Tuesday, November 23, 2004

My Own Freewill Journey

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
-- John 3:16 (ESV)

I grew up in the Cumberland Presbyterian church. My friend Laird says it is Arminian in theology. I believe that is an over simplification, however, the congregation that I belonged to in Lebanon, Missouri definately believed in the "who-so-ever-will" doctrine. In most sermons I heard growing up there was a section near the end where the preacher would explain that you had a choice to make, that Jesus was standing there at door of your heart knocking, waiting for you to open the door to your heart. I developed a theology of the will. I believe without reservation that we were free to choose or not choose God and this would determine our eternal state. When I got to High School my geometry teach had a us do an exercise which he called "writing your own math, language or game". In essense, what you would do is form a set of definitions (starting points) and the reason from there the conclusions derived from those definitions. It was fun. We had fellow students created D&D like games, athletes simply explained their system of training, and I of course explained the freewill to the class. That was not the title of my paper or talk but that is what I was getting at. I explained how each of us had a will and that as we experinced life our will would make a decision on what to do with those experinces. When I was finished my teacher said I was a "fatalist". I did not know what that meant and it troubled me. But given my "system" if a person was presented with the exact same circumstances, would he or she make the exact same decision each time. Say I was choosing which car to buy, given the exact-- and I do mean exact same -- situtation would your will ever choose one thing over another consistantly. So is the will an organ of the body that functions a certain way? The heart beats and pumps blood, it can do nothing else except not do that and then it is going to kill you. The stomach is made to digest food. When it does not, it will kill you. Where is the will and what does it do? If I am free to choose, based on what? Do I choose based on reason, on emotion, on what? My teacher also said that I beleived in "determinism". I did not know what that meant either. There are several types of determinism that are prevelant. There is Freudian determinism which says that we choose based on our drives. Often said to be sex but his definition of sex is way too broad and includes things that I'm just not comfortable grouping all together. Then there is biological determinism. Our DNA determines our decisions. We like blue or green or pink due to DNA. Which also brings us to chemical determinism, we make decisions based on body chemistry; what we ate, the drugs we take, the bio-chemical processes of our brain which create our decisions. My thoughts on all of that said, "Hey, I beleive in freewill!" "Don't change my system to make me like all of that!" I beleive in freewill because our freewill is what God uses to save us. He gives us a choice and then what we do with it is what determines our eternal fate. "HEY, I BELEIVE IN FREEWILL!" But saying it louder did not really do much for the logical struggles I was having. If the will is supreme, what is the will? Where is it located? If it is not mind and emotions, what is it? (I was taught we have a mind, will and emotions.) Why must God bow to our will? If our will is so supreme, what makes it able to decide to do good or bad in terms of a decision for Christ? Would God really bring us to a point that we could choose eternal bliss or eternal punishment and make it sit in the balance, one or the other being just as likely to win out? If so, would our desire for some pet sin create a situation where we would not choose God? Would that not make our emotions more important than our will? In my own system, doesn't it seem that deciding to accept the free gift of salvation seem like a work? Which of course makes the gift not free if I am earning it through my decision to "accept the free gift of salvation".

The second step that really made me think about my theology of freewill happened years later. Something else that really change my ideas of freewill is the fact that as an adult, I really did not have all choices equal to me. Many things limited my choices. My education education was a limiting factor, which was limited by my families economic situation which was limited by ...and the list went on. I often got things that I asked for from the Army in terms of assignments, however, within the confines of my job specialty. As much as I thought freewill was supreme in how God deals with us, in my life I understood that there was a lot limits to my choices. If the will is so important, why is it so powerless?

In the end, I could not accept a type of determinism which was based on a theology of the freewill. I felt if I was to restore a real human being who actually had a chest with a heart in it and that God made, I must give up this theology of the freewill. I could not accept a theology which said that our salvation was based on merit, merit of our decisions. Yes, we have a will and we have choices to make, but freewill could not save us, only God can save us.


Jeremy Pierce said...

Your teacher was wrong. Determinism says that we would do the same thing every time if faced with exactly the same circumstances (of course, we might do something different in virtually indistinguishable but slightly different circumstances). Fatalism is a much stronger claim. It says we'd do the same thing no matter what the circumstances are (e.g. all those Greek myths where people try as hard as they might to avoid their fate, but it happens anyway). Determinists deny that. They say that different circumstances are what cause different choices. You can't consistently believe both.

Terry said...

Jeremy, thanks for your comments. I would agree that I was not the Greek fatalist while in high school. But using the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary definition, "fa·tal·ism Function: noun : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them" I did fit that definition. I beleived so much in the "freewill" that it became a seperate organ sort of a thing that determined our fate. I think the Greeks had the stars or something determining that. Let me be careful to say that I do see that we have freedom and we have a will, but neither are absolute. God is absolute.

Adrian said...

Thanks for this it is ace. I have just posted some more on this subject over at
Do pop over and read some more, I have promoted your post there also.

Terry said...

Thanks Adrian!

Jeremy Pierce said...

The Merriam-Webster definition you give isn't wrong, but it's not precise enough. The Oxford English Dictionary says something even more vague, but then it clarifies: "In strict etymological propriety, and in the best modern usage, it is restricted to the view which regards events as predetermined by an arbitrary decree."

Donald Bloesch seems to understand what's missing from the MW defition here. He compares fatalism to those who think God's elect will be saved no matter what they do, even if they don't believe. That's the difference between fatalism and determinism. This Wikipedia entry also is more careful than the MW definition. Dictionaries are notoriously bad for getting precise philosophical concepts wrong, and I'm glad to see the OED acknowledging that both the original meaning and the more careful current usages are distinct from determinism.

Terry said...

Both your references are good. Thanks for sharing. I will concede the point that I should be more precise, however, usage and not prescribed definitions is the meaning that a word has. When one uses an unconventional usage, reactions to the communication and critiques of that communication, formal or informal, determine whether a person can continue to make an unconventional usage of a word. I can't change what happened to me 20 some years ago in Geometry class, nor can we go back and get my teacher to change his usage since he has passed into eternity. I think his usage was not your formal usage, however, it worked. It shook me up. It got me to reconsider my assumptions. I assumed I was giving people maximum freedom in my theology of freewill. In reality, I created a system of merit vice grace and made people a slave to the freewill. In my freewill system of theology, if you think about it, God serves the freewill. I think the determinism was more what he should have said, but fatalism is what he said at first.

I can't really seperate the affection I have for my geometry teacher from these posting. So if I belabor the point, apologies.

Terry said...

Oh by the way, the article on Open Theism is an excellent summery of the ideas associate with the movement. It was a link on the Fatalism article referenced by Jeremy.