Providence and Freedom: A Compatiblist Account. Part 2 – Semi-Compatiblism and Divine Sovereignty

2.1 Theological Terms

By meticulous providence it is meant that God’s control over creation is expansive and detailed. Commensurate with traditional Calvinistic thinking, every event, choice, and free action is predetermined by God. The divine decree is not an agent; it has no causal powers nor is it active in any way. The decree is God’s plan for the world which may be conceived of as a blueprint or script for the destiny of creation. God’s providence is his activity in creation directed toward bringing his decree to pass. For something to be predestined is for something to be decreed. Hence, God’s decree is meticulous. He not only decrees a world but also the human choices and actions that make up that world. It is not by virtue of decreeing the actual world that he decrees the network of human choices that make up that world. Instead, contra Molinism, God decrees particular events consisting of networks of free human choices and through his providential activity ensures that the events he has decreed come about without (in most cases) violating human freedom in the semi-compatibilist sense defined above.


2.2 Divine Knowledge and the Decree

Like the Molinist, I affirm that God has middle knowledge. However, unlike the Molinist, I locate this knowledge logically posterior to what I shall call a possible decree. (I do not view possible worlds as free standing concepts independent of God’s (at least possible) creative activity.) Traditionally, it has been held that God’s omniscience consists in only two types of knowledge: natural knowledge and free knowledge.[1] God’s natural knowledge is his knowledge of necessary truths. According to this knowledge God knows which worlds are possible. He has this knowledge, on my view, in virtue of which worlds he knows he could decree. God’s knowledge of these worlds, you might say, is based on a possible decree. This is because it doesn’t seem to me at all clear how God could know of a world without knowing of his creative activity of and in that world prior to his conception of it. God’s creative activity, it seems to me, must be the ontological and logical basis of all possible worlds. Hence, so also must be his decree to create. This flows not only directly from my view of God as meticulously provident but also from my view of Him as creator. So, logically prior to his instantiation of the actual world God has natural knowledge based on a myriad of possible worlds he could decree to be actual (i.e. instantiate) (this is his possible decree). God’s free knowledge, in contrast, is logically posterior to the actual decree and consists in God’s knowledge of the actual world. Divine middle knowledge,[2] then, stands logically between God’s natural and free knowledge. Specifically, God knows what every compatibilistically free agent would do if they were placed in a particular set of circumstances. To put it a bit more technically, God knows the truth-value of all counterfactual propositions: conditionals of the form ‘if it were the case that r, x would choose y; if it were the case that z, x would choose q’ where z and r stand for circumstantial conditionals. I am convinced that such counterfactuals exist and as a corollary of divine omniscience, it seems correct to say that God knows them. Furthermore, I contend that counterfactual knowledge would be immensely useful in God’s planning of the actual world. Terrance Tiessen comments on how exactly this might go:


God has middle knowledge, understood as his knowledge of all future counterfactuals. He is able to know this because his moral creatures are voluntary but not indeterministically free. Therefore, at the logical moment in eternity when God determined all that would come to be in created time, thereby establishing his eternal purpose or decree, he did so by a process in which he discerned what each of his creatures would do in a particular situation and then decided what influences he would bring to bear to change the situation so that the outcome, as decided freely by the creatures involved, would move things along in the direction of his purpose. I have pointed that in many instances God chose not to insert his influence in a forceful way and that he chose never to do so in a coercive way. He was still able to bring all of those creaturely decisions and their effects together in a history that culminates with his triumph over evil, and that demonstrates to all the greatness of his wisdom and grace. Every incident along the way has meaning in the light of the whole, and he is never out of control, even when he wills to allow creatures to be disobedient, sustaining their lives even as they reject his right to their worship and love and obedience.[3]

I essentially endorse this proposal by Tiessen.[4] Nevertheless, I will have substantially more to say about the role of divine middle knowledge in God’s providential activity later. Until then, this will work as a thumbnail sketch for how I perceive the relationship of divine knowledge—particularly, counterfactual knowledge—to the decree.


