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, August 20, 2017

Answering Leighton Flowers on Libertarian Freedom and Compatibilism

In his podcasts, stalwart anti-Calvinist Leighton Flowers is fond of defining "Libertarian Free Will" (LFW) as "the ability to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action."

In at least one of his blog posts, he has defined the term a little further, as follows:
LFW = "The categorical ability of the will to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action." 

First, let's define the added term, "categorical." According to the Oxford Dictionary, this word means "unambiguously explicit and direct." (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/categorical)

So, updating Dr. Flowers' working definition with this meaning, we have:
LFW = "The unambiguously explicit and direct ability of the will to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action."
No real significance is added with the inclusion of "categorical;" it simply renders the statement slightly more emphatic. As far as the addition of "the will" to this working definition, this also does not seem to add anything of substance. By definition, choosing and deciding are activities in which the will is active. Whether we phrase this as "refrain or not refrain from," or, as I would prefer, "engage or not engage in," a given moral action--this is nothing more than a description of the will's basic function. A person without a will could do nothing of a moral nature.

This definition of LFW summarizes the position Dr. Flowers affirms in opposition to what he thinks Calvinists believe. Nevertheless, I wonder how many well-informed Calvinists would actually dispute the fact that this ability exists?

As a Calvinist and theological compatibilist, I really have no problem accepting Dr. Flowers' definition as a valid description of "will" (or even "free will") and affirming that human beings possess it. Every rational person should find this to be intuitive and self-evident. Of course human beings have this ability. At the same time, my compatibilism affirms that all of the "free choices" of human beings are foreknown and foreordained by a wise and good God. One might ask, "How can this be?" 

From the perspective of compatibilism, we can line up the propositions this way:

P1 Human beings possess the ability to refrain or not refrain from given moral actions.
P2 God has ordained which moral actions each human being will choose to refrain from, and which moral actions each human being will choose not to refrain from.
P3 Human beings exercise their "free will" in choosing to refrain or not refrain from given moral actions.
P4 God exercises His sovereignty in determining how, when, where, and why man's "free will" shall be exercised. 

These are the rudimentary claims of theological compatibilism, which in itself is a very simple concept. From this standpoint, I would affirm Dr. Flowers' definition of LFW within my own understanding of compatibilism, and would find no contradiction. In what it affirms, his claim is true and just needs more added to it. His definition adequately describes man's part; however, God's part is neglected.

Of course, much more rigorous philosophical definitions of LFW have been put forth, and they typically entail a denial of the possibility that specified moral actions are pre-determined in any way. We should oppose that type of LFW as an outright denial of Biblical truth. At least at the level of defining terms, Leighton Flowers does not seem to hold to that type of LFW. And that is commendable, for it leaves the door open to a Biblical compatibilism.

On the other hand, if Dr. Flowers were to put forth a definition like the following, we would have to reject it:
LFW = "the willingness of the will to choose what is good (as God defines it), apart from grace."
What is the difference? If we are only talking about "ability," that is one thing. God gives all of us abilities that we do not exercise. I always have the "ability" to steal food from the grocery store; however, by the grace of God I have so far never had the "will" to do it. I also have the "ability" to purchase and smoke cigarettes. And, fortunately, I have never had the "will" to do that, either. I also have the ability to purchase food and give it to homeless people. By God's grace that has actually happened once or twice. The operative phrase here is "by God's grace."

Sadly, there are also morally reprehensible actions I have had the will to do from time to time, and I did not refrain from doing them. And it is just the same with you, my friend. We are all sinners who have had our wills set in opposition to God and have done a variety of evil things. I thank God that by His mercy I have not done even more evil. If not for His mercy, I surely would have. That I recognize my evils as evil, and that He gives me the willingness to repent and pursue the good, is an incredible mercy. But this is not from any purportedly natural "free will," it is from grace alone!

As a compatibilist, I affirm that my every inclination toward good is graciously given from God. Such willingness would not have sprung up out of my own heart, if grace had not been given to direct me toward the good and the right. If not for grace, I certainly would have refrained from every good act and would have only pursued evil.

As a compatibilist, I affirm that every inclination I have toward evil comes solely from me. I own it and I am fully responsible for it, even if God also foreordained which actions I will choose. His foreordination does not change the fact that it is my own will and I am responsible. I was the one who chose to refrain or not refrain. It wasn't as if I tried to do good and He instead directed me toward evil, saying "I would rather you do this evil thing." And it is not as though He made me do it, in any sense. Foreordination is not that. God forbid that such an unworthy thought should ever be embraced.

Ever since the fall, man's will and very nature have been bent toward evil, and this can only change through God's grace. By nature, apart from grace, fallen man, having the ability to choose between good and evil, will always choose evil. The problem is not rooted in "ability;" it is rooted in "will." Fallen man is "totally unable" to do good only because he is "totally unwilling." Thankfully, common grace results in a measure of good that is accomplished even through the unregenerate. Saving grace results in the introduction of a new, regenerated nature within the believer. A nature that truly longs for what is good. And so, by God's grace, there is much good in the world. We should glorify Him perpetually and magnificently for this!

A Biblical perspective would never credit the choice for good to our own mere ability or willingness (this would be self-deception and vainglory); nor would it ever blame God for our own choices of evil (that would be blasphemous and ignorant).

Biblical thinking can only give God all the glory for all of the good that occurs. And we can only accept full responsibility for our own choices and actions. With this perspective, the believer is driven to keep repenting of his own evil and to continually ask God for more grace so that he can grow and do more good to the glory of God.

As Paul states:
I Cor. 15:10  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
With Dr. Flowers' perspective, one wonders how the believer may ever know that he is experiencing grace, since it all seems to boil down to the exercise of one's own natural ability to "refrain or not refrain" from this or that moral action. When does a person come face to face with the realities of his own corrupt will, and how sharply that will is bent toward evil? Or with the need for God to rescue us from that will, lest we perish? 

If my salvation or sanctification depended on my own ability and willingness to "refrain" from what is evil and "not refrain" from what is good, I suspect that there would be no hope at all for me. 
Romans 7:24-25a  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
May those who downplay the need for grace in these matters find themselves desperately longing for the only Redeemer who can rescue us from the results of our own ability and will.

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Thanks!
Mgmt.