Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Free Will, Sovereignty and Reformed Apologetics

"Reformed apologetics" refers generally to a category of Christian apologists who cast extreme doubt upon the ability of non-Christians to objectively evaluate the evidence for Christianity without being unduly influenced by their fallen nature, including fallen reasoning abilities. Two of the most prominent apologists in this camp are Cornelius Van Til and Alvin Plantinga.

Reformed apologists criticize classical and evidentialist approaches because both attempt to find a common ground with non-Christians as the starting point for their arguments. They are “actually seeking a method that assumes man’s self-sufficiency to arrive at truth” [Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.,
Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006), 260]. Someone following the reformed approach would say, “I cannot approach data objectively because my perception is distorted by sin and prejudice” [William Dryness, Christian Apologetics in a World Community (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 59]. Because sin so distorts people’s reasoning abilities, there can be no logical common ground between the Christian and non-Christian on which to build an apologetic.

Within the reformed camp there are some slight differences of opinion about how best to give a reason for our faith to non-believers in light of their fallen state. Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, similar to our belief in the existence of other minds [Boa and Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons, 248-51]. Neither can be objectively proven but they are necessary presuppositions in order for us to function. Cornelius Van Til argues that we must presuppose a transcendent God in order to make sense of reality, but all non-Christian worldviews fail to accomplish this goal [Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics. 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 36-37].

While reformed perspectives, to their credit, demand that we focus on the presuppositions non-Christians bring to our discussions, when taken too far they remove our free will in order to remain consistent with their own premises. Cornelius Van Til explains his position as follows:

"If obedient to the will of God, man would be accomplishing genuine results. The controlling and directing power of his will would be the will of God. It would be by his own will, however, that he would reach the goal that God has set for him. If disobedient to the will of God he would be going counter to the expressed will of God for him. Yet he would not be able to frustrate the plan of God either as a whole or in any detail. Man as a creature cannot will anything either by way of obedience or by way of disobedience except in a relation of subordination to the plan of God."
[Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 36].

But Van Til’s position ultimately results in no free will. His illustration implicitly includes three options. If a person wills that which is consistent with both God’s will and God’s plan, then God allows the action to take place. If a person wills something that is inconsistent with God’s will but still consistent with God’s plan then God also allows that action. But if a person wills something that is inconsistent with both God’s will and God’s plan then God does not permit the action to take place. In fact, God overrides the individual’s will so that the person is utterly incapable of willing such an act in the first place. Ultimately, the individual is only “free” to choose that which God plans for the person to choose.

Van Til sacrifices free will in his attempt to preserve God’s sovereignty. These two concepts can be reconciled, however, if the mode of existence for the creator is transcendent to that of his temporal creation. Humankind lives a temporal existence, traveling through linear time, perceiving that future events are determined by our free choices. But as the creator of all things, God is also the creator of time. Therefore, he exists beyond time. As Norman Geisler explains,

"as an eternal Being God does not really fore-know anything. He is eternal and, as such, He simply knows in one eternal Now everything there is to know. God sees all of time – past, present, and future – from His lofty perch of eternity; whereas human beings looking through the tunnel vision of time can see only the present."
[Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 1:583 (emphasis in original)].

While the reformed approach includes the important insight to be aware of non-Christian presuppositions, it takes too restrictive a view of humankind’s will; a view that Norman Geisler demonstrates is not necessary in order to preserve the sovereignty of God.


UberGenius said...

Enjoyed your post. Plantinga has been a molinist since at least the 1980s, and as such seems to have abandoned the reformed position. Molinism destroys everything except preserverence of the saints. For more see

Also, William Lane Craig has published a very readable book on God's relationship to time that supports the view that God has this middle knowledge. See

And Geisler's point seems obvious but most Reformed theologians and philosophers don't deal with the idea that God necessarily transcends both space and time. And that he knows all true propositions simultaneously( i.e. to God there wouldn't be a "future" category). They continue to represent open theology as the main alternative saying '"since if God didn't cause something he can't be sure what will happen in the futre." As if strong determinism was the efficient cause of God's omniscience.

UberGenius said...

I should point out that I was referring to the 5 points of Calvinism in my comment about molinism destroying the Reformed position. I should have said that the two views are incompatible. It sounds like I am pronouncing the debate to be over, it is not. Molinism maintains a very high view of God's sovereignty. It also keeps intact all but a few sentences in the Westminster confession.

See Molinism vs Calvinism: William Lane Craig and Paul Helm - YouTube