Category Archives: free will

Book Review- Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, by Robert E. Picirilli

Free Will Revisited is a book by Robert E Picirilli, a Free Will Baptist theologian and professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament studies at Free Will Baptist College.  As the title suggests, the book is a respectful response to the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards on the topic of free will, coming from an Arminian perspective.  The book was enjoyable to read.  It is informative, generous, and fair in its treatment of the views of each of these three theological giants.  Picirilli explains the motivations and type of arguments that each make, their similarities and their differences.  And he contrasts those views of free will with those from a Classical / Reformational Arminian perspective.

The book is 134 pages long.  It’s easy to understand, and can be read over the period of a few evenings.  One thing I appreciate about Picirilli’s style is that his writing is accessible to the lay person.  He takes the time to define the issues in easy to understand terms, and doesn’t speak over the average person’s head.

The book is broken into four parts, which I will review below.

Part 1 is about defining the issues.  What is free will?  Picirilli defines it as the power of alternative choice or libertarian freedom. “This means that the choice or decision is one that really could go either way; that the person is neither compelled by some force outside nor shut up from within by previous condition or experience, so that only one alternative can actually be chosen.

How do worldviews (both naturalistic and theological) relate to free will?  Is it part of being created in the image of God?   Is it compatible with theological determinism?  This is “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.”

Most importantly for the Christian, is free will biblical? Picrilli argues that it is, and goes in depth into a number of passages that address it.  One argument that I found compelling here was related to the many “ifs” of the Bible.  He writes, “There are many ifs in the Bible, and they often set alternatives before us.  These alternatives are the way freedom of choice is expressed.”  Picirilli also uses the term “the sweet winds of grace” to explain how we can choose what God sets before us.  Because of our sinful depravity we don’t  have the ability to choose God on our own.  It is the winds of Grace from God that enable us.

Part 2 is the case against free will.  What are the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards against free will?

Luther’s work, “On the Bondage of the Will”, was written in response to Erasmus.  Luther always tied his argumentation to scripture.  He argued that God foreknows of necessity.  This means in Luther’s view, God’s foreknowledge and his plans of predestination prevent free will.  He also compared humanity’s will to that of a horse with a rider.  The rider could be either God or Satan, but either way the horse is controlled by an outside influence.

Calvin’s work, like Luther’s was written in response to another – Albert Pighius.  Whereas Luther focused on scripture for his argumentation, Calvin focused on the church fathers – particularly Augustine.  Calvin also believed that Adam and Eve had genuine free will, which was lost at the fall.  Calvin also had less of a focus on the roll of Satan and the roll of God’s foreknowledge than Luther did.

Edwards work, unlike Calvin and Luther, was not written against any person in particular, but against “Arminians” in general.  Edwards used the rationalistic method in his argumentation, which “seeks for indisputable (self-evident) truths and then attempts to draw out whatever is necessarily and logically implied by them.”  For Edwards every person does what he does by necessity, due to “cause and effect”.  And this cause and effect regresses all the way back to God, who is the original cause.   It is meaningless to speak of free will, because a person is created, and is tied to the cause and effect relationships of everything that came before.  In Edwards view, sin was inevitable even for Adam.

Part 3  addresses the major issues.  What is the Arminian response to the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards?

First, what is the relation of free will to God’s foreknowledge and necessity?  In contrast to Open Theists, Ariminans believe (as do Calvinists), that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future.  Picirilli makes a distinction between necessity (has to be), contingency (does not have to be), and certainty (will be).  Something can be necessary and certain, or it can be contingent and certain.  But it can’t be necessary and contingent.  The fact that something will be a certain way does not mean it has to be that way.  So then, God can know the future exhaustively without exhaustively causing it.  Knowledge of a fact is not the cause of a fact.

And what about Total Depravity?  Again, Arminians agree with their Calvinist brothers.  Picirilli writes that, “I am satisfied that depravity is real and total.  I am equally satisfied that it does not finally negate the freedom of the will.”  This is because of Prevenient grace, God’s initiating grace that draws us. “As depraved as one is, he is still a person, a human being in the image of God.  Sinners are spiritually blind, but the Word and the Spirit can bring them to see the truth of the gospel….the Spirit and the Word can persuade a person of the truths needed for that person to be able to receive the gift of salvation offered in the gospel.”

