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
In one camp are the warriors of Faith. They take the Bible seriously. They hold tent revivals and give altar calls. They’re about making sure that the Christian faith stays Christian.
They’re so concerned with resisting compromise that they shut their minds off to anything that might challenge them. They talk about a “leap of faith,” even to the point of saying that evidence detracts from one’s faith.
In the other camp are the warriors of Reason. They are the courageous soldiers who follow truth wherever it may lead. They are not afraid of rejecting a doctrine that does not conform to the standards of logic. When the evidence conflicts with their own desires, they ruthlessly follow the evidence.
Their commitment to rationality sometimes causes them to cut out large chunks of the faith. In reworking Christianity to defend it against its cultured despisers, they create something which some say has stopped being Christian altogether.
A simple Christian pilgrim can easily get caught in the crossfire.
War is hell
For the most part these two groups never talk to each other. Except to launch theological grenades at one another before running back to the safety of their own familiar camp.
Occasionally someone will defect. A person from the Faith camp will get fed up that the difficult questions are all swept under the rug and go join the camp of Reason. Then someone from the Reason camp will get frustrated with the moral decline around them and move over to the Faith camp.
When this happens, the convert is held up by the new camp to show everyone why their side is really the right side and the other side has got it all wrong.
Can you make it out alive?
I was personally wounded in this battle. It nearly killed my faith. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me work through my own doubts.
I took a few years and become a theological draft-dodger. Slowly I have been making my way back. Now I believe there is a better way.
How to survive
The problem is that the warriors of Reason have actually embraced two different ideas and rolled them into one. On one hand, they are firmly committed to embracing logic and weighing all the evidence. On the other hand, often what passes for “evidence” in the Reason camp is just one’s own thinly-veiled cultural biases.
So miracles are rejected, not on the grounds that they are logically impossible, but on the grounds that they are incredible to modern sensibilities. Sexual ethics are rejected not on the grounds that they are logically contradictory, but on the grounds that we don’t like them.
We need to separate the principles of the Reason camp into its two components: reason and culture. From the Faith camp, the important principle is their high view of scripture. Therefore, if we’re going to sort out this mess, we need to figure out how reason, culture, and scripture relate.
I contend that the best way to relate these three principles is like this:
Scripture trumps culture.
Reason trumps scripture.
This way of cutting things up allows for a more robust doctrine without compromising the character of our Christian faith.
What does it all mean?
1. If the Bible really is the Word of God, we would expect the scriptures to conflict with our culture at various points. Most of the critiques of scripture from the reason camp have turned out on closer examination to be an arbitrary elevation of culture over scripture. In contrast, when we say “scripture trumps culture,” we allow ourselves to be critiqued by the scriptures.
2. “Reason trumps scripture,” means that we do not shut our eyes to the evidence. We resist attempts by either the defenders of scripture (or the defenders of culture) to “cook up the evidence.”
3. The principle that “reason trumps scripture” applies equally to other religions. I would hope that a Mormon, a Muslim, or anyone else would subject their holy book to the bar of reason. I can only expect that we would do the same.
4. “Reason trumps scripture,” means that there are conditions upon which I would reject scripture. If I found that the Bible commanded me to commit genocide or to slay my neighbor, I will not blindly follow it.
5. Some will object that saying, “reason trumps scripture,” means that we are elevating ourselves above God. They would argue that scripture alone should trump everything else. But if I ask why, they will inevitably give me reasons, which implicitly acknowledges that scripture ought to accepted on the basis of reason. In practice, we use reason to evaluate everything we come into contact with. All I am advocating is that we remain consistent in our use or reason to also evaluate our faith.
6. Some will object that reason is itself culturally-bound. Even my examples above are culturally influenced. I can only agree. However it is still the most objective standard we have. Some things will be obviously more culture-specific than other things, and we can use reason to decide between them. What I mean by submitting to reason is that we follow the rules of logic and we do our best to admit all the relevant evidence.
7. Some will object that I have left no place for the Holy Spirit. I would say that the guidance of the Holy Spirit would fall under my commitment to scripture. After all, I believe in the Holy Spirit because I believe in Scripture. And because our encounters with the Holy Spirit are always mediated by experience, these experiences are subject to all sorts of interpretations. Our personal experiences of God must especially be subject to reason.
