Compatibilism vs. Free Will

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God’s relationship with not only His universe but also the creatures whom He created in His own image has been debated, fashioned, and refashioned throughout the history of the Church. From what one may gather, there remains no dogmatic, universal agreement among believers as to the degree of interaction God maintains within the framework of those divine-to-human relationships. The range of options spans from Deism, Open Theism, Process theology and Arminianism to Compatibilism (soft determinism) and meticulous or exhaustive (or hard) determinism and hyper-Calvinism.1

Within the heterogeneous framework of Calvinistic thought, compatibilism appears to be the most widely-held belief among Calvinists. In the opinion of many Arminians though, supralapsarian Calvinism (which espouses hard determinism, and was anachronistically condemned as heresy at the Council of Orange in 529 CE) is deemed the most consistent Calvinistic expression of the concept of God’s decrees, sovereignty and interactions with humanity, and is also the most appalling. Regardless, compatibilistic Calvinism at least proffers lip service regarding the alleged freedom of our choices or decisions. In the end, duplicitous philosophical meandering is all compatibilism is able to sustain.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, by no means a high Calvinist, hard deterministic confession, holds, as did the Reformed scholastics, a focus on “God in God’s self and not in covenantal relations. God foresees all things because God decrees them eternally.”2 But if God has already decreed for an individual to “choose” any particular action, in what viable sense can the action be admitted to being freely chosen in compatibilism? If a compatibilist confesses that the individual desires to perform said action that has been decreed for him or her to act out, the additional commentary is irrelevant, given that the only reason the person desires to perform said action is because God first decreed the desire as well; that is, if one is going to promote such a doctrine in consistent fashion.

In both hard and soft deterministic positions, there is no tug of war between what God has decreed and what a person actually performs. As a matter of fact, Westminster insists that the “liberty or contingency of second causes” is not taken away, “but rather established,” further proving that God has even decreed all of the components which contribute toward a given action. In other words, when Calvinists insist that God has not merely decreed the end but also the means to an end, then that, by necessity, must include secondary causes.

So, while compatibilists clamor that the so-called contingency of second causes is not removed from the concept, what is absolutely necessary to confess is that God also decreed the secondary causes. That is to say, the alleged freedom to which the compatibilist concedes is disingenuous at best given that even the alleged freedom to choose what God has decreed the person to choose was also decreed.

Furthermore, though God knows with certainty whatsoever “may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions,” He has not “decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions,” but solely by His foreordained plan or decree of that which He desired to come to pass, through which all things are brought to pass by Him. So that, whatever event occurs in the earth, such was decreed by God in the most strict sense possible. Still, they maintain, God is not the Author of sin or evil. How? Because they say so.

Calvinists dodging hard determinism have proposed this theory and they perpetually demand an answer from their detractors. Still, they cannot escape what their exhaustively-deterministic brethren insist, that “this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism — be clear that neither soft nor hard determinism believes man has a free will.” (link) What many Calvinists want to know from their detractors, as did Jonathan Edwards himself, is, “What, then, determines the will?” But this is somewhat a vague question.

They lament any notion of a “self-determining power” of the will. The question, however, should be framed thusly: “What shapes, particularizes, individualizes, or specificates the volition?”3 Wesleyan Daniel Whedon answers:

The answer is, The Will … The Will in its conditions is a full and adequate cause accounting for the effect, and no adequate cause needs any other cause to make it effective. It causes a particular effect uncausedly, though as we have acknowledged, the prevenient grace of God does work to persuade the will in the issue of repentance and salvation. This is not the same as causing, however.4 (emphases added)

Hence, the authors of the article on Compatibilism at Monergism.com are incorrect in assessing libertarian free will by suggesting that “voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition.” (link) (emphasis added) This is called a straw man argument — arguing against a skewed perspective of libertarian free will.

