Roger Olson, “Why Compatibilism is Unbiblical”

, posted by Steven Wolf

Why Compatibilism is Unbiblical and an Example of Philosophy Undermining Scripture

First, what is “compatibilism?” Put most simply it is the view of free will that says it is compatible with determinism. In other words, with compatibilism one can believe in both free will and determinism (the belief that everything that happens including human decisions and actions) are determined. The alternative is “non-compatibilism” or “libertarian free will” which means that free will is “power of contrary choice.” It is the view that true free will is incompatible with determinism.

Now, one can be a determinist and deny free will. Non-compatibilists (such as I am) think that is consistent. Martin Luther and John Calvin were determinists who denied free will (at least sometimes). However, many modern Calvinists say they believe in free will but define free will using compatibilism. Namely: A person is “free” whenever he or she is doing what he or she wants to do and is not being forced to do something he or she does not want to do. Here, in this view of free will, “acting freely” is compatible with not being able to do otherwise. Power of contrary choice is denied.

Underlying compatibilism is the belief that one always acts according to his or her strongest desire. In other words, compatibilists say, it is incoherent to claim that one can will to do what he or she does not want to do and then to act on that will against strongest motive or desire. This does seem philosophically sound. The best articulation of the argument is Jonathan Edwards’s essay On the Freedom of the Will. Most modern Calvinists agree and so define “free will” not as power of contrary choice but as doing what one wants to do. The only time a person acts unfreely, then, is when he or she is being forced to do something he or she does not want to do.

Does the Bible support compatibilism? Or is compatibilism a philosophical concept designed to make it possible to claim to believe in free will together with determinism? I believe the latter.

An irony in all of this is that many Calvinists accuse Arminians and other non-Calvinists of imposing philosophical ideas on theology when they are incompatible (pun intended) with the Bible. I believe it is Calvinists who do that with compatibilism.

In Romans 7 the Apostle Paul flatly contradicts compatibilism. Read Romans 7:14-19. There Paul states unequivocally and without qualification that he (and it is certain that he means others as well) does what he does not want to do and does not do what he wants to do. With compatibilism that is impossible. Apparently Paul just didn’t understand philosophy. There is no way to interpret Roman 7 without believing that Paul believed in free will as power of contrary choice.

On another note, compatibilism has the decided problem of making God’s creation of the world necessary, thus denying (in effect) God’s sovereignty. Could God have refrained from creating the world? Not if compatibilism is true. If free will logically cannot mean power of contrary choice (as compatibilists argue) then even God cannot have power of contrary choice.

In On the Freedom of the Will Edwards confronted this question and “solved” it by claiming that God always does the most wise thing. But he had to admit that there is a sense in which God’s creation of the world was necessary. This, of course, encroaches on the sovereignty of God. If God does not have power of contrary choice, then he is not sovereign. And if the world (creation) is necessary, then it is in some sense part of God; the line between God and creation is transgressed by compatibilism.

Now, if God has power of contrary choice, which is required by belief in the sovereignty of God and the “line” between God and creation, then power of contrary choice cannot be considered strictly illogical or incoherent even if it is mysterious.

I believe compatibilism used within Christian theology is an example of a philosophical idea being imposed on theology against the Bible and basic Christian doctrine (viz., that God is sovereign and creation is not necessary). Of course this is highly ironic because most compatibilists who are Christians believe compatibilism protects the sovereignty of God. It doesn’t. It undermines God’s freedom and human responsibility and flatly contradicts Romans 7.

[This post was taken from Roger Olson’s blog, where comments can be made.]