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Free Will and the Bible.

Posted by Jor-el , 06 January 2011 · 203 views

Do we or don't we have free will?
Time and again the issue of free will comes up, but it seems people don't really understand what this actually means.... There is only one being whose will is completely free and that is God.

In briefest terms, free will is the ability to make a choice without coercion. This does not mean our decisions are made in total freedom, however.

Total freedom involves:

1. Making choices without any external influence at all, or
2. Having the power to filter all external influences at will so as to make a truly independent, self-contained choice.

Only God has such total freedom. He exercised the first when he made decisions before there were any created beings who might interact with him. The second is a power that most theologians admit God has, but they disagree as to how much God might allow our actions to influence him.

We, on the other hand, have no such autonomy. Any decision we make is made either because of some immediate influence on that decision, or because of the cumulative effect on our character by previous influences and decisions. No human being has ever been in such complete isolation that God or any other human being has never influenced them.

There is no scriptural warrant for anyone being so completely abandoned by God, and no human being has survived without some environment that included other human interaction. There is no such thing as total autonomy in decision making within the world that God has created and in which he has put us. It must be understood, though, that coercion and influence are not the same. The former nullifies free will; the latter is in constant cooperation with it.

So why is free will so wonderful? Just consider the alternative. If our decisions were all coerced, how authentic would those “decisions” actually be? If love is coerced, is it really love? If hate is coerced, is it really hate? Is any coerced decision really a genuine decision?

Not if no other option was possible because of the coercion. We all know the difference, too. When your Mom made you eat your broccoli, that was coercion, not a choice. The IRS doesn’t tell you that you may perhaps pay your taxes by April 15. How satisfying or comforting would it be to hear your spouse or a parent say they love you if they were not truly free to refuse to do so? We appreciate such statements all the more since we know our spouse or parent could actually decide otherwise. The viability of the alternative makes the choice precious.

In the theological realm, this subject quite quickly becomes intertwined with the issues of God’s foreknowledge, predestination, and omniscience. For example, without genuine free will, how can we say we love God? If we obey because our obedience was predestinated, that means we couldn’t do otherwise, which means we didn’t really choose to obey God. We had to obey.

Isn’t God’s predestination therefore coercive? The same goes for sin. If God foreknows you will commit a particular sin and you in fact commit that sin, how could you not have committed that sin, and so how are you genuinely responsible for that sin? How is this not “coercion by predestination”?

How are these difficulties to be addressed? Some theologians assume that God needs to be in direct control over every decision, that he needs to be the ultimate cause of every event, in order to be sovereign. If this is not the case, it is argued, then God isn’t the controller of the universe, someone else is (or everyone is, at any given point). This notion is then wedded to God’s omniscience so that God’s foreknowledge of all decisions necessitates divine predestination of all decisions. Our freedom in such a perspective is then defined as our ability to make decisions that God has predestined but that our desires or nature also agrees with.

That way, we are told, we are still responsible for our actions. And since evil cannot be exempted from predestination, it must therefore exist because God has willed it to exist, he is somehow the ultimate cause. This is usually conceived of as a passive, permissive causation, God allowed evil to enter creation, but did not initiate it. But this is like saying God allows something to conform to his predestination, which implies he could disallow something to conform to what he has already predestined, which is incoherent.

On the other side are those theologians who have argued that God has taken a totally hands-off approach. They usually do not argue that humans are totally without influence in the decisions they make, since that would require quarantine from all other humans and from God. However, since God does not control every human decision, he doesn’t actually know what everyone will do all the time.

This in turn means that God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge, and so he is not omniscient, at least in the traditional sense. Humans are certainly responsible for their own actions in such a view. And while God is not to blame for evil, we are left with the impression that he cannot control it, and so evil has a sort of independence from God. If that is the case, how can God be the conqueror of evil without being able to control it completely?

Since we aren’t told much in Genesis about how human freedom works in relation to divine attributes like foreknowledge, predestination, sovereignty, and omniscience, we need to look elsewhere in Scripture for some clarification. Let us consider 1 Samuel 23:1-14. Note the highlighting carefully.

1 Now they told David, “Behold, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are robbing the threshing floors.” 2 Therefore David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” And the LORD said to David, “Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah.” 3 But David’s men said to him, “Behold, we are afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” 4 Then David inquired of the LORD again. And the LORD answered him, “Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” 5 And David and his men went to Keilah and fought with the Philistines and brought away their livestock and struck them with a great blow. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah. 6 When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech had fled to David to Keilah, he had come down with an ephod in his hand. 7 Now it was told Saul that David had come to Keilah. And Saul said, “God has given him into my hand, for he has shut himself in by entering a town that has gates and bars.” 8 And Saul summoned all the people to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men. 9 David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 Then said David, “O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. 11 Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” 13 Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition. 14 And David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hand.

In this account, David appeals to the omniscient God to tell him about the future. In the first instance (23:1-5), David asks God whether he should go to the city of Keilah and whether he’ll successfully defeat the Philistines there. God answers in the affirmative in both cases, David goes to Keilah, and indeed defeats the Philistines.

In the second section (23:6-14), Davis asks the Lord two questions:

1. Will his nemesis Saul come to Keilah and threaten the city on account of David’s presence?
2. Will the people of Keilah turn him over to Saul to avoid an attack on the city?

Again, God answers both questions affirmatively. Saul is going to come down and the people of Keilah will hand you over to him. But here’s the interesting point... neither of those things actually happen. Once David hears God’s answer, he and his men leave the city. When Saul discovers this fact (v. 13), he abandons his trip to Keilah. Saul never actually goes to Keilah, and therefore David is never handed over by the people of Keilah to Saul. But why is this significant?

This passage (specifically the second section) clearly establishes that divine foreknowledge does not necessitate divine predestination. God foreknew what Saul would do and what the people of Keilah would do given a set of circumstances. In other words, God foreknew a possibility—but this foreknowledge did not mandate that those events be predestinated to happen. The events never happened, so they could not have been predestinated, despite the fact they had been foreknown by God.

Jun 11 2013 06:39 AM
Good read.
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