Book Review: Love, Freedom, and Evil, by Thaddeus J. Williams
All throughout Church history, arguments have been waged and books have been written on the topic of human freedom and divine sovereignty and grace. The conclusion that there remains little, therefore, to be said on the topic seems reasonable, but is belied by the still unabated stream of publications tackling that thorny issue from one angle or another. One thing that stands out about the plethora of modern works touching upon the subject is that it has become virtually axiomatic to assume that, if love is to be genuine, it must be sovereignly exercised by a free will. That is the platform upon which various positions are erected: books that are primarily philosophical or logical in nature tend to synthesize from this starting premise, and those primarily scriptural in nature tend to look for ways in which scripture can be interpreted in harmony with it, or else blow it away with brute force, never pausing to consider how or if its axiomatic status can survive a basic logical scrutiny.
I found Thaddeus Williams' contribution to the discussion, Love, Freedom, and Evil, to be helpful primarily because it addresses this axiom head-on, with a common-sensical, disarming manner. Can scriptural arguments be made against libertarian free will? Yes, they can be, as Williams himself illustrates, providing a very helpful discussion of the themes of divine love and sovereignty in John's gospel. But the problem is, it is an unnecessary obstacle to people's credulousness to leave an unsubverted axiom intact, when making the scriptural case for the sovereignty and irresistibility of divine grace. It's like telling people, if you would believe what the bible says, you can no longer believe that the sky is blue.
Does the premise that authentic love requires libertarian free will deserve its axiomatic status? Williams would argue, and very convincingly so, that the answer is a resounding “No!”. The self-evident nature of the argument for libertarian free will is pulled off only by a classic bait-and-switch, and when the terms are kept consistent, the argument for divine sovereignty is not only scripturally compelling, it is also common-sensical.
Williams is entering a scholarly philosophical discussion, he is not writing a popular or devotional book. It is helpful, therefore, that he constantly uses simple, adept metaphors and illustrations. This makes his argument easy to grasp and to follow. It lends a kind of ingenuousness to the work. He is not winning a philosophical argument by expert arguments beyond the ken of a common person. That can be done, but the downside is, it's not very convincing to a common person. On the contrary, he's simply showing that, when you define your terms properly, common sense is on the side of scriptures. The confidently assumed axioms of Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, and a whole host of other libertarians, are built upon a cunning sleight-of-hand.
The overarching metaphor of the book depicts human freedom in the realm of divine love and grace as a freedom with respect to machine, gunman, heart, and reformer. Must genuine love have freedom from the machine – that is, must it be more than the programmed response of an automaton? Both sides would answer, “Yes”. Must it be un-coerced, that is, must it have freedom from the gunman? Again, yes. So far so good, on both counts.
However, libertarian arguments assume more. They start out with the common-sense premise that true love cannot be mechanistic or coerced, and then change the substance of the premise so that it demands that it cannot be a necessary orientation of the heart. If my heart is so swayed by passion that I cannot help but love, then my love cannot be genuine; I must be able to make a volitional choice to love or not to love, regardless of what my heart desires.
But when this unspoken shift from freedom from the machine and gunman to freedom from the heart takes place, the common-sense, axiomatic nature of the premise is overturned. If a father's heart is so full of emotion at the sight of his newborn daughter that he simply cannot help but love her, does that mean his love is no longer genuine, that it is coerced or mechanistic? Any father with common sense would be able to answer this question; but common sense leads away from the assumed axiom of the libertarian free will camp. I cannot help but love my daughter, but my love for her is genuine – and not just in spite of that lack of freedom to choose not to love her, but rather, because of it. As Williams helpfully shows, at this point, it is rather the libertarian who runs athwart common sense; for he demands that, if love is to be genuine, an “indifferent agent may choose for desires, but must remain desireless when so choosing”. In other words, for love to be genuine, the lover must be desireless (could one read, loveless?). When the bait-and-switch is discovered, the common-sense nature of the libertarian argument is eviscerated.
But the problem with philosophical arguments for libertarian free will goes deeper than that. For the libertarian axiom to hold true, not only must any genuine lover have freedom from the machine, the gunman, and the heart – he must also have freedom from the Reformer (that is, from God who reforms the sinner's heart). This is the point upon which Williams' discussion of John's gospel is so helpful. The question is not ultimately whether men can resist God's sovereign power in the gospel – it is more fundamentally whether they can resist his infinite, intra-trinitarian love, by which the Father promised a people to the Son out of love for him, the Son undertook to win a people for the Father out of love for him, and the Spirit determined to bring those people into that eternal bond of love. The essence of this sovereign love of God for his people is not that they might be free from him, but that they might be one with him. The libertarian axiom that, if my love for God can be genuine, I must be free at any time to choose for or against loving him flies in the face of the kind of love God shows within the Trinity, the same kind of love to which and by which he unstoppably calls us.
Williams ends his argument by suggesting that a simple preposition change is necessary to straighten out the confused categories of the bait-and-switch axiom of libertarian free will, and turn it into both a common-sensical and a scriptural axiom. Instead of saying true love requires freedom from the machine, from the gunman, from the heart, and from the Reformer, try this: true love requires freedom from the machine, from the gunman, of the heart and of the Reformer. When God is free to set our hearts free from slavery to sin, then there is love indeed. When the Reformer freely works in the hearts he created and designed to respond to himself in love, what kind of freedom does he bring? To quote Williams, a freedom “from the burden of self, freedom from excessive rule-keeping, freedom from enslaving impulses, freedom from satanic principalities, from condemnation, from hopelessness, from alienation, from meaninglessness, from anti-love forces within, in short, Freedom from Sin. Such freedom moves us a considerable distance from libertarian free will.... With this new freedom we approach not only something like the freedom Jesus experienced, but also move closer to what He perhaps had in mind with the words, 'If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8:36)”.
Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? by Thaddeus J. Williams - Available now at Monergism Books