The Paradox of Freedom

Has any topic consumed theologians and philosophers more than the nature of free will? What is the will? What does it mean to be free? How does human freedom and moral responsibility coexist with the sovereignty of God? Certainly, no topic has more divided theologians, philosophers, and believers than the nature of free will. Augustine vs. Pelagius. Erasmus vs Luther. Calvin vs. Arminius. Edwards vs. Chauncy. Not only in the history of the church, but even today we see divides in systematic theology and analytic philosophy as they debate over attempts to rationally define freedom.

The question is, how does scripture define free will? Does it bother to define it at all? Does it define what it means to be free? Does it define that freedom in analytic terms resembling the philosophy of the Greeks? Let’s start with a comparison:

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old — unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us. Lamentations 5:21-22 (ESV)

Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we will be restored; Renew our days as of old, Unless You have utterly rejected us, And are very angry with us! Lamentations 5:21-22 (NKJV)

What we see here in Lamentations is the people of Israel crying out to God to turn them back to Him, with the point of view being the people looking upward to God. Is there a place where we can read a similar passage, but from the other point of view? Yes, in Zechariah:

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo the prophet, saying, “The Lord has been very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Return to Me,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord of hosts. “Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds.”’ But they did not hear nor heed Me,” says the Lord. Zechariah 1:1-4 (ESV)

What we have here are two scenarios presented from two distinct points of view. In the first, the people cry out to God, “Turn us back to you!”. In the second, God tells the people, “Turn to me, and I will turn to you!”

What do we make of these passages, seemingly at odds? If God is sovereign over mankind, why does He make his returning to the people a condition of their first turning to Him? If humanity is free why do they depend on God to turn them back to Him? To the Hebrew mind, they are simply both true – without requiring any further explanation – even if they are in tension, 1Our Father Abraham, p. 150-153 but to the modern Western mind, they become a juxtaposition that requires a “solution”.

The only problem is, how do we “solve” what we perceive to be a problem here? Do we reconcile these passages using analytic philosophy and systematic theology? The issue with proposing this kind of solution is that these conceptual tools lay outside the epistemic boundaries of the Hebrew people who originally wrote and read these scriptures. In other words, using philosophy and systematic theology to “solve” what we perceive to be a problem is to use conceptual tools that Hebrew culture didn’t use. Thus, regardless if your solution of choice is called “Libertarian Free Will” or “Compatibilist Free Will” it becomes an anachronistic solution. The resulting debates between these two specific ideas (in a Biblical context) are based on a shared position of exegetical weakness because of this anachronistic approach to the Hebrew scriptures. These ideas didn’t go into the text, so they are not there to draw out or to overlay on top.

One of these “solutions” may in fact turn out to be right and the other wrong 2There is certainly nothing wrong with the effort and the attempt!, but we cannot claim that scripture is presenting either one to us. We cannot impose such concepts onto scripture when we are exegeting, otherwise we risk error in our understanding.

As we will continue to draw out what scripture does teach about the nature of God’s sovereignty and human freedom, we must be mindful to stay within the epistemic boundaries set by scripture and the Hebrew culture used to produce it.

References   [ + ]

1. Our Father Abraham, p. 150-153
2. There is certainly nothing wrong with the effort and the attempt!

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