Is Free Will compatible with Predestination?

Question:

Isn’t “freedom” simply our ability to do what we want? And if this is so there seems to be no incompatibility between saying that a person is “free” on the one hand, but predestined (or at least foreknown) by God, on the other. But why do you say that freedom is not compatible with either predestination or foreknowledge?

Answer:

Many Christians define “freedom” as the ability to do what we want, while maintaining that what we “want” is nevertheless determined by factors beyond our control. This position is often called “compatiblism” because it asserts that freedom and determinism are compatible. I believe compatabilism is philosophically problematic for the following four reasons.

First, this understanding does not adequately account for the fact that humans experience themselves as self-determining agents. The act of deliberating between possibilities (i.e. making a decision about something) presupposes that we experience ourselves as genuinely possessing the power to do otherwise.

For this reason, we experience our future as being to some extent open to our determination. We experience ourselves as turning several possibilities into one actualities by creatively bringing about a state of affairs that was not there before and was not necessitated by anything that was there before.

Second, compatibilism does not adequately account for our experience and understanding of moral responsibility. Assigning moral blame or credit to a person presupposes that they could have done otherwise. We intuitively excuse a person from blame for a morally reprehensible behavior if they could not have done otherwise because of chemical inducement, insanity, genetic defect, self defence, etc.

When such factors are not present, however, we intuitively believe that people are responsible for their reprehensible acts for they could have and should have done otherwise. On the basis of our experience of our own self-determining freedom, we assume that other agents to some extent transcend antecedent causal conditions and genuinely create a state of affairs with their decision for which they are morally responsible. Hence compatiblism is counter-intuitive regarding our basic assumptions about morality.

Third, compatibilism is inconsistent with the classical doctrine of God. Christians generally believe that God is free in the sense that, concerning any action that God could choose to do, God could have done otherwise. For example, the Church has always held that God created the world freely. Not only did God do what he wanted to do, but he could have genuinely done otherwise. Not even his own eternally loving nature compelled him to create the world. Indeed, if God’s decision to create the world was only free in a compatibilist sense, then God’s decision was as necessary as God’s character, thus the world must be as eternal as God. The Church has historically rejected this conclusion.

So too, the Church has always held that God freely chose to save humanity. Again, God’s choice to save humans was not only consistent with what he wanted to do, but God also could have done otherwise. The Church’s historical understanding of the free transcendent Creator, in other words, has been that God possesses freedom in a libertarian sense. God is self-determining.

If compatibilism is true, however, humans never experience this sort of freedom. Indeed, most compatibilists argue that libertarian freedom is unintelligible. If their arguments are granted, then they must apply to God as well�with all the negative consequences to the traditional doctrine of God compatibilist freedom would entail. If we are free only in a compatibilist sense, then we have no analogical basis for conceiving of God as free in a non-compatibilist sense. Or, to come at it from another direction, if we can meaningfully assert that God has non-compatibilistic freedom, then we must grant that humans also experience an analogous kind of freedom.

Fourth, compatiblism intensifies rather than resolves the problem of evil. If creatures are only free in the sense that they can sometimes do what they want even though their wants are determined by antecedent causal factors; and if, ultimately, all contingent being can be traced back to the one source of being; then, it follows, all actions performed by creatures have their origin and explanation in God! And, assuming God is all good and all powerful, this creates an unresolvable problem, for creatures are capable of gratuitous evil.

On the basis of these four reasons I argue that libertarian, self-determining freedom is more philosophically and theologically sound than compatabilism. While libertarian freedom is not compatible with predestination, it is compatible with Scripture.

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