Divine Providence and Determination Do not Negate Human Freedom
[Berkouwer warns against associating divine election with phrases like ‘incontestable freedom” and “absolute possibility” as these descriptions “open the door to a fatalism and determinism in which the events of our time and history were robbed of all genuine meaning.” (HCT 89) Human action is rendered insignificant and fate becomes inescapable as the future inexorably unfolds with relentless logic following an impersonal decree set by God at the beginning.
The fundamental error of identifying Providence with determinism is the de-personalization of the God-concept. Scripture rejects rigid determinism because the almighty power of the personal living God embraces freedom and responsibility of the creature]
It is characteristic of determinism with its absolute causality to relativize all events and actions. It cannot embrace responsibility within its system and in principle it cancels all creaturely freedom. Determination and freedom of the will are mutually exclusive. This is why Divine determining is utterly different from what is generally understood by determinism. It is not that there is a material similarity between the confession of God’s Providence and determinism and that the only difference between them is the formal difference that in determinism the first cause stands at the end of the series of causes, while in the confession of Providence God stands there. Since we have to do with the Providence of God, everything else, including planning, determining, and acting, is different. This is why we never find in the Scriptures either the rigidity or the violence typical of determinism. In the confession of God’s almighty power, the personal living God is confessed. Responsibility is not crowded out by His power; neither is the meaning of guilt and punishment. We are deeply conscious of the impossibility of our discerning the relation between the Divine activity and ours, but we are able to see in Scripture that the incomparable enterprise of God is in its Divine character so great and majestic that it can embrace human freedom and responsibility within itself without being thereby assaulted or even limited. The essential error of identifying the Providence doctrine with determinism is the de-personalization of the God-concept. God is looked on as the beginning of a sequence out of which all things emerge. (PG 151-152)
Many still look on Divine Providence as being on the same level as the determinist system. God, they reason, occupies the top rung of the causal system, but the fact of His being there does not essentially change the system itself. All is determined in any case. What they forget is that the nature of the personal living God absolutely defines the nature of the determining. The Church has always seen this, though it has not always taught it with such clarity that everyone could see immediately that “Christian determinism” was a contradiction in terms. (PG 152-153)
[Berkouwer calls for a nuanced understanding of the relationship between divine sovereignty and divine freedom in Romans 9-11. “Words like ‘sovereignty’ ought not to be approached abstractly via a formal concept; this can only create the impression that we are capturing our own understanding or words in transparent definitions and then applying them directly to God without deeper consideration, as though he naturally fits the definition garnered from human experience.” (HCF 91)
Instead, Romans 9-11 should be understood as referring to “God’s revelation of mercy … and not a ‘naked sovereignty’.” Divine freedom should be understood in connection with divine goodness” (HCF 90-91). It is therefore illegitimate to posit God’s determinism as a threat to human freedom. On the contrary, Bavinck observes “that the doctrine of election is an “inexpressible comfort” for both the believer and unbeliever since it proclaims that there is hope for the “most miserable of men.” Here…is the suggestion of a positive view of election, one that does not reason in terms of two groups of people eternally separated from each other by the decree, but of a single humanity made up of sinners, in the light of him who justifies the godless without respect to works.” (HCF 103-104)
The bondage of the will and human corruption is not a logical deduction from God’s election, pure and simple. It is the consequence of human choice and action at the Fall.]
