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 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.
“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.