Can a Single Act Be Both Determined and Free?

Some Calvinists (and perhaps others) argue that, in a world ruled by God, the God of the Bible, a single creaturely act can be both determined (pre-programmed by God) and free. And they claim that there are examples of this in Scripture (e.g., Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery). Here I will point out several problems with this claim.

First, no where does Scripture explicitly say that a single creaturely act was both “pre-programmed” or “determined” and “free.” Admittedly, there are narratives about creaturely acts that could be interpreted that way, but they can also be interpreted otherwise (e.g., as foreknown by God but not pre-determined by God).

Second, I wonder why some contemporary Calvinists care to say that any creaturely act is “free.” Luther denied free will entirely. Calvin did his best to avoid the concept. It seems to me that the only reason a Calvinist would attempt to say that a single creaturely act is both pre-determined and free is to get God “off the hook,” so to speak for being the author of sin. Because, as they no doubt realize, if the action isn’t free then the person (God) determining it is the one responsible for it.

Third, what is meant by “free” in this argument? If all that is meant is that the creature acting in a pre-determined manner is doing what he wants to do (compatibilism), then the claim only raises a further question: From where did his “want” come? If the argument is only that a single creaturely act can be pre-determined and free in the compatibilist sense and that the creature’s desire is also pre-determined, then it loses much of its “punch” in a conversation with non-Calvinists because the latter believe “free” means “power of contrary choice” (non-compatibilism). And they believe creatures must have that kind of freedom when sinning and doing evil or else the one programming them must be the one responsible for their actions.

Fourth, usually the Calvinists who thus argue (viz., that a single creaturely act can be both pre-determined and free) desire to say that these two–pre-determination and being free–are not ultimately incompatible even if we, right now, do not see or know how that can be the case. But IF they mean a single creaturely act might conceiveably be pre-determined and free in the non-compatibilist sense (power of contrary choice) then a strong case can be made that the comnbination is inconceivable, that the two concepts fall into absolute contradiction. Having power of contrary choice IN A PARTICULAR ACTION means not being determined to act by anything outside the acting self.

(Whether power of contrary choice is conceivable is another issue not directly relevant here. Edwards argued it is not and yet attributed it to God, so there is an argument for it unless someone is willing to say that even God does not have power of contrary choice.)

My conclusion is that a single creaturely act can be both pre-determined and free in the compatibilist sense of “free” (merely doing what one wants to even if one could not do otherwise) but that a single creaturely act cannot be both pre-determined and free in the libertarian sense (power of contrary choice) because the two ideas cancel each other out — logically. In other words, it is inconceivalbe (not merely not presently known as to “how”) that a single creaturely act could be both pre-determined and free in the non-compatibilist sense. And if the Calvinist simply means that a single creaturely act can be both pre-determined and free in the compatibilist sense he has the burden of explaining the source of the sinful/evil intention, motive, desire that brought about the single sinful act. And he has the burden of explaining how God can be good and design, ordain, and render certain sin and evil and how sin and evil can be evil if God, who is perfectly good, designs, ordains and renders them certain.

Addendum: As a strong believer in libertarian freedom, I nevertheless do not have any problem with God over riding a creature’s freedom and determining her to serve a function and purpose in God’s historical project–so long as that does not involve doing evil. For example, God raised up Cyrus to serve him and may have pre-determined some of Cyrus’s actions, but that does not make Cyrus guilty of anything. The “rub” for me and other Arminians (and other Christian believers in free will) only comes when looking at actions that are sinful and actions that are salvific–namely repentance and faith. If God determines a creature’s sin, then the creature cannot be guilty. If God determined people’s repentance and faith he would determine everyone to repentance and faith or else hell would be God’s will which would totally undermine “God is love.”

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