In true Reformation thought the problem of the freedom of the will has to do with the guilt and corruption of man. We observe this most clearly in Calvin. When we recall how uncompromisingly Calvin taught predestination and the invincibility of Providence, we might expect that his protest against the idea of the freedom of the will would be a logical deduction from his God-concept, wholly apart from sin and guilt. Actually, however, Calvin considered the freedom of the will extensively in connection with the historical fall, in the second book of the Institutes. After pointing to the judgment which came upon humanity through the fall of Adam, he showed that man, after the fall, was divested of his freedom and subjected to a wretched servitude. Calvin’s entire view of the bondage of the will is dependent on this. Human will is fetered in the slavery of sin and, hence, cannot move toward the good. “We must therefore observe this grand point of distinction, that man, having been corrupted by his fall, sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the depravity of his nature, that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil. Calvin approaches the whole question of the freedom of the will from the conflict between sin and grace. He speaks of the impotence to which sin “necessarily” leads and which has its origin in man’s subjection to the lordship of the devil. “Hence, therefore, the corruption with which we are firmly bound. It originated in the revolt of the first man from his Maker.” This is the manner which Calvin opposes freedom of the will. It leaves him innocent of determinism. (PG 150-151)
Man, then, according to Calvin, was free before the fall, and lost this freedom through sin. As fallen man he does indeed will and act, but in this activity he walks on a path he cannot leave through his own powers. It is the path of alienation and rebellion. And once on this path, man’s conversion, his return, by his own power — is ruled out. This is man’s enslaved will, his servum arbitrium. (MIG 319)
Freedom as Relational and Restored in Christ
A determinist may view all actual freedom – apart from the concrete situation however disposed – as contraband; but from Scripture it is evident that there is room for an important historical variation, and it is apparently possible to speak of human freedom once again released from restrictions. It is obvious that this freedom, which is held before us as awe-inspiring wealth, had nothing to do with autonomy or arbitrariness, and that it does not stand opposed to submission to God. We can not even say that freedom and submission are two aspects of the Christian life. There is, according to the Bible, only one solution which gives the gospel message its full due: when we refer not merely to aspects, nor to a dialectical relation between submission and freedom, but to their identity. We must then speak without any hesitation of human freedom as a creaturely freedom given by God. (MIG 320)
[Abstract freedom idolized and perverted]
Freedom can become an idol, a myth, which fills the heart and passions of man…The Bible never embarks on a crusade against true human freedom; it is not so that, for example, divine omnipotence and providence rule out human freedom or annihilate it. The perspective is wholly different: the Scriptural witness on freedom is limited to man’s relation to God. Man’s enslaved will (servum arbitrium) does not mean impotence in the face of divine omnipotence, but rather sin, guilt, alienation, rebellion. Man’s sin is not a manifestation of his freedom, but its perversion. And it is thus of great importance to give our full attention to, and not in reaction ignore, the fact that divine grace forgives this perversion of freedom, this rebellion, and annihilates its effects, and so renders man once again truly free. (MIG 321)
[Relational freedom restored in Christ]
Calvin remarks with reference to the characteristic of the image of God in man that we can know it in no better way than through the restoration of man’s corrupt nature (Institute I, XV, 4); and the same is true of human freedom. The New Testament pictures it with great emphasis as freedom in and through Christ. There is obviously no reference here to an abstract concept of freedom but rather freedom is spoken of in a completely relational sense.
The New Testament pictures it with great emphasis as freedom in and through Christ. There is obviously no reference here to an abstract concept of freedom, but rather freedom is spoken of in a completely relational sense… Freedom in the New Testament is not a formal possibility or a formal power which enables the believer to choose either of two ways. On the contrary: it is no possibility but rather an actuality, the actuality of being free (cf. Gal. 3:13, 4:4). It is materially qualified and made concrete through the relation to Christ, and is identical with coming into the service of God (Rom. 6:22), with all the wealth that is implied therein. Thus the depth and completeness of this freedom become visible. It does not compete with or limit the acts of God, as if the more powerfully God’s acts affect our lives, the narrower our freedom becomes! Or, as if the accentuation of our freedom should limit the power of the grace of God! Anyone who thinks in such categories should realize that the New Testament knows no such opposition. The New Testament pictures it in precisely the opposite way: the more communion with God fills our life, the more free our life becomes. If we place divine power and human freedom in a relation of opposition — even if we refer to a mystery in connection therewith — we are actually operating with a secularized and autonomous concept of freedom. When such a concept, which implies some sort of competition in the relation between God and human freedom, is held consistently, one cannot but conclude that the divine greatness and power rob man of his due, and threaten man in his true humanity. But such a concept actually involves a serious misapprehension of freedom, a misapprehension that really presupposes the idea of the jealousy of a God who begrudges man his proper nature, viewing it as a threat to His own power. (MIG 322-323)
Freedom Attained By Submitting and Serving God
[Secular thought sets human freedom in competition with authority of God. Human freedom accordingly, presupposes the absence of constraint due to divine authority. But the New Testament describes freedom quite different ly as it says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Cor. 3:17) Freedom is the gift of God.]
