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Does Man Have Free Will

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Does man have free will? This question has been asked within the church since its inception. If man’s will is free then in a sense there is a part of creation that exists outside of God’s control, bringing His sovereignty into question. If man does not have free will his significance as the height of the created order is lessened. The question is further clouded by the fact that the Bible seems to support both ideas; that man is free and wholly responsible for his actions and that God is sovereign over every action within his creation. Paul Tillich describes the issue writing, “The question is whether the moral imperative is dependent on the divine grace for its actualization, or whether divine grace is dependent on the fulfillment of the moral imperative.”[1]
This debate has been the cause of much disagreement throughout the history of the church. Brought to the forefront of debate by Augustine, arguing for the sovereignty of God, and Pelagius, arguing for the free will of man, the discussion over the relationship between God’s control and man’s ability has continued to this day. Later, during the reformation, Calvinists and Arminians continued the debate over the role man plays in the salvation process. This disagreement has caused Roger E. Olson to write, “We need to shoulder the responsibility of choosing between Calvinism and Arminianism. That does not mean choosing between Christianity and something else. It means choosing between two respectable interpretations of Scripture that have both existed within evangelical Christianity for centuries.”[2]
While it seems apparent to some that the positions held by Calvinists and Arminians are impossible to harmonize, the contradiction between the sovereignty of God and free will of man can be overcome by clarifying the differences in nature of God and man with regard to time and point of view.[3] This paper will review the history of the debate, identify key scriptures that support each view, and present an interpretation that allows for synthesis of the two positions. In doing so, it will demonstrate the possibility of harmonization between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. In order to better understand the issue a brief review of the disagreement will be necessary.
Understanding the history of the controversy between Calvinists and Arminians begins with the Church Fathers. Athanasius sets the groundwork for the Greek Father’s understanding of the nature of the fall. In his view, the state of man as a fallen creature is “directly traceable to our first parents’ lapse,” but guilt is not inherited from them, rather a nature that is bent toward sinning.[4] This early position on man’s fallen state is an important element to understanding whether or not man is capable of choosing to do good.
Both Gregory of Nazianzen and Chrysostom taught that man was incapable of doing good without the grace of God, but that such action needed to be initiated by the individual’s will.[5] This is an example of an early attempt to identify who was responsible for the good action that is done by a man. This position is similar to that held by later Arminians.
Pelagius is the most significant figure in the early history of the church that supported the free will of man. “The keystone to his [Pelagius’] whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility.”[6] In Pelagius’ view, man’s will is established by the interplay of three features- the power, which comes solely from God, the will, and the realization, which are inherent in man’s nature. Thus, he believed in the sovereignty of God, but from a different perspective than that of Augustine.[7] Pelagius represented the doctrine of the common Greek thinker who identified freedom as the inherent nature of man.[8]
Pelagius believed that “God’s predestination operates strictly in accordance with the quality of the lives he foresees they will lead.”[9] His argument was largely based on Lev. 19:2 and Matt. 5:48 asking if God would command the impossible with regard to His demands for holiness.[10] In contrast to Pelagius, Augustine doubted that human will after the fall would allow for man to choose to do good.
In man’s original state, before the fall, Augustine would have agreed with Pelagius concerning the freedom of the will.[11] Augustine believes in the free will of man, but that “while we retain our free will intact, the sole use to which in our unregenerate state we put it is to do wrong.”[12] That is to say that man, in his fallen state, will always freely choose evil rather than good. Man my be able to do good, but because of the results of Adam’s sin, he does not will to do good.
In Augustine’s view, predestination is the natural result of God’s bestowing his grace upon individuals. “There is no reason in man for the predestination of the one group or the rejection of the other. The reason is God alone; it is a mystery.”[13] God knows whom he will choose to give grace to, thus he knows who it is that will freely choose to do good based upon that grace.[14] Thus, the great significance of God’s sovereignty is shown by Augustine, who argues that God, in his non-temporal state, identifies those who are given his gift of grace and those who are not, resulting in what man views as predestination.
John Cassian took a view of Semi-Pelagianism arguing that at times good can originate from man’s own volition, that Adam retained his knowledge of good despite the fall, that the human will is sick rather than dead and is healed by God’s grace, and that God wills all men to be saved and those who are lost are lost against his will “therefore God’s predestination must be in the light of what he foresees is going to be the quality of our behavior.”[15] This is consistent with the position held by many Arminians.
