Is Libertarian Free Will at Odds with Christian Orthodoxy?

By | September 19, 2023

Now that I’ve submitted the manuscript for my Open Theism book for the Cambridge Elements series, I’m finally able to return to blogging. I’m going to start by clearing some items off my spindle before eventually blogging on some new ideas that I’ve been mulling over.

So, let’s begin. In the first half of David Alexander’s essay, “Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil” in the book Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (2016), he aims to make his readers more sympathetic to Calvinism by arguing that libertarian free will (LFW) is at odds with ten (or eleven) different doctrines of Christian orthodoxy. In each case, he argues, LFW makes these doctrines “mysterious,” whereas a compatibilistic understanding of free will (CFW) doesn’t. Alexander concludes that Christians who accept these doctrines therein have significant motivation to reject LFW and affirm CFW.

I argue here that Alexander is almost completely wrong. Of the doctrines he considers, either (a) the doctrine in question is arguably not part of Christian orthodoxy or (b) LFW can easily meet the challenge. Thus, Alexander’s considerations do not provide any significant support for CFW over LFW, and certainly not enough support to counterbalance the concern (which he addresses in the second half of his essay) that CFW makes the problem of evil much more problematic. I’ll cover that issue in a separate post.

Defining libertarian and compatibilist views of freedom

Before considering whether LFW fares worse than CFW with respect to Alexander’s list of orthodox doctrines, we need to be clear on what he means by LFW and CFW. Here’s roughly how he defines them (pp. 124–126):

Libertarianism about Free Will (LFW): Necessarily, if S is morally responsible for action A, then A is ultimately up to S.
Compatibilism about Free Will (CFW): Possibly, S is morally responsible for action A and A is not ultimately up to S.

I’ve reworded these slightly to more clearly contrast LFW and CFW without, I think, substantially changing Alexander’s meaning. The key word in both definitions is “ultimately.” Alexander explains this notion as follows:

To say that A is ultimately up to S is to say that S is able to act completely independently. If S has ultimate control over some of his actions, then S can act independently of his genes, environment, desires, beliefs, and even God. (p. 124)

But this is far too strong. No serious libertarian thinks we can act completely independently of genes, environment, desire, beliefs, or even God. The libertarian only wants to say that we can sometimes act in a way that is partially independent of all such factors combined. In other words, when we act freely, in the libertarian sense, our final choosing after the collective influence of all other factors (genes, environment, etc.) is taken into account, is fully up to us as free agents. It is only at that point that free agents make a decisive independent contribution. In contrast, the compatibilist thinks we can be free in whatever sense is necessary and sufficient for moral responsibility even if our final choosing is wholly determined by the collective influence of genes, environment, God, etc.

Defining “orthodoxy”

By Christian “orthodoxy” Alexander means  “Christian doctrines that are either [a] ecumenical in a strong sense (affirmed by various ecumenical councils and creeds) or [b] ecumenical in a weak sense (affirmed by major Christian thinkers of various branches of Christianity throughout the ages)” (p. 126).

While we can certainly appreciate a distinction between strong and weak ecumenical orthodoxy, i.e., between doctrines that are definitive of Christianity, such that to deny them is ipso facto heretical, and doctrines that are merely widely held and affirmed by various respected authorities, Alexander’s characterization of orthodoxy isn’t very precise. With respect to strong ecumenism he doesn’t tell us which councils and creeds should be regarded as “ecumenical.” The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes 7 unambiguously ecumenical councils. All occurred well before the East–West Schism of 1054 AD. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes many more, 21 in total. With respect to weak ecumenism, it’s not clear who should count as a “major” Christian thinker and how the “various branches” of Christianity should be identified.

In my view, Alexander’s notion of weak ecumenism is too weak to be of much interest. Indeed, it seems like little more than a diachronic doctrinal popularity contest, as doctrines that have been widely held for a long time will almost invariably have been endorsed by “major” authorities across various “branches.” Once we move beyond strong ecumenical orthodoxy as defined by councils and creeds held to be ecumenical by the vast majority of the Church, both East and West, we enter a wild domain of widely contested doctrines that pits various “major” authorities and “branches” against each other.

With that, I now turn to Alexander’s doctrinal objections against LFW.

1. Creation and sustenance

As Alexander sees it, “God creates and sustains all things in their very existence. … No creature is able to create and sustain anything in that way.” And yet, “[i]f LFW is true, then creaturely agents are able to bring into existence actions, intentions, choices, etc. all on their own.” Since only God can do that, however, LFW is false (pp. 126–127). The charge, in short, is that LFW undermines the Creator–creature distinction.

