Monday, October 30, 2017

What Kind Of Freedom? Part 3

Any Christian who believes the Bible is the only ultimate binding source of divine authority for their life ought to realize that the main way the Bible defines genuine human freedom is this: The ability to do that which is one’s greatest preference at the moment. Additionally, one must see that genuine freedom is also compatible with a strong sense of causation behind the desired decision. This is not only the way I define compatibilism, it also seems to be the kind of freedom found in Philemon 14.

In this post I will examine that verse to see why I believe this to be true.

The Letter’s Message
As Paul and Timothy write to Philemon (v. 1)—the latter being the primary author (in light of the use of the first person singular from v. 4 on)—Paul appeals to Philemon, a wealthy Colossian Christian (see Col. 4:9, 17) and host of a house church (vv. 1-2), to receive back and be reconciled to Onesimus, a slave who most likely stole from Philemon and then fled. In the providence of God, Onesimus meets Paul in Rome, becomes a Christian, and now there is a desire to make things right with his master.

In the midst of Paul’s appeal in behalf of Onesimus (verses 8-20), Paul describes the transformation of Onesimus (vv. 8–12) and then affirms how helpful the slave would be to Paul in his current imprisonment (vv. 13–14). Yet, he then turns his attention to the relation of Onesimus and Philemon, asserting that God has been sovereignly involved in this situation perhaps so that the master may receive the slave back now as a fellow Christian (vv. 15–16) who will therefore be all the more useful to Philemon. He concludes with a direct appeal for Philemon to take Onesimus back as he would receive Paul himself (vv. 17–20).

Philemon 14
In verses 13-14, Paul clarifies that though he would very much like to keep Onesimus with him as a helper—by implication treating him as a freedman—nevertheless, Paul knew this would not be right. Paul does not want Philemon to be forced into treating Onesimus differently now that the latter has returned. He wants the master to treat him differently because he truly wants to do so (14). Verse 14 reads: “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” 

There are three terms Paul uses in this verse to address free choice on the part of Philemon. We will look at each of them in turn so we can grasp how Paul views human freedom.

To begin, Paul did not want to do anything without Philemon’s “consent” (gnōmē). Elsewhere Paul uses gnōmē to refer to the results of the thinking process—i.e. a judgment or opinion—what one believes to be true (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10; 7:25, 40; 2 Cor. 8:10). In this context the translation “consent” (ESV; RSV; NASB; NKJV; HCSB; NIV; NLT) is good. In other words, Paul desires Philemon to have heard Paul’s rationale for having Onesimus stay and to have agreed that it was good and thus to have agreed before Paul kept the slave with him. 

It appears that what Paul is writing here in v. 14 not only applies to having Onesimus stay with Paul (which Paul did not pursue), but also to Philemon receiving Onesimus back with a different relationship. This is implied from the likelihood that this letter was sent to Philemon by Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9) and so as Philemon read it, Onesimus would have already been back in his presence. So, what Paul says in v. 14 refers not merely to the possible scenario (if he had kept Onesimus in Rome), but also to the actual situation—i.e. what Philemon will do with Onesimus now. The implication is that Paul desires Philemon to think through the rationale from Paul and to treat the slave differently than he had previously—because this truly is his desire.

The second significant term Paul uses to speak of Philemon’s free choice is this: Paul did not want goodness shown to Onesimus to be “by compulsion” (anagkē). This term is used elsewhere by Paul to refer to a decision and action that one carries out that he has not truly come to desire in his heart (2 Cor. 9:7). That appears to be the meaning here. Paul does not desire that Philemon would engage in a decision or good action that is forced upon him and that goes contrary to what he truly wants.

It appears that in these first two terms used by Paul he is primarily emphasizing that he would prefer Philemon to make a choice to change his view of and relationship with Onesiumus—and most likely to forgive him—that does not by-pass Philemon’s intellect and affections.

However, before moving on, we must not miss that in verses 6 and 21 Paul clarifies that the good actions are ones which Philemon should do; they are ones which would be to Christ’s glory! So, there is very strong influence and causation present in the context of this lack of will-by-passing-compulsion.

The third significant term Paul uses is found in the last phrase: “but of your own accord” (hekousios). The word hekousios is used only here in the New Testament. It is used several times in the LXX to refer to a “freewill offering,” i.e. an offering for which there is no specific obligation to make, but is made simply because one desires to do it (Lev. 7:16; Nu. 15:3; 29:39; Ps. 119:108).  It is used in classical Greek literature to refer to something that is opposed to legal compulsion (BAGD, 243).

