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Determinism and free will, can they co-exist? | Calvinistic Compatibilism

The Issue of determinism is one that is frequently raised in theological discussions.

Determinism is the idea that all events, including moral choices, are determined completely by previously existing causes. Determinism is at times understood to preclude free will because it claims that humans cannot act otherwise than they do. A lot of us figure that our thoughts and actions are free, but most of us also believe that every effect has a cause and everything that happens now in the present is the necessary result of events that happened in the past, this view is known as hard determinism. Many people probably believe in both things.

  1. Many of your actions are free.

  2. The world is governed by cause and effect.

The problem is that it seems like you cannot rationally hold both views, because traditionally libertarians (libertarians are not the same as liberals, libertarians believe people have complete free will) have defined free actions according to what’s known as the principle of alternate possibilities. This principle says that an action is free only if the agent – that is the person doing the thing – could have done otherwise. Hence truly free choices require options.

Determinism, by contrast, doesn’t allow options. It holds that every event is caused  by a previous event. It means that an agent could not have done anything other than they did, which means that they are and were never free.

An important clarification at this point is that there is a significant difference between determinism in the theological sense and determinism in the naturalistic sense. For the naturalist, the determiner of actions today is purely the result of past processes - you are a product of your circumstances. Thus for the naturalist, what you think, say or do isn’t really because you willed it, it is just the result of a very old and complex pattern of chemical reactions and matter arrangements that happened over billions* of years. The necessary consequence of this is that for the naturalist the very idea of morality, truth and responsibility is meaningless.

This article’s main focus however will be on what we will conveniently call ‘theological determinism’, that is the view that everything is determined -  not in the naturalistic sense - but in the sense that everything that happens is a direct result of God’s eternal decree as the Sovereign ruler.

How are these ideas relevant in Christian thought?

The question many atheists ask is : “How do we have free will if God is an omnipotent being that knows everything about us, everything we will do, and knows our outcome even before we were created?” The argument would then follow that since we can’t surprise him with our actions, our choices have been predetermined and we have no free will. An important point to understand here is that atheists that ask these types of questions hold to scientific materialism as their worldview.

Now before we can meaningfully answer this question, we must first define what is meant by free will. What is the Will? We answer, the will is the faculty of choice, the immediate cause of all action. Choice necessarily implies the refusal of one thing and the acceptance, of another. The positive and the negative must both be present to the mind before there can be any choice. In every act of the will there is a preference - the desiring of one thing rather than another. Now what would it mean if we say that humans have a free will? Free from what exactly? The answer would be that the will is free from any bias and can for example, choose the positive over the negative or the negative over the positive with equal preference.

From the Christian worldview, this idea of free will is problematic. Take for example that the Bible is explicitly clear that the human will is dead in sin - and unable to do anything good! Gen 6:5, Job 15:14-16, Ps 130:3, Psa 143:2, Pro 20:9, Ecc 7:20, Isa 64:6, Jer 13:23, John 3:19, Rom 3:9-12, Jam 3:8, 1 John 1:8.

Moreover we as humans are living in a God-created universe. How could any rational person believe that our wills, which would also be counted among God’s creation, stand fully independent and apart from any influence on God’s part? If humans truly have free will as commonly defined in the libertarian sense, then it is futile to:

  1. Pray that God bring unbelievers to faith as all Christian commonly do, as clearly that should be beyond God’s power if the will is free.

  2. Continue holding to the Bible as the infallible Word of God as the Bible was written by men and if men had a free will. It’s no longer consistent to believe that the Bible was written by men under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If, however, free will is defined in the way the late Dr Greg Bahnsen defines it, as:

When we talk about man's "free will" in a setting like this one, we must remember that we are simply saying that a person's actions or choices are voluntary - genuinely under his control, and such that he has the outward ability to do other than what he actually chose to do. We can call this "metaphysically free will"; the person's choices are self-determined, rather than forced or compelled.

In this sense, humans do what they want to do. Their actions and choices are voluntary and it is the voluntary choices God judges men by. The choice between a theoretical positive and negative does exist, however man will always choose according to their nature - and cannot choose against their nature anymore than water can rise above its source (unless of course someone lifts it up, more on this later). In the Christian worldview, humans are dead in sin and although the theoretical choice between good and evil exists, men will always voluntary choose evil by their nature! This is the way “free will” is defined in the historic Christian faith: Human choices are voluntary, and they never do anything that would go against their will - the crucial question then is: is our will a slave to sin, or a slave to righteousness, as this will determine what we voluntarily choose.

