Arminianism, a major part of the Counter-Reformation and full of theological trickery, depends almost entirely on the existence of ‘free will’. And, if there is such a thing, that it is the crux of salvation. In reality, ‘free will’ is the illusion of humanistic determinism and the rejection of God’s sovereignty. ‘Free Will’ does not exist.
It has been well said that how modern Christians use the term ‘free will’ is NOT how Calvin, or the medieval thinkers, or the Westminster confession, used the same term. But, to confuse the issue, modern Christians (and pseudo-Christians, such as true Arminians) THINK they mean the same thing. So, let me explain.
The Medieval Meaning
Calvin indeed said that men have free will, but, as with any issue we must adequately define what words mean. And this is not what modern men do well. So, in this short paper I will define the meanings found in both medieval theology and in what we have today... because modern men use a very different meaning.
Calvin, Luther, Erasmus, et al, spoke of men having ‘free will’ but their theological perspective was very different. For them, ‘free will’ was the ability (or not) to choose to be slaves to sin, or slaves to Jesus Christ. They said that people are responsible for their own choices.
“Unfortunately, many people who have read deeply in the sixteenth century debates use the term as it was used in those debates, not as it is typically used now.”
“But, we have also seen that Calvinism says God is in control of everything – that He ‘ordains’ everything that happens. To many people this seems like a flat contradiction. How can people have free will if God is in control?”
(Greg Forster, ‘The Joy of Calvinism’, publ Crossway, 2012)
Time and again I have opposed the modern idea of ‘free will’, so now I will explain again in brief terms. The term as it was used in medieval times is far more manageable than the term used today, which is mainly the result of general philosophy rather than theology itself. It is more manageable because it is simple, straightforward and biblical, whereas the modern version can be very complex and usually unbiblical. The medieval meaning is also restricted to a specific setting, so using the term should be far easier. (Often, when I argue against ‘free will’, I am referring to its medieval (original) context, whereas those without knowledge use a modern version, which can be very broad and unbiblical).
In medieval times, Calvin and others used ‘free will’ in a restricted sense, only to mean the will to choose good from evil. Men who reject God tend to disbelieve this, saying that either God is in control or we are. This, however, is to impose human reasoning on God. God can do what appears to be contradictory to us, but God cannot contradict Himself, so the assumption is wrong: human misperception does not win over God’s absolute command. In human terms, if there are two opposing statements about the same thing, one of them must be wrong; this is called the “law of noncontradiction”. God does not issue contradictions, because otherwise He would be opposing His own laws and truth (2 Timothy 2:13).
We must here be careful, for there are occasions in scripture when there appear to be a contradiction. But, if we allow the axiom, that God cannot contradict Himself, then what we perceive to be a contradiction is not a contradiction at all. Rather, it is simply something we cannot understand. We must always begin with what is clearly stated in scripture. This is our measure, against which we examine all other similar statements. Thus, if statement 1 is clearly defined, and statement 2 is less clear and seems to be contradictory, then we must, as a necessity, believe statement 1 to be true and statement 2 must comply with it. That is, we judge statement 2 by the absolute truth of statement 1, and do not allow our misperception or lack of knowledge to cause us to be dubious about both statements. Further, statement 2, if necessary, must not be laboured or continually brought to the fore, but must be left to ‘rest’ without argument.
It is true that when we begin our Christian walk, many subjects might seem to be contradictory. These apparent differences will disappear as we delve deeper into God’s word and slowly expand our knowledge and wisdom. Unless, that is, we are either unsaved, or stiff-necked and prefer our own definitions. When someone claims salvation but refuses to acknowledge the truth even when key texts are shown to be inviolable, there is something wrong with the person, not the scriptures!
Today, many Christians believe in their own selves rather than in what God says. They refuse proof or key texts that rule all others, and instead put their own ideas in their place, destroying genuine scriptural facts. This operates in the matter of free will, which can be as differently defined as there are people. Or, more precisely, most Christians have no real idea what ‘free will’ means, so they take a wild guess, not bothering with caveats or blatant errors. This certainly is found in the matter of true interpretation of scripture, when the stiff-necked prefer secular philosophical definitions to what scripture plainly states.
When it comes to the medieval definition of ‘free will’, it should be acknowledged that only the saved person can have it. That is, the will to choose between good and evil. This is because the unsaved man is dead in his sins and his spirit is dead. It will remain dead until he departs this earth, unless the Holy Spirit brings it alive again (born again; regenerated).
