An Unfortunate Evaluation of Compatibilism: A Response to CARM.org’s “What is Compatibilism and is it Biblical?”

By Shannon Eugene Byrd

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September 12, 2017

Abstract: Philosophers and theologians alike are very interested in the view called compatibilism. Recently an article written by Matt Slick of carm.org released an article on this view, but it was unfortunately replete with mistakes. This article is a direct response to his and seeks to clarify what the view is, whether it is biblical, and also whether it is philosophically consistent with Christian theism.

Source: https://carm.org/what-is-compatibilism-and-is-it-biblical

Issue 1: CARM’S Ambiguous Usage of Key Terms and Concepts

Matt Slick, president and founder of CARM, stumbles out of the gate in his analysis of compatibilism by defining it as “the position that human free will is compatible with God’s absolute divine sovereignty.” Slick picks up his definition from Wayne Grudem, another Reformed theologian whose definition Slick quotes. Where Slick errs is in failing to mention (or recognize) Grudem’s usage of the term.

Grudem says,

“The view advocated in this chapter is also sometimes called ‘compatibilism,’ because it holds that absolute divine sovereignty is compatible with human significance and real human choices. I have no objection to the nuances of this term, but I have decided not to use it because (1) I want to avoid the proliferation of technical terms in studying theology, and (2) it seems preferable simply to call my position a traditional Reformed view of God’s providence, and thereby to place myself within a widely understood theological tradition represented by John Calvin and the other systematic theologicans listen in the ‘Reformed’ category at the end of this chapter.”1

It seems to me that Matt Slick takes Grudem’s non-technical use of the term and conflates it with the true theological/philosophical usage of the term. Kenneth Keathley points out this common issue when he says, “Many in the theological world use the label ambiguously to affirm the compatibility of free will and divine sovereignty—a position even open theists affirm. Rather, compatibilism affirms that free will is compatible with causal determinism.”2

Robert Kane defines compatibilism as “The view that there is really no conflict between determinism and free will—that free will and determinism are compatible. . .”3In the introduction to the book “Four Views on Free Will,” John Martin Fischer, Derk Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas all agree with Robert Kane when they say compatibilists are “. . . those that hold that free will is compatible with the universe being deterministic.” Grudem himself acknowledges the philosophical usage of the term includes causal determinism:

“Though philosophers may use the term determinism (or soft determinism) to categorize the position I advocate in this chapter, I do not use that term because it is too easily misunderstood in everyday English: (1) It suggests a system in which human choices are not real and make no difference in the outcome of events; and (2) it suggests a system in which the ultimate cause of events is a mechanistic universe rather than a wise and personal God. Moreover, (3) it too easily allows critics to group the biblical view with non-Christian deterministic systems and blur the distinctions between them.”4

Thus it seems clear to me Matt Slick defines compatibilism incorrectly and then proceeds with the wrong definition in mind. As we all know, if one fails to correctly define terms, it will likely lead to detrimental effects to the presented thesis, and we will see that Slick’s article is a prime example of this.

Also note if we were to take Slick’s definition of compatibilism to be the case, then this would indicate that influential philosophers such as David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill weren’t in fact compatibilists, against the opinion of professional philosophers on all sides of the debate. I think I will trust the experts on this one.

In order to gain a proper understanding of compatibilism, one needs to understand what is meant by “compatibilist free will” and “determinism,” which are two horns of compatibilism.

Regarding compatibilist free will, Slick says, “that people act in according to their [sic] natures and deires. Their desires are consistent with their fallen, immoral nature. Since people are fallen, they act in a manner consistent with their fallenness.” Clearly compatibilist free will isn’t the colloquial sense of the term “free will” most are familiar with. What Slick is saying here is that people act in accordance with their natures. To be clear, on compatibilism, God determines the person’s nature. Even though the person acts according to their own nature/greatest desire, that nature or desire is determined by God; God’s causal determination sets the agent’s inclination to an act. This signifies that a person—though he or she can act according to their strongest inclinations—cannot choose what they are inclined to, the inclination is determined by God. So when God determines that one is inclined to murder, that person will act upon the inclination to murder, which again, was in fact causally determined by God, not the agent.

