A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Chad Chauvin
About ten years ago, I had an experience that helped me to appreciate the importance of defending the harmonious existence of God’s attributes of sovereignty and goodness in a world where evil is ubiquitous. A former co-worker was non-religious and did not want to have anything to do with Christianity. Normally socially reserved, he once confided to me that his wife was a social worker who had witnessed effects of the most horrifying forms of child abuse. He confessed that his unbelief in the God of Scripture was fueled by an inability to reconcile how there could be a God who is both loving and in control of all things. For if God is loving, then He wants to prevent the things his wife witnessed from happening. And if God is in control of all things, then He is able to stop them. At that time, I was also working towards my M.Div. degree. I handed him a position paper I had recently written entitled, “The Logical Problem of Evil: How Can God Be Both Sovereign and Good When Evil Exists?” The fruit of that study enabled me to have serious conversations about a serious question. Can God be full of goodness, wisdom, and power as the Bible declares when the world is full of evil?
In my seminary paper, I argued that God’s sovereignty and goodness can be held in dialectical tension without violating the law of non-contradiction. I argued in favor of the Reformed Theology position against Atheism, Open Theism, and the view that evil is a privation of good. Atheism and Open Theism deny that God is both sovereign and good, while Reformed Theology and evil as a privation of good positions seek to uphold these attributes. At that time, I was not aware that another orthodox Christian view exists that also upholds both attributes. This position is called the Relational Free Will Defense. When I saw that Thaddeus Williams produced this critical analysis of the Relational Free Will Defense in contrast to a Reformed understanding of the human will, I eagerly digested it. Upon reading God Reforms Hearts, I discovered that the Relational Free Will Defense is one of the most prominent contemporary Christian explanations of theodicy. In this book, Williams provides a scholarly and Christian-friendly argument against the Relational Free Will Defense by contrasting it with the Reformed Theology Defense.
Content and Goal
The driving force behind the Relational Free Will Defense is to absolve God from the responsibility of evil. According to this Defense, God created humans with libertarian free will. As such, all humans become the final determiner of the choices they make and the paths they take. Williams states, “a moral agent has libertarian free will if she has a categorical and irreducible power to act as a first-mover to perform or refrain from performing a given action.” The spectrum of libertarian actions encompasses acts of love and of evil. The attractiveness of this position is that blame is assigned to the creation rather than the Creator for the existence of evil. God’s relationship to the existence of evil is that he merely made it possible to exist by creating mankind with libertarian free will.
Why would God create mankind with the ability to perform evil actions? According to the Relational Free Will Defense, this ability is essential for authentic love to also exist. Williams refers to this element of free will as a “relational dimension.” He clarifies the claim of this position: “Real love requires libertarian choice, and real libertarian choice entails the possibility of saying ‘no’ to love.” The goal of God Reforms Hearts is to critique the notion that for true love to exist, libertarian free will must also necessarily exist. Williams makes this challenge in three parts. In part one, “Evil and the Autonomous Heart,” he examines the cogency of the argument that for true love to exist, libertarian free will must also exist. In part two, “Freedom and the Enslaved Heart,” he surveys Scripture to analyze libertarian free will. In part three, “Love and the Reformed Heart,” he compares the libertarian emphasis of human will found in the Relational Free Will Defense to the divine emphasis of God’s will found in the Reformed Theology Defense.
Part 1: Evil and the Autonomous Heart
Is the argument credible that, for an agent to be able to authentically love another agent, he must also possess the libertarian free will to not love that agent? According to Williams, testing the credibility of the Relational Free Will Defense requires distinguishing between love as an expression of freedom and love as an expression of necessity. Something is necessary if it cannot be anything other than what it is. So for love to be necessary, it must be impossible not to love. In this part, Williams makes a three-fold distinction between necessity and the freedoms associated with them. The first he calls “Necessity of the Machine” and illustrates it with the idea that a person has a computer chip embedded into the brain that is programmed to love. The second, called “Necessity of the Gunman,” is illustrated by a person being forced to say I love you with a gun held to his head by another person. The third distinction, called “Necessity of the Heart,” is illustrated by a powerful desire that wells up inside a person’s heart. This desire is so strong that he can only find relief by declaring to another agent that he loves that agent.
