God and Freedom



N. F. Gier,
Theology Bluebook
(University of Idaho, 3rd ed., 1994), chapter


Lord engages the living entity in pious activities so he may be elevated. The
Lord engages him in impious activities so he may go to Hell…. By the will of
the Supreme Lord he can go to Heaven or Hell, as a cloud is driven by the air.

Upanishad 3.8

In his heart man plans his course, but the Lord determines his

Proverbs 16:9 (NIV)

The lot is cast into the lap, but it is every decision from the

Proverbs 16:33 (NIV)

Our life is, at every moment supplied
by him, our tiny, miraculous power of free‑will only operates on bodies which
his continual energy keeps in existence � our very power to think is his power
communicated to us.

— C. S. Lewis

The world has allowed itself to be seduced by the flattery
doctrine of free‑will which is pleasing to nature.

�Martin Luther

Therefore, to teach something [free‑will] which is neither
prescribed by a single word inside the Scriptures nor demonstrated by a single
fact outside them is no part of Christian doctrine.

–Martin Luther

God from all eternity did…freely and unchangeably ordain
whatsoever comes to pass…Yet…thereby is no violence offered to the will of

–The Westminster

. . . Freedom is found only in subjection to God and His truth;
and the more subject, the more free.  This is the biblical paradox of
Christian liberty.  Man becomes free only in bondservice to Jesus Christ.

–J. I. Packer

If there is a God, then it is always His will, and I can do
nothing against His will.

–Kirilov in Dostoevsky’s The

I act freely whenever I act, and unfreely whenever some other
agency acts through me.

–Roger Scruton
on Kant


A.  Determinism and Morality

The freedom of the will is one of
the most difficult problems that challenges the human mind. We all would like
to assert with confidence that we do have free‑will; indeed, our basic notions
about morality require free‑will.  Close and honest reflection, however,
reveals a disturbing contradiction.  On the one hand, we immediately feel the
spontaneity and freedom of our mental processes, especially if the world is
going our way.  On the other hand, we habitually concede the assumption that
all events and things have causes, causes which are independent of their
effects. The contradiction is this: free‑will requires a situation in which
the will is not externally caused or coerced; but this is incompatible with
our otherwise strong intuitions that every event has causes independent of
itself.  The principal assumption of morality is at odds with the principal
assumption of science.  In science we assume that all effects are rendered
inevitable by their causes; in morality we attempt to make an exception to
this universal law for the human will.  Many philosophers agree that we are
simply wrong in making this exception.


What does it take to say with assurance that the will is free? 
Let us first make an important distinction between a free‑will and a free act.
The necessary conditions for a free‑will are internal. We can almost always
observe human actions, but we cannot observe the will. A free‑will must stem
from an originative power within us, i.e., a power that is truly our own.

Actions, on the other hand, are externally observable and the
conditions for a free act are two: (1) open alternatives from which we can
decide, choose, and act; and (2) an absence of external constraints or
barriers in the acting out of a choice. It is clear then that a person can
have free‑will and yet be prevented from acting freely.  A person chained from
head to foot may have the originative power necessary for a free act, but
obviously is prevented from using that power by external constraints.


Let us use the case of Patty Hearst as another example.  F. Lee
Bailey probably advised his client to plead �no contest� on the sporting goods
store charge because of the fact that Patty was at one time completely alone
outside in the getaway truck.  In other words, there were no external
constraints preventing her from driving off without her companions.  On the
other hand, Bailey did take the bank robbery charge to court, hoping to
convince the jury that the SLA gang coerced her to go along with the crime,
thus leaving her no alternatives. Bailey was foiled: the jury was not even
persuaded in this case. A court of law deals with the external conditions of a
person’s behavior, not the internal conditions.  A jury can decide whether or
not a person acted freely but it cannot decide whether the will is free.  It
is here where science and philosophy step in; and it is here, unfortunately
where the real dilemma lies.


