Debate Review: Hernandez & Zachariades v. Flowers Pritchett

There has been some attention given to the recent debate on the subject of free will between Dr. Sonny Hernandez, Dr. Theodore Zachariades and Dr. Leighton Flowers and Dr. Johnathan Pritchett. The debate took place at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston Texas. I am not a man with political proclivities. I will not defend someone’s behavior simply on the ground that they happen to be mostly in the same theological camp I am in. I don’t take sides. What I am interested in is that the truth of the gospel and the reputation of our Savior be revered at all costs. Since this debate took place, men have been gathering on two sides. Some happen to fall to one side or the other while others seem to be actively taking a side, and perhaps doing so for reasons other than those concerning the debate itself. That is unfortunate. My focus in reviewing the debate is simply to share my observations on how the debate carried on as well as to interact in a small way with some of the claims expressed during the debate.

 

To begin with, the question of the debate was quite broad: What is a Biblical View of Free Will? What does the Bible teach about free will? I believe this is where the debate had room for improvement. In other words, I think the structure of the debate was fated because the question around which the debate centered was inadequately framed. This is the sort of question you might ask at the beginning of a class or series of lectures or sermons on the subject of the nature of human freedom. The debate question should have been narrower and stated as a proposition with one side answering in the affirmative and the other answering in the negative. For example, “The Bible affirms libertarian free will.” Or, “The Bible affirms that human freedom is compatible with the divine decree.” Or, “The Bible affirms a deterministic view of the human will.” At any rate, this is my first criticism of the debate. The debate question itself opened the door for too broad of a discussion. And everyone who attended the debate and many of those who have since watched it surely felt the consequences.

 

The initial opening by Dr. Pritchett was terribly sarcastic and immediately set the tone for what was to follow. It was unbecoming for a lettered man to engage in such behavior and certainly unseemly for a Christian. Christians ought to refrain from employing techniques designed to deliberately throw one’s challenger off their game. Christian brothers must rise above the tactics of the world, especially in settings like formal debates. The world should see us doing it differently! Pritchett begins by saying that he and Flowers affirm the absolute maximal sovereignty of God. He then says that God is sovereign over all our choices. My first criticism of Pritchett is that he offered no definition of absolute sovereignty or of the fallen condition of sinful man. What does it mean that God is absolutely sovereign even over the choices of men? What does it mean to say that all men are fallen sinners and unable to save themselves? Pritchett did throw in the qualifier “on their own” when he said that men are incapable of saving themselves. The most passionate disciple of Roman Catholicism would agree that no man can save himself “on his own.” Stating this belief as emphatically as Pritchett did should not impress anyone. It is in the category of obvious and uncontroversial where Christian belief is concerned. Apparently, Pritchett thinks such a view is specific to Evangelicals or perhaps Protestants. It is not. It is as broad a belief within Christian circles as a belief could possibly be.

 

The real problem from the start is the lack of definition around divine sovereignty. Historically speaking, when a Christian says that God is absolutely sovereign over all the affairs of men, what exactly is he saying? The affirmation of God’s masterful ordering of all things in life shows up as early as The Didache: Accept the troubles that come to you as good, knowing that nothing happens without God.[1] We see it also in the martyrdom of Polycarp: Those martyrdoms are blessed and noble, then, which take place according to the will of God, for we must be careful to ascribe to God the power over all occurrences.[2] It is beyond the scope of this review to provide an extensive history of the Church’s view of God’s sovereignty and how that works itself out in our daily affairs. To be sure, this view did not begin with the fathers. Indeed, we find it in the text itself. In fact, the doctrine of divine sovereignty is by far one of the most prominent revelations of God in the Scriptures. The Bible emphatically reveals to us the God who is absolutely sovereign over the affairs of his creation down to the smallest details. The prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse into what the church has historically understand as “absolutely sovereign:” This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? (Is 14:26–27) Luke gives us a glimpse into the concept in Acts 4:27-28, for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. When we say that God is absolutely sovereign, we mean that God is at work in every detail of every action that takes place in the course of creation and human history from the beginning to the end. We mean that no human being, by the act of their own autonomous will, is able to act contrary to the divine decree. We also mean to say with William G.T. Shedd that, “The Divine decree is the necessary condition of the Divine foreknowledge. If God does not first decide what shall come to pass, he cannot know what will come to pass. An event must be made certain, before it can be known as a certain event.”[3] I will come back to this point in due course. The point then is that Pritchett failed to give an adequate definition of “absolute sovereignty.” My criticism up to this point simply this:  following a poorly framed question for the debate, is Pritchett’s opening statement that on the one hand affirms a soteriological position that the most passionate Roman Catholic could affirm, and on the other hand is far too ambiguous to be of much help.