I think there is another possibility that must be explored regarding Slick’s definition of compatibilism; I think it is at least possible that Matt Slick might be conflating God’s sovereignty with divine causal determinism. Sovereignty refers to God’s ultimate authority, whereas determinism is the view that all of our choices are determined by prior causes.5

To elaborate,

Keathley says,

“Determinism argues that since a person’s character (or nature, according to some determinists) determines his choices, then in any given situation one and only one choice is actually possible.”6

So, properly understood, sovereignty refers to God’s ultimate authority and divine determinism is a view regarding the means of providence, that is to say, how God exercises over the created universe. God’s sovereignty isn’t up for debate, but Slick uncritically assumes without argument that sovereignty implies causal determinism.

Issue 2: Fallacies in Thinking
Regarding the connection between freedom and responsibility Slick says:

“. . . the debate continues because some will say that if unbelievers can do nothing but evil because they are restricted by their fallen nature to do so, then how [sic] they morally responsible? They object and say that for a person to be morally responsible, he must be able to choose between good and bad. But if it is true that a person’s fallen nature does not allow him to choose between good and bad, then libertarians argue that they cannot be held morally responsible.”

In a past article on semi-compatibilism I dealt with the proble of free will and responsibility, but I think it is necessary to deal with it here as well.7But, before I do, I want readers to notice the fact that Slick dodges the question regarding compatibilism. Specifically, that question is “If the agent is not ultimately responsible, hereafter (UR), for their action, then how can they be genuinely guilty of wrongdoing?” It seems to me that if an agent is to be the source of praiseworthy or blameworthy action, then at some point in the past the agent was UR for the character from which these praiseworthy or blameworthy acts flow. On compatibilism, God determines the inclinations, so when a person acts on that inclination, they could not have done otherwise, but more importantly, the person didn’t form the will/inclination that moved them to act. Again, it should be asked, how in any genuine sense should the person be held responsible for a choice that ultimately wasn’t up to them? I contend that UR lies where the ultimate cause is, and on compatibilism, the ultimate cause is God, so compatibilism must be be false.

Slick dodges answering the objection:

“But to this, I would say that our fallenness is due to the free will rebellion of Adam. He represented us, and when he fell, we fell with him (Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22). This is called Original Sin. In addition, his representative position is called Federal Headship which is the teaching that the male represents the descendants. In this case, Adam represented us. So when he fell because we were “in Adam” we fell also. We inherited a sinful nature. If people object to this, they must be consistent and reject the representation of us by the last Adam, namely Jesus.”

This “answer” doesn’t even address the question at hand, Slick isn’t taking the question seriously. Rather he’s offering a red herring, which occurs when someone introduces irrelevant or secondary issues which divert from the subject at hand. Moreover, he is also being highly inconsistent. He holds to compatibilism up to the point until just before it reaches a conclusion he doesn’t want (God being the author of sin), then he conveniently dismisses away consistent logic like a taxicab once it has dropped him off at his desired location: this tactic has been dubbed the taxicab fallacy. This occurs when one sees where consistent logic will lead and then jimps off just before the undesired implication and in this case Slick dismisses the “cab” just before arriving at the conclusion that God is the author of sin.

If compatibilist free will is held for Adam prior to the fall, then Adam wasn’t responsible for his inclination to rebel against God, God is. If this seems incoherent, it is because it is incoherent. Moreover, it flies in the face of Christ’s own teaching in Mark 3:24, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. And it also flies in the face of Anselmian perfect being theology.8 So, if God causally determines Adam to sin, then God is actively causing one to sin. Moreover, God’s aim is to conquer sin, but if he causally determined its occurence, then God’s aim is to conquer what he actively caused to occur, this is utterly baffling. Thus, it seems that on compatibilism God is actually fighting against Himself.

Now, if Slick is trying something fishy and says Adam had libertarian freedom before the fall and this is how he is held responsible, then Slick is still being inconsistent in asserting that those after the fall that possess compatibilist free will are held responsible, though their inclinations aren’t up to them. But, if he is holding the view that Adam possessed libertarian free will prior to the fall, then I fail to see why he doesn’t hold to Adam posssessing libertarian freedom posterior to the fall as well. To be clear, I don’t think this is what he holds to, and I offer the above merely as a retort to the potential hypothesis.