There can be tension between “free” autonomous man and God only when man wants to defend this “freedom” against God, and then makes room for it in theory or in practice. But this “freedom” is not honored with that name in the New Testament, but is rather rejected and unmasked. This “freedom” as autonomous self-determination and self-destining is certainly not the “essence” of man, and the supposition that it is or promises to be true freedom, is pictured in the New Testament as completely illusory. Of false teachers it is said: “While they promise liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same he is brought into bondage” (II Pet. 2:18-19). Were we to begin with an abstract idea of freedom, we should find the terminology of the New Testament indeed strange, bizarre and intolerable, when it speaks of servants, slaves of Christ, and submission in every area of life. We should then see all such things as a threat to freedom, as an abolition of freedom. But the New Testament recognizes no conflict here because it holds that true freedom becomes actualized precisely in this submission, And this is no mere metaphor, no “aspect” which can be relativized through other “aspects,” but it rather concerns the actual nature of freedom. (MIG 324-325)
[Divine authority is properly understood in the context of the redemption of Christ and the reconciliation of the Spirit. Scripture does not know of any abstract freedom. Freedom is not a formal possibility, but rather an actuality of being free. That is to say, freedom is concrete and relational since “human freedom is freedom in and through Christ.” The sovereign God does not arbitrarily impose his authority; he invites man to a willing and glad submission. Our true freedom lies precisely in willing and glad submission to the sovereign God of salvation.]
Speaking Biblically, we can only say that sin enslaves man, just as it originally robbed him of his freedom and made him a man bound in the fetters of sin, as Calvin says (Institutes, II, III, 5). The Bible never embarks on a crusade against true human freedom; it is not so that, for example, divine omnipotence and providence rule out human freedom or annihilate it. The perspective is wholly different: the Scriptural witness on freedom is limited to man’s relation to God. Man’s enslaved will (servum arbitrium) does not mean impotence in the face of divine omnipotence, but rather sin, guilt, alienation, rebellion. Man’s sin is not a manifestation of his freedom, but its perversion. And it is thus of great importance to give our full attention to, and not in reaction ignore, the fact that divine grace forgives this perversion of freedom, this rebellion, and annihilates its effects, and so renders man once again truly free.
Calvin remarks with reference to the characteristic of the image of God in man that we can know it in no better way than through the restoration of man’s corrupt nature (Institute I, XV, 4); and the same is true of human freedom. The New Testament pictures it with great emphasis as freedom in and through Christ. There is obviously no reference here to an abstract concept of freedom but rather freedom is spoken of in a completely relational sense. (MIG 321)
The enslaved will (servum arbitrium) is according to the New Testament found precisely in attempted autonomy, in taking one’s life in one’s own hands, in autarchy, in controlling one own’s destiny. As over against that, we see the light of true freedom. To quote Schlier again, “man attains control over himself only by letting himself be controlled.” The words in which the New Testament concept of freedom is paraphrased often take such “paradoxical” form, but basically there are no opposing poles here, any more than for Paul when he speaks of love as the fulfilling of the law.