8. In saying, “reason trumps scripture,” we are actually strengthening the conditions upon which we can accept scripture. If we find that reason is not in conflict with scripture, we have stronger grounds to accept it. Rather than fearing what reason might do to our belief in scripture, we can embrace it.
9. Contrary to popular belief, reason does not detract from faith. The faith that the Bible advocates is not believing that God exists (James 2.19), but rather trusting that God will do what he has promised. Trust is built on the basis of evidence, not in spite of it.
10. In saying, “reason trumps scripture,” we acknowledge that some things in the Bible sit in tension with our best reasoning. I don’t understand Joshua’s conquest of Canaan or Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac. I would say they count as evidence against the Bible. I think the evidence in favor of the Bible is a lot stronger, but I refuse to let my belief blind me to the fact that these are difficult stories – stories that make me mad when I read them.
So there you have it. Could there be an end to the war between the camps of Faith and Reason? I doubt it, at least in my lifetime. But maybe we can save some of our friends who are being caught in the cross-fire.
What do you think? Are you comfortable with my formulation that “scripture trumps culture and reason trumps scripture”?
photo by jeffeaton
If you’re part of my group, you know what “Evangelical” means. It means that you are like me. I am like you. We are like each other. We “get” each other.
Together, we Evangelicals understand the most important things that matter about being a Christian:
- We attempt to submit to Jesus as Lord in everything.
- We believe that being a Christian requires a personal decision.
- We allow the Bible to critique us rather than us critiquing the Bible.
- We participate in God’s mission to revive our world that has been deadened by sin.
- We look to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of power for true change.
The problem is that when I say, “I am an Evangelical,” the only people who know what that means are other Evangelicals. Recent surveys have demonstrated that most people have no clue what an Evangelical is. When pressed to guess, people say things like:
“I literally have no idea.”
“They are any Christians who proselytize.”
“They are Christians who are really committed.”
“They cram their beliefs down other people’s throats.”
“They are closed-minded and think they have all the answers.”
The time has come to abandon the name altogether.
What is the alternative? I am considering self-identifying as a Fundamentalist. *Gasp*
“Oh no!” all the Evangelicals cry in horror, “You mustn’t!”
The reason is because there are still churches that identify as Fundamentalist, and we Evangelicals relate to them sort of like a weird creepy aunt – you know you can’t disown her because she’s family, but you don’t really want to hang around her at the family reunion.
Fundamentalists teach that rock music is from the devil. They read from the King James only. The women wear only skirts or dresses. They have all completely withdrawn from society into their own little ghetto. Evangelicals HATE to be associated with these people.
“We are not like them!” we scream.
Oh shut up and get over it.
To the wider culture, a Fundamentalist is someone who lets their beliefs be dictated by their particular holy book. Guess what. We Evangelicals do let our beliefs be dictated by our particular holy book. It’s time we recognized that everything that the rest of society believes about Fundamentalists is also true of us. And all the little nuances we have of why we are not Fundamentalists are insignificant to the rest of society.
On the other hand, compare this to society’s view of an Evangelical. Either people have no idea what you believe, or they think “evangelism” in their minds – which they think must come from the Greek word that means, “being an intolerant jerk.”
Every time I have identified myself as an Evangelical to someone who is “outside” of my Evangelical circle, I have regretted it. I assumed that people knew what I meant and that their attitude towards my faith would be neutral-to-positive.
Instead I found that my description only obscured what I actually believed, and their attitude was actually neutral-to-negative.
Now imagine instead if I just came right out and said, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” It’s sort of like saying, “I’m an intolerant jerk,” since that’s pretty much how we all think about Fundamentalists (myself included). But I will have actually given my hearer a pretty accurate indication of what I actually believe – not the part about intolerance, but the part about my submission to the Bible. Plus I won’t be oblivious to the neutral-to-negative attitude I am likely to receive.
In fact, I strongly suspect that I might just end up with the neutral-to-positive attitude I had originally hoped for. Here’s the reason:
If I asked someone what kind of Christian they were, and they answered with a friendly smile, “I’m an intolerant jerk,” I would be stunned by their candor and impressed by their conviction despite the negative implications. And part of me loves the counter-cultural aspect of cutting against the norm. So even if that is what “Fundamentalist” means to the culture around us, I think it can still work in our favor.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a dumb idea. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. What do you think?
