Free Will or Not? Another Round in the Debate

Free Will or Not? Another Round in the Debate January 4, 2021

Free Will or Not? Another Round in the Debate

I promised Arminian theologian Robert E. Picirilli (Free Will Baptist) that I would review his book Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards (Wipf & Stock, 2017) on my blog. This, however, is more than a review; it is an interaction with some of the main ideas of the book but also my own “musings” about free will.

Picirilli’s book is 140 pages long and well worth your time and money if you are interested in the debate among Christian theologians about free will. The book is very well researched and very well written. Picirilli expounds Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Edwards’s views about free will and explains why they opposed libertarian free will (power of contrary choice), and points out problems with each theologian’s arguments.

Picirilli is a classical “Reformed Arminian” or “Reformation Arminian.” In other words, not a Wesleyan Arminian. Like many of us, he regards classical Arminianism as a branch of the Reformed tradition as opposed to Lutheran or Wesleyan.

Picirilli offers a typical but profound defense of free will as power of contrary choice, not as mere ability to do what one wants to do (compatibilism). He argues very cogently that any kind of determinism removes responsibility from the creature. Luther, Calvin, and Edwards were determinists and he proves that from their own writings. (Luther was inconsistent, but at least some of the time he affirmed divine determinism.)

I am mostly interested in two aspects of Picirilli’s argument.

First, nowhere does he defend the compatibility between absolute divine foreknowledge and libertarian free will by appeal to God’s eternity—as absence of temporality or “being outside of time.” That has been a traditional defense of their compatibility—that God simply “sees” from outside of time what happened, happens, and will happen in our temporal experience. I’m glad that he didn’t take that route. Rather, he explains in great detail how it is logically possible for God to foreknow what genuinely free creatures will freely and certainly do before they do it. Picirilli distinguishes between necessity and certainty and argues that whatever will happen, even absolutely freely, will happen certainly. If it will happen, it is certain to happen now and in God’s foreknowledge of it. This takes some subtle explaining and I’m not sure I agree, but much depends on how “certain” is defined.

Second, Picirilli disagrees with open theism and he has made that clear before in other writings. He believes that we, human creatures, are given free will/power of contrary choice by God but nevertheless everything happens according to a divine plan and is in God’s control. I prefer to say that “God is in charge but not in control.” I think the word “control” is problematic as it indicates that God exercises meticulous providence and that leans too close to Calvinism for my satisfaction.

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It seems to me that Picirilli wants to have his cake and eat it, too, but he is certainly not alone in that. It seems that everyone who dives into this problem and attempts to come up with a coherent solution ends up wanting to have his cake and eat it, too.

The cake Picirilli wants is genuine power of contrary choice with no hint of determinism. Things really could turn out differently than they do. Where he wants to eat it, too, is that he wants God to not only foreknow but “plan” everything that happens—meticulously. His solution to the apparent contradiction is God’s “permission.” Part of God’s plan is to permit sin and evil. But even sin and evil are taken into account in God’s over arching plan and purpose. Nothing at all, whatever, can thwart God’s will. But God’s will is complex. It includes what God wants to happen and what God would prefer not to happen but somehow both are under the umbrella of God’s plan and purpose.

While I still agree that God foreknows absolutely, comprehensively, all that will happen, including decisions and actions of genuinely free creatures, I am reluctant to say that all of what happens and will happen is planned by God and I do believe that much that happens thwarts God’s perfect will. God does not always get his way. There. That’s my heretical confession (of what I believe).

Nowhere in the book does Picirilli appeal to God’s self-limitation as I would. I believe God limits the exercise of his power to allow creatures to resist him and his will. How, then, is God sovereign? God is sovereign over his sovereignty. God is so sovereign that he can reign over all things and yet not be in control over all things.

Picirilli and I agree about Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. And his critique of Edwards’s divine determinism and denial of non-compatibilist free will (free will not compatible with determinism) is excellent. (I do wish he had pointed out, as I often have, that if Edwards is right that libertarian free will is illogical, then God cannot have it and that makes God a machine.)

Picirilli’s book is an excellent introduction to classical Arminian theology and more. I highly recommend it. I just want to register my own disagreement with it and therefore, possibly, with classical Arminian theology. I do not believe that God always gets his way or that everything that happens is according to a divine plan. Did God “plan” the fall of humanity into sin with all of its consequences? I think not. Did God permit it? I think so. Did God have a plan for it, should it happen? Yes. Is God in control of everything? No. Could God control everything? Yes. Is God sovereign? Yes. Does God’s sovereignty mean meticulous providence? No. Does God know the future comprehensively, infallibly, absolutely? I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. God is omnipotent and omniresourceful and perfectly wise. He can establish his kingdom no matter what creatures do; we cannot thwart God’s final, perfect plan for the end of all things.

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