In response, I deny that LFW involves creaturely agents bringing actions, intentions, choices, etc. into existence “all on their own” in any objectionable sense since it is God who gives us the power to do such things. He doesn’t pre-decide our decisions for us, and so His enabling doesn’t specify how we exercise our freedom. So in a sense we do bring into being a further specification on our own, but at the same time our being able to bring a further specification into being is not on our own because God enables us to do so. LFW, therefore, does not undermine the Creator–creature distinction.

2. Divine aseity

Alexander defines the doctrine of divine aseity as the idea that “God is completely independently of everything.” But then because our LFW choices add a further specification over and above God’s enabling, LFW entails that God’s knowledge of what we freely do depends on us (p. 127)

I reply that this is way of understanding aseity is way too strong. Alexander, in effect, conflates aseity with absolute impassibility. The latter is (arguably) not a strongly ecumenical doctrine. A more modest and accurate understanding of aseity would go something like this: God’s existence is completely independent of everything and His absolute (i.e., prevolitional) power is not extrinsically constrained. That characterization poses a problem for Molinism (which holds that God’s absolute power is extrinsically constrained by His middle knowledge), but not for LFW per se.

3. Divine providence

Alexander says that “[n]othing happens independently of God’s will. God is in complete control of His universe. God is not surprised by anything that happens” (p. 127). LFW, he thinks, makes this a mystery.

In response, I agree than nothing happens without some sort of dependence on God’s will, and I affirm (even as an open theist) that God is in “complete control” of His universe, but I deny that this entails a doctrine of meticulous providence whereby God sovereignly decrees everything that ever happens. No, I think God can be in complete control by deciding (in advance) what creaturely possibilities He will allow and how He will respond should any given possibility eventuate, all the while leaving room for His creatures to specify whether and how some of those possibilities resolve into actualities. An infinitely intelligent chess master for example, can be completely “in control” of the game without needing to specify every move His opponent will make. This may result in occasional “surprise,” such as when creatures use their freedom in ways that are objectively irrational or improbable, but it’s not the sort of surprise that could possibly catch God flat-footed or cause Him to “lose control” of the situation.

4. Divine moral perfection

Alexander argues: God is morally perfect. If God is morally perfect, then God can’t sin. But if God is also perfectly free (in the sense of having LFW), then God can sin. Therefore, God is not perfectly free (in that sense) (p. 127).

I find this reasoning bizarre. God’s having LFW does not entail that God can sin. This is because LFW choices do not have to be between good and bad. They can simply be choices between incompatible goods. For example, we can’t sensibly have a law that allows people to drive their cars on both the left and right sides of the road, so each country has to make a choice in that regard. Some countries have chosen to drive on the right; others have chosen to drive on the left. Neither choice is bad. Neither is worse than the other. So God can make LFW choices without any possibility of sinning as long as God has open options between equal and/or incommensurable goods.

5. Divine foreknowledge

Alexander writes: “God knows the future exhaustively. Persons are free. LFW makes this a mystery. CFW does not.” (p. 128)

I agree that God knows the future exhaustively and that persons are free, but no difficulty for LFW follows unless we make the additional assumption that God knows “the future” as a complete, determinate totality. In other words, Alexander assumed that there is a unique actual future (UAF), a unique extension of the actual past and present that is, or that is going to be, “the” actual future. But nothing requires proponents of LFW to make this assumption. The phrase “the future” can be understood naturally as referring to the collection of possible futures compatible with all future-relevant facts, whatever those may happen to be. Perhaps there is a determinate fact to the effect that this particular future (the UAF) shall come to pass, but perhaps there isn’t. And if there isn’t then “the future” refers to a branching array of possible futures with unresolved future contingencies, events that both might and might not occur, but which neither will nor will not occur. In any case, the assumption that there is a UAF is (arguably) not strongly ecumenical.

6. Biblical infallibility

Alexander argues that, if LFW is true, then the Biblical authors must have been able to write things otherwise than they were in fact written. This, he surmises, threatens Biblical infallibility because the Biblical authors could then have presumably written things otherwise than how God wanted.