2.3 Providence and Human Freedom

It seems to me that the theologian who is concerned with maintaining both the moral responsibility of man and a meticulous view of divine providence will need to adopt some form of compatibilism. Tiessen touched briefly on the relationship of providence and freedom in his remarks so I will build off of his account. He says that God decreed the actual world “by a process in which he discerned what each of his creatures would do in a particular situation and then decided what influences he would bring to bear to change the situation so that the outcome, as decided freely by the creatures involved, would move things along in the direction of his purpose.” Tiessen seems to view situations as antecedent conditions which God uses to move compatibilistically free agents to act in accord with his predetermined purpose. Accordingly, these events are both free and predetermined. The agents are free and morally responsible because their actions are in accord with their own reasons and desires in response to the relevant situations. They are determined because they are an unfolding of God’s decree by means of God’s direct providential activity through the antecedent conditions that contribute to the bringing about of the action. I agree with this account. However, what Tiessen does not make clear is the relation of providential activity to the activity of the agent. The double agency relation, on Tiessen’s account, is fairly vague. One thing which I think should be carefully avoided is conceiving of God’s use of antecedent conditions as input-output mechanistic relations in which, say, external circumstances are brought to bear on an agent as an input devise for the output of agent-activity. This seems to me far too mechanical. It seems almost as if circumstances are exercising some kind of direct control over the agent.[5] The relationship of the activity of the agent to the determined antecedent conditions, therefore, should be thought of in terms of agent-circumstance interaction. The agent interacts and responds to situations which converge into new situations which re-exert their influence upon the agent so that agent interacts with antecedent conditions so as to shape the very conditions that bring about her action. Daniel Dennett explores a similar connection regarding antecedent conditions (like the past). He says:


Contrary to a familiar vision…determinism does not in itself ‘erode control’….Moreover, The past does not control us. It no more controls us than the people at NASA can control the space ships that have wandered out of reach in space. It is not that there are no causal links between the Earth and those craft [sic.]. There are; reflected sunlight from Earth still reaches them, for instance. But causal links are not enough for control. There must also be feedback to inform the controller. There are no feedback signals from the present to the past for the past to exploit.[6]

That antecedent conditions exert influence on our activity does not mean that they control us. Rather, it is the interaction of the activity which issues from an agent’s own reasons-responsive mechanism (to use Fischer’s terminology) with the antecedent conditions that God sets in place which brings about the God-intended effect. So in an extremely strong sense, our actions are our own. We act in complete accord with our desires in response to the circumstances that are presented to them. In short, we possess guidance control. God’s determination of the antecedent conditions, the way in which we interact with them, and our responsibility for the resultant actions are, therefore, not incompatible. The next chapter will take on the burden of establishing this claim.

[1] cf. Muller, PRRD, 3:411ff.; natural knowledge= scientia simplcisi or scientia necessaria, free knowledge= scientia voluntaria or scientia libera.

[2] scientia media.

[3] Terrance Tiessen, Providence and Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2000), 319.

[4] For a similar proposal see John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, 626-774; for a critique of these proposals see John D. Laing, “The Compatibility of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge,” JETS 47/3 (2004):455-68; for a critique of Lang’s critique, see my forth coming paper “Calvinism, Compatibilism, and Counterfactuals: A Response to John Lang.”

[5] I in no way think that Tiessen endorses this kind of view.

[6] Dennett, Elbow Room, 72.


Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Moral Responsiblity: A Philosophical Introduction to Available Models. Part 4

Part Four: Hierarchial and Semi-Compatibilism

1 Hierarchical Compatibilism

Hierarchical compatibilism is the classical style of compatibilism held by free will such theorist as Jonathan Edwards,[1] Suzan Wolf,[2] Gary Watson,[3] and Harry Frankfurt.[4] Frankfurt’s analysis has probably received in the most attention in the contemporary literature so I will focus my attention on his account. Frankfurt proposes that “one essential difference between person’s and other creatures is to be found in the structure of a person’s will.”[5] Frankfurt suggests that while humans are not alone in possessing the capacity for motives and desires, they are alone in their ability to have what he calls second-order desires.

