Category Archives: Free Will

16 Problems that Arise From Libertarian Free Will

Given libertarian free will, the following difficulties emerge

  1. It is possible that every single person God created could have been lost and that the number of the elect be zero.
  2. It is possible that every human being can live a perfectly sinless life.
  3. It is possible that some people do not need forgiveness of sins, for each person is able to perfectly conform to God’s law.
  4. It is possible that Christ’s death on the cross would not save anyone.
  5. It is possible that God is eternally sorrowful over the lost and that they did not choose him.
  6. God becomes temporal and changing, since he must wait on events in time to determine his knowledge. This makes God finite, since he cannot possess his entire being at once.
  7. Prophecy of future free actions become conditional – but Christ’s death, which itself depends on the free actions of humans, then becomes conditional. Therefore it is possible that Christ not die. Yet Scripture says the lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.”
  8. God’s providence becomes conditional and how God wants to steer events in the world can be frustrated. God cannot guarantee that an event will occur that comes from a particular free willed action. But many events depend on particular free willed actions. Therefore God cannot guarantee that such events occur.
  9. It is impossible for God to have foreknowledge of future free actions, since he must wait on the future to arrive in order to know what will occur.
  10. It is impossible for God to have timeless knowledge of free actions and also use that knowledge to be provident, since if he is timeless he would become a single eternally passive receiver, and any reaction or response on his part to acts in time would destroy his timelessness and make him temporal himself.
  11. God, since he cannot be timeless if he relates to libertarianly free people, becomes just one more changing and temporal being, which cannot explain its own existence. For a temporal being cannot itself produce time and space. Thus a temporal being cannot create ex nihilo and God could not have created the entire space-time manifold itself.
  12. Do choices presuppose motives, or motives choices? If the former, then we do not choose our motives, and libertarian free will is false. If the later, then libertarian free will is irrational, for we would lack a ground for preferring one motive rather than another in the choosing of our motives.
  13. How do we explain the universal testimony of human experience that all people do and will sin? If libertarian free will is true, this becomes an instance of the greatest case of bad luck in history (literally).
  14. If God passively receives something (say knowledge, or a fulfilled desire) from a source outside himself, then he is essentially dependent on something outside himself for his existence. But God as first cause is outside the whole order of created things and does not require something else to exist the way he does. Thus God cannot depend on the creation. Rather the creation depends on him. But then God cannot receive being from libertarian free choices, and so they cannot exist.
  15. If libertarian freedom is necessary for human goodness, then in order to have human goodness Christ as man could have sinned. But if it was possible for Christ to sin then it was possible for the second person of the Trinity to be in disunion with the first person. But this is impossible. Thus Christ as man could not have been libertarianly free.
  16. God’s salvific will, even presupposing libertarian freedom, is still qualified or limited, insofar as God only desires to save those who do such and such (believe, trust in him, do good, et al.) Thus, God still only conditionally desires salvation even granting libertarian free will, otherwise he would unconditionally give eternal life and joy to even those who did not meet a particular criteria for salvation.

Norris Clarke’s Explanation of God’s Way of Knowing

Clarke was a Thomist. As such he was committed to the idea of God as pure actuality and timeless. Yet, as most Catholics do (which separates them from Calvinists) Clarke also believed in true libertarian freedom. But then how can God know free choices, since they would seem to “actualize” God’s own knowledge? (The absolute determinist option – that God knows by determining – is not open to Clarke.)

In previous posts I’ve laid out many of the problems in various models of a timeless God’s way of knowing free willed acts. They all break down insofar as God becomes an eternally passive receiver of information, to which he must “react.” But “reaction” (and reception) is something a timeless, changeless God cannot do. Thus, while certain models may explain how God eternally knows free acts (by eternally passively receiving knowledge of them), these models make God unable to actually respond to or act on what he knows. For that creates sequence in God’s acts, which consequently makes him temporal.

Now, Norris Clarke had an interesting take on this problem. He supposed that God knows free choices, not by unilaterally determining them, nor by passively receiving knowledge of them, but by synergistically and actively doing them with the creature itself. As he says, “God knows not by being acted upon, but through his own action in us.” (A Philosophical Approach to God.)

Now this approach deserves some attention. Can it solve the problems that the traditional divine reception model creates (where God is passively receiving knowledge, e.g. on a watchtower)? For one, if Clarke is correct here, it would follow that God’s creative act – his granting of free will – would be radically different from what is normally supposed in the classic literature. God’s bringing into being free beings would be the same thing as, or logically connected to, the opening up of himself to various determinate actions in and through these beings themselves. Thus God’s act of creating would simultaneously also be a divine self-limitation or vulnerability, insofar as God really allows his creative powers to flow through channels which may or may not be pleasing to him. This would not make God “dependent on” creatures to actualize his own nature against his will on creatures. But it would entail that God has so chosen in accordance with his will to be able to be actualized in his nature by free creatures. (There is a world of difference here.) If this makes God’s will dependent on creatures for the fulfillment of a desire it is only because he has so freely chosen to allow his desire to be dependent on something outside himself. And so again we come to a divine emptying, a divine humility, inherent in the very act of creating and relating to the world.