Such Calvinists fail to distinguish between cause and influence. The two are not synonymous. Arminianism favors not so much self-determining as self-causing, since determination and causation are not synonymous concepts, either; and if the will is not necessarily determined by anything, even if it can be influenced, then the gratuitous assumption of the Calvinist regarding an infinite series of causes is rendered entirely moot.5

Some Calvinists claim to hold to both “God’s sovereignty and man’s free will,” by which they mean that God has meticulously decreed every minutiae of our existence, including our choices — and, of course, our destiny in either heaven or hell — and at the same time that we freely choose to do what we think and say and actually do. When challenged on the inherent inconsistency of this view, they either appeal to mystery or antinomy, or they “hold such views in tension.”

But there is no such tension in Arminianism because 1) God’s sovereignty does not entail the false notion that He has decreed what we think and say and do;6 and 2) human beings actually do retain a measure of freedom in thinking, saying, and doing (or not doing) a given action. God is sovereign, yes; He is involved in our lives, intimately, and we are free to do that which is contrary to His revealed will (or contrary even to His wishes). Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall write:

Arminius makes obvious what he means by human freedom: it is the choice to do some action A or to refrain from doing A … In other words, when Arminius speaks of “freedom,” he means what is now sometimes termed libertarian freedom. Freedom, according to this view, is a real choice between genuine alternatives, unconstrained by necessity, and therefore strictly incompatible with determinism. God is able to determine human wills, but doing so would remove free choice and would violate the kind of relationship that God desires to have with creation.7

This distinction is paramount: In Arminianism, God has not decreed that we, by necessity, choose to do any given action; so that, we are genuinely free to do or not to do an action. In compatibilism, God has decreed not only what a person says, thinks and does, but also has decreed every secondary cause contributing to a given action. Why? Because such is how He wanted history to be constructed. Hence there is no genuine freedom in compatibilism, and any such confession is confused and illusory, but each person does what he or she was decreed to do, including the desire that such be done, since even the desire was meticulously decreed by God.

In other words, to maintain that God is sovereign, in the compatibilistic sense, and that we are free to choose what we desire to do, is not only inconsistent but also entirely implausible. Such is inconsistent because choosing what has already been chosen for us does not affirm any sense of a genuine or textbook notion of freedom, which makes the whole claim implausible.

The consistent option for Calvinists is hard determinism and supralapsarianism, even though such an historically-heretical view, admits Arminius, renders that God “really sins,” and that He is “the only sinner” in the universe; stating, furthermore, that “sin is not sin,” in such a false system, since “whatever that be which God does, it neither can be sin, nor ought any of His acts to receive that appellation.” Such a theory, and we passionately agree with Arminius here, is “highly dishonourable to Jesus Christ our Saviour.”8

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1 These last two concepts were held by no Church father prior to St Augustine in the fifth century; meaning, for nearly the first four hundred years of the history of the Church, no one held to such a novel theory. Which means, further, that anyone attempting to substantiate such a view cannot merely appeal to it as being the theology of St Paul or St John or any other saint in Scripture — not even Christ Himself — since such a tradition was not passed on from the first-century saints to their successors, nor to their successors, and so forth.

2 Donald K. McKim, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 98.

3 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 101.

4 Ibid., 101-02.

5 Ibid., 103.

6 God’s sovereignty refers to His governance but not meticulous decree over every aspect of existence; being defined by Arminius as the “solicitous, everywhere powerful, and continued … inspection and oversight of God, according to which He exercises a general care over the whole world, and over each of the creatures and their actions and passions, in a manner that is befitting Himself and suitable for His creatures, for their benefit, especially for that of pious men, and for the declaration of the divine perfection.” See Jacob Arminius, “Disputation XXVIII. On the Providence of God,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:367. Though God has all power (is omnipotent), He does not always exert that power: “But I refrained from doing so,” said our omnipotent God, “and acted instead for the sake of my reputation.” (Ezekiel 20:22 NET; cf. Ps. 78:38; Isa. 42:14)

7 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 101.

8 Arminius, 1:630. See also W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 69.