Roger Olson asked a very interesting and difficult question the other day: Does God have libertarian freedom? He was specifically addressing Calvinists (he is an Arminian) due to our characteristic denial of what is called “libertarian freedom.” I, as a Calvinist, will attempt to answer his question here.

Let me begin by explaining libertarian freedom, and the reason why most Calvinists deny the concept. (Just scroll to the end if you already know what libertarian freedom is.)

Libertarian Freedom

Libertarian Freedom is often described as “the power of contrary choice.” In other words, the one who believes in libertarian freedom believes that in any given circumstance, when a choice is made, the chooser had the “power” or ability to choose differently. For example, even though this blog is already written, I could have chosen not to write it.

That seems self-evident and rather intuitive as our days are made up of the sum total of all our choices. We make thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions every day in which there are multiple options present. As well, we hold people accountable for their choices because we assume that they could have done otherwise. We tell our children to clean up their room. If they disobey, we discipline them, believing that they had the power of contrary choice (i.e. they could have obeyed!).

As easy as this concept is to accept from a very practical standpoint, from both a philosophical and theological point of view, it is hardly so cut and dry. If you ask me whether a person has the power of contrary choice, I would answer “no.”

Hang with me. The basic argument would be this. Any given choice that a person makes is not made in a vacuum. In other words, none of our choices are birthed out of neutrality. It is a person who makes the choice, not some innocent bystander called “free will.” By the time any given choice is made, the person making the choice will already be, by nature, predisposed to make that choice. This does not mean that the outcome is determined by an outside agency (determinism) nor does it mean that the choice in inevitable (fatalism), but that it is self-determined. Simply put, a person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice. Therefore, people always choose according to who they are at the moment. There is no “power” of contrary choice, for we cannot identify what or who this “power” might be.

Arminians such as Roger Olson believe that when we reject God, we do so out of a neutralized will (total depravity + previenient grace).

Calvinists such as myself believe that when we reject God, we do so out of a fallen will (total depravity).

Think about all that goes into making who you are. We are born in the fallen line of Adam. Spiritually speaking, we have an inborn inclination toward sin. All of our being is infected with sin. This is called “total depravity.” Every aspect of our being is infected with sin, even if we don’t act it out to a maximal degree.

But even if this were not the case—even if total depravity were a false doctrine—libertarian freedom would still be untenable for humans. Not only are you who you are because of your identification with a fallen human race, but notice all these factors that you did not choose that go into the setup for any given “free will” decision made:

  • You did not choose when you were to be born.
  • You did not choose where you were to be born.
  • You did not choose your parents.
  • You did not choose your influences early in your life.
  • You did not choose whether you were to be male or female.
  • You did not choose your genetics.
  • You did not choose your temperament.
  • You did not choose your looks.
  • You did not choose your body type.
  • You did not choose your physical abilities.

All of these factors play an influential role in who you are at the time of any given decision. Yes, your choice is free, but it has you behind it. Therefore, you are free to choose according to you from whom you are not able to free yourself!

Now, I must reveal something here once again that might surprise many of you. This view is held by both Calvinists and Arminians alike. Neither position believes that a person can choose against their nature. However, Arminians (such as Olson) differ from Calvinists in that they believe in the doctrine of “prevenient grace,” which essentially neutralizes the will so that the inclination toward sin—the antagonism toward God—is relieved and the person can make a neutral decision.

However, we still have some massive difficulties. Here are a few:

A neutralized will amounts to your absence from the choice itself.

Changing the nature of a person so that their predispositions are neutral does not really help. We are back to the question What does a neutralized will look like? Does it erase all of the you behind the choice? If you are neutralized and liberated from you, then who is making the choice? How can you be held responsible for a choice that you did not really make, whether good or bad?

A neutralized will amounts to perpetual indecision.