But perhaps this isn’t so radical a view after all. For have not theists for thousands of years believed at least in some rudimentary form that God in granting free will has also limited his own omnipotence and power in the world?

What is perhaps more interesting – at least to me – is whether or not Clarke’s view can save us from the Causal Loop objection. (You can see that objection fully laid out here: In short, the objection shows that if God receives a particular free willed act at time 1 into his knowledge by passively receiving it, then he cannot use that knowledge to interact with the creation, for that would imply a) God being temporal; and b) a causal loop, since each moment of time would already be present to a timeless God.

But if Clarke is right, then God is not passively receiving moments of time or free willed act, either one by one, or in a single divine moment of reception. Rather, God is in a single timeless act atively acting in and through free beings. This may be unimaginable – i.e. it may posit a mode of causation that we cannot form adequate mental pictures of – but does it involve a contradiction? It’s hard to see that it does. For, from God’s point of view, his one act of creation is single. Ergo, each separate thing in creation is, from this creative perspective, inseparably connected. We can get a grasp of this even a little bit by thinking about how each bit of matter must, if we could but follow out the connection of all physical objects, be affected by every other bit of matter. The idea that one star on this side of the universe is impacted by one star on another side is really only a magnified example of the fact that my skin is somewhat impacted by the space heater that is humming a few feet away from me. For each occasion in the universe has a definite affect on something else, and that, on something else, and so on, throughout the entire cosmos. In fact the word “universe” itself attests to this: for it is that thing which contains everything else and thus unites all separate and finite realities into a single causally connected plane.

Now, could something like this be the case with God and his knowledge of free events? If God is actively working at every moment of time, then every moment of time is connected in a particular way to every other. There would of course be a “forward” connection, as time moves from left to right. But there would also be a “backward” one, insofar as the providential God brings meaning to future events based on past actions.

Does this notion of God, timelessly “acting through” every free act throughout all time, avoid the Causal Loop objection? To say yes, one would have to show that no “single” free act in time is the “result” of God’s doing such and such at another point in time. For once you have the temporal stuff determining God you make God temporal.

But my head hurts too much right now to try to parse this out if God is in fact by his own free choice timelessly working in and through all active free causes in time. Maybe better minds can come along behind me and do that.

St. Paul the Calminian? Combining Truths from Calvinism (Compatibilism) and Arminianism (Libertarianism)

St. Paul was knocked off his horse by a blinding light and audibly heard Christ telling him what he should, and would, do next. These were things he had precious little “free will” about. A Calvinist would say in these cases God exerted irresistible grace on Paul – he overwhelmed his psyche such that he could not deny the truth of what was happening. (They would say all conversions happen this way.) On the other hand, Paul also implies that this vision was something he could have disobeyed (Acts 23:19.) Arminians would say that this verse (and others, of course) prove that God’s grace is resistible. Regardless of the particular psychological experiences that human have – the “sweet promptings” as CS Lewis called them – we can still resist God, if we so choose.

In fact, if we come clean the New Testament is replete with verses which indicate both Calvinist and Arminian teachings as these systems touch on grace, total inability/depravity, free will and predestination. Paul in particular seems guilty of giving with one hand what he theologically takes away with the other. One could hardly blame someone for thinking that he strings together a set of three or four sentences where he apparently contradicts himself. For instance the same God who disposes all things exactly as he wishes still “endures” the vessels of mercy that he himself has “prepared” beforehand for destruction. Or again, although it is not up to the one who runs or wills, and although it is faith alone that justifies – nevertheless we are to work out our own salvation, with free and trembling.

What I am trying to say is that Paul sometimes talks like a Calvinist and sometimes like an Arminian. In short, he sounds Calminian. I want to suggest that maybe that’s because he is. Even if you disagree with either Calvinism or Arminianism in particular, the fact that thousands of brilliant, Scripture-loving individuals have read Paul as being either one or the other pretty strongly suggests that Paul did at least occasionally sound like he could be both.

Now, there seem to me only four possibilities regarding Paul’s theology. a) Paul was a Calvinist at heart, and simply overlooked, rather stupidly, the fact that much of his theology, when understood in ordinary language, plainly contradicted his Calvinism when taken to its logical conclusion. b) Paul was an Arminian at heart, and vice versa. c) Paul was just plain wrong about what he wrote and never really understood God’s grace, human freedom, original sin, and predestination. Or d) Paul’s theology was self consistent and is neither only Calvinist nor Arminian but rather bigger than both. I believe I can make a suggestive case for d).

When a smaller mind or smaller medium tries to incorporate a larger or richer one, it will inevitably fail in incorporating and reproducing all the subtle distinctions that exist in the larger and richer medium. This is because it does not have a vision wide enough or capacity deep enough to capture, and therefore take up and synthesize, all the data that exists in the larger mind. In fact every mistake, every mental incongruity and apparent contradiction, really stems from just this inability to grasp the full angle of whatever it is that is creating the puzzle.

