Divine Sovereignty, Human Choice, & Seven “Theological Truths”

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

September 4, 2018

Tom Barnes is a pastor, author, and theologian who lives in Nebraska — a mere twenty miles from my current residence. Tom is brilliant and one of the nicest guys I know. He is also one of the first to encourage me to take my systematic theology seriously. In fact, a decade ago (2008) we spent an entire twelve months together studying theology and the EFCA Statement of Faith.

One topic we spent much time discussing was God’s sovereignty and human freedom (or lack thereof). Tom is an ardent Calvinist. When I started taking his theology class for local EFCA pastors, I already identified as a Calvinist who denied the freedom to choose otherwise. By the end of our year-long-study, my Calvinistic views had grown much stronger and were nearly set in stone. Not only did I hold to all five points of TULIP, but I believed all of my thoughts, actions, beleifs, and behaviors could never be otherwise. In fact, I sincerely believed (and was willing to fight for my belief) that all of these things were also “set in stone” — ultimately caused and determined by God from eternity past.

Well, if I was right about God ultimately causally determining all things all the time (in some form or fashion), then God causally determined my beliefs to change! Shortly after my year-long-study with Tom came to an end I decided I wanted more theological training and enrolled at Biola University. Influenced by the teachings of William Lane Craig, JP Moreland, Scott Smith, and Clay Jones, I began to see logical inconsistencies — not to mention biblical problems — with the view of exhaustive divine determinism (which Tom equates with Calvinism — and that which he had taught me). It did not take long before I realized that humanity must possess genuine free will. That is to say, humanity possesses libertarian freedom to at least make some choices some of the time.

Over the last few years I have shared my discoveries with Tom. In fact, my studies seem to have influenced Tom to engage in the exact same study. Surprisingly, our conclusions are vastly different. (Did God causally determine our disagreement?) I am currently in the midst of writing a doctoral dissertation on why exhaustive divine determinism is logically incoherent, metaphysically impossible, and ultimately why this view cannot make sense of all the biblical data (See two of my related articles on this topic in the theological journal, Perichoresis 16:2). Tom, on the other hand, just authored a rather large book (nearly 450 pages worth) entitled: Divine Sovereignty And Human Choice: Seven Theological Truths That Favor Calvinism Over Molinism.

Minor Complaints

The subtitle of the book seems rather misleading because to directly compare Calvinism with Molinism is to compare apples with oranges. This is the case because Calvinism is a soteriological system and Molinism is not. Molinism is simply a model demonstrating how God can be completely sovereign and exhaustively predestine all things without causally determining all things. This leaves room for human libertarian freedom and genuine responsibility. With this in mind, the “tool of Molinism” is often applied to soteriological issues, but it does not have to be. In fact, informed Calvinists are beginning to see that they can continue to hold to all five points of TULIP (as traditionally defined) while simultaneously holding the two essential pillars of what I have referred to as Mere Molinism: (i) Humans possess limited libertarian freedom, and (ii) God possesses middle knowledge. The two essentials of Mere Molinism do not contradict any of the traditional definitions of the TULIP acronym. Thus, since these two views are not mutually exclusive, one can genuinely identify as both a Calvinist and a Molinist (See Are Mere Molinism & Moderate Calvinism the Same Thing?).

With this in mind, the subtitle sets up a false dichotomy and simply adds to the already prevalent confusion. It seems that Tom’s greatest motive is to make a case for exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) — the view that God causally determines all things all the time — and for compatibilistic free will (CFW) a view that humans are still free/responsible even though God causally determines everything about every human — including all thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors. Based on the logical law of the excluded middle, if EDD is true, then human beings cannot be free in a libertarian sense. Thus, it seems that Tom’s greatest desire is to argue against libertarian freedom, which he refers to as libertarian free will (LFW).

Libertarian freedom is an accordion term that can have different meanings in different contexts. Libertarian freedom can be most simply defined as the conjunction of a rejection of exhaustive compatibilism along with the claim that humans (at least occasionally) possess free will. That is to say that libertarianism affirms that we possess “freedom of moral and rational responsibility,” and “that the freedom necessary for responsible action is not compatible with determinism” (Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview 268, 303).

I typically like to argue for a stronger model of libertarian freedom that not all libertarians affirm. When I refer to libertarian free will, I often mean what most people probably think of when they use the term “free will.” Simply put: Libertarian freedom is the ability to genuinely choose between a range of options, each of which is consistent with one’s nature (See Libertarian Freedom Is a Limited Power).

The salient point is this: Tom’s book is not about Calvinism vs Molinism. No, this book attempts to argue that exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) is a “better explanation” than limited libertarian freedom (LLF).

