Martin Glynn, “A Critique of ‘Do We Have Free Will?’ by Geoff Ashley, Part I”

, posted by Martin Glynn

Recently, I was pointed to a presentation of the Calvinist view of the will that has been circling the internet (here). When I read it, I found it to be well written, and an excellent summary of my own understanding of Calvinist thought. So I thought it might be fun, and hopefully beneficial to others to go through it and give a basic breakdown of it from an Arminian perspective. Hopefully, the essay’s clarity would allow me to be clearer on what the Arminian view of the will is.


Before the essay really gets into it, it lays out a few preliminary comments. Rather than going over these directly, I felt it better to sum them up. He points out that the word ‘freedom’ has many different senses, and that he is only interested in how the concept operates within the bounds of soteriology (that is the study of salvation). Fair enough. As an Arminian, I fully concur that God is capable, and sometimes does, overpower the will for the sake of His general providence, but that He does not do so when it comes to an individual’s salvation. Thus, I find this restriction convenient and appropriate, and I will likewise restrict my comments.

Also he says

Theological discussion of free will often includes historical and complex terms like Pelagianism, Arminianism, Calvinism, predestination, election, determinism and indeterminism, fate, compatibilism and incompatibilism, synergism, monergism, sovereignty and responsibility. We will try to avoid these terms for the sake of clarity and simply refer readers to the recommended resources if they desire a more scholarly discussion.

Again, fair enough. He is merely going to present the Calvinist view, and is in no way commenting on the Arminian view. Therefore, if I think he is implying something about the Arminian view, I would be incorrect since he could be implying something about many of these other views. So I will attempt to avoid jumping to conclusions about what he thinks about Arminianism, and assume that he is not interacting with it at all.

From here on out, I will be quoting him directly, and then merely commenting on each quote.

What Is The Will?

In order to understand “free will,” we must first understand the will. What is the will? Most simply, the will is the mechanism by which humans make choices.

Human choices are made on the basis of preferences, pleasures, loves, affections, delights and desires. Choices may be (and often are) made with respect to a combination of various desires (some of which might even be in competition), but all choices ultimately boil down to preference. We choose what we find more valuable, enjoyable, pleasurable, etc. We choose what we most desire, what we want, what we “will.”

If one wants to know what will be chosen, one simply needs to consider what he or she most prefers or loves. The concept of “free will” ultimately boils down to a question of desires. What does the human will most desire?

I think his basic definition of the will here is correct: the will is the mechanism of choice. However, I find his description of the will to be significantly wanting. He claims that it all comes down to desires. We will what we want. Well, duh. But that does absolutely nothing in terms of explaining how the will works. It is a bit like trying to explain how a car works by saying, “A car works by being driven.” Well, OK. You’ve done nothing more than ascribe a verb which refers to it working. You haven’t actually explained how it works. For that, you need to explain out the internal combustion engine and how it transforms that chemical power into mechanical power.

As for the will, we have no access to that level of explanation. We cannot get any deeper than the fact that decisions are in fact made. If we want, we can change the question, “How do we choose?” to “how do we prioritize our desires?” It is the same question merely rephrased. And we cannot completely generalize either, for not every human has the same priority of desires, or else we would be making the same choices. So where does that priority come from? Isn’t that basically what choosing is? Determining which choice we really want?

What’s worse here (that is worse than of the redundancy of the definition of the will) is that he concludeds calling this ‘free will’. Now wait, where does freedom come in here? What is ‘freedom’? How are you defining that? This isn’t really defined yet. Indeed, the various titles he gives to his sections implies that such a definition of forthcoming, but it never comes. Instead, ‘free will’ is merely equivocated with the word “will”. But if ‘free will’ and ‘will’ mean the same thing, then why bother with the adjective? When we say “free will’, we are distinguishing from a deterministic view of the will. But what view of the will is he contrasting against?

Now, I do think that I have enough material here, and experience with other Calvinists, to perhaps answer this question. It seems that Calvinists are using the term ‘free will’ as it is often used colloquially. That is, “He did such and such by his own free will.” By that, we usually mean that he actually chose it, as opposed to someone forcing him to do something that he didn’t choose, that is against his will. However, this phrase doesn’t distinguish between doing something by a ‘free will’ vs doing something by a ‘determined will’. Rather, we are comparing doing something by your will vs against your will. So this seems to be a mistake.

Furthermore, this isn’t a social answer to an ontological question. We are talking about what the will is and how the will works, not whether or not it is followed. It seems they are saying that we have a ‘free will’ because we are able to do things that we want. But again, duh. No one is accusing the Calvinist of denying that. What we are asking is whether the origin of that want is intrinsically created by us, designed by God, or necessitated by chemistry/physics. But that question, rather than answered, seems entirely ignored.

