A review of the interplay between God’s omnipotence and humans’ volitional will.
Length: 3,500 words
Reading Time: 12 minutes
”The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that “it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.”
“One of the biggest issues I have with many Calvinist’s arguments (at least online) is that there seems to be an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality that God’s view is eternal, not temporal, omniscient, not finite. Mainly it’s because of a weird pride in having been chosen.
Clearly it hasn’t been a bedrock truth that Calvinists think that man has no free will. I don’t know that anyone could ever be that foolish. But I may be wrong.”
Yes. I think there’s generally a lot of muddiness about these things, precisely because it can be challenging for many people to toggle between the divine/eternal perspective and the created/temporal one.
It is not, and never has been, controversial that God foreknows all of history. This is a necessary consequence of God being eternal and omniscient — that is, He knows what will occur at every point in created time before He creates time, because He is present at all points of created time at the same time, since He is eternal. This is basic metaphysics and has never really been controversial.
Temporal and Eternal
The key distinction here is the obvious difference between the eternality of God, on the one hand, and the temporality of creation, on the other.
God is eternal. This means that His entire existence is beyond time, it transcends time. It precedes the existence of anything temporal, and so a reference to God’s existence “before” time began is not only meant in a temporal sense, but also in an existential one — God simply IS, as He says when he first describes himself in Genesis as אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה — “I am He Who Is” or “I am The Existing One” — in Exod. 3:14. “Before all that you see, I AM.” “I AM” is IS-ness itself. In other words, God is saying that He exists outside the confines of time and place, i.e. He is eternal.
And His eternal existence is not just “before” in a temporal sense (although that is true enough), but in an existential and ontological sense — God’s Being, His “Being-ness”, His “Is-ness”, is ontologically prior to the existence of everything in temporal reality. Indeed, in the NT, Paul himself reminds us that it is God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This is because God’s “Being” is the only Being that is actually “Real” in the eternal sense of the meaning of the word “Real” — His Be-ing is not temporal (i.e., temporary), but Real precisely because He is eternal. And all created “beings” participate in the divine and eternal “Being” in a derivative/created/limited/temporal way — in the realm of “temporal being”, which is to say, a form of being which is not eternal, like the true, ultimate and divine form of “Being”, but which is its temporal manifestation, and therefore is a temporary, created form of “being”, which itself derives its shadow/echo of “being-ness” (the temporal version of it) from the eternal and true “Being” in which it lives and moves, and from which its own derived, temporal “being” comes … and to which it returns as well. This is what it means to say that God’s “Being” is ontologically prior to our own created “being”, and that the latter (i.e., our created “being-ness”) lives and moves and gets its “being-ness” from the eternal divine “Being”-ness of God.
The eternal God, being prior to creation not only temporally but also ontologically, because God is eternal, therefore sees all of creation, in all of its permutations and details, throughout all of time, as if it were in the present tense. That is to say — the eternal God is simultaneously present at each and every point in time at the same time, and is fully present in each of them and, vice versa, each such point is fully and simultaneously present to the eternal God. Again, this is because God stands outside of time, He transcends it ontologically — all of it is created by Him and therefore known fully to Him because it gets its very being in a relationship of ontological dependency on His own eternal Being. Time is, in this sense, a fact of creation from the eternal/divine perspective, as much as a tree is to ours. It is a derivative reality that is created and temporary, and it poses no boundary to the divine knowledge in the sense that things taking place at “later points in the timeline” would not be mysterious, as they are to the human/created/temporal (and limited) mind — in the mind of the divine, all of these points of time are simultaneously present, and were so from before the point when time began.
Because all points of time were known in full in the mind of God prior to the time when time itself began, the Fall itself was known to God, as was God’s response, and all of God’s other interventions into the “timeline” of created space/time. This is also reflected in the NT, where Paul clearly says that “God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His presence. In love, He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ …” (Eph. 1:4-5). This choosing and election to be adopted in Christ was something that took place before the foundation of the world — which means that the need for it, and the need for Christ and his specific redemption of humanity, and the fall which preceded it, were all known in the mind of God as well before the foundation of the world, for it is in this knowledge that God’s choice of Paul and the others was made “before the foundation of the world” (καθὼς ἐξελέξατο ἡμᾶς ἐν αὐτῷ πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου).
Thereby, all of this raises the obvious questions:
- If God is perfectly and fully aware of all of this — that is, of all conditions and causes as they cascade throughout all of time, including all human acts and all decisions and so on — prior to the beginning of time, in what sense is human free will “real”?
- Does free will exist?
- If so, how?