In other words, if all you have is a hammer, all you see are nails. Yet I’m guessing St. Paul had more in his toolbox than just a hammer. Rather than saying he held to one truth of either Calvinism or Arminianism at the EXPENSE of the other, it seems to me reasonable to read Paul as “Calminain.” In particular it seems to me that he affirmed both compatibilism and libertarianism. It is this distinctly Pauline view of freedom – this affirmation of both kinds of freedom – that allows him to hold what appear to us as logical contradictions insofar as Calvinism and Arminianism are supposedly incompatible. I want to suggest that this is Paul’s unique philosophical framework that blows apart all the modern frameworks that try to peg him into a certain shaped theological hole in the free will/determinism debate. 

My question is – could Paul have actually believed in both forms of free will? That is, are compatibilism and libertarianism (henceforth C and L) mutually exclusive theories? Is it logically possible to be both a compatiblist and libertarian?

The answer seems to me obviously yes, so long as both accounts of freedom aren’t affirmed of the same will at the same time regarding the same action. That is, it is impossible to have C-freedom and L-freedom about the same choice at the same time. But it is perfectly logically possible for a will to be C-free with regard to x, and also L-free with regard to y: I am compatibilistically unable to murder my wife, but libertarianly free to be rude to her. Thus, the same person – me – has both compatiblistic and libertarian freedom.

Now this truth is so strikingly simple that it is quite shocking to see how many theologians think that if one affirms either C or L they must simultaneously and categorically reject the other one. But this just does not logically follow. All that logically follows is that one must deny that the will is C-free or L-free at the same time with respect to the same action. But with respect to any number of different actions at different times the will can be BOTH C-free AND L-free. What one is metaphysically unable to do one day, one may become metaphysically able to do another, and vice versa. The mother who cannot help but love her child the day it is born can become the type of person who has nothing but a selfish desire to please herself – and therefore who may eventually become unable to love that same child.

With this philosophical nugget in mind – i.e. that the same will can at one moment be C-free and at another L-free and vice versa – let me unpack what could be an outline of something like a “Calminian” theology as I see in Paul.

“Total inability” is a doctrine that seems not only a clear teaching of Paul, but also of Scripture, insofar as the teaching states that all humans everywhere are inevitable sinners. It’s not that humanity has the power to refrain from sin, but simply freely chooses not to. Rather, humanity cannot perfectly obey the law: we cannot perfectly refrain from sin. Even the most robust Arminians waffle on this point. Typical Arminian theology holds that all humans have libertarian free will with regard to sin. Yet if that is really true, it follows that not all humans necessarily need forgiveness or salvation from sin. In fact, it is theoretically possible that there could be people – any number of them – that have never sinned and never will. Each newborn child is, on the Arminian scheme, perfectly able to resist every temptation and live a perfectly sinless life. Why, then, the need for the universal reptenance and forgiveness preached in the Gospel? And aside from all the Scripture that speaks about the impossibility and inability of keeping the law perfectly and the logic of Christ being the only perfect and sinless human, what about the experiential data? We don’t even need divine revelation to tell us that sin and guilt are universal human experiences: a secular sociology book could do that.

(As an additional aside, there seems a possible logical contradiction in supposing that any created being could be potentially morally perfect. If a human could be morally perfect, or really could keep the law perfectly, doesn’t that in some sense equate them with God? It seems to me at least possible to suggest that for any finite being God created, it may also be an implicit consequence of their finitude that they necessarily sin. For to say that they even have the ability to be perfect seems like saying God has the power of creating another perfect being, another God – which is a self-contradiction.)

On the other hand, Paul clearly seems to think we can respond to God’s grace. He pleads for us to “resist not” the Holy Spirit, and tells us to “work out our own salvation.” One moment he is rapturously telling us how God saved him from his ignorance, and another he is praying that he himself will not be a castaway. So where the Arminians waffle on our inability to keep the law perfectly, Calvinists waffle regarding our true ability to resist God’s grace. As much as Paul says we are at times willingly unable, he also says at times we are willingly able to to resist sin. Let us also not forget the very curious passage in Revelation which tells us that the same names that were written in the Book of Life “before the foundation of the world” can also be blotted out. If all absolutely our acts are compatibilistically determined (rather than only some) how is that possible?

So the question is, how do we synthesize these views – the fact that we are at times unable to keep from sinning and at others able to keep from it? Are they even reconcilable?

It seems to me that they are. All we have to do is separate the times and things to which our will is acting either C-freely or L-freely. Why can’t it be the case that, all humans ever born are compatibilistically incapable of keeping God’s law; but that God, through his grace, grants them the libertarian freedom to be able to respond, in faith, by surrendering their wills to Himself, and so find forgiveness? It seems to me that such a doctrine could affirm both a) Total Inability; and b) Resistible Grace and still be logically coherent. Humanity in their natural state cannot but fall. God lets them experience this, so that he may extend mercy and grace to them. But God’s very grace enables us to freely – that is libertarianly – respond to him and repent of our sin. There is nothing logically contradictory in such a Calminian teaching.