Nine Reasons To See Compatibilistic Freedom In Philemon 14
Because this last term (hekousios) is one of the few places in the Bible where explicit mention is made of “free will” (as seen in an earlier edition of the ESV) or a concept very close to this, it is important to focus in on this word even further. I believe there are nine reasons why this word should be understood to refer to a concept more resembling what Calvinists have termed compatibilistic freedom rather than libertarian freedom.

1. Philemon is a brother in Christ, a “fellow worker,” who hosts a church in his home. Paul believes him to be one who is changed and therefore can and should love others graciously, with a changed heart (Philemon 1-2 [cf. Rom. 12:1-21; 15:1-7; Eph. 4:1-5:2; Phil. 2:1-4f., et al.]). In other words, the fact that the indicative (what has happened to change the Christian) logically precedes the imperative (what a Christian ought to do) in Paul’s theology elsewhere would suggest at the very least that Paul is not expecting Philemon to make a decision whose movement starts in his own heart apart from God’s previous saving and transforming grace. What is more, there is nothing in this letter that would suggest Paul believes this decision by Philemon would be done in such a way that it is not accomplished as part of the “all things” which God works after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). So, to summarize this first point, Paul most likely sees Onesimus as having the general moral ability to do what is right toward Onesimus. And, whatever Philemon chooses to do as a free act can, at one and the same time, happen because it is what God has ordained to take place. In other words, it can be free and caused.

2. Paul believes Philemon to be one who has love toward Jesus Christ and the saints already (5). This undergirds the love and action toward Onesimus to which Paul is calling the wealthy saint. It is a motive that should move strongly or determine his choices in regard to Onesimus. In other words, Paul believes the Spirit of God has so changed Philemon that he has the moral ability to love Onesimus as he should.  

3. Similarly to the previous reason, Paul himself has experienced the love of Philemon and it has brought him joy and comfort (7). He believes that Philemon will respond to Onesimus in a similar fashion. In other words, there exists in Philemon antecedent character, convictions, and affections which should move him to make the choices Paul also would desire. So, Paul believes the Spirit of God has so changed Philemon that he has the moral ability to love Onesimus as he should, and this change should shape whatever desire Philemon has toward Onesimus and what actions he takes. An additional strong influence is Paul’s argumentation that he believes the Spirit will use to bring Philemon to the right decision.

4. Paul seems to utilize significant rhetorical strategy in order to persuade Philemon to act toward Onesimus with a changed relationship and brotherly love (cf. the entire letter, especially 16, 17). In other words, Paul is bringing upon Philemon strong influence toward a particular decision. As in all Paul’s epistles, he believes the Holy Spirit will use the very reasoning and word of God he shares to bring readers to Christ-like and God-glorifying decisions. And so, strong influences and even divine causation can bring about free choices (those for which the person has the strongest preference at the moment). In other words, the Spirit of God can move Philemon to the point he also has the particular moral ability to make the right decision and can actualize that decision.

5. The language of verses 8-9, 14 does not demand that the movement must start in the heart of Philemon apart from the work of God’s Spirit, apart from the decisive decree of God, and apart from any decisive persuasion on the part of Paul.  It is preferable (especially in light of what we discovered about the first two terms) to take the language as primarily focusing upon the need for true desire and willfulness on the part of Philemon that does not by-pass his own intellect and affections, rather than as a choice that is not caused or determined. In other words, Paul believes that the Spirit can move Philemon from merely a general moral ability for the right decision to a particular moral ability wherein the right decision is actualized and it will remain a genuinely free choice.   

6. In v. 21 Paul writes, “confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Even though Paul is not commanding Philemon how he must act toward Onesimus and even though he wants Philemon to act in accordance with what he truly wants to do, he also believes that changing his view toward Onesimus and acting graciously toward him in Christian love is the right thing to do—i.e. what the Spirit of God would have him to do. Since this is the case, Paul believes Philemon will do what is right, what he should do because he wants to do it—and this because, as a transformed Christian, he wants to please God and God wants him to do it. This verse, as much as any in the short letter, implies that Paul believes Philemon will do what is right because he is a changed man  and because, as a result, he wants to please God (his desires have been transformed). As such, though Paul wants the movement to come from Philemon’s heart, it does not have to be ultimately from his heart only and thus does not have to be decided apart from previous movements (both divine and human)! This is consistent with compatibilistic freedom, not libertarian freedom.

