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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Human Freedom is not of ultimate importance

All Christians believe in human freedom and maintain that human freedom is important.

But, of course, we do not all agree on what 'freedom' is. Typically Calvinists, for instance, would maintain that freedom is the 'freedom to do what we want to do'. But this minimalist view of freedom is compatible with determinism. Consequently the view is often referred to as the compatibilist view of freedom.

For Arminians this is not good enough. They would agree with Calvinists that a free human action is one in which a human is permitted to act as he or she wishes. But, that is not enough. For an action to be free it must also the the case that the actor could have done other than what they did. This view is often referred to as the Libertarian notion of freedom.

Well, the philosophy of all this is very complex and I do not wish to defend one of the notions over against the other.

My point is simply this: libertarian freedom is not of ultimate importance.

What slightly perplexes me is the centrality that libertarian notions of human freedom have in some Christian theologies. No doubt this is something to do with the influence of the Enlightenment and a stress on the importance of individual choice in western worldviews. But on some theologies you'd think that the most important thing in the universe is that God preserve human libertarian freedom at all costs. God even allows humans to hold his cosmic purposes to ransom in order to preserve their freedom. After all, the only alternative is to compell people to love him but that would not be love, right? We'd just be robots. Right?

All this leaves me feeling rather cold. Don't get me wrong. It may well be that libertarianism has something very important to add to our understanding of freedom. It may be that it really does matter that our freedom is, for a while at least, not fully determined. Perhaps, for instance, our notions of moral responsibility require it (whether they do is a moot point).

But should we make it the heart of our theologies?

On the one hand we end up placing more blame on ourselves for bad things that happen. All the bad stuff is the result of human free choices. Really? Is it all Adam's fault? Earthquakes? Disease? Granted a lot of bad stuff is the result of human free choices but you cannot blame the whole shebang on what we choose.

On the other hand we can end up taking more credit for our good choices than we should. We can even slip into thinking that God does his bit in sending Jesus to die and we do our bit by choosing to follow Christ. But even our good choices are, in biblical terms, choices enabled by God.

I think St Paul may be a little perplexed by all our talk about the centrality of freedom. In Paul's thinking those outside of Christ are slaves to sin and are not free at all. They cannot choose to please God. Freedom is found in Christ but even this freedom is freedom to obey God not the freedom to do as we wish. Choosing to sin is not, in Paul's thinking, freedom.

And I must confess that a deep Calvinistic instinct inside of me blanches at the thought that God would allow human libertarian choices to stop creation reaching the goal that God intends for it. I simply cannot believe that God would be reckless enough to grant that much power to humans. I genuinely find the thought horrifying (and I don't even think of myself as a Calvinist).

And I say all this even if God did give us libertarian freedom. I simply cannot see that this kind of freedom is of such ultimate importance that God would preserve it at the cost of the world going to Hell in a handbasket. And, strictly speaking, I do not see how on strong versions of freewill theism God can guarantee the salvation of even one person. Sure he works tirelessly to achieve the salvation of people but he will never override someone's freedom. So there are no guarantees. In theory it would be possible for Jesus to die for the world and yet not a single person ever finds salvation.

I know that this will offend a lot of people but I simply register my belief that for God to behave in this way would be grossly irresponsible. I am convinced that whether we have libertarian freedom or not, one way way or t'other God will get his will done. Human freedom will not thwart God's purposes.

8 comments:

Jason Goroncy said...

Nice post Robin. I have posted on things similar here and here.

I knew the Wesley post was a hoax. :-)

Robin Parry said...

Thanks Jason

Your posts are great. The second one in particular is an excellent exposition on human and divine freedom.

pchurcher87 said...

Hi Robin,
Interesting post. The problem is the one needs to have an understanding of Human free-will, whatever that is if one is to try and understand soteriology. There is no such thing as not being decided, as you say you have Calvinistic tendancies, yet don't deem yourself as such. Is it importatnt to be a Christian: No. Is it important if one is to make a coherent analysis of the Bible and specifically soteriology: yes!
It effects how we see God and our actions too. You are right that we can make too much of it however and I suppose thats to the detriment of the Gospel.

Robin Parry said...

pchurcher87

Thanks. Well, I think we are in agreement ... at least in part. I am not suggesting that the issue of the nature of freedom is not important for theology. My point is that it should not be made so central. I am not undecided on that question.

Does an understanding of soteriology require that one is decided on the nature of freedom? Well, I think that one can go a long way in soteriology without such an understanding but it will rear its head at certain key points and then it certainly helps.

Am I undecided on the issue? I guess that I am. The philosophical issues are very tricky. I am inclined to accepting a role for a constrained libertarian notion of freedom which becomes less and less significant as we develop into the image of Christ. But I am not sure.

James Pate said...

Hi Robin. Good post! I wrote a post that touches on this issue a while back:

www.jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/2008/02/free-will-defense.html

James Pate said...

www.jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/2008/02/free-will-defense.html

James Pate said...

It's free-will-defense. For some reason, not all of what I type is appearing.

Anonymous said...

I've learned not to care particularly about the nature of freedom. I was once a believer in the strictly libertarian version of free will, but then I had a realization that a compatibilist version may very well be possible and that it offers no substantive difference in guiding the actions of humans. I mean, if you were to replay the moment of decision a million times under the same conditions, would a person ever actually choose the opposite decision? I don't really know, nor do I really care.