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Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 2

This is the second post in a series of three looking at the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom which then will propel us to further discussion on human responsibility and the problem of evil. The first post in this series looked at the sovereignty of God. In this post we will discuss human freedom and the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.

Do human beings have a free will? The chorus of Scripture is univocal, whether it is from the Pentateuch, historical books, wisdom literature, or the prophets in the Old Testament; or the Gospels, Acts, or the Epistles in the New Testament. Free will is rooted in creation. In the fall, Adam and Eve sinned against God in an exercise of their free will. They chose to eat the fruit that God commanded them not to eat (Gen. 3:1-6). Free will does not seem to have been completely lost as a result of the fall, either. Another clear text in the Pentateuch on the freedom of the will is Deut. 30:11-20 where God, speaking through Moses, presented the people with a choice (Deut. 30:19 explicitly uses the word ‘choose’). They could either choose to follow God and keep his commands or they could reject him. The whole system of the Old Testament law with its commands and punishments for disobedience seems to assume human freedom, otherwise it is hard to see how the law could be just. Free will also is a background assumption in many other Old Testament narratives (e.g., Gen. 13:1-18; Josh. 24:1-28; 1 Sam. 15:1-35).

Again, the assumption of the freedom of the will is found throughout the rest of Scripture as well. The book of Proverbs opens in Prov. 1:8 with the call to ‘listen’ and ‘not forsake’ the instruction that follows in the remainder of the book. The prophetic literature in its narrative portions show individuals exercising free will (e.g., Dan. 1:8-16) and prophetic exhortations again often assume the free will of the people receiving the message (e.g., Ezek. 18:1ff). Demands of repentance along with reports of people accepting or rejecting the message of Jesus and the apostles are found throughout the gospels and Acts (e.g., Mt. 4:17, Ac. 2:41). In the epistles, ethical demands and warnings against apostasy abound (e.g., Heb. 3:12-15). Some particularly seem to assume the ability to make decisions, especially passages related to Christian freedom (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:36-38). The presence of options seems to assume some degree of human freedom.

Philosophy has approached the question of free will in different ways. It is considered one of the most important open questions, to which we are nowhere near a solution. Those who are materialists recognize that in our experience we do believe that we have freedom, but that it is an illusion. All of our actions are necessitated and rationality is reducible to brain states or other similar phenomena. Thus for materialists and other determinists, we have no human freedom. There are several reasons for rejecting this approach. One is that, as we showed above, Scripture seems to imply that we do have the real ability to make choices without compulsion. Human experience concurs with Scripture. In our everyday lives all of our interactions presuppose this ability. The notion of justice also operates on the assumption that we have the ability to steal or not steal; murder or not murder. Those who don’t are considered criminally insane. Given what we know about biology it also seems impossible that our free will is an illusion. As philosopher John Searle states, ‘The processes of conscious reality are such an important part of our lives, and above all such a biologically expensive part of our lives, that it would be unlike anything we know about evolution if a phenotype of this magnitude played no functional role at all in the life and survival of the organism’ (Freedom and Neurobiology p. 20) It seems very unlikely that God would create us and have such a central part of our experience be an illusion. Recognizing the validity of this argument, there are others who do think that we have free will, either of the compatibilist or incompatibilist sort. Compatibilism claims that both determinism and free will are compatible, while incompatibilism insists that they are contradictory. We will evaluate these below. First we must take up the question of the extent of human freedom along with the extent of divine sovereignty together.

One passage that relates the two is Is. 44:24-28. The passage opens in vv. 24-27 affirming the sovereign power of God by listing various things he is sovereign over. These verses could be read as affirming a meticulous sovereignty, meaning that Isaiah is saying that God controls everything that happens in the world, and thus since God decreed the result in vs. 28 it will happen because he is meticulously sovereign. That is not the only viable way to read this passage, however. Vv. 24-27 could be affirming the power of God as the sovereign creator king, and thus vs. 28 would be a promise of his future action that he is powerful enough to bring about. Somehow God is working through a means, Cyrus, to accomplish his will. God carries out his plan of redemption using human agents. This is consistent with how God works throughout Scripture and is rooted in his creational intentions. God created us in his image, with the intended function of being God’s representatives, the ones through whom God ruled the earth.