7. According to verse 6, part of doing what is right in this case is doing it “for the sake of Christ” (eis Christon). This is part of Paul’s appeal to the spirit of Philemon, which has been transformed by the Spirit of God and is now being led by that Spirit. Paul believes the Spirit will use these words to persuade Philemon freely to do what is right, that which glorifies Christ. After all, the regenerate person has been delivered from moral blindness (2 Cor. 4:4) to the kind of general moral ability wherein he sees God’s glory in Christ (2 Cor. 4:4) and desires to honor Christ (Phil. 1:20-23).  

8. Paul’s closing words, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” strongly suggest that Paul believes the transforming grace of Jesus Christ must be behind true Christian action (including love) and thus moves the heart of the saint (in this case Philemon) to do what God desires (see Titus 2:11-14). Paul is not suggesting that a person has the power in herself, apart from the Spirit of God, to do what which is right. It must be by saving and transforming grace.

9. Finally, Paul’s means of persuasion and what he desires from Philemon are very similar to the manner in which he seeks to persuade the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8-9.  There he brings to bear upon them strong reasons for giving, wants their giving to be something they truly want to do, and believes God’s Spirit will graciously work in them so that their actions will show the reality of their profession and will glorify God. In other words, it is compatibilistic freedom.

If the understanding of Philemon 14 that I have just set forth is accurate, the end result is this: If Philemon freely (i.e. with his consent and according to his preference) chooses to accept back Onesimus as a brother, treat him differently, and be reconciled to him—as he should do for the glory of Christ—the following antecedents would have moved, caused, and determined this choice: God’s predestination; Philemon’s regeneration and justification; his ongoing transformation by the Holy Spirit; his conviction that what pleases God is important; his desire to glorify Jesus Christ; his love for Onesimus; the Spirit working through the power of the Word of God; and perhaps a respect for the Apostle Paul, just to name a few.   As can be seen, then, this entire process of choice on the part of Philemon is very consistent with compatibilistic freedom.

What I have argued in my explanation of this text is that how Paul sought to influence Philemon, what he believed about the transformation of the wealthy Christian, and the expectation of how he would respond, all are in line with compatibilistic freedom—and that the choice Philemon would prefer to make is the one Paul sought to convince him to make, and, at that point he could not genuinely make the alternate choice, because he would not want to do so.[1]

So, genuine human freedom from Paul’s perspective is what the Calvinist would term compatibilistic freedom.

Before leaving the subject of human freedom, in my next post I will address some additional problems found in the concept of libertarian freedom.

Joyfully And Freely Following Our Sovereign God With You,


[1] One of the interesting realities about libertarian freedom is this: for it to be true, a person must be able to choose at the moment of decision that which is not his strongest preference. Aside from this kind of phenomenon not being able to be demonstrated, it also introduces a strong possibility that such “free” decisions must be haphazard and not even what is in accordance with what the mind reasons to be best. It seems odd to me and not in accord with how we make choices. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What Kind Of Freedom, Part 2

In my last post I began interacting with a friend of mine, Tim Stratton, of Free Thinking Ministries, on what kind of freedom humans possess. I jumped into the dialogue by interacting with a June 8, 2017 Free Thinking Ministries post, in which Tim contends that Molinism is a biblical position. He primarily focused upon five different biblical passages (one being a cluster of passages). He argued that each taught libertarian freedom, i.e. that a genuinely free person can think and do otherwise than what he is currently doing and ultimately that person has the ability to choose to think or do other than what he chooses or thinks. Additionally, libertarian freedom means a person’s decision is made within himself and not decided by causes external to himself (and external causes would include God).

I also explained that I hold to a view of freedom known as compatibilistic freedom, i.e. a decision is free if the person making it truly wants to make that decision, regardless of the level of causality or what kind of alternativity is present. Alternativity refers to the ability to do other than what one chooses. So, if a person chooses to eat cheese cake at his birthday party, he also has the ability to choose not to eat it.

In the previous post I also said I had three main responses to Tim’s biblical arguments for libertarian freedom. The first was that I agree with much of what Tim said about ability in those passages. In other words, my point is one that British philosopher and theologian, Paul Helm, has made multiple times: The compatibilist can say much of the same things that one can say who advocates for libertarian freedom. For example, the person advocating libertarian freedom speaks of people changing their mind or responding to a rational argument or making a decision that flows from their own will. Yet, compatibilism, if properly understood, can say the same things. So, I outlined some of these places of agreement.

