Free will, sin and the sovereignty of God

I have had cause to think through issues of theodicy, sovereignty and free will of late. Specifically, I have been keen to re-evaluate how far Molinism and classical statements of Reformed theology are compatible. To some extent, one would not expect Molinism to synchronise with reformation theology given that Molina himself was a Jesuit and counter-reformer. Nevertheless, several theologians and philosophers, including Bruce Ware and John Frame, have sought to synchronise aspects of Molinism with a compatibilist view of free will. Specifically, they are keen to argue in favour of God’s Middle Knowledge without adopting a framework of libertarian free will.

William Lane Craig, probably the best known contemporary defender of Molinism, outlines three positions on God’s sovereignty and human free will here. The specific problem with this Molinist view, as outlined by Craig, is the assumption that there exist freedom permitting circumstances under which an individual would freely choose to respond to the universal offer of salvation. According to scripture, our sin-nature means that without the working of the Holy Spirit one cannot come to faith in Christ. For the Molinist, such intervention is just as deterministic as the Calvinism they eschew yet they continue to uphold this truth. Further, I find the grounding objection compelling that God could not exhaustively know an individual’s free actions by simply knowing their circumstances. If an individual possesses libertarian freedom, God cannot know for certain what this free agent will actually choose in any set of circumstances as they are perfectly able to choose otherwise.

However, Ware and Frame both contend Middle Knowledge is validated and strengthened when viewed within a compatibilist framework of free will. On this view, the grounding objection simply does not apply. God knows precisely how an agent will respond in any given set of circumstances because such knowledge is predicated on the nature of that individual. Ware argues that it is neither God working on the will of the individual, nor the circumstances themselves, that ultimately cause the individual to choose as they do. Instead, he argues, it is the nature of the individual – when particular circumstantial factors are present –  that causes the agent to do what they, by nature, most want to do.

On Ware’s view, God’s sovereignty is maintained without making Him the author of evil. God grounds his Middle Knowledge in the nature, and thus deepest desires, of each agent. Therefore, God knows an agent will do action A in circumstances X based upon the very nature and deepest desire of the individual. However, God can know (and be assured) if he actualises circumstances Y the agent will freely choose action B, equally according to his nature. Thus, God uses his Middle Knowledge to determine which actions to permit according to the deepest desire of the agent or whether to alter the circumstances. An individual is responsible for their own action because they freely chose them and God is not responsible as he merely permits the choice. It is neither God, nor the circumstances, that  determine the choice but rather the deepest desire of the agent according to his nature. 

God’s permission of evil is then best explained through the principle of sufficient reason. This is seen most clearly in Christ’s salvific work on the cross. 1 Corinthians 2:8 makes clear had those who crucified Christ known what they were doing, they would never have done it. However, God had sufficient reason to actualise a world in which the deepest desire of the individuals involved, the sinful act of crucifying an innocent, would take place. Namely, the salvation of the world. God did not cause the sin, it was borne from the desire of the agents involved, yet through his middle knowledge God permitted the circumstances through which this sin would take place for sufficient reason.

Jonathan Edwards argued, along these lines, that the will is never neutral. As Ware suggests, every decision is borne from the deepest desire of any agent, rooted in their very nature. The problem, as Dr John Gerstner highlights, comes not in the present but in the pre-fall world. Outlined here, the issue is as follows: “if Edwards was right in saying the will could not be neutral (no decision could stem from neutrality, there must be an inclination toward whatever choice is made) then it HAS to follow that God created man with a nature that was inclined to sin”. Gerstner calls this the “thorn in the flesh” of all reformed theologians.

However, this is not a problem if we argue that pre-fall Adam and Eve had libertarian free will. Pre-fall, Adam and Eve had no sin-nature and were indeed capable of making neutral decisions. However, post-fall, they inherited a sin-nature and thus lost their libertarian free will. Indeed, God’s restraining hand became necessary because libertarian free will would lead to continual, unending sin without restraint. Thus, post-fall, Adam and Eve lost their libertarian free will and inherited compatibilist free will. The Devil’s lie – that Adam and Eve were shackled by God – led to the sad irony of their previous libertarian free will being lost and their becoming more shackled than ever they were before. On this reading, Adam and Eve’s sin was entirely their own. Post-fall, God permitted (but did not cause) the deepest desires of individual agents – based upon inherited sin nature such that He can know how any being will act in any given circumstance – in order to bring about his divinely appointed will. 

Therefore, we can posit the Molinist view in respect to the pre-fall creation of the world. God indeed actualised a world, including libertarian free will, in which Adam and Eve sinned. However, following the fall – based on the principle of sufficient reason – God limited human agency to a compatibilist framework. Within this compatibilist framework, we no longer face the pitfall of Molinism which maintains, despite acknowledging the reality of human sin-nature, there exists freedom permitted circumstances under which individuals freely choose Christ caused by nothing outside of the agent. Terrence Tiessen is apt to comment:

. . . if the complete set of factors leaves the person with a final choice that is influenced by nothing in or outside himself, then it escapes me how the decision between two equally viable and possible courses of action can be anything but arbitrary. Granted, there are many contributing factors or “reasons” but, since the sum total of them is insufficient to explain this choice rather than that one, the decision appears to be “random.” I see no way to escape that conclusion given all the premises.

On the compatibilist view, decisions are not arbitrary. They are based on the deep-seated desires of the agent which are borne out of the individual’s very nature. However, such choices are not caused by God for He uses his middle knowledge to permit certain desires based on the principle of sufficient reason.