Besides having first-order desires, desires or motives to do this or that, persons also have desires to have or not have desires. These are called second-order desires. “No animal other than man appears…to have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires.”[6] A person, according to Frankfurt, has desires as to whether he wants or does not want to be moved by his first-order desires. He argues further that it is in virtue of this capacity of humans to form second order desires that they are able to have another significant feature often considered the most distinguishing mark of the human condition—free will.[7] He writes:


According to a familiar philosophical tradition, being free is fundamentally a matter of doing what one wants to do…although its focus needs to be sharpened and its formulation refined, I believe that this notion does capture at least part of what is implicit in the idea of an agent who acts freely….Analogously, then, the statement that a person enjoys freedom of the will means (also roughly) that he is free to want what wants to want. More precisely, it means that he is free to will what he wants to will, or have the will he wants. Just as the question about the freedom of an agent’s action has to do with whether it is the action he wants to perform, so the question about the freedom of his will has to do with whether it is the action he wants to perform. It is in the securing of the conformity of his will to his second order volitions, then, that a person exercises freedom of the will.[8]

It is important to note here that Frankfurt makes a distinction between acting freely and freedom of the will. One has freedom of the will if and only if (1) he has the capacity for and actually posses second-order volitions, (2) his first-order desires are not discordant with his second-order desires, and (3) his reason for having second-order desires is in virtue of his having first order desires.[9] However, for Frankfurt, a person acts freely if she did what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it and if the act issued from her own free will.


2 Semi-compatibilism

In my estimation, the most intuitively plausible and philosophically sophisticated account of compatibilism to date is that of John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza. Fischer calls this view semi-compatibilism. He summarizes his position as follows:


The actual-sequence reasons-responsiveness account of guidance control (and moral responsibility) thus yields “semi-compatibilism:” moral responsibility is compatible with causal determinism, even if causal determinism is incompatible with freedom to do otherwise. Compatibilism about determinism and responsibility is compatible with both compatibilism and incompatibilism (as well as agnosticism) about determinism and freedom to do otherwise.[10]

This is significantly different from many classical accounts of compatibilism which have embraced PAP and sought to show that an agent could have done otherwise if they wanted to.[11] As the basis for his semi-compatibilist model, Fischer employs an actual-sequence reasons responsive mechanism which is fully possessed by the agent (i.e. it is his own mechanism) and issues in the agent’s guidance control over his own action. Each of these concepts deserve separate consideration. I will treat them in reverse order.


2.1 Guidance Control

At the center of Fischer and Ravizza’s account[12] is the thesis that a certain type of control over one’s actions is a necessary condition for grounding moral responsibility. They suggest two types of control as likely candidates: regulative control and guidance control. Regulative control involves alternative possibilities and consists of a kind of dual power over one’s actions. Now the agent, according to Fischer and Ravizza, has regulative control if she has “the power freely to do some act A, and the power freely to do something else instead (where “doing something else” may be simply refraining from acting at all, or “doing nothing”).”[13] Given the success of the Frankfurt cases, however, it is clear that this is not the kind of control needed to ground moral responsibility. They conclude on the basis of such examples that we can safely affirm that “moral responsibility does not require the sort of control that involves the existence of genuinely open alternative possibilities.”[14] In order make this control-distinction explicit, they ask us to imagine a scenario involving a driver named Sally.


Let us suppose that Sally is driving here car. It is functioning well, and Sally wishes to make a right turn. As a result of her intention to turn right, she signals, turns the steering wheel, and carefully guides the car to the right. Further, we here assume that Sally was able to form the intention not to turn the car to the right but to turn the car to the left instead. (We are thus not making any special assumption, such as that causal determinism is true.) Also, we assume that, had she formed such an intention, she would have turned the steering wheel to the left and the car would car would have gone to the left. She controls the car, and also she has a certain sort of control over the car’s movements. Insofar as Sally actually guides the car in a certain way, we shall say that she has “guidance control.” Further, in so far as Sally has the power to guide the car in a different way, we shall say that she has “regulative control.”[15]

In the Frankfurt cases considered earlier, the prima facie assumption was that Jones was morally responsible for his actions but yet lacked regulative control over his actions. But if Jones does not have some type of control over his action, how could we hold him responsible for those actions? Fischer and Ravizza contend that while Jones does not have regulative control over his actions, he does have the type of control necessary for responsibility conferral—guidance control. I summarize Fischer and Ravizza’s two conditions for this type of control in the following way:


(GC) An agent has guidance control over an act if and only if (1) he has ownership of the mechanism which issues in the act and (2) the mechanism that issues in the act is moderately reasons-responsive.



