Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience (1 Peter 3:15b-16a ESV)
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The first thing I want to do is talk about the two definitions of free will. Most Arminians will advocate libertarian free will, which simply says that for every decision we make, we are always capable of doing the anything other than what we've done. For example -- this morning, I had eggs and toast for breakfast. Under libertarian free will, I could have just as easilly had steak and eggs, or poached eggs, or Corn Flakes. There is nothing that coerces us or forces us to do anything -- it's all up to us.
I see a couple of problems with this -- I don't know how to fix poached eggs, and my wife isn't home to fix them for me, so there's one option I'm not free to take. We have no steak, so there goes another option. We have Corn Flakes, but I like mine with milk, and we're out of milk (yes, it's grocery day!), so there goes that option. Doesn't sound like my will is very free, does it? Sounds like there are external factors that influence my decisions. Adrian mentions that even the laws of physics constrain our free will -- I can't climb to the top of my house and decide to fly, can I?
Most people don't believe in total, fatalistic determinism -- the idea that God has determined our every move, and that we are simly robots programmed to do what He tells us in every instance. Obviously, if we did that, God would take the heat for every evil act done on earth, because we're only robots performing according to our operating system that He designed and programmed. So there has to be another option.
Most Calvinists I know (and a LOT of people who don't consider themselves Calvinists) believe in compatibilistic free will. This holds that our will is free to the extent that we are given some choice, but not total choice. My breakfast decision was limited to the food on hand, and what I can cook. My college selection was based on what I could afford and who would let me in. I had the choice of several options for breakfast, and several options for college, but I was not free in the libertarian sense of the word. My free will had to be compatible with the influences on my life, both external and internal.
This sounds like determinism to a lot of people, especially once you factor God into the equation. An omnipotent God can manipulate things in our lives so that the circumstances and resources point us to only one option. I've been wanting eggs for a while now, and this morning was the opportunity that I had to fix them. The deck was stacked against me choosing anything else -- and that, some would say isn't a free choice. I would say that I was behaving in a manner that is compatible or consistant with my personality and situation.
There are some free acts that aren't possible in some situations -- that doesn't mean that we are any less free. That means that we do not have total control of our destinies: that, ultimately, we are slaves to something, whether that is our environment, our psycological makeup, or even God and His will. Our decisions are dependant on something, and that violates the definition of libertarian free will.
Coming soon in Part 2 -- how do we reconcile free will and divine sovereignty? Good question.