How does God’s sovereignty and providence relate to free will?  Sovereignty means that God is in control and does as he pleases.  Control does not mean that God causes everything, but it means he knows about everything, provides a means for everything, and fits everything into his perfect plan.  Picirilli notes that “if God sovereignly ordained that humans had free will, then their exercise of it in no way encroaches on his sovereignty.”  Providence “is the activity of God in caring for and governing the universe in accord with his unfailing purpose”.  A distinction made here is that “God does not concur with the sinner in his sin, else we would make God himself a sinner.”  God made Adam and Eve capable of sin, but he did not put them in a circumstance where they had to sin.

And what about Edward’s logic of cause and effect?  Picrilli argues that Edward’s frames his argumentation against free will in a way that no advocate really believes – that it is always a two part thing, a cause and effect, and a choice must always be caused.  This definition allows Edwards to make his “infinite regression” argument, but it’s not how human choices really work.  We choose.  We don’t choose to choose.  Picirili also writes that “One of the powers of the human psyche is to “originate” ideas, and to translate those ideas into actions…”  Not everything we do and think comes from a previous cause.  Secondly, the “infinite regression” argument is ultimately invalid because each person is created by a “self existent Creator-God”.  God created us, and that’s why we can make choices.

Part 4 is the conclusion, in five major points.

First, the sovereignty of God is strong, if not stronger in a world where humans have the power to make choices.

Second, human depravity prevents us from seeking God.  However, God has broken into our world and provided his son for the atonement of our sins.  The preaching of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to choose Christ.

Third, we are saved by faith, and this does not diminish God’s grace or glory.  “A person’s accepting the gift contributes nothing to the work, and subtracts nothing from the giver”.

Fourth, God’s foreknowledge of the future does not contradict free will, because foreknowledge is knowledge in advance, not foreordination.

Fifth, the laws of cause and effect don’t contradict free will.  The exercise of the mental will is more than a mechanical cause and effect, because they come from persons.  Persons originate thoughts and volition.

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Disclosure:  I was provided a copy of the book, and agreed to write a  review.

 

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Did God Fix the Outcome of the Seahawks/Packers Game?

The Seattle Seahawks (my team by the way, go ‘Hawks!) have been in the news recently because of their improbable last minute win over the Green Bay Packers.  With four minutes left in the game, the Packers had a 99.9% statistical chance of winning.  But the Seahawks pulled it out.

Russell Wilson, the QB for Seattle, is a vocal Christian.  After the game he prayed and gave glory to God (which is awesome).  He also seemed to imply that God caused the improbable outcome of the game.

“That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special. I’ve been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs.  It’s what’s led me to this day.”(link)

Some other Seahawks gave credit to God too, but without implying God determined the outcome.

“We fought.  Playing football it’s awesome.  God is so good.  It don’t get no better than this.” – Earl Thomas, Facebook.

“To God go the glory!” – Richard Sherman, Facebook

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aaron Rodgers, QB for the Packers (and also a Christian) had a different view.

“I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome, He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”(link)

Here’s what I think:

It’s really cool that so many football players are vocal about their Christian faith, and that they give God the glory.  I admire that in their character.  Through their platform they can be a positive witness for Christ.

And God certainly does help us to do our best in all we do as we honor him.  In  the case of athletic events, he does that for Christians on both teams.

But there are some problems with the idea that God fixes the outcomes of games.

First, God can be glorified with either outcome of a sports event.  God didn’t need the Seahawks to win in order to bring about his plan. If the Packers had won, God would be equally glorified.  It is really a small view of God to think that he has to make sure a certain team wins.  God is bigger than that.

Second, it implies that God honored the request of players and fans of one team, but not the players and fans for the other teams.  Does God love Russell Wilson more Aaron Rodgers?  No, he loves them both.  And for a player to claim that God favors him over others is a little selfish.

I agree with Aaron Rodgers.  God cares less about the outcome of a game than he does the people who are involved in it.

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Letting the Dog Out and Compatibilism

This morning I slept in.  It was delightful.  Unfortunately while I was sleeping in, our dog Largo was following his nature.  He needed to be let outside so that he could take care of business.  But no one let him out.  So, he went into the corner of the basement and…well you can probably guess what he did.

So, the question arises, whose fault is it that Largo made a mess in the corner?  Was it his  fault?  Or was it my fault?  The compatibilist and libertarian answer this question differently.

The compatibilist says that free will lies in following one’s nature, thus it was Largo’s fault.   Largo  has been commanded to do his business outside.  Largo broke the command, and “chose” to relieve himself  in the basement instead.

