Scripture, Sovereignty, Responsibility and Freewill

Two Views on Freedom: Compatiblism and Libertarianism

These two terms—compatiblism and libertarianism—designate two competing versions of human freedom. Compatiblism maintains that meticulous providence (also known as specific sovereignty)—the idea that God determines all things—is compatible with genuine human freedom. Those who adhere to a libertarian model of freedom hold that any version of meticulous providence will, in the end, compromise the integrity of authentic human liberty. Consequently, the idea of “genuine human freedom” takes on different connotations when operating within the context of each model. Libertarians define freedom as an agent’s ability to do otherwise in any given situation; whereas, compatiblists propose that an agent is genuinely free when he or she has the ability to do what he or she desires in any given set of circumstances.

Compatiblism shall be the version of freedom favored in this essay. With reference to compatiblism, it will be my first priority to answer the fatalism-determinism-type-objection which will in turn allow me to better define my own position for the reader. In favor of the compatibilistic model of freedom, I shall delineate two types of arguments: theological and philosophical. I shall also seek to exhibit a sensitivity to the concerns of my position’s critics, as well as its alternatives. Finally, I will interact with one particular objection to compatiblism posed by philosopher and theologian, William Hasker.

Compatiblism, Fatalism, and Determinism

Many theologians and philosophers have sought to represent compatiblists such as Jonathan Edward and Paul Helm [1] as adhering to some general form of determinism (all things are causally determined with or without out reference to human freedom-depending on the particular version of determinism) or fatalism (the present is necessitated by the causal chain of the past). This seems to be a fairly common move by critics of compatibilistic freedom, but a move that is nonetheless inappropriate.

Compatiblism’s primary concern is to preserve genuine human freedom while maintaining a high view of providential sovereignty (i.e. meticulous providence). Given the strong Biblical evidence for a meticulous version of providence (Gen 50: 21; Isa 45: 5-7; Acts 4: 27-28 Rom 8:28; 11:36; Eph 1:11), any version of freedom that is constructed, not only must portray freedom as genuine, but it must also be a version of freedom that coincides with the Biblical data in favor of specific sovereignty. Following the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, compatiblism recognizes the role of causal factors in determining the will, although, the will is never said to be constrained or impeded by such factors. Certain causes, events, and states within the person himself are to be accredited with moving the will toward choosing a certain state of affairs over another. These internal causes, events, and states are identical to a person’s desires, ambitions, and passions. External circumstances can be considered as antecedent or indirect causes, since they are in many circumstances, responsible for moving the desire of the will one way or another and thus, causing a person to make a given choice. In summary, compatiblism posits two types of causal factors that can be said to move the will: internal primary causes and external antecedent causes. The compatiblist model is therefore able to account for specific sovereignty since God governs all external circumstances which are the antecedent causes of the desires which move the human will. In certain cases where the will is free from external conditions, the internal causal factors are still God- given and consequently determined.

It should therefore be clear that Compatiblism differs greatly from fatalism and determinism. If a label must be attached to the compatibilistic system, other than compatiblism, soft determinism seems most appropriate-the idea that determinism is in some way consistent (in our case, through compatiblism) with genuine human freedom. Thus, any attempt to fit Compatiblism into the box of fatalism or general determinism, as many have sought to do, seems to be an unwarranted procedure.

Compatiblism: Its Rationale

Theological Argument

First, as noted earlier, whatever version of freedom that one chooses to adhere to, as a Christian, that version of freedom can not be self-standing; it must cohere here with the entire corpus of beliefs that make up Christian Theism (the Christian faith). Earlier, I stated specific sovereignty as a given, but it begs the question to ask the reader to presuppose such a major part of my system. Thus, my first argument will rest in the vast amount of Biblical support for a meticulous model of providence, which will in turn necessitate some form of compatiblism or the denial of freedom altogether.

