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Does the Bible teach any kind of free will?

Given how hotly debated a topic it is, you would assume it does…wouldn’t you?

In the comments of Unreflective assumptions about free will, Andrew asked:

In your opinion, is there anywhere in Scripture that clearly teaches that mankind has “free will” (in some sense of the term)?

(i)

Leviticus 22:18 and Psalm 54:6 speak of freewill offerings—which certainly implies at least a colloquial understanding that man is free to make choices. I also think the concept of man imaging God tacitly assumes that he can exercise freedom of will in some meaningful sense.

(ii)

The problem with the question is that it presupposes a modern philosophical category (“free will”) and then imputes it to Scripture. But this category is quite out of place in the thinking of the ancient near-East. While there’s nothing wrong with philosophical theology, the scriptural way to answer the question is simply to observe that:

  1. Man is a responsible agent; he is culpable (or exculpable) to God for his choices;
  2. God himself determines what those choices will be.

If you then want to say that (1) just is free will, sure, go ahead. And if you want to say that (2) is conjunction with (1) is compatibilism, sure, go ahead. But Scripture itself doesn’t talk that way; it doesn’t use those terms, nor does it use analogues of those terms. The concepts simply aren’t on the ancient thinker’s radar. Rather than freedom, it talks about responsibility or culpability. In fact, the term “free will” is problematic precisely because of the unstated relation implicit in it: ie, free from what; or free to what?

(iii)

Apropos (ii), while Arminians tend to assume that item (2) above is unacceptably limiting on freedom, what they fail to recognize is that both (2) and (1) are wildly liberal in ANE thought.

The ancient thinker was extremely fatalistic. Far more limiting than (2). Since the human realm was ultimately one with the natural and divine realms, and since past and present were ultimately one in a great cycle of continuity, nothing you did could change anything, and your actions were in fact fully decided in advance by impersonal forces well outside your control. The very concept of personal responsibility, of the ability to meaningfully choose one path over another, of right and wrong as adherence to the laws of a personal creator to whom you were accountable, was highly unusual. From what I understand, these concepts were radical innovations in Israel (which serves as good evidence that they were not invented by man).

For a non-Israelite, what you should do was simply whatever would bring honor (and more importantly survival) on your clan or tribe or people-group; and what you shouldn’t do was anything that would bring shame on them. So for instance, because ritual temple prostitution or child sacrifice was a way of ensuring fertile crops through representation and sympathetic magic, those were good things. By the same token, if you could steal without being discovered (and so would not lose face), then why feel guilty? You haven’t lost face, so you haven’t done anything wrong. So Israel’s concept of moral responsibility is actually incredibly robust.

(iv)

Apropos (iii), it’s a great irony that Arminians argue against the biblical view of responsibility in precisely the way pagan idolaters of the ancient near-East would have; except the pagan idolaters would have appealed to their fatalistic honor/shame intuitions, which of course Arminians would find utterly reprehensible and outrageous. It’s such an obliviously provincial, condescending approach to the dialectic.

16 comments

  1. John

    At least 50%, probably a lot more of people who wax on about “ancient eastern philosophy”, are making it up out of whole cloth. And that’s what we have here. What more should we expect from you, who spouts unstated authorities for every claim.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, future comments like this will simply be deleted. Either substantiate your accusations, or don’t make them.

    For readers who are interested in a good primer on ancient near-Eastern thought, John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths is very helpful and quite accessible. John Currid’s Against the Gods makes an excellent supplement to it, to help flesh out the aims of the Old Testament’s authors. And although I haven’t gotten hold of it yet, Peter Jones’ One or Two also looks very promising.

  3. Andrew

    I’m curious whether John can cite evidence for his claim that “At least 50%, probably a lot more of people who wax on about “ancient eastern philosophy”, are making it up out of whole cloth.” or whether he’s just making it up out of whole cloth.

  4. Andrew

    “GIVEN HOW HOTLY DEBATED A TOPIC IT IS, YOU WOULD ASSUME IT DOES…WOULDN’T YOU?” (apologies for all-caps quote)

    Actually, I asked the question precisely because that assumption often seems to be taken for granted, but I’m yet to find anywhere in the Scriptures that teaches that man’s will is ultimately “free” in any manner meaningful to Western philosophy, and a heck of a lot of teaching to the contrary.

