The concept of free will is one of the thorniest and most difficult for both theologians and secular philosophers. To complicate matters, within Christian theology, there is not just one problem of free will. There are two.
And lots of smart people who should know better regularly get them confused.
1. The formal problem of free will
The formal problem of free will is the question of how human will is related to the divine.
In philosophy, the question is whether our choices are really our own, or whether they are dictated by genetics, environment, and conditioning.
In theology, the question is how our decisions can really be our own when God is in control of everything.
In his entry on “Will” in the New Dictionary of Theology, Paul Helm states that no matter how one chooses to understand free will, “there is a prima facie problem of reconciling the activity of the human will with the divine. Those who have attributed powers of contrary choice or self-determination to the human will have often attempted to effect such reconciliation by limiting the scope of the divine decree in some respect… Others have rested content with maintaining that while God foreordains all human actions he is not the author of sin.”
The position that we have true freedom to choose any option when given a choice are often called libertarian free will.
The position that we are free only to choose according to our motives and personality is usually called compatibilist free will because it is this view is said to be “compatible” with God’s divine choice as the ultimate cause of all of our human choices.
2. The material problem of free will
The material problem of free will is the question of whether we have the ability or power to follow through on a choice we have already made.
You might choose to start a new, aggressive plan for working out. But that doesn’t mean you’re really going to do it.
So even if you are logically free in a libertarian sense, you still may lack the material willpower to follow through on my decision, a commitment to exercise for instance. Likewise, even if the compatibilist position is true and your will is logically constrained, you may still have the discipline or “freedom” to follow through on your decisions.
What does gelato have to do with it?
Let’s put it in more concrete terms.
Let’s say my wife and I decide to get gelato from the Millstone, a popular mom-and-pop restaurant in Iola. Let’s say I have a choice between chocolate and peach.
I sit and stare at the choice. I go back and forth because they both look good. Finally I decide upon chocolate.
As I’m eating my gelato, I muse philosophically, “Was I really free to choose peach, or did I choose chocolate because God wanted me to choose chocolate?”
My wife turns to me and says, “You think too much.”
That’s because whether we have free will in the formal sense is really irrelevant in our day-to-day lives. What we care about on a day-to-day basis is whether we have free will in the material sense: we all know that I could just as easily have chosen peach, but for whatever reason I chose chocolate.
The good news
Christians believe that our material will is naturally constrained because of sin. Through faith in Jesus, you can be transformed so that you are finally free in every sense that matters.
If you have been “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Romans 6.22), you receive the benefits of true freedom, to live as God intended and designed you.
Photo by pierofix