Whatever Happened to Free Will?

On January 2 The New York Times published a piece titled “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t” by Dennis Overbye. The article deals with recent psychological studies on human decision making that claim our lives are determined by the mathematical physics of the universe. But what is really amazing is that many of the questions Overbye raises about human free will were addressed during the Synod of Dort in 1618.

Overbye quotes scientists who claim that our every action is preset, and free will is an illusion—or, as he says, that “that conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.”

The article raises a burning question: How do we continue to believe in moral right and wrong if we live in a predetermined universe that seems to be telling us right and wrong don’t exist?

The question of what to do with the theological concepts of predestination, morality, and free will has never been easy to answer. The Canons of Dort themselves were written to carefully avoid the twin heresies of fatalism and determinism, on the one hand, while maintaining the Reformed concepts of election, predestination, and moral choices on the other.

Point three, Article 16 of the canons says,

“Just as by the fall man did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will, and just as sin, which has spread through the whole human race, did not abolish the nature of the human race but distorted and spiritually killed it, so also this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—bends it back. As a result, a ready and sincere obedience of the Spirit now begins to prevail where before the rebellion and resistance of the flesh were completely dominant. It is in this that the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consists. Thus, if the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, man would have no hope of getting up from his fall by his free choice, by which he plunged himself into ruin when still standing upright.”

I find it sad that some of our churches have questioned the relevance of the canons. Our world is struggling over whether there is moral choice in a deterministic universe. The canons answer these questions. In many ways, as Overbye’s article proves, the statements in the canon are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago.

One statement in the Times article aptly summarizes the quandary that both science and our society are presently experiencing: “Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that ‘when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.’”

The canons have the answer to this great deterministic “abyss.” Science’s present-day wrestling match over the question of free will proves the need for people who supposedly hold to the teachings of the canons to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

The question we need to ask ourselves as Reformed believers in the 21st century is do we still believe we have the answers?

For Discussion
  1. Braun references Overby's claim that "free will is an illusion" and that "our lives are determined by the mathematical physics of the universe." How do you respond to those assertions?
  2. According to Scripture and the Canons, how has the Fall and its consequences for humanity affected our free will? Are we still really free to choose right from wrong? Are we still responsible for bad choices?
  3. How does the restoring work of the Holy Spirit within us relate to our free will? Does "free" in this context mean "arbitrary"? Might we better speak of a "freed" will rather than a "free" will?
  4. Can a believer in Christ ever say with honesty, "The Devil made me do it"?
  5. The apostle Paul always speaks of election and predestination as positive concepts that give him great comfort and solace. How do you understand his thinking?
  6. What practical consequences does a belief in God's sovereignty have on the way we make moral choices? Hint: Take a close look at Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Days 32 and 33.

About the Author

Rob Braun is a salesman, a freelance writer, and a part-time minister for Princeton (Minn.) Community Church. He is a member of Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Princeton.

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