Bryan L did a great post on why he has decided to devote a large amount of time to studying philosophy. Five years ago or more, I used to be very opposed to philosophy. My thought, if I remember correctly, was that philosophy is based in human reasoning. It is too easy to go astray with human reasoning, so we must put our trust in divine revelation alone. I have since had a change of heart concerning philosophy. I think the turning point was when I realized that philosophy, or at least analytical philosophy, is really just a tool for coming to good conclusions based on your premises. In other words, philosophy can’t tell you where to start, but it can tell you where you end up based on where you start. I have come to think it is a powerful tool for working out our own beliefs as well as critiquing opposing beliefs. Analytic philosophy is really nothing more than applying the laws of logic to our beliefs. I had a theology professor who passed on the following quote (the source of which he was unable to remember): Logic is ethics applied to the intellect. I like that. Philsophy is not bad. It helps you determine whether your thinking is internally consistent or not. On that count, I agree with Bryan that philosophy is pretty cool.
A couple days ago I suggested that the Trinity is like a family: even if there are multiple members, there is only one family; and even if there are three members of the Trinity, there is only one God.
The problem with the analogy is that the members of the Trinity mutually indwell one another. When you look at Jesus, you are viewing the Godhead in its entirety. Jesus said, “If you have seen the Father, you have seen Me.” (John 14.7 and the surrounding section)
Bryan proposed that maybe an analogy for the Godhead could be a machine, whose components all work together. I had thought something similar myself, along the line of a computer. The RAM, Processor, and Hard Drive all work in perfect unity and you really have no computer without them. (Maybe not the Hard Drive, but it was the best I had come up with.)
After more reflection, I think we can tweak the analogy and make it work. ne instead the Trinity being represented by the Processor, the electricity, and the data. All three mutually indwell one another. The processor is not a computer without the electricity or the data. All three could make the claim to be what the computer is really about. The analogy does not run the risk of modalism: the three are unique and separate. It doesn’t run the risk of tri-theism: no one would say the electricity is a “second computer”. The only real problem with it I can see is that the three are made up of different substances, whereas we affirm that the three members of the Trinity are homoousios, of the same essence or substance.
I have a lot of issues in my faith that I am sorting through right now. Lots of things that I once took for granted don’t seem to line up anymore. I feel like I am standing atop a giant rock pounding it with a sledgehammer in order to find out what is permanent and what is merely dirt. This is, I think, a good place to be. I would hate to treat my faith delicately only to find that much of it washes away in the storm of life. I believe that Truth is solid, able to take any blow because of the simple fact that it is true. In an email correspondance on this subject with Harold Netland last fall, he counseled,
You need to rest confident that God can handle some scrutiny and his truth can withstand some pretty rigorous questioning. I doubt that you have qustions or issues that 2000 years of Christian intellectual history has not already dealt with in some form or another. So do not worry about raising the issues and wondering whether this will lead you down a path you don’t want to walk. Believe me, it would be much worse to have these nagging questions and just suppress them because you are afraid of where they might lead. If the Christian faith is not the truth, I for one do not want to believe it and keep teaching it (seems that is Paul’s point in 1 Cor 15).
Here is my list of hot topics:
- Non-Christians: Phonemonologically it seems that God interacts with people outside of the Christian tradition. How should we explain this theologically?
- Eternal damnation: Though rooted in the justice of God, this doctrine seems to totally subvert the logic of justice.
- Jesus’s Resurrection: The historical evidence is just not as strong as some would like to make it out to be. It’s not that I think the historical evidence is lacking, but it seems that I am searching for a different kind of evidence, perhaps theological.
- Jesus’ Return: Every time I think about the second coming I feel like I have embraced a total science fiction plot. God just doesn’t seem to work this way. It is the one part of my doctrine that feels more like Scientology than rationality.
- Scripture: I cannot find a theological mechanism that allows me to establish the Bible as God’s eternal Word to all humanity. (See also my proposed solution.)
A lot of what I am doing on my blog is using it as a sounding board for thinking through these issues. I always appreciate your comments.