Abstract: This is a critical examination of CARM.org’s article “What is Libertarian Free Will and is it Biblical?,” which purports to define libertarian free will and demonstrate that it is not biblical. I conclude that Slick’s own definition is idiosyncratic and based on faulty research. It therefore fails to accurately represent the concept as currently defended by prominent Molinists. Furthermore, Slick’s critique of Moreland and Craig’s definition is fraught with philosophical howlers, caricatures, biblical eisegesis, and lack of research. He neither demonstrates that he understands the concept of libertarian free will, nor shows that it is unbiblical.
In his article “What is Libertarian Free Will and is it Biblical?,” CARM.org founder and president Matt Slick attempts to define libertarian free will and concludes that it is “not biblical.”
Defining Libertarian Free Will
Keeping in mind that a definition is a statement of the exact meaning of a word or term, Slick begins by offering his own definition:
“Theologically speaking, Libertarian Free Will (LFW) is the view that peoples’ choices are free from prior cause and that our fallen, sinful nature does not constrain moral choices. In other words, human free will is completely free to choose to receive or reject Christ as well as to choose to do anything among options and that such choices are in no way determined by circumstances or our nature or our desires. Therefore, Libertarian Freedom is the ability to choose to act contrary to circumstances, prior causes, one’s desires, and one’s fallen nature.”
Slick insists that this definition is “the result of research into what Molinist’s [sic] and philosophers assert is libertarian free will.” Taken at face value, Slick is claiming to accurately represent how Molinists and philosophers define LFW. Helpfully, he provides quotes from Molinists (his true targets) from which he presumably derives his own definition:
- “By definition, the ability or power to choose or to refrain from choosing is what is called libertarian freedom. So a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty requires the corresponding concept of contingency, and this necessitates understanding God’s freedom in libertarian terms.” (Keathley, Kenneth. Salvation and Sovereignty, (p. 26). B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2010, Kindle Edition. p. 26)
- “… God has libertarian free will and is not determined by any one or anything else nor is he determined to act via himself.” (God Andrews, Max. An Introduction to Molinism: Scripture, Reason, and All that God has Ordered (The Spread of Molinism Book 1) (Kindle Locations 143-144). Kindle Edition.)1
- “For our purposes, when we use the term “free will” we mean what is called libertarian freedom: Given choices A and B, one can literally choose to do either one, no circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine one’s choice; a person’s choice is up to him, and if he does one of them, he could have done otherwise, or at least he could have refrained from acting at all. One acts as an agent who is the ultimate originator of one’s own actions and, in this sense, is in control of one’s action.” (Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 240. InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.)
If Slick’s definition is an accurate representation of how Molinists define LFW, then a side-by-side comparison should yield a close similarity. First, it should be noted that Slick does not have a background in philosophy, nor does it appear that he is well-read in philosophy, so it may not be unsurprising that his definition lacks the type of technical rigor characteristic of philosophers. I assume that the “Therefore” beginning the final sentence of his statement indicates what he takes to be the definition of LFW. So, let’s place Slick’s final sentence and the underlined portions of the Molinist quotes in succession for closer comparison:
- “Therefore, Libertarian Freedom is the ability to choose to act contrary to circumstances, prior causes, one’s desires, and one’s fallen nature.” – Matt Slick
- “…the ability or power to choose or to refrain from choosing is what is called libertarian freedom.” – Kenneth Keathley
- “God has libertarian free will and is not determined by any one or anything else nor is he determined to act via himself.” – Max Andrews
- “...libertarian freedom: Given choices A and B, one can literally choose to do either one, no circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine one’s choice; a person’s choice is up to him, and if he does one of them, he could have done otherwise…” – J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig
Slick does at least characterize LFW in terms of “the ability to choose.” Though, note that Keathley’s definition also includes the ability “to refrain from choosing” – an important nuance missing from Slick.2 Strangely, Slick inserts the word “contrary,” which is not found nor even suggested in any of the other quotes. What does it even mean to say that one acts “contrary” to circumstances or causes? Charitably, perhaps he means that on LFW one may choose to act “contrary” to how antecedent circumstances or causes would determine a (created) person to choose if determinism were true.3 Yes, many Molinists affirm this to one degree or another. But, this would be an implication of LFW, not a definition.