Think about this, if a person had true libertarian freedom, where there were no coercive forces, personal or divine, that influenced the decision, would a choice ever be made? If you have no reason to choose A or B, then neither would ever be chosen. Ronald Nash illustrates this by presenting a dog who has true libertarian freedom trying to decide between two bowls of dog food. He says that the dog would end up dying of starvation. Why? Because he would never have any reason to choose one over the other. It is like a balanced scale, it will never tilt to the right or the left unless the weight (influence) on one side is greater than the other. Then, no matter how little weight (influence) is added to a balanced scale, it will always choose accordingly.

A neutralized will amounts to arbitrary decisions, for which one cannot be held responsible.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that libertarian choice could be made. Let’s say that the dog did choose one food bowl over the other. In a truly libertarian sense, this decision cannot have influences of any kind. Any decision without influences is arbitrary. It would be like flipping a coin. I chose A rather than B, not because of who I am, but for no reason at all. It just turned out that way. But this option is clearly outside a biblical worldview of responsibility and judgment. Therefore, in my opinion, the outcome for the fight for true libertarian free will comes at the expense of true responsibility!

Bottom line:  while I believe people have free will, I don’t believe people have libertarian free will. We make the choices we make because of who we are. We are responsible for these choices. God will judge each person accordingly with a righteous judgment.

Is there tension? Absolutely. We hold in tension our belief in God’s sovereignty, determining who we are, when we live, where we will live, who our parents will be, our DNA, etc. and human responsibility. While this might seem uncomfortable, I believe that it is not only the best biblical option, but the only philosophical option outside of fatalism, and we don’t want to go there.

Acts 17:26-28
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Does God have libertarian freedom?

Now we come to the question of the hour. Roger Olson asks, in essence, Does God have libertarian freedom?

You see, pantheism believes that God (an impersonal being) created the world out of necessity. He did not make a choice, much less a libertarian free choice. But Christians are not pantheists. We do not believe that God was compelled to create the universe, but did so out of his own freedom. In other words, he could have chosen not to make the universe. Therefore if you are a Christian, no matter what tradition you are from, I think you must believe that God has the power of contrary choice. God has true freedom in a way that we don’t.

However, this does not mean we believe that God has the ability to choose against his nature. Roger Olson asks, “Is God the prisoner of his own wisdom (or of anything)?” “Prisoner” is loaded term. I could load it another way: “Is God faithful to his own wisdom (or to anything)?” The answer must be qualified.

God’s wisdom cannot be separated from who he is. We call this the doctrine of simplicity. God is a simple being. No, this does not mean that he is easy to figure out. It means that God is not composed of parts. It means that God is one. It means that God is indivisible. We cannot separate God’s wisdom from his nature. Though we often distinguish between God’s attributes in ways that imply separation, we need to be careful. God is righteous. God is love. God is holy. God is wise. But these are not separate attributes, as if the sum total of them define his being or essence. They are all who he is. He is wise-loving-holy-righteous. They are the same in essence.

Therefore, when we ask if God is a “prisoner” to his wisdom (or any one of his attributes), it is like asking “Is God a prisoner to who he is?” The answer is an unqualified “yes.” If he is not, then all of Christianity is in jeopardy and our salvation is contingent upon God’s submission to outside principles such as wisdom and faithfulness. But God is wisdom. God is faithful. His very nature defines these concepts. God could no more act unwise or unfaithful then he could cease to be God. God is who he is, eternally and immutably (unchangeably).

So when we talk about libertarian freedom with regard to God, we must distinguish between two aspects of it:

1. Could God have chosen differently than he chose (say in making the universe)? Yes. God, being transcendent to cause and effect relationships—being beyond time—does not have any prior causes to his actions. He has no parents, events, or culture which influences any decision. All his actions are birthed out of the “eternal now” and are, therefore, truly free. We are not pantheists. We are theists. God’s transcendent nature necessitates a freedom that we don’t experience.