Since it is outside the scope of this paper to exhaust the full range of Biblical data in support of meticulous providence, I will limit myself to certain categorical expressions of meticulous providence that are seen in the Scriptures. A selected passage will be used from each Scriptural category of providence as representative of that category as a whole. There are five basic categories of divine providence (the doctrine that God upholds, sustains, and determines the events of the world) that serve to show the comprehensive nature of the Biblical model of providence: divine providence in evil, divine providence in government, soteriological providence, providential concurrence, and universal providence.

One thing that should be noted about these five categories of providential control is that they all effect volition in some way or another. Thus, these five categories-if nothing else-are the five that pertain directly to the issue of human freedom.

In reference to God’s providence in evil, Isaiah 45: 5-7 seems to be the most clear. In this passage God states, “I form light and create evil, I the Lord do all these things” (author’s translation). This text is clear, God providentially ordains “all things,” including “evil” (cf. Gen. 50: 20-21; Job 1: 21). The second category-divine providence in government-is quite evident in passages like Romans 13:1. Paul says at the end of verse one that “The authorities that exist are appointed by God” (cf. Dan 4:17). The idea behind soteriological providence is divine providence in salvation. Romans 9:13 is a good sample of this category, “Therefore, it is not of him who wills, or of Him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” The context of this passage clearly defines “it” as a reference to salvation, which informs the reader of God’s comprehensive providence, even in matters such as repentance which clearly involve a volitional action on the part of the agent (person) (cf. John 1: 13; 2 Tim 2: 25). Providential concurrence affirms that God’s predetermined plans are worked out through free agents. Acts 4: 27-28 is relevant in this respect.

For truly in this city, there were gathered against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You appointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.

This passage clearly establishes God’s predetermined purposes being worked out through free agents (cf. Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23). Finally, passages that contain the phraseology of “all things” used in accordance with providential language fall under the category of universal providence. Ephesians 1: 11 may be taken as representative of this text-group. In this passage God is said to “work[s] all things according to the council of his will” (cf. Prov 16:3-4; Isa 45:7; Rom. 8:28; 11:36). The last category is probably the most powerful attestation to meticulous providence since it is intentionally all-encompassing.

Philosophical Argument

My second argument is designed to demonstrate the explanatory power of compatiblism with reference to the freedom-foreknowledge question. Any attempt to construct a Christian model of human freedom must take into account the foreknowledge dilemma. Zagzebski offers a somewhat bias form of the dilemma when she sets it up as “[Forcing] the religious person to give up one of a pair of beliefs, both of which are central to the Christian practice. These beliefs are, first, that God has infallibly true beliefs about everything that will happen in the future, and second, that human beings have free will in a sense of “free” that is incompatible with determinism.” [2] Zagzebski correctly acknowledges the two horns of the dilemma- God’s comprehensive knowledge and genuine human freedom- but I would submit to the reader that her outline of the dilemma is slanted since she rules out any form determinism prima facie (on the surface).

In contemporary Christian theology, four competing solutions are generally offered to solve the dilemma: open theism, Molinism, simple foreknowledge, and compatiblism. The first three solutions accept the second horn of the dilemma unfolded by Zagzebski (i.e. libertarian freedom) and seek to alter the classical conception of foreknowledge; whereas, compatiblism seeks to retain the classical model of foreknowledge and revise the definition human freedom. Open theism fully embraces the second horn at the expense of the first. This seems to be the most dangerous move of the three non-compatibilistic options in light of the large amount of Biblical evidence in favor of a comprehensive view of foreknowledge (Isa 41: 21-24; 46: 9-10; Acts 2: 23). Molinism, posits a version of knowledge called middle-knowledge which allows that God not only know all actualities but also, all potentialities in all possible worlds. The idea is that God knows what every free creature will do in an infinite number of possible situations and by God choosing to create a given set of circumstances (the actual world), he knows what all free creatures will do in the particular set of circumstances He chooses to actualize (i.e. the actual world) and thereby has comprehensive knowledge. The problem here is that libertarian freedom is not preserved. If God knows what will happen because he knows what his creatures will choose in certain circumstances, then the agent’s decision must be determined by the agent’s nature and desires. This is not libertarian, but compatibilistic freedom! Simple foreknowledge does not fair much better since, although it retains libertarian freedom, it ends up confusing the cause and effect relationship between God and his creatures. Advocates of this view claim that God’s knowledge is based on what free agents choose. The problem here is that simple foreknowledge cannot account for the existence of these free agents that make up God’s knowledge. If the agents are the basis of God’s knowledge, where did they come from, if one posits God as the cause of their existence then it seems that God’s intentions to make these free agents must precede the agents themselves both logically and chronologically.