As I noted, Slick claims to be offering a researched definition. It’s questionable where the definition itself actually lies or whether it is properly a definition at all. But it’s equally questionable whether the definition can be said to have been “researched.” The Keathley quote comes from page 26 of his book Salvation and Sovereignty, and falls under a section in Chapter 1 describing God’s sovereignty. However, the definition given here is cursory, since the focus is the contingency of God’s choices, not a detailed treatment of the concept of LFW, which is held for Chapter 3. Slick does list quotes from Chapter 3 on a page titled “Various quotes used in research on Molinism,” so it’s confusing why, in this article, he uses the quote from page 26 given the context.4 And it’s not clear whether Slick even used the other quotes on that page to form his own definition.
Following the above link, one may also note the inclusion of a quote on the “Various quotes” page by Kirk MacGregor, the man who literally wrote the book on Luis de Molina, yet whose quote is omitted. Why? It could just be that Slick forgot about it. Or, he could have left it out because it contradicts his own attempt to define LFW. Slick claims that LFW is the ability to choose contrary to “one’s fallen nature.” But, according to MacGregor, “Molina’s doctrine of libertarian free will states that a sentient being has the ability to do anything in the full range of alternatives that is consistent with his nature.”5
What about the quote by Max Andrews? Look closely. It says “God has libertarian free will,” but it doesn’t define LFW itself at all. Andrews does offer definitions of LFW elsewhere in his book (Kindle Locations 203, 371), so why doesn’t Slick refer to them instead?
Thankfully, Slick accurately identifies a definition of LFW in the quote of Moreland and Craig. Those familiar with the philosophical literature will recognize the definition as affirming the Principle of Alternative Possibilities. Here’s the thing. The quote comes from the first edition of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, published in 2003. Slick’s article was published in June of 2017. Is it possible that either Moreland or Craig’s view of LFW has undergone refining or modification since then? Again, an incredibly simple search of, for instance, the Reasonable Faith website would reveal that Craig has publicly held to a more nuanced view since at least 2008 and affirmed it several times since.6 In terms of researching a living philosopher’s position on a subject, Slick’s failure to use updated information must be deemed irresponsible at best. This is apt to be especially embarrassing for an organization with “Research” as a middle name.
To recap, Slick claims to define libertarian free will and claims that this definition is based on research into how (esp.) Molinists define it. However, not only is his own definition idiosyncratic, but the Molinist quotes listed, presumably as part of his “research”, are either i) outdated, ii) not definitions, or iii) cursory due to context. It does not appear that Slick properly defines libertarian free will, nor does it appear that his definition was truly well-researched. Therefore, the claim (at this point in his article) that the concept has been accurately defined must be rejected.
Slick’s Analysis of Whether Libertarian Free Will is Biblical
After giving the Molinist quotes, Slick abruptly begins the next section, “Is Libertarain [sic] Free Will biblical [sic]?” And he begins the section with… yet another definition of LFW, one which is clearly drawn from the previous quotes but is completely different than his original statement. Given his own definition of libertarian free will and the analysis of the Moreland and Craig quote to follow, it seems probable that Slick doesn’t fully understand the concept. We might also, then, expect his analysis of whether it is biblical to miss the mark, as it certainly does.
It must be stated again that the definition Slick specifically attacks as “unbiblical” is from 2003 and has since been nuanced and reformulated. Nevertheless, if Slick is successful, he will at least have shown that a definition of LFW is unbiblical. First, to ask another foundational question, what does Slick mean by “unbiblical”? In his conclusion, he says that LFW appears to “violate” Scripture, that it is a philosophical position “imposed” upon Scripture, and that Scripture “speaks against” it. So, for Slick, it’s not that Scripture is merely underdeterminative with regard to LFW, as it may be for, say, whether God is timeless or everlasting through time. Rather, Slick is claiming that this definition of LFW is actually in direct contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. It will not do to show merely an apparent discrepancy, as in the case of, say, Jesus’s final logion differing across the Gospels. Instead, Slick must show that something taught in Scripture actually entails that no one possesses or has possessed LFW, or perhaps that no one even could possess it.
Here’s the Moreland and Craig quote again:
“For our purposes, when we use the term “free will” we mean what is called libertarian freedom: Given choices A and B, one can literally choose to do either one, no circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine one’s choice; a person’s choice is up to him, and if he does one of them, he could have done otherwise, or at least he could have refrained from acting at all. One acts as an agent who is the ultimate originator of one’s own actions and, in this sense, is in control of one’s action.” (Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 240. InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.)
