A number of Calvinist/Reformed thinkers claim that human free will is strictly incompatible with God’s omnipotence. It’s important to note right away that this is distinct from the view that Scripture teaches we do not have free will, which many Calvinists also hold. (The latter claim is absolutely obliterated by D.A. Carson, summarized nicely by William Lane Craig here.)
I’ll begin with a quote from Gordon Clark – a Calvinist and one of the most influential American theologians of the 20th century – who held just such a view. Next, I’ll give a limited account of human free will and Divine omnipotence that, if even possibly true, will defeat Clark’s argument. Finally, I’ll consider two likely objections.
The free will argument has been the most popular proposed solution to the problem of evil, but it actually seeks to solve the problem by agreeing to one of the problem’s alternatives: The free-will argument concedes that God is not almighty, for the free will of man can and does frustrate God’s will. Like the unbeliever, the defender of free will is left with a god who may be god, but who is not omnipotent, and therefore he is not and cannot be the God of the Bible. (NOTE: The quote is lightly edited by me because the source contains some obvious copying errors)
The key assertion here is, “[T]he free will of man can and does frustrate God’s will.” We ought to agree that the will of God (the God of the Bible, anyway) cannot be frustrated, defeated, or thwarted. If man’s free will implies God’s will can be frustrated, then it follows Christians ought to side with Clark (and like-minded Calvinists) and abandon belief in man’s free will.
Clark is so confident in this assertion that he doesn’t bother to justify it with any argumentation. But whether or not a good argument exist to back up this assertion, all we must do to defeat it is show that it is possible for man to have free will (sufficient to answer the problem of evil) and yet still be unable to frustrate God’s will. Note that this state of affairs doesn’t necessarily have to be true, or even probable; if it is even logically possible, then Clark’s dismissal of the free-will theodicy is refuted.
To do this, I propose the following as a possible (obviously incomplete) account of God’s omnipotence and man’s free will:
- (1) Man’s free will consists in his being able to take more than one possible course of morally significant action under a given set of circumstances.
- (2) God is omnipotent if and only if it is impossible that His will be frustrated.
- (3) God has ordered his creation from the beginning such that, under any given set of circumstances that prevails for any person at any time, there is no possible course of action open that would frustrate God’s will.
Now, I don’t see any reason to suppose that (1), (2), and (3) can’t simultaneously be true. For clarity, let’s quickly evaluate each statement.
Statement (1) seems to be a perfectly accurate and sufficient construction of “libertarian” free will, which is precisely what proponents of free-will theodicy need to defend and precisely what Calvinists like Clark, White, and Piper deny. In being able to take more than one course of morally significant action, there is a definite possibility that a man takes either a sinful and blameworthy one or a just and praiseworthy one. Note also that nothing in (1) implies that man is able to earn his salvation or turn his heart toward God apart from His grace.
Is there any inherent contradiction in statement (3)? None that I can see. Is there anything in Scripture that rules out God ordering his creation this way? That’s doubtful. If God is powerless to order his creation in this way, that would seem to count against his omnipotence rather than in favor of it. Remember, we only need to give an account that is possible, not one that is necessary or even probable, to defeat Clark’s objection.
Perhaps (2) is the weak link here, because the Calvinist may want to insist that God’s omnipotence consists in something more than the impossibility of being frustrated. He is free to do so, provided he can substantiate the claim in Scripture. But this is the only criterion to which Clark appeals, so it is the only one we need address in order to rebut his claim.
Since Calvinists of Clark’s stripe obviously think there must be something wrong with this account, let me try to anticipate some likely objections.
OBJECTION 1: If more than one possible course of morally significant action is open to a man, then God surely has a preference for which action that man chooses. But then the man could never take the course of action contrary to God’s preference, or else God’s preference (will) would be defeated. So man cannot have free will.
In large part, this objection has been answered already by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
[A]nyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.” Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.
With help from Lewis’s analogy, we can see how to avoid the objection. The mother’s preferred outcome (under the possibilities which she leaves open to the children) and the mother’s will are not strictly identical. In Lewis’s words, it is “in accordance with [her] will in one way and not in another”. Her preferred outcome is not realized, but neither is her will frustrated or defeated. Why should it be out of the question that God’s will be similarly two-dimensional?
Further it would certainly be strange for a Calvinist to claim God’s will must be strictly identical to his every preference, given that Calvinists over the centuries have variously appealed to God’s “sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.” as a way to deal with what is essentially the same problem – the clear difference between what God commands (and therefore presumably wills) and what actually comes to pass. And in this regard, Lewis’s appeal to two aspects of a single will strikes me as far more coherent than the notion of God possessing two (seemingly contradictory) wills.
OBJECTION 2: An appeal to Lewis’s analogy is ad hoc and can only succeed by redefining what is meant by “frustrate God’s will”.
I don’t see how the appeal is ad hoc in the least, since it is taken from the section of Mere Christianity in which Lewis offers a free will theodicy and is an integral part of it. To be sure, the Calvinist might argue that any course of action that isn’t precisely the exact outcome God wills ought to count as frustrating God’s will. But to overturn my account he would have to show that this is the only possible way of defining the phrase “frustrate God’s will”. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the Calvinist who defends the “two wills” position is open himself to the charge of ad hoc reasoning, since there seems to be no reason to argue for it other than avoiding a difficulty in the Calvinist systematic.
The popularity (which Clark acknowledges) of the free will theodicy is not without good reason; choosing one course of action over another is, by the intuition of many, precisely why a person is morally responsible for his or her actions. To deny that a man could have done otherwise is to effectively place him on par with a lion or a parrot – a beast whose “actions” do not extend into the realm of moral judgements.