I can anticipate a rebuttal. “But why did God make all humans compatibilistic sinners? Why not just make them all libertarianly free in the first place, thereby possibly saving some of them from sinning if they so chose?”

Now this is a very good objection. The answer to it consists in two parts:

i) the typical “free will defense” which states that love requires entirely libertarianly free creatures is incomplete. Does not the mother love the child even though she cannot help but love the child? In truth, love can be expressed both compatibilistically and freely. We must remove from our minds the idea that it is “only” a L-free willed creation or a creation that is utterly L-free that God thinks is worth creating. God willed a creation with both kinds of freedom. (That may require a bit of retooling regarding the problem of evil but so be it. I hope to get to such retooling later.)

And ii) it’s not as though God “made” or forced humanity to be necessarily sinners or imperfect. That is imagining things as if “first” there was a race of perfect creatures called humans, and “then” God chose to corrupt them by implanting in them an evil desire they couldn’t resist. But that is thinking of it in the wrong way. The way to view it is by thinking that “humanity” as such exists first in God’s intellect as its own idea: a race of beings who by nature sin. God can then go to work on that idea. He can create humans on such and such a planet, under such and such conditions, etc. But to think he could instantly “make” humans who are naturally sinners naturally perfect is to really just imagine him as thinking of a different race of beings altogether. Think of it like this. Suppose God wanted to make a triangle. Now, he can either make a triangle or make some other shape. But, insofar as he wants to make a triangle he cannot fail to make a shape with three equal sides – that is he cannot fail to make a triangle. In the same way, if God wants to make a race like us – and do not forget if he chose not to create us we never would have existed – he cannot “make” us ex nihilo non-sinners by nature. As distinct ideas we are fundamentally finite, sinful beings. He could of course think of other ideas and instantiate them all throughout the universe (in fact he probably has), but insofar as he wants to create us, sinners is what we must initially be.

Here’s another way to put this point. If the idea of “creatures who by nature sin” is even a possible thought in God’s mind, then it is something he can logically create. In order to say God couldn’t create beings who sin by nature you would have to show that the idea “sinner by nature” is a logical contradiction, like a squared triangle or married bachelor. However, if the idea is even possible, God can therefore cause it to be. He could also cause other ideas to be. He can make a universe with all sorts of creatures and shapes and colors. But insofar as he creates a particular idea, it must be that idea, and no other.

Back, then, to Calminianism. So far it seems logically possible to believe that we are a) unable to be perfectly sinless on our own since we have a natural, C-freedom irresistibly drawn to sin; and also b) that God can grant us natural sinners L-freedom with regard to surrendering ourselves to him through faith. Notice with regard to a), on the doctrine of the divine ideas, we don’t even need an Adamic fall to explain sin’s universality (though of course we could still use it if need be: i.e. it is not excluded either.). Rather, it is simply part of the “species” of “humanity” as it exists eternally in God’s mind that we are sinners. And notice with regard to b) that, if God so sovereignly decided to reward such a puny, unmeritorious act of “surrendering” he could do so and thereby use such a surrender as the justification and conduit by which he then fills our wills with irresitibly good desires. In other words, God can still be the ultimate source of all our goodness, peace, joy, and all the other fruits of the spirit on this view. We humans do not naturally generate these things (again it could be a metaphysical contradiction to suppose a created, finite being could generate goodness). In fact what we naturally generate is sin. But God has gifted us with the ability to surrender and thus be able to channel his goodness.

Much more could be said about “Calminianism.” If I got paid to write I’d go through the New Testament with a fine toothed comb and tally up verses that support both Calvinist and Arminian theologies and argue that therefore the New Testament itself cannot support one at the exclusion of the other but that it must contain a systematic larger and more comprehensive than either one in isolation. I would then go on about God’s predestination and show how logically there is nothing wrong with supposing that God gives both resistible and irresitible graces at different times to the same person. God could predestine absolutely everything about someone except what they ate for lunch on their 40th birthday if he wanted. There is nothing incoherent about that. He could predetermine through created C-freedom any percentage of choices he wanted and thus make predestination as general or as specific as he wanted, extending it to whatever consequences he wanted. I would next show how this leads to the fact that God can foreknow with absolute certainty all that he has predetermined with C-freedom and at the same time have an Open Theist knowledge of possibilities regarding L-freedom.

We must do away with the “either-or” as regards the doctrines of Open Theism, Calvinism, and Arminianism. Scripture teaches truths from all three. Once one realizes that God can give both kinds of freedom however he wants the ways of combining these doctrines are endless.