Underlying Philosophical Assumptions

With all of that said, I am simply honored that my studies influenced Tom to study this topic and write an entire book on the matter. In fact, this might be the first book in which my name is found throughout the footnotes (I count that as a blessing and I am thankful for Tom’s work and his encouragement to me as his “little brother in Christ”). Be that as it may, I believe my “big brother” has made a few errors in his book. In fact, there seems to be a problem with his philosophy in general.

Tom’s philosophy is that “theology must shape our philosophy” (p 15). Many readers — even those without any formal training in logic — will see that this statement is self-defeating since Tom is starting with a philosophy to conclude we should not start with philosophy. A better approach is to note that logic is bedrock and we ought to always aspire to interpret Scripture in a logically consistent manner (See “The Bible Trumps Logic”). Since truth and logic are inextricably linked (you cannot have one without the other), if the Bible is true, it will always be logically coherent. It follows that we must strive to have a logical and systematic theology. In this manner, philosophy and theology are partners working together and meeting at truth and reality. Logic is bedrock and this foundation is where any rational conversation regarding the best interpretation of Scripture or the best explanation off all data must be based. Therefore, a good theologian or exegete must start with logic and seek to interpret the Inspired Word of God in a logically coherent manner as a whole from cover to cover — at least if the entire Bible is true (See Logic Is Bedrock, A Logical Christmas Message, and Extra-Biblical Data & Hermeneutics).

Be that as it may, since logic is bedrock and one cannot even properly interpret Scripture without assuming logic is foundational, then logical arguments can help us determine the best interpretation of Scripture and the best explanation of all the data.

Major Complaints

As the work advances, several stated arguments become more problematic. Tom’s entire project, for example, is ultimately a lesson in self-refutation. This is because the thesis of the book can basically be summarized as the following: The best interpretation of Scripture is X, Y, and Z. Based on the best interpretation of Scripture (X,Y, and Z), the best explanation of X,Y, and Z is that humans never possess libertarian free will. Tom’s entire case is then built upon what he has referred to as, “Edwarsean Compatibilism.” This is based on the teachings of Jonathan Edwards and what has come to be known as “Compatibilistic Free Will” (CFW).

Compatibilism entails determinism. Thus, if one claims that compatibilism always describes reality (and libertarian freedom never obtains), then they simultaneously affirm exhaustive determinism. If this is the case, then something other than you causally determines everything about you, yet somehow humans are still free and/or morally responsible for thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors. Not only have I argued that this CFW view must be false (See “Can You Have Your Cake & Eat it Too?” and “Compatibilism & the Consequence Argument”), the eminent philosopher of mind John Searle pulls no punches (note that Searle has no theological axe to grind):

“I think compatibilism simply misses the point about the problem of free will . . . To repeat, the determinist says, ‘Every action is preceded by causally sufficient conditions that determine that action.’ And the libertarian asserts the negation of that: ‘For some actions the antecedent causal conditions are not sufficient to determine the action . . . I cannot think of any interesting philosophical problem of free will to which compatibilism provides a substantive answer” (Searle: Rationality in Action: 278).

With my previous work and John Searle’s words in mind, consider the following argument against compatibilism:

1- If compatibilism is true, then determinism is true.

2- If determinism is true, then no human possesses the libertarian freedom to ever think otherwise.

3- If one does not ever possess the libertarian freedom to think otherwise, then one cannot rationally affirm knowledge claims.

4- Some Calvinists have rationally affirmed that compatibilism is true.

5- Therefore, it is possible to rationally affirm knowledge claims.

6- Therefore, some Calvinists possess the libertarian freedom to think otherwise.

7- Therefore, determinism and compatibilism are false.

This logical argument provides good reason for a rational thinker to reject compatibilism. Be that as it may, Tom continues and claims that one can still be free and responsible even though one is ultimately always causally determined by God and never could have actually chosen otherwise. Tom makes his views clear by quoting Edwards:

“The plain and obvious meaning of the words Freedom and Liberty . . . is the power, opportunity, or advantage, that any one has, to do as he pleases . . . for one to do and conduct as he will, or according to his choice, is all that is meant by it” (Edwards; Freedom of the Will; 24).

Tom adds Wayne Grudem’s words in support:

“We are free in the greatest sense that any creature of God could be free–we make willing choices, choices that have real effects, We are aware of no restraints on our will from God when we make decisions” (Systematic Theology; 2000; 331).

This view is problematic for several reasons. First, it seems to be dealing with epistemology when the salient issue is ontology. Be that as it may, the bigger problem with Grudem’s statement is that it is essentially stating that God does not possess the power to create a being with an ability to ever choose between a range of options, each of which is consistent with the creature’s nature. This is problematic for anyone who affirms the omnipotence of God (See The MMA).

