Does there exist a logically-driven, undeniable answer to the age-old question concerning God's sovereignty and human free will? Some appear to think so.
Calvinism's Typical Response to Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
Calvinists often suggest a logical answer by redefining what we normally mean when we think of free will. When I think of free will (and I suspect most people would affirm my thoughts), I think of the actual ability to choose otherwise than I chose. For instance, if I'm driving through a small city in the Southwest and have a choice between Taco Bell and a local diner with authentic Mexican food, the possibility actually exists that I could choose Taco Bell and not the local diner with authentic Mexican food (don't know why I'd choose Taco Bell over authentic Mexican but please play along!). For them, free will means that when a decision arises which calls for action, one chooses what one most desires apart from any form of external compulsion. Just as long as my desire for either cheap Mexican (Taco Bell) or authentic Mexican (local diner) is not coerced by external compulsion, then I exert genuine human free will according to those who embrace typical Calvinistic human freedom.
Changing the metaphor,1 a person might choose to watch the newly released X-Men movie because he or she has desired to do so since first hearing about its release. The movie was freely chosen based upon his or her internal desires. Had someone stuck a knife in one's back and said "You're not gonna see the X-Men movie. You're gonna see the latest Twilight flick instead!" free will would have been absent since external compulsion was present. The technical term for this type of free will is "compatibilist" freedom. If you'd like a robust article on compatibilism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it all.
Yes…until one explores the origin of one's inward desires and whether or not inward desires have any causal relationship to God (for a helpful exchange on the nature of free will, check out this thread from several years back). In addition, compatibilism appears to suffer insurmountable objections from a purely philosophical standpoint as Richard Taylor so clearly demonstrates in Metaphysics.
Arminianism's Typical Response to Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
On the other hand, Arminianism seems to adjust its view of divine sovereignty to allow for a robust understanding of human free will. Not accepting Calvinism's biblical presumptions that divine sovereignty equals meticulous, exhaustive sovereignty (i.e. determinism)—at least as adherents believe the Bible reveals divine sovereignty—Arminianism lessens the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom so that no actual contradiction exists. Thus, while Calvinism softens the conundrum by adjusting free will, Arminianism gets a similar result by softening sovereignty so to speak. Both systems claim biblical evidences. But both systems cannot be right. Both could, however, be dead wrong.
Molinism's Alternate Proposal to Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
In fact, if we entertain a third system—Molinism--both views above could
arguably be wrong and are according to Molinism advocates. William Lane Craig2 undeniably remains the top evangelical who embraces Molinism, with Kenneth Keathley surely being the most well-known Southern Baptist who embraces Molinism. Craig's resources are generously available for free at his website. For some of my initial musings on Keathley's expression of Molinism, consider my two-part review of Dr. Keathley's excellent book, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.
Summing up Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
Without going further into the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism, I'd like to state one affirmation about which all three systems seem to readily agree: divine sovereignty and human free will are logically incompatible at face value. Calvinists see the incompatibility and given their non-negotiable affirmation of meticulous sovereignty, they answer the supposed contradiction by denying a strong view of human free will. On the other hand, since Arminians typically embrace what we might call an historical-common-sense-view of human freedom, a moral freedom which includes the ability to actually choose other than we do, and since the Bible doesn't seem to clearly insist upon a meticulous, exhaustive view of God's sovereignty (i.e. causal determinism) as Calvinists claim, then it follows for typical Arminians there's no real contradiction to consider.
While Molinism appears to be a position balanced safely in the middle—denying neither meticulous sovereignty nor a strong view of human freedom (the technical term for a strong view of human freedom is libertarianism an article of which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy might be helpful)—Molinism nonetheless seems to suffer from the sheer complexity of its key solution—Middle Knowledge (Wouldn't you expect scholastic philosophy to solve the issue!?). As an apologetic, Molinism might be a good option to explain philosophical issues arising in Philosophy of Religion circles, showing how things could work so as to alleviate the pesky but perceived logical contradiction between sovereignty and human free will. However, to convince hopelessly addicted biblicists there exists throughout the pages of Scripture the presence of a definitive Molinist hermeneutic may prove an insurmountable task.
Is there no other option?
Yes, there is one option that actually remains the most popular option. Usually this option lies outside academia. And, for that reason alone it's more popular (being the most popular perhaps also makes this option suffer the most abuse). Not that no academics hold to it. Indeed many learned believers have thoroughly embraced this option. The late Francis Schaeffer, for example. What option is this? Some call it mystery. Others claim it's paradox. Whatever it's called, basically this option assumes there actually exists no conceptual contradiction since both meticulous, exhaustive sovereignty and a strong view of human freedom are clearly taught in Scripture. Thus, while an appearance of contradiction might be detected, no actual conceptual contradiction is possible since Scripture remains infallible for faith and practice.
As we'll see below, this view has a long, rich heritage within Baptist thinking. In fact, it could prove, upon close examination of the sources, to be the most popular view even among those in the Baptist academy.
