Debate on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: Fundamental Philosophical Concepts

Before proceeding further in our series of posts on divine sovereignty and human freedom, it would be good to clarify some of the contested concepts in the debate. Let’s begin with two fundamental concepts: 1) Free will. The ability of an agent to make genuine choices that stem from the self. Libertarians argue that free … Continue reading “Debate on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: Fundamental Philosophical Concepts”

Before proceeding further in our series of posts on divine sovereignty and human freedom, it would be good to clarify some of the contested concepts in the debate.

Let’s begin with two fundamental concepts:
1) Free will. The ability of an agent to make genuine choices that stem from the self. Libertarians argue that free will includes the power to determine the will itself, so that a person with free will can will more than one thing. Compatibilists typically view free will as the power to act in accordance with one’s own will rather than being constrained by some external cause, allowing that the will itself may ultimately be causally determined by something beyond the self. Hard determinists deny the existence of free will altogether. Most Christian theologians agree that humans possess free will in some sense but disagree about what kind of freedom is necessary. The possession of free will does not entail an ability not to sin, since human freedom is shaped and limited by human character. Thus a human person may be free to choose among possibilities in some situations but still be unable to avoid all sin. /1/

2) Causation. The fundamental kind of relation expressed by such terms as produce, originate and bring about. The items related (causes and effects) may be persons, objects, states of affairs or events. Aristotle recognized four types of causality: efficient, final, formal and material. David Hume famously tried to analyze causality as a constant conjunction between different types of events. Philosophers such as Thomas Reid have argued for a fundamental type of causation known as “agent causality,” in which persons (not merely events occurring in persons) bring about effects. Important philosophical disputes in this area include debates about determinism (Are all events causally determined, or do persons sometimes possess free will?) and about the principle of sufficient reason, which in some forms holds that all events (at least of a certain type) or all contingent substances must have a cause. This principle plays a key role in cosmological, or first cause, arguments for God’s existence. /2/

At the philosophical level we may contrast the determinism with libertarianism.

3) Determinism. The view that all natural events, including human choices and actions, are the product of past states of affairs in accordance with causal necessity. Thus the determinist holds that, given the state of the universe at any particular time, plus the causal laws that govern events in the natural world, the state of the universe at every future time is fixed. Various kinds of determinism are possible depending on the nature of the causally determining forces. Most determinists today are scientific determinists who believe the laws of nature are the determining factors, but theological determinism, in which God directly determines every event, is also possible. /3/

It is important to distinguish (1) physical determinism which holds that every event in the universe is determined by antecedent physical cause(s) in accordance with universal causal laws that govern the world (Hobbes and Spinoza) from (2) theological determinism which affirms that all events occur exactly as God has predetermined them in accordance to his perfect and exhaustive foreknowledge (Augustine, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards).

Critics who reject theological determination charge it for reducing free will to an illusion; predestination is an euphemism for fatalism. Accordingly,

Fatalism. The view that whatever happens does so necessarily and that therefore human choice and effort make no difference. Critics of determinism allege that fatalism is a logical consequence of determinism, but most determinists (particularly so-called “soft determinists”) reject this on the grounds that human choices do make a difference as part of the causal order. Some “hard determinists” accept the idea that whatever happens does so necessarily and claim that recognizing this truth frees a person from anxiety and leads to peace of mind./4/

It should be noted that theological determinism does not need to agree with physical determinism. The classic view of theological determinism is given by the Westminster Confession of Faith which declares that “God did… ordain whatsoever comes to pass,” (3.1)  but also affirms that man’s will “is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.” (9.1) I agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith that predestination is not fatalism.

4) Libertarianism (metaphysical). In ethics and metaphysics, the view that human beings sometimes can will more than one possibility. According to this view, a person who freely made a particular choice could have chosen differently, even if nothing about the past prior to the moment of choice had been different. Libertarianism therefore rejects the compatibilist view that free will and determinism are consistent. /5/

It is arguable that the consistent and logical conclusion of libertarianism is Open Theism.

Open Theism: Open Theism is the thesis that, because God loves us and desires that we freely choose to reciprocate His love, He has made His knowledge of, and plans for, the future conditional upon our actions. Though omniscient, God does not know what we will freely do in the future…God desires that each of us freely enter into a loving and dynamic personal relationship with Him, and He has therefore left it open to us to choose for or against His will…God may intervene in the created world at any time, and He may determine that we act in ways of His choosing. But He cannot both respect our libertarian freedom and guarantee that we will do specific things freely. Thus, Open Theists believe that God has created a world in which He takes the risk that many of us will reject Him and act in ways opposed to Him, in order to give us the opportunity to freely choose to love and obey Him. “Open Theism” in  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

My own position may be described as compatibilism.

5) Compatibilism. In philosophy of action, the view that causal determinism is logically compatible with free will. The compatibilist who accepts both determinism and free will is called a soft determinist. Compatibilism usually defines free will as an action that is caused by the individual’s own desires or wishes, rather than being coerced by some external power. The alternative possibilities that seem necessary for genuine free will are interpreted by compatibilists as hypothetical in character. For example, the individual who freely gave money to a charity could have refrained from giving the money if the individual had wished to do so or if the situation had been different. Critics of compatibilism argue that genuine freedom requires an individual to have more than one possibility that is actually possible at the time of choosing, not merely possibilities that would be open if certain facts that do not obtain were to obtain. /6/

The compatibilist defends his view by arguing that the contrary of ‘free’ is not ‘caused’ but ‘compelled’ or ‘coerced’. A free act is one where the agent could have done otherwise if she had chosen otherwise, and in such acts the agent is morally responsible even if determined. The incompatibilist defends his view by arguing that a free act must involve more than this—the freedom to choose called origination. Ted Honderich has argued that both sides, embattled for centuries, misconceive the problem. There is not one true definition of ‘free’. There are two entrenched sets of attitudes at war here—within as well as between individuals. The two attitudes involve two conceptions of freedom. /7/

Perhaps the debate between “compatibilism” and “incompatibilism” will be less acrimonious if it is recognized that the protagonists are working with different conceptions of freedom.

Speaking from the Reformed tradition, I will be defending the position of “theological compatibilism”:

Theological Compatibilism (also known as soft determinism), is the belief that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. In light of Scripture, human choices are believed to be exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28)… Our choices are only our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures. Compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most. The former view is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency.  “Compatibilism” in Monergism.

I have refrained from commenting on the historical theological debate between Calvinism, Arminianism and Molinism as I am focusing on the underlying philosophical concepts in this series of posts. On the underlying theological concepts, see the related post:
Debate on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: Fundamental Theological Concepts (with special reference to Reformed Scholasticism). (forthcoming)

Related Posts:
Reading: G.C. Berkouwer on Freedom and Divine Providence – Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 4/7

Determinism Should not be Confused with Compulsion or Fatalism.


/1/ C.S. Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (IVP, 2002),pp. 46–47.
/2/ Evans, Pocket Dictionary, p. 22.
/3/ Evans, Pocket Dictionary, p. 34.
/4/ Evans, Pocket Dictionary, p. 44.
/5/ Evans, Pocket Dictionary, p. 69.
/6/ Evans, Pocket Dictionary, pp. 25-26.
/7/ “Compatibilism and Incompatibilism” in Oxford Companion to Philosophy 2e (Oxford 1995, 2005), p. 151.