I respond that Alexander makes a couple unjustified assumptions. First, he assumes that if the Biblical authors have LFW in one area of their lives, then they have LFW in all areas. In other words, he assumes that if creatures have LFW at all, then everything they (consciously and deliberately) do involves an exercise of LFW. But no LFW proponent needs to affirm this. One can, following Van Inwagen, be a restrictivist about LFW. That is, one can hold that creatures can only exercise LFW when certain conditions are met and that those conditions are not always met. Second, in line with restrictivism, it’s wholly compatible with LFW that the conditions for LFW were not met when the Biblical authors were writing what they wrote. Perhaps they were only able to exercise CFW during those times because God’s Spirit was making sure that they got the message right. Or perhaps they had some degree of LFW, but only with respect to linguistic decisions that would not affect the meaning or perspicuity of Scripture. For example, perhaps they could freely choose which of two common synonymous expressions to use, but not whether to use a completely antithetical expression.

7. Our inability not to sin

Alexander argues: “Either sin is inevitable [for humans post-fall], or it is not. If it is inevitable, then LFW makes it mysterious. If it is not inevitable, then Pelagianism seems to follow. Pelagianism is a heresy and thus … false. So, sin is inevitable. LFW makes this a mystery. CFW does not.” (pp. 128–129) Further, Alexander explains why the non-inevitability of sin leads to Pelagianism as follows: “If it is likely but not inevitable that we will fall into sin, then it is possible for us to avoid sin and hence earn our way into heaven. But that is Pelagianism.” (p. 129)

I respond by denying that the non-inevitability of sin leads to Pelagianism. The truth of the matter is that we do not and never did have the ability in ourselves to avoid sin. We are morally weak by design. That is, humans weren’t designed to be able to function morally well outside of fellowship with and dependence on God. Adam and Eve fell because they supposed that they could achieve wisdom (knowledge of good and evil) on their own, apart from God. Given the fallen world in which we live and the inherent moral weakness of our nature, it is virtually inevitable that each individual will succumb to sin at some point in life. But it’s not strictly impossible. Hypothetically, if someone were to lean continuously on God daily from their youth, they could avoid sin completely (cf. James 4:7). But, I must stress, even that would not constitute earning one’s way into heaven for the hypothetical sinless individual would know that it was only by the grace of God that he was able to remain sinless. He did not and could not have done it on his own. God’s grace is necessary for salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:8).

8. Jesus’ inability to sin

Alexander argues: “If LFW is true, then in order for Jesus to be morally praiseworthy it must be true that he could have failed to perform his duty or he could have failed to be virtuous [i.e., he could have sinned].” But Jesus is morally praiseworthy and he could not have sinned. Therefore, LFW is false. (pp. 129–130)

I respond in several ways. First, LFW is a condition of moral responsibility, not moral praiseworthiness. Jesus is morally praiseworthy even if He could not have sinned because He is perfect in virtue. He has a perfect moral character. Second, as a condition of moral responsibility LFW requires that S’s actions be ultimately up to S. As fully divine, this condition is satisfied by Jesus. Nothing external to Jesus makes him do the right thing. As God, His goodness is an ultimate, metaphysically necessary fact of reality. Third, if we consider Jesus’s humanity in abstraction from his divinity, then Jesus (qua merely human) could have sinned. But obviously his divine nature is not going to allow that. The hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Christ—i.e., that Christ is one divine Person with two complete, unconfused natures—does not allow us to consider His merely human nature as anything more than an abstraction. It does not subsist and operate on its own independently of the divine Person of God the Son. Fourth and finally, it doesn’t follow that Jesus (qua merely human) did not have LFW. As explained above (under #4) LFW choices do not have to be between good and bad options. They can be choices between equally good options.

9. Sufficiency of grace for salvation

Alexander offers an extended syllogistic argument: “Either God’s grace is both necessary and sufficient for salvation or it is not. If God’s grace is not necessary and sufficient for salvation, then either Pelagianism is true—God’s grace is not necessary for salvation—or saved humans must perform some action to be saved—God’s grace is not sufficient for salvation. Pelagianism is false. Hence, if God’s grace is not necessary and sufficient for salvation, then humans must perform some action to be saved. Every human action is a moral action. … Either the moral action that humans must perform to be saved is good or bad. It is not bad. … Humans deserve praise for performing good moral actions. Hence, the moral action that humans must perform to be saved is an action deserving of praise. But that is contrary to the overwhelming testimony of Scripture and tradition. Hence, God’s grace is both necessary and sufficient for salvation. Hence, [LFW] is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation.” (pp. 130–131)

