Book Review: Free Will Revisited by Robert Picirilli


Opening my inbox, I saw an email that caused me to pause. The subject line was Arminian Theology and the author was Robert Picirilli. Expecting anything but an email from the noted theologian of that name, I clicked to read it. To my surprise it was from the Robert Picirilli. And he was asking me to review his book. I was more than happy to accept.

Robert Picirilli (link), the former Academic Dean of the Graduate School at Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College), has authored numerous books and commentaries, including one on Romans from an Arminian perspective (amazon). He has also written the book Grace, Faith, Free Will (amazon), one of the best and most accessible books (IMO) on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Picirilli was also a contributor to Grace for All, a book that was blogged through on this site (link).

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The topic of free will is challenging. It is one of the areas that is debated and discussed in philosophical, theological, and scientific circles. One of the difficulties is that the word itself has been defined and redefined by various participants in the debate. Given this rather short work on such a diverse and difficult topic it is important to understand what drove Picirilli to write and what he sought to accomplish in this book.

The aim can be discerned by the subtitle a Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. This book seeks to explore free will as understood by these esteemed theologians who each have written extensively on this subject.

I determined on a specific approach: namely, to deal with the subject as it was argued, specifically, by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. I picked them because each of these theological masters wrote a volume against free will … [1]

In interacting with these authors, Picirilli wants the reader to not only understand each of their arguments against free will, but to offer a rebuttal to each of the major objections.

Is it possible that such beings have a will that is free to make choices between alternative courses of action? To answer this is the purpose of this work. [2]

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This book is about free will but it is not a general survey on this subject. This work is about the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, but it is not written to deal with all of the theological topics that are part of that debate. The intent of this work is to deal with the intersection of these two areas: specifically how free will is viewed within Calvinism and Arminianism.

An outline of the book

The book is written in four parts.

  • Part One: Defining the Issues
  • Part Two: The Case against Free Will
  • Part Three: The Major Issues
  • Part Four: In Conclusion

The first part provides a brief introduction to the ideas and terms involved in the discussion of free will. Key concepts include free will, determinism, compatiblism, certainty, and necessity. The second part of the book is the strength of the book. It outlines each of the major works on free will written by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.

  • Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will
  • John Calvin’s The Bondage and Liberation of the Will
  • Johnathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will

In each chapter Picirilli presents 1) the historical context of the writing;  2) an outline of the work with a summary of each section; 3) the main ideas comprising the case against free will, and 4) offers a definition of free will that the theologian was arguing against. This last point is important. A key thesis in this book is that the versions of free will that Luther, Calvin, and Edwards wrote against was not the same as that offered by Arminius, Wesley and other Biblically sound theologians. This section offers minimal rebuttals, leaving that for later in the work.

It is important to note, as Picirilli does in the preface, that the arguments and interactions in this book are based primarily on how each theologian presented and argued against free will in the one work dedicated to that subject. Picirilli does not engage points about free will the authors may have made in their other works. For example, the chapter on Martin Luther deals with what is written in The Bondage of the Will, without examining what was written in On the Freedom of a Christian. 

The third part of the book is where Picirilli interacts with the arguments of the theologians, demonstrating where they are wrong. He does this by grouping similar points made by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards and dealing with them together. This is done in several chapters as follows:

  • Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Necessity
  • Free Will, Human Depravity, and the Grace of God
  • Free Will, and the Sovereignty and Providence of God
  • Free Will and the Logic of Cause and Effect

These chapters provide good, concise rebuttals to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. The main thrust of each counter-point would be familiar to those well-read on the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. The book concludes with a summary of the arguments against free will and a summary of Picirilli’s arguments for our ability to choose among possible alternatives.

What is Free Will?

One important point made up front in the book is the importance of defining free will before discussing the theology of the effects of the Fall and grace.

Picirilli offers the following definition of free will in the opening chapter.

To say that a person has a will is to say that a person experiences purpose, intends things, and makes decisions.[3]

His further refinement of this definition aligns with what is known as libertarian free will [LFW], and the author acknowledges this. Picirilli argues that a will that is free has the ability to make a choice between alternatives that “really could go either way”.  If this is not possible then there is no choice and thus no will to exercise.

Philosopher Peter van Inwagen states it this way:

A person has free will if he is often in positions like these: he must now speak or be silent, and he can now speak and can now remain silent [4]

The LFW that Picirilli is arguing for is known as self-determinism, in which the agent, not chance or randomness, causes the choice.

Free Will, Total Depravity, and Scripture

Theologically, the free will Picirilli argues for is part of bearing the image of God. It is something we have and always will have. It is involved in any choice that is made. Only after we establish a working definition of what is meant by free will, asserting what it is able to do, can we then discuss how depravity impacts our will in certain choices.

First we define free will and then we can talk about how depravity affects it and where grace must intervene. [5]

This is such an important point. If debates between theologians started here perhaps the confusion that often occurs could be avoided.

