Question of the Week: Compatabilism

On February 6th, 2018, The Mentionables recieved this question from Brett S.

"I was wondering which position you would affirm to be more biblically and logically sound? It seems that under Comp. one may have a hard time seeing man as morally responsible, but LFW seems to go against the Biblical Narrative in certain cases. I would love some insight into this topic. Thanks!"

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Thank you for your question, Brett. Here are the answers from the team:

This answer is from Mentionable Network Member, Timothy Fox. To see the response from Joel Furches and Tyler Vela, scroll below.

This is a big question that has a lot of theological implications. But first we need definitions.

 

Definitions

I take Libertarian Free Will (LFW) to be the commonsense, everyday understanding of free will. Humans are free to make choices or refrain from choosing, and nothing and no one else is forcing my choices. For example, I decided to wear a red shirt today but I could have worn a blue one, or nothing at all. I am free to make real choices according to my nature.

Compatibilism is an attempt to reconcile free will with causal determinism. A compatibilist thinks humans will always choose according to their greatest desire, but they still have free will as long as they aren’t restricted from following that desire. So, according to compatibilism, if I chose to wear a red shirt today, that was my greatest desire and I could not have chosen to wear the blue one or go naked. Since I followed my desire, no one forced me to wear the red shirt, and nothing stopped me from doing it, it was my free choice.

But in my opinion, a compatibilist does not really believe in free will. It’s like saying a robot is free so long as nothing is hindering it from following its programming.

Response

Now to the question: Which view is biblical? LFW. While there are many examples, I think the best is 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB):

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”

 

Paul is saying that when you sin, God had provided a way out so that you could have made a better decision. You had a real choice. You are not a robot following your programming, or strongest desire. When you sin, you genuinely could have done otherwise.

Now, some opponents of LFW misrepresent it as the ability to do absolutely anything. That’s dumb. I can’t fly. I can’t will my hair to grow back. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) Look back to my definition of LFW: I can make choices according to my nature. Humans don’t have the ability to fly, thus that choice is not within my nature to make. But I do have the ability to choose the clothes I wear (or don’t wear).

To head off another common objection, LFW does not entail that the unregenerate can “choose God” apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Neither does this does undermine LFW since the ability to choose God is not within the unregenerate person’s nature (1 Cor. 2:14). LFW simply means that I am free to make real choices according to my nature, and I think that is the model of freedom laid out in the Bible as well.

Now, the question ends saying “LFW seems to go against the Biblical Narrative in certain cases.” I would like to know what these cases are to see if they truly do undercut LFW.

I tried to make my case as simply as I could, and I know I may have sacrificed some technical precision in doing so. So if you’d like a further exploration of LFW and compatibilism, check out these articles by my FreeThinking Ministries colleague, Tim Stratton:

 

 

 

This answer is from Mentionable Joel Furches. To see the answer from Tyler Vela, scroll below.

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In answering this question, I am going to break two of my personal rules. The first is journalistic and academic: never speak in the first person and never address your audience directly. The second is apologetic: never address a subject you are not prepared to defend.

As regards the second, I can categorically say that I have not done the work on the topic of predestination and free will necessary to form and defend a conclusion. However, I do have a strongly held theory on this subject – a compatibilist model that satisfies both criteria and allows for all apparent contradictory passages in scripture, at least, so far as I have been able to ascertain.

In my theory, the sovereignty of God and the free will of man are directly concerned with the relationship each party has to the natural function of time.

Humans exist within the flow of time, such that each individual experiences the sequence of past, present and future. Consequently, in each moment, an individual uses experience and knowledge from the immediate or distant past in order to make free-will decisions in the moment leading to consequences in the future. This constant flow of human action within the construct of time is exactly what creates the free-will experience.

My impression of God, which is by no means shared by all Apologists or Christian philosophers, is that he exists in an eternal state outside of time. This makes for an entirely different interaction with the construct of time, and with time-bound creatures.

In this respect, God could be said to be entirely immediate in every moment simultaneously. God’s nature is eternal and unchanging, as compared to the flow of time which is nothing but change. When God’s unchanging nature interacts with the changing construct of time, what occurs is a single action which directs all things according to his nature.

