Philosopher extraordinaire Alvin Plantinga offers a trenchant review of new atheist Sam Harris’ latest book, Free Will. Harris argues that any notion of willfulness in human behavior is illusory. “Either our wills [i.e. decisions and choices] are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.” Plantinga recognizes the argument as one with a long history, but asserts that having a long history of argument does not make for a good argument (or there would be no more argument).
Why think that if it is within my power to perform an action, but also within my power to refrain from so doing, then what I do happens just by chance? Maybe I have a good reason for doing what I do on that occasion—then it wouldn’t be just by chance that I do it. Last Sunday you contributed money to your church; no doubt on that occasion it was within your power to refrain from contributing. But it surely wasn’t just by chance that you made that contribution. It isn’t as if you just flipped a coin: “Heads, I’ll contribute; tails, I won’t.” No; you had a good reason for contributing: you want to promote the good things your church does. We Christians think God freely arranged the whole marvelous scheme of Incarnation and Atonement, whereby we sinners can once more be in a proper relationship with God. God did this, and did it freely; it was within his power to refrain from so doing, thus leaving us in our sins. But it surely doesn’t follow that he did it just by chance!
Plantinga nevertheless acknowledges that there is a long Christian history of defending determinism for the sake of defending divine sovereignty. Citing Jonathan Edwards as chief proponent, there are those who exonerate human responsibility on account of God being the only agent capable of action, the only cause behind whatever happens. Such conviction, while placing due primacy on divine omniscience and potency, crashes hard on the rocks of evil and sin: is God the cause of all the atrocities of history? Moreover, how can a sinner ever be punished as guilty for something he or she never was responsible for doing? Notions of double predestination notwithstanding, Edwards’ view goes forward at high cost.
For me, the best response to any limits on divine sovereignty is the incarnation itself. If for love’s sake God chooses to become human in order to redeem sinners from death, then it seems theologically plausible that he would limit his sovereignty for the sake of a reciprocal relationship of love with these same sinners. Love by definition must be freely given and freely received, which means that it can also be freely rejected. Could not God simply force his creatures to use their freedom appropriately? No, because a person is not truly free if they are not free to choose wrongly. And ergo the rub. God allows for his people’s rejection in order to have real relationship with them.