Slick says,

“Therefore, we are obligated to do what is right whether or not we can do what is right. 1 Peter 1:16 says we are obligated to be holy because God is holy. God does not lower his standard for us. He does not compromise his own holiness. Therefore, we are held responsible even in our fallenness.”

It seems to me that Slick takes 1 Peter 1:16 out of context. In this letter, Peter was writing to believers in Asia Minor, he wasn’t writing to unbelievers, so to use this passage as a proof text to demonstrate that non-believers are still held responsible though they couldn’t have done otherwise is not only confused, it’s hermeneutically flawed. 1 Peter 1:16 was directed to believers that were already followers of Christ and insinuating that because of this passage everyone is responsible to follow God even if they cannot follow him, is just plain old eisegesis; clearly what Slick is saying goes beyond the scope of the text and it is not what Paul was conveying to his audience. Notice also that Slick says,  one has an obligation to do what is right, even if one cannot do what is right; this intuitively seems nonsensical. How can one be obligated to do something impossible to do?9 Does he really believe that God holds someone blameworthy even though the person did not possess freedom of inclination? In what sense would God be just if that were the case? I think this highlights a point often missed in free will debates. The debate over free will isn’t merely concerned with freedom of action, it is also concerned with the freedom to form one’s own character and in compatiblism one is not free to form their own character.

William Lane Craig offers the following argument against determinism:

1. An agent S is morally responsible for an action A only if doing A is ultimately up to S.

2. A is ultimately up to S only if determinism is false

3. Therefore, S is morally responsible for A only if determinism is false.10

If one is not free to form their own character, then in what sense can they be held responsible for their actions taken by their character? Now if one wants to be consistent and hold individuals responsible for their acts, it seems to me, one needs to posit that the sources of an individual’s actions lies within the individual himself and not in some external cause, namely God. Now if one says that the agent is morally responsible for the action, but God is the ultimate cause, then one needs to provide justification for this view as it is prima facie absurd. It is at this point that Slick inappropriately appeals to mystery.

“At this point, people may object to the idea that God can predestine people to do certain events, even bad ones, and they still are held morally responsible. They can object all they want and deny Scripture. But this is what the Bible says. How is this possible? I don’t know, and I have no problem admitting that I do not know. I cannot fathom the depth of God’s wisdom, omniscience, and power.”

I have no problem with appealing to mystery, so long as it is appropriate, but when consistency is dismissed like a taxicab and mystery is worn as a cloak of piety, it is not humble nor pious; rather it is epistemically unvirtuous. One knows that consistency demands that if God causally determined one’s inclinations to do some evil act, then God is responsible for that evil act since he was the ultimate cause of the act.

Something intriguing about the notion of UR is that it entails the principle of alternate possibilities, hereafter (PAP), at least some of the time. Think of it this way, if one is responsible for one’s character/will being the way it is, then it seems at some point in the past one could have voluntarily chosen one way or another, thus, leading to his or her will being formed differently than the way it in fact is.11 And if that is the case then it’s perfectly reasonable to hold one responsible for an act he or she set their will/inclination towards.

Robert Kane puts it this way:

“. . . UR says that if you have a sufficient motive for doing something in this sense–if your will is “set one way” on doing it rather than anything else available to you—then to be ultimately responsible for your will, you must be to some degree responsible for past voluntary acts for you will’s being set the way it is.”12

Kane is saying that at some significant point in the past before one’s will was set one way or the other when the choice is made to do one act and not the other, this “sets the will,” so to speak. This signifies that humans are causal agents possessing the capacity to originate choices.13

Now to be clear, I am not suggesting that at all points in an agent’s life he or she must have the ability to choose A or to choose not -A; the PAP isn’t a necessary condition for libertarian free will, and a number of libertarian philosophers and theologians reject full-blown PAP.14 William Lane Craig offered a thought experiment called a “Frankfurt example” that demonstrates that the PAP isn’t necessary for free will. The figures in this example have been modernized to reflect the most recent presidential election.