    I’m perfectly happy to observe that we Westerners feel a conflict between predetermination and responsibility, and Scripture discusses it on occasion (e.g. Paul in Romans), but there often seems to be an assumption that “responsibility” mutually implies “free will” that I have not found anywhere in Scripture.

  5. John

    So let me get this straight. I make a posting pointing out that this article is completely unsubstantiated, and you respond by lamenting that my post is unsubstantiated. I’ll give you 10 out of 10 for chutzpah, but that’s about it.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    It’s like you don’t understand the concept of a blog. Do you think I should cite every claim I make here? Or would that get a little cumbersome? Maybe only every second claim? Or should my readers have learned to trust me, and ask for references if they want to follow up and learn more on their own time?

    I’ve substantiated my claims. Now, how’s about you retract your scurrilous accusations, or get out?

  7. John

    ” Do you think I should cite every claim I make here?”

    It wouldn’t hurt to do it, at least on the odd occasion, so that people don’t start to realise that you make it all up.

    “I’ve substantiated my claims.”

    You’ve substantiated nothing whatsoever. Here’s where you could make a start: “The problem with the question is that it presupposes a modern philosophical category (“free will”) and then imputes it to Scripture. But this category is quite out of place in the thinking of the ancient near-East.”

    It wouldn’t hurt to start by defining the INCREDIBLY vague terms of “modern philosophical category of free will” and “Near east” ( a long debated term) and “ancient”. Then you could move onto the actual task of demonstrating what the entire ancient near east thought about the modern idea of free will.

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    This is silly. I’ve substantiated my comments by illustrating how ANE thinking was generally fatalistic and unconcerned with individual choice. Do you have any evidence whatsoever that any ANE cultures (including Israel) produced philosophical literature anything like what we see in the field of action theory today, or since the Enlightenment, or even since Aristotle? That they had a concept of free will anything like ours, influenced as it is by that rich philosophical and increasingly socially individualistic tradition?

    Or are you just trolling?

  9. John

    Did you think you could get away with all the vagueness of referring to “individualistic traditions” of free will, as if by osmosis we are supposed to realise how you think the concept of individualism is supposed to affect the concept of free will? Yes, the ancients were less individualistic. How that fundamentally alters their concept of free will is something you have to demonstrate.

    The only specific statement you made here is about action theory, but how many Arminians or anyone else for that matter who discuss Christian free will have even heard about that, let alone actually have it in mind when they talk about free will? Pretty close to almost nearly none I’d say. But if you want to entertain this, then as you seem to vaguely imply, this idea was discussed by Aristotle, and he was ancient and in the near east. So what exactly was the point in raising that? If you want to demolish your own arguments, it does save me time, I’ll grant you that. Or are you still working on increasing your chutzpah levels?

    As for being “unconcerned with individual choice” the old testament’s “choose this day who you will serve” seems extremely concerned with choice. Indeed, all the talk about choosing not to sin, etc etc seems to be about choice. All this is is pretty obvious to all but the most heavily hardened Calvinists, but is completely unaddressed by your very bold claim.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Did you think you could get away with all the vagueness of referring to “individualistic traditions” of free will, as if by osmosis we are supposed to realise how you think the concept of individualism is supposed to affect the concept of free will?

    Perhaps I just expect my readers have to have greater affordance with the topic than you do? I’ve already addressed how the concept of individualism affects our concept of free will; in a society where individualism is suppressed because we are all ultimately one, and we are all ultimately acting in ways that are just the outworking of cosmic forces beyond our control, the obvious upshot is that the concept of freedom to do whatever you want is rather attenuated. Conversely, in a society which elevates the individual and personal gratification above most other things, the concept of freedom is grossly exaggerated the other way.

    The only specific statement you made here is about action theory, but how many Arminians or anyone else for that matter who discuss Christian free will have even heard about that, let alone actually have it in mind when they talk about free will?

    What does that have to do with anything, given that in the OP I explicitly refered to the modern philosophical category of free will? If I were talking about lay categories, then I would have said so. But even then, lay categories are influenced by philosophical work trickling down via popularizers.

    this idea was discussed by Aristotle, and he was ancient and in the near east.