Perhaps in a future post I will also explore how both C-freedom and L-freedom connect to the problem of evil, and how God, knowing that evil would result, and knowing that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world (because humans are necessarily and naturally sinners), still created us because he knew that a) he could connect us to Christ’s death by having us also experience pain and suffering; and because he also knew b) that he would offer us grace whereby we could still freely surrender our natural selves over to him. I would also like to explore one weakness of the free will defense regarding the permission of evil and the mistaken “asymmetry” involved in thinking that because God grants some the ability to freely love that this necessarily entails that, if the being chooses not to love, therefore some other party must experience suffering. I don’t see why giving “the ability to freely love” must also carry with it “the necessity of another suffering if the one chooses not to love.” Suppose I CAN cook a meal for a homeless man, and therefore feed him. Why must it be the case that if I do not cook it, he will starve? Can’t someone else? I don’t see why a universe metaphysically “has” to entail this sort of asymmetry: the ability to do good freely oneself therefore necessarily implying that if that one does not do good ANOTHER suffers. In fact if God ever unilaterally intervenes in Nature to do miracles it seems this is NOT a metaphysical necessity. And furthermore, we humans prevent various consequences of free willed acts all the time which we evidently think is a good thing to do. I would prevent the child-rapist’s freedom from being exercised regarding the rape if I had the power. So either God does not have the power (in which case miracles would be impossible) or he does not prevent it for some other reason. Miracles are possible so he must therefore have some other reason for permitting the evil.

Anyway, I wish I could polish these closing thoughts into a nice package and present them to hungry minds. Maybe in the future. The purpose of this post has rather been to present a basic outline of Calminian theology – by that I mean specifically a Pauline notion of free will, as that relates to our inability to keep the law perfectly and also our ability to freely respond to God’s grace. It seems to me we can suggest that far from being either a libertarian or a compatibilist, Paul was both. He seemed to affirm both truths regarding the will. This is logically possible insofar as we keep a distinction between what acts and at what times C and L freedom extend to. Thus in this way it seems possible to suggest a Pauline-Calminian notion of free will itself. This notion rises above the modern division of C and L freedom, and also the teachings of either Arminianism or Calvinism in isolation. It is a system which, I believe, can incorporate truths from both theologies.

St. Peter’s Idea of Destiny

Let’s not beat around the bush. The New Testament strongly affirms predestination – so much so that some Christians are driven to believe that God causally determines absolutely all things that comes to pass, even evil. Some of the strongest verses in support of such an idea are those like the following:

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.” (1 Peter 2:7,8)


When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)

There are, of course, many other verses which speak about predestination. I choose only these two because they seem the hardest to wiggle out of. The logic of these texts seem to be that those who believe were predestined to believe and those who disobey were predestined to disobey. And this implies the doctrine of double predestination – before the foundation of the world God chose specifically who he will save and who he will damn.

Notice, however, a strange fact. Following many of these double predestination texts there are appeals made by the author to his audience that they continue in obedience to God. I call this strange because, if God in fact predestines minutely every act of history, particular people themselves do not really have any ability to abstain from sin and disobedience. I’d like to use the passage from Peter above to flesh out what I mean.

After Peter has just told us that there were people “destined” to disobey, he basically devotes the rest of his letter to urging people to do good and resist evil. With that in mind lets examine the logical implications of the Calvinist doctrine that God determines all, even disobedience. Try to follow closely because this theological seed bears good fruit.

If it is true that from before the creation of the world God has unilaterally predestined all that comes to pass, it is false that things could possibly be different than they in fact will be. If God predestines all there is no real possibility in things themselves to be actually other than they in fact are or will be. Everything that exists gets its actual existence from God’s eternal decree. All human choices – good and evil – ultimately are what they are, not because humans have freely determined how they will choose, but because God has created them to be what they in fact are. Given God’s decree, nothing can in fact be otherwise than it eternally will be.

Now, this is a logical implication of the idea that God has predestined all that comes to pass in the Calvinist sense. The problem is, this implication is refuted several times over in the remainder of Peter’s letter. Peter clearly believes that possibilities are real. That is, he clearly believes that certain things depend, not on God’s predestined and irresistible determination, but on the free acts of human beings themselves. Peter believes that the universe God made is one in which various things might – and therefore might not – come to pass.

To prove my point I’m going to paste a large portion of the remainder of his letter and insert my comments. The words in red are words that become non-sensical if absolute determinism is true.

*****1 Peter 2

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (This “may” becomes meaningless if God has determined all. The chosen people either will declare praises, or they will not, there is no middle ground.)11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority… (Commands to abstain and submit are meaninglessly made to those who are tempted if they do not themselves have any ability to follow the command. That would be like commanding water not to boil at a certain temperature or commanding the grass to grow when it has not received any rain. Furthermore, what is with Peter’s urgency? If God has determined everything, nothing actually CAN happen that he should be worked up about. God’s will is always being done everywhere, hence the anxiety should evaporate.)