Compatiblism on the other hand, keeps the classical model of divine knowledge in tact and simply offers a revision of libertarian freedom. This seems to be the safest solution to the problem since there is a seemingly inexhaustible corpus of texts that affirm comprehensive foreknowledge and precious view that speak of human freedom in any sense. Most of the Biblical evidence for freedom lies in logical deduction from certain Biblical passages and not in the Biblical passages themselves. Further, there is no working definition of freedom given in the Scriptures and there is certainly no hint of libertarian freedom. What is more, as has been demonstrated already, libertarian freedom is in conflict with the Biblical model of providence. Consequently, among its competitors, compatiblism seems to be the most viable, Biblically faithful option in solving the dilemma.

William Hasker’s Criticism of Compatiblism

Hasker’s critique is basically a challenging of the “genuiness” of combatablistic freedom. Hasker claims that if a there is a prior cause (a past cause that lead to other causes that caused the will to make a certain choice in the present) that goes back to a point in time before the agent’s existence, that agent cannot be held accountable for his choice in the present since it was necessitated by the causal chain of the past and consequently, in such a situation, the agent is neither free nor culpable. [3] This objection is off base in a least two ways. First, it is guilty of the strategy mentioned earlier which attempts to fit compatiblism into the box of fatalism. Second, Hasker seems to forget that, in the compatiblist model, circumstances are only the indirect causes of an agent’s choosing. An agent’s desires and internal constitution are the direct causes. Thus, freedom and culpability remain intact and Hasker’s critique fails.


In order to affirm the Biblical idea of moral accountability, some version of freedom must be upheld by the Christian. Libertarianism should be rejected since any version of “free” in the libertarian sense requires major revisions and or difficulties with the orthodox model of divine foreknowledge. In addition, libertarian-type freedom is inconsistent with the Biblical portrait of specific sovereignty. Consequently, “freedom” must be defined as such that it allows for comprehensive foreknowledge and coheres with specific sovereignty. To date, compatiblism is the only version of freedom that meets this criterion.

[1] See William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1987), 5; also, Norman Geisler, Chosen but Free, (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Min. 2001), 230

[2] Linda Zagzebski, The Dilemma of Foreknowledge and Freedom (Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York. 1991), 3

[3] William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a Worldview (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 1983), 33-35


One Response

  1. “Libertarianism should be rejected since any version of “free” in the libertarian sense requires major revisions and or difficulties with the orthodox model of divine foreknowledge”

    Since God stands outside of time – and all of time lay before him from the beginning to the end – certainly he has foreknowledge. However, because he sees the end from the beginning does not necessarily imply that he impaired men’s freedom.

    Men are free, they must be utterly free or they could not love God freely. God guards our freedom to an amazing degree, even to the point of allowing us to harm one another – yes and kill each other.

    It seems to me that this apparent contradiction is solved by recognizing the extra-dimensions in which God operates.

    To Him the darkness is as light. To Him the tiny spaces are a vast expanse.

    Isn’t He great enough to work out his sovereignty on the margins of our reality – leaving our individual choices unaffected?

    The effects of our sin is everywhere – from the everyday foolishness I engage in, to birth defects and atrocities. God did not do these things, we did. Yes, He allows it, but you would be wrong to charge God with culpability for any evil.

    Even the action of the Israelites at Jericho, which God clearly endorsed derived from human sin. God’s role in the action is fully warranted – not because he favors Israel for no reason, but because he favors goodness and righteousness and Israel at Jericho is a means to those ends.


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