One simple premise undergirds the ideas that either humanity has free volition or that God is sovereign, and that ultimately the two concepts are mutually exclusive. That premise is the hinge upon which the argument turns, favoring either human freedom or Divine sovereignty. Montague Brown illustrates the premise with the following statement:
“The issue of free choice also plays a critical role in that other vexed philosophical puzzle—the problem of evil. For if we do not have free choice, we are not to be blamed or praised for our actions; rather, it is all God’s doing. God becomes responsible for moral evil, either by causing it Himself or by punishing us who are not responsible for it.”1
We can formalize Brown’s statement as follows:
- If not FC (free choice), then not A (accountability).
- If not A, then GR (God responsible for evil).
The first stated premise is simply that if there is not free choice, then there is not accountability. The assumed premise is that free choice is required in order for someone to be accountable. The second stated premise is that if there is not accountability, then God is responsible for moral evil. To complete the syllogism , the conclusion is not stated here, but is rather assumed: God being responsible for moral evil would be a bad thing, and we can’t have that. So working backwards, we can’t have the absence of condition A, thus we can’t have the absence of condition FC. The assumed premise is the hinge upon which the argument stands: moral responsibility requires that human beings perform their actions freely, and not under any coercion.
Thomas Aquinas echoes the premise when he asserts that, “Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain.”2 The idea being assumed is that justice in God’s judgment requires that humanity made the choice for what it is being judged.
Augustine is comfortable with “a biblical compatibilism between human free will and divine power over the human heart … the two are not in conflict … this is a both/and proposition.”3 In Augustine’s view, God works within the human heart in response to chosen sin, either to allow more sin as a penal consequence for original sin, which is in line with justice, or to show grace, which is in line with mercy. Aquinas’ understanding is similar:
“And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.”4
The idea that God operates “in each thing according to its own nature” works well within the context of sin, as described in Romans 1, for example. As one follows the sequence considered in Romans 1:18-32, it is evident that there is a giving-over to continued (and perhaps deepening) sin as a consequence of initial rejection. However, if ultimately all are guilty of sin through Adam (as is affirmed in Romans 5:12), then God’s intervention “while we were still helpless” (Rom 5:6) and “while we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph 2:5) is not reflective of Him working in each thing according to its nature, but rather Him working to change – or dare I say, violate – the very nature of the thing in which He is working. If human free will in choosing sin is required for God’s justice in judging it, then a requisite degree of human free will in rejecting sin is required in order to receive mercy.
Roger Olson states well the problem implied in these suppositions:
If we do not have power of contrary choice, then our salvation is not a gift but a fate imposed and others’ damnation is not truly deserved. If there is no such thing as libertarian free will, as Edwards argued, then Adam and Eve’s fall into sin was part of the plan of God, controlled by God, and makes God a moral monster. If salvation is not something freely chosen or freely rejected, then, if some end up in hell for eternity, God is a moral monster. Why? Because he could have saved everyone since salvation is unconditional and not freely chosen. And if God imposes salvation on some without their free assent and cooperation, then the love they have for God is not genuine and God can take no real delight in it. Love that is not freely given is not real love.5
The last sentence of Olson’s observation is central to his argument, and ultimately to his Arminianism: love that is not freely given is not real love. In this system, it is assumed that God must be a moral monster if He imposes guilt or salvation without humans having the freedom to willingly make choices leading to either. Further, the love He demands can never be real love, because it is not authenticated by choice.
These are sweeping statements with broad implications. True justice requires choice. Moral responsibility requires choice. Authentic love requires choice. If these statements are correct, then one has no choice but to admit the centrality of choice and, ultimately, free choice. At first glance, these three assertions seem viable – perhaps even necessary, but they are actually subject to fatal (in my estimation) flaws.
First, they are self-authenticated and are not exegetically defensible. In Scripture, love is commanded. Even if we have the choice not to comply, what kind of love is demanded? Might someone argue that if love is mandated it cannot be authentic? In 1 John 4:11, we are told that “… if God so loved us, we ought to love one another.” We are morally obligated because of His actions to take actions of our own. Peter takes things even a step further. He notes that “like the Holy One who called you, be holy in all your behavior” (1 Pet 1:16). In this case we are obligated to holiness not by God’s actions but by His character. And while the imperative is passive (genethete is aorist passive imperative, to be exact), it still reflects at least a mandated submission to becoming holy.
