Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is Free Will?

I was recently made aware of another open-hand issue debated among Christians: the question of Synergism versus monergism. If my epic post on predestination didn't make it clear enough, I apparently fall pretty squarely with synergism. I'm not going to answer this question further, as I'd largely be repeating myself. But this issue combined with some sermons from my church I've been listening to have made me realize that apparently not everyone had the same definition of "free will". I'm going to unpack mine. Rather than risk overcomplicating the term, I'm going to define it basically in terms of its parts.

Free: The relevant dictionary definitions of "free" are "Not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes", or "Not...restrained, obstructed, or fixed; unimpeded". I don't think I can better explain the meaning of "free" here than that.

Will: This is the crucial part. Take everything in the definition of "free" and apply it to "will". I would define will as "the power to unilaterally decide to act or respond in a particular way". The will is the executor of the self. No matter how much we want to do something, we don't do it unless we will it first.

Putting them together, free will could then be defined as "the unimpeded power to unilaterally decide to act or respond in a particular way". I would say everyone has this. It is the reason we hold people responsible for their actions: whatever you do, you first will to do. Free will means nothing can damage this power, inhibit it, or take it away. (With God this is debatable, but as far as we know He graciously allows us our free will) The ability to determine our thoughts and intended actions is part of the bedrock of who we are as humans.

Now notice what this definition isn't saying. The "decide to" part is important--though we are always free to decide to take some course of action, we are not always able to carry out this decision. Freedom of will is not freedom of action, the freedom to do absolutely anything you decide on, which only God possesses. This is where my pastor and I seem to disagree on what free will is.

Another implication is that free will does not guarantee freedom of our emotions or desires. These things are all subject to countless external and internal stimuli and beyond our control. This doesn't lessen the freedom of the will: no matter how many pressures are on our hearts and minds, we still have the final say in what to do; nothing decides for us. The decision isn't always easy to see, but it is always there.

How our free will interacts with our innate sinfulness and God's sovereign will is a mystery. I just know that they are both fully able to operate at the same time in each of us--I imagine them coexisting on different levels.

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