Christian Theology, Biblical Theology

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Free Moral Agency Defined and Defended

What is free moral agency
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Free Moral Agency defined and defended. Strictly from a philosophical view, Reformed theology appears to be contradictory and incoherent on its most basic premise. This logical contradiction has to do with The Eternal Decree. If God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, this must of logical necessity include sin-but Reformed theologians will attempt to digress from this dilemma by "inventing" a modality of "second causes". The eternal decree: “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 neither is God the author of sin…In essence Reformed theology is “Hard Determinism” and a system of necessity which precludes any free agency (or Liberty) and therefore, free will (or Ability) is impossible as well. Yet Reformed theologians claim that men are free agents and after the fall, suffer from the inability to turn unto God without His unconditional election. The theology also teaches “Second causes” which is an attempt to remove God as the author of sin. Four major philosophical problems with Reformed theology shall be discussed. Since there arises much confusion over the definition of terms; allow me to digress.

Before we move on I would like to quickly address an issue that always surfaces in the discussion of free will. This is the issue of free will and election. This at first glance is often "perplexing" to those who hold to free will; it is the issue of one being chosen or elect. The thinking goes something like this: "If I was chosen or elect in eternity past, then how can I become one of the elect or make myself one of the chosen by my own free will?" This seemingly difficult dilemma can be resolved very easily by picking up an exhaustive dictionary and reading all of the definitions of the words chosen and elect. These two words mean among other definitions: to be objects of divine favor; they don't necessarily carry with them the implication of being selected from a group of many... Think for a moment, Jesus was called God's Chosen One and God's Elect; if we were to apply a narrow definition to these terms, we would then conclude of necessity that Jesus was chosen from among many sons of God. So as you can see if one wishes to be an object of divine favor, they simply must exercise their free will and repent from their sins and accept Christ as their Lord. Now back to free agency:

1. The Eternal Decree precludes any free agency whatsoever; and free agency is absolutely essential to moral accountability. Our moral obligation is limited by our ability; therefore the concept of inability or original sin is not consistent with free agency: According to Reformed theology “God ordained whatsoever comes to pass” - absolutely every single event in history….Hard Determinism – a system of necessity. “Yet so, as neither is God the author of sin…” here Reformed theologians attempt to relieve God from and distance Him from the responsibility of sin. But if God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass: He has ordained whatsoever comes to pass – He is responsible for sin…period! Some theologians attempt to devise and interweave obscure schemes such as “Second causes” to get around this issue - again incompatible with the Eternal Decree. This is their definition of second causes; man’s choices are free and at the same time predestined by God. This is not free agency this is necessity; actually it’s double talk and self-contradictory. The Eternal Decree precludes any so-called second causes. I can stop here with the incompatibility of the Eternal Decree and free agency and rest the case against Reformed theology; but let us continue…

2. Reformed theology teaches that men are free agents with a fallen nature resulting in an enslaved will or a native inability. Here again the concept of free agency is incompatible with the Eternal Decree; if God decrees every human decision, desire, motive and event; this is Hard Determinism which precludes any free agency. Secondly, power over the will is an essential element of free agency; an enslaved will or inability negates true free agency. Liberty and inability can not logically co-exist. Natural inability or original sin negates free agency and therefore moral responsibility. Even Hodge in his Systematic Theology states that “Ability limits obligation” yet he maintains that man suffers from natural inability and is accountable before God – another inconsistency. Free will is a condition of free agency; other wise stated: ability is a condition of liberty. The Concept of free agency and inability is a contradiction.

The great Reformed preacher Jonathan Edwards taught that man's actions or will are products of antecedent causes viz. strongest motives. Otherwise stated - Motives causally determine the will or “elective” volition. This is contradictory because to do as one pleases is subject to the strongest motive or the law of comparative strength. Reformed theology teaches Motive is the efficient cause of all actions of the will. This doctrine of the strongest motive (when competing motives) determining choice is one of necessity. It is; however, maintained that the motive state which determines choice is our own but; to deny necessity is to concede contingency of choice which violates the law of comparative strength and the Eternal Decree. Motive dominating choice precludes freedom of choice and the theory can not admit the power of the personal agent over the motive state. According to this view every single choice is subject to this necessity; we are therefore passive subjects of spontaneous impulses and with out any personal agency. This motive or moral necessity as it is sometimes called also begs the question in that we assume the conclusion as the premise of the argument.

Reformed theologians attempt to escape this necessity and proffer the doctrine that individuals are free to do as they please. But they are still dominated by their motives, and their inclination to do as they please is of necessity and dominated by their inability viz. fallen nature; again a fatal contradiction, claiming freedom under a system of necessity. True free agency demands that the agent is the efficient cause, the self-determining cause of his effects, actions or will; not the motive. To deny this essential property of man is to deny his personality. This also wipes out any virtue whatsoever. If man can only do according to his strongest motive, then his acts of righteousness or self-sacrifice is no virtue; but Jesus teaches that these righteous deeds are virtuous.