Neither proponents of Relational Free Will nor Reformed Theology believe in the necessity of the first two examples for authentic love to be possible. Instead, the disagreement is whether humans possess “freedom from the heart” as illustrated by “Necessity of the Heart.” In order to possess libertarian free will, an agent must possess “freedom from the heart.” He must be able to choose indifference even when a strong internal desire to love arises from the heart. This indifference enables him to choose not to love, even when the heart produces a strong desire to love. However, Williams argues that indifference and authentic love are incompatible and illogical. He draws from Jonathan Edwards to support this claim. Instead of libertarian free will paving the way to make authentic love possible, he argues that it actually poses a threat to authentic love.
Part 2: Freedom and the Enslaved Heart
Williams addresses several libertarian arguments which use Scripture to defend them. In each instance, he contends that an additional premise, not rooted in Scripture, is required to logically connect the arguments to a biblical premise. The first libertarian free will argument he critiques comes from Norman Geisler, which Williams calls the “Moral Imperative Argument.” Geisler uses the presence of God’s commands in Scripture to argue that we must be able to obey them. If God invites us to obey His ordinances, then it stands to reason that we must be able to keep them. Williams raises a competing hypothesis by noting that “It is logically possible that the commands, invitations, and calls of the Bible do not gauge our ability to heed them but expose an utter inability to respond positively to God.” He asserts that Geisler’s premise that “ought implies can” is not the only logically possible conclusion to the commands in Scripture. To support the Reformed Theology Defense hypothesis, he provides a lengthy treatment of John 6:44 and other Johannian passages.
Next, he critiques Clark Pinnock’s argument, which focuses on passages that show mankind resisting God’s commands. Williams calls this the “Grievous Resistance Argument.” In these passages, God expresses grief when humans fail to obey His moral requirements. These passages, according to the libertarian argument, demonstrate the “freedom from the heart” condition for evil to co-exist with a good and loving God. The additional premise, according to this argument, is that Divine grief implies human autonomy. Humans must possess the ability to autonomously reject God’s commands in order for God to genuinely be grieved when it happens. In response, Williams notes Scripture reveals a dialectical tension between God ‘grieving’ and showing ‘delight’ when His will is accomplished through sin. As an example, he notes that God was both pleased to put His son to death (Isaiah 53:10), while also taking no pleasure in the death of “anyone who dies” (Ezekiel 18:32). His alternate premise is that God’s grief is not like human grief, because God’s grief is over events that He already predetermined to occur. He notes, “If God can truly grieve over an event that He Himself determines to happen, then the Bible exerts significant pressure against the notion that “divine grief implies human autonomy.”
Finally, he examines I. Howard Marshal’s argument, which concentrates on passages that reveal God’s desire to forge meaningful relationships with His creatures. He refers to this argument as the “Relational Vision Argument.” According to this argument, God reveals in Scripture that He desires humans to enter into a genuine love relationship with Him. The additional premise is that an authentic love relationship requires that humans also be able to resist entering into a relationship. The love relationship is an act of the free will rather than being a necessary act resulting from divine initiative. As a result, humans have the ability to enter into a love relationship or not enter into one. Williams’ response is that Marshal’s premise contradicts the attribute of God’s sovereignty. Scripture credits “God with the unique ability to guarantee authentic love.” God performs this work by changing the nature of the human heart so that the human freely desires to enter into an authentic love relationship with God.
Part 3: Love and the Reformed Heart
Here Williams introduces a methodology to analyze the relationship between divine initiative and human love. In this part, he proposes a range of five possibilities and uses them to assess key Bible passages: heart persuasion, heart cooperation, heart activation, heart reformation, and heart circumvention. The list ranges from “heart persuasion” as the most libertarian view of human choice to “heart circumvention” as the least libertarian view. According to Williams, “heart persuasion” aligns with Pelagius’s theory that God’s influence on the human heart is limited to Him displaying who He is in a manner that is attractive to sinners. He reveals His moral standard and saving purposes but does not exert any internal influence upon the heart. “Heart cooperation” resembles John Cassian’s belief that the Fall left mankind with a wounded morality, but is not so morally corrupted that he cannot love God without divine initiative. Instead, God provides cooperative help when the wounded heart decides under its own libertarian power to love his Creator. “Heart activation” resembles Jacob Arminius’s view that God must activate the heart for mankind to respond to God in love. Although divine initiative is required, the heart also has the power to resist this activation. According to Williams, “heart activation” closely aligns with the prevailing Relational Free Will Defense. In contrast, “heart reformation” aligns with the Reformed Theology Defense he advocates. According to this view, God initiates heart transformation by acting on the heart to change its moral orientation. This view, espoused by Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin, argues that the Fall has left humans in bondage to sin; therefore, they do not want to love God. In order for authentic love to happen, God must first reform the human heart. The result of this reformation is that the heart will love God. Finally, the “heart circumvention” view, which Williams calls “no man’s land,” has been rejected by all noteworthy libertarian and reformed theologians throughout history. This view espouses that God forces desires upon mankind, rather than changing their heart in such a way that they freely love Him.