Please know what I'm not saying, however: I'm not suggesting the mystery view or paradoxical view is best suited to answer the conundrum divine sovereignty and human free will pose. To the contrary there exists some fairly hefty objections to this view, objections I personally find convincing. Rather what I am suggesting is many learned Baptists throughout history have opted for this view.
If I am correct, then my question at the beginning surely has merit:
Are Traditionalists losing appreciation for the "paradoxical" option in Baptist thinking concerning God's sovereignty and human free will?
Given what I've heard over the last year or so...
I think so.
Consider a quote by Richard Fuller (1804-1876), longtime pastor and Baptist statesman. A convinced Calvinist in the early 19th century, Fuller was instrumental in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. In the book, Baptist Doctrines: Being an Exposition in a Series of Essays by Representative Baptist Ministers of the Distinctive Points of Baptist Faith and Practice: Revised and Enlarged (Rev. Charles A. Jenkins, Editor; St. Louis: Chancy R. Barns, 1890; pages 543-580), Rev. Fuller has an entry entitled "Predestination" and begins the sermon by conceding that when we speak of "the deep things of God, all we can do is to show how far the human understanding can go, when it ceases to obey reason, and debases itself to mere scholastic logic" (p.543).
In fact, Fuller goes on to declare that "if we are properly engaged about the plain duties of the Gospel, we will not be tempted to perplex ourselves with the subtleties of controversial divinity" since it was through "pride of reasoning that man fell" (pp.545-546). Indeed our "puny intellects" could hardly "comprehend things which it is the glory of God to conceal." The design of the Gospel is to humble our fallen curiosity, and to nourish in us the spirit of "a little child," a necessary temperament without which, Fuller declares, "the mind will go on sounding its dim and perilous way, till it is lost in endless mazes, bewildered inextricably in dark, interminable labyrinths" (p.546). How frequent we find in this sermon Fuller treating those who continue to parade their "flippancies on the question of predestination and free-agency" as ignorant, hostile, prejudice, and factional.
Fuller asks on one hand how the "Libertarians" deny that God has fore-ordained all things, and how "this negation [can] be even mentioned without shocking our reason and our reverence for the oracles of eternal truth?" (p.547), concluding this "creed so odious, so abhorrent to all reason that "no sane mind can adopt it." In short, "this heresy is condemned on every page of the Bible" (p.549).
Fuller colorfully remarks to his congregation he can read their ample and affirming non-verbal facial expressions—"This argument is highly pleasing to some of you, I perceive. I read your approbation in your countenances. I see you are ready to come forward and extend to me the hand of fellowship and cordial congratulation…" (p.554). Because "none but an idiot" he bluntly declares, "can reject the doctrine of predestination," the doctrine of strict, exhaustive sovereignty.
On the other hand, Fuller wants to turn and now examine whether free will and free moral agency is as unscriptural and absurd as Calvinistic critics contend:
Now, in the very outset we encounter one objection to this creed, which amounts to a refutation, and which nothing can remove; it is the consciousness of free will and free agency which every man carries in his own bosom. Reason, refine, cavil as we may, one thing is certain, we feel that we are free agents (pp.554-555).
For Fuller, regardless of what "metaphysicians and schoolmen" say, "I am not more sure that I see the sun in the heavens, than that I act in accordance with my own unrestrained volitions." Fuller supposes for his hearers a man who constructs an ingenious argument to prove one does not see and cannot walk. "You might not be able to detect the fallacy of his reasoning, but so long as you do see and do walk, you know that his logic is all false" (italics added). Fuller, thus, concluded:
if our will and conduct are not free, they are, of course, under compulsion; and it is impossible for conscience either to approve or to condemn our actions or our motives; the deliberate murderer is no more guilty than the innocent victim of brute force, who, in spite of his protestations, is compelled to discharge a pistol into the breast of a stranger (p. 555).
In the end, Fuller declares that the system of the "Necessarians is condemned by the Scriptures as unequivocally as that of their opponents" (p. 556). He sums his position up well in the following paragraph:
In reference to predestination and free agency, there are, then, only two systems—that of the Libertarians, and that of the Necessarians. These schemes seem to our minds not only irreconcilable, but antagonistical. Yet the rejection of either involves us in consequences absurd and impious. And what is still more confounding, the Bible, with a directness and plainness admitting of no dispute or evasion, inculcates both of these conflicting doctrines, requiring our unmutilated faith in each, without even noticing the inscrutable difficulty and seemingly palpable contradiction by which our intellects are bewildered (pp.559-560).
Again, I ask my initial question: Are Traditionalists losing appreciation for the "paradoxical" option in Baptist thinking concerning God's sovereignty and human free will?
With that, I am…
1if I recall correctly, the late John Gerstner opens his Primer on Free Will with an illustration about choosing a particular movie
2though I learned only recently that Craig is a member of a Southern Baptist church. I'd mistakenly taken Craig's self-professed Wesleyanism as a denominational moniker rather than purely theologically descriptive.