

What do you think?


By Terrance Tiessen

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

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