Libertarian Free Will: Did James White Unknowingly Provide Biblical Support?

By Tyson James

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April 13, 2018

Summary: In the May 29, 2014 episode of The Dividing Line, James White attempts to refute the Molinist position on libertarian free will by using Psalm 33 as a prooftext. However, I demonstrate that the selected text provides the horns of a dilemma that undermines White’s own position.

Source: http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2014/05/29/upcoming-worldwide-ministry-tripspsalm-33-and-molinismpeter-lumpkins-tim-rogers-and-ergun-caner/

Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6lW2h5nQOE#action=share

I’ve transcribed relevant sections below for the reader and each section is followed by my response.

The Dilemma of Psalm 33

James White: [White reading from Psalm 33] “Yahweh brings the counsel of the nations to nothing…” If it is not in line with His sovereign decree then it’s brought to nothing. “…he frustrates the plans of the people; but the counsel of Yahweh stands forever. The plans of His heart to all generations.” So, a specific contrast is being drawn here. You’ll notice “the thoughts of the people,” he frustrates those, and then “His thoughts,” “His counsel” is firm. And then the same contrast is brought about in regards to the plans of the people and the plans of his heart.  So, you have specific parallelism in the text itself and Yahweh frustrates the counsels of the people, frustrates the plans of the people, but no one can frustrate the counsel of Yahweh. It stands forever, the plans “to all generations.” The idea of libertarian free will is right there in the text, and it’s God, in all things. It seems to me that Yahweh’s libertarian free will in Molinism is limited to choosing to actuate a world or not.1

Response: Unknowingly, White’s exegesis has placed him in a dilemma. Look at the two sets of “plans” found in Psalm 33:10-11. In verse 10, God frustrates “the plans of the peoples.” In verse 11, “The counsel of Yahweh stands forever.” White admits that there is parallelism in these verses, then states that God’s plans are made via His libertarian free will. Yet, he concludes that the plans of the people are not made via libertarian free will. This seems ad hoc, since the parallelism seems to be dropped when it comes to the way the human plans are made in order to avoid the conclusion that they have libertarian freedom.

So, my question to White is, how else are the plans of the people made? Either they were made freely by the people or they were made by God (determinism). If they were made by the people, then the text would support human libertarian free will. If they were made by God, then we have God frustrating His own plans, which I’m sure White himself would find theologically abhorrent.

Notice also that White has committed himself to the logical coherence of libertarian freedom by saying that God himself has this type of freedom. But if there is nothing in the concept that suggests it is a God-only property like omniscience or omnipotence, then it follows that God is able to create creatures which possess libertarian freedom. And if God can create such creatures, then he must know prior to the creative decree what each such creature would freely do in any freedom-permitting circumstance, also called middle knowledge – an essential component of Molinism. If God only knows these truths after his decision to create, then he would have no way of knowing in advance what their free choices would be, which significantly weakens rather than strengthens the doctrine of divine providence.

The final sentence is strange. White seems to think that God’s ability to incorporate the free choices of every free creature into his providential plan (in White’s terms, his ability to “actuate [sic] a world”) is a “limitation.” Consider Dr. William Lane Craig’s description of a possible world: “[B]y “a possible world” one doesn’t mean a planet or even a universe, but rather a complete description of reality, or a way reality might be.”2 I think exactly the opposite of White’s claim is true: God’s ability to incorporate free choices into his selection of “a complete description of reality” is an indication of his perfect power and knowledge. Which is more powerful, a being which can incorporate free choices into its exhaustive providential planning or one which cannot?

The only alternative available to White is that God is unable to select a particular “complete description of reality” to bring about. As Jonathan Thompson notes, White’s claims are contradictory, for he wants to assert that God is sovereign in his decree of all things, yet claims that on Molinism, God’s bringing about some possible world – a complete description of reality – makes him less than sovereign. Thompson drives the point home:

“[I]t’s unclear to me how God having the freedom to will or withhold a particular world counts as a sovereignty-undermining limitation of God’s freedom. Indeed, given that God is a free agent, how could His freedom possibly be otherwise? It’s not as if there could be some third option available to Him that doesn’t ultimately collapse in to His choosing to will or refraining from willing a particular world. White’s criticism thus appears to be unintelligible to me since I can’t even conceive how God’s freedom could be otherwise.”3