In response, I concede the validity of the argument and the truth of most of the premises. Pelagianism (as Alexander construes it) is false (though what we now call “Pelagianism” bears little resemblance to what Pelagius himself believed.). Humans must perform some action to be saved (Romans 10:9–10). Humans deserve praise for performing good moral actions. Etc. I take partial exception, however, to two of the premises. First, it is not the case that every human action is a moral action in the sense of being morally weighty. Some human actions are morally neutral and/or trivial. For example, if we grant the moral permissibility of eating ice cream on some occasion, then it generally matters little, and perhaps not at all, which flavor one chooses. We can, of course, imagine circumstances in which such a decision would be morally weighty—e.g., by choosing chocolate ice cream I send a signal to a hit man to kill a specific person—but that would be an exception. Second, I deny that there is any “overwhelming testimony of Scripture and tradition” to the effect that no one deserves any praise for what one contributes to one’s own salvation. There are verses that prohibit boasting (1 Cor. 1:30–31) and trusting in one’s works for salvation (Romans 4:2–3), but repenting and turning to God in faith are not “works” in the relevant sense, and the attitude of humility that comes with turning to God in faith naturally excludes any thought of boasting. A free gift (salvation) does not become any less free because someone gratefully receives it. So, while we might in some sense “praise” a person who repents—the Forgiving Father might plausibly say “Thank you for coming home” to the Prodigal Son—the repentant sinner’s posture is, and should remain, full of gratitude toward God. Even God directs praise toward those who do well—”Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

10. Our inability to sin in heaven

Alexander argues that saints in the eschaton will no longer have the ability to sin, to “turn away from God in rebellion.” LFW, he says, makes this a mystery, whereas CFW does not. (p. 131)

I respond as I did under #4 above, that having LFW does not require that one be free to choose between good and bad. One can freely choose between equally or incommensurably good options. Nevertheless, a proponent of LFW could accept that having LFW is just a temporary condition, one made possible by our current epistemic and moral limitations, which limitations will one day be removed. If so, then Alexander’s point is at most an argument that we won’t have LFW in the eschaton. It’s not a good argument we don’t have LFW now.

11. Hell

Alexander’s last argument for CFW over LFW occurs at the very end of his paper. He contends that “[t]he LFW advocate … will have a hard, if not impossible, time arguing that God can and should ensure that no one winds up in hell” because for him to argue that “God can and should ensure that we choose God” would do “serious damage to LFW” (p. 142). The CFW advocate, he thinks, can avoid this problem without doing “damage” to CFW by appealing to the privation theory of evil and to the idea that God’s goodness and being are identical. The idea seems to be, roughly, that hell is just a privation and so isn’t in any sense caused by God and, moreover, that God isn’t in any sense obligated to cause anything at all, but whatever He does cause is ipso facto good.

In response, I save my criticism of Alexander’s reliance on the privation theory of evil to absolve God of all blame for causing people to go to hell for a follow-up post. Suffice to say, I think his argument here is really bad. I content myself here with addressing the charge he levels against LFW. The basic response is that LFW theists generally don’t believe that God can and should “ensure” that no one winds up in hell. While one could charge that a LFW theist’s God ought not to allow creatures to go to hell (or be annihilated) for eternity, at most that’s an argument that God should set things up to guarantee eventual universalism. Alexander does have a point that LFW makes the prospect of guaranteeing eventual universalism problematic, whereas CFW does make guaranteeing eventual universalism more straightforward. But if we’re limiting our concern to doctrines that are either strongly or weakly ecumenical, then guaranteed universalism is undoubtedly not one of those doctrines. So one can’t press this as a problem for LFW with respect to Christian “orthodoxy.” As long as we’re staying within the scope of putative orthodoxy and excluding heterodox ideas like universalism, we’re committed to affirming that some creatures do wind up going to hell (or being annihilated) for eternity. The question then is not whether God should have “ensured” that no one winds up in hell, but whether God has done enough to steer creatures away from that outcome. And here LFW theists have a much easier time of it, for they argue that those creatures who wind up eternally lost ultimately choose it despite God’s offer of salvation. CFW theists, in contrast, must say that God ultimately choose that those creatures wind up eternally lost. Not only did God not ensure that they not go to hell (which, as per CFW, he easily could have), but He actively ensured that they do go to hell. This last concern, then, backfires on Alexander.

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