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. Continue reading

If I only had free will (parody)

I could make a decision
not bound by decreed precision
I’m certain to fulfill.
piperfullgospelNor would I be a puppet,
strings pulled like Jim Henson’s muppet
if I only had free will

I’d unravel just whose to blame,
when life goes down in a flame
And people rape n’ kill

No evil ordained in Dort,
means not taking God to court
If we only had free will

Oh, I would tell you why,
The future still is sure
Or why God is light and still remains pure
For no evil he can endure

Permit would not mean nuthin’
An arg’ment full of stuffin’
Goin’ to a land fill
Cuz choices I’d be makin’
‘sponsibility be takin’
If I only had free will

The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 4)

This is part 4 of a series of blog posts examining the arguments John Owen makes for and against a limited/particular atonement in his extensive work on the subject: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. 

In the last post, we explored Owen’s admission that there is a distinction between Christ obtaining spiritual blessings and the application of these blessings, which are given on the condition that a person believes. Owen’s solution, used to defend limited atonement, was to assert that faith is one of the many spiritual blessings obtained by Christ’s death.

faith itself, which is the condition of them, on whose performance [spiritual blessings] are bestowed, that he hath procured for us absolutely, on no condition at all

Faith, a condition of salvation, is acquired for the elect through the cross.  This faith is then unconditionally given to the elect so that the rest of the spiritual blessings can be given to them as well.

How does Owen understand Faith?

In a separate work, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677), Owen seeks to lay out the case that we are saved by faith alone.

faith alone is on our part the means, instrument, or condition … of our justification, all the prophets and apostles [taught this], and were so taught to be by Jesus Christ BoxerOwen

Owen, here admits, that faith is our part of salvation. A truth that is taught by the apostles, who learned it from Christ.

In this treatise he explores the answer to the question: what is saving faith.

the inquiry is, What is that act or work of faith whereby we may obtain a real interest or propriety in the promises of the gospel, and the things declared in them

This question is worth considering, given the assertions about faith, made by Owen, in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  Continue reading