The major stumbling block is the necessary condition for a
free‑will.  Is it possible for any agent to have the originative power to
perform those acts for which the agent is morally responsible?  If that power
is derivative and not originative, then the agent cannot be held responsible
for her acts. Is a self‑determining moral being a possibility given what we
know about the causes and conditions of human behavior and the nature of
reality?  The physical sciences tell us that there is no escape from
determinism; therefore, human will cannot be exempted from the universal law
of cause and effect.  (Incidentally, some free‑will theorists are wrong in
appealing to Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle for a metaphysical basis for
self‑determinism.  See Section G.) The behavioral sciences are now telling us
the same thing:  humans are in no way self‑determining; rather, they appear
fully determined by the environment, previous conditioning, and general
psycho‑physiological laws. Some �socio‑ biologists� are even now adding
genetic determinism as well.


B.  God and Free‑Will

Some people have thought that if we bring God into the picture,
the problem is somehow miraculously solved. But calling on God makes the
problem worse rather than better.  The God of orthodox Christianity is
all‑powerful; God is the only being with originative power.  Most theologians
(Descartes and Luther excluded) thought that God has the power to do anything
short of self‑contradiction. For example, God could have created a world in
which all people would have been saved; or God could have created a world in
which all people would have been damned.  God finally decided, at least
according to some religions, to create a world in which some will be damned
and some will be saved.  But there is one choice that even God is not
allowed:  to create a world in which all would be damned and all would be
saved.  For philosophical theology, at least, God must be limited by the laws
of logic.


Some people have the misconception that God’s causal relations
with the world ended with the Creation.  God must continue to sustain this
creation, because all entities depend upon God’s originative power. God is the
only necessary being in the universe; everything else is contingent, i.e., all
things would cease to exist without God’s sustaining power. Luther contends
that people �live under the absolute sovereignty of God…in such a way that
they cannot subsist for a moment by their own strength.�1 For
Luther this meant that God is the active cause of all things and all events,
even the acts of Satan himself.  Recall that Paul asserts that Jesus Christ
has a �power that enables him to bring everything under his control� (Philip.
3:21, NIV).


J. L. Mackie states that �if men’s wills are really free, this
must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, that God is no longer
omnipotent.�2 Some Christians do in fact hold that God controlled
the wills of some important agents in biblical history, e.g., his son Jesus
and Judas.  If God can control the wills of some people, then God can
constrain the will of anyone.  If immunity from this sort of control is a
necessary condition for genuine free‑will, then free‑will is impossible in the
biblical perspective.


C. �Our Tiny, Miraculous Power�

The evangelical writer C. S. Lewis unwittingly confirms the
impossibility of free‑will within the orthodox Christian framework.  In his
book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis states: �Our life is, at every moment
supplied by him, our tiny, miraculous power of free‑will only operates on
bodies which his continual energy keeps in existence � our very power to think
is his power communicated to us.�3 Free‑will is the action of an
autonomous, self‑determining being with the power to think and decide on its
own without external support or impediment. If, according to Lewis, our �very
power to think� is supplied by God, how can the Christian be called a free and
autonomous being?


In this same book, Lewis reiterates the biblical analogy of the
potter and the clay. Such an analogy leaves no room for free‑will in
�clay‑like� humans.  Is the clay �free� to be what it wants to be?  As Lewis
states: �He makes us, we are made:  he is original, we derivative.�4
The doctrine of free‑will assumes originative power on the part of
humans.  Lewis’ Christianity gives us no metaphysical ground for such power. 
As Roger Scruton says of Kant’s ethics:  �I act freely whenever I act, and
unfreely whenever some other agency acts through me.�In orthodox
Christianity God is always acting through us. Lewis stresses the derivative
nature of human beings in this passage:  �For we are only creatures; our role
must always be that of patient to agent, female to male [sic!], mirror to
light, echo to voice.�6 A mirror is worthless without light, an
echo is a mere epiphenomenon, but a female, contrary to Lewis’ sexism, is
perfectly able to take care of herself.  These are definitely not appropriate
images for free agents and morally responsible beings.


