Libertarian free will vs. compatabalism

Here is a great question I received recently via Facebook

I’ve been thinking about libertarian freedom lately. What exactly does “nature” mean? 1. The compatibilist says we can only act according to our nature, while the libertarian says we can act against it. If our nature is to sin, then couldn’t we come to Christ without His drawing since we can act against our nature? 2. Libertarians believe in causeless actions. There is no sufficient cause for us to make decisions, only “external influences”. But, if our actions were causeless, then doesn’t that undermine the cosmological argument? What are your thoughts on this? Thank you.


The principle of causality holds that every event has an adequate cause. If this is so, then it would seem that even the act of free choice has a cause and so on back to God (or infinity). In any case, if the act of free choice is caused by another, then it cannot be caused by one’s self.” Things don’t just happen. We need causes. Likewise, our actions need a cause and they cannot originate from ourselves because then something would cause itself. Again, libertarian freedom would seem to undermine the kalam cosmological argument.

My response:

The compatabilist seeks to redefine the word “will” to mean something that, in the end, is not a “will” anymore. The compatabilist likes to equivocate on the word because they know the word MUST be used and rather than admit their system is flawed to the core, they would rather do violence to the fabric of language itself.

Once you pin them on their butchering of the English language there are really two options. 1. Get them to use words in their proper sense or 2. cease the conversation since a productive communication is impossible if your opponent is going to be so intellectually dishonest as to twist words to the degree that language itself stands in peril.

To answer further, advocates of libertarian free will (LFW) simply do not see the heart turning itself (an Augustinian statement) as an action. The will wills what the will wills. There are influences and limits that do come into play, but at some point, if we are to call the will a will, there needs to be a free and un-compelled choice between at least two possible alternatives. Otherwise we cannot be said to be free or to have willed in any meaningful sense.

As for undermining the KCA. If we are going to claim the will is necessarily part of a causal system, then we run into issues with God and His will. Is the compatabalist willing to take on the challenge of explaining the causal chain God’s will is subject to and how such a causal chain fits in with God’s aseity?

Our souls, the seats of our will, is what is made in the image of God. If our souls are causal puppets on external strings. What does that say for God?

I would therefore be weary of any man who wishes to place God’s will under causal arrest.


10 responses to “Libertarian free will vs. compatabalism

  1. Can you expand on your claim that Reformed theologians are being dishonest, equivocating, etc.? My understanding of their view is that with a spiritually dead nature people don't have the capability to choose God. When made spiritually alive they can and will choose him. It is possible that they are mistaken in their view, but the folks I have listened to extensively and read (MacArthur, Sproul, Koukl, White and others) seem to be the opposite of dishonest. And they certainly aren't sloppy thinkers who have a habit of equivocating.

    I'm on the fence on the issue and enjoy hearing reasoned arguments from both sides, but I don't consider accusations of them being fallacious liars in that category.

    • The equivocation comes in when we use terms like "will" and "depraved" in two distinctly different senses. Here is another post where I deal specifically with how Sproul (who I think is a very bright guy) equivocates on the word "faith". Specifically he claims that faith is not something God does on our behalf, but then he goes on to define faith in such a way as to render the word meaningless by making it simply a causal output of a process wherein God has the only real input.

  2. Pingback: Roundup « Eternity Matters

  3. I suppose the biggest question here is what we believe the nature of man to be. I would contend that mankind's nature is found in the imago dei, the image of God. And I would contend that a major part of that image is moral agency, and I would further contend that moral agency includes the ability to choose between right and wrong.

    Now, I believe that it is at this point that Calvinists would disagree. By claiming the nature of men is fallen and that from that falleness they can choose nothing but evil they necessarily destroy the image of God in man and beg the question of how men can be held accountable for something their nature directs them to do with no resource to choose anything other than sinful acts (which I would argue cannot be considered sinful if they were programmed to act in a certain way, for example we do not consider carnivores murderers).

    So back to the "nature of man". If you say man's nature is to be a robot, a slave to his "greatest desire" (which is a false notion as Paul would attest per Rom 7:5), then you either forfeit the use of the words "will" and "faith" or else you must redefine them to fit your presupposed philosophical foundations.

    And that is what we have when it comes to those who argue from a reformed tradition. They know they need to use such words to remain true to what Scripture teaches. But they absolutely reject and abhor their objective meanings. However, rather than be honest and use new words to describe the new thoughts they are conveying, they subvert language itself and thereby thwart productive discourse by cutting it off at the knees.

    So to summarize.
    1. The will is destroyed if we claim it is causally controlled by anything else. Influenced, yes, causally controlled, no.
    2. No one is arguing that men inherently lack the ability to choose Christ. Yes, that means your biblical references above are attacking a straw man and not the real issue at hand. However the Bible clearly shows that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world drawing all men to Christ. Convicting them of sin, etc. So the real question here is whether God is a liar when He said He desired "all men to be saved".

    • First, as a note, asking questions is not the same as "attacking", strawman or not. I know, I know, it can seem like it and, indeed, it often is used that way … but not always.

      On the nature of Man, the "apostle" Bob Dylan says, "You gotta serve somebody." Okay, let's not go with Dylan. How about Paul? He says that we are all slaves. "you are slaves of the one whom you obey," he says, followed with "you … were once slaves of sin" (Rom 6:16-17). He tells us " no one does good, not even one" (Rom 3:12). It doesn't seem like we are, by nature, morally neutral (which I'm pretty sure you would NOT claim), but apparently, despite our complete ability to the contrary, NO ONE chooses to do good without first being radically altered by the Holy Spirit. Why is that?