Exegetical Overshoot

James White: “Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!” Notice the application: Yahweh looks down from heaven, He sees all the children of man, “from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth.” Now, that could almost be taken, at that point, as a passive taking in of knowledge, maybe?… But that’s not what it says. It says “He who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.” There’s absolutely no question that the heart of man is, in biblical anthropology… out of the heart flow the issues of life. It is THE central seat of man and for anyone to suggest that man could act in such a way as the heart is not determinative of his actions is biblically absurd.4

Response: Here, White’s exegesis far exceeds the biblical data. Yes, God fashions the heart of man.  Does he fashion it to provide us with free will or not? This text does not give any indication. The Molinist agrees that the heart of man decides his choices. Notice though that the word “heart” in the Bible is often synonymous with the person himself. Genesis 6:5 reads “Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Are we to understand the heart here as something distinct from the person? If this is true, then Genesis 6:5 would suggest that this “part” has thoughts of its own wholly apart from the person himself – a strange sort of symbiosis! Obviously, though, the thoughts belong to the person and “heart” is a synonym for “inner or true self”.

If we read the Bible “pan-canonically” (as White suggests elsewhere in the episode) and affirm that “heart” here is synonymous with “man” then we see that the passage really just means that God “fashioned” man, which the Molinist affirms wholeheartedly. Again, this under-determinative text lacks the ammo against libertarian free will White is seeking.

White is Right (But not Really)

James White: “The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.” The war horse… what does that have to do with anything? It has to do with providence. It has to do with the specific actions of man.  It’s not just this general providence where God gets to have control of tsunamis, but he can’t do anything about the soldier in the field. He can’t do anything about the king. And we all know that while kings are important, the entire destiny of nations is often turned on the actions of the individual in a battle, the individual in so many other contexts like that. And the point is this providence is personal, intimate, with every single individual in God’s created world.5

Response: It’s not entirely clear here what White’s point is. It sounds as though he thinks that on Molinism, God would have control over natural events, but not over the decisions of human beings. Of course, in a sense he’s right. Since Molinists believe that it’s logically incoherent to say that God causes (deterministically) our free choices, it wouldn’t be rational to say that God has control of human decisions in that sense. The reason this wouldn’t be rational is that omnipotence doesn’t require that God be able to do what is logically or metaphysically impossible.

But of course Molinism has the resources to avoid such incoherence and yet affirm a robust sense of divine providence, namely middle knowledge. If God’s knowledge includes how free creatures would freely act in certain situations – say, knowing that a particular soldier in the middle of a particular battle would flee rather than fight – then he can obviously incorporate those decisions into his meticulous providential planning of history.

Conclusion

Psalm 33 is underdeterminative regarding the question of free will and therefore fails as a prooftext against it. Given the parallelism of the passage, affirmed by White himself, it also plausibly gives support to proponents of libertarian freedom. Moreover, White unjustifiably reads divine causal determinism into the biblical language of God’s fashioning the heart of man. Sadly, it seems that White did just what he has elsewhere accused Molinists of doing: beginning with a philosophical view (determinism) and seeking to loosely justify it with biblical prooftexts.6


Notes

129:29-31:33

2William Lane Craig, “Misunderstanding the Ontological Argument,” Q&A #249, reasonablefaith.org (January 23, 2012).

3Jonathan Thompson, “Molinism and Creaturely Essenses: A Response to James White (Part 1),” Free Thinking Ministries (February 5, 2018). http://freethinkingministries.com/molinism-and-creaturely-essences-a-response-to-james-white/.

432:45-34:11

535:30-36:49

6https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26qT6hwJmH4 (1:21:29-1:22:31).

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About the Author

By Tyson James

Tyson James has been a chapter director for Reasonable Faith since 2013 and is now the organization's National Chapters Director. Tyson received his M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University in 2016. He holds an additional M.A. in International Relations and B.A.s in Spanish/International Trade (double-major) and Religious Studies. In 2006, Tyson enlisted with the United States Air Force and served as an Airborne Cryptologic Linguist (Arabic). He developed a passion for apologetics during a deployment to Southwest Asia and decided to cut short his rapidly rising military career in order to become a more academically-trained ambassador for Christ. He now teaches apologetics at churches and writes apologetics satire articles for his blog called “fauxpologetics”. The views and opinions expressed by Tyson are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Reasonable Faith organization.