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Predestination or Free Will? (Post 3)

The question of predestination or free will is a very hard one – which is why there has been so much debate about it. It involves an understanding of how God works, which is always tricky. His ways are above our ways, and “for now we only see in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13:12). 

However, God has revealed truth to us in Scripture, and so he must expect us to understand some of his workings. Our job, then, is to study in order to “correctly handle the word of truth.” (II Tim. 2:15)

Correctly understanding God’s Word includes doing justice to the passages that indicate in some way our salvation is predestined, as discussed last week. It also includes correctly understanding the passages that indicate our salvation is in some way related to our free choice. For instance (italics added):

  • Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Matt. 23:37)

  • Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

  • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

How are we to understand these passages that seem to indicate our salvation is based on our choice? As with predestination, Arminians and Calvinists both agree we freely choose Christ. And, again as with predestination, this is based on different definitions of “free will.”

Here is where the conversation gets a bit technical, as it involves the larger conversation about the nature of free will in general. This is a long, detailed, and nuanced debate. But in order to accurately understand what Arminians and Calvinists mean by free will, we must wade into these deeper issues. This week I’ll outline the various views of freedom generally, and then next week I’ll map them to the debate between Arminians and Calvinists.


Various Views of Freedom

The debate concerning the nature of freedom is an important issue in philosophy, and extends well beyond the question of how free will relates to our salvation. Most broadly construed, it is the question of whether any choice we make is free, or is determined. Furthermore, if our choices are free, then what is the nature of our freedom–how is it best explained?


Hard Determinism

Philosophers who are naturalists (believing all that exists is the material world) believe we live in a mechanistic universe. All which exists is matter in motion. And matter in motion cannot generate free will. So all alleged “choices” are really just the result of chemical interactions in the brain. “Free will” is an illusion and “choices” are nothing but the results of our brain chemistry. This view has come to be known is Hard Determinism.


Soft Determinism (Compatibilism)

Other believe there is both determinism and freedom. Our choices are determined—we cannot choose otherwise. But these choices are caused by beliefs and desires we have. Because these causes are internal to us (they are our beliefs and desires), in this sense they are our choices. In other words, even though our choices are determined by our beliefs and desires, we still choose what we want. So even though we could not choose otherwise (our choices are determined), it is still our choice because it is caused by our beliefs and desires. This view has come to be known as Soft Determinism. It is also known as Compatibilism, for it takes determinism and free will to be compatible.

An example may help. Let’s say you find yourself with some free time before bed, and can either read this blog or finish the novel on your nightstand. You are faced with a choice. Now let’s say you have the desire to spend time each day thinking about your faith as it relates to life and work. And you believe that my blog will help you do that (since that is the title of my blog). The belief you have, combined with the desire you have, work together to cause you to pick up your iPad and read this blog, rather than the novel. Given this belief and desire, your choice was determined. But because they are your beliefs and desires, “inside” you in a sense, the choice was still “yours” and thus free in this sense.

Some taking this position are naturalists, agreeing with Hard Determinists that reality is ultimately material and,therefore, determined. Yet they say our brains produce beliefs and desires (as epiphenomena–similar to the way fire causes smoke). These beliefs and desires in turn produce our choices. As one naturalistic philosopher put it, this gives us enough “elbow room” to say we also have a form of freedom. (Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room.)

Others Compatibilists are not driven by naturalism. Yet they agree choices are determined by our beliefs and desires, while at the same time being free.



The third position taken is Libertarianism. (Libertarian free will is not to be confused with political libertarianism, or the libertarian ontology of persons I discussed here.)

Libertarians say being free is having the ability to choose between two (or more) live options. Freedom requires that nothing determines your choice. You chose A, but given the exact same circumstances—including the exact same brain chemistry, beliefs, and desires—you could have chosen B (or C or D…). Libertarians say that your choice is free only if you could have chosen otherwise. Therefore, this view of freedom is sometimes referred to as “counter-causal” freedom.

Let’s return to our bedtime reading example to better understand this view of freedom. You have a choice before you–to read the novel or my blog. You think about it awhile, and decide to read my blog. Your thoughts (containing beliefs and desires) may give you good reasons and therefore an inclination to choose one over the other. But they do not determine your choice. In other words, they are not efficient causes. You can still choose to do otherwise–making an “irrational” choice contrary to your beliefs and desires. 

