Free Will in Philosophical Theology
by Thomas Jay Oord
March 4, 2014
The majority of great philosophers and theologians have believed in free will. Contemporary discussions of what free will is and how it might function, however, have not always been clear. In his new book, Free Will in Philosophical Theology, Kevin Timpe takes free will as his central concern to explore theological issues.
Timpe is well suited to write this kind of book. He is a leading force/voice in the contemporary philosophy of free will discussions. He calls his own view of the nature of free will, “source incompatiblism,” and this view is presupposed in this work.
Timpe’s goal for the book is to clarify the possible role a particular kind of virtue libertarianism might play in thinking through a range of theological issues that involve free will. He also intends not to affirm anything clearly at odds with the main historical thrust of Christianity.
After an opening chapter and brief discussion on the nature and importance of free will, Timpe looks at the relation between free will and the good. He argues that an agent’s moral character puts constraints on what actions he or she is capable of freely choosing to perform. When an agent chooses, he/she acts for the sake of some end perceived to be good in some way.
Although recognizing the influence of passions, Timpe argues that passions and emotions do not undermine free will. But they can inhibit the proper expression of freedom. Happily, growth in moral character inclines one to choose the good more often: “An increase in virtue will strengthen the connection between the agent’s passions and the good” (17).
Sin and Salvation
Hamartiology is an important theological issue, especially as it pertains to freedom of the will. Timpe addresses hamartiology in a chapter exploring the primal sin, which is the original – first – sin committed by an agent created by an essentially good God.
The question arises: Why would an agent created as good choose evil? The primal sin, which because it was first was not influenced by previous sins or sinner, is difficult to explain. Timpe argues that voluntarist accounts of the fall are not more problematic that intellectualist accounts. He concludes that there is inexplicability at work in accounting for the primal sin: “It looks then as if a Christian account of primal sin cannot avoid all arbitrariness” (48).
Moving from sin to conversion, Timpe takes up the issue of salvation and the divine and creaturely roles therein. His argument in this chapter is that God’s grace is the sole non-instrumental efficient cause of saving faith. But humans control whether they come to saving faith.
In this, Timpe seeks to avoid Pelagianism, on one hand, and theological determinism, on the other: God’s grace is necessary but not sufficient for saving faith. Timpe hopes also avoids the problems associated with believing God gives grace needed for salvation to only some (e.g., limited election), while also endorsing the belief that grace is the cause of creatures coming to faith.
Two chapters address eschatological issues. The first explores how an individual’s free will affects the condition of that individual in the afterlife. Christianity has historically believed a necessary condition for an individual spending eternity in hell is that individual not choosing to respond correctly to God. A resident of hell does not choose God and is therefore not the kind of person fit for heaven. Persons freely form moral characters in the present life. Negative character formation makes them no longer psychologically capable of accepting God’s offer for reconciliation in the afterlife.
Such persons cannot move from hell to heaven through free choices, argues Timpe, because the person’s moral character becomes set at death. To justify the claim that moral character is set at death, Timpe argues that “whatever reasons one thinks there may be for why it is that death secures the psychological impossibility question, that it does so is established by the Christian tradition” (77).
As far as the redeemed are concerned, Timpe argues they retain freewill in the afterlife and yet are incapable of sinning. This “free but not capable of sinning” proposal may sound puzzling, and Timpe calls it “the problem of heavenly freedom.” Saints do not freely choose to sin when in heaven, he claims, because any temptation to sin suggests that these saints are not in a state of highest bliss. And any place not of highest bliss is not worthy of the name “heaven.”
Few people destined for heaven, however, have a fully formed character necessary for resisting sin everlastingly. To resolve this problem, Timpe embraces the necessity of purgatory. He is attracted to a sanctification model of purgatory, rather than a punitive/satisfaction model. The sanctification model offers a developmental process whereby human character can be formed fully allowing saints to be free in heaven but unable to sin.
Timpe closes the book by using his virtue libertarian model to examine the question of God’s own freedom. Despite differences between God and other agents, the considerations for free agents generally apply to God. Timpe addresses those who argue that libertarian accounts of God’s freedom run into conceptual problems if God’s nature is essentially good. As he sees it, a God without moral freedom would not be the greatest conceivable being.
God’s use of freedom differs from creatures in some ways, however. While moral freedom is necessary for creatures to form moral characters, moral freedom is not necessarily for God. God’s moral nature is eternally set, and God is not free to be immoral. God always does what is best despite being free.
In the final section of his chapter on divine freedom, Timpe addresses William Rowe’s work on God’s freedom and choice to create a world. Frankly, this section was the least understandable in what was otherwise a highly readable book. Rowe says that given every possible world, God could have created a better one. Timpe replies that “God could have a reason for picking one from among a set of worlds, even if He could have -- by necessity -- picked a better” (117). Timpe seems to be arguing that God’s perfect nature prevents God from choosing to actualize other possible worlds, and yet God could have chosen otherwise.
The two major areas in which I found Timpe’s proposals unsatisfying pertained to eschatology and divine freedom. I am inclined toward afterlife scenarios in which the damned may eventually be redeemed. This inclination makes me unsatisfied with Timpe’s claim that sinners are psychologically “set” for eternity never to choose God’s gracious offer of redemption. [or, re "annihilation" one who is fully abandoned towards existentless fullment as determined by willful choiceor moral character in this life. See the topic of "Purgatory - Yeah or Nay?" in Relevancy22 - r.e. slater]
As far as the state of the saints in the afterlife, I’m attracted to views that allow for growth in grace in heaven (not purgatory). I’m inclined toward proposals that lead to saints developing holy habits inclining them toward righteousness but always allowing for the possibility that even saints may use their freedom wrongly.
The other major area I found unsatisfying may have more to do with my lack of clarity about Timpe’s last chapter (especially his work on Rowe). That is, Timpe’s view of free will seems centered primarily on the “choosing” aspect of libertarianism, or what he calls the “source” of incompatibilism.
I’m inclined to agree on the importance of this choosing aspect, but I also equally emphasize the choices of libertarianism, that is the various options whereby the chooser chooses but could have done otherwise. And this makes me wonder if the God Timpe envisions ever faces genuine options to do otherwise than the one option God’s perfect nature requires. Here our divergent notions of God’s relation to time and omniscience (I’m an open theist) seem to make a difference in how we think about God’s relation to the future and the options (or, apparently in Timpe’s case, option) a necessarily loving God encounters.
Although I have different metaphysical commitments than Timpe with regard to God’s relation to time and although by disposition I am less inclined to defend some beliefs in the classic tradition (e.g., purgatory), I often agreed with his proposals. A virtue libertarian with theological motivations like mine and not Timpe’s may have written a little different book. But this book is a strong foray into tackling problems presented free will theists, and it does an admirable job of offering plausible solutions. In sum, this is a strong book on free will in philosophical theology.