Soft Determinism Defended

Title: Excusing Sinners and Blaming God:
A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil
Author: Guillaume Bignon
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 254
Rating: 4 of 5

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”  – Romans 9:19

Few topics in theology generate as much controversy as how to reconcile divine sovereignty (God’s ultimate control of all things) and human moral responsibility. Rather than trying to limit or explain away divine sovereignty (as in Arminianism or Open Theism), Calvinism views soft determinism as compatible with moral responsibility. Soft determinism or compatibilist free will is the idea that the human will is free in that a person will choose to do what they most desire, but bound in that a person’s desires are caused by factor(s) beyond their control (ultimately by the decretal will of God in a Christian worldview).

This book offers a rigorous logical defense of determinism’s compatibility with moral responsibility and with God’s holiness. This is a highly academic book in which the author makes heavy use of formal logic. I took formal logic back in high school, but that was 20+ years ago, so there were a few places where he pretty much lost me when he started using symbolic expressions. Overall, I think that the author demonstrates his system to be internally consistent and points out some possible logical problems with alternate systems. Enter at your own risk, but if this topic interests you, this is well worth reading. For a more popular level overview of the topic, I highly recommend What About Free Will by Scott Christensen; you can find my review of it here.

Libertarian vs. Compatibilist Free Will

Title: What About Free Will?
Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty
Author: Scott Christensen
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Christian theology there are few (if any) topics as difficult as reconciling divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In What About Free Will, Scott Christensen makes a valiant attempt to do so with (I believe) some success.

Most people instinctively hold to some form of libertarian free will: my choices are ultimately completely up to me; they may be influenced by outside sources but are not decisively caused by anything outside myself. For the Christian, this requires assuming that there is some kind of limits on God’s sovereign control over all things. This can take the form of assuming some sort of self-imposed limits (classic Arminianism) or of completely redefining  the concept of God’s omniscience and sovereignty away from a classic biblical understanding (e.g. Open Theism).

Another option, the one favored by this book, is compatibilist free will. That is: the will is free in that a person will choose to do what they most desire, but bound in that one’s desires are caused by factor(s) beyond their control (i.e. ultimately the decretal will of God in a Christian worldview). This “soft determinism” is the view that Christensen fleshes out in this book. It is certainly a less comfortable view than libertarian free will and has plenty of difficulties, but, on the whole, it does seem to make better sense of the teachings of the Bible when taken in their entirety.

I believe that this is a topic that is beyond the ability of any mere human beings to fully grasp, falling under the “the secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29) and “my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9) category to some extent. As such, I don’t think that Christensen (or anyone else) has this topic tied up in as neat of a bow as he seems to think, but his thoughts on the topic are certainly helpful. The only better (more thorough) explanation I have seen of compatibilist free will is in John Feinberg’s No One Like Him, but Christensen’s book is far more accessible.

To end with, I leave you with this link one of my favorite Foxtrot comics.