Ask an Anglican: Not So Free Will

Free WillMatthew writes:

Over the past few years I have grown to admire and long for the ancient faith. Through my studies I have come to hold that Anglicanism is for me, however, I need to know if I can, in good faith, join an Anglican congregation due to my soteriological beliefs.

I am a Molinist. I hope you know what that is, for, it is hard to explain briefly. It ultimately holds that God is sovereign and can control His creation in the most particular way (via His middle knowledge), if He so chooses, but that man is also fully free (in the libertarian sense). It is not Pelagian in that it does not deny original sin and its effect on us, and it still holds that we need God’s grace. It was a belief that came about after the Protestant Reformation that combated the extremes advocated by Calvinism. In Catholic theology, it stands between Thomism and the Eternal/Open View, although it shares similar positions with both (although I’d say it is friendlier with Thomism). It simply denies determinism and so-called compatiblism, as well the assertion that God’s knowledge is evolving (open).

So, to make a long story short, does one have to believe in Predestination/Election in the Calvinistic sense? Or is there some wiggle room?

I desire to be a part of the Anglican tradition, but I do not want to do so if I cannot fully conform to something it deems as a necessary belief.

Thank you and may the Lord’s peace be with you!

There are a lot of “isms” in that question which could take us off in various directions, but essentially this is a question about free will or, to be a little bit more on the nose, a question about whether or not we have any power to choose God or if He alone must choose us. Those who would say that we have no free will towards God include several strands of classical Protestants, including various kinds of Reformed and Lutherans. They argue that sin has so completely destroyed us, from the inside out, that there is simply no way for us to even begin the search for God without His intervention and to say otherwise is to make light of sin’s effect on us and to effectively say that we are our own saviors, having only need for Jesus to give us a push in the right direction. On the other side are Roman Catholics and various kinds of Arminians who use different arguments from one another but come to largely the same conclusion that our salvation is dependent both on God’s gracious action towards us and our free choosing of God because to say otherwise is to make God into an arbitrary tyrant who uses us as little more than rag dolls. Given what is at stake, it is easy to see how this debate could become heated very quickly.

The Molinist Both/And

Molinism was sort of an attempt to have it both ways. It gained its name from the sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina who taught that God predestines some to salvation but that He does so by manipulating the circumstances of their lives in such a way that they would naturally choose to accept Him. In the Molinist understanding, God has the ability to see all possibilities for human action and to therefore choose the set of circumstances that will lead those He has predestined to make the choice to come to Him. He determines who He will choose in part based on His knowledge of how well they will make use of the grace He intends to grant them. Thus, Molinism seeks to affirm both God’s ability to choose us and our ability to choose Him, both predestination and free will.

Not So Free To Be You and Me

From an Anglican perspective, the difficulty with a theory like Molinism is not so much what it says about God as what it says about us. The nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic John Mason Neale wrote that the problem with Molinism is that, “however the fact may be glossed over, it subjects, in fact, the will of God to the will of man.” Even with a more charitable read, however, Molinism assumes a kind of synergy between God’s will and ours that is necessary for our salvation. But Article X attests:

The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

The archaic use of the word “preventing” here often throws people, but what this article is essentially saying is that when it comes to our relationship with God, we have no free will. Our nature is so thoroughly damaged by sin from birth that we are not capable of coming to God on our own. In fact, just the opposite. Our natural desire is to be our own gods and to push the true God as far away as possible. In our natural state, if God were to show up on our doorstep and want to come in for a beer, we would close the door and call the cops to get Him off our lawn. (Or perhaps we would do something even more drastic, like say, nail Him to a piece of wood and leave Him for dead…)

Before we come to faith in Christ, our will, like everything else about us, is enslaved by sin. This is often a frustrating realization, because it means that nothing about our salvation is even just a little bit ours. It means, consequently, that the great and noble conversion story that we pull out of our pockets from time to time, the one in which we talk about how we made a decision for Christ and gave our lives over to Him, is at least partially a fabrication. Though it may seem like it is the very heart of our piety, it is in fact the sneakiest of all ways that Satan keeps a grip on us, by making us think, however subtly, that Jesus needs our help to save us, that His work on the cross is insufficient without our happy consent.

Calvinism and Molinism Sitting in a Tree…

Nevertheless, it is important to reiterate that the Anglican view of predestination and election is not identical to that of Calvinism. You can read a rather lengthy set of articles that delve into those differences here. At heart, the great criticism that classical Anglicanism would level at Molinism would be similar to that which it levels at Calvinism. Both systems seek to know more of the mind of God than Scripture reveals. Both attempt to tie up the mystery of our election in a neat little bow. Consequently, both end up arriving at terrifying conclusions about the nature of God that do not come from Holy Scripture but from a rationalistic desire to get all the pieces to fit. The God of Scripture is neither the Calvinist insecure sadist who purposely creates some people just so He can burn them, nor the Molinist cosmic casino owner who only gives out grace to those He is certain will be a sure bet. The truth is far more grand and more frustrating to our intellects than either of these possibilities will allow.