The libertarian says that free will lies in having genuine choices, thus it was my fault.  Largo could not have done other than what he did.  He was not culpable for breaking my command because (without my assistance) he did not have the option to keep it.

Who do you think is right?  Was Largo’s mess his fault, or mine?


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The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. -Exodus 4:21 NIV

A recurring theme in Exodus is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh repeatedly goes back on his word and refuses to release the Israelites as he promised. At first Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Each time after God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to let the Israelites go.

God hardening the heart of Pharaoh is referred to in Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 10:1, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17. It is also alluded to by Paul in Romans 9:17-18.

This “hardening ” of Pharaoh is of particular concern to the Arminian. On the face it seems to indicate that that God was coercive and changed Pharaoh’s heart to cause him to do something that he wouldn’t have done otherwise. If God worked in a coercive manner with Pharoah, He could presumably act in similar ways towards others. This seems to contradict the notion that God’s character is intrinsically good. If God is good in a sense that we can begin to grasp, He wouldn’t arbitrarily change a person’s heart to make him do evil things.

Thankfully, we really can trust God. He is good, and His character is above reproach.

To better understand the “hardening” of Pharaoh , it is important to note that the Hebrew word chazaq (translated as “harden” in English) does not carry the same connotation in Hebrew that it does in English. Chazaq is usually translated as “encourage”, “strengthen”, “repair”, “fortify” and “assist”. In God’s Strategy in Human History, Forster and Marston note that:

The English phrase hard-hearted carries to many people overtones of cruelty or unrepentance. Thus “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” could be taken to mean that God prevented him from repenting. We are not saying that those who translated the AV RV and RSV intended this, but rather that the ordinary English reader could get this impression- and in our experience often does! This puzzles him, for the Bible clearly teaches that God is not willing that any should perish, but desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth…God, we may be sure, would rather that Pharaoh had repented than perished in the Red Sea…The paradox need not arise if we remember that a phrase in one language should not be simply equated with a phrase in another.

Forster and Marston provide a chart that documents occurrences of the word chazaq. It is a term that is frequently used in the Old Testament (They document 55 examples outside of Exodus). The only time chazaq is translated as “harden” is in reference to Pharaoh in Exodus. In all other occurrences, chazaq is translated as “strengthen”, “encourage”, “repair”, “fortify”, etc.

Here are a few examples:

In the passages above, chazaq describes assisting or encouraging someone with a course that they have decided on. It means helping someone to do what they already want to do.

The same is true of God in his dealings with Pharaoh. God did not change Pharaoh’s heart to make him want to kill the Hebrews. Pharaoh already wanted to kill them. What God did was give Pharaoh the courage to follow through with what he already desired to do. Pharaoh was an evil man, but he was also timid and fearful of the Hebrews and their God. God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart.

Understood in this sense, we can see that God’s dealings with Pharoah were above reproach. As a result, we can be confident that God’s dealings with us will also be good and trustworthy.

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Essay by Roger Olson – Arminianism is God-centered theology

Here is a long but excellent essay by Roger Olson: Arminianism is God-centered theology.  Olson addresses and refutes the complaint often made by Calvinists that Arminian theology is man-centered.

Update: The Society of Evangelical Arminians has a pdf of the essay here.

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What’s Wrong With Calvinism? by Jerry Walls

Here’s a good article from the Society of Evangelical Arminians, comparing compatibilism and libertarian free will: What’s Wrong With Calvinism? By Asbury Seminary professor Jerry Walls.

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Wired Article on Free Will

Wired Magazine has an interesting article on libertarian freedom: My First Act of Free Will.

The author Jonah Lehrer addresses the problems of scientific determinism – or having a purely mechanical view of freedom.

He notes that:

There’s a certain frivolousness to all these eloquent arguments over free will. The fact is, we are deeply wired to believe in our freedom. We feel like willful creatures, blessed with elbow room and endowed with the capacity to pick our own breakfast cereal.

The question is, why do we feel free? Why are we “deeply wired” to believe in our freedom? Perhaps it is because as creatures created in the image of God we really do have genuine freedom.

The article also referenced a study that correlated libertarian freedom with ethics. People who don’t believe in libertarian freedom are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. In the study “the amount of cheating was directly correlated with the extent to which the subjects rejected free will.”

What we believe about free will actually impacts the decisions we make.

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