Freedom and providence

One of the most important elements of our self-understanding as persons is that of freedom. There are a lot of different elements to our freedom, some of which I will try to describe in this post. I want to propose this analysis with reference to the theological problem of predestination and providence. One important complaint that I have with predestinarian theological systems such as Augustinianism and Calvinism is that they negate human freedom.

Freedom is essentially connected to personhood. The difference between a person and an object is the way in which I must interact with it: for instance, an object presents no will of its own and makes no active efforts to resist my attempt to make use of it, limiting my use only by its own intrinsic constitution (e.g., a piece of wood may be sturdy or weak); on the other hand, a person presents herself to me as a special kind of being with a will of her own, with a goal for her life and a desire to be able to realize that goal apart from the interventions of others. In the same way, we object to being used or considered objects because this does away with our essential freedom as persons.

Moreover, there is a kind of essential spontaneity in our interactions with other persons that does not arise in our interactions with objects. We try to make use of objects for various ends, and to that extent we want to master them entirely so that we are not surprised by what happens when we attempt to make use of them for some purpose. The masterful use of an object implies a total knowledge of all its potentialities, all its capabilities, so as to make for its easy utilization and manipulation in as many circumstances as possible. Our relationships with other persons, however, so long as we relate to them as persons, remain essentially spontaneous. We want to be surprised, we want to experience something new, we want to have something to learn about the other person. If we made an effort to accumulate complete and total knowledge of the other person, so that we would know every way she would react under every conceivable circumstance and could then approach her on that basis, our interaction would no longer rise to the level of personal; it would be mechanical, an interaction with a machine.

Another important aspect of freedom in interactions among persons is that the will of one person is not prior to the will of the other in explaining some action. For instance, if I were capable of taking complete control of the being of another person, so that I could make her form various intentions and make choices and respond to things I say in various ways, this would eliminate the personal aspect of our interactions. The other would no longer be a person in such an interaction, perhaps because the element of spontaneity — which implies a lack of total control on my part over the actions of the other — has been done away with altogether. Conversely, if I perceive that another person’s will explains my actions completely or to a great extent, then I also sense that I am not acting freely. If a person presses me repeatedly to perform some action — say, to go to a basketball game — and I do it more out of the pressure she applies on me than out of an initiative of my own, I sense that I am not acting freely. And if I were to find out that she had, by some mysterious means imperceptible to me, even been able to cause this assent in me, I would consider my action even less free than before. At least in the previous case, where I assent under pressure, I can at least attribute this assent ultimately to me and not to her, since I might have remained obdurate; but if she even causes this assent in such a way that I sense no coercion, then my freedom is done away with altogether.

Freedom, then, which is essentially connected to personhood per se, consists in there being some element of an action which is explained only by the person who performs the action. Thus, if our interactions with other persons do not retain some element of spontaneity and a lack of control over the other, they lose their quality as personal interactions because the freedom of the one person is negated or nullified by the other.

The problem with predestinarian theologies such as Augustinianism and Calvinism is that this element of spontaneity and lack of control is entirely done away with in the case of our relationship with God. God not only knows everything that I will do; He knows it because He is the one who ultimately explains what it is I will do and why. I will do such and such a thing because He has determined it, just as the characters in a story perform their various actions because they have been planned to do so by their author. God’s will, on these schemes, has a certain logical priority to mine which eliminates all spontaneity and gives Him complete control over what I (and any other person) will do. This is contrary to freedom and it negates our personhood, in keeping with what I’ve written above.

There is, of course, no denying that our relationship with God is different than our relationship with other persons. Certainly I think that God foreknows our actions, and I think that His providence is organized according to His knowledge of what we will or would do in various circumstances, but it seems to me that if we are to be free, our life choices, even being known by God, have at least to be givens, they have to be facts He finds Himself with, rather than ones that He creates ex nihilo. Certainly this is difficult to explain, perhaps it will remain a mystery how there can be any such facts, but the alternative seems to me to be much more problematic.


About Steven

I study theology and philosophy without ceasing. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University (2013), and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016). I am currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at Grand Canyon University and a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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