“Imagine a man whose brain has been implanted with electrodes unbeknownst to him by some nefarious neurologist. The neurologist, being a Hillary Clinton supporter decided that he will activate the electrodes to make the man vote for Hillary if the man goes to the booth to vote for Donald Trump. Now if the man happens to decide to vote for Hillary, the neurologist will not activate the electrodes. With this said, suppose that the man goes into the booth and votes for Hillary Clinton; it seems to me that he does this freely, though it was not within his power to vote for Trump.”15

Alternate possibilities aren’t always required to maintain libertarian free will. They are only needed at crucial “will-setting” moments.16 Besides PAP, UR also implies agent causation (AC). If a person is to be found morally culpable for actions, then it seems to me that the person must be the origin of his or her actions. However, if causal determinism is true then the causal chain flows through the agent and God is ultimately responsible. I see no way to consistently hold the person accountable for a choice that wasn’t up to him.

So if libertarian free will was false, and compatibilism was true, what would this entail? Let’s take a look at Tim Stratton’s modified version of Van Inwagen’s consequence argument which demonstrates the consequences if determinism happened to be true.17

1. There is nothing we can now do to change the past.

2. There is nothing we can now do to change God.

3. There is nothing we can now do to change the past and God.

But if determinism is true, then,

Our present actions are the necessary consequences of the past and God. (Or, equivalently, it is necessary that, given the past and God, our present actions occur.) So, if determinism is true, it seems that,

  • There is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions are the necessary consequences of the past and God.
  • There is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.

I think from this argument it is fairly obvious to see that if determinism—one horn of compatibilism—is true, then we are not ultimately responsible for our actions, there are never alternative possibilities, and so we are merely automatons following a singular pathway. Surely not!

Issue 3: God Ordains Sinful Events
Matt Slick says God ordains sinful events to occur and those persons that commit these ordained sins are held morally responsible. It is unclear what sense of the term “ordain” Slick is using here. Elsewhere he says, “ordain means to order or decree. It can mean to cause something to happen or to allow it to occur depending on the context. God can ordain things to occur without directly causing them.”18

If Slick is meaning to say that God ordains but does not cause sinful events to occur, then he is not referring to the common usage of compatibilism which couples determinism with free will mentioned earlier. Rather, he would be affirming that God works through secondary causes. If this is the case, then Slick is not referring to compatibilism at all. Without knowing exactly in what sense Slick uses “ordain,” it is hard for any of his conclusions to follow due to the ambiguity. But the notion that God ordains sinful events through causal determinism should be outright rejected; as mentioned in the above, it’s a chain of events leading straight back to God. Molinism does a much better job of articulating God’s divine concurrence of sinful events.19 In Molinism, God does not directly will the person’s sinful choice. Rather, he merely concurs with it in order to guarantee that creaturely freedom is preserved and because of this God is not ultimately responsible for the choice to sin, the agent is because the choice originates within himself. So God does a great good in preserving freedom while the creature is capable of doing a morally evil act.

Issue 4: Bad Argumentation
Matt Slick concludes his article with the following argument:

“Compatibilism is biblical because we see the free will actions of people who do bad things, yet they were predestined by God to do them, and they are still held responsible by God for their actions.”

The principle of charity demands that I translate this the strongest way I can conceive the argument.

1. If God predestines people to do bad things and holds them responsible, then,compatibilism is Biblical.

2. God predestines people to do bad things and holds them responsible.

3. Therefore, compatibilism is Biblical.

If the argument has a valid form and the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily. The form of the above argument is valid, but this says nothing about the truth of the premises. In the first premise, the conditional, “if A then B, is true,” then its logical equivalent is, “it is impossible for A to be true and B to be false.” Yet this is exactly what I contend. I agree that God predestines people to do bad things, but this says nothing about how this is carried out. For instance, as we saw in the above, God can predestine people to do bad things by concurring with the person’s libertarian free choice to do that bad thing, and if this is the case, then compatibilism is false. So the connection between the antecedent and consequent in the conditional of the first premise is not a necessary connection: A(God predestining people to do bad things) can be true and B (compatibilism is Biblical) can be false, and if that is indeed the case then the argument fails.

Concluding Remarks
My hope is that this response to CARM’s article isn’t received negatively or thought to have been written with ill intentions; I genuinely want to see CARM become more well-rounded with the various theological views offered, not just my own Molinist position. I think if Matt Slick were to slow down and survey the literature more carefully, then many of the discrepancies mentioned in the above wouldn’t likely occur. Oftentimes, it’s easy to take a quote and run with it and miss important details in a footnote that would change one’s understanding of a given position and I suppose this is what occurred with Slick’s inaccurate comprehension and articulation of compatibilism.

