Gordon Clark riffs on regeneration, predestination, and man’s free will: Clark Quick Quote | God’s Hammer.
What does it mean to have “free will”? Just what sort of freedom are we talking about? Assuming that man actually has a “free” will, what is it free from? Do we mean freedom from sin? Freedom from laws? Freedom from God’s control? Most people who believe in a so-called free will think that man is “free,” in any given situation, to choose to sin or not. They also usually think that God earnestly desires in His heart that man always choose good, but somehow limits Himself so that man’s choice is undetermined by God. Is this what it means to have a free will? If so, can we honestly say that man’s will is free from God providential control and determining decree? Gordon H. Clark, in an essay simply entitled “Free Will” (Essays on Ethics and Politics, pp. 96-99; originally published in The Southern Presbyterian Journal, December 22, 1954.), answers this question firmly in the negative. I hope you find the following quotes edifying:
Freedom from sin, complete freedom, is attained only in heaven; but even in heaven a completely free and undetermined will cannot be found. It is equally impossible for the glorified saint to choose to sin as it was for the unregenerate to choose not to sin. As Augustine said, the condition of man in heaven is non posse peccare: not able to sin. Heaven would be a precarious place if its citizens had this sort of free will.
… Man is not a machine; his motions cannot be described by mathematical equations as the motions of the planets can. His hopes, plans, and activities are not controlled by physical conditions. He is not determined by any absolute necessity of nature.
But this does not mean that man is free from God. The [Westminster] Confession does not deny, but on the contrary explicitly affirms that God controls the will of man. To say that physics and chemistry do not explain conduct is not to rule out God’s grace. …
Unless God “governs all creatures, actions, and things ([Westminster Confession of Faith] V i), or “all his creatures and all their actions” ([Westminster] Shorter Catechism 11), he would not be actually omnipotent, nor could we be sure his prophecies would infallibly come true. An interesting though obscure case of God’s control over the will of men is found in Exodus 34:24. The men of Israel are commanded to appear before the Lord three times a year. As such an occasion would offer an excellent opportunity for an enemy attack, the Lord assures his people that their enemies will not desire to attack at those times. In II Samuel 17:14 Absalom chose the worse advice because the Lord had planned to defeat the better counsel in order to bring evil on Absalom. God also caused Rehoboam to adopt evil counsel (II Chronicles 10:15) in order to fulfil his promise to Jeroboam. Better known than these cases are the words of Paul in Philippians 2:12,13, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do.”
Man has a natural liberty not acknowledged by materialistic philosophy, but Christians should never construe that liberty to the detriment of God’s omnipotence and grace (pp. 98-99).
The Bible does not work out a theory of voluntary action and deliberate choice. It does, however, base responsibility on knowledge, and allows for greater responsibility, greater sin, and greater punishment in proportion to the amount of knowledge. The idea is clearly expressed in Romans 1:18,19, 32; 2:12, 13, 15. Also, Christ said, “that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready… shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:47, 48) (Gordon H. Clark, Essays on Ethics and Politics, “Ethics,” pp. 59.).
… Those who deny that men are dead in sin hold also that sin is not merely voluntary, but is particularly an act of free will. Volition and free will are not the same… Free will, that is, a choice that is not caused either by God, by character, by motives, or anything else, is substituted for knowledge as the basis for responsibility. Moreover, the problem is complicated by the fact that God is omnipotent. He could have made men sinless, had he so desired. … Christianity teaches that God is omnipotent so that He could even now eradicate evil. Superficial thinking attempts to say that God limited himself. The infinite made itself finite. God undeified himself, and hence there is sin. This reply is inadequate because limited omnipotence is a contradiction in terms… (63).
Clark’s essay, “Ethics,” was originally published in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Merrill C. Tenney, editor. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975, pp. 385-404.
My good friend Lee has posted a very good article which surveys some of the problems of so-called Free Will. Whereas some of my recent posts have addressed Free Will as opposed to Determinism, Lee’s discussion focuses on Free Will as opposed to the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity. Although Lee’s view of the biblical covenants and the nation of Israel may be different from my own, I find his primary arguments here to be good examples of logic applied to biblical truth.
Here is an excerpt which deals with the argument which runs, “If God commands something, then man must have the ability to obey it”:
In Ezekiel 37, God instructs the prophet Ezekiel to command dry bones to hear the word of the LORD (v. 4). Hear is in the imperative form in Hebrew, indicating that this clearly is a command. Dry bones are dead, lifeless bones. Because they are dead, they are not able to hear anything. However, through the power of God’s word that He will breathe life into these dry bones, they came together and became covered with skin (vv. 7-8). God then commands the prophet to call on the wind to breathe into these men and it is so (vv. 9-10). The bones would not have been able to hear God’s word until after He brought them to life. […] Another command given which was impossible for one to obey without God’s divine assistance can be seen with Jesus’ command to Lazarus. Jesus calls a dead Lazarus to come forth (John 11:43). Lazarus had been dead for four days. He in no way had the ability to respond to Jesus’ command to get up and come out of the tomb. God had to give him the life needed for him to be able to respond. In both cases, a command is given to a recipient that lacks the ability to obey.
The following quotes are taken from Gordon H. Clark’s essay, “Determinism and Responsibility.” In the essay, Clark endeavors to, and succeeds in demonstrating that man’s responsibility is not based on his having a so-called free will. The arguments in this essay are further developed in Clark’s book, God and Evil: The Problem Solved. I highly recommend both the essay, in its entirety, as well as God and Evil to anyone who has ever wrestled with how God’s sovereignty fits with man’s responsibility in a sinful world. May these quotes inspire you to read both of these small but significant works! Emphasis in bold is my own.