The remaining two responses to Tim I take up in this post and in a following post. They are: 1. I have a few important disagreements with Tim on what he says about ability from these passages. (I actually began introducing this response in the first post as I delineated what I mean by different kinds of ability humans can possess) 2. These passages are best explained as advocating compatibilistic freedom. I will deal with these responses together as I look at each of the passages. I will look at the first four passages in this post and then the last one in a subsequent post.

Deuteronomy 30:14
This text reads: “But the word is very near you. It is on your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” To understand this verse we need to see it in context.

Deuteronomy 30 is part of the third sermon Moses preached to Israel while they were positioned to enter into the Promised Land (1:1-5a). In this third message the leader sets before the nation the blessings and curses of the covenant (ch’s. 27-28), then leads them in renewing their commitment to the covenant with God, which includes words about what will happen if they do not keep the covenant (29). Then in chapter 30 he teaches the people the importance of repentance in the future if and when they turn away from God (and the text strongly suggests they will!)—so covenant blessings can be restored (30:1-10).

In the first ten verses of the chapter it is important to note that in such future repentance, God’s heart transformation will (and must) lie behind it, a transformation that will enable them to love Yahweh their God with all their heart and soul, that they may live (30:6). This “circumcision” of the heart is a work of God’s grace whereby he removes their stubbornness and gives them the desire to respond positively to him (cf. Dt. 10:16).   This positive response results in their obeying the voice of the LORD and keeping his commandments (30:8)—fueled by their faith in God (30:10).

In verses 11-14 Moses challenges those who would conclude that the righteousness of God is attained through self-effort, rather than faith-fueled obedience. Since “this commandment” (v. 11) is the only place in Deuteronomy we find the singular of mitzvah (“commandment”), it most likely refers specifically to the command to repent and trust in Yahweh, to seek him in the event of future rebellion, a command found in the immediately preceding context. This would be opposed to the plural of this word found throughout the rest of the book (sometimes along with “statutes”) that refers to the totality of the Law (e.g. 10:12-13).

The point that Moses makes in 30:11-14 is that this call to return to Yahweh is not one that is so far off that a person has to ascend to the skies through self-effort or go beyond the sea. Rather, the word (i.e. the word of God, the Law) is in the mouth and heart of a person who has been changed by Yahweh (this last clause is added because of the context of verses 1-10).  In other words, the doing of God’s will, the following of him, is by his grace that transforms—a grace available to all kinds of persons without distinction, rather than by super-human efforts done only by a select few. This appears to be how Paul understood this passage in Romans 10:6-8.  So, life comes by God’s grace and is available to all without distinction. 

So, to use the different kinds of ability to choose I introduced in the previous post, it is better to see this passage as consistent with the idea that people possess the natural ability to respond to God in faith and obedience (they have the faculties to do so). However, they do not possess the moral ability (including the desire) to respond to God in the ways he commands, for the purposes he commands, and to the extent he commands. For this moral ability to be present, there must be an effective work of God’s grace. In fact, the language of this text causes the reader (especially the New Covenant reader) to lean forward toward those later Old Testament promises in which God said he would cut a new covenant with his people that would change them from the inside out and enable them to carry out his will (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-27). With such a work of grace, then surely the person can say that the doing of God’s will is in us, not far from us, and can be done without some kind of additional extraordinary strength.

So, to read Deuteronomy 30:14 as if any person has full ability to respond to God positively without a previous effective work of God’s grace seems to ignore the context. In other words, they do have natural ability. Yet, the corrupt nature of man’s heart leaves him ever unwilling to respond positively to God. His can’t is actually a won’t! To understand this text in its context supports the compatibilistic freedom of the Calvinist, a freedom that argues that the positive response of faith, repentance, and obedience will arise only from God’s effective and decisive previous work in the heart.

1 Corinthians 10:13:
This text reads: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Here we discover several pertinent points.

To begin, when we face temptation to sin, we can be assured that none of us is facing a temptation that goes beyond what other humans have faced.

