Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Paradox of Free Will

[Subversive Underground]

NOTE: I debated long and hard about whether or not to publish today's article. It is an attempt to resolve a long-standing and painfully bitter disagreement in the Family of God. I would ask, in advance, for you to extend me a little Grace and to read the following with an open heart and mind. This is an open dialog and my intent is to bring peace to the Body of Christ over a divisive issue. Thank you in advance for reading this with an attitude of love towards me, your brother and friend in Christ Jesus. - kg

The Paradox of Free Will
By Keith Giles

As human beings we strive to understand the world we live in. I believe our Creator built into us a healthy level of curiosity which compels us to seek answers and strive for knowledge. Our inquisitive nature is a large part of what makes us human.

However, there are some things we cannot fully know or understand, particularly when it comes to God Himself. In these instances the best we can do is to accept what He has revealed to us about His nature and leave it alone. We cannot fully comprehend a being who has no beginning, or imagine an entity with no boundary or limit. In those areas where our ability to comprehend is challenged we simply have to take some things on faith, whether we understand them or not. In fact, we have to accept these truths as being true even though we know we are currently incapable of understanding at all.

Whenever we encounter an aspect of God's character which defies the bounds of our reason we call this a paradox because it involves one or more seemingly contradictory conditions at work.

This phenomenon isn't limited to the spiritual realm, by the way. In the world of observable science we encounter several examples of seemingly contradictory facts and conditions which we must simply accept as being true whether or not we can understand or explain them in common terms.

One such example is the nature of light. Scientists who were attempting to determine the nature of light tried several experiments with the smallest unit of light (a single photon) in order to answer the riddle of whether or not light was a wave (a frequency within a spectrum) or a particle (made up of many photon-bits).

Their experiment proved that light was a wave. It also proved that light was a particle. Depending on the experiment they performed and the conditions of the test, they got both answers. This lead to the new idea that somehow light was actually a wavicle (part particle, part wave). Of course, no one has a real definition of the properties of a wavicle, and other than light (apparently) nothing else exhibits these qualities or conditions. Yet, we all still believe that light exists and scientists still continue to talk about light and to manipulate it even though they still have absolutely no idea what it really is.

*Read more about this amazing phenomenon

I share all of that with you so that my next section won't sound like convenient wordplay. There really are elements within our known sphere of understanding which are beyond our comprehension and classification. Paradoxes are common. They are not evidence of some faulty bit of logic or a failure of the mind to connect the dots.

In Christian theology we must become comfortable alongside some paradoxes such as the Trinity (Christ, the Spirit and the Father are all referred to as the One God, and yet they are not each other, nor are they three Gods, but the One). We cannot understand how this can be so, but we must accept the nature of God as He has revealed Himself to us through His Word and declare that, somehow, someway, even though we are powerless to understand or define or comprehend it, God is a being beyond our complete understanding. His very nature defies our limited capacity for apprehending Him. We can only accept what we know by faith.

Alister E. McGrath has a wonderful way of communicating this ineffable quality of God's nature by demonstrating that none of us, using mere language, could ever describe to someone who had never tasted coffee exactly what it tasted like. Unless they were to taste coffee for themselves, the conversation would be endless and our descriptions useless. However, once we have both tasted coffee we can talk all day about it and both us will have a common ground to understand what the other is saying, but our inability to explain the exact quality of the flavor of coffee using human language will remain outside our feeble grasp. (from his book, "What Was God Doing On The Cross?")

One of the oldest, and most bitter and brutal debates that has divided Christendom since around 400 AD is the one surrounding the doctrines of free will and predestination.

On one side we have the Calvinists who represent the predestination side, and the Arminians who represent the side of free will.

Without going into a lot of detail about the history and the various nuances of each side and their arguments regarding the best way to believe on this issue, let me make things very simple. Those on the side of predestination feel that for God to know the end before the beginning, His sovereignty must be greater than our frail human will and therefore God has already determined, before the beginning of time, who will be saved and who will not. Those on the side of free will, the Arminians, feel that God cannot decide beforehand to create beings whom He knows are destined for an eternal hell, and therefore are convinced that man ultimately must decide for him or herself whether or not to accept the free gift of salvation.

Both sides offer copious amounts of Biblical text to support their view. To be sure, the Scriptures contain very plain and direct language to support the theory that God knows the end from the beginning and even that God "predestined those He foreknew" (Romans 8: 28). However, there are just as many scriptures to support the idea that God allows mankind the freedom to choose for themselves whether or not to follow Him and to love Him. We know that God does not create robots who are hardwired to love Him any more than He creates beings for the purpose of destroying them.

Both doctrines are Biblical. Both doctrines seem to contradict one another. We cannot possibly see how one could be true if the other were also true. This leaves us with a conundrum of sorts, or a paradox. Somehow God is able to see into the future and to know, in advance, the outcome of our choices which are based on free will.

However, because God knows in advance what you and I will freely choose to do, it does not necessarily follow that His foreknowledge of our choice is what caused us to make this choice. For example, if I am watching someone from a distance and I know what they are about to do, I am not held accountable for their actions when they carry out the action I predicted.

So, does God know in advance who will choose to follow Him? Yes, he most certainly does. The scriptures support this and we should embrace this truth. But, does the Bible also teach us that we are accountable to God for our own decisions and actions? Yes, it most certainly does. We alone are the ones who must choose to accept or reject the love of God that has been offered to us. The scriptures teach us this and we should embrace this truth as well.

This is a paradox, like many other paradoxes of faith, where we are called upon to exercise our faith in God and take Him at His Word.

For those Calvinists who argue that the doctrine of Free Will encroaches upon the sovereignty of God I would point out that there are many doctrines where God limits Himself for our benefit. For example, God is omniscient (knowing all things), but we also know that, for our sake, He willfully forgets our sins once they are forgiven. He surrenders His infinite knowledge of all things for our sake and tosses our sins into the sea of forgetfulness. Why would we be surprised that, in order to preserve our freedom of choice, God might surrender His power of sovereignty?

For those Arminians who argue that God's foreknowledge of an event determines the outcome, let me point out that knowing something will happen is not the same as making that event turn out a certain way.

As this is a subject where the scripture is less than crystal clear, where those on both sides of the issue have ample scriptural evidence for their position, let us agree that this is not something we should divide over.

"God will not hold us responsible to understand the mysteries of election, predestination and the divine sovereignty. The best and safest way to deal with these truths is to raise our eyes to God and in deepest reverence say, Oh Lord Thou knowest. Those things belong to the deep and mysterious Profound of God's omniscience. Prying into them may make theologians, but it will never make saints."
– A.W. Tozer

Our love for one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ, should never suffer due to our petty disagreements. Nor should we ever allow differences of opinion over the doctrines of baptism, or the end times, or the way we worship, or speaking in tongues, or what have you, to separate us from one another. We are the Family of God and we are called to love one another, in fact, we've been commanded to love one another. It is not optional for us.

In His Grip,
Keith Giles

Please send all encouraging, thoughtful and constructive comments to me at
"Elysiansky" at (Hotmail) dot (com).

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