Two Silly Things

A doctrine of compatibilism is often asserted. It is said that God’s sovereignty is compatible with man’s freedom because man’s decisions are not coerced, but that man always acts according to his strongest desire. Then, this so-called freedom is often used as a basis for man’s moral responsibility.

However, if God’s sovereignty is exhaustive, then everything is explained by it, including man’s desires and the fact that he acts according to his desires. So the fact that there is no coercion is not an indication of freedom, but a reflection that God controls all things. And even if there is resistance, it does not indicate freedom, but that for his own purpose, God is causing one thing to react against another.

In other words, the doctrine of divine sovereignty is such an overarching principle that everything else is explained and interpreted by it. Under this principle, compatibilism is rendered irrelevant. Since there is only one true cause, compatibility cannot be used to make a point other than to say that this one cause is compatible with himself. To say that anything under this system is compatible with another thing is to say nothing other than that God is compatible with himself.

If I assert that I have power over my door, you could think you are very clever and point out that my closing the door is compatible with the door closing. Of course! And the door is not coerced! But this does not grant any freedom to the door, and the door does not close by its own will and power. The statement fails to make any point other than to reaffirm that I have power over the door.

Likewise, to say that God is sovereign and that man decides according to his own desire is to say that God causing a man to have a desire and to decide according to this desire is compatible with God being sovereign. But this only tells me how God uses his sovereignty, or what he does with it. If the aim is to carve out a place for human freedom, or to make a point other than to reaffirm God’s sovereignty, it is entirely unsuccessful. It is one of the silliest things in theology.

Some have tried to rescue the doctrine by claiming that I have misrepresented it. They say that the theologians do not call this a kind of freedom, or whether they do or not, they do not make it a basis for moral responsibility. I have two answers to this. First, these people evidently do not know what compatibilism teaches. Theologians indeed call it a kind of freedom, and many if not most of them do make it a basis for moral responsibility. I have documented this with some of the same theologians they claim that they rely on to define the doctrine. Second, if the doctrine is never called a kind of freedom, and never used as a basis for moral responsibility, this might make it less absurd, but it also makes it even less relevant. It becomes a misleading observation that makes no point. And if the only point is that human decisions are not coerced, I have already answered this above.

It is sometimes said that my biblical position resembles pantheism, since it maintains that God is the only real cause. But this is not so much an objection to be answered than an assumption to be exposed and marveled at with horror. The person who makes this objection assumes that God is identified with whatever he controls or causes, so that if God controls and causes all things, then he is identified with the whole universe, resulting in pantheism. The Scripture and I reject this assumption, and there is nothing inherent in the idea that God is the only cause to compel an identification with pantheism. It is not impossible or contradictory to affirm that God controls and causes all things, but that he is not identified with those things. He can fully control a rock and not be the rock. Unless there is an argument to force this identification, there is nothing else to say by way of reply.

Still, Christians, including some Calvinists and Reformed theologians, use this assumption against a strong view of divine sovereignty, such as when Dabney opposed Edwards on the matter of continuous creation, and it has been used against me also. But if they use this assumption to oppose total divine sovereignty, they must continue to use it when they refer to any degree of control or causation by God. Now they are stuck with this false assumption that they use on other people. If they affirm that God is totally sovereign, then according to their own assumption, they are the pantheists. If they affirm that God is not identified with the whole universe, or if they reject pantheism, then they cannot affirm that God is totally sovereign. They will have to settle with a strange blend of finite deity and partial pantheism. Thus they must either accept this conclusion and renounce the Christian faith, or they must abandon the assumption and admit that the doctrine that says God is the only true cause is not the same as pantheism. This is also one of the silliest things in theology.

The biblical doctrine is much simpler: God is sovereign, and man is not free. Divine sovereignty is incompatible with man’s freedom. This has nothing to do with moral responsibility, since moral responsibility refers to accountability, and God holds man accountable; therefore, man is responsible. Human freedom has no logical entry into the discussion.