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Out of the question: Free will: debate continues

24 August 2010

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or would like to add to the answers below.

Your answers

I am confused about man’s free will and the foreknowledge of God. If God already knows what choices I will make, is this really free will? I God already knows what I will be praying, would it make any differ­ence to my predetermined future if I didn’t pray at all. [Answers, 20 August]

We believe that God exists in a dif­ferent state from us mere mortals, because he is eternal, and every­thing, past, present and future, is “present” to him. Thus he knows “now” every­thing that will happen to us is the future. This does not mean that he influences the deci­sions that we free­ly make, but that our decisions are as much known to him as their outcomes.

There are, of course, exceptions, and one of these is prayer. If we pray for a good decision, he will bring to our minds the proper balance of factors that will lead to that decision, without making the decision for us. All too often we ignore such guid­ance. But our deci­sion to pray is as much a choice as the rest of the process. Since God also knows what we will pray, our actual prayer and free response to guidance become part of the out­come.

Christians believe that God created us to make a free choice to lovingly worship him in eternity, and that this option is still open to us. There have been two great attacks on this view of freedom.

The first was and is Calvinism, which teaches that human disobed­ience has so badly affected us that freedom of choice is no longer possible. Because of this, every good deed (including coming to faith) that anyone performs is not of their own doing but unalterably predes­tined by God.

The second lies in the atheist fundamentalism of Professor Daw­kins and others like him, which ex­tends the concept of cause and effect back to the Big Bang, imply­ing that everything that happens is predetermined by what has hap­pened previously.

I believe that Christians must reject both these viewpoints. “Be­lieve on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16.31) is an untram­melled offer of free of choice coup­led with a promise, to all.

Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey

Man’s knowledge of the sequence of events is bound, inescapably, by his experience of time. God is not in time, but beyond that consideration. He sees eternity at a glance, and the fact that he knows what we are going to do, and pray for, does not mean that we need not pray, nor thtat we have not the free will to make decisions. It is not all prede­termined: he simply sees what we decide, sub specie aeternitatis.

He responds to our prayers as we demonstrate our faith by appealing “personally” to him. When blind Bar­timaeus asked Jesus to “have pity on him”, it was obvious what he wanted; but Jesus asked him, encour­aging him to express his faith in detail.

(Canon) John N. Greaves
Bucknell, Shropshire

The theologian Frederick Buechner, in his Wishful Thinking (Harper & Row, 1973), says: “The fact that I know you so well that I know what you’re going to do before you do it does not mean that you’re not free to do whatever you damn well please. LOGIC is only CIGOL spelt backward.”

(The Revd) Bill Thomas
Tewkesbury School

Your questioner need not be ashamed at his confusion, which he shares with Christians over 2000 years. Chaucer explored the problem in his delight­ful Nun’s Priest’s Tale about the cockerel who refused to take an omin­ous dream seriously, and paid the price. I quote from Coghill’s translation:

But [whether] that which God’s
foreknowledge can foresee
Must needs occur, as certain men of learning
Have said, ask any scholar of discerning;

He’ll say the Schools are filled with altercation
On this vexed matter of predestination
Long bandied by a hundred thousand men.
How can I sift it to the bottom then?

He’ll say the Schools are filled with altercation
On this vexed matter of predestination
Long bandied by a hundred thousand men.
How can I sift it to the bottom then?

Discerning scholars continue to altercate, and I am left to ask whether it was predestined that the question appeared in the same issue as the review of Paul Helm’s latest book on Calvin (25 June).

(The Revd) Arthur Poulton
Rhos-on-Sea, Colwyn Bay

Your questions

I have increasingly noted the use of white as the liturgical colour at funerals requiems rather than the cus­tomary purple. Are there any guide­­lines relating to this custom? G. S.

Address for answers and more questions: Out of the Question, Church Times, 13-17 Long Lane, London EC1A 9PN.


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