 

Regarding the opening statement from the reformed side, I think Hernandez was essentially right in terms of what he said regarding human freedom and divine sovereignty. I do believe it would have been more helpful if he had laid out the reformed position on the relationship between divine sovereignty and the human will. However, I am not sure Hernandez is a compatibilist and so perhaps this might explain why he didn’t go there. At least he did use the word “autonomous” to qualify what he meant by free will and that much was somewhat helpful. On the other hand, I think it was distracting and inappropriate as well as factually wrong to label Arminians as heretics and to imply that they are preaching a false gospel. Are we prepared to say that one only becomes regenerate when he arrives at a full or consistent understanding of the doctrines of grace? There is no biblical warrant to the claim that we have to reach a certain level of consistency in our theology before we are born of God. Such a notion is misguided and disturbing. I believe that far more humility and a lot more charity in this area is needed. It is one thing for a Christian to be inconsistent in their theology and quite another for one to crusade against reformed theology. From my perspective, this is an important distinction that should kept in mind. After all, it took Luther a decade to reject purgatory. Is that when he was actually converted? I think not!

 

Flowers opened by implying that Calvinism is misguided when it teaches that our eternal destiny is determined by God in eternity past without regard for our future choices. Eph. 1:4 says that “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” Rom. 9:11-12 informs us, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Paul is actually informing both the Ephesian church as well as the Roman church that our eternal destinies were decided upon by God in eternity past. Notice that in the Romans text Paul goes out of his way to point out that neither one of the children had done anything good or bad and that God’s choice was not grounded in some supposed knowledge of future free choice, but rather, it was grounded in God’s purpose of election, what the Calvinist calls, the divine decree.

 

Flowers then goes on a rant about how we see choice throughout Scripture. This is a moot point. This isn’t something a Calvinist would dispute. Of course, we see choice throughout Scripture. Jonathan Edwards, whose Calvinist credentials are unrivaled wrote, “And therefore I observe, that the Will (without any metaphysical refining) is, That by which the mind chooses any thing. The faculty of the Will, is that power, or principle of mind, by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the Will is the same as an act of choosing or choice.” [4]

 

 

