Monday, July 25, 2011

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Free will is one of the most perplexing philosophical mysteries. It gives rise to many deep questions. Do we have such a thing as free will? Do we really have a choice when we make a choice? Or are our choices completely pre-determined by our character and circumstances?
Is free will possible in a determinist world, where all our choices can be completely explained in terms of prior causes? Or does free will require an element of chance? Can God fully predict all our human choices? If our choices are pre-determined, should we be held morally accountable?

Many philosophers believe that human free will is impossible in a deterministic world, where all events and choices are fully predictable (at least by God). This has led to either a denial of the existence of free will or to a denial that the world is deterministic.

How can we reconcile human free will and moral responsibility with divine sovereignty?There are two main positions. The first--libertarianism--says that humans are to some degree autonomous (i.e., self-governing and independent of God). It says that we are free agents who make our own choices, which are inherently unpredictable. The second--compatabilism--says that our character and circumstances make our choices completely predictable by God, our Creator; our choices form part of God’s overall plan.

Most Reformed theologians have favoured some sort of compatabilism; most Arminians have preferred libertarianism, which can easily lead to open theism.

I have discussed some of these issue in my article Free will and Responsibility and, more recently, in my post God, Chance and Evil.

Only a few days ago Paul Manata has published a helpful essay Free will, Moral Responsibility and Reformed Theology: A Contemporary Introduction. Much confusion has been caused by the fact that terms such as "free will", "deteriminism", and "responsibility" have been used in various senses. Paul brings clarity by carefully enumerating the variety of definitions and setting up boundaries for Reformed theology. I thus strongly recommend this paper to those interested in what the Reformed confessions entail for theological models reconciling divine sovereignty with human free will and moral responsibility.


  1. _Predestination_ by Gordon Clark is the best on this subject. Another goody is _The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination_ by Jerome Zanchius.

  2. - see also Determinism and Responsibility @

  3. That link did not work. You might want to update it.
    Mr. Manata has apparently moved his article to the following URL:

    1. Hi Mitch

      Thanks for the correction. I have just updated the link.


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