The Freewill Issue In Theological Perspective -- By: John Warwick Montgomery

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 08:2 (Sep 2010)
Article: The Freewill Issue In Theological Perspective
Author: John Warwick Montgomery


The Freewill Issue In Theological Perspective

John Warwick Montgomery

Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought

Patrick Henry College

Abstract: The freewill/determinism issue has not been a concern solely of secular metaphysicians and philosophers of law. Theologians also have wrestled with this intractable problem. The present paper considers the three major approaches to the issue as presented in Western theology: that of Roman Catholicism/Protestant Arminianism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. A sound theological approach is seen to have distinct advantages over against secular treatments, both in general terms and in the sphere of legal philosophy.

Part One of the The Oxford Handbook of Freewill is devoted to “Theology and Fatalism.”1 The Handbook quite properly recognises the place of freewill discussions in the history of Christian theology and their potential value to the analysis of that crucial issue in other domains such as legal theory. The purpose of this essay is to outline the positions classically taken on the freewill issue in Christian dogmatics and to see whether they can shed light on the freewill/determinism controversy in general.

Before presenting the theological alternatives, however, it may be worthwhile to observe the state of the question in secular thought. On the one hand, it seems logical to assume that the genetic makeup of the individual covers all aspects of his or her actions; were we to have a complete map of that genetic situation in the case of any given person, we could presumably predict all of that individual’s life decisions.

However, such a deterministic conclusion flies in the face of our need to establish responsibility for human action—particularly in the case of antisocial behaviour, where one can hardly be allowed to push responsibility back upon one’s progenitors and thereby avoid the consequences of one’s acts. To take but one legal example, the French Cour de cassation in the important Laboube case declared:

“Encore faut-il, conformément aux principes généraux du droit, que le mineur dont la participation à l’acte matériel à lui reproché est établi, ait compris et voulu cet acte; toute infraction, même non intentionnelle, suppose en effet que son auteur ait agi avec intelligence et volonté2

In short, in spite of herculean efforts to arrive at rational compatibility between genetic determinism and freely chosen human actions,3 the paradox remains: in theory, our acts are predetermined, yet ...

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