In the article, Slick copies and critiques only the underlined portion. He gives his first grievance: “The problem is [sic] with this definition is that it [sic] man centered.” A quick lesson in English grammar is in order. The word “one” in the Moreland-Craig definition serves as a neutral, third-person pronoun (as in the first, third, and fifth instances). It is no part of the definition to specify man-centeredness. Any being which possesses or could possess the ability described can take the place of “one.” So, when Slick says “By the above definition God is excluded,” what he really means is that given certain facts about God, LFW so-defined does not apply to God, as Molinists supposedly maintain. This is problematic for Slick because he says that “our definition of what free will is, ought to include God because we are made in his image.”
Disregarding Slick’s ignorance of the goal of a definition, his main issue is, it seems, that, given how Molinists define LFW and claim that God possesses it, God should be able to choose between any conceivable (or metaphysically possible) choices A and B. Since sinning is a conceivable choice – humans may choose to sin, so obviously sin is a conceivable choice – God should be able to choose to sin. This is clearly a comprehension error on Slick’s part. When Moreland and Craig say “Given choices A and B,” they obviously do not mean that every agent has every conceivable choice available. A monolingual English speaker does not have the choices (A) to speak English, and (B) to speak Chinese. But he does, ceteris paribus, have the choices (A) to speak English quietly, and (B) to speak English loudly, and perhaps even (C) to refrain from speaking.7
So, there are obviously certain delimiting factors when contemplating which choices are “given.” In God’s case, given choices (A) to create, and (B) to refrain from creating, God could have literally chosen to do either and there were no circumstances which were sufficient to determine His choice, which satisfies the definition given by Moreland and Craig. The choice to sin is not a “given” for God because the very concept of God precludes his possibly choosing to sin, just as the concept of a monolingual English speaker precludes the choice to suddenly speak another language. Slick says, “God must act in a manner consistent with his holy nature.” No Molinist would disagree.
I believe it is the preceding comprehension error which leads Slick to say, “The position of libertarian free will which [sic] states that a person’s choices can be made independently of his fallen nature, desires, and cannot be determined by God’s foreordination.” To Slick, the definition of LFW entails that even with a fallen nature, human beings have all the range of choices available to them that they would if their nature were not fallen. This is simply not entailed by the definition at all.
Moreover, it appears that Slick does not recognize the difference between determinism and foreordination, or, more specifically, the difference between strong and weak actualization (explained below). When proponents of LFW say that a person’s free choices are not determined, they mean that the agent is the “ultimate originator” of his choice. This is not to say that choices are not influenced by external factors, but that there are no factors external to the agent “sufficient to determine one’s choice.” In other words, determinism is incompatible with free will: an externally-caused free choice is a logical contradiction.
This often concerns objectors because they equate a choice’s being not-directly-causally-determined with its being uncertain. But if God has knowledge of what creatures would freely do in a given situation, and he has this knowledge prior to creation (we call this type of knowledge middle knowledge), then he can know with certainty exactly how a person will choose simply by “foreordaining” a given situation and letting the person act freely. This is called weak actualization. When God directly causes something to occur, this is called strong actualization. Sadly, the “Actualization” section of the “Various quotes used in research on Molinism” page only has one quote, and it’s not about strong and weak actualization. Nor are the concepts found anywhere else on the website. It would be a welcomed outcome of this article if Slick were to include more information on his site about these concepts.
By now, one should be wondering whether Slick has a firm enough grasp on the concept of LFW (so-defined) to address whether or not it “violates Scripture.” Probably not. Looking at the prooftexts will provide an important lesson, though, on in-house debate conduct. Even if Slick doesn’t understand the concept, his use of prooftexts can demonstrate whether or not he’s at least being consistent in his own critique, as well as whether or not he’s being charitable or overreaching in his interpretations.
Slick informs us that “Scripture… clearly says that the unbeliever cannot freely choose to do that which is morally right, including choosing God.” Let’s see if his prooftexts support his claim:
- Jer. 17:9, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?”
- [Slick’s] Comment: This is speaking of the very nature of a person. Jeremiah is telling us that our fallenness has affected us and that our hearts are deceitful and sick. What else is the heart but our will, our desire, and even our essence? we are fallen.