Free-Will vs. “Predestination”
This intersection of God’s eternal omniscience and humans’ temporal volitional will (i.e. freely chosen actions) is normally where human minds get tripped up. If God knows all causes and conditions, does free will really even exist, or is it just an illusion, where all of our acts and decisions are pre-ordained and fated, and therefore outside of our control?
Again, the key to unpacking this lies in understanding the distinctions made above between the eternal and the temporal, between “Being” and “being”, uncreated and created, and, to the very limited extent that is possible for a temporally limited mind, keeping both perspectives in play at the same time.
Inside the space of created time, and therefore from the perspective of “beings” inside that created time, we do have free will in that we are not God’s marionettes, generally speaking. Our acts of volitional will are volitional from our perspective regardless of the fact that God has always been aware of what choices we would make prior to the time when time began, because the temporal creation includes volitional will within the framework of that temporality — it is simply the case that the eternal Being is aware of all points in time before time begins, and so He knows all causes and conditions, all temporal occurrences, before even the first of them takes place in time. These two things — that volitional free-will is “real” in the created temporal space, on the one hand, and that God is aware of, in a complete and total and perfect knowledge sense, of each and every cause and condition in the created temporal space, including all human acts and decisions, prior to the first moment of time — are both true.
These are both true at once because of the difference in perspective between the temporal and the eternal — the temporal perspective is limited and the eternal is not. Therefore from our limited temporal perspective (which is the only one available to us in a real sense), human free will is “true”, whereas in the eternal perspective, all of the acts of that free will are fully known, for the entirety of temporal history from start to finish, before any of creation existed. It is because of this that the very existence of the human freedom to act in the temporal space is itself derivative of God’s decision to create, and thereby enable all of those specific causes and conditions to actually take place in temporal space — that is, God creates and enables human freedom by means of His decision to create a temporal reality which includes human freedom in it, but He knows all of the outcomes which arise from that freedom prior to creating the temporal reality that includes it.
That is to say — the temporal perspective (real volitional will) is real inside the confines of the temporal space, but (as is the case in general with temporal “being” and eternal/real “Being”) it is derivative of what is actually “Real”. “Reality” (capital R) in it’s fullest sense contains the perfect foreknowledge of God of all causes and conditions throughout time, and the decision by God to create the temporal space time, with all of those specifically foreknown causes and conditions, and which thereby enable all of them to actually take place in the created/temporal/derivative “reality”. It is in this way that both human free will and the perfect divine foreknowledge and perfect divine fore-ordination (in terms of willing into being) of all events in time are true — both are true and are not contradictory, if one holds both the temporal and the eternal perspectives in play at the same time.
God is also active in history as His own agent (or “player” in the game sense), and when He wishes to influence a certain course of action, there are “setups” that are designed so that people do, according to their free will, certain things. Again, God knows everything that’s going to happen from before time — all “causes and conditions”–, so there are no surprises for God from His perspective. But within the space of created temporal causality, we have been given volitional free will. I actually don’t believe that the Calvinists all deny this way of looking at things, perhaps apart from some of the very online uber-Calvinists.
Free-Will vs. Grace
The next issue arises with respect to the interaction between the human will and divine grace. For Luther, following Augustine, the human will was almost entirely corrupt, and therefore from Luther came the famous Reformation slogans such as Sola Fidei, Sola Gratia, and so on, which all flow from a perspective that they are necessary for salvation to be possible because of the deeply depraved and incapable state of the post-lapsarian human will. But despite this, Luther nevertheless believed that the grace which saves is freely given to all, and that all are free enough to accept or reject that free gift of grace at any time — meaning that God provides the means to everyone to accept his gift of saving grace (i.e., the grace needed to accept the gift of faith), but that this gift can be rejected and resisted by the human will. This is consistent with Luther’s view that the human will was corrupted in that it could not accept faith without grace enabling it to do so, but not so utterly corrupted that it could not even accept the grace that leads to faith. Again, in Luther’s view, God knows who will accept and who will reject, but he lets the individuals make that decision using their created temporal wills, because the temporal reality which God created includes human volitional will.
It’s not actually clear how much John Calvin himself subscribed to what subsequently became “TULIP” Calvinism, as articulated at the Synod of Dort. Certainly Calvin’s famous “Institutes of Christian Religion“, which was itself revised numerous times over his own lifetime, doesn’t refer specifically to a TULIP-style approach to doctrine, or that these specific elements were key to the entire Calvinist view of the faith. However, in the context of their earlier dispute with the Arminians, Calvinists later insisted that the grace that saves is always “effective” (i.e., it never fails to save in any case where it is given by God), and therefore, contrary to Luther’s teaching, that it cannot be resisted by the act of the will, or through a stubborn refusal to accept the gift of saving grace.