    Aristotle comes under classical antiquity, not the ancient Near East. Maybe you should check to see if there is a fairly settled scholarly consensus about what terms mean before you go lambasting me, so you don’t have to eat so much crow. A simple Google search would have turned up this in about 3 seconds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Near_East.

    As for being “unconcerned with individual choice” the old testament’s “choose this day who you will serve” seems extremely concerned with choice.

    Which I explicitly made allowance for in the OP. And not only made allowance for, but used to develop my point!

    All this is is pretty obvious to all but the most heavily hardened Calvinists

    Since Calvinists don’t deny that people can, must, and do make choices, I’m not sure what this statement is supposed to mean.

  11. John

    “I’ve already addressed how the concept of individualism affects our concept of free will; in a society where individualism is suppressed because we are all ultimately one, and we are all ultimately acting in ways that are just the outworking of cosmic forces beyond our control”

    No, you haven’t demonstrated that ancient thinking on individualism leads to that conclusion. For example, ancient thinking was that society’s laws are important for community, therefore you should obey them. But it recognises that’s often really real hard to do. Witness David, and Bathsheba. There is no suggestion in the bible that David inevitably sinned because of cosmic fatalistic forces. He sinned AGAINST the communal expectation that he ought not act in such a selfish, anti social manner. In this case, the bible is clear he acted contrary to the community, in an individual fashion.

    Compare modern thinking where individual choice to do what you feel you want to do is all important.  If you feel like you should be homosexual, you should be, because the cosmos made you that way, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Fatalism. The opposite of the link you want to make.

    “What does that have to do with anything, given that in the OP I explicitly refered to the modern philosophical category of free will?”

    Maybe because you were responding to someone talking about free will in “some sense”, and not some technical category you want to impose.  

    Still, if you would care to actually define what that category is, it would at least be clear enough to discuss, even if it wasn’t actually responding to that query.

    “Aristotle comes under classical antiquity, not the ancient Near East.”

    Your very own reference defines ancient Near east as ending with Alexander the great, and he was tutored by Aristotle.  So looks like you refuted yourself again.

    “Which I explicitly made allowance for in the OP. And not only made allowance for, but used to develop my point!”

    No, all you said is to believe you, that these things don’t imply what they obviously seem to imply, because we need to believe you that those in the ancient Near east didn’t think that. References to black, must mean white because believe me, the ancients didn’t believe in black, so all references to black must mean white. 

    “Since Calvinists don’t deny that people can, must, and do make choices, I’m not sure what this statement is supposed to mean”

    Fatalistic choices, which you want to overlay onto the thinking of all ancients.

    We’re still in the same situation that we don’t know what ancient Near east is, except strangely it doesn’t include the thinking of one of the most influential ancient characters, we don’t know exactly what modern concept of free will the ancients allegedly didn’t believe in, and we have no evidence that it is the case. We have nothing in other words.

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Witness David, and Bathsheba. There is no suggestion in the bible that David inevitably sinned because of cosmic fatalistic forces.

    I see your chronic reading comprehension problems continue. I explicitly called out the Bible as being unique in the ANE for upholding and promoting personal responsibility and denying fatalism. Again, John, as in the previous thread, you’re either not arguing in good faith, or you’re too challenged to keep abreast of what I am saying. There’s no point in you posting again.

    Your very own reference defines ancient Near east as ending with Alexander the great, and he was tutored by Aristotle. So looks like you refuted yourself again.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_antiquity

    We’re still in the same situation that we don’t know what ancient Near east is, except strangely it doesn’t include the thinking of one of the most influential ancient characters, we don’t know exactly what modern concept of free will the ancients allegedly didn’t believe in, and we have no evidence that it is the case. We have nothing in other words.

    You need to stop speaking in the plural, as if anyone else here is as obtuse as you are. Frankly John, I am not going to publish any more of your comments, because I don’t see why I should give you a platform to derail threads by embarrassing yourself with confused ranting.

  13. michael

    Free Will. It seems that the main impetus in the debate is over salvation.
    Like can one freely accept Jesus or not. And so the A’s and C’s argue back and forth.

    But I think its a bad argument because I don’t think salvation has anything to do with free will. Not even if one believes in LFW.