The best analogy I have for this is chemical. Imagine a chemical solution which is entirely uniform across its entire mass. Then imagine a fibrous strip of litmus paper which is multifaceted within each fiber. Submerge the strip in the solution and each fiber of the strip experiences a different response, but the chemical remains uniform and unchanged.

God’s eternal unchanging nature is fully revealed and defined as it interacts with every aspect of the consistently changing universe, just as the changes a litmus paper experiences reveals the nature of the chemical in which it is submerged.

Humans have free will insofar as they operate off the past to make decisions in the present which affect the future, but they do so entirely exposed to the eternal nature of God, which overwhelms and supersedes all things.

So God is sovereign in the sense that he is simultaneously creating the world, judging the world by flood, saving the world through Christ, and creating a new heaven and a new earth. The very act of creating time involves predestination and working all things according to his will - which is never inconsistent in any given time-bound scenerio. 

This can easily be seen in passages such as Deuteronomy wherein, after delivering the blessings and curses, God plainly tells the people that their future generations will break the commandments and stoke his wrath. At the same time God is delivering the law, he is enacting it on the future generations. It could also explain how Abraham could be justified by his faith thousands of years before Christ came. Because at the same time that Abraham was sacrificing his son, God was sacrificing his son.

However, the clearest passage that reveals this concept is Christ's statement, "Before Abraham was, I Am." In one brief statement, Christ has shown the temporal nature of man in contrast to the eternal nature of God.

This model has some pretty fascinating implications when it comes to the nature of Christ. Assuming this model, Christ would have uniquely been an eternal nature interacting with a time-bound nature. This thusly allows God - through Christ - to see the nature of time from within and without. Were this the case, it would give a pretty solid answer to the “Why did Jesus pray to himself”-type questions occasionally seen from skeptics. It might also go a ways toward explaining why Jesus didn’t know the date of his return.

Speaking of prayer, this model – to me – explains the effectiveness of prayer between fallible humans and an eternal, unchanging God. Under most models, it makes no sense that an omniscient, changeless and totally sovereign God would at all be affected or responsive to prayer, and yet prayer is practically commanded and at least encouraged by Christ. Yet if God’s eternal nature interacts with ever-changing time in a way consistent with that very nature, then prayer is simply an aspect of time which interacts in a particular way with God’s nature – somewhat in the way that a wall interacts differently when a rock or a tennis ball are thrown against it.

One can certainly develop this theme through scripture, but I haven’t the space here to do so.

Once again, I must stress that this is a theory, and not one I am currently prepared to defend. It is, however, a theory to which I currently see no defeaters. I am able to read most of the Bible through that lens, and it works consistently.

This Answer is from Tyler Vela

Thank you for the wonderful question. Due to the wildly complex nature of the question and the huge volume of literature on this issue, I’m actually going to keep my answer pretty short and simply touch on a couple key concepts to keep in mind as we discuss it.


My position: As a Reformed Presbyterian, I hold to a Compatibilistic reconciliation of the definite and predetermined decree of God for all things and for human responsibility.


My hermeneutical assumption: Scripture is authoritative and sufficient. What I find is that these conversations will almost always quickly move to and stay in the realm of philosophical discourse. I’m not opposed to philosophical discourse, however when we hold positions for philosophical reasons and then back into the Scriptures to find a way to justify it, that is not an acceptable practice. It may be the case that we can apprehend some truth in the Scriptures but struggle to comprehend it or hash out the details.