2.2 Ownership

It seems fairly obvious that if an action does not issues from one’s own mechanism (e.g. volition, free will, etc.), that action is not one for which one may be held responsible. In the Frankfurt-cases, for example, it is clear that in the alternative sequence where Black, the counterfactual intervener, does play a role, that the Jones is not morally responsible. This is because the action issues from Black’s mechanism, not Jones’. Perhaps part of what is embodied in this concept is the common notion that an agent does not exercise guidance control over actions which are internally or externally coerced. It seems that what Fischer and Ravizza have in mind, however, is a slightly more specified idea which involves taking ownership and thus responsibility for one’s actions. By taking responsibility for one’s action an agent takes ownership of the mechanism from which they issued.[16] This act of “taking responsibility,” according to Fischer and Ravizza, is something that happens at a particular moment in one’s life in which a person take a certain stance toward their own mechanism. This stance involves acknowledging one’s self as a “fair” recipient of reactive moral attitudes. In other words, when a child is not surprised or confused when she is punished for lying to her parents but expresses remorse, this is a sign that she has taken responsibility for the mechanism which issued in the act of “lying.” She recognizes her ownership of that mechanism (although she is probably not so philosophically reflective about that ownership!). This aspect of the Fischer-Ravizza account renders it drastically different from many classical compatibilist accounts because it takes into consideration the history of agent’s taking ownership of her own mechanism.



2.3 Actual-Sequence Reasons-Responsiveness

It is not, however, sufficient that the agent have mere possession of the action-issuing mechanism. In order to be responsible, the mechanism itself must also be moderately reasons-responsive in the actual sequence. For Fischer, the alternative sequence is irrelevant since it is never the alternative sequence in which we are interested in holding people morally responsible. There doesn’t seem to be any cases in which we hold people morally responsible in the actual sequence (what they actually do) for actions they could have done in a variety of alternative sequences. While a wife may rightly hold her husband accountable for not going to the store to get the necessary items for dinner that evening, this is something which he did in the actual sequence. It would be laughable, in other words, if the husband rejoinded to the wife: ‘Yes, honey, I did not go get the groceries in the actual sequence, but you should be happy that I got them in several alternative sequences.’ We are simply not interested in ascribing moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness to actions performed in the alternative sequences. This is why Fischer insists that as long as the action-issuing mechanism is moderately reasons-responsive in the actual sequence, an agent can be held morally responsible for those actions. But what does it mean for a mechanism to be reasons-responsive?

Reasons-responsiveness, according to Fischer and Ravizza, means that the relevant mechanism is able to weigh and respond appropriately to reasons. They suggest three ways in which a mechanism may be reasons-responsive: strong, weak, and moderate. They argue that strong reasons-responsiveness, where there is a very close fit between sufficient reasons and action, does not allow for responsibility conferral regarding irrational behavior. Say, for example, that Fred plans to go the movies on Friday evening. As it turns out, Fred is an architect who has project due on Monday mourning which will not get done if Fred chooses to go to the movies on Friday. But Molly convinces Fred to go with her any way. Here we agree that Fred is responsible for his action even though it does not issue from a strong reasons-responsive mechanism. So this kind of mechanism cannot be what is required for guidance control. But what about a weekly reasons responsive mechanism? Initially, when Fischer introduced his view, he held that this was the kind of mechanism that was needed for guidance control.[17] On this kind of mechanism there is only a loose fit between reasons and actions. In other words, there must be some possible world w1 where reasons R are sufficient for person p to do otherwise than A and in w1 p acts on the same mechanism as she acts on in the actual world and does otherwise than A because of R. So this time we imagine that Fred will go to the movies with Molly even if it means not finishing his project which is due on Monday. But if going to the movies with Molly meant, say, that Fred’s wife would make him sleep on the couch for a week (w1), then Fred would decide not to go to the movies with Molly.