    The question is not what the decision is [for Jesus or against Him] but also WHY.
    So when the Gospel is presented, heard or read, the question should be first, WHY should I surrender myself.

    And the answer depends on what? It depends on whether one believes Jesus is indeed the crucified and risen Lord of all.

    Now the preacher says Jesus is indeed this Lord, but of course he would. The imam over at the mosque says Jesus is but a lesser prophet than Mohamed.
    What then do I believe?

    On what grounds do I believe that Jesus is the Lord of all? On a man’s say so? And some people do believe on that say so and on some other day they decide that they believe the imam over at the Mosque.

    But What did Jesus say to Peter? Flesh and blood did not reveal that testimony to you. [“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”] But rather the Spirit did. So that the faith of His children does not rest on man’s wisdom [or their own] but on the Spirit of God.

    So the first question is WHY should I believe the preacher? the answer might be: those words of Jesus on the cross are foolishness, I’m out of here; OR it might be: “I don’t know, but I do.” And the Gospel, for that person, is the power of God unto salvation.

    Both choices are freely made. But are made for different reasons.

  14. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Your comment makes no sense. If we define free will as, minimally, the ability to choose, and salvation is by choosing to trust Jesus, then quite obviously salvation has everything to do with free will. Moreover, Calvinists are crucially concerned with the why—they simply don’t cash it out in the anti-intellectual terms you do. “I don’t know, but I do,” is a recipe for apostasy. “I don’t know, but I hear the ring of truth, so let me investigate further and solidify my belief,” is the biblical model.

  15. Chris

    Think about it. If you deny free will, but you also believe at least some people will end up in hell – then it necessarily follows that God does not will all to be saved.

    The problem is it runs contrary to plain biblical texts like:

    I Tim. 2:4: “…who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

    II Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

    I John 2:2: “…and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

    I’m sure you know these verses and will have an answer for them. But at the very least, you can’t simply dismiss the idea of free will.

    Even Calvin could see free will in many biblical passages but he couldn’t see how free will and predestination could both be true. So he opted for predestination and glossed over the passages that taught free will.

    In fact, free will and predestination are not mutually exclusive. God is outside of time. He already knows the choices we are going to make. From God’s perspective, everything has already happened. So He can predestine use based on the choices He knows we are going to make.

    This is difficult for our human minds to grasp but once we get to Heaven (outside of time) it will be obvious.

  16. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Chris, sorry about the slow reply; your comment went to spam for some reason, and I don’t check that very often.

    I’ve dealt with these kinds of objections before, but let me make a couple of basic points:

    If you deny free will, but you also believe at least some people will end up in hell – then it necessarily follows that God does not will all to be saved.

    Firstly, I don’t deny free will—although I do despise the term for exactly the reason you’re demonstrating: people use it tendentiously to refer to libertarian free will, as if that is the only kind there is. But free will simply refers to culpable volition, and the mechanics of how it cashes out are irrelevant to that broad definition. I agree that people have the faculty of culpable volition; no informed Calvinist would disagree.

    Secondly, God wills people to be in hell regardless of your beliefs about free will. You need to think this through. Here are a few easy arguments to help you:

    The problem is it runs contrary to plain biblical texts

    You then cite a number of texts which talk about kinds of people, then God’s people, and then the kingdom of man, as if God wanting to save any of these implies that he wishes to save all people. But that is an obvious non-sequitur.

    Moreover, two can play at that game; viz:

    So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I caused you to be raised up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then, he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires. Romans 9:16-18

    But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, the gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13

    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead 1 Peter 1:3

    “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day … It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” John 6:44, 63-65

    But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God Ephesians 2:4-8

    You notice it is God who causes people to be born again, God who draws, God who makes spiritually alive.

    From God’s perspective, everything has already happened. So He can predestine use based on the choices He knows we are going to make.

    This is blatantly self-contradictory in at least two ways:

    Firstly, if everything has already happened, then God is just an observer; he is like a time-traveler who can be at any time or place, but is powerless to intervene at all. So he certainly cannot predestine anything—whatever will be will be, and he can do nothing whatsoever about it.

    Secondly, even if he could, this is just obviously contradictory to the definition of predestination. Election and predestination are active terms, not passive ones; they involve God first choosing people, not people first choosing God.

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