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4 views of free will

(Photo: Unsplash/Mahkeo)
(Photo: Unsplash/Mahkeo) | (Photo: Unsplash/Mahkeo)

Are humans free or are they programmed to make the choices they do? This issue is prevalent within Christian theology. Calvinists and Arminians, and Thomists and Molinists continue to debate these ideas today. But this question is not limited to Christian theology. Jewish theologians of the first century held differing ideas pertaining to the limitations of human freedom. Sadducees believed that people had total freedom with little to no interaction from God. The Essenes and the Sadducees were polar opposites. They contended that God had predetermined all things and that everything was left to fate regardless of what one may decide to do. The Pharisees held to varying views in the middle which embraced both God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Even in the scientific world, people debate how much freedom people have as opposed to what is programmed in them by nature. The following points list out four views that people hold concerning human freedom: determinism, compatibilism, concurrence, and libertarian free will.

Determinism: Fate with No Freedom. Determinists hold that humans have no free will and that everything is left up to God’s sovereign choices (Christian theism), fate (other religious perspectives), or nature’s hardwiring (naturalism). In Christianity, this view is held by hardcore Calvinists. Some Calvinists even argue that such a belief extends past what one would call classical Calvinism. Nevertheless, in determinism, free will is an illusion. No one has the power to change one’s fate. Of ancient Jewish sects, the Essenes best fit this category. Compatibilism: Freedom within Fate. The compatibilist view is sometimes called soft determinism. Most Calvinists, especially moderate Calvinists, and Thomists fit this category. Compatibilists hold that people have free will, but that freedom is restrained by previous events that limit the freedoms that people have. Compatibilists hold to an idea called event causation which holds that, like a series of dominoes falling, a person’s choices are determined by previous causes that preceded them. Thus, God determines the paths of every person by limiting what choices a person can make. A person’s choices are also limited by the person’s inclinations and desires to do certain things. So, determinists do believe that people are free, but that the person’s choices are limited and dictated by God and by one’s desires. For compatibilists, a person can freely choose whatsoever they can within restricted confines, but their choice is already predetermined. The Pharisaical Jewish sect fell somewhere between compatibilism and concurrence, which is the next view to be discussed. Concurrence: Fate within Freedom. Concurrence is a soft version of libertarianism. Molinists best fit the concurrent philosophical framework. Concurrent ideas are very comparable to compatibilism in many ways, however, concurrents maintain that people are responsible for their own actions despite what may have happened in the past. In other words, they are not simply a domino falling into a pattern, they are free moral agents.

Concurrent advocates hold that people do have limited choices, but God works through what he knows people will choose. Concurrence argues five principles: 1) ultimate responsibility—moral agents are responsible for their own actions; 2) agent causation—a person is the origin for his or her own sins and not God; 3) principle of alternative possibilities—each person has the possibility of choosing or refraining from a particular task; 4) will-setting moments—separating concurrence from hardcore libertarianism, concurrence holds that certain choices limits, reduces, or withdraws future free choices; 5) distinction between freedom of responsibility and freedom of integrity—freedom is a permission granted to a person by God, but that freedom (freedom of integrity) is not the same for all people; therefore, a person who is redeemed will have a greater range of possibilities from which to choose than a person who is not because of the infusion of the Holy Spirit. A person’s freedom of integrity is greatly limited in some people more than others. The more a Christian is sanctified, the greater range of spiritual possibilities the person holds. The perfected saint of God in heaven will have the greatest range of positive choices without any negative choices.

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Looking at the overall sphere, concurrent advocates would hold that God sovereignly operates by granting people the best opportunities to make the best available choices while knowing completely what the person will choose. His knowledge of their choices does not impede upon their freedom to make their choices. Furthermore, God is still sovereignly moving but does so while allowing people to have the freedom to make choices, albeit limited choices on some occasions. A person’s desires may limit one’s options, but the person maintains the freedom to choose within certain parameters. As mentioned earlier, Pharisees fit somewhere between compatibilism and concurrence.

Libertarianism: Freedom with No Fate. In stark contrast to determinism, libertarianism (or libertarian free will, LFW) argues that if people are to be free, then they must have complete freedom to make any and all choices. If people are completely free, then God must not limit our choices in any way. Some branches of Arminianism and open theism best fit into this category. For those who hold to hardcore versions of LFW, God does not interfere in a person’s choices. This is another area of distinction separating LFW from the milder concurrence ideology. Concurrent advocates argue that God may interfere to provide better choices for individuals. The Sadducees and Samaritans both held to LFW.

We have examined four views of free will. What one believes about the choices people can make shapes how the person views God’s sovereignty, his interaction in the world, and human responsibility. Both determinism and LFW are problematic. Determinism removes human responsibility for sinful actions and places the blame at a holy God’s feet. LFW resolves the issue of human responsibility, but greatly restricts God’s power and knowledge. Compatibilism and concurrence are both able to handle the balance of divine sovereignty and human freedom in ways that determinism and LFW cannot. Both compatibilism and concurrence hold many strengths, but in my estimation, concurrence might hold a slight advantage to compatibilism.

© 2018.

Brian G. Chilton is the founder of and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University. Brian has been in the ministry for over 15 years and serves as a pastor in northwestern North Carolina.

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