But Fischer and Ravizza argue that “strong reasons-responsiveness is too strong: it is to much to ask that an agent be strongly responsive to reasons, in order to be morally responsible for his action. But it turns out that weak reasons-responsiveness is too weak; it is not enough to ask that an agent be weakly responsive to reasons, in order to be morally responsible for his actions.”[18] Instead, they insist that moderate reasons-responsiveness is just right. Moderate reasons-responsiveness has two ingredients: it consist in (1) at least weak-reasons reactivity of the actual sequence mechanism that leads to the action and (2) regular reasons-receptivity.[19] By regular reasons- reactivity, they mean the customary ability “to translate reasons into choices (and then subsequent behavior).”[20] In others words, if a third-party observed one’s action they would be able to recognize a rational, intelligible pattern in that person’s reactivity to reasons. And by receptivity to reasons, they mean “the capacity to recognize reasons that exist.”[21] To illustrate this, Fischer and Ravizza imagine a scenario in which Brown is addicted to a new drug called Plezu.[22] As the drug grows in popularity the price begins to rise. Eventually, Brown predicts, the drug will reach a price that is beyond his means (say, 1000$ per dose). So Brown recognizes that 1000$ is a sufficient reason not to take the drug because a habit that expensive would be beyond his financial means. He recognizes, furthermore, that anything over 1000$ would be too much to pay for the drug (i.e. he is moderately reasons-responsive). But what if Brown informed us that while he would not be willing to pay 1000$ for the drug, he would be willing to pay, say, 1001$ and higher (i.e. he is weakly reasons-responsive). In this case, we would wonder if he really understood the reasons to begin with and whether he could really be held responsible for not buying the drug at 1000$ per dose. We would also wonder whether such a pattern was rational at all (i.e. whether it was reactive to reasons). It would certainly be weakly responsive to reasons but it doesn’t seem that we could hold Brown responsible for such unintelligible behavior—perhaps, he is insane or mentally handicapped in some way.

In summary, then, for an agent to be responsible for his action, he must have guidance control over those actions. Having guidance control, according to Fischer and Ravizza, means that the relevant action issued from one’s own moderately reasons-responsive mechanism. For a mechanism to be moderately reasons-responsive, it must both understand the reasons which are before it and be able to translate those reasons into the appropriate responsive actions.


To be continiued…

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will: Which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue, and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (London, Eng.: Thomas Nelson, 1845); Reprint (Morgan, Pa.: Sola De Gloria Publications, 1996).

[2] Suzan Wolf, Freedom Within Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[3] Gray Watson, “Free Agency,” in FW, 337-51.

[4] Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” JP 68/1 (1971): 5-20; Reprinted in FW, 322-36.

[5] Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” 323.

[6] Ibid., 324.

[7] Ibid., 330.

[8] Ibid., 331.

[9] For a good summary of Frankfurt’s views as well as sympathetic, though not uncritical, interaction with and revision of them see Eleonore Stump, “Sanctification, Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt’s Concept of Free Will,” in PMR, 211-234.

[10] Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will, 180.

[11] See for example, Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984), 131-52.

[12] Fischer and Ravizza, Responsibility and Control.

[13] Ibid., 31.

[14] Ibid., 30.

[15] Ibid., 31.

[16] Ibid., 241.

[17] cf. Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will, 164-68.

[18] Ibid., 89.

[19] Ibid., 69-89.

[20] Ibid., 69.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 75-76.

Divine Soveriegnty and the Problem of Evil: A Compatibilist Approach

Many suggest that the problem of evil provides a singificant obstacle to a robust understanding of divine sovereignty. I disagree. Here are my thoughts:


Thomas Tracy suggests that the “incompatibilist is concerned that theological determinism both (a) denies certain great goods in human moral life and relation to God and (b) makes God the cause of sin.”[1] Now in regards to (a), I think that compatibilism (see previous post) provides an intuitively plausible, scripturally consistent account of how agents may be held morally responsible for actions which God nevertheless determined. Furthermore, it seems that it has also been established that the text excludes libertarian accounts of freedom without exempting Joseph’s brothers from a general responsibility for their transgressions. However, a canonical/conceptual argument may be marshaled against compatibilism which runs as follows. If God ordains all things, including evil, then it follows that he is in some way implicated in the evil he ordains. They could argue that the functionality of the compatibilist concept breaks down when we try to apply it to a good God in whom there is no darkness. This is libertarian worry (b) according to Tracy. If we can deal compellingly with this final libertarian anxiety we will have offered a comprehensive theological, philosophical, and scriptural motivation for compatibilism.


