Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology
Part 2: Philosophical Presuppositions
about Freedom and Determinism

April 10, 2012

Eric Hankins is the Pastor of First Baptist, Oxford, Mississippi

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the second of a four-part series by Eric Hankins attempting to frame Baptist soteriology in a different structure than comparing it to Calvinism and Arminianism. In the first article, Hankins contrasted individual election as a key Biblical Presupposition in Calvinism and Arminianism with corporate election in a Baptist soteriology. In this article he contrasts the Philosophical Presuppositions of Calvinism (The “Problem” of Determinism and Free-Will) and that of a Baptist soteriology (“The Freedom of God and the Free-Will of People”).

The Philosophical Presupposition of Calvinism:
The “Problem” of Determinism and Free-Will

Like Calvinism and Arminianism, the 2,500-year-old debate concerning the “problem” of determinism and free-will has also reached an impasse. This is because absolute causal determinism is untenable.[1] Put simply, the “problem” is not a problem because the paradigm for causation in the Western philosophical tradition is wrong. The whole of reality cannot be explained in terms of uni-directional causation from a single first-principle. The universe does not work that way. Causation is complex, hierarchical, and interdependent. God sits sovereignly and non-contingently atop a hierarchy that owes its existence to the functioning of the levels below it, levels that include the fully operational free-will of humans.[2] Opposing God’s sovereign guidance of the universe and the operation of free-will within that universe is a false dichotomy based on reductionistic metaphysical assumptions. God has made a free and sovereign decision to have a universe in which human free-will plays a decisive role. Human agency is one force among many that God has created to accomplish His cosmic purposes.

Free-will plays a unique role within God’s purposes for the universe because it is the unique power of human beings freely to enter into covenant relationships, especially a covenant relationship with God. This makes human willing fundamentally moral. Under certain circumstances, God, in His freedom, contravenes free-will, just as He is free to contravene any other force in nature, but this is not His normal modus operandi. Because God is God, He knows all of the free acts of humans from eternity, but this knowledge does not cause these acts nor does it make Him responsible for them. Moreover, the existence of these acts in no way impinges upon either His freedom or His ability to bring about His ultimate purposes. The ability of humans “to do otherwise” does not call God’s sovereignty into question; it actually establishes and ratifies His sovereignty over the particular universe that was His good pleasure to create. Opposing free-will and sovereignty is, from a philosophical perspective, nonsensical.[3]

Calvinism’s desire to protect God’s divine status from the infringement of human free-will by denying it completely or reducing it to some form of “soft-determinism”[4] is unnecessary. God’s corporate elective purposes are accomplished by individual free acts of faith. Arminianism’s need to inject ideas such as God’s election of individuals based on their future free acts is also a move designed to maintain both a strong view of God’s sovereignty and the free choice of individuals. Unfortunately, this move is made at the expense of any regular understanding of biblical election, which is unilateral. God does not choose Israel because He knows she will choose Him in return. He chooses her even though He knows that her history will be one of rebellion and failure. Moreover, Arminianism’s desire to protect the inviolability of free-will to the degree that God cannot keep His promise to seal a believer’s free response fails to take seriously the totality of the biblical concept of faith.

Many Baptists have tended to opt for what they think is a “compatibilist” understanding of determinism and free-will in salvation: God chooses individuals unconditionally, and individuals choose God by faith.[5] Unfortunately, compatibilism demands a deterministic view of both God and free-will with which those same Baptists would be very uncomfortable. What these Baptists really want to say is that a “determinist” view of God is compatible with a “libertarian” view of free-will, but this is philosophically impermissible. Another typical strategy of Baptists, at this point, is to appeal to “mystery” or “paradox:” We don’t know how God chooses individuals, and, at the same time, individuals choose God. But, like other complex doctrines such as the Trinity or the hypostatic union, it is still true. To say, however, that God chooses individuals unconditionally and that He does not choose individuals unconditionally is not to affirm a mystery; it is to assert a logical contradiction. Baptists need to abandon the language of compatibilism and “mystery,” which do not adequately reflect what they believe about God and salvation, and embrace the concept that a robust (soft-) libertarian free-will is the actualization of God’s sovereign direction of His universe.

The Philosophical Presupposition in a Baptist Soteriology:
The Freedom of God and the Free-Will of People

The manner in which biblical faith functions in creation is this: God sovereignly and freely made a universe in which the free-will of humans plays a decisive role in His ultimate purposes for that universe (Rom. 10:9-10). Without free-will, there is no mechanism for the defeat of sin and evil, no mechanism for covenant relationship, no mechanism for a world-changing, world-completing partnership between God and His people. For Baptists, faith has never been something that occurs without our willing. We deny that people’s eternal destinies have been fixed without respect to a free-response of repentance and faith. We preach that the decision of each individual is both possible and necessary for salvation.

It has been typical of Baptists to believe that anyone who reaches the point of moral responsibility has the capacity to respond to the gospel. While all persons are radically sinful and totally unable to save themselves, their ability to “choose otherwise” defines human existence, including the ability to respond to the gospel in faith or reject it in rebellion. God initiates the process; He imbues it with His Spirit’s enabling. When people respond in faith, God acts according to His promises to seal that relationship for eternity, welding the will of the believer to His own, setting the believer free by His sovereign embrace. Our assurance of salvation comes not from a “sense” that we are elect or from our persistence in holy living. Assurance comes from the simple, surrendered faith that God keeps every one of His promises in Christ Jesus.

[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 93–99.

[2] Nancey Murphy, “Introduction and Overview,” in Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will, ed. Nancey Murphy, George F. R. Ellis, and Timothy O’Connor (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2009), 2–3.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Yours, Jack: Spiritual Directions from C. S. Lewis, ed. Paul Ford (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 186. The word “nonsensical,” while a bit harsh, is chosen purposefully. I take my cue from Lewis: “All that Calvinist question–Free-Will and Predestination, is to my mind undiscussable, insoluble. . . . When we carry [Freedom and Necessity] up to relations between God and Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical?”

[4] “Soft-determinism” is the view that humans are free to do what they desire most, but they are not free to choose what they desire. Since, “the good” is off the table as an object of desire (because of the Fall), “evil” is the only option left, and therefore, humans always “choose” to do evil because they cannot do otherwise. “Soft-libertarianism” (mentioned below) is the view that human freedom, while limited in many aspects by environment and prior choices, is still characterized by the ability, often at crucial moments, to choose between two live options for which the agent is responsible. For a more full discussion, see Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 63–79.

[5] This often expressed in the old saw that “Whosoever will may come” is written over the entry into heaven, but, once inside, the verse over the door reads, “You did not choose Me, but I have chosen you.”

These posts are adapted from Eric Hankins’s article “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianims: Toward a Baptist Soteriology,” published in the online Journal for Bapist Theology and Ministry, Spring 2011, Vol. 8, No. 1. It is reposted here with the permission of the author.