Sovereignty of God and Free Will of Humans

I want to preface this post by suggesting that the conundrum of the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans that has been debated for centuries is one of the inherent problems of systematic theology and of using a proof texting method. Trying to solve this conundrum by using systematic and proof texting methods often distracts from the theo-drama.

As dramatis personae in the drama of redemption, God and humans perform their parts in the unfolding aesthetic grandeur of the greatest possible love story. Being overly focused on resolving the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans is to dedramatize these performances and the Scriptures. Rather than trying to solve this conundrum we should focus on telling the grand ole drama. Nevertheless, I will briefly discuss the conundrum because as a theologian, I just can’t help from being pulled into the fray. Here goes.

God’s sovereignty is challenged by the problem of evil. Human free will is challenged by the view of the sovereignty of God. With that said, both have limitations. God is possibly limited in actualizing certain possible worlds, and a world with morally free creatures who always do good is one of those worlds.[1] Moreover, humans are limited in their free will because they do not have maximal autonomy.[2] So where do we go from here?

Part of the theo-drama is that God creates the best possible world which includes the best achievable good in any possible world—the incarnation and the atonement[3]—the pinnacle of the theo-drama. In order for the incarnation and the atonement to be the best possible drama in the best possible world, then humans, evil and sin would need to exist. Thus, God creating the best possible world involves creating humans who are significantly free to do what is morally right or what is morally wrong.[4]God determined that it was better to create a world with humans having free will, than a world with humans having no free will.[5]

Now the Bible presents the sovereignty of God, so how does that square with human free will? Because God is omniscient, he knows all propositional truth about the future and he knows all counterfactuals of freedom. He has middle knowledge. In other words, God knows what any free creature would do in any given set of circumstances. Thus, God determines what circumstances to acquiesce with or not to acquiesce with, what circumstances to actualize or not to actualize based on his divine purposes. Moreover, he knows how to involve himself while preserving human free will throughout the process.[6]

This is not a perfect solution, but it is a possible solution that harmonizes the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans.

[1] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 30. [2] Alvin Plantinga, Bait and Switch: Sam Harris on Free Will. [3] Michael W. Hickson, “A Brief History of Problems of Evil” in The Blackwell Companion to The Problem of Evil, ed. Justin P. McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 187-188. [4] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974. [5] Plantinga, God, 30. [6] W.J. Wood, “Molinism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell. Third ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

Today’s Hymn: Jesu nostra redemptio

Jesus, redemption all divine,
Whom here we love, for whom we pine,
God, working out creation’s plan,
and in the latter time made man;

What love of thine was that, which led
To take our woes upon thy head,
And pangs and cruel death to bear
To ransom us from death’s despair.

Let very mercy force thee still
To spare us, conquering all our ill;
And, granting that we ask on high
With thine own face to satisfy.

Doctrinal Musing on Theological Anthropology: Part 4 of 4

Most Christians agree that humans have both a material and an immaterial nature; however, throughout history there has been much discussion about whether humans are threefold beings or twofold beings. The technical terms for these two views is trichotomy and dichotomy. These are the traditional views that Christians believe have biblical support.

The first view to examine is the trichotomist view. The word trichotomy is derived from two greek words: τρίχα (tricha) meaning, “in three parts” and τέμνειν (temnein) meaning, “to cut.”[1] Therefore, trichotomy signifies a division of three parts, and so from a trichotomy view, humans are composed of three elements: body, soul and spirit. The greek word often used for the material part of humans is σῶμα (sōma) meaning, “body.” This physical σῶμα (sōma) is similar to the makeup of animals and plants. Millard Erickson writes, there is no difference in kind between a human body and that of animals and plants; but there is a difference of degree, as humans have a more complex physical structure.”[2]  

As for the immaterial elements of humans, the greek words ψυχή (psuché) meaning, “soul” and πνεῦμα (pneuma) meaning “spirit” are used in distinguishing ways from the trichotomist perspective. The ψυχή (psuché) “soul” is viewed as the element that enables human consciousness with the faculties of “reason, emotion, social interrelatedness, and the like.”[3] The πνεῦμα (pneuma) “spirit” is viewed as the religious component of humans enabling them to experience spiritual things.[4] Proponents of the Trichotomy perspective point to biblical passages such as 1 Thess 5:23, Heb 4:12, 1 Cor 2:14 -3:4.

Next, we examine the dichotomist view. The term dichotomy is derived from the greek words δίχα (dicha) meaning, “in two parts” and τέμνειν (temnein) meaning, “to cut.”[5] Thus, dichotomy signifies a twofold division of humans. From the dichotomy perspective, humans are composed of the two elements: σῶμα (sōma) “body” and ψυχή (psuché) “soul.” Similar to the trichotomy perspective, the dichotomy perspective posits that the σῶμα (sōma) is the physical part of humans that is in common with animals and plants. It is the part that dies and returns to the ground.[6] In the dichotomy perspective, the ψυχή (psuché) is the rational, immaterial and immortal part of humans, and this is the part that differentiates humans from other creatures. Proponents of the dichotomy perspective support their position by pointing to biblical passages such as Matt 6:25, 10:28, Ecc 12:7 and 1 Cor 5:3-5.

Moreover, proponents of the dichotomy perspective object to the trichotomy proponents who differentiate between “soul” and “spirit.” They argue that there are many examples in Scripture where “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably or as synonyms (ex. Luke 1:46-47; also, Gen 41:8, Psa 42:6, Matt 27:50,  Heb 12:23 and Rev 6:9).

An Alternative Model: Conditional Unity 

Some have argued that the full range of Scripture presents humans as an embodied unitary being or as a conditional unity. This is the idea that humans in their normal state are a material and immaterial oneness, but this unity is temporarily dissolvable at death. However, at the eschatological resurrection the immaterial will once again become inseparable with a new, perfected resurrected body. The implications of the conditional unity perspective are that humans are to be treated as unified and complex beings who can not be reduced to one aspect or principle. This means that all aspects of human nature must be attended to and respected. Moreover, God is at work in renewing the whole person, and so spiritually speaking one part of human nature should not be subjugate to another.[7]  

[1] W.E. Ward, “Trichotomy” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (EDT), edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell, 3rd. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017. [2] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 477. [3] Erickson, Christian, 477. [4] Erickson, Christian, 477. [5] W.E. Ward, “Dichotomy” in EDT, EPUB edition. [6] Erickson, Christian, 478. [7] Erickson, Christian, 491-493.

Sunday Prayers

O Almighty God, you pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer)

O Lord, by your grace and mercy, help us to turn our faces towards you and away from the things that so easily entangle us and distract us. Fill our hearts with love and devotion for you and give us the faith and the desire to always lift up our supplications to you. Help us to anticipate and to experience your goodness and greatness in our lives, and may we be witnesses to your light, life and love. Amen. (My Prayer)