Although the problem of evil objection might have some initial appeal, upon careful scrutiny it clearly breaks down. I will start with an analysis of individual actions and then work back to the origin and creation of evil. We can use the Joseph Story as a case study for individual actions (Genesis 50, esp. 50:20). First, recall that the acts of Joseph’s brothers were both intended by God and secured by his providential activity. The text is not clear, however, as to how God’s providential activity was effective in the event. I propose that God provided the circumstantial environment for the free decision to be made. In his middle knowledge (his knoweldge of what agents would do in particular circumstances), he knew exactly how Joseph’s brothers would act in that situation and chose to actualize it knowing that it would ultimately result in the fulfillment of his eternal decree. Now it seems fairly obvious that for God’s action here to be considered evil, it would have to flow from an evil motive or intention. But this clearly is not the case. It was only Joseph’s brothers that possessed the evil intention. God meant the event for good. Merely providing the circumstantial environment in which God knew the evil choice would be made in no way seems to be saying the same thing as God acted in an evil way. Indeed, God had a good purpose for Joseph’s brothers acting as they and had in this way predestined it. But this is not to say that he purposed or instantiated their actual evil intentions. The text clearly distinguishes between the good intentions of God and the evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers. So while God determined an event which involved the free evil acts of his creatures; his purposes, motives, intentions, and actions in the event remained good and undefiled by the evil free decisions of his creatures in the event. This account can be generalized to fit a variety of circumstances.


Well what about the origin and present existence of evil in the world? I will start by giving an account of the existence of evil presently in the world and then move on to give an explanation of the origin of evil. Regarding the problem of present evil, we first need to construct a simple working definition of omnipotence. Commensurate with traditional Christian Theism, I define omnipotence not as God’s ability to do anything; but rather, as his ability to do only what is logically possible and what is consistent with his nature. He can’t make a square circle or a rock too big to lift, for example. The reason he can’t make such things is because these semantic items have no corresponding states of affairs. As Freddoso and Flint point out, omnipotence should not be conceived of as raw power but as the ability to actualize states of affairs.[2] Given that God has the essential property of being maximally powerful, there is no state of affairs, the actualization of which exceeds his power. In the same way in which there is no such state of affairs as a square circle, there is no such state of affairs as a rock too heavy for God to lift. The idea is simply unintelligible. Having defined omnipotence, we are ready to move to the second stage of my argument. The first part of this second stage of my argument follows fairly closely some ideas advocated by John Feinberg.[3] Here, I argue that God had to choose between creating one of two good things: the removal of evil and the creation of a certain type of human beings. These two are mutually contradictory. And since God can’t actualize contradictory states of affairs (i.e. he can’t do what is logically impossible), he can’t be required to bring about both of the good things. The first good God could have chosen is to create our world with no evil. Now, this may be a good world if the only purpose God had for the world was a world with no evil. But if God wanted to create a world inhabited by certain kind of human being, a world free from moral evil does not seem to be possible. Before I explore exactly what this world might look like, I should mention that Feinberg seems to think that free will defenses (of any type) are not open to the compatibilist. I disagree. Consequently, the world I construct is similar to Feinberg’s in one way but drastically different in another. The similarity lies in the idea that if God wanted to create a world with a certain kind of humans, he could not create a world with no moral evil. But whereas Feinberg wants to emphasize that God may have wanted to make a world of a non-glorified humans, I will insist that God’s plan may have been to make a world of compatibilistically free agents. I do borrow significant elements from Feinberg’s non-glorified human defense in the content of my own defense but as a method, my approach follows more closely to Plantinga’s [4] than it does to Feinberg’s.


So if God wanted to create, for example, creatures that had a compatibilistically free will, who could act in accord with their desires—wherever they may lead—then it seems that he could not remove evil since to remove evil, he would have to remove all objects of desire that could possibly lead to evil. The first thing this would probably mean is that humans could not have bodies since we know that other people’s bodies can be an object of desire in an evil way. This would leave us with a world of disembodied minds only. But if people (if you can even call them that at this stage) could desire other people’s minds in an evil way then there could only be one mind. But if this mind, it seems, could desire its own mind or God’s mind in an evil way (as Lucifer did) then it does not seem that even this disembodied mind could exist. It seems further that the world would have to be one without beauty since this also can be desired in an evil way. Perhaps even no matter at all could exist since it would be possible that it become an object of evil desire. But I don’t think this was the purpose God had for the world; that is, a world with no bodies, beauty, or matter. Rather, it seems that what he had in mind was a world of what we call human beings; not super-humans or sub-humans but human beings—beings with bodily capacity; that is, natural or nonglorified bodies as the first phase of our existence (though we will receive glorified bodies one day). He also desired that we have freedom, emotions, intentions, and that we would have the ability to follow our desires where they lead. He intended that we be beings with social and relational capacities. As Feinberg points out,[5] he did not intend to create super-humans who have no further need of God’s assistance and so have no need to give him glory nor subhumans without, say, a freewill or bodily capacity. He intended to create human beings as we know them—with all of the goodness that that entails. How do I know that this is what God intended for humans, it is because this is what kind of humans and world God created.