There is rather the miracle of the gift of freedom, which consists of this, as Paul puts it characteristically, that we are no longer our own, and therefore we rediscover ourselves in our true humanness and our true destiny. This “paradoxical” truth (as, e.g., Bultmann calls it) is the great mystery of man’s life, as it is revealed in the restoration to true humanness. This restoration is not at all an “annihilation,” for the man who is no longer his own is, in this situation, called to glorify God, “glorify God in your body, and your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:20). The fact that we are not our own does not cast shadows over human freedom, but evidences it as a joyful reality: “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom.14:8). Here freedom is fully revealed, for here man recovers his status, and is freed from the delusion of his autonomy to serve God. Believers must be reminded of this again and again, for they must learn so to be true man and truly free…Thus Paul speaks (Gal. 5:13, 4:4-7) of being truly free and of being called to freedom as a very joyful thing, through which man’s nature is not destroyed but rather restored. (MIG 325-326)
Submission and the Grace of Providence
[Since freedom is the gift of divine grace, divine authority “cannot be a darksome power that compels us to subject ourselves without reason. It is rather a reality “over against” us that offers perspective, joy and hope.” Nevertheless, Scripture does not tone down the call for obedience. There is an authentic subjection and obedience.]
There is every reason to exercise the greatest care in speaking about God’s permitting. To view it as a self-limitation, out of a desire for a logical synthesis, is to give pertinence to Calvin’s sharp criticism. When permission is really used to indicate the manner of Divine ruling, by which He grants room within His ruling for human freedom and responsibility, then the line of Biblical thinking has not been wholly abandoned. For this freedom, this creaturely freedom, receives a place in God’s rule of the world. Here the panorama of the fall and the resultant history of sin and perdition unfolds before our eyes. He who does injustice to this freedom does injustice to the Word of God, which already in paradise places man at a crossroad and gives him the choice of which road he will take. But in the light of Scripture, it is decisive that this creaturely freedom poses no threat or limitation to the sovereign and almighty Divine enterprise. This exposes the heart of the problem. When we put emphasis on this it is not that we hope in this way to explain the relation between God’s ruling and man’s sinning. On the contrary, it is precisely in this incomparability of the sovereign work of God, unlimited by creaturely freedom, that explanation is made impossible, and we are forced to direct ourselves to the Divine revelation which reveals to us the almighty activity of God and, at the same time, teaches human responsibility. In this way, history, as it progresses under God’s providential rule, becomes tremendously serious. And anyone who does not take both this Divine ruling and human responsibility seriously can never rightly understand history. He will always assume one or the other of two basically erroneous perspectives: either he will make man the lord of history, creator of events, holding history in his hand or propelling it through the power of his personality – with the “leaders of men” blazing the trail; or he will make history a Divine game in which human beings are pushed about like chessmen, void of responsibility.
[Divine determinism and human responsibility are not competitive exclusives as there is a Divine activity over and in the creaturely activity of man.]
This sometimes becomes apparent in pastoral work. A person may know well enough (from school or catechism) that God’s Providence does not take away our responsibility and yet not be free from the oppressive fear that, in the light of God’s absolute determination, all our willing and working, all our prayers and decisions are meaningless. Such an essentially rationalistic line of thought, misunderstanding the essence of the truly personal and Divine determining, may frustrate pastoral exhortation: everything is determined anyway, arranged just as it is causally determined by God. And the result is that man’s acts and all history are relativized and no longer taken seriously, as the Scripture take them seriously (cf. Matt. 18:7). The pastoral answer usually given – that both lines in Scripture, Divine determination and human responsibility, must be recognized and held – is Scripturally quite responsible. For there are here not two competitive exclusives, as determinism would have it, but a Divine activity over and in the creaturely activity of man. (PG 153)
In fear and trembling faith confesses God’s Providence over the entire flight of history. Providence does not remove the seriousness of history; it charges history with responsibility. In history the freedom of creaturely will manifests itself in the ways of sin. History moves onward, not as though coerced, but in creaturely freedom and continually fresh decision. Meanwhile, the servitude of the will exposes itself in history by its slavish confinement in sin. But servitude of the will, this Reformation sense, does not turn history into a frivolous marionette show. Encompassing creaturely freedom and servitude to sin, history is on the move toward God’s future. He is the first and the last. (PG159)
From G.C. Berkouwer’s 14-volume set, Studies in Dogmatics:
PG The Providence of God (Eerdmans, 1952)
MIG Man: The Image of God (Eerdmans, 1962)
HCT A Half Century of Theology: Movements and Motives (Eerdmans, 1979)