Tom agrees with Edwards, however, and asserts that humans always choose based on one’s “greatest desire” at a given time. He believes that if we are free to act on our greatest desire, then we must act on our greatest desire and we never have the ability to choose against our greatest desire (even if it is the rational or moral thing to do), and thus, we could never choose otherwise. Thus, so argues the compatibilist, even though one is not free to ever choose between a range of options which are each consistent with one’s nature — or choose otherwise — there is really always only one option available to a human at any given time. However, if one is free to act on one’s greatest desire at a given time, then compatibilists assert that this “choice” (that cannot be otherwise) is “free” since it was voluntary. With this in mind, and to reiterate, Tom’s book is not a debate between Calvinism vs Molinism, but as a debate between CFW vs LFW.


Side note: John Limanto offers another reason to reject compatibilism. Namely, that CFW ultimately leads to the conclusion that humans are just as necessary as God. Consider the following deductive syllogism:

1. If compatibilism is true, for any person P and action A, necessarily, if P desires to perform A and nothing prevents P from performing A, then P performs A.

2. For any person P and action A, if P necessarily desires to perform A and nothing prevents P from performing A, then P necessarily performs A.

3. Therefore, if God necessarily desires to create humans and nothing prevents God from creating humans, then God necessarily creates humans.

4. God necessarily desires to create humans and nothing prevents God from creating humans.

5. Therefore, God necessarily creates humans.

6. Therefore, if compatibilism is true, then it is impossible for God not to create humans.

7. Humans do not exist necessarily.

8. Therefore, compatibilism is false.


Unless I missed something, Tom did not offer any deductive syllogisms to reach forceful conclusions; rather, he offers a plethora of assertions, analogies, and illustrations throughout the book to support what seem to be hidden abductive inferences to the “best” explanation (note that weak abduction is not as strong as logical deduction). But here is the crux: the majority of my academic work has been focused on the fact that the ability to infer the best explanation — and rationally affirm it — is logically impossible apart from a human’s libertarian freedom to think (See I Think, Therefore I Am, The Vanishing “I”, and, FreeThinking Needs the PAP). Tom is well aware of my logic-based arguments and seems to simply dismiss them as mere “philosophical arguments” for LFW. Since Tom’s philosophy is that theology must shape our philosophy, he assumes his theological view of exhaustive divine determinism is true in order to ignore my logically deductive conclusions which demonstrate his extreme theological views are logically incoherent and false.

The FreeThinking Argument 

Although Tom does not directly interact with my FreeThinking Argument, he does make a passing reference to my work and in a roundabout manner claims that he will “demonstrate” why the FreeThinking Argument fails along with the “trajectory of [my] article… that [exhaustive] divine determinism would not allow for genuinely free human choice [and rationality]” (243). The point of my article in which he is referring is that if humans do not possess limited libertarian freedom, then rational affirmation is impossible. We can see this in what I refer to as the “core” of the FreeThinking Argument:

1- If humans do not possess libertarian free will, then humans do not possess the ability to gain knowledge via the process of rationality.

2- Humans do possess the ability to gain knowledge via the process of rationality.

3- Therefore, humans possess libertarian free will.

I have defended this argument at length in articles, podcasts, lectures, videos, online debates, and in Perichoresis 16:2. Tom finally gets around to “debunking” my entire master’s thesis and says:

“… the accusation that some libertarians make against compatibilists, namely that determined choices mean the person cannot truly exercise his reason to make choices, is simply not true” (268).

Tom is simply mistaken in this regard and his own views demonstrate this for all to see. Consider the fact that Tom claims that all choices are always based on one’s greatest desires at a certain time. If this is the case, then choices based on “greatest desires” are not choices based on logic and reason. In fact, when Tom claims that he can “exercise his reason,” what he really means is that his “reason” is simply his “greatest desire.” But if choices are always — and only — aimed at the target of one’s “greatest desire,” they are never aimed at the target of truth. Sure, some stray “bullets” may accidentally — or luckily — hit the target of truth, but they were never aimed at truth in the first place. With Tom’s view, even if one happens to hold a true belief, it is not a rationally inferred belief — it is simply one’s greatest desire.