Four Eras of Freedom

A final clarification before we can answer the question, “Do we have free will?” is to define who “we” are. Man is not as he once was, nor is he as he will always be. The Bible speaks of the nature of man in four distinct ways, corresponding to four movements of redemptive history: man as created, fallen, regenerate and glorified.We must be careful lest we confuse the freedom of the fallen state with the freedoms of the created, regenerate or glorified states. Each era is distinct, and the freedom possessed within each is subsequently distinct, as well.

  • There is man as created. Man was originally created in a state of goodness and innocence. Though we do not know how long this condition lasted, it covers only two chapters of the Bible.
  • Since Genesis 3, we see man as fallen. Fallen man is fundamentally different from man as he was originally created. He was no longer innocent or good.
  • Though the condition of the Fall is universal in its effect upon all men, it is not permanent for all. There is a third way of understanding man, man as regenerate. Regeneration refers to the work of God to transfer a man or woman out of darkness and into light, out of death and into life. John 3 calls this reality being “born again.” The regenerate state is also a temporary condition awaiting the consummation of God’s work in eternity.
  • Man as glorified describes the final state in which God’s work of redemption will be complete.

Given that our discussion of free will is restricted to the question of an unregenerate (fallen) human’s response to his Creator’s work of redemption, we will narrow our focus to the state in which man has found himself since the Fall.

Well, that seems fair enough. It is certainly true that our choices are limited in different ways in these different conditions. So there isn’t too much here that I can directly disagree with, though I know that ultimately I am going to understand these states differently.

However, I would offer a brief caveat. In my experience, it seems to me that Calvinists usually make a stronger separation of these states than I do. While there is a significant difference in terms of what we are capable of in these states, ultimately, we are still us. Our humanity is still what it is. So our arms still work the same way, our legs still work the same way, and our wills still work the same way. The fall affects our wills by impediment, not by having it operating by a different paradigm since that would require the fall being a kind of creation. Rather, it is a corruption of what was already there, not something else entirely. I think a Calvinist would agree with my point as stated, so the difference is really where we draw the lines.

The last paragraph here in this section is: “What is the fallen human will like? Given that the will chooses on the basis of desires, we must therefore consider what a fallen, unregenerate person loves, desires, values and esteems.” Well, ultimately here my disagreements on the above section rears its head here. Certainly not all unregenerate people love, value, or esteem the same things. While we can generalize to some degree, it is worth asking, why does each unregenerate person choose which sin to commit? It is self determined, God determined, or physically determined? If that question is left unanswered, I doubt the real issues will be addressed.

The Reality of Unregenerate Bondage

This is where we really start getting into the meat of the article, so I am going to be taking things apart a bit more. However, I would advise you, before reading the following, that you read this section whole before seeing it in pieces. Ultimately, a commentary on a work only elucidates the work if, on some level, the work was already understood.

The human will universally inherited in Adam is not born into a state of neutrality and apathy. The fallen and unregenerate human will has natural loves, passions, desires, delights and pleasures. The will chooses on the basis of these desires, which are not neutral but, instead, absolutely and universally influenced toward evil. Sinners by nature desire rebellion, and thus their wills always incline toward rebellion. 

Fallen humanity is naturally (that is, by nature) broken and depraved. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:3, we are “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This fallen nature has limitations. It cannot not sin. All it desires (wills) is sin.

Primarily, I would say that  there isn’t a whole lot here that I formally disagree with. Certainly we are not born neutral, but born into fallenness. However, it simply says that we have “natural desires” but it doesn’t really say why and where these desires even come from.

I would say it like this: immorality is like darkness; it is the absence of something, rather than the presence of something. Let’s say you offer me three jelly beans: apple, cherry, and grape. I then chose grape. Does this mean that I have chosen the best kind of jelly bean? Of course not. All good and wholesome people know that licorice is the best. But that was simply not an option for me.

Likewise it is possible for us to say that one can have LFW, and still not be able to choose the good. This is because I can still do other than what I do. For instance, I could murder John instead of Jan. These are two different options. But both are sinful. To put it simply, options to actually do good are not available in the fallen state.

This is because true morality comes from being in submission and love with God. But if one is separate from God, than good isn’t really possible. Instead, we can only be in submission and love with humans, either our self or others (usually ourselves).This will always result in sin of some kind.

