Setting the Ground Rules: Thoughts on Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism
Whenever the concept of free will is brought up, there is bound to be disagreement. There are many people who have solidified themselves into a very rigid stance regarding free will and even some who would literally fight tooth and nail in order to prove themselves correct. There are countless arguments over predestination, determinism and free will around the internet and even a handful on this site alone.
That being said, there are also many who have yet to come to a conclusion on this issue and all of the arguments back and forth can just seem to cause more confusion. Part of the reason why this is such a difficult subject to discuss without frustration is the conglomerate of opinions that are discussing entirely different concepts of free will. As an example, Calvinists can either fully accept or reject free will depending on the concept being discussed. I hope to lay out some ground rules for discussion in order to make it easier for everyone to understand what it is we are actually talking about.
One of the most important things to do when advocating your position is to define your terms. What is meant by the term “free will?” You will get very different answers if you ask a philosopher, theologian, or even a scientist. Some would say that if we have the ability to alter our future, then we have free will. Others would say that, as long as our current decisions are not determined by the past, we have free will (although it may not seem like it, these are two very different statements). Personally, I prefer the latter definition. In general, those who argue for our ability to freely make choices completely unfettered are often said to hold to “libertarian free will.”
On the opposite side of the argument are those who argue for “hard determinism.” This is a position in which all events in the history and future of the universe have already been programed. From this perspective, every event in the universe has been determined solely based on the initial conditions of the universe. Theoretically, if we could figure out the exact location and velocity of everything in the universe, we could literally predict the future just off of physics calculations.
Now, when we apply these two positions to theology, we are talking about something much more specific. Theologians rarely speak of libertarian free will or determinism in the general sense. Most often, what is being discussed is the specific situation of our salvation. Therefore, someone who holds to libertarian free will is a person who believes that humans choose salvation without encountering any resistance (a position associated with Pelagianism). Apart from the Latter Day Saints though, Pelagianism is largely rejected by modern theologians. Instead, most Christians today believe that we are part of a fallen world with a sinful nature. Our default disposition is toward sin and this disposition must be overcome if we are able to seek God. Thus, most modern proponents of free will in theology ascribe to a Semipelagian position, in which we are disposed toward sin, but we are able to overcome that disposition and still seek God of our own will.
The position of determinism in relation to our salvation takes on the name of predestination. Those who hold to this view see us humans as incapable of seeking God on our own because we are quite literally enslaved in our sinful nature. It is God who has determined who will be saved and it is Him who does the work to bring us to salvation (Quite often, it is also believed that it is God who determines who will be damned as well). We are completely passive in the process. This is a view associated with the teaching of John Calvin and referred to as Calvinism or Reformed theology.
The debate between free will and predestination seems to get complicated when we look at scripture because it seems that both are found in the teachings of the Bible.
It is important for us to take all of these verses into consideration when coming to a proper view of Salvation. Too often I have seen people emphasize a few of these verses at the expense of the others in order to push their own views regarding free will.
I believe that the best position to take with regards to free will is one of Compatibilism. Compatibilism advocates that determinism and free will are not mutually exclusive. In essence, both are true! God has already determined those who will seek Him and receive salvation. All are predestined! None will seek God who have not previously been chosen and elected by God. Yet, once God has acted in reawakening our souls we respond by willingly choosing to seek God.
I am comfortably in the position of Compatibilism because I believe that it is most biblical. But this site is not just representative of Reformed theology as I hold to, so I would like to know what you think as well. Is there more that you would like to add to the “ground rules” above? What do you think of Libertarian Free Will? Hard Determinism? Semipelagianism? Predestination? Compatibilism? What is your position? What are some of the implications you see in these views?
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