Accordingly, Tom cannot rationally affirm or justify any of his beliefs as objectively better or worse than a competing belief — for even the evaluations of his own thoughts and beliefs will also be determined by his greatest desires! Therefore, Tom can never possess knowledge that a specific belief is good, bad, better, or worse (let alone true) than a competing belief. His belief (even if true) is not justified and thus, does not count as a knowledge claim. It follows that if Tom really has rationally inferred that Calvinism is a better explanation than Molinism, then his view of Calvinism (EDD) combined with Edwarsean compatibilism must be false. As a result, Tom has inadvertently defeated his project by way of his project. Ultimately, according to Tom, the only reason he has chosen to reject Molinism is because he has a “greatest desire” for exhaustive divine determinism to be true. That is not a good (rational) reason to believe anything.

Why can it not be the case that human nature is based on the fact that we are the kind of thing which is designed to be neutral with an ability to make decisions — not based on “preferences” or “desire,” but rather, based on rationality and truth? Even unregenerate sinners, although they might not be able to rationally infer the truth of Christianity, are still logical in “external matters.” The regenerate Christian, on this Reformed view, would simply have an expanded range of options from which to logically consider.

The salient point is this: If all choices are always based on mere “preferences” or “desires” then Tom’s so-called “choice” to reject free will is not based on objective truth. Rather, the only reason he rejects the idea of libertarian freedom is because of the fact that he simply possesses a subjective desire for determinism based on “the way he is” (just as he might subjectively prefer chocolate over vanilla) which was ultimately determined via external forces; namely, God.

A major problem arises on Tom’s CFW view: According to Tom’s own beliefs, the only reason he thinks his view is true is because he has a subjective preference for compatibilism. However, selecting a view aimed at subjective personal preference is vastly different than selecting a view based on objective truth. Alvin Plantinga has shown that this is a concern for atheists who claim that naturalism and evolution are both true with his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. The CFW advocate, however, runs into the same problems for different reasons.

To reiterate, if the only reason Tom thinks his view is true is based on how his “nature” desires (which according to him is not up to him) and thus has determined, then Tom stands in no epistemic position to know if his determined desire corresponds to reality — or not. It follows that Tom cannot rationally affirm that his “preferred beliefs” are true, and thus, he stands in no position to justify his claims. If one cannot provide justification for a claim, then his or her claim is not a knowledge claim. No, the claim is nothing but a question-begging assumption (a logical fallacy). With this in mind, it is vital to remember that any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all.

This provides a significant defeater against exhaustive determinism and compatibilism, which is a good reason to reject the CFW view. In fact, it is self-defeating to affirm it and thus, one ought to reject it (at least if one is free to reject irrational beliefs in favor of rational beliefs — but that would require libertarian freedom)!

Greatest Desires & Ultimate Responsibility 

There are more problems to consider. Namely, although Tom continues to assert that his CFW vehicle allows room for genuine responsibility, after looking under the hood, no responsibility is detected. As noted above, Tom holds to Edwarsean Compatibilism and asserts that one always chooses based on one’s greatest desire at the moment. Accordingly, one’s “greatest desire” is causally determined by one’s nature. This nature we each possess is ultimately traced back to God.

That is to say, God causally determines things to eventually determine your nature. Tom continues to assert that this is not anything like “falling dominoes,” but I fail to see how the analogy is dissimilar. According to Edwarseans, this nature God has given you only allows you to choose based on your desire — your greatest desire (no genuine range of choice options available). Therefore, God is ultimately responsible for your nature, and thus, God is ultimately responsible for the only thing you are supposedly “free” to choose. According to Tom’s view, God holds you responsible for your sinful “greatest desires” (even though you had no ability to not have sinful greatest desires) based on your nature created by God.

The Primary Objection

Tom’s major problem with Molinism seems to based on a misunderstanding of Molinism. Throughout the book, Tom continually asserts that Molinism entails that God is “dependent upon” or “limited” by human free will (144-146). This is simply not true, and thus a bad (irrational) reason to reject Molinism.

This is the case because man’s existence is completely dependent and contingent upon God. However, as noted above, since God is omnipotent, He possesses the power to create creatures with limited libertarian freedom. If creatures within God’s power to create can occasionally make libertarian free choices (that God does not causally determine the creature to make in some form or fashion), then these creatures will make choices in a libertarian sense and really could have chosen otherwise. Thus, if (and only if) God chooses to be limited by creatures with limited libertarian freedom, then (and only then) God can be limited by human free choices in that contingent sense.


Side note: Perhaps it is God’s greatest desire to limit Himself by creating limited libertarian humans. I have argued that God would desire such limitations because it allows for true love, rationality, and real responsibility.