Let me quote more in order to emphasize the utter lack of any
foundation for free‑will in Lewis’ evangelical theology:  �Our highest
activity must be response, not initiative.  To experience the love of God…is
to experience it as our surrender to his demand, our conformity to his
desire… but in the long run the soul’s search for God can only be a
mode…of his search for her, since all comes from him, since the very
possibility of our loving is his gift for us, and since our freedom is only a
freedom of better or worse response.�7 It is obvious that if there
is free‑will here, it must indeed be a miracle, a paradox, or more bluntly, a
logical contradiction.  Another evangelical writer, J. I. Packer, concurs with
Lewis:  �…Freedom is found only in subjection to God and His truth; and the
more subject, the more free.  This is the biblical paradox of Christian
liberty.  Man becomes free only in bondservice to Jesus Christ….�8


D.  Luther and Free‑Will

In his famous response to the Christian humanist Erasmus,
Martin Luther admits that �you would not call a slave free, who acts under the
sovereign authority of his master; and still less rightly can we call a man or
angel free, when they live under the absolute sovereignty of God.�9
In terms of the humanism which is at the basis of our western civilization and
which in forms modern political systems of representative democracy, any form
of slavery, even slavery to God, would be an abomination. In terms of our
epigram from John Fowles, the orthodox God is not �the freedom that allows
other freedoms to exist.� Fowles goes on to give implicit support the view I
prefer:  �The novelist is still God, since he creates…What has changed is
that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and
decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle,
not authority.�10


If one were to ask most Christians if humans had free‑will,
they would not hesitate to say �Yes.� Martin Luther, father of the Protestant
Reformation, saw the implications differently.  Luther was unflinching in his
recognition that divine omnipotence implied that God was the original cause of
all things and actions, including the actions of Satan. Our own Jonathan
Edwards was also emphatic about the absence of human free‑will, and he, like
Luther, provided both scriptural and philosophical arguments for this view. 
Edwards was convinced that divine foreknowledge recorded in the Bible
pre‑empted any idea of self‑determination.11


    Luther’s position is also clear:  �God works
all in all…God even works what is evil in the impious….[Judas’] will was
the work of God; God by his almighty power moved his will as he does all that
is in the world.�12 All contingent wills then are extensions of
God’s will, including the will of Satan. �Since God moves and does all, we
must take it that he moves and acts even in Satan and the godless;…evil
things are done with God himself setting them in motion.�13
 Luther, therefore, concludes that �the world has allowed itself to be seduced
by the flattering doctrine of free‑will which is pleasing to nature.�14
Since most Lutherans believe in free‑will, more
quotations might be appropriate:  �Man, even when he does and things what is
wrong, is not responsible�; and �all is of necessity, for we…live and act
not as we will, but as God wills.  In God’s presence the will ceases to
The following passage from The Bondage of the Will not only
continues the point, but shows Luther’s supreme rhetorical skills:  �The human
will is like a beast of burden.  If God mounts it, it wishes and goes as God
wills; if Satan mounts it, it wishes and goes as Satan wills.  Nor can it
choose its rider….The riders contend for its possession.�16 In
Luther’s reading of divine omnipotence, there is no basis for human autonomy
and self‑determination.


Rem B. Edwards states that divine omnipotence means that �all
power and the exercise of all power belong to God.�17 Luther is not
always philosophically astute, but his definition of omnipotence contains an
important clarification:  �By the omnipotence of God…I do not mean the
potentiality by which he could do many things which he does not, but the
active power by which he potently works all in all….�18 John
Locke concurs: God has no passive power, but has complete active power.19 
This is the first type of divine power in �Three Types of Divine Power.�
In other words, God is not like a power plant, upon which many autonomous
electrical machines draw their current.  In such a system, it would be absurd,
for example, to blame the power plant for a fire caused by a short‑circuit in
one of the appliances. The notion of God as some passive source of power is of
course totally foreign to revealed religion as well as most natural religion.
If one were to add attributes like active will, intelligence, and providence
to the power plant, then one is forced to a very different conclusion about
our hypothetical fire.  An omnipotent agent with these attributes would not
allow such a disaster to take place in the first place.  Furthermore, if such
a agent were also the creator of the appliances, then it would also be
responsible, in the same way that manufacturers are responsible, for the
defect that caused the fire.


