Restricted Free Agents: Examining Compatibilism


We are exploring different views on free will. In the first post we described a situation where a running back in the NFL has entered free agency. He has been presented with 3 different offers. In this example we have avoided complicating the illustration by avoiding choices where a person is exercising saving faith or committing a sin.

Both theists and non-theists wrestle with the concept of determinism. The non-theist determinist ascribes the ultimate cause – the prime mover – to the universe and the physical laws of nature.The latest album Clockwork Angels by the band Rush explores the topic in the song BU2B:

the universe has a plan

we are only human

it’s not ours to understand

Theologians would not agree with the idea that the “universe” has a plan or that we are just “dancing to the music of our DNA” as Richard Dawkins asserts. However, many accept theological determinism where God has determined or ordained all events. In either case, for the determinist, the choices made are fixed to a single outcome. As we explore Compatibilism we will be tackling it from the theist’s point of view, specifically the Reformed/Calvinist perspective.

The choice according to Compatibilism (restricted free agent):

Our running back has been presented with 3 different contract offers from Team A, B, and C. The player has chosen to sign with Team C. This is the team that offered him the most money and the opportunity to be the starting running back.

Under the Reformed view this choice was made voluntarily by the player according to his desires. But, the choice to sign with Team C was “closed” because it was determined by God’s divine decree. It is in this sense that our player is actually a restricted free agent. The player could not have chosen to sign with Team A or B. These options may have appeared to be possible choices but there was only one certain (foreknown ahead of time by God) and necessary (determined ahead of time by God) outcome. The player would sign with Team C.

John Hendryx (creator and editor over at monergism.com) summarizes this view:

Compatibilism is a form of determinism and it should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism. It simply means that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. Our choices are not coerced …i.e. we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God’s sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass …

How can the player be responsible for his choice if it was determined by God?

Despite the signing with Team C being determined by God, the player is still considered responsible for his choice because it was voluntarily made based on the player’s nature and desires.

As we described in the first post, the player had multiple competing desires. Each team’s offer sheet appealed to something the player wanted. It is the “strongest” desire that causes the choice. In our example that was the player’s  desire to be a starter in the NFL. Even if his “strongest” desire was to play in his home town (Team D), there was no option available to do so, therefore it is the strongest desire that could be acted on that matters.

The strongest desire that the player has is the cause of the choice. However the desire (for most holding this view) itself was caused by all past circumstances and events such that the player could not have a different “strongest” desire and therefore could not choose otherwise.

Where things get interesting is when we explore how God’s sovereignty was exercised over this choice. For it to be a necessary event decreed by God, then He would seemingly have to be involved in some manner for it to actually happen. So for deterministic events does God cause the event to occur? If not, then how was it guaranteed to happen as was decreed? If He does, how does God cause the event to occur? Did God cause the desire or nature that the player has or did He cause the circumstances that caused the desire/nature that the player has?

While those holding this view may differ on the details all admit that God is the ultimate reason for all that occurs. Some Calvinists will go on to admit that there is a tension between the idea of determined acts and the person being responsible for their choice. C Michael Patton over at the Parchment and Pen wrote:

To the Calvinists, man is fully responsible for his choice, yet God’s election is unconditional. Therefore, there is a tension that is created between human responsibility and God’s election. This tension is left in tact since, according to the Calvinist, it is best understood this way in Scripture.

John Piper admits to the tension and difficulty that is found in this view. The quote dealing with this tension starts around the 1 minute 10 second mark in the video.

is it a contradiction or inexplicable how God can be absolutely sovereign over all human decisions and those decisions still be responsible, accountable decisions? I think that is, the one for me anyway, for which I don’t have an ultimate answer …

and again around the 2 minute 10 second mark:

[the] antimony … between human’s being held accountable for their actions … and God being ultimately, decisively in control of all of these decisions those are two truths in the Bible … I don’t solve that problem with free will … I am willing to live with that mystery …

If God determines all things, in what way is He responsible for them taking place?

Where things get even more interesting is when we deal with how God may be responsible for events. God has determined that the player will play for Team C. The player is responsible for his choosing to sign with Team C. But does God, as the sovereign determiner, in any way have some responsibility for the choice?

For Calvinists that depends on whether God caused the choice through “positive agency” being actively involved or whether the choice was caused by God deciding not to act (negative agency). If God withheld some influence so that the player would choose Team C then He is not considered responsible. If God was actively influencing, perhaps through directing the heart (Prov 21:1), then He would have more responsibility as the cause.

Obviously when we are dealing with actions that are sinful, the issues are more important than what team a player signs to play. Attributing God as the cause of sin is of course antithetical to the teaching of Scripture. Calvinists do not (repeat do not) teach that God is the cause of evil or sinful choices. However there is a tension in how God ordains sin without being sinful or responsible for the actor being sinful. Here is how John Piper explains that:

Edwards answers, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.” But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.” …

In other words, “sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.”

Many who disagree with Calvinism, see the logical conclusion of God being the determiner and prime mover – whether through positive or negative agency – as making Him the ultimate cause of all choices. What logically follows is that God would be the ultimate cause of evil. Since that can not be the case there needs to be another explanation. The Reformer will leave it to mystery or tension. Others will explore libertarian free will.

[Part 3: Unrestricted Free Agents: Examining Libertarian Free Will]

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