Such a ‘dead’ man is incapable of choosing between good and evil; everything he thinks and does is counted as dross by our Holy Lord. And scripture itself confirms this inability to choose... he may only do what is offensive to God. Only a heart and spirit enlivened by God can be ‘good’ and thus experience and choose good.
The Modern Meaning
There are many modern meanings for the term ‘free will’. The popular meaning is that people are responsible for their own choices. The Arminian meaning is that we can choose either salvation or rejection of salvation; which is a corruption of the true medieval definition. The philosophical meaning is that a man has infinite information, knowledge of infinite outcomes, and thus the ability to make the best possible choices. The latter meaning is, of course, impossible in terms of practical fact and creational aim, for God did not create people equal to Himself.
There are other meanings for ‘free will’. One is that it enables people to make free choices without constraint. This, too, has its caveats. For example, if a man is living in a society with a particular outlook, and bases his choices on that outlook, because he has no knowledge of other existing outlooks, then he has not made a ‘free’ choice, but one that has no idea that alternatives exist. The matter of being without constraint requires vast study, for the observer must reconcile the ‘badness’ of unconstrained actions with their outcomes, e.g. murder, diseases, and so on. These come under themes of thought called compatibilism and incompatibilism.
Arminianism battles against scripture and its own unbelief, for it assumes that whilst there is omnipotent divinity, a created being, man, can reject or replace its determinations with his own choices, which it claims are free. Yet, the determinations of man are finite, and he has no full will on which to base his choices. Also, the Arminian rejects the biblical dictum that an unsaved man cannot choose God, because he is dead in his sins. Arminianism, then, is illogical and unbiblical, and any choice to salvation must be untenable and invalid.
(Bishop of Hippo Regius, Algeria)
In 426 or 427 AD, Augustine of Hippo wrote to Valentinus and the monks of Adrumetum “with reference to those persons who so preach the liberty of the human will.” In chapter two, Augustine said “there is in a man a free choice of will”. Hopefully you will recognise that this is not the same as saying we have a free choice in everything, but only in preferring one aspect of ‘will’. He follows with:
“But how He has revealed this I do not recount in human language, but in divine. There is, to begin with, the fact that God's precepts themselves would be of no use to a man unless he had free choice of will, so that by performing them he might obtain the promised rewards.”
However, we could argue against this. God can express His precepts regardless of how man responds. That Augustine says man has to have a “free choice of will” is his personal thought, not a given scriptural fact. On the other hand, he does not identify properly what this “free choice of will” really means, nor to whom it applies. As I have said above, an unsaved man cannot make a good choice, unless the Holy Spirit has caused him to be born again. The unsaved man who has not been thus prepared, cannot make a free choice, because his will is held hostage to Satan’s will.
What we see here is not an error by Augustine, but an omission of certain facts and definitions. There is also the matter of applying a modern understanding to an old meaning, that, in his day, was something rather different. We do know (chapter 7) that Augustine presumed the action of grace on a man who was this enabled to choose right or wrong:
“Therefore, my dearly beloved, as we have now proved by our former testimonies from Holy Scripture that there is in man a free determination of will for living rightly and acting rightly; so now let us see what are the divine testimonies concerning the grace of God, without which we are not able to do any good thing.”
As the grace of God exists only in the man whose spirit is made alive, we know that Augustine meant his statement in that light. We must also see the idea of “returning to God” in the same light, for a man cannot ‘return’ unless he has firstly ‘gone away’. And this is how we should treat the text Augustine quotes in chapter 10 (Zechariah 1:3). It CANNOT possibly mean God turns to us if we firstly turn to Him (an act of will of an unsaved man, which would be an act of works. Or, to quote Augustine (who was referring to Pelagians):
“Such passages do they collect out of the Scriptures—like the one which I just now quoted, ‘Turn ye unto me, and I will turn unto you,’— as if it were owing to the merit of our turning to God that His grace were given us, wherein He Himself even turns unto us. Now the persons who hold this opinion fail to observe that, unless our turning to God were itself God's gift, it would not be said to Him in prayer, ‘Turn us again, O God of hosts;’ and, ‘You, O God, wilt turn and quicken us;’ and again, ‘Turn us, O God of our salvation,’ — with other passages of similar import, too numerous to mention here. For, with respect to our coming unto Christ, what else does it mean than our being turned to Him by believing? And yet He says: ‘No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.’ (John 6:65)”.