Now in order for God to remove and/or prevent all moral evil, he would have had to do one of two things which both seem quite undesirable: First, he would have to contradict his intention to create human beings as we know them. As I have pointed out, he would have to make either super-humans or perhaps sub-humans without free will, bodily capacity, etc. But God’s intention was not to make these creatures but human beings as we know them. Or second, it seems that he would have had to create a world more evil than ours or one we simply would not want. Someone might reply that God could have created a different kind of being than he did so as to avoid moral evil—that is, a creature without, say, desires or intentions. Perhaps God could have done this and avoided evil but as Feinberg points out “It is hard to know what to call the resultant creature since it could neither move or think—even “robot” seems too “compli-mentary.””[6] Furthermore, a being without desires would not have free will nor would he be able to follow his desires where they led. Another response may be that while it would have been undesirable for God to make the sub-humans just described, he could have made moral super-humans who could always overcome their desires which go astray. But again, my contention is that human beings as we know them are a first-order good and are of significant value. Genesis 1:26-30 teaches mankind was made in the image of God and that he considered humanity good. That man bear this image was God’s intention for creation all along and so constitutes a value of such a high order that God was willing to actualize it even if it meant that evil would result.


So can God remove evil? Yes, I think so. But this would involve either that some creature other than human beings inhabit the world or altering life in a way that would compromise humanity in significant respects. So it seems that if God wants to remove evil from our world then he can. But he cannot both remove evil and accomplish other worthy goals for creation like creating humanity as we know it.


Finally, we address the origin of evil. Many critics of compatibilism have posed the following question: “If compatibilistic agents act on desires then how could a compatibilistically good agent (like Adam) make an evil choice?” This popular question confuses two issues: (1) the biblical view of the relationship between desires and sin and (2) the nature of the desire complex on compatibilistic model. First, in James 1:13-15 we are given a fairly detailed account of the relationship of desires to the act of sinning. This text makes three distinctions in the process of sin. It distinguishes between the temptation, the desire, and the act of sinning. The text makes very clear that sin has not taken place “until desire…has conceived” (NAU). Earlier in verse 14, the text makes plain that temptation occurs when desires are lured away. This implies that the desires which were enticed into temptation may have initially been good desires. It is not until these desires are corrupted by being led astray by temptations that they become sinful. So with Adam, for example, it would not have been the case the he started out with an evil desire and then chose to execute that desire by eating the fruit. Rather, his desires would have been good. But as I argued earlier, compatibilistic freedom means having the ability to follow your desires wherever they may lead. If God were to inhibit Adam from following his desire he would inhibit his freedom. Thus, while Adam’s initial desire may have been good, it was lead astray by temptation and ultimately corrupted. As Feinberg observes


Morally evil acts, then, ultimately begin with our desires. Desires alone are not evil, but when they are drawn away and enticed to the point of bringing us to choose to disobey God’s prescribed moral norms, we have sinned. Desires aren’t the only culprit, for will, reason, and emotion, for example, enter into the process. But James says that individual acts of sin ultimately stem from desires that go astray.[7]


This account is not only consistent with compatibilism but seems to function with it in a conceptually superior way than it would function with a libertarian account of agency. So far from the origin and existence of evil providing a problem for compatibilism, it actually ends up providing an argument from conceptual functionality for it.


[1] Tracy, “Divine Action, Created Causes, and Human Freedom,” 97.

[2] Flint and Freddoso, “Maximal Power,” 265-68.

[3] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, exap. and rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 165-202; cf. John S. Feinberg, “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism, and the Free Will Defense. TJ I NS (1980): 142-52.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); cf. his God and Other Minds (Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 134-35.

[5] Feinberg, Many Faces of Evil, 183-90.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 170.

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