Over the last week I have been in a discussion over soteriology, which started with the request to define free will. Free will can be a hard concept to define because there are very different ideas of what it means and how it works.
This discussion was not with Michael Patton. However, he has written an excellent post entitled “A Calvinist’s Understanding of Free Will”, explaining free will from the Determinist/Reformed point of view. The points raised in this post are representative of the problems often cited against libertarian free will .
In this post libertarian freedom is defined as the ability to choose against who you are.
If you ask whether a person can choose against their nature (i.e. libertarian freedom) the answer, I believe, must be “no.” A person’s nature makes up who they are. Who they are determines their choice.
This definition may be how Reformers define and understand libertarian freedom, but this is not how proponents of libertarian free will (Arminians) would define it (noted later in the post). That aside, most proponents would agree with the idea that who a person is determines the choices that they make. Most would also accept the notion that a person can not choose against who they are.
Free will is the inherent ability of a person to make a contrary choice
Another contention that is brought up by those who reject libertarian free will is the fact that there are numerous factors that we did not choose. In the same post Michael Patton lists several factors that we do not choose including: when and where we are born, our parents, our genetics, etc. He goes on to explain:
All of these factors play an influencing role in who you are at the time of any given decision.
Most proponents of libertarian free will would concur with the assertion that there are factors that are outside of our control and that there are factors that influence who we are. Libertarian free will does not require the absence of influencing factors in the decision.
I would also add that free will also does not mean that because we get to make contrary choices that the outcomes of our choices are not under God’s control. We would agree that God is in control over all things (just not determining all things). A farmer may plant a field with the hope of harvesting its fruit, yet storms may destroy the crop. And a person may choose to work hard with the intention of prospering, yet still not make any money (James 4:13-15).
So with these points of agreement established, here is how proponents of libertarian free will would define this concept. Free will would mean that a person inherently has the power of making a contrary choice (aka choosing “otherwise”). This does not require the person to be able to choose anything, nor does it require the absence of other influencing factors. It only requires the ability for a person confronted with a decision to be able to choose from among one or more possible options.
An example might be choosing what to eat from a menu. When a person walks into a restaurant they may have many different desires – they do not want to spend a lot of money, they enjoy steak, they are in the mood for lobster etc. They are influenced by many factors including how big a lunch they ate, the pictures on the menu, the costs of the items, and the amazing smell of steak that fills the air. Even if the menu is as limited as the diner from My Cousin Vinny, the person can still choose. They person wrestles with competing desires and influences as they make their choice.
Most theological discussions are concerned with what part free will plays in salvation. The sin nature in man (aka total depravity) describes the inability for a person to choose, regardless of how one views free will, to have faith in God. God must intervene and enable them to respond. This intervention by God is called prevenient grace. In the Reformed view this is an irresistible act that regenerates the individual and always leads to accepting the gift of salvation. For the Arminian, this intervention by God overcomes total depravity so that a person can make a free will decision in the libertarian sense. A person has the power of contrary choice – either accepting or rejecting salvation.
How does prevenient grace, in the Arminian view, enable a person?
Reformers assume that since the person is not regenerated, prevenient grace (in the Arminian view) must neutralize the will of a person.
Arminians, however, differ from Calvinists in that they believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which essentially neutralizes the will
That leads them to conclude that the person does not actually make the choice.
Does it erase all of the you behind the choice? If you are neutralized and liberated from you, then who is making the choice?
Based on this line of reasoning it might be fair to ask the Reformer the same question – if you are regenerated and liberated from who you are (a sinner by nature), then who is making the choice?
The Reformers add to the neutralized will their notion that libertarian free will requires an absence of influencing choices and assume a choice can’t be made:
It is like a balanced scale, it will never tilt to the right or the left unless the weights (influence) on one side is greater than the other
And if the choice is actually made then it would be arbitrary since the scale is perfectly balanced. These conclusions are rooted in the idea that a person will always (deterministically) choose according to the strongest desire. Assuming this is how free will works, then what the Reformer or Determinist fails to see is that the choice over which desire to make strongest is the choice of the individual. You get to choose the desire that is strongest and thus choose the desire upon which you will act.
Scientists, like theologians, argue over this as well. The Reformer’s appeal to a neutral will is similar to one made by physicists who hold to determinism. They argue that quantum mechanics can’t explain libertarian free will because it introduces randomness (or chance) and thus there is still no real choice.
In a nutshell this video offers a possible solution to how free will works based on quantum mechanics: agent causation.
~ things are determined not by prior event or random events but the choices of agents … who introduce new information into the system for a result to happen.
The important point is that contrary to Reformed assertions, libertarian free will does not require the absence of influences and prevenient grace does not require a neutralized will. Grace need only give a person the ability to make a contrary choice regarding salvation.
Again, how exactly does it do this is a good question.
If total depravity is the inability to choose God, maybe prevenient grace removes that inability. However, it more likely adds new information and desires (to please God and be saved by faith) to the already existing desires. What ever it does I imagine this enablement helps us so that we are in a position similar to Adam prior to the Fall, when he could have obeyed or disobeyed in the garden.
Why does one person accept the gospel and another reject it? Another good question. Maybe these questions are mysteries for the Arminian side. Not so much in the paradoxical sense but simply because the Scriptures do not tell us how free will works. It does say that we have choices to make:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live … Deut 30:19
After all, what would be the point of Jesus telling a servant “Well Done”, if they could not make choices in how well they served? Why would we be warned that we will be called to account for the choices we make (1 Cor 5:10) unless we actually make contrary choices?
After prevenient grace has worked in us, it gives us competing desires that we must wrestle with. Much like choosing from a menu, but with much more serious consequences.