Next, when we face temptation to sin, we can be assured that God is sovereign over that temptation. Though God does not author sin or tempt us to sin (cf. James 1:13), nevertheless, he can limit the level of temptation so it fits with the general moral ability of the Christian, or he can provide grace such that the general moral ability of the person matches the temptation. Part of the way he does this is to provide a way of escape so the person can endure the temptation and not give into it. Here Paul may be thinking of other believers who come along to pray with, for, to exhort, and to encourage the person (Heb. 3:12-14; 10:24-25; James 5:19-20), or he may be thinking of the Spirit bringing to the Christian’s memory biblical promises that help him escape (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Cor. 7:1). Whatever Paul has in mind, he is not suggesting that a Christian has the ability within herself alone to say, “Yes,” to God and “No” to temptation without a previous, effective, and decisive work of God.[1] Nor can she do so without the ongoing work of God’s Spirit in her from moment to moment applying the person, power, presence, and work of Christ.

What Paul appears to be promising to the Christian is general moral ability in all cases of temptation. However, in line with God’s immeasurable combination of causative and permissive governance in the believer, along with whether or not the believer is putting sin to death and pursuing holiness (i.e. disciplining self unto godliness and forming positive habits), and whether or not they are trusting in Christ at the time to be obedient, will determine whether or not they possess particular moral ability at the time. We can say that the presence of particular moral ability to avoid sin in the Christian is always ultimately brought about by God’s saving and transforming grace—and through the intellect, affections, and will of the person. The lack of particular moral ability in the Christian is due to the person not resting in the promises of God and also due to their own sin.[2]

2 Corinthians 10:5; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:8:
In regard to this cluster of passages, Tim writes that they call us to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ and we are responsible to act upon this and can act upon it. So far so good. A compatibilist, as I wrote in my previous post, can and should agree. But then he writes: “Our thoughts are not causally determined and forced upon us from external sources; we possess the ability to think otherwise…. Which is not even possible on a deterministic view as many Calvinists affirm.”

I will deal with each clause individually.

I disagree with Tim’s assertion, “Our thoughts are not causally determined.” To be precise, what the Calvinist means by saying one’s thoughts are causally determined is that they flow from antecedent movements of their heart and decisions, which the Bible makes clear in explaining how humans make choices (e.g. Mt. 7:17-18; 15:18-20; 1 Cor. 2:13-14; Eph. 2:1-10).[3] The second intent of the Calvinist is to say that all such antecedent movements, decisions, and current decisions are determined by God and realized through an immeasurable (from the human perspective) combination of causative and passive divine acts of governance. The result is that man acts freely and responsibly, to do what he desires to do. At the same time, God, in absolute sovereignty, exercised through meticulous providence, works to bring about all he has foreordained.

Yet, when God works decisively in a Christian to give general and/or particular moral ability, he works upon the will (cf. Phil. 2:13), he enables the person to desire to do what is right and so he is not forcing them from an external source. So, I disagree with Tim’s implication that this is what Calvinists teach, namely that God forces upon people an action from an external source.

In Tim’s last two clauses he suggests that according to Calvinist thought a person does not have the ability to think otherwise. The implication would be that a person could not change their mind. This is simply not accurate. Take, for example, a person’s decision to eat cheese cake or not. Each person has the natural ability to eat it or not. One person may have the general moral ability to say, “No,” because they have done it many times previously. Yet, given the fact they have not eaten anything all day previous to the offer and they have not developed a strong disciplined approach to their eating (a habit), they may lack the particular moral ability at that moment, which simply results in a strong desire to eat that is not off-set by a greater desire not to, so they eat. Another person, because they have developed a habit of disciplined eating and saying, “No,” may possess the particular moral ability to say, “No,” and so they do so. A greater affection (e.g. their desire to maintain their weight loss) offsets the desire for the cheese cake at that moment. Yet, in each situation, the Calvinist believes the person can change their decision. What the Calvinist does not argue is that the person has the power to choose what they do not want (in accordance with their greatest desire at the time). What the Calvinist does believe is that whatever choice is made, it is not only free, but also in accordance with God’s absolute sovereignty, exercised through an immeasurable combination of his active and passive governance.

2 Timothy 1:7:
This text reads: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Here I merely note two things. To begin, Paul is clearly speaking of what God has done in Christians (which Tim recognizes), so these effects or characteristics flow out of a previous gracious work of God (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5-6).

Second, I would simply note that the word translated, “self-control” (sōphronismos) does not necessitate that a person is controlling himself by himself, as if he is the only cause of the control, which, if I understand Tim correctly, he seems to be arguing. In fact, a word that has an overlapping field of meaning and so is translated “self-control” (egkrateia) in Galatians 5:23 is said there to be part of the fruit of the Spirit (i.e. what the Spirit produces). What both texts seem to be saying is that one must control self, but this does not demand that the desire or ability to control self arises only in the person at that time and does not have other internal antecedent causes and/or external causes. In fact, it demands also the causation of the Holy Spirit!