Clark writes, concerning “Free Will”:
…[I]t is well to note and emphasize that the reason – and has anyone found any other really basic reason? – for introducing the concept of freedom, either in its most extreme form of power of contrary choice or in some more modified form, is to hold man morally responsible. Could it be shown that man’s responsibility does not necessarily depend upon freedom, theology would be freed from an annoying problem. Well can we imagine the groanings which cannot be uttered if generations of young theologues were to be summoned before us to describe the tortures they endured in trying to reconcile God’s omniscience with free will. The Presbyterian and Reformed churches do not believe in free will. They substitute the concept of free agency, meaning that a man is a free moral agent when he acts in conformity with his own nature. Even so, some have stated* that the reconciliation of man’s free agency and God’s sovereignty is an inscrutable mystery. Rather the mystery is – recognizing that God is the ultimate cause of man’s nature – how the Calvinistic solution could have been so long overlooked.
*In the Brief Statement of the Reformed Faith of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1902; compare Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 251-252; also the four questions A.H. Strong cannot answer, Systematic Theology, I, p. 366 [Clark 40-41].
Later, Clark quotes, then comments on Calvin’s Institutes:
“… [H]ow exceedingly presumptuous it is only to inquire into the causes of the Divine will; which is in fact, and is justly entitled to be, the cause of every thing that exists. For if it has any cause, then there must be something antecedent, on which it depends; which it is impious to suppose. For the will of God is the highest rule of justice; so that what He wills must be considered just, for this very reason, because He wills it. When it is inquired, therefore, why the Lord did so, the answer must be, because He would. But if you go further, and ask why He so determined, you are in search of something greater and higher than the will of God, which can never be found [III, xiii, 2.].”
God is sovereign; whatever he does is just, for this very reason, because he does it. If he punishes a man, the man is punished justly and hence the man is responsible. This answers the form of argument which runs: Whatever God does is just, eternal punishment is not just, therefore God does not so punish. If the objector mean [sic] he has received a special revelation that there is no eternal punishment, we cannot deal with him here. If, however, he is not laying claim to a special revelation of future history, but to some philosophic principle which is intended to show that eternal punishment is unjust, the distinction between our positions becomes immediately obvious. Calvin has rejected that view of the universe which makes a law, whether of justice or of evolution, instead of the law-giver supreme. … God in such a system is finite or limited, bound to follow or obey the pattern. But those who proclaim the sovereignty of God determine what justice is by observing what God actually does. Whatever God does is just. What he commands men to do or not to do is similarly just or unjust [46-47].
An argument similar to the one Clark describes has shown up on this blog. Basically, it runs thus: Whatever God does is just, God holds man responsible for sin, holding man responsible for predetermined sinful actions is unjust, therefore God does not predetermine sinful actions of men. The third premise is not found in Scripture; it is only found in the philosophy of man. As such, it cannot be introduced into a system of deductive truth from God’s Word. If one is to discover truth about God’s dealings with men, one must rely solely on the Word of God.
In Gordon H. Clark’s essay, “Concerning Free Will” (Essays on Ethics and Politics; Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1992. pp. 25-35; originally published in The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, August-September, 1961.), Clark provides several quotes from historic Protestantism on the subject of “Free Will.” I found the following quotes especially helpful, particularly because they speak to subjects and arguments that I have encountered in my own theological discussions. Emphasis in bold is my own.
First, Martin Luther, in response to Erasmus’ quote of Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before thy face life and death, choose what is good.”
“What words” says the Diatribe, “can be more plain? It leaves a man the liberty of choosing.” I answer, what is more plain than that you are blind? How, I pray, does it leave the liberty of choosing? Is it by the expression “choose”? Therefore as Moses saith “choose,” does it immediately come to pass that they do choose? Then there is no need of the Spirit. … [Erasmus says] “It would be ridiculous to say to a man standing in a place where two ways meet, Thou seest two roads, go by which thou wilt; when only one was open.” This, as I [Luther] have observed before, is from the arguments of human reason, which thinks that a man is mocked by a command impossible: whereas I say that the man by this means is admonished and roused to see his own impotency. True it is that we are in a place where two ways meet, and that one of them only is open, yea rather neither of them is open. But by the law it is shown how impossible the one [way] is, that is, to good, unless God freely give us His Spirit, and how wide and easy the other [way] is, if God leave us to ourselves. … Wherefore the words of the law are spoken, not that they might assert the power of the will, but that they might illuminate the blindness of reason, that it might see that its own light is nothing and that the power of the will is nothing. … Man by the words of the law is admonished and taught what he ought to do, not what he can do; that is, that he is brought to know his sin, but not to believe that he has any strength in himself” (pp. 153-154).
Look then first at that of Jeremiah and Malachi, “If thou wilt turn, then will I turn thee;” and “turn ye unto me and I will turn unto you.” Does it then follow from “turn ye” therefore, ye are able to turn? Does it follow also from “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” therefore, thou art able to love with all the heart? If these arguments stand good, what do they conclude but that free will needs not the grace of God, but can do all things of its own power? (p. 162) [Clark 27-28]. [Clark takes these quotes from Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Henry Cole trans., Sovereign Grace Union ed., United States, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1931.]
Here Luther has shown that one can only derive propositions (such as “Man possesses the liberty of choosing”) from other propositions. An imperative statement, or command, is not a proposition; it is neither true nor false, and thus truth cannot be derived from it.
Next, John Calvin. Continue Reading