Five Theological Models Relating Determinism, Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom / Steve Lemke, Ph.D.

by Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost
Professor of Philosophy & Ethics
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

Several of the statements in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” involve the interrelation of divine sovereignty and human freedom. This question is addressed in several articles of this commentary on the “Statement,” but this article provides an overview of different perspectives on this important subject. Although there is a broad spectrum of views on this question, there are five basic perspectives held by evangelicals to describe the relationship of divine sovereignty to human freedom – hard determinism, soft determinism, Molinism, soft libertarian freedom, and strong libertarian freedom. This article seeks to survey each of these perspectives, particularly because each of them has its own vocabulary that can be confusing or misunderstood. These topics are controversial, and are discussed in many settings, both in person and online. All Christians should be able to articulate where they stand on this important subject. It is very important for church leaders to understand these terms and be able to discuss them intelligently. I will also provide some commentary on the viability of each of these models from a traditional Baptist perspective.

Hard Determinism/Causal Determinism — The strongest challenge to personal human freedom is hard determinism or causal determinism, the view that everything we are and do is determined or caused by prior events. So, though we think that we have a choice in what we eat for lunch or whom we marry, in fact we are deceived. These apparent choices are but an illusion. We had no choice but to eat a particular lunch or marry a particular person – it was imbedded in our DNA or brain cells. In fact, all of what we call “choices” are just an illusion – everything is determined by prior events and causes. Determinism is popular among many materialists, New Atheists, and postmodernists because it portrays the world as a closed system in which everything is completely determined by natural causes. For example, note how postmodernist thinker Richard Rorty’s determinism is expressed in his view of the radical contingency with which each person’s life is shaped by previous events and causes: “Our language and our culture are as much a contingency, as much a result of thousands of small mutations finding niches (and millions of others finding no niches), as are the orchids and the anthropoids.”[1] So, for Rorty, “for all we know, or should care, Aristotle’s metaphorical use of ousia, Saint Paul’s metaphorical use of agape, and Newton’s metaphorical use of gravitas, were the results of cosmic rays scrambling the fine structure of some crucial neurons in their respective brains. Or, more plausibly, they were the result of some odd episodes in infancy—some obsessional kinks left in these brains by idiosyncratic traumata.”[2]

In a Christian reading of hard determinism, however, it is not physical causes but God’s decrees which determine everything that happens. Not many evangelicals endorse this (hard) theological determinism, but some such as Paul Helm, Paul Helseth, and John Feinberg are willing to insist that God ordains all things that happen in order to assure a perspective that God is totally in control of the universe, even at the most detailed level.[3] So, again, in hard determinism we have no real choices; everything is predetermined and caused by prior events, and in a Christian hard determinism, God ordains everything that happens; we really have no choice or freedom.

Soft Determinism/Compatibilism — Hard determinism is so out of touch with our own experience of life, however, that many feel that it does not give an adequate account of human freedom. This problem has led to the affirmation by many of soft determinism or compatibilism, which asserts that freedom is in some sense compatible with determinism.[4]

Having defined what compatibilism is, we must also note what it is not. Unfortunately, some theologians have profoundly confused what compatibilism is, and this confusion greatly muddles the discussion of this topic. They have described “compatibilism” not as the compatibility of determinism and human freedom, but the compatibility of divine sovereignty with human freedom.[5] However, the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and human freedom is noncontroversial. Even an open theist, an Arminian, or a Pelagian would affirm the compatibility of human freedom with divine sovereignty. Nor does “compatibilism” refer to the compatibility of human freedom with God’s will. Again, even an open theist, an Arminian, or a Pelagian would affirm the compatibility of human freedom and some sense of God’s will. So the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and/or God’s will with human freedom is not at issue. The issue is whether or not Christianity is compatible with hard determinism, or whether God exercises His sovereignty in such a way that allows for meaningful human freedom.