E.  Objections and Responses

Augustine offers a brilliant analysis of the nature of the
will:  he contends that the will is not a will unless it is free.  To say, for
example, that my willing to sin is not in my power is to say that I will to
sin even though I do not will to sin.  This of course is impossible, since
willing is defined as that which is in my power. Another way to make
Augustine’s point is to say that the proposition �the will is free� is a
necessary truth, i.e., it is analytic and not synthetic.  If we analyze what
the concept �will� really means, we will discover that it means a capacity for
voluntary, uncoerced action.  To say that the will is not free is to say that
circles are not round.  We are not adding any new knowledge to the concept of
the will when we say that it is free (in other words, the concept is not
synthetic); and we contradict ourselves if we contend that it is not free.
Augustine is perhaps correct in his analysis of the will, but
can his own theology allow for the existence of the originative power
required?  The answer must be �No.� Augustine maintains the orthodox position
on the omnipotence of God, and it can be shown how this undermines the
concept of an autonomous will. (See �Three Types of
Divine Power

A possible solution to the God vs. free‑will dilemma is the
following:  if God is a free being then God can choose not to be the
originative cause of every event.  God can allow human creatures to be morally
autonomous and to choose good or evil for themselves. But the deficiencies of
this argument are numerous.  By choosing not to cause some events (and this
will involve at least every event in which human will is or has been
involved), then the deity has chosen to limit itself.  God, in order to remain
the orthodox God, cannot do this.  God’s power and control over the universe
would be severely compromised.  God would no longer be the omnipotent being
that Christians assume God is. If, for example, Adam’s decision to disobey God
originated from Adam, then God was not the cause of this act.  But this would
also mean that God, then, is not all‑powerful, but shares power with other
agents in universe.  This is the solution of process theology, and it requires
a different view of divine power. (See �Three Types of
Divine Power


There is a deeper dilemma for orthodox Christians who follow
Harold Brown at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  Brown and many other
evangelicals believe that God does not want us to be autonomous beings at all. 
In a letter to me, Brown declared that only God, not human beings, has rights. 
We do not have natural rights and we do not own our own souls.  As the will has
always been located in the soul, we cannot have our own wills either.  As Lewis
has confirmed above, our wills are simply extensions of the divine will. The
evangelicals are probably right as far as the Bible is concerned.  The ancient
rabbis believed that our souls were actually God’s breath in us, and Paul said
that �God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure�
(Philip. 2:13).  Even Thomas Aquinas admitted that the will is an unmoved mover,
which at least implies that it is divinely directed if not divine itself.20
Martin Luther agreed:  free‑will is a divine attribute and can never be an
attribute of human beings.21


Therefore, the only �freedom� for the orthodox
Christian, as Lewis aptly phrases it, is a �freedom of better or worse response�
to God’s inexorable will.  For the conservative Christian there are essentially
only two alternatives: to comply with God’s will or to burn in Hell.  And as
Lewis states above, all initiative comes from God and that includes the divine
initiative to turn to God as well as the divine initiative to turn away. God
empowers all things and all events; it is not the orthodox God if this does not
hold.  God’s will shall be done, regardless of what other agents want or realize
for themselves.  In The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther affirms that
�God foresees, foreordains, and accomplished all things by an unchanging,
eternal, and efficacious will.  By this thunderbolt free‑will sinks shattered to
the dust.�22




1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Work, Vol. 33, p. 103.


2. J. L. Mackie, �Evil and Omnipotence,� Mind 64 (1955),
reprinted in Baruch A. Brody, ed. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice‑Hall, 1974), p. 165.


3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan,
1944). pp. 41‑2.


4. Ibid., p. 41.


5. Roger Scruton, Kant (Oxford:  Oxford University Press,
1982), p. 64.


6. Lewis, op. cit., p. 51.


7. Ibid.


8. J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p.


9. Luther, Luther’s Work, Vol. 33, p. 103.


10. John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (New York: 
New American Library, 1969), p. 82.


11. See John E. Smith, �Jonathan Edwards as Philosophical
Theologican,� Review of Metaphysics 30 (December, 1976), p. 307.


12. Weimarausgabe� of Luther’s Works, Vol. 2, p. 145; Vol.
18, p. 175.


13. Ibid., Vol. 18, p. 709; Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, p.


14. Weimarausgabe, Vol. 7, p. 146.


15. Ibid., Vol. 18, p. 715; Vol. 7, p. 145.


16. Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, pp. 65‑66.


17. Edwards, op. cit., p. 177.


18. Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, p. 189.


19. John Locke, Of Human Understanding, XXI.2.


20. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q. 83, Art.
1, Reply Obj. 3.


21. Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, p. 68.


22. Ibid., p. 37.



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