While this isn’t in contradiction to what is said above, I felt it was worth mentioning here because it is going to be similar to what he says next:

This truth is foreign to modern thought. How can Christianity affirm that every action of fallen man is sinful while there exist evidenced examples of social kindness and love throughout the world? The biblical answer begins with an understanding of sin.6 Sin is not merely external action, but internal affections and motivations. Helping an elderly lady cross the street, giving to charitable causes, refraining from certain behaviors and engaging in others are not good in the fullest sense of the word. Nothing is good if not done from a posture of humble trust in God and a love for His glory. As the Bible states, anything done in unbelief (Romans 14:23) or done without respect to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) falls short of righteousness.

Fallen humans love sin. They desire sin. They will sin. They delight in sin. They crave sin. They prefer sin. They choose sin. We abhor the glory of God in lustful craving for our own exaltation and autonomy. We want to glorify ourselves, not our Creator. Because we will (desire) sin, we will (do) sin. We are “willing” participants in sin, and all we can do is sin.

As you can see, the definition of morality is the same: a focus on God. Thus sin is being defined the same way: not focusing on God. But there is no explanation here as to where these sinful desires come from. They are merely considered to be brute facts. This strikes me as so odd because the notion of LFW is offered precisely as that: as an origin to the sin nature. So how can he be offering an explanation of free will if he does not address that very issue that leads people to believe in it? Perhaps it is because he doesn’t understand why people believe in it. Indeed, I would theorize that this is true.

However, perhaps I am assuming too much. Perhaps there are many people out there who merely believe in free will because it gives them a sense of power and control. Certainly this seems to be true of many Post-moderns and existentialists. However, this isn’t the case for the traditional view of LFW within Christianity, so it still strikes me as odd, or at least incomplete, not to interact with it.

The question is not, “Can we do what we want?” but “What do we want?” Unless and until we come face to face with the radical depravity of fallen man, we will never truly understand who we are and what God has done in bringing us to Himself. As long as we conceive ourselves as neutral in our longings and desires, we will assume a false foundation for understanding the nature of our freedom or bondage.

Well, actually, neither of these is the question. The question is “do we have a free will?” which is more complex than either of these two questions. As long as we understand the question merely in terms of wants and not in terms of human nature, we will miss the entire point of the question.

The biblical depiction of fallen mankind is desperate, dark and dire. Consider the following descriptions of an unregenerate person:

  • Our eyes are blind to the glories of the gospel (Matthew 13:14-15; John 12:39-40; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
  • Our minds are darkened and hostile toward God (Romans 8:7; Ephesians 4:18; Colossians 1:21).
  • Our ears are deaf to the call of our Creator (Matthew 13:14-15).
  • Our hearts are darkened and deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 1:21).
  • We are enslaved to sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:17; Galatians 4:8).
  • We are foolish (Romans 1:21; Titus 3:3).
  • We hate God (John 3:19-20).
  • We are dead (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13).

Is a blind man “free” to see Christ? Is a deaf man “free” to hear Christ? Is a dead man “free” to stand up and walk toward Christ? Is a slave “free” from slavery?

Well, this is rather interesting. The first part of this quote is something that I don’t debate at all. Certainly the unregenerate state is desperate, dark and dire. I also completely agree with the list that follows. However, when tying this issue into the discussion of free will, he seems to be making a critical mistake. These descriptions that are being quoted have nothing to do with the question of “freedom” (with the possible exception of slavery), at least not in the sense that we are describing it. Death to God has to do with estrangement. Deafness with stubbornness. Much of the material has more to do with hostility. None of these deal with question of whether or not humans have LFW.

Even if we consider enslavement to sin, which I would say definitely is denoting a proclivity towards sin as much of the essay does, all that is being said here is that the human being, without God, is driven by selfishness. It doesn’t mean that the person is without choices. It merely means that the person’s choices are limited to sinful selfish choices. But there are a plethora of sinful options available to the decrepit man. There is no reason to conclude from the fact of the sinful nature that LFW is false.

Considering the biblical depiction of mankind, the type of freedom that many simply assume to be true is grounded in an unrealistic understanding of what has happened to man in the Fall. A deeper freedom was once possessed in “man as created,” but man is no longer as he was created. Our nature has changed, and with it the understanding of our liberty. Goodness and innocence fell from us at the Fall, and we forfeited some degree of freedom by eating of the fruit. Fallen freedom consists of the ability to do what one desires; though, those desires are universally directed away from Creator and toward creation.

Again, so much to agree and disagree with here. When he talks about “freedom which is assumed”, I do not know to whom he is referring. Perhaps to certain postmodern groups. Still, the issue of free will isn’t the question of whether we are able to do what we want, but whether we are able to make a different choice than we do. Again, his unwillingness to define freedom itself rears its ugly head.

Now, I’m going to stop here because this post is getting rather long. I’ll pick up with the rest of the paper, where he attempts to deal with disagreements in my next post.

[For original post and comments, click here. For Part 2, click here.]