One of the key points of Wesleyan soteriology that defined it against Calvinism was John Wesley’s understand of prevenient grace and free will. For the Calvinists and Wesley, the effects of original sin was a total depravity in which the human was entirely void of the light of God until God’s grace restores it. As a consequence, humans do not even have a free will to believe in God and repent. This point of doctrine distinguishes themselves from the Catholic view where free will was weakened, rather than obliterated. However, where Wesley diverges from Calvinism is in the belief that God’s grace prior to salvation provides humans a free will that they can then use to repent and believe in Christ.1 In so doing, Wesley provides an account of God’s salvation that is legitimately offered to everyone, while at the same time recognizing the darkness of the human condition apart from the redemption in Christ.
It was this picture of free will that I found to deeply resonate in my heart in college, being part of the reason I grew to greatly appreciate Wesleyan theology. However, over the years, I have observed a lot of chinks in the Wesleyan armor. Firstly, I have trouble giving a Biblical account that closely matches Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace. Secondly, I also observed that mentions about free will in the Bible was relatively pauce. Then, there are the host of philosophical and metaphysical problems with simultaneously believing in a more expansive idea of free will while at the same time allowing for human behaviors to be caused by external forces to them and even internal physiological and neural processes that they had little control over. For me, free will had become an increasingly hard concept to really support and sustain in any sort of large, overarching, systematic account of human life and experience. While affirming the universality of salvation and not taking the road towards Calvinism, I found the Wesleyan account of free will to be on shaky grounds from an exegetical and philosophical point of view, even as I felt it made better theological sense of the Scriptures than Calvinism did.
This intellectual struggle had moved me to reframe how I engaged in the discussion from “free will” to “freedom,” as the latter has less metaphysical baggage than the former. To that end, I could affirm a form of freedom in which human faith and repentance or the lack thereof is not reduced to simply brought about due to God’s agency, but yet I would not make broad, overarching metaphysical assumptions about why people did or did not choose to believe in God. However, this also left me with a problem: what is it that God’s grace effectually does that human activity can not do? If my coming to faith is not simply reduced to God’s gracious activity, where then do I draw the line between God’s part and my part in salvation and redemption?
In the midst of this intellectual dillemma, I began to realize something. Why is it that we put the burden of our coming to faith upon having a free will? Why is that free will is considered the “hinge” point that can make possible our faith and repentance? Ultimately, this goes back to Augustine’s debate with Pelagius. Pelagius is reputed to have considered humans to have everything they needed to live righteously, which Augustine interpreted as a denial of the need of divine grace. Whatever the exact nature of the theological is hard to know because we don’t have an adequate, non-hostile presentation of Pelagius’ views, but free will was the critical hinge point in the discussion.
However, we are left with a problem: there is barely any evidence that the doctrine of free will was a huge concern in the Bible. The closest we get to any real discussion on free will is in Romans 7, which is more owing to the specific philosophical point of contention Paul was addressing with 4 Maccabees’ affirmation that reason formed by Torah can overcome the passions, and maybe Paul’s allegorical interpretation of Abraham’s two sons in Galatians 4.21-5.1, if he is employing the use of allegory in a manner similar to Stoics did by highlighting pertinent philosophical ideas expressed in Homer and other pagan myths and freedom Christ brings represents the capacity to make a choice. Free will is just not a huge matter of concern in the Bible; certainly it isn’t to the degree that it became in Pelagian controversy.
This isn’t to suggest that we need to entirely rethink Augustine’s understanding of grace, as if it was somehow fatally flawed becasue of an “alien” discussion of free will. In fact, ths critique becomes a way of affirming Augustine over and against Pelagius in a broad sense, while being critical of the way Augustinian theology has caused us to begin to read the Bible against the backdrop of the idea of a lost free will that grace either strengthens or restores. It is my view that Augustine’s theology on grace and free will is a proxy for something important in the New Testament that render Pelagianism false, but that Augustine does not give a great representation of what is significant about grace, particular in the Pauline epistles that Augustine quotes from extensively. As a result, I think Augustinian theology about grace is correct in what is being rejected, but ultimately the theological traditions came to be in error in what it affirmed.
