It is imperative one reads the first blog of this series prior to continuing in order to understand my heart and purpose. In that blog responding to Heiser’s book, I covered the issue of sovereignty (God’s decree and plan.) In this blog, I will focus on the other issue Dr. Heiser regularly brought up: free will.
The Bondage of the Will:
In the debate that has been raging for some 500 years now, two positions on the will of man have been established. Some view man as having an “autonomous free will,” sometimes referred to as “the power of contrary choice,” and most commonly referred to as “free will.” This position essentially states that a person, regardless of whether they know Christ or not, is capable of doing good or evil, the choice is theirs. This affects the Gospel as repenting of sins and believing in Christ are good things. Thus, this side believes every person is capable of making that choice as they stand. Their will is free to move in any direction at any time.
Then there are some who believe the will of man is enslaved. Therefore, it is not free. Those outside of Christ have sinful wills, sinful desires, and only by a miraculous change of heart, being born again, can they become capable of pleasing God. Until that point, it is not even an option or a desire.
Heiser emphatically sticks his flag in the ground of the former.
“In choosing to give us freedom, God also chose not to make us mindless slaves or robots. That’s the alternative to having free-will. That’s the alternative to having free-will. But since freedom is an attribute of God, without it we couldn’t actually be imagers of God. God is not robot. He made us like Himself” (45).
I do appreciate Heiser attempting to provide an answer to what is often an assumption lacking a biblical precedent. That assumption being that autonomous freedom is better than “robots,” says who?
This is common rhetoric, but I rarely see it being established in Scripture. I certainly would rather be programmed to be happy all the time, unable to sin. Were that the case, I could never not enjoy that. I could not be angry I have no “freedom,” I likely would not even know I don’t have freedom (which begs another philosophical question, how could anyone know they have free-will?). I would be happy, in perfect relationship to God, and following His good and faithful Law without stumbling. That seems like a pretty great alternative to freedom. This idea (that without Heiser’s view of free-will men are mindless robots) is a complete caricature and total bifurcation. However, even if we accept the false dichotomy, it still doesn’t seem to be a self-evidently undesirable existence, to be a mindless robot. It seems like a pretty steep mountain to climb to prove that living in a world where I can suffer, commit evil, and go to hell, is better than an existence where I cannot suffer, sin, and go to hell. How does “freedom” make the former superior?
However, Heiser has provided a bit of an answer to this. God is the standard of all things good, therefore, we want to be like Him. If He is not pre-programmed, it would not be good for us to be. I’ll accept that.
The problem however is that God does not contain the kind of free-will Heiser demands we have. According to Heiser’s definition, to steal a phrase from Douglas Wilson, God does not have free-will, and apparently He doesn’t want it.
Hebrews 6: 18, “so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
God cannot lie. He can’t do it; it’s impossible. God’s behavior and will is the product of His character and nature. God cannot, and does not make choices or have desires contrary to His nature. Therefore, He does not have a completely free will.
At one point, Heiser seems to expose his inconsistency in this,
“We are not mere robots performing functions programmed for us. That violates the whole idea of being God’s imager, his representative. We were created to be like him. He is free. If we do not have genuine freedom, we cannot be like Him – by definition, we would not be like him. We are free to obey and worship, or rebel and indulge ourselves” (156).
Genuine freedom, according to Heiser, is the ability to indulge in sin or worship, and God has genuine freedom. Thus, Hesier’s view logically leads to a God who can indulge himself in sin. But, the God of the Bible cannot sin, and therefore does not. Heiser thinks He is a God who can, but simply doesn’t. That’s not what Hebrews says. That is not the presentation of God.
Inconsistently, Heiser goes on to say that giving humans freedom makes sin inevitable, and that God is the only one we can truly trust since “He is the only perfect Being” (36). This makes perfect sense within the reformed, theological framework. God cannot sin, He is perfect, and therefore, He can be trusted. Man can only sin, therefore, they will sin and cannot ultimately be trusted. But how does the above statement fit consistently within Heiser’s framework? Why does God being perfect make Him trustworthy? He is free at any time to surrender that perfection according to Heiser’s definition of freedom. Is God not free to be unfaithful?
God’s perfect nature dictates His desires and actions will be perfect. Heiser has admitted the reformed view of the will. Because God is perfect, His decisions and desires are perfect, and cannot be otherwise.
The emphatic doctrine of God throughout the Bible is His holiness. Holiness is not something God does, it’s something God is. He is holy, He doesn’t choose to be. And this is the very foundation of all our hope and confidence; who God is. We trust Him precisely because He cannot sin against us. The difference between a God who cannot sin and a God who will not sin is tremendous.
However, the Bible not only presents a God who cannot sin, it presents Adam’s descendants as not being able to avoid sin. God does not have the ability to indulge in sin, and man does not have the ability to do anything but indulge in sin.
Romans 8: 7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Paul could not be clearer: man is not free. Man cannot please God. Paul presents to us the inability of man to follow God’s Law. He does not only present unwillingness, but a complete inability. Like Jeremiah says about man, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (13:23), man simply cannot do good.
Paul certainly is in line with Jesus’ view of man. Jesus emphasized the limitations of man’s will also.
John 6: 44, “‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day’… And [Jesus] said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”
According to Jesus, men are not able to either choose to come to Him or not. Jesus says they cannot come; they do not have such ability.
To summarize, both God and man act according to their nature. God is holy, therefore can only be holy. Man is sinful, therefore can only be sinful. Our choices grow from the soil of our nature.
