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Free Will Vs Providence - How Can We Be Free In The Face Of An Omnipotent God?
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Human freedom in light of God’s divinity is a topic that I have long been intensely interested in. It is one of the tougher concepts to grasp, lacking an obvious response when first examined by anyone who may not be extremely familiar with the subject. It is widely recognized that God, by being the God must of course be omnipotent and omniscient. Therefore He is able to influence and control and know everything. If this is the case, wouldn’t God’s divinity take away the basic fundamental human freedom of which Christians deem foundational to one’s salvation? How can an omnipotent God provide free will to His subject that is genuinely free?

Well to start out let us examine the definition of two authors which I have had the pleasure of reading this quarter. Scott A Davison and Daniel Howard-Snyder both take close examinations of human free will. For starters, let us define free will in order to more fully understand what terms are being worked with. Free will is the capacity by which humans are enabled to make decisions uncompelled by exterior factors which would remove the option of making whatever choice they wish at any particular given moment. Now why on earth is this whole free will topic such a big deal in the first place? Howard-Snyder hits the nail right on the head with his reasoning here:

“Lacking freedom, we could not be deeply responsible for who we are, who we will become and whether we will manifest and confirm our character through the choices we make.” (Howard-Snyder) So if we did not have free will, we could in no way be held accountable for our actions, which would entail that we are not in control of our lives and therefore do not deserve to be judged and punished for our actions by God. In fact, we see that if we are not in control of our lives, then it is rational to assume that God is in fact responsible in some way for the evil and sin within the world, seeing as how he is the omniscient and omnipotent entity within this universe. Howard-Snyder wrestles with this question within his paper. If God is good, why is there so much evil? Why does He allow it to destroy so many lives unchecked?

Howard-Snyder also provides some reasoning for this question. Human free will is necessary because without choosing to engage in love, no real love can be displayed. God created humans as relational creatures. Indeed, He himself is relational. The Holy Trinity represents the perfect communion of love between three separate persons, which are at the same time one through their interaction of love.

“Since those love relationships we cherish most are those in which we are most deeply vested, in light of love’s freedom they are also those from which we can suffer most. It simply is not possible, therefore, for us to be in relationships of love without (at some time) having it within our power to harm and be harmed in a serious fashion.” (Howard-Snyder)

Now because of love, it is necessary for humans to have true free will. By the same token, it is also a fact that we will cause pain and suffering. Therefore, in the pursuit of the ultimate good, love, God has given us the power to choose. Our choices relate to how we will interact and love those around us, or, if we so choose not love.

There remains on problem with this reasoning. It fails to account for all suffering. Howard-Snyder points out that obviously humans are not the sole cause of pain and suffering within this world. Everywhere we turn we see disease, natural disasters, famine, etc. Who causes these sufferings? People often turn to God and blame Him for such occurrences, but once again Howard-Snyder brings to bear a particularly intriguing concept. “In order to have a world with creatures who can choose freely, the environment in which they are placed must be set up in certain well-defined ways. Once of these environmental requirements is that the world be governed by regular and orderly laws of nature. Why this requirement? Well, imagine a world in which nature was not governed by such laws. What would it be like? Simply put, there would be no regular relationship between the occurrence of one sort of event and another.” (Howard-Snyder) In order to provide human beings with true freedom of choice, we must first understand what our choices entail. In a world with no consistency, one without natural laws, we cannot understand the physical and psychological ramifications of our actions if we have no way of predicting the results. However these same natural laws, such as gravity, may also cause injury. It is necessary for God to implement this otherwise He would not have truly given us free will. Without true free will, we cannot possible glorify God in any meaningful way.

Now that we understand the importance of free will, we can move on and address how exactly an omnipotent God who is also omniscient could possibly create free will. After all, as soon as God knows that you are going to do such and such, it is no longer technically your choice to do it but rather you are, in a way, pre-destined to do such and such. This is problematic and turning to Davison, we see that he addresses this issue in three ways. Firstly, Davison identifies to main trends of understanding free will, which are the compatibilist and incompatibilist views. Compatibilists believe that a person’s present state of affairs and thoughts tend to influence that person to favor particular topics rather than others. Incompatibilists on the other hand are adamant that free will must be uninfluenced by anything and is simply a process of coming to a fork in the road and freely picking which route best suites them.

To go with these viewpoints, comes the second argument from Davison. Free will may be structured into “Three Theories of Providence”. These theories represent the level of involvement in which God participates with His creation ranging from Strong Theory of Providence, the Middle Theory of Providence, and the Weak Theory of Providence. The Strong Theory maintains that God is highly involved in controlling and influencing His creation. The middle theory God participates less directly in specific happenings within creation. His actions are fairly evenly split from simply enabling us with free will and the resources to use it and helping to guide humanity toward’s His own agenda. Then the Weak Theory of Providence emphasizes God’s lack of direct involvement with creation, despite having the ability to directly influence it. Compatibilists lean towards strong and middle theories while incompatibilists lean towards middle and weak theories.

All of this still doesn’t answer the question though. How does God limit his omniscience in order to provide humans with a shot at freewill? In order to explain this away some Christians assert that God simply does not know what will happen in the future. This poses problems though, namely that it directly contradicts many Biblical passages which indicate God has knowledge of the future. Rather than asserting that God simply does not know the future, Davison divides knowledge into three categories. Natural knowledge of everything that is a necessary truth, Middle knowledge which is essentially God knowing the possible actions a person would do given any particular situation, which lead to the free knowledge of God from which are actual truth’s that could be different given different circumstances. In this way God is able to understand the future and plan for it so to speak.

This resolves the issue of God pre-determining human lives and eliminating free will due to His providence. I would like to venture that this is an extremely complicated explanation that can in some ways be worked out almost too easily in some ways. While I do not personally believe that any other explanations really hold their own against serious scrutiny, I need to remind myself that this is simply one of many ways in which philosophers and theologians have explained God’s providence and the gift of free will.

Sources: Howard-Snyder, Daniel. 1999. “God, Evil, and Suffering” Reason for the Hope Within. Davison, Scott. 1999. “Divine Providence and Human Freedom” Reason for the Hope Within.


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