Flowers then proceeded to provide a blatantly wrong definition of what libertarian free-will actually is. He equated libertarian free-will with the ability to choose. That is not just an over-simplification, it is sadly mistaken. Whether or not it is a willful misrepresentation or not is not for me to say. Libertarian free-will is not defined as simply the ability to choose. Rodney Holder is helpful: Supposing the universe to be indeterministic, this third group of philosophers argues that what matters is having genuine alternative choices. I may choose to throw the brick, but I could have done otherwise. It was in my power either to throw the brick or not to throw it. Moreover, only if this is the case can I be held responsible for my actions. This is “libertarian free will.”[5] For starters, Libertarian free-will is incompatible with determinism of any kind. The two cannot co-exist. In other words, indeterminism is a necessary condition for libertarian free-will. Immediately, this view begins to run into some serious conflict with Scripture. For instance, God spoke through Isaiah the prophet, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isa. 46:10) Did I choose to be a sinner? Yes. Could I have chosen otherwise? No. If those two statements are true, then libertarian free-will is an utter failure and should be rejected. If Isa. 46:10 means anything at all resembling what it says, then libertarian free-will is false. Jesus said that it would have been better had Judas never been born. Now, if Jesus was right, Judas could not have chosen to do anything but what he was predestined to do, what he was determined to do. I said that the necessary condition for libertarian freedom is indeterminism. The Greek word προορίζω (prooridzo) appears in the New Testament 6x. It means to determine beforehand, to come to a decision beforehand.[6] In five of those occurrences it is translated predestine and in one of them, it is translated decree. God’s plan was predestined in Acts 4:28. Believers are predestined by God in Rom. 8:29. The called ones are predestined in Rom. 8:30. The secret wisdom of the gospel was decreed before the ages for our glory in 1 Cor. 2:7. God predestined us for adoption in Eph. 1:5. We have been predestined to an inheritance according to the purpose of his will in Eph. 1:11. So the word predestined means to determine beforehand. In other words, predestined is synonymous with determinism. Since Scripture unambiguously affirms a form of determinism, albeit not a philosophical hard determinism, the libertarian free-will cannot obtain. Think of it like this: in any possible world where libertarian free-will obtains, every form of determinism is necessarily false. In the world that God created, God also predestines. To predestinate an event is to determine the event. To determine an event is a form of determinism. Therefore, if it is true that God predestines in the world he created, then libertarian free-will is false. Flowers went on to say that Adam’s choice to sin was libertarian free-will. On the one hand, Adam possessed a freedom we do not possess. But on the other hand, Adam’s choice to sin was not autonomous, independent from God’s decree. Remember, God had already determined that Christ would die for the sins of the world before Adam was even created, let alone before he fell. Was God’s decree contingent on Adam’s choice? There is nothing contingent in the divine decree. What God has purposed, he will bring to past. Moreover, nothing comes to past that God has not purposed. Everything serves to glorify God even though we may have trouble understanding that truth. Our failure to understand divine truth is not legitimate ground for rejecting it.

 

Flowers then uses one of the worse analogies I have ever heard to denigrate the doctrine of absolute sovereignty, a doctrine which his debate partner, Pritchett has already affirmed in his opening statement. He compares a police department’s sting operation with God’s decree to permit evil or sin in the world. Flowers wants to allow for God’s bringing about Calvary but does not want to allow for God’s bringing about sin. The problem is that without sin, there is no reason to bring about Calvary. Flowers wants God to predestine Christ, but not the sin that occasioned Christ. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Flowers wants the predestination of the cross, but wants to reject the sinful betrayal of Judas that was needed to set the wheels in motion. Sorry, Leighton, if you want the cake, you will need to take the icing that comes with it.

Libertarian free-will is really the view that the human will is autonomous. It is the view that the human will is an island unto itself. But as we know, there is no part of the human person that is not affected by sin. If the human mind is blinded by the god of this world, then we must also admit that the human will, what we call the seat of affections, is held captive by the god of this world so that we hate what we are supposed to love, and we love what we should hate. Our affects are not neutral. We are in bondage to sin. We cannot choose NOT to be in bondage to sin. We are blind and ignorant of the truth for one thing. 2 Cor. 4:4 is clear that our minds are blind to the light of the gospel. This makes it impossible for our cognitive faculties to deliver a fair evaluation of Christ and therefore a favorable opinion of the gospel. 2 Tim. 2:26 describes unbelievers as being captured by the devil to do his will. Jesus said to the unregenerate of his day, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” (John 8:44)

 

Tone matters because Scripture says tone matters!  Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Col. 3:12-13) I was disappointed in the tone the debate took on and mostly from the reformed side. I was also confused by the position of the reformed side. I do not know if they were compatibilists (it seems not given one remark about it) or if they were determinists, or if they had even bothered to discuss it before the debate. The goal of such a debate is to do all you can to make sure your argument, your position is what people walk away with, thinking about, grappling with it. Sad as it was, people walked away from this debate talking about the tone, the chaos, and the confusion. It was, in my opinion, a wasted opportunity.

Mr. Ed

[1] Francis X. Glimm, “The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 174.

 

[2] Francis X. Glimm, “The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 151.

 

[3] Shedd, William Greenough Thayer. Dogmatic Theology. Edited by Alan W. Gomes. 3rd ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2003, Vol I, 396-397.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 4.

 

[5] Rodney Holder, “Libertarian Free Will,” ed. Paul Copan et al., Dictionary of Christianity and Science: The Definitive Reference for the Intersection of Christian Faith and Contemporary Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 414.

[6] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 359.

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