Heiser incidentally admitted this in one of his own analogies attempting to prove humans are free and not machines. He appeals to the end of one of the Star Wars movies where Darth Vader shows love for and saves his son, proving he isn’t just an evil machine, but that he has a heart too.
“[Vader] saves Luke from the emperor at the cost of his own life. He wasn’t just a programmed machine. His decision came from the heart, his own humanity, his own free-will” (36).
The problem for Heiser is that this is actually the language, not of free-will, but of an enslaved will.
Vader’s decision came from his heart, you say? The decisions of men come from their hearts, yes? Well, what does that mean if the heart is wicked and beyond cure (Jeremiah 17:9)? Human beings’ decisions do come from the heart, and that’s the problem. Our hearts are dead, fallen, and sinful. This is why our decision can only be dead, fallen, and sinful. Heiser is asking to draw clean water from a poisoned cistern. Jesus tells us that if a tree is bad, so its fruit will also be (Matthew 7: 17-20). Our decisions do come from our hearts, which is precisely why they are not free. Our hearts are not free, and that is why our decisions are also not free.
We are not merely enticed by sin, we are slaves to sin. That is why we have an enslaved will. Enslaved hearts are not free hearts.
To conclude, I would like to offer three additional simple refutations of Heiser’s view of the will of man.
Given his definition of freedom, Heiser must logically conclude heaven is going to be a terrible place. After all, there is no “freedom” in heaven.
No orthodox Christian believes that at the end of human history, after Jesus returns to make all things right, restore everything, and live with His people, that someone could “pull an Adam,” sin, and restart the entire redemptive plan over again. No one believes that. Heiser certainly denies that in his book in many chapters addressing the new Eden God is working toward.
This means in heaven the saints cannot sin. I repeat: we will not have the freedom to sin. We cannot do it then. We must be mindless slaves then, right? Heaven must be filled with loveless, robots. After all, they do not have the kind of freedom Heiser is convinced is definitional to being a meaningful human being.
Heaven is one of the strongest refutations of the common view of free-will held by westernized Christians today. In heaven we will certainly be creatures capable of making culpable decisions, exercising true love. Our love will be truer and better in heaven than it could be here on earth. And yet, in that place of eternal glory, we will not have free-will. Thus, it is not biblically tenable to assume that complete and total power of contrary force is necessary to love and be responsible for our actions. The Bible never makes this claim. As Dr. R.K. McGregor Wright states, in his book No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism states,
“But the point for the Bible believing Christian is that nowhere in the Bible is responsibility linked with free will; it never uses free will as an explanatory category, not even once” (56).
II. The Bible
Another great and simple refutation of Heiser’s position that men have the power of contrary choice is the nature of inscripturation and inspiration. How can the Holy Spirit inspire men, and keep their “free will” in tact?
When the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of each biblical book, that means every single word was perfect; every word was correct. How did God do this if He could not, after all, force the authors to write anything, violating their free will? Did God get lucky with the Bible? That seems to be the logical conclusion if authors at anytime could have written something else, and yet, with every single word, they all freely chose to write the correct one. Clearly, the writing of Scripture is not produced by men with an autonomous will. They were inspired. God directed and guided their words; they did not have the option to mess it up.
No where in the Bible is Heiser’s view of free will produced, which makes sense, since no where in Heiser’s view of free will can a Bible be produced.
Suppose one assumes that all men have free will, but that God occasionally overrides it for accomplishing certain purposes like Scripture. What is the standard for when God is willing to override a free will, and when He isn’t? If overriding free will is worth it to produce Scripture, Why is saving someone’s soul for eternity not? Why is saving a child from murder not? After all, we know God is able to keep people from sinning,
Genesis 20: 6, “Then God said to [Abimilech] in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.'”
Man certainly does not always seem to be as “free” as Heiser advocates.
The last simple refutation of Heiser’s view of the will is an issue he raised himself: Pharaoh. Heiser brings up the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as being part of God’s plan saying,
“After they had oppressed the Israelites for centuries, it was time for Egypt and its gods to be punished. Pharaoh’s hardening was part of that plot” (68).
This is true, but it would have been nice if Heiser would have explained the nature of hardening the heart of Pharaoh, and how it applies to free will. The Bible tells us this about the event,
Exodus 20: 21, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”
The Bible could not be more clear, the action of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart was to actually dictate Pharaoh’s decision. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, therefore, Pharaoh would act a certain way (refusing to free the Jews.) How is this possibly consistent with Heiser’s view of freedom?
Luther vs. Erasmus
During the Protestant reformation, one of the great debates that arose was written correspondences between the great reformer, professor Martin Luther, and the great humanist scholar, a Roman Catholic priest, Desiderius Erasmus. Their debates were of vital importance as they underlined one of the root issues of the reformation.
The reformation, in an ultimate sense, was not about indulgences, veneration of the saints, the veneration of Mary, purgatory, the Papacy, ecclesiology, or even justification. Ultimately, the reformation was about authority and sovereignty. The reformation was about the nature of man, the nature of God, and which authority we appeal to in order to determine these things.
Erasmus and Luther debated the issue of “free choice” and its relationship to the sovereignty of God. Erasmus published a thesis titled The Freedom of the Will, to which Luther responded by publishing, arguably his most notable work, The Bondage of the Will. Is the will free, or is the will bound?
Heiser takes the side of the Roman Catholic priest who recognized its importance to Roman Catholic theology as a whole.
I myself take the side of Luther, that the will of man is enslaved, and it’s in this regard I believe Hieser has more reforming to do.