Libertarian Freedom

In this post I’ll consider the fourth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

John M. Frame identifies the concept of libertarian freedom as the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines and devotes an entire chapter of No Other God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2001) to it–chapter 8, “Do We Have Genuine Freedom?”. Whether or not it is the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines, libertarian freedom certainly is an essential element in open theism. In this post I’ll define it and the alternative view of freedom proposed by some classical theists, compatibilism; identify some of the criticisms made of it; and present an apology for it. Although not quoting from them, I’ve used No Other God and John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998) in preparing this post.

Libertarian Freedom

Libertarians hold that a person is free with respect to a particular action only if he or she can perform the action or refrain from performing it. They maintain that if a person’s decision to do or not do the action is caused by anyone or anything else, including God, then the decision is not properly his or hers and he or she cannot be held responsible for the action. Thus they claim that, since according to the Bible God holds people responsible for their actions, people must have libertarian freedom.

However libertarians don’t claim that people aren’t affected by outside influences in deciding whether or not to perform an action. They just say that normally people can resist these influences and choose in spite of them. Moreover they agree that God sometimes overrides people’s freedom; for example, He may harden a person’s heart and thus determine his or her choice to sin, as He did Pharoah’s before the Exodus.

Compatabilist Freedom

Compatabilists hold that a decision is free with respect to a particular action as long as it is free from external constraint. They maintain that it is free even if God so influences the person’s beliefs and desires that he or she has to make the decision that God wants him or her to make. Thus they claim that God can be in complete control of a situation by influencing the participants’ beliefs and desires and yet hold those participants responsible for what happens.

Libertarians object that God’s guaranteeing actions by determining their remote causes would make Him responsible for those actions and thus, if the actions are sinful, the author of sin. Moreover Saunders claims that compatibilism’s being true would nullify what the Bible says about God’s grieving over sin, changing His mind, and responding to what humans do.

Most of the church fathers held a position similar to that of the libertarians until Augustine challenged it, since which there has been a contest between his and their views. In Protestantism the two views are generally associated with Calvin, his following Augustine, and Arminius, his asserting libertarian freedom.

Some Criticisms of Libertarianism

A criticism of libertarian freedom made by Calvinists is that it is inconsistent with their belief that God foreordains all that happens. However the Bible seems to support both the belief that God foreordains all that happens and the belief that man has libertarian free will. Arminians resolve the apparent inconsistency by asserting that God foreknows everything, including the free actions of humans, and foreordains what He sees in His foreknowledge. Calvinists object that God’s foreseeing everything means that the future is settled and thus humans can’t have libertarian freedom. They resolve the apparent inconsistency by arguing for humans having compatabilist rather than libertarian freedom. Open theists resolve the apparent inconsistency by claiming that humans’ having libertarian freedom implies that the future is at least partly open and by affirming at the same time that God retains control and will accomplish His purposes. Both Calvinists and Arminians reject this way of resolving the apparent inconsistency.

Another common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach its existence. However neither does the Bible explicitly teach the existence of compatabilist freedom. Thus the question is which view is more consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible.

Another common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that it undermines the sovereignty of God by allowing humans to do or not do what God wills. However open theists argue that God’s allowing libertarian freedom and yet ultimately accomplishing His purposes enhances rather than undermines His sovereignty.

Two other criticisms of libertarian freedom made by Frame that impressed me are that God held responsible for their actions even people whose choices He determined, such as Pharoah’s before the Exodus, and that in Heaven we won’t be free to sin. The former seems to negate the libertarian claim that if a person’s decision to do or not to do an action is caused by someone else he or she cannot be held responsible for the action, and the latter seems to indicate that libertarian freedom isn’t essential. Sanders discusses the hardening of Pharoah’s heart on pages 59-60 and our inability to sin in Heaven in a note (#99) on pages 336-37 of The God Who Risks.

An Apology for Libertarianism

Personally, I came to open theistic views while searching for an answer to the question of why God caused or allowed my first wife to die at only 26 leaving behind a husband and four-year-old daughter. John Sanders’ introduction to The God Who Risks suggests that he came to open theistic views while doing a similar search, his being prompted by the tragic death of his brother. Our experiences illustrate one of the values of libertarianism, its role in dealing with the problem of evil.

Another value of libertarianism is that it reflects best our instinctive feelings that we freely choose our actions and thus are responsible for their results and yet that God is in ultimate control.

Another value of libertarianism is the attractiveness of the concept that God loves us so much that He gives us libertarian freedom even though He knows that some will use it to reject Him and His will.


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