Divine Determinism is Scripture: There are clear passages in the Bible that God has predestined not only whatsoever comes to pass, but also our repentance and faith unto salvation (which is where the real tension lies). We see in Acts 2:23 that the action of the Jews in crucifying Jesus was part of the “predetermined plan” of God. When Joseph comforts his brothers in Gen 50:20, he says that they meant evil, but God had determined it for a good outcome. When Peter and John were released in Acts 4 and they began to glorify God that the city and the people and Pilate had all arrayed against Jesus “to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” Psalm 135:6 tells us that God does whatever he pleases and Job 42:2 tells us that no plan or purpose of God can be thwarted. Jer. 10:23 tells us that man’s way (his own path) is not even found in himself, and that he doesn’t even direct his own steps. In addition we can see that God has elected from before the foundation of the world who would be adopted as sons via repentance and faith (Eph. 1:4-5), and that all that he foreknew he predestined. Well in one sense God foreknows everyone so does this mean everyone? Well Paul continues by saying, “these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” This means that all of the ones who were predestined were called, all those called are justified, all those who are justified are glorified.” So unless one is a universalist, this foreknowledge is almost certainly a kind of covenant knowledge – those that he foreknew in a redemptive sense (just like we see in Eph 1). This means that he was the one determining from before creation, who would be redeemed. Much more can be said on this, but that should suffice for now.


Is There a Conflict? I hardly need to show human choice and responsibility in Scripture. We do not really disagree with our Arminian and Traditionalist brothers on this. So does the existence of divine determinism in some way make human freedom an allusion? Does it make God unjust for judging people as morally culpable if they cannot resist his will? The answers here are actually simple if we simply allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves. If there is divine determination in the Scriptures, then that just means that a notion of Libertarian Freedom of the Will (LFW) is not present in the scripture. Unfortunately, many who hold to LFW assume that LFW is the only substantive concept of freedom of the will. That unless our choices are left completely unfettered by the constraints of our nature, our greatest desires, the definite decrees of God, etc. that we do not have limited creaturely (but real substantive) freedom, but that we have no manner of freedom and are no different than robots. This is simply begging of the question on stilts. The Scriptures clearly teach both – not only that God is sovereign but that whatsoever comes to pass is part of God’s decree and has been predetermined to occur according to the definite plan of God. It could not be any different. But you may ask me, how is that fair? How can God find us morally culpable and at fault when we cannot resist his determined plan and will?


It’s great that you ask that. Do you know who else asked that exact question in the Scriptures? When Paul tells of God’s meticulous activity in choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau before they were even born or had done anything good or bad, and his hardening of Pharaoh so that God’s purpose might be displayed and his glory revealed, when he showed that it is not based on the one who wills or the one who works but on God alone who determines when he has mercy and when he has wrath, then Paul’s interlocutor shows up again. The objection Paul imagines his reader to have is exactly that objection. Rom. 9:19 reads, “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”” That is the objection of the advocate of LFW – God would be unjust for judging people if they cannot resist his will.


Notice Paul does not agree with them. Neither does he correct them as misunderstanding what he has said and stating that he was defending LFW the whole time. In fact he sharply rebukes them in the manner that God rebuked Job – who do you think you are to question God? God has the right over his creation like the potter has the right over his clay to make what he wants – vessels of mercy or vessels of wrath. In fact, Paul doubles down on this response and asks, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? That is, what if God determined them for wrath so that he could make his wrath and his power known? Some will try to say that he is just saying that God could have done this. Even if that were the case that God could do that, it means that he could do that without being unjust and the objection from the LFW advocate still fails. But Paul does not merely leave it as an abstract hypothetical. He does not just say “what if God did that…” but then continues by saying, “And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…” That is, God not only could have done that, but that is exactly what God did. God did create the vessels of wrath to display his glory to the objects of his mercy and he was entirely just in doing so.


Conclusion: While I have not here engaged in philosophical speculation about how exactly divine determinism and human responsibility are related and interact, and how and why God determines some specific action in his sovereign and providential running of creation, I think that I have shown enough scriptural justification that this is the view that is concord with the teaching of the Scripture. When discussing these issues, we should always ask the person who gives a robust philosophical treatment, “okay, but what do the Scriptures teach.” And if, as part of their objection to the clear tension in scripture between divine determinism and God’s providential predetermined plan on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other, forces them to offer a protestation or an assumption that is expressly used by Paul as an unbiblical view that he directly refutes, then something has gone horribly off the tracks. I would rather align my theology with Paul and the rest of scripture and not be able to fully work out the details, then to have a fully thought out philosophical system that is based on assumptions directed refuted by the scripture itself.


Soli Deo Gloria.