Additionally, Slick frequently errs philosophically when arguing for or against a theological position. In the above it was demonstrated that at a crucial moment, he avoided the conclusion that God is the author of sin by supposing that Adam somehow freely rebelled against God, when compatibilism does not support this thesis; Slick committed the taxicab fallacy. Consistent compatibilism is the view that God causally determined Adam to rebel by determining Adam’s inclination to rebel, this is the determinism horn of compatibilism and it makes God the author of sin.

It was also shown in the above that Slick often avoids answering tough objections by shifting the discussion somewhere else or by prooftexting out of context. D. A. Carson says, “a text without a context becomes a pretext for a prooftext,” and it is precisely this error that Slick commits. 20

When Libertarians criticize the notion of responsibility in compatibilism, Slick simply asserts that individuals are responsible because of Adam’s rebellion, but this answers nothing; it is just an assertion without justification. Slick often uses terminology ambiguously. There are many ways in which one can use the term ordain in a theological context, but Slick doesn’t elaborate exactly how he is using it so it, is difficult to understand what he is trying to convey in saying that God ordains sinful events.

Finally, Slick concludes his piece with a poorly formed argument for compatibilism being biblical. While, biblically, God’s sovereignty is compatible with human agency and UR, this is not supported by the thesis of compatibilism. Determinism (one horn of compatibilism) eradicates genuine human agency. Moreover, the argument presented by Slick assumes that if God predestines people to do bad things, then compatibilism is true, which was demonstrated to be clearly false. Predestination need not preclude libertarian free will: God is omnipotent and omniscient and can achieve his sovereign plan without encroaching upon free agency. It seems to me that a Maximally Great Being can and will do just that!


Notes

1Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Bits & Bytes, 2004), 315n1.

2 Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B & H publishing, 2010), 65.

3Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 12.

4Grudem, 315n1.

5 William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999), 14.

6Keathley, 65.

7http://freethinkingministries.com/fifty-shades-of-compatibilism/

8 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (NASB); The idea Jesus was presenting was that strength depends on unity and on compatibilism it seems that God is fighting against the very thing he actively caused to exist; St. Anselm’s enunciation of God as the “greatest conceivable being” has guided theological reflection on the raw data of Scripture so that the biblical attributes of God can be conceived in the greatest possible way—a way that exalts God’s greatness to the maximal extent. This is what is commonly referred to as “Anselmian” or “Perfect Being Theology.”

9 This is what is commonly referred to as “ought implies can.” That is to say, if one ought to do x then one should be able to do x. It must also be noted that not all libertarians and Molinists hold to this axiom. This is just one of many libertarian Molinist positions available.

10William Lane Craig, “Response to Ron Highfield” in Four Views on Divine Providence, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 172.

11Kane refers to these will-setting actions as “self-forming actions” (SFAs).

12Kane, 127.

13Keathley, 75.

14Robert Kane, “Rethinking Free Will: New Perspectives on an Ancient Problem” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 385 ; Keathley, 76.

15http://www.reasonablefaith.org/Free-Will

16 Kane, 128 ; Keathley, 86.

17http://freethinkingministries.com/compatibilistic-free-will-can-you-have-your-cake-eat-it-too-2/

18https://carm.org/dictionary-ordain

19A good explication of the Molinist version of divine concurrence can be found at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/divine-concurrence

20 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 115.

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About the Author

By Shannon Eugene Byrd

Shannon Eugene Byrd grew up in Liberty South Carolina. At the age of 19 he joined the Air Force and entered basic military training one week after the September 11th attacks on the Twin towers. Since graduating tech school, he has worked as an Aircraft technician. In 2012 he graduated Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a Bachelors of Science in Technical Management. Around his last year at Embry-Riddle Shannon began feel called to study the Bible and Theology in depth. He enrolled at SouthWestern Assembly of God University (SAGU) and graduated in 2015 with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Upon graduating Shannon began studying more rigorously than before. He often quibbles “if there is one thing I learned in universities, it’s how to do research.” Shannon enjoys teaching theology at his local church and defending his faith from internet atheists using precise reasoning. His main vocation with FreeThinking Ministries is research and either writing or contributing to articles.