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

, posted by Kevin Jackson

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

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

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

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

How do worldviews (both naturalistic and theological) relate to free will?  Is it part of being created in the image of God?   Is it compatible with theological determinism?  This is “the view that everything that happens in the universe, including the apparently free choices of human beings, comes about as a result of the fact that God, before the foundation of the world deliberately decreed everything that will transpire as part of his all inclusive plan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4 is the conclusion, in five major points.

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

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

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

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

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

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Original post can be found here.