Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Both Determined and Free? A Conversation with Dr. Roger Olson

Recently I have been enjoying some conversation with Roger Olson, the "irenic Arminian" theologian and scholar, at his blog. I always find conversation with Dr. Olson to be interesting and informative. He is one of my favorite non-Calvinist discussion partners, although we disagree rather thoroughly in many areas. 

We have recently engaged profitably in discussion in the comment box at this post on Dr. Olson's blog:

Today, Dr. Olson has responded to me directly with this blog post:

I have posted my reply, as follows:
Dr. Olson, 
Thank you for giving attention to this important issue, which seems to be a key point of disagreement between Calvinistic and Arminian/non-Calvinistic thought.
Like most other Calvinists, I would point to multiple "fine distinctions" in order to sustain the appeal to compatibilism.
I would begin by defining compatibilism a little differently, as the basic belief that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive. The theory that "freedom" is being free to do as one chooses despite having no ability to do otherwise is just one form of compatibilism among many interesting options. Personally, I do not prefer that approach, and only oppose "Libertarian Free Will" or "power of contrary choice" to the extent that they, by definition, rule out compatibilism (in the broad sense). I agree with your contention that "free will" is mysterious, that it is "situated" within a context of limitations, that it is fully realized only by Christian conversion, and I believe that it is much more "genuine" than most of today's Calvinists will admit. Augustine was not afraid to use the term, and even Calvin hinted at a broader freedom of choice. There was a stream of historic Reformed thought along this line (Jeongmo Yoo has an interesting book on this topic).
Next, I would appeal to a distinction between "natural ability" and "moral ability" in saying that we are naturally capable of choosing other than we do, even if not morally capable (thus, in some sense we have the power of contrary choice). I have the natural ability to give away my possessions or to steal, but I might only have the moral ability to do one of them in a given set of circumstances. I don't have the natural or moral ability to choose to jump to the moon (although I do have the ability to attempt to jump to the moon). Moral ability is limited, not necessarily by God's decree, but by our own will (or moral character). In essence, ironically, the very will to choose is what limits the range of choices!
Finally, I would appeal to a distinction within God's secret decree between the foreordination of good and the foreordination of evil. Good arises always with God's direct action and involvement, by grace, and not from the creature alone. Evil arises only with God's inaction, from the creature's own moral nature, as God permits the creature to act on its own independent will. In other words, He ordains to allow evil to occur apart from His own direct action, by permission only (yet with complete foreknowledge and a design to permit--and then remedy--all of the evil that occurs). Thus, nothing happens because it is merely pre-determined. Good happens by God's predestination, providence and promise, while evil happens by His permitted purpose (with both good and evil being thus pre-determined in some sense, and worked into His overarching plan). As you know, the origin of the first evil remains mysterious on these grounds; however, we would categorically deny any possibility or implication that evil arose from God Himself (perish the thought).
This is, of course, a very abbreviated form of a more complex argument (actually an entire philosophical construct) that is employed by Augustinian thinkers to explain how God could foreordain (or decree, pre-determine/pre-program, etc.) all things without ever touching, committing, positively willing or becoming culpable for moral evil. There are plenty of Calvinists, Lutherans, and other Augustinians, who can expound these topics much better than I.
As a concluding note, I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to refute what you have written or formally debate the issue (doubtless you would outmaneuver me!). We are laying out two very different and incompatible philosophical approaches that are employed to make our theologies tenable in our own minds. As a part of my ongoing education and understanding of the Arminian viewpoint, I very much appreciate your time and care in stating your position clearly, and in treating the other position charitably. Great stuff!
Blessings in Christ,