Book Review – What About Free Will?
The debate over the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is one which has been around for a while. We know that it was a debate among the ancient Greeks and my suspicion is that it dates back even further than that. It’s one of life’s big questions and a question which most people will ponder at some point in their life. Needless to say a lot has been written on the topic. From a theological perspective, most of these books focus on what it means when scripture speaks of God predestining some to eternal life. However, as far as I am aware, there haven’t been too many books which focus primarily on the other side of the coin – the question of free will. That is what Scott Christensen takes up in this book and he does so with care and acute attention to detail.
In What About Free Will, Scott Christensen frames the discussion in terms of compatibilism (the view that God’s sovereignty and our free will are compatible) and libertarianism (the view that our free will is free from any and all outside influences including our desires). For those who wish to frame these definitions in more familiar categories, compatibilism is the Reformed or Calvinistic view and libertarianism is the non-Reformed or Arminian view. You will want to know that Christensen approaches the discussion from a Reformed and Calvinistic perspective. More specifically, he approaches the issue of free will from the perspective of Jonathon Edwards in his great work, Freedom of the Will in which Edwards argues that we always choose freely according to the strongest impulse (desire, motivation, reason, etc) that we possess in that moment. So while we are free we are also bound to what our mind believes is the greatest good. We will not act contrary to that motive. This view allows for our free will to interact with God’s determining work in the world since we will always choose according to our greatest desire.
I found Christensen to be very convincing. To be fair, I hold to a Reformed soteriology so it wasn’t a great stretch for me by anyone’s standard. However, his careful reasoning and ample Biblical support are enough to cause anyone (regardless of where they started) to see that determinism and free will can and do work together in our daily lives and in our spiritual lives.
The organization and structure of the book help to make this a very coherent read. I never once felt as if Christensen had left me behind while following some wild tangent to nowhere. He stayed on track and the book followed the logical flow of his argument. He starts off by defining the libertarian view and the weaknesses that are inherent in the view. For instance, can we really say that we are so free that absolutely nothing influences our decisions? Can we choose contrary to what we value most? If we say we can, are we not just following a stronger impulse (perhaps even the desire to prove that we can choose contrary to our impulse)? In order to prove this, the libertarian would have to demonstrate that a choice was completely free of any outside influences; that it was truly random and not caused.This is a tall (if not impossible) order. There are other weaknesses to libertarianism of course, and Christensen handles them with ease while remaining fair and true to their own arguments. This is perhaps one of the most impressive things about the book: Christensen is very generous toward the opposing position and uses quotes and arguments from Arminians liberally and fairly.
Next, Christensen supplies plenty of Biblical examples of God’s determinism and leaves the reader with no doubt that scripture speaks of God as a God who is sovereign over all of life. He then moves to demonstrate how it is that God’s sovereignty can co-exist with human freedom and provides a good case for compatibilism. This is followed by two wonderful chapters on why good things happen and why bad things happen. It is here where Christensen begins to shine as he takes real issues and starts to flesh out how compatibilism works in the real world of human affairs. This is all done using practical and real world examples so that the reader can begin to see how compatibilism makes sense in every day life.
My favorite feature of What About Free Will is the way in which Christensen concludes each chapter with a concise summary, study questions, a glossary, and a list of resources for further study. This allows the reader to not only revisit the principles taught in the chapter, but to also explore the issues discussed at greater lengths by being directed to the writings of other people who have tackled similar issues.
I love the idea of using this book as a way to sharpen your understanding of how God’s sovereignty and our free will work hand in hand. What About Free Will is a book that you will want to keep on your “favorites” shelf to reference often. It is easily understandable and written in such a way that your high school aged child can follow. It will certainly enrich his or her faith. I would highly recommend it as a part of a homeschooling theology curriculum as a substitute for Edwards’ Freedom of the Will if your child finds Edwards a bit difficult to read (quite frankly. . . he is!) or perhaps as a precursor to introduce the basic thoughts and ideas prior to tackling Edwards. I am thankful for the opportunity to have read What About Free Will and am confident that it has made me a clearer thinker when it comes to grappling with issues of divine sovereignty and human freedom.
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About the Author
Scott Christensen (MDiv, The Master’s Seminary) worked for six years at the award-winning CCY Architects in Aspen, Colorado: several of his home designs were featured inArchitectural Digest magazine. Called out of this work to the ministry, he graduated with honors from seminary and now pastors Summit Lake Community Church in Mancos, Colorado.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from P&R Publishing in exchange for an online review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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