The Free Will of Man / Braxton Hunter, Ph.D.

March 25, 2014

by Braxton Hunter, Ph.D.
Evangelist with Trinity Crusades for Christ
visiting Professor of Philosophy & Apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Ind.
former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists

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Article 8 focuses on what the Traditional Statement means by the term “free will” because one’s view of free will determines one’s view of soteriology. Since Traditionalists believe that anyone can be saved, then anyone must be able to respond freely for or against the offer of the gospel. It is not uncommon for laymen and theologians alike to misunderstand the terminology and philosophical implications of free will. This chapter will attempt to bring some simplicity and clarity to this issue. Affirming the reality of a robust view of free will in no way jeopardizes an equally robust view of God’s sovereignty. As Article 8 notes, a view of free will that accords to human beings the ability to accept or reject the gospel is actually an expression of God’s sovereign purposes for His creation. The charge that Traditionalists deny, limit, or reduce the sovereignty of God has been answered in previous chapters. Indeed, if the intention of Article 8’s affirmation is properly understood, the charge will be completely laid to rest.

The Calvinist and Traditionalist Understandings of Free Will
Chapters on previous articles have briefly addressed the question of what free will actually is. Here, we will flesh it out in greater detail. Typically, Calvinists hold to what philosophers refer to as “compatibilism.” On the compatibilist view, man is free to do whatever he wants, but not free to want whatever he wants. That is to say, man has freedom to exercise his will in accordance with his desires, but he has no control over those desires. Since man cannot manipulate those desires, and man is not naturally inclined toward God, the compatibilist maintains that man will never freely respond to God on his own. If he responds to God, it will be because his desires have been acted upon by God such that his “decisions” will follow from those desires. So long as a man’s actual decisions are not directly determined (only his desires) he is said to be free. In response to Article 8 of the TS, Tom Ascol explains,

This is exactly what we do in evangelism. We call spiritually dead people to come to life. We call on those who do not have spiritual ability to repent and trust Christ. As we preach the gospel, we know that the Word of the Lord must be accompanied by the power of the Lord or no one will be saved. When God graciously does this saving work, it is not a vitiation of man’s will. It is a gift of resurrection.[1]

Without a careful eye, one is likely to miss Ascol’s point. God coerces man’s desires so that man’s will is now inclined toward God.

What is troubling for Traditionalists is that there is no difference between compatibilism and determinism. On determinism, most common among philosophical naturalists, free will is illusory. One may experience the various events and actions of his life as though they represent genuine choices; however, this is a byproduct of living in a closed system of cause-and-effect. No choice of any kind actually exists. Reconsidering compatibilism with this knowledge in mind, we must conclude that to say man is free to do what he wants, but not free to want what he wants, is to say that man is not genuinely free to make undetermined choices. It is for precisely this reason that compatibilism is often referred to as “soft-determinism.” On these grounds, William Lane Craig asserts,

Determinists reconcile universal, divine, causal determinism with human freedom by re- interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. Compatibilism entails determinism, so there’s no mystery here. The problem is that adopting compatibilism achieves reconciliation only at the expense of denying what various Scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency.[2]

Since Scripture so frequently gives the impression that man is not only free, but responsible, it seems to support some version of libertarian freedom. If this were not the case, then a number of biblical passages (such as those documented in the statement) become awkward. If man is bound by his will to only choose according to his sinful desires, then he simply cannot choose godliness. Worse still, he is punished for choosing A rather than C when, in fact, only A, B, and D were available to him. Such a proposal seems absurd. One might retort that this is precisely the beauty of Calvinism. God breaks in and draws the lost individual out of the bondage of his will and into a grace that is, quite literally, irresistible. This does not resolve the problem. Realizing such an existential transformation would be, indeed, a cause for exuberance for the most appreciative new believer. Grace would render him undeniably grateful. Nevertheless, placing the emphasis on the glorious salvation of the convert does not answer, but sidesteps the conundrum. When one considers the future citizen of hell, the difficulty emerges. On such a view, God is found punishing, and in some cases angry with, individuals for choosing wrongly among a set of all wrong options. This is one of several reasons most Southern Baptists find compatibilism to be an unsatisfactory theological explanation of the nature of reality.

Traditionalists typically hold to some form of libertarian free will. According to this model, man has, as a special gift from God, the ability to transcend cause and effect and actually make real decisions. These decisions may be influenced by outside factors, but not to the point of coercion.[3] Libertarian free will is consistent with the language of Article 8 in the phrase “actual free will (the ability to choose between two options).” However, it is not our position that man can freely ascend to God without the offer and work of “the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” The view that man can freely act without the in-working of God or can make the first move toward God can be understood as “hard-libertarianism.” This is the view of the will accepted by Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism but is explicitly rejected by the TS. Rather, the offer of the gospel and work of the Holy Spirit is available to anyone and is necessary for salvation. The denial “that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person,” means that, although God is responsible for the salvific work and offer, man is responsible for receiving or rejecting the gift. This view is known as “soft-libertarianism.”