2. Can God act against his own nature? No. God always acts according to who he is. By definition, God will always remain faithful to himself. Second Timothy 2:13 puts it this way: “He cannot deny himself.” He is righteous and will always act accordingly when justice is on the table. God is love and will always act in accordance with his love. God is wise and cannot ever make an unwise choice. Therefore, when the choice involves God choosing or not choosing in accordance with his character, he will always choose according to who he is.

Was the creation of the universe necessitated out of his character? No. God did not have to create this universe. He did not have to create me. He did not have to choose you for salvation. He did not have to send his Son to die for us. These are true free will decisions.

So, I am willing to say that God has a qualified libertarian freedom: God has the power of contrary choice so long as it is not contrary to his nature.

While I don’t think that this is a “soft-ball” question, I do think it is something that Calvinists can answer with some degree of confidence. Understanding God’s decisions in relation to his eternality is inscrutable. We can only explain what must be. Now, if I were asked where Satan’s decision to rebel came from, I would have no satisfying answer as a Calvinist.

That is the best I’ve got, Dr. Olson. Love your stuff.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    72 replies to "Does God Have Libertarian Freedom? A Response to Roger Olson"

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Michael, @50,
      Requiring a “definition” of free will seems to me to be the kind of intellectual move that almost inevitably leads to what the Apostle Paul refers to as “disputes about words.” God surely considers more in his judgments on our actions than whether they are derived from “self-determinism or external persuasive influences,” whatever those seemingly mutually exclusive expressions may mean. Can’t the ability to choose just mean the ability to choose? I’m inclined to conclude: too many of us seem to sound like little gods, pronouncing our self-defined truths. Thanks be to God that you often acknowledge the limits of your understanding, and the weaknesses of your (often traditionally conceived) arguments. Love you man. In Christ.

    • Robert Warren

      “spark of the divine”

      Is that what they used to call the “island of righteousness”?

    • Dallas

      Good article. It seems apparent that the definition of libertarian free will is rather ambiguous, which is the cause of a lot of the debate. If libertarian free will is freedom from EXTERNAL restraints, then God has libertarian free will in a way we don’t, as we make decisions in a larger context and God is the Creator of context.

      If libertarian free will is freedom from inward restraint, then God’s will is also bound. However, such a free will would be no freedom at all. If one’s will is not bound to himself/herself, that person has no control over their decisions.

      I define libertarian free will as freedom from outward restraint, and by that definition, God has complete libertarian free will. We have some elements of this due to our status as creatures in the image of God, but we are not free to the degree that God is.

    • […] our free-will isn’t very free at all. cf.… . 5. What is the difference between having a pelagian soteriological (the study of salvation) […]

    • Perry Robinson


      Libertarians have widely discussed Buridan’s Ass cases (equal bails of hay)-see Kane’s The Significance of Free Will, and Clarke, Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. Both are from Oxford. They pretty much handle all the other stock objections you pose.

      As for incluences on agents-Influences aren’t necessarily causes or at least sufficient causes, which is what your argument needs but doesn’t supply. As for volitional neutrality, the notion of a neutral will isn’t essential to libertarianism so there seems to be some shadow boxing going on.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      Perry’s comment about “shadow boxing” reminds me that even the best, most complex, most careful and precise thinker around will be found by some other equally able thinker to have missed some apparent inconsistency or contradiction, or to have based his whole argument on some non-necessary presupposition, hence undermining if not invalidating his perspective completely. These all too common disputes about words (ideas, arguments, transient conclusions) don’t seem to produce spiritual or practical fruit. JMO

    • Dane

      Wesleyan’s do not believe prevenient grace makes our sinful nature “Neutral”. The way this word “neutral” is being used I would agree, and we Wesleyan/Arminians do not believe our nature is “neutral”, so at this point we agree.