What he said shows that how we say things and the words we use must be carefully defined. Very clearly his objection to the ‘new’ cult of Pelagianism also applies to the one that came later, founded on the same cult – Arminianism. He adds, in chapter 11:
“they labour with all their might to show that God's grace is given according to our merits,— in other words, that grace is not grace. For, as the apostle most expressly says, to them who receive reward according to merit ‘the recompense is not reckoned of grace but of debt.’ (Romans 4:4).”
This is exactly what Arninians do every day – they search tirelessly for texts that appear to support their stance, even though scripture speaks against it, in both generality and in specifics.
What we see in Augustine’s view is NOT that a man can freely choose salvation, but that a saved man can choose good from evil. The unsaved man, the one who has not known the grace of God, CANNOT choose freely. Even so, it is remarkable that Augustine can be so fundamental to theologians of both Romanism and Protestantism, being influential on Aquinas and Calvin!
We can see, then, that to simply say “man has free will” is lacking in clarity. There needs to be a definition against which we can measure statements. This is recognised by philosophers. For example, Peter van Inwagen of the Department of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, said in an article destined for The Journal of Ethics:
“There are seemingly unanswerable arguments that (if they are indeed unanswerable) demonstrate that free will is incompatible with determinism. And there are seemingly unanswerable arguments that (if indeed . . . ) demonstrate that free will is incompatible with indeterminism. But if free will is incompatible both with determinism and indeterminism, the concept “free will” is incoherent, and the thing free will does not exist. There are, moreover, seemingly unanswerable arguments that, if they are correct, demonstrate that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will, and, therefore, if free will does not exist, moral responsibility does not exist either. It is, however, evident that moral responsibility does exist: if there were no such thing as moral responsibility nothing would be anyone’s fault, and it is evident that there are states of affairs to which one can point and say, correctly, to certain people: That’s your fault. It must, therefore, be that at least one of the following three things is true:
The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the incompatibility of free will and determinism are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious
The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the incompatibility of free will and indeterminism are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.
The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the conclusion that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.”
Obviously, like many philosophers (and theologians), Inwagen recognises that a ‘problem’ is found within the idea of a ‘free will’. Yet, untaught Arminians and Calvinists dare to throw the term around as if they had all the answers! Note, also, his use of the term ‘free will’, which he links inextricably with having ‘moral responsibility’, thus placing morality firmly in the court of God’s word, for morality does not exist outside of God.
The Need for Definitions
The only purpose of this short paper is to show that the Arminian claim to ‘free will’ is illogical, and that even secular philosophers see a ‘problem’ in its thesis. They use a malformed idea of what reformers meant by ‘free will’ in the medieval days of Calvin et al. Their reason is to do with the Counter-Reformation. The other purpose of the paper is to show Calvinists and other reformed persons that their use of ‘free will’ is just as disjointed from its actual medieval usage. Not always, but mainly.
What needs to happen is that the term must be defined properly in any work containing it. Otherwise, we end up with endless arguments. And, we must remember that the secular philosophical meaning of the term is of no real use in genuine theology.
How do we define the will properly? By looking for the answer in God’s word. And in that word we find man dead in his sins until he is born again (regenerated). God says man is incapable of choosing God or good until that event occurs. Therefore, to claim man can choose Christ and salvation of his own accord, is invalid and a biblical/theological nonsense. Indeed, it is a delusion. It is of eternal import, for if a man founds his ‘salvation’ on his own choice, then, by definition, he is not saved – it is either of grace or it is of human choice. Scripture says it is by grace alone.
Note on Hard Determinism
This is the philosophical teaching that there is a degree of determinism, and it is incompatible with free will, which does not exist. When applied to theological determinism, it means that God knows, controls and determines in advance, what humans do. This, however, is not quite the answer. Rather, it appears that God does do these things, but in generality. That is, He gives us the boundaries and we are free to act within those boundaries. Thus, while we may choose, we can do so within a given parameter.
We may look at this as inside or outside regeneration and salvation. Human choice outside them are controlled by Satan and are not actual choices but only confirmation of being controlled by God’s enemy. Within the boundary we may make choices to good or to bad, the former attracting commendation and the latter attracting condemnation.
(See other articles on free will)
© August 2012
Published on www.christiandoctrine.com
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