A Word of Encouragement

Having said all of that, though, I would still encourage you, Matthew, to spend some time worshiping and praying in an Anglican parish. While I believe that Molinism is difficult to square with classical Anglican doctrine about free will, it is perhaps worth taking the time to wrestle with these very difficult and fine distinctions in a community setting. Whether or not you ever become an Anglican, you may find that there is something worthwhile in the wrestling itself. It is the sort of thing we would be better off discussing while sharing the Lord’s Table rather than away from it.

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Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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30 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Not So Free Will

  1. Joshua says:

    I have always understood it as God coming to us through word and sacrament (visible word), but we being completely free to reject Him after that.? We cannot come to God by our own thinking or choosing but after He comes to us, we are entirely free to reject Him or run away at any time. Is this correct Fr. Jonathan?

  2. Cadog says:

    Fr. J. quote #1: “It is the sort of thing we would be better off discussing while sharing the Lord’s Table rather than away from it.”

    I love this! It was the Holy Eucharist that drew me to Anglicanism, and this beautifully captures the way in which we engage these hard questions.

    Fr. J. quote #2: “Our only “freedom” if we want to call it that is to say no.”

    Not to be redundant but this has been a real puzzle to me as I continue (thanks be to God) to see the arminian/calvinist debates from my past recede into history: so — we cannot say yes, but we can say no — right? And we say “yes” at our baptism, even if a baby (I came out of an adult immersion tradition, age 15, so still wrapping my head/heart around these doctrines).

    Thanks Fr. Jonathan for your persistent patience in helping us understand these things.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Cadog,

      Election is difficult to grasp, which is probably as it should be since its only real usefulness as a doctrine is pastoral, to reassure the faithful that they really are children of God and inheritors of the promise. While I would agree with the statement, “We cannot say yes but we can say no,” I think that this way of describing the situation frames it in terms that are foreign to it and thereby make it easier for misunderstanding to occur. Really, we’re not saying anything unless we’re saying no.

      Two analogies that I have found helpful in this regard (though they are completely of my own making and as such are probably messed up in some way). 1) A Chinese finger trap. If you’ve ever experienced that, you’ll know that the more you struggle the more stuck you are and that it is only when you relax (IE, do nothing) that you are able to escape. 2) If you are out in a body of water and the tide is moving towards you, there are only two things that can happen. Either the tide will sweep you away (passive) or you will do everything in your power to move in the opposite direction (passive).

  3. Stephen says:

    I’ve always understood ‘Free Will’ as the counter-part to God’s Saving Grace.
    And, in fact, our acceptance of God’s Grace is an act on our part that can’t be taken out of the equation.
    This in opposition to what I’ve always understood some reformed theoloogy, such as Calvinism, which says that we can’t even believe unless God Wills it.

    Does Anglicanism fall somewhere between the two?

  4. Stephen says:

    So, would you then say that not all can be saved, but only those whom God Wills ?

  5. This whole question of election seems to boil down to whether or not we live in a world that is hostile to us or loving. It seems to me that the idea of predestination to election is comforting in that even with all the sorrow and pain that is a reality in our collective lives, we have hope in a new reality. Double predestination and justification by works makes God terrifying and hostile it seems. Not the sort of God who became a Man of Sorrows. Am I warm on this?

  6. Stephen says:

    My difficulty comes in the notion that if only those whom God ‘elects’ are the one’s He Himself has chosen, then some are ‘predestined’ to be damned from the start.
    This seems to be a form of partiality on God’s Part to me. God ‘choosing’ whom He Will, and rejecting those not favored.
    (Not much comfort to be found if you are on the naughty side of the list from the word go.)
    How to reconcile that thought with Acts 10:34 ; “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons”
    Or, Romans 2:11; “For there is no respect of persons with God.”
    God does not shows favoritism towards anyone with regard to our eternal salvation.

    For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.
    That WHOSOEVER (not just some) believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

    That verse, to me, is open ended on our part. It’s our choice to make.
    Only ‘some’ will accept it true enough, but the offer extends to us all

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Stephen,

      I would agree that Jesus died for all and that all who believe in Him will be saved. Anglicanism does not have the concept of double predestination, that God arbitrarily commends some and damns others before they’re even made with no relation back to Christ. But that God elects some is certainly a biblical concept, as the RC Catechism attests as well. I get more into this in the series “Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort.” It’s a complicated doctrine, and the early Anglican Reformers took great pains to say no more than Scripture says on the subject, which means there are bits that simply will never add up in our minds.

      • Stephen says:

        I’m not familiar with the term ‘double predestination’ and it seems that is where my confusion came in.
        I am familiar with the position of first being moved by God’s Grace, which is also a Catholic Doctrine.
        Thomism, (a term you used earlier) would be a more Roman Catholic position, I believe.
        As far as I am aware, the Catholic Church has not declaree dogmatically on how God works out our ‘election’, only that He does.
        I would only add that it is a Roman Catholic position that God does not ‘predestine’ anyone to hell.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        It would also be an Anglican position that God does not predestine anyone to hell. As I understand it, Thomism is one acceptable view of election but Molinism is also acceptable.

      • Cadog says:

        Fr. Jonathan’s “Sweet Pleasant and Unspeakable Comfort” is a really helpful post — even if it requires multiple reads. This thread is building on that.