Genuine compatibilists, then, believe that human freedom can be reconciled with determinism in some way. However, they do so only at a great price – what they call “compatibilist freedom” is not what we normally mean when we use the word “freedom.” By “compatibilist freedom,” the soft determinist says that we always act according to our greatest desire. In other words, we are always ruled by desire. We never make a choice between two options, but we do what we do willingly because we are ruled by desire.

In a Calvinist account of compatibilism developed by Jonathan Edwards,[6] divine determinism is compatible with humans doing things by their own volition. In Edwards’ view, our wills are so dominated by our sinful natures that we are incapable of doing anything but our greatest desire. We never really have a choice – we are sinful from birth due to the inherited guilt of original sin. And yet, people are held accountable for their sins despite the fact that they never had a choice because they participated in their sins willingly. In salvation, God changes our wills and desires through irresistible enabling grace as the Holy Spirit regenerates our spiritual life. However, this enabling grace is given only to those whom God has already predestined and elected; the majority of the human race will never have this opportunity to respond to God. The elect then genuinely desire to trust Christ. We do so willingly, even though we did not have the ability to choose or do anything else. Again, compatibilist “freedom” is not really “freedom” at all – it is voluntary but not free. Just being willing to do something does not mean that a person is free. If you were being robbed at gunpoint, you might be willing to hand over your wallet to the robber, but your decision is not really free because you have no real choice. To truly be free, there must be a choice between at least two alternatives.

All Traditional Baptists would agree that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23, 5:12–18, Isa 53:6), that there are none who are righteous (Isa 64:6, Jer 17:9, Rom 3:10), and that we have depraved sinful natures (Jer 17:9). However, most Traditional Baptists do not agree that persons inherit guilt for sin. As the Baptist Faith and Message affirms:

Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.[7]

So although we inherit a nature and environment inclined toward sin, we do not actually become guilty of sin until we choose to do so ourselves after we reach the age to be accountable for our moral actions. The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) 2000 insists that we have the ability to make a choice to respond to God’s invitation to salvation through Christ. It affirms that divine election is “consistent with the free agency of man,”[8] and that salvation is “offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.”[9]

Compatibilism presents a rather negative view of human nature in which not only are all persons seen as spiritually depraved sinners (a point with which almost all evangelical Christians would agree), but …*


[1]Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 16.
[2]Ibid., 17.
[3]Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994); idem, “Classical Calvinist Doctrine of God,” in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, ed. Bruce Ware (Nashville: Broadman and Holman), 5–75; Paul Kjoss Helseth, “God Causes All Things,” in Four Views of Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 25–77; John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doc- trine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), chap. 14, 677–776; and idem, “God Ordains All Things,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty, ed. David and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), 17–60. Feinberg’s view is more nuanced than Helm’s, and at points he could also be described as advocating the “compatibilist” view, but fundamentally, as the title of his article in the Basinger multiviews book suggests, he affirms that “God ordains all things.
[4]Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Free Will”; Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Free Will”; The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “Free Will”;The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “Free Will”; Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Determinism and Freedom”; A Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “Compatibilism”; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online at http://plato.stanford.edu/search/searcher. py, s.v. “Compatibilism” and “Arguments for Incompatibilism” (accessed October 27, 2009).
[5]For examples of this confusion, see D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 200–204; Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 73–85, and in “A Modified Calvinist Doctrine of God” in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, 98–99. Paul Helm points out Ware’s inconsistent use of these terms in Perspectives, 44. An example of a compatibilist who avoids these confusions is John Feinberg in No One Like Him, 635–9.
[6]For Edwards’s argument for compatibilism, see Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (New York: Co- simo, 2007). Among other Reformed thinkers, John Piper adopted Edwards’s view most closely. See John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).
[7]BFM 2000, Article 3 (“Man”).
[8]BFM 2000, Article 5 (“God’s Purpose of Grace”).
[9]BFM 2000, Article 4 (“Salvation”).
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