      The defined concept of Neutral is (A + Neutral – B). Our nature is not a pendulum, and not linear. We are not in 1 of the 3 modes, A, Neutral, or B. We are in “Tandem”, both A&B by God’s grace. More like a magnet that has both -/+ charges, with the + enabled by God’s grace. Dog illustration: The Dog is hungry and loves to chase balls. There is a bowl of food, and a ball that is thrown, the dog is fully charged to do both, but needs to choose.

      The question is… Why does an A&B charged person “irresistibly” choose A by God’s grace every single time with a B charge also fully at work? I do not find Total Depravity taking a hiatus at the time of choice/faith. It appears that the Calvinists believe that total depravity is nullified and neutralized.

    • Prathab

      I once heard a calvinist say this about God: “God can sin, but he won’t.” I was really taken aback. Is this biblical? If God can sin, can we trust Him at all?

    • Ed Kratz

      I have no problem with a theoretical ability being distinguished from a moral one.

    • Dane

      Does Common Grace neutralize the will so that a Mother can love her child? A Mother can’t naturally love her child given the condition of her nature.

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    • llflowers

      I didn’t take the time to read all the comments so please forgive me if I’m repeating something, but if God is all powerful why couldn’t he create a creature with the same ability of freedom as He has in regard to the morally accountable choices that he makes?

      A few other points:

      1. You say you support the concept of ‘self-determination” as if that is apposed to libertarian free will, but libertarian freedom is not some separate entity as you appear to suggest. LFW is just what we call the part of one’s SELF that makes determinations.

      2. Isn’t your quest to define what determines or causes a free will choice just a game of question begging since it assumes a deterministic response is necessary? Ciocchi, who debated Feinberg, put it this way: “the choice between available options is what free will is all about . . ., and it is finally mysterious, beyond full explanation, for full explanations presuppose the very determinism the libertarian rejects” (Ciocchi, p. 94).

      3. How does your understanding of human free will differ from the instinctive choice of animals? They too chose according to their desire in response to given outward stimuli, right?

      Thanks for the discussion. Very insightful.

    • TMD

      You argue: “God has the power of contrary choice so long as it is not contrary to his nature.”

      Does this apply to humanity as well?

      Also, would proponents of libertarian free will accept your definition of it? I know I do not. Do you think Roger Olsen or William Lane Craig would?

    • Doug Gibson

      The author said as proof against man having the ability to will:
      “Simply put, a person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice. Therefore, people always choose according to who they are at the moment. ”
      This begs the question as it assumes determinism, but it is an assertion that lacks proof. It is saying ‘people’s choices are not determined by their ability to will, but by factors external to the will itself and we know this because people’s choices are determined not by the person, but by their nature or factors external to the will.” Also, the inability to grow a second head is not an inability to will, but an inability to DO. The ability to DO anything depends on the ability to will. If a person cannot will, then the person cannot DO anything.

    • John Hutchinson

      “Roger Olson asks, “Is God the prisoner of his own wisdom (or of anything)?” “Prisoner” is loaded term. I could load it another way: “Is God faithful to his own wisdom (or to anything)?” The answer must be qualified.”

      With all due respect, this is a dissembling sophistry, whether intended or not. Olson asks whether God can do no other. Is His will an algorithmic product of His nature. What you are changing it to is ‘Does God will, drawing upon the content found in His Being’ and declaring that that is the same as Olson’s question. For that is the crux of the question. Does God draw upon His content or does the content within push His will.

      I am not an Arminian, but a full 5+ point monergist. And when I see this, both the answer and the dissembling manner by which it is answered, I just want to grieve.

    • Drew1200

      Great post, you really explained it well. Although I don’t know that I agree with (or understand) your conclusion, based on your post.

      You stated that God is a “prisoner” of His own wisdom. Based on His omnipotence, all knowing wisdom, and His ultimate goal to bring Himself glory, He will always make the most wise, beneficial, and glorifying choice. It’s against His nature to make an unwise decision. So could God have really chosen not to create the universe? He hypothetically could have, but technically, He would not have received as much glory as He has through creation, especially through Jesus’ death. Using that reasoning, I’d be willing to say that it would have been contrary to His nature to not create the universe.