20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you,leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps(Again, this “if” – this conditional – is meaningless if God has determined everything because there really are no possibilities in the first place. Everything follows the necessity of God’s decree. Notice too how Peter says we “should” suffer for good’s sake. That is a proclamation about how things ought to be. Therefore either they can be a certain way but sometimes are not, or they cannot be a certain way, regardless. The first can only be true if it is possible for God’s will to be thwarted or resisted. The second can only be true if God determines everything. Yet if God determines everything what sense is there in saying things “should” be different? God has determined absolutely all things. That would be equivalent to saying God should have done differently than he did, which no one believes – Calvinist or Open Theist.)

24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (“Mights” and possibilities are meaningless if God has determined all. Notice too Christ is “overseer” of souls, not “absolute determiner.”)

3 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives... You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. (Conditionals are impossible if God has determined all.)

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (Again, this conditional is impossible if God has predetermined everything. Also notice in this verse Peter implies that our calling itself has a conditional aspect to it. I.e. we were called so that we should freely imitate Christ.)

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built… (How can God “wait patiently” or “endure with much longsuffering” that which he has absolutely determined should be just the way it is?)

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God (This “but rather” implies that God’s will is something that can – and therefore cannot be – lived for. The people beforehand were living through early and evil desires, which was not the will of God, or Peter could not go on to make the contrast with living in accord with God’s will. Thus he assumes it is possible to live “against” the will of God, which is impossible if God determines all.)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ… (These commands to be alert, to love, and to use various gifts are all nonsensical if those to which they are spoken do not themselves possess the ability to carry out the commands themselves.)

12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you... (The notion of God “testing” that which he has predetermined in absolutely every respect is meaningless.)

16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (This implies that there is a way to suffer that is NOT according to God’s will: i.e. by being bitter and ashamed of God rather than “praising God that you bear that name.” But it is impossible to do anything contrary to God’s will if he determines all.)

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (If God has determined all, “resisting” Satan – in fact “resisting” anything – is impossible for the creature itself. It only will resist if God has preordained that it will.)


So – it seems to me that whatever Peter meant when he said people were “destined” to disobey, he did not really think that God predestines absolutely everything that comes to pass. Once again, Scripture, taken as a whole, presents a bigger picture than what many theological systems try to define. Where they try to pin it down, it rears up. Where they try to encompass it, it alludes them. As CS Lewis said,

“I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity. I am puzzled, but I am not surprised… Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”

On Divine Providence

“Did Ophelia die because Shakespeare for poetic reasons wanted her to die at that moment—or because the branch broke?’ I think one would have to say, ‘For both reasons’. Every event in the play happens as a result of other events in the play, but also every event happens because the poet wants it to happen.” CS Lewis, Miracles

How to reconcile free will and predestination? Scripture verses can be stacked quite high supporting both sides. But the two things seem to be mutually exclusive: if humans are free, their actions seem to be up to them. Whether or not they do a or b is something not in God’s control. Yet if this is true it is possible that God not get the outcome he wants in certain circumstances. Consider the case of the crucifixion. If Jesus’ death depended on the evil free willed acts of humans, and if those acts were ultimately decided by the agents themselves making the choices, then it was not ultimately up to God whether or not Jesus would be crucified. The only way God could guarantee a particular outcome – and this need not be only the crucifixion, any species of divine providence will do – the only way God could ensure that a particular outcome came about would be if he overrode free will. But if he is prepared to override our freedom, we’re left wondering a) why he gave it at all; and b) how those who did such actions could be morally responsible for what they did, seeing as God “overrode” their “normal” freedom.

On the other hand, if we are all indeed free, how does God’s providence work? If God wants the crucifixion to occur, but he also wants free beings, how does he get both?

At first it seems a possible solution is to say that God can foreknow what any free being would do in any circumstance, and, thus knowing this, he can providentially arrange things such that he places free beings in various circumstances the outcomes of which are certain to occur. This is the idea that God has “middle knowledge.” But the problem here is that prior to the creature’s existence, there is no truth to speak of regarding it. Before a free person exists, how could God know what it “would” do, unless he determined that action himself beforehand?

Another popular solution is to say that God can know what beings will do simply by “observing” them outside of time. But this solution has a crippling catch. If God only passively observes by seeing all things at once, then he cannot also be orchestrating the circumstances of history in any providential sense. What God sees is an already existing thing – an already determinate reality. Time and all of history that fill it are already out there, existing over and against God. As such what goes on in time and history determine God’s knowledge itself. Therefore his knowledge, even if it is timeless, would come to him too late to be useful, for reality is already how it is. His knowing is simply his act of understanding what has already occurred without his providential guidance. (Anyone interested in more on this can see my past posts about problems in the purely observatory account of timeless knowledge.)

I believe the solution to the problem of free will and providence certainly involves God being outside of time. But it is not only this idea that is needed. As the last paragraph states a timeless being could be one that is timelessly impotent in doing anything with the knowledge that it has. (Ironically, this is also the case if God is in time learning what we do from moment to moment. Once he knows what free acts we will do it is already too late for him to do anything about those choices. He can only “guess” or “risk” with the possibility of failure.)