Soft-libertarianism is not only consistent with Scripture but seems to be suggested by it directly. In his article, “When a Christian Sins,” Paul Himes argues that in 1 Cor 10:13 only a soft-libertarian free will comes into view. In this passage, the Apostle Paul explains, “No temptation has overtaken you but such is common to man: and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” After making a powerful case on several fronts, Himes claims,

Under the compatibilist view, then, at situation (x), faced with temptation (y), agent (w) cannot desire to choose not to sin, for his desire is already determined by his value scale, which is already determined by factors out of his control. If (w) cannot desire to choose not to sin, then he is not able to choose not to sin, hence he is unable to endure temptation. Thus, for the compatibilist, “in situation (x), faced with temptation (y), (w) cannot endure” (and “could not have endured”). Thus compatibilism has not adequately explained 1 Cor 10:13…[4]

The Problems with Compatibilism
The Questionable Status of Scriptural Support
Indeed, the proof-texts typically offered as evidence of compatibilism hardly suffice upon close examination. Ephesians 1:11 states, “In Him we were also made His inheritance, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will.” Traditionalists certainly agree that God “works out everything in agreement with the decision of his will.” What the passage does not say is precisely how this predestination occurs. Is it with respect to conformity to the image of God’s Son? Is it those who God knows will be saved? Is it with respect to the church in general, in other words, corporate election? Is this predestination as the Molinist understands it? Each of these is a possible understanding of predestination held by Southern Baptists. As Malcom Yarnell points out, “Southern Baptists affirm diverse understandings of divine election.”[5] The goal of the TS is not to speak authoritatively for all Traditionalists on all texts. The point is that there is no good textual reason to favor a compatibilist view of this passage. Thus, this verse makes a poor proof-text in that it hardly necessitates compatibilism.[6]

John 8:34 declares…*


[1]Tom Ascol, “Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 11,” http://tomascol.rocketrepublic.info/response-to-a-statement-of-the-traditional- southern-baptist-understanding-of-gods-plan-of-salvation-part-11/ (accessed December 24, 2012).
[2]William Lane Craig, “Molinism vs. Calvinism,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-vs-calvin- ism (accessed June 11, 2012).
[3]This definition of libertarian free will is Christian-specific. By this I mean that a secular philosopher might not refer to God in a similar definition. In defining the libertarian position, I have focused the con- text on the issue at hand.
[4]Paul A. Himes, “When a Christian Sins: 1 Corinthians 10:13 and the Power of Contrary Choice, in Relation to the Compatibilist-Libertarian Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (June 2011): 342.
[5]Malcom Yarnell, “The TULIP of Calvinism in Light of History and the Baptist Faith and Message,” http://sbctoday.wpengine.com/2012/06/11/the-tulip-of-calvinismin-light-of-history-and-the-baptist-faith-and-mes- sage/ (accessed August 30, 2012).
[6]In order to serve as a fitting proof text for compatibilism, the compatibilist interpretation would need to have greater plausibility. By plausibility I mean that it would need to be more likely the case than not. Yet, there is no prima facia reason to assign greater plausibility to such an interpretation.
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*Click HERE to read the rest of this post by downloading the FREE, 2-volume NOBTS Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry.
SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.

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Andrew Dyer

Regardless of the potential merits of the rest of the article, the use of 1 Cor. 10:13 to refute compatibilism is unhelpful. Paul is addressing believers in Corinth. Both soft-libertarians and soft-determinists would agree that a believer has the ability to choose not to sin, the desire to choose not to sin, and therefore, the ability to endure temptation. Either Himes or Hunter (or both) seem to argue that since a non-believer cannot (in a compatibilist system) desire not to sin, this verse clearly refutes this or else is in error. But this verse is not addressing the unregenerate. The verse says exactly the opposite thing the author(s) are arguing, namely that believers (w) in situation (x), faced with decision (y) can & should desire to choose the way of escape and therefore endure. I do not see how one can argue against compatibilism based on that verse.

    Robert

    Sorry Andrew your comments appear to completely miss the force of the 1 Cor. 10:13 passage. Taken in its intended meaning, the verse says that when the *believer* is confronted with a temptation that the Lord is faithful in providing a way of escape. That means the believer when facing temptation *has two genuine choices*. One choice is to give into the temptation, and not take the way of escape provided by God. The other choice is to take the way of escape provided by God and so not give into temptation. This is one of the clearest verses in the whole Bible presenting the fact that we have free will as ordinarily understood. The choice of what the believer does in these situations is up to the believer. The choice is not predecided by God as would be true in determinism.

    Andrew you wrote:

    “Regardless of the potential merits of the rest of the article, the use of 1 Cor. 10:13 to refute compatibilism is unhelpful.”

    Not true at all, any Bible verse that presents the believer having a genuine choice where they could do one thing or do otherwise *is* a refutation of exhaustive determinism.

