God’s Sovereignty, Man’s Free Will and the Nature of Contradiction

Categories: Theology
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Published on: June 17, 2005

I have been reading a discussion on the tension between the doctrines of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s libertarian free will. One of the participants has equated the tension that exists with the doctrine of the Trinity with that of the sovereignty-free will issue. I find a logical problem with equating the two. Let me explain.

The person in the discussion says that it is just as easy to say that the two beliefs within the doctrine of the Trinity…

A. God exists as one being
B. God exists as three persons

…are “undeniably and immutably contradictory” and “they cannot be reconciled”, as it is to say the same thing about the sovereignty-free will issue. Yet since we know that the Trinity is a mystery and not a contradiction, why not say the same thing about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will? It sounds like a reasonable question, but the problem lies in the fact that they are not the same types of arguments.

There is a difference between saying “A is both A and B” and saying “A is both A and not A”. One is a contradiction, while the other isn’t. The doctrine of the Trinity does not assert that God is one being and that God is three beings (or not one being). The key point being that since the terms “being” and “person” are not referring to the same thing there is no resultant contradiction.

When we look at the sovereignty-free will argument however, we do find contradiction because we are talking about the same thing by definition. If “free-will” is defined as one of the participants posits, “being able to choose free from fate or divine will”, then by definition it contradicts the definition of God’s sovereignty found in the WCF chapter III Section I – “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

So in the case of the Trinity we are asserting two different things, while with regard to the sovereignty-free will issue we are dealing with different facets of the same thing. God can in fact be both one being and three persons with no contradiction, but if God is completely sovereign than man cannot be free in the libertarian sense.

I must conclude by noting that while not all apparent contradictions in the Bible are true contradictions, some are, and we should not seek to impose harmony on such things or label as mystery that which is indeed a contradiction.

1 Comment - Leave a comment
  1. Earl says:

    Interesting blog entry. I would suggest that instead of a contradiction in the free will versus God’s sovereignty, the issue is to really understand what is meant by “free will”. There are at least 3 definitions:

    (1) The freedom of “indifference” where nothing, including God’s foreknowledge, can logically determine a person’s action.
    (2) The freedom from coercion where humans are free to act according to their desires within their dispositional complex.
    (3) The freedom to act in choosing between the morally pleasing acts and displeasing acts.

    You cited the Westminster Confession, there is another section which gives a definition of liberty: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.” [WCF, 9.1]

    This definition tells us that humans have the ability to act without coercion. This is the form of freedom that humans have. Further, because people are acting without coercion, from the desires within their character, they are responsible for their actions.

    The first and last forms of freedom mention, humans do not have. The last one in particular, those who are outside of Christ do not have that kind of freedom.

    If you like to read, I’d recommend Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will. It discusses this in great length.

    Finally, I don’t think there are any contradictions with God. Whenever we see contradictions, it is a sure sign we don’t understand something. We should not confuse a “mystery” with contradiction. For instance, it is a mystery how God ordains all things and does not do any coercion or cause a person to sin. But if we are careful in our definitions, we should not find contradictions. Mysteries, yes, but no contradictions.

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