In chapter 3, a Biblical defense for LFW is made. In laying out his case Picirilli admits that the Scriptures do not “speak directly to the issue”.  However “the Bible everywhere assumes, in its presentation of the interactions between God and humans, freedom of the will.” Numerous passages are then offered and explained. This chapter makes an excellent reference for those interested in what the Scriptures say on this matter.

I would submit that any objective reading of the passages … must at least consider the likely possibility that the Lord was dealing with the people about things they could reasonably be expected to do, in at least some conceivable way  [6]

It is essential for prospective readers to understand that the author affirms depravity, as a result of the Fall, and the impact that it has on our nature. Depravity makes certain choices – particularly a response of faith and repentance to the Gospel – impossible without intervening grace.  However, the author argues that when God commands certain actions and invites people to respond to His appeals that He also enables that person, so that they can choose to accept or reject the proposition being set before them.

In describing the famous passage in Joshua (24:14-15) he writes:

It is difficult to see how free will could be any more plainly exposed, at least if one assumes that the enabling grace of God is at work. [7]

A summary on Luther, Calvin, and Edwards

Picirilli was very charitable in the sections dealing with each major work that was written against free will.  He examines each work, noting where there is agreement between himself and the author that rejects free will.

Picirilli not only provides good outlines and summaries of each work, but also compares and contrasts the arguments and views that each of these theologians have with each other. The table below highlights some of the major points, at least as I understood them, emphasized by Picirilli.

Concept Luther Calvin Edwards
Free will that was rejected by the theologian we have the “power of freely turning in any direction [without grace], yielding to none” we have the “power to do what God commands” and can receive grace based on our choices we have the power of making self-determined choices which are not caused by anything prior
Theologian’s main point against free will God’s foreknowledge and foreordination make all acts necessary Our corrupted nature means we can choose only evil People do not have  self-determination because all choices are the effect of prior causes
All events are foreordained by God and thus necessary Yes Yes Yes
Did people have free will before the Fall Does not address Yes No
After the Fall, nature is corrupted to do only evil Yes Yes Yes
Appealed to Patristic writings No Yes No
Appealed to philosophical and rational arguments No No Yes

Picirilli made sure to distance himself from the forms of free will that Erasmus (whom Luther wrote against) and Pighius (whom Calvin wrote against) advocated.  Or at least from the views of free will that Luther and Calvin asserted their opponents held.  Picirilli notes that he did not look into whether the opponent’s view of free will as described by either Luther or Calvin was an accurate representation.

Reading through both parts two and three of the book it was often hard to determine whether the free will choices being discussed were being narrowly examined – as they relate to doing good or evil from a theological view. Or whether these choices were being more broadly assessed as in the illustration by van Inwagen cited above. For example, is a person free to choose between remaining silent or speaking up at a meeting discussing software design.

Free Will beyond Theology

In reviewing this book I have to interact with the author’s stated aims and not drift into critiquing something that falls outside of these. However, chapter two is written comparing naturalistic and theological determinism so I feel that the comments offered here are reasonable.

In the discussion on naturalistic determinism, Picirilli asserts that the prevailing view in science is that our actions are determined, the result of prior causes.

As an all-encompassing world view, naturalism has no room within it for free choices… [8]

If this topic was going to be introduced, this book could have been strengthened by including some of the arguments against free will made by scientists and philosophers outside of a theological context. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett come to mind.

Picirilli further contends that “freedom of the will is… grounded in a Christian worldview.” I mention this because (IMO) it would have been worth noting that free will is also debated outside of Christianity and Calvinist/Arminian theological circles. Readers could have benefited, knowing that there are good arguments for libertarian free will that are based, not on theology, but on philosophical and scientific grounds by proponents such as William James, Peter van Inwagen, Robert Kane, Robert Nozick, Roderick Chisholm and Michio Kaku.

Who is this book for?

This book primarily deals with free will in respect to the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, and only minimally interacts with other aspects of free will. It provides an excellent summary of the major works on free will by Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. Anyone interested in getting a good overview of these works and understanding the major points that each of these authors bring to bear on the debate would benefit greatly from this work. This work would also be an excellent starting point for the reader that wants to read the original works, such as Luther’s Bondage of the Will, giving them an outline of the larger work and how the parts function together to form the argument against free will.

Given the complexity of the topic, this book could be too advanced for those who are not already familiar with the key aspects of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate or who are new to the various terms used in discussing free will.


The reader should note that I was provided a copy of this book by WIPF & Stock in exchange for a review. As a reviewer, I come as one who holds to the key tenets of Arminianism, but is not affiliated with the Baptist denomination.

[1] quote taken from preface (page viii)
[2] quote taken from preface (page ix)
[3] from chapter 1 (page 3)
[4] van Inwagen (Two Reasons for Thinking that Free Will is Incompatible with Determinism)
[5] from chapter 1 (page 5)
[6] from chapter 3 (page 23)
[7] from chapter 3 (page 29)
[8] from chapter 2 (page 11-12)

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