Compatibilism

Today I want to look at the idea of compatibilism as discussed by the theologian D. A. Carson in a book called Still Sovereign. The book features fourteen essays by Calvinist scholars on a range of theological subjects. The chapter I’ll be quoting from here is entitled ‘Reflections on Assurance’ (pp. 247-276) but while the chapter as a whole discusses how Christians can have assurance of their salvation, I want to focus on just a few paragraphs on the subject of compatibilism.

Let’s start with Carson’s definition (p 269):

Compatibilism is the view that the following two statements are, despite superficial evidence to the contrary, mutually compatible: God is absolutely sovereign but his sovereignty does not in any way mitigate human responsibility; human beings are responsible creatures (i.e., they choose, decide, obey, disobey, believe, rebel, and so forth), but their responsibility never serves to make God absolutely contingent.

Christians of the Reformed tradition tend to believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority on all theological matters, so Carson naturally seeks to explore what the Bible says about compatibilism. He writes,

My contention is that the biblical writers, insofar as they reveal themselves on this subject, are without exception compatibilists.

Carson proceeds to give a few examples of biblical passages that demonstrate this assertion, including the obvious example of Genesis 50:19-20 where Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and the scripture says they meant it for evil, while God meant it for good (he ends up in very blessed circumstances). The idea here is that the brothers’ actions were of their own free will, but at the same time their actions were a part of God’s plan for Joseph’s life.

In the New Testament also, Carson sees evidence of compatibilism even in that event that is at the heart of Christianity – Christ’s death on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus, Carson explains, is surely part of God’s plan for humanity, but that doesn’t excuse the actions of the “human players” such as Herod, Judas, Pontius Pilate, and so on.

Carson then makes the important point that if humans do not have responsibility, what would be the point of Christ dying for our sins, as surely there would be no guilt if God causes sin to happen? Why the necessity for an atoning sacrifice?

The centrality and vital importance of this discussion is summed up by Carson on p 271:

I have no idea how to conceptualize a God who is both sovereign and personal, but I perceive that if both are not simultaneously true, the God of the Bible disappears, and Christianity, indeed theism itself, is destroyed. In short, the mystery of compatibilism is traceable to the mystery of God, to what we do not know about God.

The ideas expressed in this quote have astonishing implications. What Carson is saying is that because it is so central to the Bible, if we don’t accept compatibilism, then Christianity doesn’t make sense. But at the same time the author explains that it is a mystery of God, implying that we can’t really make sense of the idea.

It seems to me, then, that if we are living by reason, we reject compatibilism as an illogical concept. I have argued elsewhere that God is omnipresent and in control of everything that happens, and because of that we do not have free will. To me that is logical and incidentally solves the compatibilist problem.

But if the Bible teaches compatibilism, and the Bible is God’s revelation to mankind, should we suspend logic and reason and live purely by faith in what we read in the scriptures? Is it really possible to commit our lives to teaching that in a significant way we feel doesn’t make sense?

7 comments

  1. Fascinating, albeit brief post here Steven. Many, many thoughts spring to mind. One question (for now): how do you define ‘reason’ and why does your definition preclude the possibility of compatibilism (as Carson defines it)?

    1. Many thanks for your comment. I try to keep my posts relatively short as I know a lot of people don’t have long attention spans these days! Feel free to share some of those many thoughts if you feel inclined and have the time, your contribution to the discussion would be appreciated!

      Regarding my use of the word “reason”, I suppose what I was saying is that the compatibilist position contains a logical contradiction and is therefore irrational. I guess reason is an attribute of the mind that allows us to make decisions about what is right or wrong, sense or nonsense, true or false.

  2. Great post Steve, and it seems to really follow on from your recent post. How can God be all there is and also have a mode of operation that allows for the human experience? Similar to this post, how is God both sovereign and personal? Is this compatibalism? Can both perspectives be right in the time and space in which they are experienced to be? Is God Himself a paradox? Or just really good at making them! Hope you don’t me commenting again.

    1. Hi Gregg, you’re welcome to comment as often as you like, my only rule is that everyone is friendly and polite 😊 Thanks for raising those questions! I’m not sure if you were expecting answers or if they are rhetorical, but in any case, I’m grateful for your thoughts!

  3. This is a really great post Steven! And why; like Gregg, I will add more comments once I’ve done a bit more study; except to say: If God gave the whole game away in His Holy written Word, there would be no need for faith!
    And it would be great if you answered Gregg’s questions as I am always interested in your answers to comments from others.

    Best

    Jan

  4. Hello Steven and readers!

    I confess that I’d not heard of compatibilism until I read your post.

    I’ve done some reading and found the two links below of interest:

    http://parablemania.ektopos.com/archives/2011/03/klein-compatibilism.html

    My view is that we are only truly free when we doing God’s will all the time, as we were configured good by Him, so we are doing what’s in our nature, which is naturally desirable. I think that when we go against our good nature it is because powerful, wealthy people have made this world materialistic, and we can’t get away from it, if we are profoundly honest to ourselves and to others.

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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