The fact remains that both Peter and John recognize we are morally obligated without any choice in being so. Paul informs us that we have been chosen to be in Him before the world was even founded (Eph 1:4). Not only do we not have a choice in this matter, but He takes that choice for Himself. And again, the Father “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will …” (Eph 1:5). It is God’s will that is intentional and activated here, not ours. Regardless of whether this is a result of foreknowledge (as some might argue from the order of Rom 8:29), God is still making determinations before we have the opportunity to act. Even if His action is based simply on His foreknowledge, once He predestines and chooses, the outcome is assured. Where does human volition fit into that equation? The only time Paul addresses that question directly is in Romans 9:16, 19-20 when he reasons,
“So then it does not depend on the man who runs or the man who wills, but on God who has mercy…You will say to me then, ‘why does He still find fault, for who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder ‘Why did you make me like this?’ will it?”
These Biblical writers are univocal in their claims that in asserting His own sovereignty and choice God is trumping human volition at the very outset. Consequently, Scripture itself does not support the idea that human moral responsibility requires human choice. It is worth noting that this does not mean that there is no human choice in any context, there certainly is, but is that choice autonomous or free? Augustine’s comment is helpful:
“It is not the case, therefore, that because God foreknew what would be in the power of our wills, there is for that reason nothing in the power of our wills. For he who foreknew this did not foreknow nothing. Moreover, if He who foreknew what would be in the power of our wills did not foreknow nothing, but something, assuredly, even though He did foreknow, there is something in the power of our wills. Therefore we are by no means compelled, either, retaining the prescience of God, to take away the freedom of the will, or, retaining the freedom of the will, to deny that He is prescient of future things, which is impious. But we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. For he lives ill who does not believe well concerning God. “6
As Augustine says, there is indeed power in our wills. Yet we can also say that the power of God’s will is decisive – He is sovereign, not us. The point here is not to deny human volition, but to suggest that human volition does not undergird anything. It is a gift that we indeed possess, but it does not govern.
A second flaw with the idea that moral responsibility demands choice is that it is self contradictory. Clearly we are thrust into moral responsibility without any say in the matter. It makes little sense to argue that our having freedom of volition after that fact somehow allows God to maintain His justice. No, it is simpler than that. We have no volitional voice regarding our beginning to exist, where we begin to exist, to whom we are born, and into what moral responsibility we are born. To suggest that after that point God must grant us freedom of volition accomplishes nothing in support of the argument that our freedom of volition is necessary.
In fact, that suggestion is guilty of claiming one degree of the same quality as acceptable and another degree unacceptable. The suggestion is self-contradictory, and the implications are significant. If God causes us to exist without our permission, then we are thrust into an existence over which we have no say. If He causes us to be born without our choosing, how could it possibly be wrong for us to commit suicide, if indeed moral responsibility necessitates choice? Under such conditions suicide would be humanity’s first moral right. And yet I know of no free-will advocate who would laud suicide as morally praiseworthy.
A third flaw with the idea that moral responsibility demands choice is that if true it would eliminate God’s freedom as Creator to determine what does and does not constitute warrant for moral responsibility – unless God created the idea that moral responsibility demands choice. We have already seen that Scripture advocates the idea that moral responsibility does not demand choice, so it seems untenable that God could be accurately described as having put in place choice as prerequisite to moral responsibility. Further, if God is bound by a set of rules in this regard, then upon what basis is such regulation grounded?
The existence of a separate absolute and higher morality that binds even God would imply that God is not the ultimate Moralist. The assertions that love, moral responsibility, and justice all require choice – these assertions all fall on the horns of the same dilemma: if these are true without God having made them true, then He is subject to them, and He is not the absolute Standard. If He is not the absolute Standard, then whatever is that standard is more worthy of worship than He is. In short, that standard would be the true sovereign, and God would be merely an intermediary. The real question, then, is whether or not He has made the assertions true. Even a cursory examination of Scripture shows that He has not made them true.
1 Montague Brown, “Augustine on Freedom and God” in St. Anselm Journal 2.2 (Spring, 2005): 50.
2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, Question 83, Article 1.
3 Philip Carey, Inner Grace: Augustine and the Traditions of Plato and Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 115.
4 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, Question 83, Article 6.
5 Roger Olson, “An Arminian Account of Free Will,” at Catalyst, April 1, 2012, viewed at http://www.catalystresources.org/an-arminian-account-of-free-will/.
6 Augustine, City of God, Chapter 9,93.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.