The best forms of Calvinism reject any sense of monocausality, i.e. that in our decisions there is only one cause of a decision. It is recognized there are multiple causes. Some forms of Calvinism seem to suggest God is the only cause of all things and so man is not free in any sense or responsible. At the same time, some advocates of libertarian freedom can, at times, sound as if they are suggesting a free act must arise only from the person without any other causes. The best forms of Calvinism reject both.

This can be seen in the state that both Tim and I call home, Nebraska. Many young men and women here grow up to cheer for the Nebraska Cornhusker football team freely. Though I would argue that desire flows from the will of the fan and so is free, it is not only the will of the fan that decides it. There are multiple causes, not the least of which is living in this state and growing up in a family that cheers for the Huskers.

I realize I have not answered all questions or scratched all itches in just two posts. That will take many more to unpack the Calvinist view. I plan to keep plugging away at this and trust it will be of help to all who read the posts, whether they agree or not. I have certainly been very positively impacted by interacting with Tim and his writing on the subject, even though I do not agree with him on all things.

In my next post I will take up Tim’s final passage he mentioned (Philemon 14) and, along the way, will introduce more on what the Calvinist believes about freedom and why libertarian freedom is rejected. After this, I will move on to explain about God’s absolute sovereignty exercises through his meticulous providence and how this includes both causative and permissive governance.

Joyfully Following Our Sovereign God With You And Loving Those Who Disagree With Us,


[1] This is in line with the larger context of 1 Corinthians, in which Paul argues that in order for a person to accept the things of the Spirit of God, the gospel in particular, demands a previous effective and decisive work in them, as well as an ongoing work (2:13-14).

[2] Such an understanding, then, demonstrates how God can ordain all things in his absolute sovereignty, worked out through his meticulous providence, and yet with the result he is not responsible for sin, his grace is necessary for man’s righteous acts, and in both cases man acts responsibly and freely in the compatibilistic sense.
[3] In all of these passages in the cluster, if the reader looks at the preceding larger context, she will find Paul’s emphasis upon a previous effective gracious work in the person that is necessary for both general and particular moral ability to be present to trust in and to follow Christ. For example, in Eph. 6:10, just two verses prior to the verse Tim cites, the reader is commanded, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength that comes from his might” (author’s own translation). When Paul goes on to delineate the spiritual armor the believer has at her disposal to fight the enemy, it is understood that both this armor and the ability to use it are given through Christ. The spiritually dead person is made alive by God so she can carry out the works that God prepared for her to do (Eph. 2:1-10) and must continually trust in Christ to have the ability to stand against the enemy.

Friday, October 27, 2017

What Kind Of Freedom?

“Calvinists believe in God’s sovereignty and Arminians believe in man’s Freedom.” This is what many Christians believe. What is also often assumed is that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty and Calvinists do not believe in man’s freedom. Yet, the reality is that Arminians also believe in God’s sovereignty and Calvinists also believe in man’s freedom. The difference comes down to how sovereignty and freedom are defined for each.

Though the average Christian may not be familiar with a third group of Christians, Molinists, those who are in this camp share at least two things with Arminians:  They both define freedom the same and they both disagree with how Calvinists define freedom. As such, some may be tempted to conclude, as is done with Arminians and Calvinists, that Molinists believe in freedom and Calvinists do not. However, such is not the case. Both believe in freedom, but define it differently.

I won’t define Molinism in this post. I will leave that for another time. I introduce the difference that Molinism has with Calvinism on man’s freedom because a friend of mine, Tim Stratton, of Free Thinking Ministries and a former pastor at the Kearney Evangelical Free Church, has blogged frequently the past three-four years, advocating Molinism, and, as a committed Calvinist, I have decided to interact with him on the subject. It should be fun!

Where I have decided to jump in is on the subject of freedom.

Now, before turning to the subject at hand, I need to make an admission in the interest of full disclosure. I really like and respect Tim a great deal. And, I highly respect the Molinist view and others who advocate it and who have made wonderful contributions to the Church in so many ways—not the least of which is William Lane Craig. I do not believe that Molinists are the Visigoths threatening the gates of the kingdom.