After this framework for analysis is set, Williams argues that “heart reformation” is the possibility that most closely aligns with what Scripture teaches. He argues that God can reform a human heart so that He cannot be rejected, while simultaneously preserving true heart freedom. His analysis includes exegesis of Deuteronomy 30:6. Using this text to support the premise that God takes initiative to circumcise the heart, he evaluates all five possibilities of God’s heart influence. He argues that only “heart reformation” upholds the promise God gave to Moses that the heart circumcision He provides will result in authentic human love for God. This premise also satisfies the “Necessity of the Heart” distinction discussed in part one. Williams also draws from John’s Gospel to explain three divine actions taken by God in heart transformation. First, “Divine giving precedes human coming” (John 6:37). Second, “Divine drawing precedes divine raising” (John 6:44). Third, “Divine teaching precedes human learning” (John 6:45). He concludes this part by responding to common objectives to the notion of “heart reformation” he advocates.
Evaluation and Recommendation
In God Reforms Hearts, Williams does not provide a comprehensive apologetic for the co-existence of God’s sovereignty and His goodness. Although he makes distinctions between different forms of evil, including natural, human, and spiritual evil, he does not attempt to provide a rationale for God’s purpose of evil that originates outside the human heart. However, he makes it clear this is not his aim. He is not trying to convince religious skeptics of God’s existence. Instead, he desires to have a dialogue within the confines of orthodox Christianity.
His emphasis is on disproving the Relational Free Will Defense using a combination of scriptural and logical arguments. I believe he largely succeeds in this goal. The crux of this book is a defense of the Calvinist tenant of irresistible grace, which is metonymically related to the Reformed Theology Defense of God’s purpose for evil. Williams argues convincingly that authentic human love for God and irresistible grace can be compatible. The libertarian notion that humans can show “freedom from the heart” even when God’s grace strongly compels them to love Him does present its own logical consistency challenges. Williams masterfully shows how “freedom from the heart” implies “freedom from the Reformer.” If mankind possesses true freedom from God in the form of resisting His heart transforming work, then God is not sovereign in all areas of His creation. However, as Williams demonstrates, the Reformed Theology Defense provides a plausible argument for God to retain full sovereignty over His creation, yet be full of goodness. In this manner, God Reforms Hearts is a valuable supplemental resource in defending the co-existence of these two attributes.
I enjoyed reading Williams’s Reformed Theology Defense, not only for its scholarly treatment of a challenging subject but also because this book is well organized. He follows the timeless approach of telling the reader what he is going to say, then saying it, and finally summarizing what he just said. Every main section ends with a summary and conclusion. Additionally, Williams provides an appendix comparing similarities and differences between Christian Reformed Theology and Sunni Islam Theology. Having spent 2005 in Iraq among Shiite and Sunni Muslims with the U.S. Army, I found this dessert portion of the book menu to be savory.
Additionally, Williams has provided detailed exegesis of relevant Scripture passages throughout this book. I found that he handled these passages carefully and accurately. Any counterarguments will need to engage him in his interpretation of these passages. Finally, he traces the history of this debate on theodicy by introducing theologians who have held various positions. For example, he credits Immanuel Kant with being the origin of the “ought implies can” portion of the moral imperative argument. He mentions Pelagius, Erasmus, Charlies Finney, and Norman Geisler as advocates of this argument. He also aligns his five views on divine sovereignty and human responsibility with past theologians. God Reforms Hearts is written at the scholarly and academic level and will be challenging for people to read who do not have some prerequisite knowledge of the free will versus free agency debate. Overall, Williams has provided a very detailed and valuable contribution to the discussion on the co-existence of God and evil, especially for those who espouse the Reformed Theology Defense.
Chad Chauvin (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a volunteer teacher at Riverside Baptist Church in Watson, Louisiana.
Buy the books
GOD REFORMS HEARTS: RETHINKING FREE WILL AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL, by Thaddeus Williams