Limited Libertarian Freedom & Traditional Compatibilism: What’s the Difference?



(The FreeThinking Theist)


September 20, 2018


Dear Tim,

I’m curious. How would you differentiate your limited libertarian freedom that people are free but choose in line with their nature from historic Compatiblism that holds essentially the same thing?

– Tyler

Tim’s Response

Thank you for question, Tyler. You are correct in that I affirm that our natures do determine things about us, and that we are still free.[1] So, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it seems my view is a compatibilistic duck. But not so fast, before answering your question, let us properly understand what is meant by the word “compatibilism” in the sense used by philosophers and theologians. “Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism” (See The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). On this view, the so-called “freedom” that is compatible with determinism simply means that one is determined to “voluntarily” think or act the only way possible for them to think or act. Thus, the traditional compatibilist (by definition) assumes determinism and no ability to ever think or act otherwise. It follows that there is not a range of options from which one can genuinely choose between because one’s nature fixes and determines the only single thing one can actually think or do.

The modified compatibilistic view I have offered (one that has existed for centuries but has not received much press), affirms that one’s nature fixes and determines a limited range of options as opposed to only one possibility. By “range” one means two or more genuine possibilities. So, just as God possesses a range of options from which to choose (both of which are consistent with His perfect nature) — to create the universe or not to create the universe, or to elect or not to elect certain individuals — humans who are created in God’s likeness often (not always) possess a range of options from which to choose that are each compatible with human nature (See The MMA).

With this in mind, unregenerate sinners possess a limited range of options from which to choose that has not been supernaturally expanded by God’s grace. Thus, these sinners can genuinely choose between sin X, sin Y, or sin Z, but they have no ability to choose the spiritually good (this is also supported by the view — commonly held by those in Reformed circles — that God limits the amount of evil that sinners can commit). Regenerate Christians, on the other hand, by God’s grace have had their range of choice options expanded to be able to sin or not to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13) in thought or action — both of which are consistent with the Christian’s new and miraculously transformed nature.

The salient point is this: if one occasionally possesses the ability to choose between a range of options, each of which is consistent with the person’s nature (even if that range is merely limited to two options), then this person possesses limited libertarian freedom. In my current research I have located quotes from the majority of theologians over the past 2000 years who have written on the topic of free will (including Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin) supporting this view of limited libertarian freedom and this modified version of compatibilism (that is logically compatible with libertarian freedom). This is especially evident regarding issues external to morality, ethics, and soteriology. This will be offered in my forthcoming PhD dissertation (stay tuned).

The particular model I have offered allows one to logically affirm both limited libertarian freedom and a form of compatibilism that is similar to, but not identical with the traditional definition of compatibilsim. This limited libertarian view of freedom is all one needs to affirm Mere Molinism. In fact, if one also affirms that God never gained knowledge of these libertarian choices and that God also predestined all in which He does not causally determine — including all of the indeterministic thoughts and actions of creatures possessing limited libertarian freedom, then some form of Molinism is the only game in town.

Bottom line: the traditional view of compatibilism rejects any ability to choose between a range of options. The modified view I offer affirms that although the range of options is determined and fixed, nonetheless, it is still a range of options, each of which is compatible with one’s nature, and each of which one possesses the genuine ability to actually choose — even if they never choose it.

So, although my view might walk and swim like a duck, it does not quack like a duck. There are seemingly minor but significant differences.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


[1] The word “determining” can be used in a non causal manner. Jonathan Thompson provides a good explanation:

“However, what needs to be appreciated here is that although the word ‘determine’ can be used in a causal sense,—such as it is used in denoting causal determinism—it can nevertheless be properly employed in non-causal senses as well. To give an example, it is true that the combined quantity of the individual members of a given set of numbers will determine its sum. Here, the sense in which the combined quantity of numbers determines the sum of the set is non-causal because numbers, sets, and mathematical operations are abstract objects and are therefore causally impotent. Another way of expressing this relation between these numbers is to say that the set of numbers non-causally makes its sum such in virtue of its members. That is to say it is by the numbers merely existing within the set by which the set obtains its sum. A more colloquial way of expressing this relation would be to say that the joint quantity of numbers of which the set is composed serve to explain the sum of the set.”

About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

Learn More

More from this author