What is it that I think the Augustinian tradition got wrong? When Augustine appeals to Adam in the discussion about nature, grace, and free will, he does something with some wide-ranging theological consequences down the line: that the Fall materially effected and damaged human free will. Whether this view of the Fall is be expressed in the weakened form of Catholicism, the obliteration of free will in Calvinism, the obliteration and prevenient restoration of free will in Wesleyanism, etc., the overriding assumption has been to see some damage to the human capacity to reason and freely choose as a result of Adam’s sin. I would put forward that Augustinian theology has the wrong explanation for Augustine’s right answer in rejecting Pelagianism.
What do I think is the right answer for the problem of Adam and thus the problem of sin and unbelief? The widening separation between God and humanity from Adam onwards made it such that humans lived their lives in ignorance of God, habituating themselves and their desires into a way of life that placed much resistance to believe in the true God and the good way of life that God created and intended for us. What happens in Adam is not the effecting of human capacity in a direct manner, but the loss of the knowable divine presence and provision, being replaced instead with the visible reign of death and its partner sin.
In this state of affairs, God’s grace is not something that enables human ability to have a free will, but rather God’s grace in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the powerful presence of the Spirit provides humanity the epistemic capacity to come to recognie and know God, giving us the possibility to use our human freedom to believe and be able to successfully repent from the sins that has held spiritually hostage. God’s grace is His self-disclosure of His purposes and His provision to us through Christ and the Spirit that gives us the ability to use our already present capacity for human freedom to direct ourselves to God. Apart from God’s self-disclosure and provision, human freedom can not be exercised towards what we are utterly ignorant and entrenchingly resistant to.
The analytic distinction to make here is between the general capacity of human freedom and the actual experience of human freedom regarding specific choices. Almost all of us feel the experience of freedom and free choice throughout our daily lives. I experience the freedom of choice to either eat a apple or a candy bar for a snack, recognizing the value of the healthy option and the pleasure of the sweeter option. Similarly, I experience the choices between either choosing to watch videos on YouTube or making the choice to read a bit. I have a general capacity of freedom. However, I do not have the freedom to choose to do something that I do not have the option of doing. Even more so, I do not have the freedom to choose to do something that I am utterly ignorant of. If I had not access to YouTube or to a candy bar, I would not be able to make a free choice to use them. If I am ignorant of their existence, I wouldn’t even be able to conceive of the choice in the first place. Thus, we can think of the actual experience and exercise of human freedom entailing both (1) a basic knowledge about the choices and (2) the reality of the options.2
Furthermore, as knowledge is not a static, unchanging good, nor are our own inclination, habits and desires, our continued living in a world and society that does not clearly manifest the presence and provision of God has a way of drawing us away from God. This is not to mention the holiness of God leaves us always ignorant of God, even as we are aware of him. This circumstances leaves us in a continued need of divine grace in ever pereptual returned to the narrative of Jesus Christ and and the ongoing, indwelling and instruction of the Spirit to continue to resist the pull of the godlessness of the world while also progressing towards God’s redemptive purposes for our lives. Without God’s ongoing gracious activity through the ongoing testimony of Jesus Christ (mainly through the Scriptures) and the ever-working activity of the Holy Spirit, our actual experience of freedom to continue to seek God and be sanctified by Him would cease to be the case.
Thus, I would put forward that this way of understanding freedom in relation to grace is more so helpful for us to have a thoughtful way of addressing the question of free will vis-a-vis a theology rooted in Scripture, while avoiding having a simplistic conception of free will that we then (wrongly) regard the Scriptures as addressing. This simultaneously allows a way forward in rejecting the Pelagian anthropology, which diminished the need of divine grace, while freeing us to read the Scriptures a little more closely, without some of the cognitive baggage of the various anthropologies influenced by Augustine.
- Kenneth Collins, The Theology of John Wesley, 76-81.
- Strictly speaking, we can imagine people making choices to believe or do things that do not exist in the external world. However, this does not undermine condition (2), as the choice to believe entails the reality of the idea in the mind of the person, not the existence of the idea in the external world. The critical ontological issue is whether the reality of the mind represents the reality outside the mind, which is too complex to take up here.