This is similar to the fact that God is not limited by space. UNLESS God  chooses to be limited by space! The Second Person of the Trinity (Jesus) provides the perfect example. Although God is not limited by spatial coordinates, Jesus chose to be “limited” by spatial coordinates. That is to say, God chose to create the space-time universe and also chose to enter into the space-time universe (Merry Christmas). The omnipotent God can also choose to create human beings who possess the ability to freely choose from a limited range of options, each of which is consistent with human nature in God’s image. Since God is omniscient, He can create this world knowing that libertarian choices — made by free humanity — will line up with His perfect plan and bring Him ultimate glory.

That is to say, just as God does not have to be limited by space, but can be limited by space if He chooses to be limited by space (and was limited by space because He chose to be), God can also be “limited” by the LFW choices He knew man would freely choose if He were to use his maximal power to create mankind with limited libertarian freedom. Consider the following argument:

1- If God is omnipotent, He possesses the ability to create a world including humans who possess limited libertarian freedom — even if He never does create them.

2 – If God is omniscient, He possesses perfect knowledge of how humans who possess libertarian freedom would choose if He were to create them — even if He never does create them (this is referred to as middle knowledge).

3 – God is omnipotent and omniscient.

4- Therefore, God possesses middle knowledge.

Tacit Affirmations of Molinism

There are sections of the book that I had to write a big “AMEN!” in the margins. In fact, it seems to me that Tom actually affirmed that some humans possess limited libertarian freedom (which is all I need for my case to pass). He says:

When it comes to a regenerated person and their relationship to righteousness and evil, I would view their freedom similar to the classic Arminian or the Molinist, at least from one perspective: They have the ability to choose righteousness or evil (unlike the unregenerate, who is morally unable to choose the former) (182).

Moreover, Tom seems to affirm God’s middle knowledge by affirming the Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.2: “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions. . .” (188). The statement goes on to assert that God did not create based on this knowledge, but as Kirk MacGregor responds: “How do they know?” At any rate, Westminster and Tom Barnes both affirm God’s middle knowledge.

Additionally, Tom makes it clear that God, angels, and humans all possess a range of options from which to choose (228-230).

Tom writes:

[W]e must conclude that God created his angels able to sin, as well as able not to sin. . . (228)

He continues:

We also need to be reminded. . . God created angels (and later men) able to sin and able not to sin. . . God could have decreed they would not sin and carried this out actively by his grace, yet he did not. (230)

Tom claims that what he refers to here is not libertarian freedom (182), but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is safe to say it is a duck. What we see here is an affirmation that God, angels, and mankind each possess an ability to choose between a range of options, each of which is consistent with the being’s nature. This is exactly what is meant by libertarian freedom. If Tom is right, then humans (as well as God and angels) possess libertarian freedom.

If I am correct in my understanding of Tom’s writings, he has (at least inadvertently) affirmed both creaturely libertarian freedom and God’s middle knowledge. With this in mind, it seems that Tom defeated his greatest desire and tacitly affirmed Mere Molinism!

Conclusion

Tom Barnes is brilliant, a fantastic theological thinker, and an awesome pastor. One would do well to sit under his teaching — I have benefitted greatly from it. Be that as it may, Tom is still a fallible human and has made a mistake on this particular subject.

Tom’s biggest mistake is assuming Jonathan Edwards was right on this subject (Edwards seems to be the major culprit). I am no “Edwards expert,” but based on Tom’s words, it seems that Edwards’ biggest mistake is that he simply views humans as mere emotional beings who can only act according to our “greatest desires” at any given moment. This seems antithetical to what we learn from Scripture (See Molinism Is Biblical).

The Bible is clear that humanity is created in the image of God and that we are thinking, intentional, and intelligent agents who can engage in the process of rationality (Isaiah 1:18), can choose to think correctly (2 Corinthians 10:5) or not (Colossians 2:8), and — unlike animals — make hard choices that are often opposed to our greatest desires (which also provides grounds for moral responsibility).

Perhaps an even bigger problem for Edwards and his devotees is this: if one only and always chooses based on one’s greatest desires, then one’s choices cannot ever be rationally inferred or affirmed. If choices are merely aimed at desire — and never at truth — then one does not stand in an epistemic position to know if his greatest desire corresponds to reality — or not. He can only assume it does, but that assumptions would also be determined by his greatest desire. In fact, he could not even properly evaluate his current and determined thoughts and beleifs, for if he did, these “evaluations” would also be causally determined by his greatest desire.

A sense of vertigo is warranted for the compatibilist. The ability to reason is a good reason to affirm limited libertarian freedom.

CFW, ultimately seems to be a self-refuting belief. This is a good — and logical — reason to reject this belief even if one’s greatest desire is for the self-refuting belief not to self-refuting. Thank God we are created in His image and do not always have to think and act according to our desires. This is what sets us apart from animals.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim was recently accepted at North West University to pursue his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics.

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