We again see that Slick mistakenly thinks that LFW entails that one have the range of all conceivable choices at one’s disposal in order to make a free choice. But it may be the case that given the fallenness of our natures, our range of choices is limited, in some cases, to evil choices or else refraining from evil choices. Choosing to do what is morally right may not be among those choices. But the question is whether or not those choices are made freely. Notice, however, that this verse doesn’t even do the job of showing that evil men cannot choose the good.
- Mark 7:21-23, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.”
- Comment: Jesus speaks of the choices made by people which are consistent with our nature. Of course, he speaking of those who are not regenerate, not trusting in him. These people in their very hearts possess evil thoughts of varying degrees. Can they then freely choose Christ? It does not appear so.
The verse doesn’t say anything about whether an evil heart is capable of making free choices, even if unable to freely choose Christ. But Slick does say something interesting. He says that evil thoughts come in “varying degrees,” meaning there’s a range of options to choose from. So, the question relevant to LFW is whether or not the choice made from the available range was causally determined from without or freely chosen from within. The verse itself says “from within,” which surely sits more comfortably with libertarians than with determinists. And, again, the verse nowhere says that fallen man cannot choose the good. It is perfectly consistent with the claim that fallen man can do good, but doesn’t. Slick has stretched the text to say more than is actually there. The same error runs through the rest of the prooftexts and comments offered in the article. Not only does Slick misconstrue the concept of LFW (even according to an outdated definition), but his prooftexts fail to support even his mistaken notion. It would be very difficult to identify this as the type of charitable analysis one expects from a disagreeing brother in Christ.
We have observed that Slick’s definition of libertarian free will is idiosyncratic and does not exhibit the research that he claims informed it. Other errors committed include conflating definition with implication, misconstruing a definition, equating determinism with foreordination, and conscripting undersupportive prooftexts. Libertarian free will has not been accurately understood or explicated by Slick, and, for this reason and others, has not been shown to “violate” Scripture.
At this point, I’d like to extend an olive branch. My heart beats closely in time with Slick’s in our zeal to defend the truths of Christianity. But the carelessness of this and other articles on the site is truly sorrowing. I think the resources of Molinism, the two foundational pillars of which are libertarian freedom and middle knowledge, could be of enormous benefit to CARM. At the very least, I and others would like to work closely with the organization to ensure that, even if we still disagree at the end of the day, our disagreement is based on the very best, most charitable and accurate understanding of one another’s views. As an administrator of the Molinism – Official Page Facebook group, I speak for many when I say that we’re eagerly hoping for an opportunity to contribute a clearer picture of our view for CARM’s readers.
1 This quote is found at Kindle Location 100 of 991 in my copy, which is: Max Lewis Edward Andrews, An Introduction to Molinism: Scripture, Reason, and All that God has Ordered (self-published e-book, 2014).
4 Slick would also have done well to include the large footnote on p. 69-70 in which Keathley says, “The one place I amend Lemke’s definition of soft libertarianism is that I do not hold that an agent must have the ability to do otherwise “in any given situation,” but as we will see, “at significant will-setting moments.” This quote does not currently appear anywhere on CARM.org.
5Emphasis mine. In his book, MacGregor calls this “the theological version of compatibilist human freedom,” which is in fact wholly consistent with the philosophical concept of libertarian freedom. See Kirk R. MacGregor, Luis de Molina (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 50.
6 2008: “What makes his choice free is the absence of any causally determining factors of his choosing A.” (link)
2009: “Philosophically, I’m persuaded by arguments such as have been offered by Harry Frankfurt that free choice does not entail the ability to do otherwise… the essence of free choice is the absence of causal constraint with respect to your choices; it is up to you alone how you choose.” (link)
2012: “[W]hat is crucial to freedom of the will is not the ability to do the opposite but the absence of external causal constraints upon one’s choice: it is entirely up to you.” (link)
See also William Lane Craig, “”Lest Anyone Should Fall”: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Perseverance and Apostolic Warnings,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/lest-anyone-should-fall-a-middle-knowledge-perspective-on-perseverance (accessed August 1, 2017), fn. 8. The article was originally published in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion in 1991.
7 Moreover, “Philosophers who distinguish freedom of action and freedom of will do so because our success in carrying out our ends depends in part on factors wholly beyond our control.” Timothy O’Connor, “Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/freewill/ (accessed Aug 5, 2017). I may be free to choose to stand, but not free to perform the act of standing because, unbeknownst to me, I had been temporarily paralyzed by a poisoned blow dart.