What must be coupled with the notion of a timeless God is also the idea that he is, from within, the determining source of all finite and created being whatsoever. Augustine, Aquinas, and most all classic theologians held that God’s knowledge is not caused by the existence of things themselves. For this would make him a contingent and dependent being. Contingent because his particular state of being was what it was because of other things (free choices of creatures.) And dependent because for God to be this – that is, a being who knows such and such – he needs the existence of free beings first. What the tradition has always said, rather, is that it is God’s knowledge which cause the things.

Now this at first immediately raises the problem of predestination and absolute determinism. If God’s knowing causes my actions, how are my actions not ultimately determined by God himself? And if this is the case, how can I be free?

They key is in understanding the fact that God’s power and creative motion themselves give to the will their very freedom itself. God and creatures are not on the same level of being. They do not face each other like two people do in a conversation, nor do they work together when an action takes place in the world, as if each one contributed some share to the project. Two people can both build a house. One person may lay the foundation and the other may do the roof. But the relations between man and God – that is the cooperating between the two – is not like this. God is at all times actively upholding every atom of the universe. Any action we do, even free ones, are ultimately possible only because of the movement and causal influence of God.

God therefore when he moves the will – when he creates it in a particular state – does so in a manner consistent with the wills nature. In fact his creating and moving the will just is what a natural human free will is. In short, what God creates is a will that is freely inclined and moved towards such and such. It is just that God’s action, since it is responsible for the very conditions of all reality – which themselves include the parameters of free will – itself causes both the inclination and movement of the will as free.

To put it in more metaphysical terms, we say that certain things are “necessary” or “contingent.” Most people normally assume that mathematical truths are necessary. 1 + 1 has to equal 2. On the other hand most people normally assume that free acts are normally consider contingent. Although I chose pizza for dinner, it was possible for me to have chosen a cheeseburger. Now, both the necessary and contingent as such are different modes of existence and reality. They are, if you like, different “species of being,” different metaphysical pieces of furniture that reality is populated with. Therefore they must get their particular realness and distinction from somewhere – God. But God in creating them in their particular modes does not destroy their individual metaphysical realness, but rather perfects and completes it.

Aquinas, in his question on providence and necessity, puts it like this. “We must remember that properly speaking “necessary” and “contingent” are consequent upon being, as such. Hence the mode both of necessity and of contingency falls under the foresight of God, who provides universally for all being.” Thus he goes on to say in his questions on the will that “As Dionysius says “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently.”

Hence the idea is that God is able to move things – that is, he is able to determine and cause things – such that their freedom and contingency is not destroyed, but rather established. God causes then not only the particular things that occur but also the *manner* in which they occur themselves. The only reason this seems problematic is because we imagine that there is first an “us” or a “free will” and then God goes about moving that will to either this or that thing. Hence all the talk before about God having to “override” our freedom to get what he wants. But to think this way is to fail to grasp the all comprehensive creative power of God. Apart from God’s creative activity there is no “us” to speak of. We have no being independent of or “before” his power and motion. Rather, his creative action as making us as we are just is our very existence itself. There is no gap between God creating us as we are and the subsequent movement of our free will to something. For any movement of the will would also have God as the source of its very existence too. God, as the absolute creator of all that is, does not need a medium by which to create us free. God, all at once, creates us in our very state of free willing itself, and this action does not violate our freedom but rather establishes it.

The best way I think to conceive of the situation is like that of an author to the characters and story in his novel. No one would say that the author in creating a character violates the free will of that character. Rather, the character just is the creation of the author. Nor would it make sense to ask why the author made one character to be this character – say an evil one – rather than that character – say a good one. For insofar as the author creates this particular character it and not another must exist. He could of course refrain from making it, or make some other in its place. But it is absurd to suppose he could make “it” into a different character entirely. For then the first particular character would never have existed.

With the idea of “particular characters” in mind we can perhaps get a better understanding of divine providence and predestination. Each character plays the precise role that God has made it to play. And it does this freely. For the character itself was made for its circumstance and the circumstance made precisely to accent or bring out the personality of the character. Thus, since God is the author he can get what he wants in the story while also ensuring that each character gets what they want in it.

Of course we can ask why God allows this particular character to do such a particular act. And we can also ask how it is consistent with God’s perfect goodness that he creates just this type of novel. But to answer the objection fully we would have to know the entire novel – for instance the destination of each character and how small each affliction was in light of the ending. We would also have to know the exact effects of each choice of every character as they effect every other character and element in the story. This may no doubt raise a moral concern. But notice we are no longer talking about a metaphysical or logical one – i.e. how to reconcile providence and free will. For though the two are closely related they are nevertheless distinct.

(How then does God know our free acts – how do you resolve free will with foreknowledge? He does not know them by being determined by them and “seeing” them over and against himself. Rather, he knows them by knowing his own free creative action of them in themselves.)

I end with a quote from Lewis.

“…we are not to think of God arguing, as we do, from an end (co-existence of free spirits) to the conditions involved in it, but rather of a single, utterly self-consistent act of creation which to us appears, at first sight, as the creation of many independent things, and then, as the creation of things mutually necessary. Even we can rise a little beyond the conception of mutual necessities as I have outlined it—can reduce matter as that which separates souls and matter as that which brings them together under the single concept of Plurality, whereof “separation” and “togetherness” are only two aspects. With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent.”