Tim, Bill Craig, and other advocates of Molinism seek to put forth a view of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom that does several things which I appreciate very much: They seek to be biblical, deal with the whole of Scripture, preserve a strong view of God’s sovereignty at the same time they preserve man’s freedom, and they also seek to deal with the material in a manner that is philosophically sound. So, though I disagree with their position, this is a debate between two brothers who love and respect each other (and want to represent accurately the other’s position). I would gladly lock arms with Tim on the front lines and gladly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him to serve Christ together in almost 100% of ministry opportunities. I do believe the debate is important, but it also needs to remain a family dialogue between brothers. I believe Tim and I are positioned to do just that. So, let’s get to it.

Tim’s View Of Human Freedom
In a June 8 Free Thinking Ministries post Tim, in contending that Molinism is a biblical position, argues that “humans possess libertarian freedom” and that this is taught in Scripture. Tim not only defines libertarian freedom in explanations he offers from some key biblical texts, but he also argues these cited texts defend libertarian freedom. The key defining statements, along with  the texts that allegedly defend them, are as follows: 
1. Deuteronomy 30:14 ("But the word is very near you. It is on your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." [emphasis added]): Tim focuses on the last six words which, in his mind, strongly suggest libertarian freedom, namely that disobeying or unbelieving people have the ability to choose otherwise than what they are currently choosing.

2. 1 Corinthians 10:13 (“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”): Tim comments, “Accordingly whenever one sins, they did not have to as there was a genuine ability to do otherwise (‘a way of escape’) available for them to choose.” (emphasis is his)

3. 2 Corinthians 10:5 (“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ”); Colossians 2:8 (“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit… and not according to Christ”); Ephesians 6:12 (“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”): Tim comments on this cluster of texts: “Paul states that ‘we’—and implies that we  ought to—take our thoughts captive to obey Christ. Paul seems to teach that we are responsible free thinkers of the libertarian variety…. that our thoughts are not causally determined and forced upon us from external sources; we possess the ability to think otherwise…. that we ought to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ—to obey reality! He also teaches that we can be taken captive by incorrect thinking… [and] that humanity is engaged in a battle…. No, whether we realize it or not, each and every one of us is in a battle for our mind!” Tim then concludes: Paul urges us to take our thoughts captive before they take us captive. We are responsible for our thoughts and thus, we ought to be free thinkers! Which is not even possible on a deterministic view as many Calvinists affirm.” (emphasis added)

4. 2 Timothy 1:7 (“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”): Tim writes: “Paul is clear that Christians are not controlled by anything external to ourselves. He makes it clear that God has given Christians an ability to be in control…. If Christians have self-control, then something other than the self is not in control.” (emphasis added)

5. Philemon 14 (“but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own [free will].”[1]): Tim, in essence, says that this text, read in light of the above texts (the larger biblical context), certainly would seem to speak of libertarian freedom.

My careful and scholarly friend defines libertarian freedom in the following ways. To begin, it is a kind of freedom that means a person can think and do otherwise than what he is currently doing and ultimately that person has the ability to choose to think or do other than what he chooses or thinks. In other words, if a genuinely free person is currently not exercising self-control when it comes to the cheese cake set before him, he can choose to have self-control and say, “No.” And, in fact, if he chooses to exercise self-control by saying, “No,” to it, being truly free in the libertarian sense, he could have also chosen to eat the cheese cake. Additionally, libertarian freedom means a person’s decision is made within himself and not decided by causes external to himself. To be force-fed or hypnotized to eat the cheese cake is not a free decision.

The Calvinist holds to what is often called compatibilistic freedom. This view that believes a decision is free if the person making it truly wants to make that decision (regardless of the level of causality or what kind of alternativity is present) is so called since it is alleged that genuine freedom is compatible with a view of God’s sovereignty that sees the latter as absolute. In other words, God’s sovereignty is not conditional upon or limited by anything outside himself, such as human decisions. If libertarian freedom is the kind of freedom humans possess, then it must be said that at least some humans’ decisions could not go a different way, even by God’s governance or his deciding to create a different world based upon his innate middle knowledge (as Molinists argue). This would mean that even though Molinists have a strong view of God’s sovereignty as exercised through his meticulous providence, it is still at least somewhat conditional upon or limited by man’s choices.

With our different views of freedom delineated, I can now go on to respond to Tim. My response is threefold:
1. As a compatibilist, I agree with most of what Tim writes about freedom.

2. However, as a compatibilist, I have a few important disagreements.

3. I believe each of the texts is better explained by compatibilistic and not libertarian freedom.

In the remainder of this post I will address the first part of the response in more detail and then address the remaining two in future posts.