    Consistent Calvinists believe that God has predetermined every event in history (including all of our choices). So if all is predecided by God He decides whether or not we will give into a temptation. If he predestines that we will not resist the temptation then we will not. If he predestines that we will resist the temptation then we will. The choice is not ours at all if all is predetermined by God.

    “Paul is addressing believers in Corinth. Both soft-libertarians and soft-determinists would agree that a believer has the ability to choose not to sin, the desire to choose not to sin, and therefore, the ability to endure temptation.”

    No, this is misleading and false. If God predestines *everything* then he predestines our choices as well.
    Consistent Calvinists who hold to exhaustive determinism believe that God predestines our every choice. So the believer does not have the ability to choose not to sin unless God predestined this to be true in that particular situation.

    Andrew what you are missing is that if *all* is predetermined then we never ever have a choice. We can and always will choose to do what we were predestined to choose.

    “But this verse is not addressing the unregenerate. “

    True, the verse is a promise for believers. But what you are missing is that if all is predetermined then the promise is not real, it is illusory as we never ever have a choice if all is predetermined.

    “The verse says exactly the opposite thing the author(s) are arguing, namely that believers (w) in situation (x), faced with decision (y) can & should desire to choose the way of escape and therefore endure.”

    Right the verse is presenting the truth, that the believer when it comes to facing temptation is facing a situation where libertarian free will is present (the believer can do either choice, the choice is up to him, the choice is not predetermined).

    This verse brings out a major problem with Calvinism and a very good reason for all believers to reject it (i.e. sanctification of the believer presupposes libertarian free will, in the area of sanctification, in the area of our daily lives believers have genuine choices, their choices make a real difference regarding their spirituality and maturity). Listen to both preachers who are determinists (Calvinists) and those who are non-Calvinists and you will hear both urge their congregations to make certain choices and not others. All of these exhortations make no sense unless we have genuine choices to make or not make. So even the determinist/Calvinist betrays his Calvinism and shows its falsity when they are speaking in the area of sanctification.

    “I do not see how one can argue against compatibilism based on that verse.”

    Then you don’t understand compatibilism which is a form of determinism. In the case of the Calvinist- determinist- compatibilist your view eliminates the reality of choices (both in scripture and in our daily experience). If instead we do sometimes have choices, that are up to us, whether it is in regards to resisting temptation or some other area of our daily lives, then Calvinist-determinism-compatibilism is false. Both cannot be simultaneously true.

    If we have genuine choices then compatibilism is false.

    And if compatibilism is true, then when it comes to our temptations we have no choice. We only and always will do what God predetermined we would do.

    Robert

Ron F. Hale

Dr. Hunter,

I enjoyed your work here and especially this insight:

“On the compatibilist view, man is free to do whatever he wants, but not free to want whatever he wants. That is to say, man has freedom to exercise his will in accordance with his desires, but he has no control over those desires. Since man cannot manipulate those desires, and man is not naturally inclined toward God, the compatibilist maintains that man will never freely respond to God on his own. If he responds to God, it will be because his desires have been acted upon by God such that his “decisions” will follow from those desires. So long as a man’s actual decisions are not directly determined (only his desires) he is said to be free.”

Thanks for sharing!

Mitchell

How does a traditionalist baptist defend perseverance of the saints? With the argument in this article it seems that if you can choose to be born–again, you can choose to also be unborn-again. I know traditionalist are defending against semi-pelaganism (which the author of this article did). And I definitely am not calling traditionalist semi-pelagian, since that would be calling most Baptist heretics (I am all for unity in the SBC). However, traditionalist should at least be aware of how close their views sound to semi-pelagianism. It seems that the view traditionalist baptist are wanting to defend could also be called semi-semi-pelagianism. Not quite semi-pelagian but almost there.

    Norm Miller

    From Monergism.com:
    “While not denying the necessity of Grace for salvation, Semi-Pelagianism maintains that the first steps towards the Christian life are ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.”

    We know not of any Traditionalists, not one, in the SBC who would affirm the above statement. Salvation is of God. He makes the first move. (What happens *after* that is where some of the issues begin.) So, we are not even close to “semi-semi-pelagianism.”

      Mitchell

      Norm, I didn’t accuse any traditionalists for confirming that statement. I am simply saying that the arguments that traditionalists are portraying at least sound semipelagian at first. This is evident by the many accusations of the TS being semipelagian (Roger Olson for instance). By saying semi-semi pelagian I was just trying to understand where Traditionalist views would be on a theological spectrum.

    Adam Harwood

    Mitchell,

    Thanks for your note. You write, “How does a traditionalist baptist defend perseverance of the saints?”
    The next article in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry answers your question.

    Blessings.
    In Him,
    Adam

James Galyon

Dr. Hunter states, “Since Scripture so frequently gives the impression that man is not only free, but responsible, it seems to support some version of libertarian freedom,” and then utilizes a text dealing with believers (i.e., 1 Cor. 10:13) to support his argument. It would have been much more helpful to discuss the multitude of verses that depict the libertarian freedom of the lost.

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