How can God's sovereign control and the creature's free will coexist?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: How can we say that God is in control of everything on one hand, but support the notion of a creature's free will on the other? 

Answer: It will be my special pleasure to answer your question today. You see, such a query makes us probe the depths of our creaturely free will… but as it relates to God’s sovereignty... and this is something that I’m always excited to explore. But the issues of God’s sovereignty vs. the creature’s free will are best explained by using natural theology and philosophy more so than biblical theology — and this is not a problem as long as we stay within the bounds of a Christian worldview. So you should expect this answer to be weighted more toward reasoning than toward interpreting Scripture… but as always, Scripture (God’s special revelation) remains the touchstone.

Let me recast the question a bit: if God controls angels and humans to the nth degree, then these have no actual free will. But if angels and humans do indeed have a “legitimate” free will, then God’s sovereign control must have limits… which seems to chip-away at our idea of sovereignty! But (and by definition) God has no limits. So do we have a paradox?

Different Christian religions use different approaches to manage this “paradox.” For example, those on the extreme edges of Calvinism hold the highest possible view of God’s sovereignty; so they give a minimal acknowledgment of creaturely free will by calling it “compatible” with their views on predestination and election… although in my opinion, their view is simply not compatible. But we all fall under the blood of Christ, and these are secondary issues between believers. So, what I’d like to do today is show you a way to dissolve this paradox while staying Scriptural and logical… although this particular interpretation has not reached anything near a consensus among evangelicals. So please understand the following is just one man’s opinion.

That being said, it is the job of a philosopher when confronting paradox to show just one plausible way through the difficulty. But I’m more ambitious than that. If you stick with me I will dissolve the paradox! But I will also show you how election and predestination are not merely compatible with creaturely free will — but that they fit quite naturally together.

To help unscramble our paradox, imagine a horizontal line that will represent the range of God’s sovereignty as it relates to creaturely free will. Let the left extreme represent free will whose volitional creatures can act as they’d like while still acknowledging a sovereign God. Let the right extreme represent God’s sovereignty — but as God’s absolute control over his creatures; at this point, a creature’s life is practicably deterministic; he has no meaningful control.

Every theist lives somewhere along that line… and most live with some discomfort about their position. Why discomfort? People love logic!… except where it limits their options.

Here’s the problem: Wherever you imagine yourself along the line of creaturely free will versus God’s sovereignty, your choice of positioning yourself more toward one end is necessarily at the expense of the lessening your support of the doctrine on the other end.… and evangelicals hate to admit that they are less enthusiastic about either God’s sovereignty or their own free will! But people cannot move their indicators toward God’s sovereignty without diminishing their stand on creaturely free will, and vice versa.

This works much like a balance-control on a sound system. When you adjust the control to increase the power to one speaker, this necessitates a relative decrease in the other. But we evangelicals want to push maximum power to both poles! We want a sovereign God who is worthy of that name… but we want maximum creaturely free will, too. So how does one honor God as sovereign without becoming a philosophical meat-puppet? We begin with a correct picture of God.

First, (and by definition) God has no deficiencies… and I think that’s pretty easy to understand. But the other end of the scale is more complex. You see, God is not just adequate — he is maximal in all he is and in all that he does. So, where God is loving, he is maximally loving; where God is powerful, he is maximally powerful; where God is present, he is maximally present… and the list of attributes goes on. But let’s turn our focus to God’s knowledge. God is the being who knows everything, so let’s explore what it means to know everything maximally — and we’ll begin by asking, what does God know?

Well… God knows everything, right? Yes, that’s true; that’s part of his being omniscient! But what does “everything” include? Knowledge of future events? Knowledge of every possible future event? Knowledge of how every one of those future events would play-out under every possible contingency? The idea just fries my brain!

But to be maximally knowledgeable, God would indeed have to know such things… or else we could conceive of a state of knowledge greater than God’s… and such a state cannot exist! But if God is indeed maximally proficient so that he knows how every future combination of contingencies works out, how does this help us? When God acts on this knowledge by actualizing our already-performed best-performance, the sovereignty/free will paradox dissolves.

Now, there are certain things over which we humans have no control: whether or not we are born, where we are born, when we are born and to whom we are born. We also have no control over the culture and environment of our early lives. But after we break free from the gravity of our initial conditions, we are free agents. We are free to love or hate, free to work or loaf, free to purchase a cell phone, or to dismiss God philosophically. And in spite of the biblical terms like predestination and election, we are not causally predetermined to do anything. Here’s how that works.

Since God knows how every possible future scenario for your life would play-out, and since he created you to love him and to be loved by him, God will actualize whichever life would optimize redemption. So, out of the limitless possible lives that could have played out for you under every combination of their possible contingencies, God has chosen the life that you are in right now… but… the life you are living right now is not causally determined by God; you are living it in real-time, proceeding by your own energies and steered by your own decisions. This is good news for the free will advocates, but it’s only half of an explanation. Not only do we have to know how God knows, but we also have to know how God uses time.

God relates to time in two ways: he transcends it and he works with it. As the Self-Existent One, God sits outside of time and is maximally sufficiency (that is, he doesn’t need us for anything). But God does participate in time with us… and indeed, his omnipresence would require that he be in time, too. Now, as previously discussed, God knows everything… but it’s important to understand that he knows everything at once; he doesn’t consume time or effort by his knowing things — that’s part of his transcendence — but here’s how his omniscience and timelessness work together for our advantage.

Since God knows all the world’s possible futures as part of his non-temporal existence, and since he is limitlessly powerful, he can choose to actualize your best possible life without being causally prior to your every individual choice. So, by virtue of God’s timelessness, you lived this very life before God actualized it! This gives you the best of both worlds: you maintain your full volition as you go (including your choice of eternal homes!) yet you have all the protections that an omnipotent and omniscient Father can bestow. The fact that God transcends time makes both temporal and causal priority a non-issue. When God chooses to actualize a life that is defined by the individual’s free choices, this is not determinism of any type.

I readily admit that this takes some getting used to — particularly if you’ve been postulating a too-small God to fit a too-tight theology. But this system of sorting through the future contingencies (often called counterfactuals) of volitional creatures takes determinism right out of the equation. But you know what else it does? It takes the bite out of terms like election and predestination because, under this scenario, you are the one who chooses your group… not God.

As you can see, there is power in knowing how God knows. When a volitional creature chooses Christ, he has chosen to be redeemed. Therefore, he has chosen to be among an existing category called “the elect”… and he has chosen to be in the category of those who are “predestined.” In the more classical interpretations, it is God who does the choosing, but it doesn’t tell us how… and I don’t see a conflict if this is how he does it. Since God can see everything as future, present or past all at the same time, he can establish such entities as the elect or the predestined in ages past, guarantee their preservation into future glory… and all the while letting his creatures truly choose to love him or dismiss him.

In my opinion, it violates logic to say that any creature that has a predetermined outcome also has free will — no matter what it feels like to the creature. At best he could have the illusion of free will… but why would God bother creating such a being? How would that redound to God’s glory? He might as well have just made fire-hydrants that would wind-up in heaven or hell as to make moist creatures with predetermined outcomes.

Free will without jeopardy is no free will at all… and jeopardy cannot stand where the results of any conflict are predetermined. True free will is evidenced when volitional creatures either accept or reject God on their own — and in real-time. True free will cannot exist where there are preassigned seats in either heaven or hell… unless those seats were once in contention.

To see my article on election, click here.

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