        Stephen’s comment re the RC position re God not predestining us to hell addresses a problem I always had with Calvinistic double predestination. So much Calvinist instruction seems to take multiple texts in isolation or selectively exposited to the exclusion of other passages (and so Fr J’s “bits that simply will never add up” comment is also very relevant here).

        Example: Matt 18:14: Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish. How can the Calvinist view be reconciled to this? Yes, Jesus was speaking of children — but we were all children once.

        Thus, the “once saved always saved” position — a pithy sentiment popular in some evangelical circles — never stacked up either — despite the ready answer to the challenge: what about someone who gets “saved” and then becomes a terrible unrepentant murderer, drunk, whatever? — the ready answer being, “Well, they were never saved in the first place.”

        As over against the Arminian “You CAN lose your salvation” position — which was defused (!) in an exposition of 1 John 2:1 by a dear (and mistaken) brother who taught that a Christian will not sin, contradicting the immediate preceding verse (1 John 1:10) and refuted by Article XVI, “On Sin after Baptism”.

        Anyway, I am still muddling through it but Anglicanism and Fr. J have surely put it together in a more biblical and rational way than I had ever learned previously.

  7. If we cannot believe unless God wills it, then we also would not be able to sin unless God wills it. If God is the ultimate source of all love. Then sin would stem from a lack of love in us. From this perspective RC’s would seem right about justification, since we know that God does not will that we sin.

    The Catechism holds that all sin stems from a lack of love in a person.

    1990 Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals.

    1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

    To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

    Jesus went as far to say, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Are you suggesting that we can believe by our own power? If so, I would submit to you that you’ve gone far beyond what even the RC Church teaches on this subject. Oddly enough though, when you say “Then we would not be able to sin unless God wills it,” that’s not wrong in the general sense. Of course, God does not cause us to sin or want us to sin, but our capacity to sin only exists because God allowed for the possibility of sin in His creation. God could have created a world in which sin would have been impossible, but it would have also been a world in which love would have been impossible.

      • No, I am not suggesting we can believe by our own power. God is the first cause, we respond to his call.

        “God could have created a world in which sin would have been impossible, but it would have also been a world in which love would have been impossible.”

        Yes, I completely agree. One of the reasons why I can’t figure out, what about justification do we actually disagree on.

        For example, I would agree that any person can love their neighbour, but it would take special grace to truly love your enemy or forgive from your heart.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Well, I would disagree that any person can love their neighbor, at least in the full sense of what Jesus means by that, to love selflessly. But to tease out more of the distinctions in regard to justification, I’ve been working on a post on the pastoral implications of justification that might help to highlight the difference more succinctly.

      • “Well, I would disagree that any person can love their neighbor, at least in the full sense of what Jesus means by that, to love selflessly.”

        The RC view would in fact agree with you. Christians tend to adopt secular views on love.

        1933 This same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us. The teaching of Christ goes so far as to require the forgiveness of offenses. He extends the commandment of love, which is that of the New Law, to all enemies. Liberation in the spirit of the Gospel is incompatible with hatred of one’s enemy as a person, but not with hatred of the evil that he does as an enemy.

  8. Eugene says:

    Thought this quote from St. Iranaeus, posted on Fr. Bryan’s blog, might be relevant to the discussion. St. John Cassian has a lot to say about this as well, in the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon, but there’s too much in that to quote here. I think both of those fathers would give the best angle on this… the orthodox angle.

    “There is no coercion with God. He has a good will toward us continually. He gives reliable counsel to humans and angels (who also are rational beings), to whom he has given the power of choice. Those who yield obedience therefore possess what is good freely and justly. It is given by God but preserved by themselves. … The human spirit is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness humanity was created. Humanity is advised to hold fast to the good and thereby be responsive to God. This refers not only to works but faith as well. God preserved the human will free and under his own control … as is shown in Jesus’ word to the centurion: “Go. Be it done for you as you have believed.”

    ~ St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies

  9. Eugene says:

    Hey, I made an unintentional pun… “the best angle” on this! Get it!? The best ANGLE??!! Ha ha. Come on! Be the best Classical Angle you can be!

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  11. Eugene says:

    What do you think of the quote by Iranaeus?

  12. Eugene Durkee says:

    No apologies necessary! I appreciate your comment on puns. On Iranaeus, I’m not sure — I lifted it from Fr. Bryan’s blog! (Creedal Christian). I’ll look around for the section it’s from when I have time.

  13. Free-will is quite clear. It is shown mainly in the negative though. Our will is an obstacle for sure. When cultivated in Christ, it is not gone–but free. Will; whether free, or not is inarguable. Scientists claim it cannot be weighed or measured…Thank you Lord.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Not sure what “cultivated” means in this context, but you’re right that in Christ our will becomes free again because Christ removes the chains of sin that enslaves it, although there is a conditionality to this because the old sinner continues to live within us, willing us toward the things we do not want.

  14. Stephen says:

    Instead of ‘willing us toward the things we do not want’, it should be ‘willing us toward the things we SHOULD not want’. In my case, at least.

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