On Free Will and Psychological Ability

“Remember ‘I cannot turn one hair black or white: but I can brush my hair daily and go to the barber at regular intervals.’ In other words we must divert our efforts from our general condition or frame of mind (wh. we can’t alter by direct action of the will) to what is in our power – our words and acts.” CSL, Letters 8/3/59

Believing in free will is essential to any adequate theology for two reasons: a) if there are no other independent causative powers other than God, then he alone is the ultimate cause of all that exists, including evil; and b) freedom is an undeniable data our existential experience: not only do we positively know we are free by directly experiencing freedom, we also know, morally and logically, that without freedom people cannot be responsible for what they do.

But, there are a host of problems that arise once we grant that free will exists. Doesn’t it simply reduce to “randomness” or an “uncaused cause”? And if so, how can that be a condition for moral responsibility? Or, isn’t it true that if we are free our salvation is works based, and doesn’t this detract from the glory of God? Or, if freedom means the ability to do otherwise, doesn’t this mean that God himself isn’t free, since he cannot fail to do good?

These are all good questions (and I believe they have sounds answers), but this post is going to look at one particular problem not mentioned above: namely, even though free will does seem to exist, nevertheless it also seems true that there are limits to this freedom. In fact there seems to be psychological limits, and these limits not only enable us to do moral actions, but they also do not detract from our personhood simply because we possess them. No one would complain of being a “puppet” simply because he does not have the ability to brutally torture his own dog.

The main problem seems to be this. There are certain psychological states which we are NOT free over, which nevertheless enable us and even lead us to do good behaviors, and these behaviors and mental states are not any “less” simply because they are not freely chosen. In other words, even though we are in certain respects libertarianly free, we also possess a compatibilistic freedom that completes our personnhood rather than violates it. How do believers in free will, who hold that God puts such a high value on its intrinsic good that he must tolerate all the evil that comes with its misuse, account for this compatibilist freedom?

It seems that libertarian freedom necessarily assumes some fixed, unchooseable psychological disposition. In fact to imagine a libertarian choice already presupposes an inexorable “playing field” on which genuine options are unavoidably present. How could one libertarianly choose anything if nothing was “given” and everything had to be freely chosen? So it seems to me not only possible that acts of free will and unchosen psychological states can co-exist but that free will necessarily requires the existence of unchosen psychological states.

Here is another thing that follows from this: the manipulation and even coercion of psychological states does not therefore imply a manipulation or coercion of free will. Now this point is very important to grasp for it helps us see a solution to several puzzles regarding God’s grace and our mental states. Let me explain.

St. Paul was knocked off his horse on Damascus Road and blinded by a vision of light. God audibly spoke to him and gave him a command. Now, it is very easy to say – and many Calvinists will argue this – that here Paul’s will was “violated” or “overridden” because Paul was a chosen vessel elected for God’s purposes. Paul’s freedom couldn’t thwart God’s plan, and if God had to overpower Paul’s psyche to get what he wanted then God was prepared to do so.

There are two things to note here. One, Paul himself implies that he could have disobeyed this heavenly vision (Acts 26:19). But two – and more importantly – we need not think that just because our psychological states are determined that we cannot freely operate within those states. It is true that certain actions are not possible given certain psychological states. I cannot torture the dog I have owned for 14 years – I am just not free to do that. But I still can neglect him in various degrees: I can fail to do my best for him, particularly when his interests and mine conflict. Suppose I know I should walk him. I know, too, that if I continue to type this post I will run out of time before I go to work. At this point I am free to either a) indulge my own pleasure at his expense; or b) walk him and crucify my pleasure. So while I am not free to “torture” him I am nevertheless free to do him some good or some harm. It is also true that given the decisions I make over time, I may open up a new range of psychological parameters. Supposing I get in a habit of not walking him, well, it may be easier not to even feed him the next time I am crunched for time. My point is that we need not be able to do the worst imaginable offence at every given moment in order to have genuine free will.

Now, if we imagine our psychological states as generating various ranges of possible options, we need not conclude that God (or even nature) overrides our free will simply because our states of mind are determined. In fact, as I’ve argued unless some mental state is given there is no realm of possibilities to choose from in the first place – for those very givens themselves would have to be freely chosen, which would involve an infinite regress.The way to say it would be that our particular unchosen states of mind are not things to which our actual free will extend. This does not mean we do not have free will at all – only that we do not have it over every single thing.

Thus it seems to me perfectly consistent to say that due to genetics, or past experiences, or drugs, or food, or how much sleep we get, or even a direct presence of the Holy Spirit, we may be absolutely determined in one respect, and that we still nevertheless possess libertarianly free will. The former things have to do with determining psychological ability, which we do not control, but free will has to do with our spiritual ability to function in those parameters that are already given to us.