John Calvin is the most significant figure in the discussion of the nature of God’s sovereignty and free will. He is responsible for the systematizing of Augustine’s ideas about God and man and has aptly given his name to the system that he identified. Calvin’s view of providence was that God was the cause of all that happens within his creation. This left him struggling with the notion of whether or not God causes evil. He took comfort in the thoughts of Augustine who articulated that God uses the evil deeds of men to accomplish his greater purposes. Calvin’s view of the world was utterly theocentric, which had a deep impact on his view of man’s will.[16]
The historical importance of the discussion of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man cannot be overstated as there is yet to be a significant resolution of the issue. While various views have been supported at different times by all manner of governing religious bodies, the debate remains. Given the long history of the discussion it is important to identify the significant terms that have been used to describe the issues at hand.
Transcendence is God’s separation, or ‘otherliness’ from His creation. Isaiah 55:8-9 are critical in describing God’s transcendence, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[17] This separation that exists between God and His creation make it impossible for man to approach God. If man is to draw near to God it must be initiated through His own work.[18] God’s transcendence is the sense in which God is over and above all that is in the world. There is a sense in which God is wholly other than his creation, he is beyond all that he has created, and this is his transcendence.[19]
In contrast to God’s transcendence is his immanence. God’s immanence is the sense in which he is in and is actively sustaining his creation.[20] If transcendence is God’s separation from His creation then immanence is God’s closeness.
Free will is a term used to describe the ability of man to choose to do good (there are none who doubt man’s ability to choose evil). Pelagius used the notion of free will to articulate his position that the fall of Adam did not impart guilt onto his progeny and that all people are born in innocence and are not predisposed to doing evil.[21] “The faculty of the will, is that power, or principle of mind, by which it is capable of choosing: and act of the will is the same as an act of choosing or choice.”[22] Free will then is the unforced or uninfluenced act of choosing.[23] Calvinists will state that the only act of free will committed by man was by Adam. “The casual efficacy of God did not so operate upon the will of man as to determine it to the commission of the first sin and thus to necessitate the Fall. Man sinned by a free- that is, not merely spontaneous, but an avoidable, decision of his own will.”[24]
Immutability is the quality of God that states His unchanging nature. His immutability is rooted in the fact that He is a necessary being, existing outside of time. God’s unchanging nature is well established in the biblical tradition: Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 102:26-27; Rom 1:23; Heb 6:18; 13:8; James 1:17 all give indication to the immutable nature of God.[25] There are some who argue against the immutability of God. The question of God’s immutability is often based upon anthropomorphisms that occur in the Bible that are attempts to explain or describe God in human terms.[26] The notion of God repenting or changing His mind as expressed in Scripture are used to better explain the desires of God rather than to indicate an actual change. God cannot change as he does not experience time in the same manner as His creation.
Eternality is a state of being outside of time, non-temporal, or timeless. “The Bible teaches that it was not a creation in time, but a creation of time that God accomplished in the beginning.”[27] God’s eternality, like his immutability, is rooted in His being. God is He who is “self-sufficient, immortal, indestructible, and independent.”[28] God’s eternality has an interesting affect on how God knows; “an eternal God does not foreknow; He simply knows in His eternal present.”[29] God’s timelessness is best indicated by the name that He uses to identify Himself to Moses and the people of Israel, “I AM.” God’s use of verb ‘to be’ as His name is a statement of His nature as an eternally present being as well as self existent.[30]
Both Calvinists and Arminians argue their positions from Scripture. Passages can be found to support the notion that God is sovereign over all creation as well as for the responsibility and free will of man. There are verses throughout the Bible that are used on both sides to present particular point of view.
Those who argue the position of the sovereignty of God over the free will of man use many biblical passages to support their position. In Romans 9 Paul uses the example of God’s interaction with Pharaoh to bring about his ultimate purpose through the hardening of an individual’s heart. This passage illustrates that the creature has no inherent right other than to do that for which it was created.[31]
Similarly, in Daniel 4:34b-35 Nebuchadnezzar blessed the Lord saying,
For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endure from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?”
This passage is indicative of the control that God in His sovereignty is able to exact over His creation.[32]
Calvinists argue that God also maintains control over individual persons. Jeremiah 1:5 states that prior to his birth, Jeremiah was chosen by God for the purpose of being His prophet to the nations. The fact that God had chosen Jeremiah before he was conceived indicates that God has “comprehensive control over the entire human family.”[33] In this same way, God is able to choose His people in Christ before the foundation of the world. Thus God is portrayed throughout the Bible as being in total control of His creation. How then, can man have free will?