Free agency is not possible in Reformed theology. In order to be a free agent one must have power over their faculties of reason, emotions, and will; power over their motives and the capacity to subject their choices to reflection and judgment. Otherwise stated the intrinsic power of rational self-movement; the ability to exercise reflection and judgment over motive and ends. One can not be a free agent and lack power over the will due to some inability to fully exercise the will. Free agency or Liberty can not exist without the agent having power over the will. Native depravity or inability results in necessity and negates any free agency. Free agents have power over their motives and desires. By whatever means the Reformed theologian wishes to re-define free-will; they will never make the concept truly compatible with the Eternal Decree. Soft Determinism or Compatiblism is also illogical. Even Dr. Hodge will agree that if the faculty of reason is severely impaired, free agency can not exist; this holds for the faculty of the will as well.

3. Free agents are endowed with the power of efficient cause over their actions. This ability of “Self determination” is intrinsic to the free moral agency of man, not the will. Mankind is created in the image of God and is the first cause of their actions. The Eternal Decree precludes this concept. Reformed Theology denies that the agent is efficient cause of all his actions; rather they believe that motive is the efficient cause of all his actions – this is the fundamental of their view. Free agency requires that acts of the will, choices and volitions are determined by the sovereign power of the agent; Reformed theology holds that these choices, volitions and acts of the will are caused by the objective motive or strongest motive; closer to the Principle of Causality. In short man, then, is a free agent when, if, in the identical circumstances in which he does put forth given acts of will, he might put forth different and opposite acts from those which he does put forth; also known as power to the contrary; and he has full power over his reason, emotions, motives, an will; and the ability to exercise reflection and judgment over his motives and choices.

4. Reformed theology teaches that God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass and therefore, He has perfect foreknowledge; the future is certain because He ordained it and what He knows must come to pass. Reformed theologians equate this certainty with the necessity of the Eternal Decree. Hodge claims that God knows the future based on a propositional mode he calls certainty; however, there is no such modal status of propositions. Propositions are either contingent or necessary; Hodge is trying to spin and hide his views of necessity among a fog of definitions that God's propositional knowledge is not that of necessity by "inventing" a modal status that he calls "certainty". Actually God’s foreknowledge if what He knows is perfect is not a causal factor. God knows the past, present and the future and possibly the free choices made by free moral agents. Whatever I freely choose God knows it; but not in the causative sense that He ordained it. You might say that God’s foreknowledge of my actions is contingent on my free choices – and yet He is still God! This certainty from God’s perspective does not negate the contingency of man’s free will choices nor equate to the necessity of the Eternal Decree. God’s knowledge of the future has no more impact on the course of the future than does His knowledge of the past. The relationship between foreknowledge is epistemic and logical, not causal. e.g. I know that if we go to dinner tonight; my wife will not order red meat. Yet this foreknowledge of mine will not cause her to not eat red meat; she will not eat meat of her own volition.This truth of free agency explains why unregenerate man throughout the entire Old Testament was able to repent and come to faith in God without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit; this is also applicable to the New Covenant as well. The enabling grace or prevenient grace is to assist man in his struggle with the blinding powers of darkness a.k.a. Satan; appose to his fallen nature, inability or loss of his will. Without true free agency; man cannot be held morally responsible. God can not hold man responsible for some natural, physical inability such as original sin.

5. What and who is the agent? The mind is the personal agent. The mind has perception, memory, reasoning, intuition, and feelings. The will is the executive faculty or instrument of the personal agent. The will has no power or freedom per se; not free but freely usable. The will is the faculty that carries out the power to act i.e. volition. The will is a mental faculty, a constituent faculty of our personality; the power of mental action.

True freedom lies in personal agency which is conditioned on the intrinsic power of rational self-action, the rational conception of the ends of our actions. The Power of reflection and judgment upon the ends and motives and of rationally determining our actions in respect to them; the intrinsic power to freely use the faculties of the mind. Jonathan Edwards was one of the Reformed divines who postulated this motive necessity. following is Edwards' background in philosophy and might explain why his views lead him into determinism.

Jonathan Edwards reflects the idealism of Puritan Platonism and the empiricism of Locke in a mixture not unlike that of Berkeley's immaterialism. "Just as the human intellect is the passive recipient of impressions and ideas from God will is the passive recipient of motives or moral causes presented to it by the understanding. The action of the will is fully determined by these causes; and since these motive causes are given by God, human will is divinely determined. Freedom is merely the absence of impediment to action." Here again necessity!

I think Wesley did a wonderful job of explaining God's character and free will. Even Edwards confessed “If modern divines can maintain their peculiar doctrine of freedom, consisting in the self determining power of the will, as necessary to moral agency, then they have an impregnable castle, to which they may repair, and remain invincible, in all the controversies they have with the Reformed divines concerning original sin, sovereignty, grace, election…”  Therefore the belief in free will that is taught in the Bible, by the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Grotius, and Finney are among the most cogent arguments for maintaining man's free will and therefore his responsibility and accountability for his actions to God.

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