Debating “free will”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I have been involved in a miniature discussion on Twitter with a group of admirers of Pope Benedict XVI  (I’m an admirer too…sort of). Does God sometimes override human will? Is it always necessary for us to say “yes” to him before he can do anything with us? I offer the illustration of St Paul, who said nothing but “no” to God until God knocked him off his horse and blinded him on the way to Damascus. Other biblical no-sayers include Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, etc etc. (See the poem “The Hound of Heaven”…)

I attended an Episcopal church this past Sunday morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The traditional Episcopal liturgy was used. As it progressed, the prayers, hymns, and readings seemed almost as though they were designed specifically to guide us in this controversial matter. The first thing that struck me was the Collect for the day:

O Almighty God, who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful [human beings]: Grant unto thy people that they may love that which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise….” 

This is a virtual paraphrase of Augustine’s celebrated saying: “O Lord, grant what you command, and then command what you will” (Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis). This was the utterance that riled up his great antagonist Pelagius. So here we are right in the middle of the Pelagian controversy once again. It never dies, but arises anew in every generation–so determined are we to hold on to our own supposed freedom, even to our utter destruction.

The second Scripture reading was from Romans 8:

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot…but you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit…

The mind that is set on the flesh cannot submit to God’s commandments.What then will free us from the grip of the “flesh”? Can we just make up our minds to free ourselves? or do we come to realize that “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”? (That’s from the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent.)

I was taught by some of the greatest biblical scholars of the second half of the 20th century, but it was eight years after graduating (I can date it almost exactly) before I finally began to catch on to the radicality of Paul’s teaching. Romans 8 can’t be called as witness to the issue of  “free will” unless we understand what Paul means by “flesh” and “Spirit.” “Flesh” (sarx), in Paul’s thinking, does not refer to material or carnal matters. Paul uses the term sarx to mean an entire realm or dominion–“this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4)–ruled by the cosmic Powers of Sin and Death. Paul uses the phrase “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus” in Galatians 2:4 to make the strongest possible contrast between the freedom we have in Christ and the legalism of the newcomers in the Galatian congregation who want to reintroduce the rule of Law. In Romans 7:9-11, Paul explicitly says that God’s good commandments have been seized by Sin and made into a weapon of destruction. Paul is greatly alarmed by the new teachers in Galatia and their assault on “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus,” mounting a ferocious counterattack. There is no similar crisis in the Roman congregation, so Paul speaks in a more moderate tone; however, in the letter to the Romans it is more obvious that Paul is speaking of two realms, the realm of the flesh and the realm of the Spirit. We are in bondage to the realm of the flesh until the Spirit sets us free. (This language of bondage and freedom is found in the Fourth Gospel also–see John 8:31-36).

To sum up the previous paragraph (I realize that Paul’s letters are not easy, but they have always been central to understanding the gospel): Humankind is in bondage to the Powers of Sin and Death, and no amount of  human effort can untie that knot. “The good I would do is not what I do, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:19). It is only the action of God in the Holy Spirit that can free the human will to be conformed to his will. God’s action is prevenient (pre-venere, going-before) to the human decision.

Getting back to this past Sunday’s service:
The Gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus. I have often enjoyed remembering a remark I once heard–I can no longer recall who said it, but I remember the effect it had on me: “Could Lazarus have said no?” This was half a joke and half completely serious. The command of Jesus (“Lazarus, come forth!”) is called “irresistible grace.”

The next hymn was “Take my life and let it be/ consecrated, Lord, to thee.” I’ve always loved the line, “Take my intellect, and use/ every power as thou shalt choose.” I’ve always relied on that line to guide my very poor prayers as I’ve pursued my writing.  I suppose one could say that God won’t answer that prayer unless I say yes to him first, but I’ve found that it is often when I am most recalcitrant that grace finds me in spite of myself.

The communion hymn was one that I have not sung for a long time.  The tune by Stainer is a bit syrupy to my taste and I had always thought of the hymn as rather sentimental. Not so! The text is by William Cowper, a good minor English poet. The hymn expresses a deep sense of estrangement from God and a desperate plea for his presence. The fourth verse reads:

The dearest idol I have known
whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from thy throne
and worship only thee.

The hymn seems to confess the utter inadequacy of the petitioner to put his thoughts in order, and his utter dependence on God to make the first move.

[Cowper had a tragic life, struggling with depression and mania. In this he is like the greater hymnwriter and poet, Christopher Smart.] 
Read about Cowper here:

These references are fragments, and none of them will convince a person who has made up his/ her mind to honor human freedom more than the prevenient and irresistible grace of God, but it all added up for me. Not my will, O Lord, but thine be done.

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