      But, this whole "libertarian free will" thing is baffling to me. Given an actually Sovereign God "who works ALL THINGS according to the counsel of His will" (Eph 1:11), exactly how does genuine, undetermined "libertarian free will" work? Jesus said, "The Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" How can it be "determined" in the event of "libertarian free will"? What was Peter talking about when he said, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23) if "libertarian free will" was at work? And I don't see how the Christians could have been remotely accurate in their prayer when they suggested, "Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:27-28). All of these speak of "determine" — that God determines what will happen — and this requires intervention in human free will. Indeed, God Himself makes the claim in the case of Abimelech when He says, "It was I who kept you from sinning against Me. Therefore I did not let you touch her" (Gen 20:6).

      No Calvinist I've ever heard or known has ever argued that human beings lack the capacity to make choices. I've seen where they lack the intent (Natural Man) and I've seen where God's Sovereignty intervenes. What I DON'T see is how the term "will" is eliminated or altered. If I make 10 choices without any intervention at all and then am prevented from making the 11th, is it the conclusion then that "genuine free will" is eliminated? If, for genuine "free will" to exist, humans must be able to exercise it without coercion (I'm okay with that) or external determination (that's problematic for me), in what sense can God actually be Sovereign? Indeed, can it be said, in that case, that GOD has "free will" if He CANNOT choose what He wishes?

      • Even slaves can and do desire to be free many times. Even if they lack the means to make themselves free.

        It is true that no one does good, but you need to finish Paul's thought there which is "no one does good which is meritorious unto salvation". Jesus even acknowledged that evil men know and do give good gifts to their children.

        As for Eph 1:11. Are you willing to say that the sin which exists in this world is not really sin? I would argue that the modern Calvinist interpretation of sovereignty is incorrect, it is more akin to causal determinism than kingly sovereignty. Also, Jesus did not commit suicide, he "offered himself up", up to what? To the free wills of men who wanted him dead. Sure, the death of Jesus was set before the foundation of the world. But the actions of those involved, including Judas, were wholly their own.

        Likewise, Gen 20:6 is not given to us as a normative statement. Just because God prevented Abemilech from actualizing what his free will desired, it does not automatically mean that all such free actions that are not desired by God are likewise prevented. Otherwise you are left with the problem of sin and evil being charged squarely to God's account.

        As for no Calvinists saying we lack the ability to make choices. Many do. Either explicitly or, more commonly, implicitly by making the will causally subject to "greatest desires" and then claiming that man's "greatest desires are to do evil all the time". Man's will may be heavily influenced, but it is not obliterated.

        Further, it is not whether you are prevented from making the 11th that renders you free or not. What renders your will a will is whether at any point in time you have even 1 decision to make which is truly your own.

        And as for God not being able to choose what He wishes. I think you hit on the real problem with the compatabilist's view. That is, if desires rule the will, then the will is not free, and neither is God.

        God chooses to perform acts which are good, not because God is directed by an outside force, but because that is what God's will chooses.

        Finally, positing a limited free will does not automatically mean God is not sovereign or that the end is not determined from the beginning. Rather, it simply tells us that the way in which the end was determined from the beginning contained the factoring in of all of possible free decisions of the creatures endowed with the limited freedom to make choices.

  4. Sometimes, Wes, differences between schools of thought are, among things, disagreements over the "proper" use (or meaning) of certain, very important terms. No one is "redefining" a term when the precise definition of the word is one of the matters at bar. This insistence of yours on a "proper" definition of 'will' (which, oddly enough, just happens to be the libertarian definition) is persuasive definition. It's a lot like non-theistic (and even some theistic) evolutionists who insist that proponents of ID (and most certainly "creationism") must "redefine" 'science' in order to advance their claims.

    Some of us, of course, see the issue not so much in terms of the meaning of 'will' but rather in terms of what limitations the 'will' may have. As Stan points out, Calvinists do believe that humans make choices, but differ with Arminians over the nature of the choices they are able to make, among other things.

    • The only Calvinists that believe we are robots are HYPER Calvinists and should be labeled as such. Calvinists do believe humans make choices, just as you say James, and Sproul, Koukl, and Macarthur back this up too. I've listened to many podcasts on free will by Sproul and Koukl; not once do they ever say that every single choice we make is determined. I don't know of a Calvinist that would say everything we do is determined, except extreme/hyper Calvinist.

      • I think you are mistaken. Sproul and Piper and Koukl all end up negating what the call free will by defining it as an action taken in accordance with one's highest desire. They then define man's highest desire as sinful all the time. This negates free will by making it subject to something outside of it, namely desire.

        This approach, while not providing an adequate picture of the will to make it function as such, also has grave implications about God if we are to apply the same logic to Him and his will. Afterall, something of us was made in the image of God. It certainly was not our bodies, so that leaves our wills (well, for those of us who believe in an immaterial will/soul).

  5. I think one has to take a formal approach to the issue. Cut down the issue to the simplest, the minimum essential requirements for a choice. Try to present it in mathematical terms even. The logic used is what is important, that has to be made clear.

    1 in a decision information is created, namely the information which way the decision turned out
    2 at the origin where this information is being created, there is no information
    3 there being no information, there is nothing to measure, and so no fact to obtain
    4 therefore the question of what makes a decision turn out the way it does is not a matter of fact
    5 but we can still express what made the decision turn out the way it did, by deciding what decided it, resulting in an opinion
    6 therefore the agency of any choice must be a matter of opinion, not fact
    7 and as love, hate, God etc. are generally talked about as doing the job of deciding, therefore their existence, or lack of such, can only be established as a matter of opinion or belief, not fact

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