The Libertarian says this is the essence of freedom: being able to choose A, when in the exact same circumstances you could have chosen B. In fact, the choice was free only and precisely because you could have chosen otherwise.


Now that the different definitions of “freedom” have been outlined, we can turn to how this relates to Calvinist and Arminian understandings of our free will and salvation.

Until next week, grace and peace.


  1. chalee
    chalee December 19, 2019

    "The Libertarian says this is the essence of freedom: being able to choose A, when in the exact same circumstances you could have chosen B. In fact, the choice was free only and precisely because you could have chosen otherwise."

    I would be curious how Libertarians might explain that even as someone walked into the polls in 2016 with seething hatred toward one candidate, they were truly free to actually choose either one…Maybe they walked in thinking Trump was a no-nonsense outsider and Hilary was the devil, or that Hilary was a shrewd moderate and that Trump was a showboating chauvinist fraud, but that didn’t really matter as any of the millions of them might have voted otherwise regardless?

    I would suggest you also consider mentioning Aristotle. I believe he was probably the earliest proponent of the notion that one needed the freedom and ability to choose A in order to be responsible for choosing A. If a child doesn’t have the ability to flap their arms to fly, then a parent would be wrong to try to hold the child responsible for not flying and punish them. It’s a reasonable ethical notion at the human level, but gets interesting when theologians try to apply that kind of ethical reasoning to a Creator God who "makes known the end from the beginning and from ancient times what is still to come."

    If Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him, could Peter have made Jesus a liar? If Peter was not "free" to choose to stand with Jesus at His darkest hour, was he really responsible, and thus guilty, for his denial?

    From what I’ve seen, resolving this ethical dilemma tends to be at the core of the "Predestination/Free Will" debates even moreso than the Bible…

  2. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace December 19, 2019

    Chalee, great comments. Yes, Aristotle addresses this issue well. I also agree another layer of complexity is involved if the discussion moves to divine freedom. I want to be clear that my entire focus in this series is human freedom.

    As to the two dilemmas you outline (the voter and Peter), these are good test cases. The Libertarian would say the voter, as ultimately an agent with the ability to choose, has counter-causal freedom, even if he has deep inclinations to vote one way or their other.

    This is because these inclinations serve as “final causes” rather than “efficient causes” (to use Aristotle’s distinction). A final cause is that end result one seeks, and inclines one to do this or that—we do this “for the sake of’ some end. An efficient cause is that which leads to an effect, in the sense we tend to use “cause” (e.g. the cue ball hitting the 8 ball, causing the 8 ball to go into the pocket). I’ve written more on these, and Aristotle’s other two causes, elsewhere, so I’ll not say more here.

    Libertarians argue that a choice is free as long as there is no efficient cause determining the choice. The fact is that for any choice there are final causes—reasons for which we desire to chose A or B—give us inclinations or desires, but do not determine our choices. One can always chose against one’s inclinations to reach a given end. However, if an efficient cause is in play, one could not choose otherwise, for efficient causes determine the effect.

    Related to the voter example, a voter certainly has reasons influencing her to vote a certain way (final causes). Specifically, the voter has a desire to see political change—an end. But this end, as a final cause, does not determine the choice (though it influences the choice). She can still choose to act against these inclinations. She would only be determined (not free to choose A or B) if there were efficient causes that compelled her to vote a certain way. The Libertarian argues there are no such efficient causes. Therefore she makes a free choice (in the libertarian, counter-causal sense).

    The issue of Peter raises another important issue—can God foreknow and a choice still be free? The Libertarian would argue yes, due to the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology. The fact that God knows something (epistemology) doesn’t determine what happens (metaphysics). The timing of this knowledge (the fact that God knows it beforehand) doesn’t change this fact. By analogy, I can know when my son gets home from school he will want to toss the football around if I ask, because I know how much he loves the game. But this knowledge doesn’t determine his choice to throw the ball with me when he does get home.

    Related to God’s foreknowledge and human freedom, the Libertarian would argue that because God has foreknowledge, if Peter had chosen otherwise, God would have known his other choice to be the case, and therefore Jesus would have told Peter that he wouldn’t deny him. So, the Libertarian would argue that Peter indeed did have counter-causal freedom, and therefore was responsible, regardless of the fact that God knew beforehand what he would freely choose.

    Finally, I agree issues related to the nature of freedom weigh very heavily in this Predestination/Free will debate. I’ll say more about this relationship in future posts.

    Thanks for your post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on my reply.

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