Arminians also use the Bible as the basis for their belief in the free will of man. Jack Cottrell argues strongly for the free will of man based upon a Pelagian view of sin. His argument is that God predestines those who will believe to become the elect and those who will disbelieve to become the reprobate. He uses 2 Thess. 2:13 and 1Peter 1:1-2 to identify that God’s predestination is based upon the actions He knows those individuals will make.[34]
Another argument used by Arminians is based upon 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” This passage seems to make a clear statement that the Lord tarries for the purpose of allowing more people to come to saving faith in Him.
Arminians also use a general argument from Scripture that identifies the fact that the majority of passages in the Bible assume the reality of man’s free will. This is particularly significant in the book of Acts, which depicts various accounts of people converting to Christianity, seemingly of their own free will after having heard the gospel preached.
In light of the fact that both the Calvinists and Arminians are able to argue their points from Scripture, at times using the same passages, is it possible to clarify a position that upholds the sovereignty of God while maintaining the free will of man?
The views of Calvinists and Arminians seem to be irreconcilable as they each attempt to invalidate the main point of the other. The Calvinists look at God and see no possible way that His sovereignty can allow the freedom of man’s choice, everything that happens must take place within the will of God. Arminians, likewise, cannot conceive of a God that creates man to be simple automatons created for glory or damnation without violating His loving nature. By examining the focus of either viewpoint it is possible to come to an understanding of how the two schools of thought can be reconciled.
Calvinists are inherently theocentric in how they view God and creation. They attempt to see the world in the same manner as God, through His eternality and timeless nature. In attempting to view the world in this way it is obvious how one can come to a view of strict Augustinianism or Calvinism. God, being the ultimate cause of the universe, who sees the whole scope of creative history even prior to its creation, creates knowing whom He will save. God’s sovereignty is easily seen when attempting to view Him in this way. The short coming of this perspective is that finite man can never fully understand the infinite God.[35]
Arminianism is largely anthrocentric. It views the world from the perspective of man looking up toward God. This view is linear in its view of time and finite in scope. By trying to understand the nature of God and man from this perspective it is easy to see how mankind temporally makes the decision to follow God based upon the sum of their experiences of both the world and God. The limitation of this view is that it often limits the power and knowledge of God.[36]
The Bible, as a collection of books by different authors written in different styles to different ends, has language in it that can be (and has been) used to support either position. Passages that are chosen to support Calvinist ideas are typically written from a theoscopic perspective. Passages that Arminians use are generally written from an anthroscopic perspective. The Calvinist sees the world in terms of eternity while the Arminian sees the world temporally, thusly either will tend to focus on passages with which their view point is shared. In order to understand the difference between the two points of view, one must come to the conclusion that there are two realities. There is the reality of God, who exists in the eternal present who transcends time and space and occasionally reveals this nature to man and there is the reality of the created universe, which exists within the confines of time and space and houses contingent man.[37]
Both of these realities can be seen in the Bible, most notably in the creation account. Genesis 1:1 records how God, in His eternity, begins a new reality for the purpose of His glory. In this passage of Scripture God is shown in His eternal state as existing prior to everything. When He creates, He speaks time and space into being causing the temporal reality to come into existence. It is in this verse that the fact of the two realities is shown; the eternal and the temporal.[38]
In understanding that God is transcendent, operating in an entirely different reality man can understand ideas like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. God’s eternal nature is impossible to fathom from a temporal perspective, thus man attempts to understand God’s actions in light of his own situation; being bound by time.

Augustine, Calvin, and Luther all attempted to view the world from a theoscopic perspective. In doing so they identified that there were many places in the Bible where God had reveled Himself in His eternal nature. In trying to make sense of a temporal world in light of a non-temporal creator they discovered the significance of God’s sovereignty and consequently undermined the perceived role of man in the salvation process.
Pelagius and Cassian viewed the world from a temporal perspective. In doing so they found that much of the Bible is written from that same perspective. In attempting to understand man’s role in soteriology they undermined the sovereignty of God and His lordship attribute of control.
The followers of either perspective have argued with one another for over one thousand years concerning the nature and role of God and man. It seems that peace will only be made through a common understanding that the Bible speaks from multiple perspectives on the subjects of God’s sovereignty and man’s ability.

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