My Agreement With Tim
To begin, I agree with Tim that Dt. 30:14 is saying that readers or listeners can obey God’s Word or his will. I have no problem believing that God has given people the faculties to respond to his revelation, in other words intellect, affections, and will. Man lacks nothing he needs to understand and obey.  What is more, in no way did God create human beings unable to understand and obey God’s Word, or make his revelation such that only a select few can follow him. This is one of the reasons Paul asserts that no one can stand before God someday and argue, “God, I did not have a chance.” After all, not just Special Revelation, but also General Revelation is within human grasp and ability. (Rom. 1:20).

I would say that man has the natural ability to understand, choose, and obey. Though I will address what natural ability is in greater detail in the next post, here I will simply give an example. An example of a natural ability in the physical realm is a person who has the “tools” it takes to walk up a flight of stairs—he has two legs that function. A natural inability would involve a paraplegic who is unable to walk up a flight of stairs. God created mankind with the natural ability to trust in and obey him and this is part of why man is responsible for his lack of trust and obedience.

Second, I agree with Tim that in 1 Corinthians 10:13 the Christian has the ability to say, “Yes,” to God and “No,” to sin. In fact, this reality is one of the reasons Calvinists are so adamant in defending compatibilistic human freedom and absolute sovereignty in salvation (more about this in the next post).

But, again, I want to be more specific in my answer. The person who has been regenerated by the Spirit of God not only has the natural ability to trust in and obey God (and say, “No” to temptation), he also has the moral ability to do so. This is because God has so transformed the Christian in salvation that he sees the need for trusting in God, wants to trust in the gospel, does so, and all this because he has the Spirit in him to transform his intellect, affections, and will, and so has what might be called the general desire and ability to trust in and obey God.

This general ability is similar to the person who is characterized by the ability to swim. This says nothing about whether or not she is near water right now and can actualize that ability, but she has it generally. A fellow passenger might jokingly ask her after hearing their seats can be used as flotation devices if the plan crashes, “Hey, can you swim?”  She answers, “Yes.” She means she has the general ability to swim, not that she has the particular ability to do it at that time.  After all, she is not near water.

In regard to 1 Corinthians 10:13, I would also say that for many Christians who are trusting in this promise of God and have habituated themselves to say, “Yes” to God and “No” to temptation (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 5:14), or at least have not habituated themselves in the other direction toward temptation (e.g. 2 Pt. 2:14), they have the particular ability to obey God and avoid temptation in a particular situation. However, there is also the possibility that a Christian with moral and general ability to avoid sin can lack the particular ability, if their antecedent choices (including habituation) take them in a direction in which they cannot at that moment say, “Yes,” to God. Why? Because God created them this way or forced them?  No, but because their desire to make the other choice, shaped by antecedent movements in their own heart, is so strong.

An example, going back to the swimming analogy would be this. Suppose a woman who is an accomplished member of a college swim team and who enjoys swimming, has the natural, moral, and general ability to swim, yet she finds herself at a friend’s house for a party. She did not understand from the invitation how long the party would last, nor that it a pool party and so she had planned a date with her boyfriend after this party and she did not bring a swimming suit. Given these antecedent movements, which also include her desire for her hair to remain intact for her date and her distaste of using anyone else’s swimming suit, she has a strong desire not to swim. Does she have the natural, moral, and general ability to swim, to choose otherwise than saying, “No,” to swimming? Yes. But, given her strong disposition to decline, she lacks the particular ability to decide to swim.

Finally, I agree with Tim on the cluster of passages that call us to take captive our thoughts and that to do so suggests our free choices are not causally determined and forced upon us from external sources. In fact, any informed compatibilist says, “Amen!” to this. Compatibilists believe a free choice is one that a person truly wants to make and emerges from their own will. This is the essence of how a compatibilist defines a free choice. It is a common misconception that Calvinism believes God forces people against their will to make a choice. Of course, this says nothing yet about the relationship of God’s absolute sovereignty to man’s decisions. That will also await a future post.

This should show that the compatibilist or Calvinist approach is more nuanced than many suspect and it has more in common with Molinism than some would admit. However, there are important disagreements when it comes to freedom. To those disagreements I will turn next time.

Joyfully Following Our Sovereign God With You As We Love Those Who Disagree With Us,


[1] This is an earlier ESV edition’s translation. The current ESV reads “accord” in place of “free will.”