This passage provides support for the concept that in any action there can be primary and secondary causes. Both God and man can cooperate together in any action, though their participation is not identical. This concept has been heavily relied upon in the Calvinist and Thomist traditions. God is the primary cause and man is the secondary cause. Man, as the secondary cause, is unable to thwart God’s will. The way Calvin and Aquinas understand man as the secondary cause does have some differences. Calvin strongly emphasizes God’s sovereignty. He claims that God determines all of our actions and contingency is only from our perspective. However, that does not mean that we have no voluntary participation. You can also detect a dislike of the term ‘free will’ in Calvin, but he never does close the door on its use decisively (Calvin prefers not to use the term ‘free will’ because it could mislead one to believe that the unregenerate are not slaves to sin.). Aquinas is more explicit than Calvin on this question and seems to take a little softer stance. For him, some things are willed by God to happen necessarily and others contingently. Thus, even that which is contingent has God’s will as its source. Our acts fall under God’s providence, because our will comes from God. Our free will is a secondary cause that God uses to carry out his sovereign plan.

Our will, while free, is not completely unfettered, and apart from God’s intervention, his plan would not be carried out. We will look at the question of election as a paradigm, specifically at the the opening blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14, which contains perhaps the strongest statements about God’s sovereignty in all of Scripture. First, we must note in vv. 4, 5, and 11 the strong, repeated emphasis on God’s sovereign election of us, his determining that we would be saved. This is according to God’s plan which is executed without being stopped (vs. 11). God decreed it in eternity past, therefore it is sure. Clearly salvation is an act of God. We would be wise, though to see how God’s action is described. It’s described as an act of redemption or liberation, a forgiveness of sins. The condition that necessitated God’s sovereign act of liberation is enumerated in Eph. 2:1-3. We were enslaved to sin and under the dominion of Satan. Thus, God’s sovereign act is an act that liberates us and brings us under his rule. His exercise of his sovereignty is an exercise of his power to break us away from Satan. Our inability to come to him apart from his sovereign work is not presented as a metaphysical inability, but as a moral inability. God makes us alive (Eph. 2:5), freeing us from our bondage and enabling us to freely choose God, which, Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us, we will do. To sum up, God’s election of his people is a decision made before creation that he will move on our behalf to free us from the bondage that we have put ourselves in through the exercise of our will. God is so powerful that he can do this in a way that guarantees our free choice of him. That the result is guaranteed in no way diminishes our freedom.

Many within the Christian tradition have affirmed that divine foreknowledge does not diminish our freedom. God knows what we will freely do in any and every possible situation. To enact his plan of election all God need do is to arrange the situation so that we will choose him freely.

In conclusion, there seems to be two legitimate options related to the relation of divine sovereignty and human freedom, both of which are compatibilist in nature. One is congruism. God works together with man to bring about God’s ends and everything that happens is ultimately made certain by God’s will. This relies on some of the important distinctions that we discussed above, such as the distinction between primary and secondary causes. I believe, though, that this position does run into some difficulties. How does the congruist account for texts that suggest that God changed his course of action (e.g., Jon. 3:1ff.)? There is no room in the congruist account for God reacting to human action. Thus it seems that a partial compatibilist approach fits better. God is the involved, sovereign king who acts in history to bring about his purposes, and he will infallibly bring them about. While God and we work together to bring about his plan, he does not cause every action, which leaves room for him to react to our actions. God is the king who is actively involved in ruling his realm and is in the process of bringing it into complete submission (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22-28). Some things God renders certain, and others conditional. Graham Cole’s suggestion that it may be best to see God acting by writing a beautiful piece of jazz music that we perform in tandem with him is a helpful way of looking at it. [1] Our actions are generally guided. The piece only allows certain notes to be played, but there is interplay between God and us.

[1] “The Living God: Anthropomorphic or Anthropopathic” Reformed Theological Review v. 59 (2000) pp. 16-27 - I know most of you don't have access to this article, but the point Cole makes is so significant that I had to cite it. At the foundation of Cole's argument is that there is a huge difference between anthropomorphisms stating that God has a hand and alleged anthropopatisms which state that God has emotions or reactions. Clearly the statement that God has a hand can't be literally true because God doesn't have a body. On the other hand, there is no logical reason why God can't have emotions or reactions. Those don't require a body.


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