Now that we have defined free will, we can continue to analyse the question presented by our Atheist friend. To recap, the question was:

How do we have free will if God is an omnipotent being that knows everything about us, everything we will do, and knows our outcome even before we were created? The argument would then follow that since we can’t surprise him with our actions, our choices have been predetermined and we have no free will. An important point to understand here is that atheists that ask these types of questions hold scientific materialism as their worldview.

Many people from a naturalistic worldview will ask this particular question and come to the conclusion stated above. What these people are wrestling with is not uncommon. The problem, however is the very charge they make against the Christian worldview, is actually inescapable in their own and in a much worse way (naturalistic determinism vs theological determinism).

Ravi Zacharias (A Christian Pastor and apologist) was in attendance at a talk (at Lady Mitchell Hall in 1990) given by Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s whole talk was on determinism and freedom. What Hawking concluded was that the tragedy of scientific materialism is that if we take it at its assumptions, we are not free, we are totally (naturally) determined. That was the world’s leading physicist at that time saying the very thing these scientific atheists claim of the Christian faith, thus he pinned determinism on their backs, as scientific materialists. He said “the only escape I have, is since I don’t know what has been determined, I may as well not be”.

The question is then, are these atheists voluntarily asking the question? Or is someone or something coercing them to ask the question? See, in the Christian worldview, everything that happens, happens as eternally decreed by God. However, the natural choices men make are not coerced by God but they naturally come from within - therefore we are not forced by an outside power to be evil or good against our wills, we voluntary do what we want to do. It is also true, however, that God governs our voluntary choices by either restricting our evil, or regenerating our hearts and changing our wills that we voluntary do good. What God never does is coerce us to do evil against our will, or good against our will.

How do we reconcile these voluntary choices with God’s omnipotence? Just because God has “the quality of having unlimited or very great power” doesn’t in any way change the fact that our sinful actions and evil find their origin in our nature - and not with God. God can however restrict the evil of men to bring forth a result that is good. Take for example in Genesis; Joseph’s brothers wanted to murder him, but God decreed they only sell him to Egypt and hence simply restricted their evil. The desire to do evil, however, still finds its origin in Joseph’s brothers - and not with God. Therefore, the voluntary choice of Joseph's brothers to do evil is wholly compatible with God’s sovereign and eternal decree that preordained (predetermined) the selling of Joseph to Egypt. (We all know the story of Joseph and how this evil act on the part of his brothers eventually turned out to be a force for good.) Remember Proverbs 16:4:

The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Proverbs 16:4

This view is called compatibilism or compatible determinism. Listen to Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Genesis 50:20

Compatibilism is a form of determinism and it should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism. It simply means that God's predetermination is "compatible" with voluntary choice. Our choices are not coerced which means that we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God's sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass, see for example Ephesians 1:11:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will

Ephesians 1:11

We should be clear that NEITHER compatibilism nor hard determinism affirms that any man has a free will (in the libertarian sense). Those who believe man has a free will are not compatibilists, but should, rather, be called "inconsistent" as explained at the beginning of the article. Our choices are our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures, nor separate from God's decree.

Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, a choice without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most according to our disposition and inclinations (our nature).

In biblical terminology, fallen man is in bondage to a corruption of nature and that is why the biblical writers considered him to not be free (see Rom 6). Jesus Himself says that the one who sins is a "slave to sin" and that only the Son can set him free. Note that even Jesus speaks of a kind of freedom here. He is not speaking of freedom from God but freedom from the bondage of sin, which is the kind of freedom those have who are in Christ.


According to Jesus in John 8:31-36, that the natural man does not have a free will. The will is in bondage to sin. Any consistent theologian who uses the term "freedom" usually is referring to that fact that while God sovereignly ordains all that comes to pass, yet man's "free choice" (voluntary) is compatible with God's sovereign decree. In other words the will is free from external coercion but not free from necessity. Also there is no Biblical warrant to use the phrase "free will", since the Bible never affirms or uses this term. So when some theologians use the word "free" they may be misusing or importing philosophical language from outside the Bible, but anyone who is consistent with the Text means "voluntary" when they say "free", but never affirm they are free from God in any sense.

For to affirm that God sovereignly brings our choices to pass and then also say man is free from God, is self-contradictory. So to clarify, many people seem to equate the word freedom with meaning "voluntary". If any mean "free from God" they are confused. R.C. Sproul said there are "no maverick molecules". Nothing happens by chance, but all falls within God's meticulous providence, no exceptions. Read Proverbs 19:21:

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

Proverbs 19:21

We will end off this article with a quote from John Calvin on Compatibilism.

We allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man's innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.

John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70


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