      Unless you believe that there are decisions God has made that do not have any different effect, then I don’t see how there’s any possible situation where God could use libertarian free will. If all of His decisions have different effects, He will never choose the one of lesser wisdom.

      Really, I’m just curious as to how you came to your conclusion. Do you believe that there are situations where God must make a decision where each choice has an equivalent effect, in which case He could employ contrary choice? Or do you believe that God is capable of making the less wise decision?

    • Seraphim Hamilton

      The first argument is just bizarre and should have been obviously fallacious to the writer. I have no idea why it was included. Libertarian freedom is not the claim that an agent of choice is free with respect to absolutely everything. We did not choose to exist, yes. It is rather the statement that when choices are made, they are made according to the logic of libertarian freedom. Both the compatibilist and the libertarian speak of the power of choosing, and neither include “where you were born” in that category. The debate concerns the nature of choice, not whether everything is a choice. I encourage the author to remove this argument as it honestly is- with all respect- so obviously fallacious that the reader may be inclined to simply exit out at that moment.

      • C Michael Patton

        Seraphim, I really do encourage you to remove your post as it is obviously ill-informed and without education. It shows that you have not studied this subject at all and are a novice attempting to correct a professional and looking foolish in the process.

        I am completely kidding, but I hope you get the point. Mere assertions are easy. Qualified and tempered arguments are hard. We all know that libertarian freedom does not assert absolute liberty. That is my point. It creates a starting ground on which we meet. We all agree we have the choice. The argument is not simply in its objective nature, sans the human. It is about humanity’s willful ability to make a choice contrary to that which they have already made.

    • Seraphim Hamilton

      Sorry for the double comment. Your statement: “So, I am willing to say that God has a qualified libertarian freedom: God has the power of contrary choice so long as it is not contrary to his nature” is exactly what Arminians say with respect to human beings. That doesn’t mean that we do have libertarian freedom, only that it is a genuine logical possibility that we do. This means that compatibilists must- if your statement is true- stop making the argument that LFW is intrinsically incoherent or that it makes our choices arbitrary or that it means that our choices are causeless. We have the same qualified LFW that God does, and God’s choice to create is neither arbitrary nor causeless. Ipso facto, with the certainty that comes with a deductive argument, LFW is not logically incoherent and it is thus true *in some possible world* that there are creatures endowed with such LFW.

      • C Michael Patton

        No, the primary difference is that God does not have a sin nature. He will always act according to who he is. It is the same with humans. It is always logically possible for us to choose B rather than A, but actually impossible. So, humans do have a qualified libertarian freedom, if you want to put it that way.

    • JB Van Hoogen

      Stumbling across this quite late. I like your approach here. What confuses me about the insistence on libertarian free will from Arminians is that when every detail is fleshed out, it seems libertarian free will must include not only contrary choice but a kind of contrary arbitrary choice. Of course this holds no water. No choice is every arbitrary. And as you point out, not even God has the ability to act contrary to His nature, which is ultimately what compels His choices.

      All that to say, I think I’m more comfortable now saying that God and man both have the same kind of freedom (NOT libertarian) but more like a freedom that you desribe at the end. You say “God has the power of contrary choice so long as it is not contrary to his nature.” Couldn’t we say something similar about mankind? We can make contrary choices, but we can’t make choices that are contrary to our nature (or “inclinations” per Calvinists). Turns out our nature is perfectly corrupted. God’s is perfectly holy. Same freedom, different natures. Maybe we should champion a “freedom of character or nature.” I think that’s what Jonathan Edwards was getting at with freedom of inclinations anyways. I just don’t feel like “inclinations” encompasses the whole person like “nature” or “character” does.

      Grateful for your insight!

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