Theology in 3D

Does God Have Free Will?

Layton Talbert | August 21, 2018

So I have been reading Alvin Plantinga’s argument against the problem of evil. He was arguing that it is impossible for God to give people free will and still make it impossible for them to choose evil. If they cannot choose evil, they do not have free will. I like the argument. But I have two problems…

  1. Don’t we say that God has free will? (And if he doesn’t, then how can he create someone who does?) And yet he not only does not, but cannot, do evil.

As I’ve said before before, I get good emails. Of course, I get some wacky ones from total strangers, too. (Like the guy that claims to be my guardian angel. Literally. I think his name is Fred.) But this email is a good one. He mentions two problems. We’ll start with the first one and save the second for the next post.

I, for one, would say that God has “free will” but what we mean by that term may differ. “Free will” is defined not merely by “ability” but by nature; it is the ability to choose anything within the parameters of one’s nature. “Free will” does not definitionally include any and every conceivable ability.

To say that my cat, Hobbes, does not have “free will” because he can’t sing the title role in Boito’s Mefistofeles,  even if he wanted to, is nonsensical (though it’s a part for which he is well-suited). The fact is, he can’t even want to; it’s utterly foreign to his feline nature. Hobbes has the freedom to do anything a cat wants to do (which is pretty much what he does all day) within the scope of what a cat can do — which I don’t think includes sin (though sometimes I wonder) and which I’m pretty confident doesn’t include righteousness. (My tentative theory is that God created cats to illustrate human self-centeredness.) So for God to have “free will” does not require that he be able to choose evil if he wanted to. He can’t even want to, any more than Hobbes could want to sing Ecco il mondo; it is entirely outside the parameters of his nature.

Nothing “can” act (i.e., has the ability or “free will” to act) outside of or contrary to its nature. Left to themselves, water can’t run uphill but man can; bears can’t fly but birds can (most of them, anyway). In that sense, water, man, bears, and birds have “free will” to do what they innately can  do. I’m using the word “can” in the sense of ability; but it could also be stated more simply: Nothing acts contrary to its nature. Or we could say it this way: Things won’t  act contrary to their nature. That incorporates not only the issue of ability (penguins can’t fly but robins can) but also volition  (penguins will eat fish but robins won’t). It’s not that they can’t, they just won’t.  It’s contrary to their nature. Granted, volition  is pushing it a bit when it comes to birds (where volition generally takes the form of instinct). But we’re talking about volitional beings: man and God. It’s true to say, on one level, that man can’t  fly (unassisted) and, on another, that man won’t  seek God (unassisted).

In the same way, God’s freedom means he is free to do anything consistent with his nature. God cannot choose (or even desire) evil, not because some bigger outside force constrains him but because it diametrically contradicts his very nature (who and what he is). If God could not (even if he wanted to) create, or know our thoughts, or foretell the future, he would not be God; those things define God’s being and nature, not because humans have decided that’s what a “god” is but because God defines himself as he defines all reality, and that’s what God has revealed himself to be. Likewise, if God could lie (Tit 1:2), or tempt (Jas 1:13), he would not be God, because that would be to deny himself — something else he is not “free” to do (2 Tim 2:13).

So it’s equally true to say that God won’t  desire or choose to do evil. Ever. It simply does not compute, like asking if the numeral 5 could ever be the letter S. So both God and man have the freedom (free will) to choose and act according to their respective natures. That human nature prior to the Fall included the capacity to choose evil is apparent (because we did). After the Fall, however, human nature precludes any independent inclination to choose ultimate good; that requires our being acted upon by some form of divine grace.

(By the way, because the Fall altered human nature it also altered the nature of temptation. Prior to the Fall, temptation was a purely external phenomenon; but according to James 1:14-15, it may now be a purely internal phenomenon requiring no external involvement whatsoever.)

So, yes, it’s correct to say that both God and man (and even Hobbes) have free will; but because their natures are different, that doesn’t mean exactly the same thing for each of them.

Next Post: Problem 2, is God bound by logic?

Photo credit: Isaac Talbert

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