Do we have free will? It’s one of those perennial philosophical questions which we would rather not engage with—either because it seems self-evident that we do and therefore the question is a nonsense like enquiring if cats meow, or because we’re slightly concerned the answer might be no and that the weight of that answer might bring down the whole house of cards.
The Christian answer—well, to be fair there are a variety of Christian approaches to the question, so my understanding of the Christian answer—is that it depends on what you mean by “free will.”
Of course it does, all philosophical sounding questions begin with the definition of terms. Unfortunately, this is one of those slippery phrases that encompasses a variety of meanings, and it’s probably better to talk about what we mean rather than use such a vague phrase.
But, before we briefly get into it, why on earth does it matter? We live like we have free will whether we think we actually do or not, so what moves or shifts depending on our understanding here?
There are, I think, two pastoral challenges that make this theoretical question relevant to us.
Before we turn to them, what’s sitting underneath them are questions of God’s ultimate power. Can the Lord do whatever he wants or is he limited by our actions? Because most evangelicals have been taught that its important that we have free will so we can be ‘genuine worshippers’ whatever that means, we talk like God is limited by our actions. Which gives us two problems: firstly, the Bible tells us that God is not limited by anything (Psalm 115) and in fact can do whatever he wants—it goes further and suggests that nothing at all happens without the will of God (Ephesians 1). Which is a big claim. Secondly, this understanding of free will implies that God is not strong enough to change human behaviour enough to stop evil or intervene. You start to wonder why we think its worth praying at all.
The first pastoral challenge is that if God’s power is limited by ours then when we suffer, we cannot turn to God for help, only for comfort.
The second pastoral challenge is that we live in a cultural moment dominated by autonomy as a value. The greatest cultural good is our human freedom to do whatever we want and to be whoever we say that we are. The greatest cultural sin is to infringe on another’s ability to do as they wish and be whoever they say they are. Ignoring the implicit contradiction here—we lack criteria for judging between competing visions of the self that impinge on others—this cultural story is antithetical to the gospel story that tells us to ‘take up our crosses’ and ‘follow him’ (Matthew 16).
Our theoretical answers to this question alter how we approach the prevailing narratives of our day. Moving beyond whether they are the way of flourishing (which, for the record, they aren’t), we are confronted with the question of whether they line up with reality or not.
I want to argue that they do not.
If I am taking ‘free will’ to mean unhindered human freedom—that we make choices and complete actions that are effects without causes outside of ourselves—then we do not have this. No one makes choices that are not caused by a variety of factors prior to themselves except for God, who Aquinas called the Unmoved Mover for this very reason.
If ‘free will’ speaks of our perception of the world then yes, we are free, but reflecting on our limitations is helpful. We don’t make any choices that are not affected by another. Any attempt to suggest that we do is an exercise in self-delusion. We can see this without recourse to the deeper reality. If we bring in the world of spiritual forces (what the Bible calls the powers and authorities—true reality) into our view of ourselves, we might start to see that all our choices are affected by others.
If ‘free will’ means our ability to choose the good—what Augustine called Liberty—then we absolutely do not have this. It doesn’t take more than a cursory read of the Bible (get started in Romans 1-3) to see that we lost this with Sin and it is being restored by the presence of the Holy Spirit, we begin to be able to make holy choices.
John Calvin said that “free will is too grandiose a term to apply to man.” I would agree. But all of us are aware that we make choices, even though they are affected by a thousand causes outside of us they remain our choices. I find it helpful to suggest that we do not have free will, but we do have free choice. I’m trying to get at two realities: our will is bound by sin, even as the Spirit frees our will to do good, we’re still bound in patterns of sin from our old creation existence; and we cannot act without affecting another or having our actions affected by other agents.
When we then consider the passages from the Bible that I referenced above which suggest that God is the sovereign King in control of his world, we discover an ‘agent’ who is truly free. The presence of a single free agent necessarily means that there cannot be others.
To return to our pastoral questions, my primary concern, it is good for us to know that we are limited but God is not. This provokes different questions when we struggle and suffer, but ones nearer to those that the Bible grapples with through the books of Lamentations and Job.
Reading our cultural moment with our love of autonomy, we need to know that our autonomy is, ultimately, an illusion. Our sin prevents us from being free to choose the good beyond our own desire. Our desires are often not the way of flourishing or the way of the cross. Our desires are influenced by good things, like our image-bearing capacity to see and dignify the divine image in others, but also by our sin. Even if all our desires were purified then our freedom from constraint is only ever relative to someone else, and often requires the addition of constraints to others.
In fact, true freedom from constraint always requires the addition of constraints to others. For us to be ‘free’ in the modern sense, others must not be. Our so-called freedom requires us to enslave. Then, in dramatic irony, it enslaves us in turn.
Thankfully there is true freedom found in following Jesus. It requires us to do a bunch of things that don’t sound like freedom to us because we’re enculturated in the modern story: like lay down our rights and identities and freedoms to follow someone else. We must recognise that we are subjects before a King and that he has all the rights.
Of course, there’s better news hidden underneath: the King in question is the magnificent God-in glory, the thrice holy champion of Israel, the consuming fire. Oh, and he loves us.
Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash
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