This means that, from a Calvinist point of view, God does not provide such grace to everyone, but only to those whom He chooses — otherwise all would be saved, since saving grace never fails per the Calvinist scheme. Therefore, in the Calvinist understanding, God moves from foreknowing/foreordaining, on the one hand, to differentially saving by his own fiat, on the other, which gets rolled under the all-encompassing “sovereignty” concept that lies at the core of all Calvinist thinking. It is this understanding — not of “predestination” in terms of God knowing what’s going to happen (He must know given his eternal nature and how that relates to created space/time), but rather that He individually determines Himself, irrespective of anything other than His own inscrutable sovereign will, who is saved and who is not, and only provides grace to the saved, while withholding it from the rest.
The Calvinist view does not necessarily follow from the view that God knows what will happen and that He also “foreordains” what will happen by choosing to create a timeline, all the events of which He is fully aware of. This perspective is a substantial step further, and says that God determines outcomes in a very specific, individual way, inside the temporal space, in such a way that human freewill as it exists in the temporal space is completely irrelevant when it comes to human salvation. In other words, predestination is a process that is fully automated, fully orchestrated by God, and which never fails in any individual case of an individual that God determined to be among those to whom he would provide saving grace before time began. That’s also the view that runs counter to the idea of free will. It doesn’t totally deny free will but rather holds that free will plays no role in human salvation, and it isn’t a view that is held by any Christians but the Calvinists. Today, even many who refer to themselves as “Calvinist” or “Reformed” will back away from this “hard double predestination” viewpoint in favor of a more “Arminian” view (the one which was condemned at the Synod of Dort), which creates a separate category of “prevenient grace”, which is the grace that is given to all which all can accept or reject, such that if one accepts that grace, then the never failing saving grace is provided in response to that acceptance.
Of course, the issue of the exact interface between the human will and the divine energy in the temporal world (i.e., grace) is not clear — there is a lot of room for different views, and there always were different views running alongside each other in the church. The same is true for the meaning of the word “elect”. Calvinism has its rather famous understanding of the meaning of that word, expressed above. Luther accepted the concept, but Lutheran theology, like Catholic theology, generally takes the view that this refers to God’s foreknowledge and foreordination as Paul describes in Eph. 1:4, and not His specific intervention in the temporal space with grace for some but not others. Lutheran theology therefore concludes that one should act as if one is elect, if one is being called to repentance and to serve God — that is, if one has been called to the Gospel. Whereas, the stricter Calvinists hold the view that some people who experience that call experience it falsely, and are not actually “elect”. Other church fathers have suggested that the term simply means those whom God knows, due to the reality of his foreknowledge of all of history, will be saved. All of these views have existed side by side in the church since the beginning really, if you examine the early fathers. It was only later that rigorous logical views became hardened and camps formed, as we have today.
The significance of this for religious believers today varies, depending on the degree of one’s faith. Some people are called to a simple faith, and there are many blessings in this if one is called to it — it is easier in many ways. If one is a sophisticated thinker in other areas of life, however, it is extremely unlikely that one is called to have a simple faith, and in my own experience, many people who try to retain a simple understanding of faith that does not “keep pace” with the level of sophistication of their understandings of other things will end up dropping their faith at some point in time. This is because the simple view of faith doesn’t correlate with their life experience and it can’t “keep up” with the rest of their understanding, so at some level, it stops “working” for them from a mental perspective. So, unfortunately, for people who have a more sophisticated understanding of other things, it becomes necessary for them to delve into the depths of these issues and revise their mental model of faith, both to address their own questions, as well as to deal with the perspectives that the world will foist upon them. This kind of situation is often called a “crisis of faith”, and in my opinion, everyone goes through a crisis of faith at some point in their lives. The successful navigation of a crisis of faith is pivotal, both as to the continuance of one’s own faith as well as one’s children, and in terms of any evangelism or other issues that relate to people of no faith or people of other faiths.
A simple understanding of things is a luxury that most of us do not have, I think, in the current world, with its sophisticated critiques. Whenever others in the world come across an understanding of Christianity that is not well-grounded intellectually, massive problems can, and often do, ensue. We would be wise to be aware of this and to head it off pre-emptively, if possible.
Post Script from Jack
To follow up with the conclusion of this post, I endured a crisis of faith that lasted close to a decade. I recounted this experience in a series of posts which may be insightful to the reader.
- Σ Frame: A Spiritual Death (2009 December 8)
- Σ Frame: Growing “Roots” in Faith (2009 December 12)
- Σ Frame: God’s Silence During Suffering (2009 December 14)
- Σ Frame: Understanding Temptation (2009 December 21)
- Σ Frame: Unconditional Atonement, Limited Election (2019 October 18)
- Σ Frame: The gospel is relevant to all, not just guilty bad boys. (2020 September 11)