On Compatibilism

Scripture sees divine sovereignty and human responsibility as being fully compatible – so should we.

When we see a young married couple who seem so close to each other and so perfectly matched, we will speak of how very “compatible” they are. Two different people come together in a wonderful relationship, demonstrate a terrific unity, while still obviously having their own differences.

When it comes to hardcore debates on things like free will and determinism and how they can cohere, philosophers use the term “compatibilism.” And when it comes to hardcore debates on things like human responsibility and divine sovereignty and how they can cohere, theologians use the term “compatibilism.”

The two groups can use the term somewhat differently, and even within each camp there can be differences and various nuances of the term. But very simply put, when the Christian speaks of compatibilism, he is arguing that two seemingly contradictory biblical truths can and should be held together.

That is, the Bible unequivocally affirms the truth about human responsibility. And the Bible also unequivocally affirms the truth about divine sovereignty. Both things are absolutely true, even though it seems like affirming one means rejecting the other.

Let me first say that holding to both positions simultaneously is not contradictory. A logical contradiction would be to say that something is true and non-true at the same time and in the same way. We should instead speak of a paradox, or perhaps an antinomy, in which we have a seeming contradiction. R. C. Sproul explains the difference:

A paradox is an apparent contradiction that upon closer scrutiny can be resolved. I have heard teachers declare that the Christian notion of the Trinity is a contradiction. It simply is not. It violates no law of logic. It passes the objective test of the law of contradiction. God is one in essence and three in person. There is nothing contradictory about that. If we said that God was one in essence and three in essence then we would have a bona fide contradiction that no one could resolve. Then Christianity would be hopelessly irrational and absurd. The Trinity is a paradox, but not a contradiction.

Getting back to compatibilism, let me say that many millions of words have been offered on all this, so here we can only offer the briefest and most outline-ish of introductions to the topic. And since so many great minds have already written so extensively on all this, allow me to simply run with just two such important theologians.

I could easily pull dozens of volumes off my shelves to quote from, but these two greats are always worth citing. The first is J. I. Packer. He has often written on this, but let me draw from just one of his important volumes, his 1961 book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. In his chapter on God’s sovereignty he says this:

The particular antinomy which concerns us here is the apparent opposition between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, or (putting it more biblically) between what God does as King and what He does as Judge. Scripture teaches that, as King, He orders and controls all things, human actions among them, in accordance with His own eternal purpose (See Genesis 45:8, 1:20; Proverbs 16:9, 21:1; Matthew 10:29; Acts 4:27 f.; Romans 9:20 f.; Ephesians 1:11; etc.). Scripture also teaches that, as Judge, He holds every man responsible for the choices he makes and the courses of action he pursues (See Matthew 25; Romans 2:1-16; Rev. 20:11-13; etc.)….

God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught us side by side in the same Bible; sometimes, indeed, in the same text (Luke 22:22. Cf. Acts 2:23.). Both are thus guaranteed to us by the same divine authority; both, therefore, are true. It follows that they must be held together, and not played off against each other. Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent. God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too. This is the revealed antinomy in terms of which we have to do our thinking about evangelism.

He goes on to speak of this mystery which we must accept, as hard as it is to fathom. He continues:

This is easily said, but the thing is not easily done. For our minds dislike antinomies. We like to tie up everything into neat intellectual parcels, with all appearance of mystery dispelled and no loose ends hanging out. Hence we are tempted to get rid of antinomies from our minds by illegitimate means: to suppress, or jettison, one truth in the supposed interests of the other, and for the sake of a tidier theology. So it is in the present case. The temptation is to undercut and maim the one truth by the way in which we stress the other: to assert man’s responsibility in a way that excludes God from being sovereign, or, to affirm God’s sovereignty in a way that destroys the responsibility of man. Both mistakes need to be guarded against.

My second important theologian who has written repeatedly on this is D. A. Carson. His PhD thesis was turned into a 1981 book, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. There he of course spends quite a bit of time on this issue of compatibilism.

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A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers by Carson, D. A. (Author) Amazon logo

But in various popular level volumes he also discusses this, such as in his 1990 How Long, O Lord? and his 1992 A Call to Spiritual Reformation. While both chapters cover somewhat similar ground, the first book looks at this in terms of the problem of evil, while the second does so as it deals with the matter of prayer. Let me quote from the latter:

I shall begin by articulating two truths, both of which are demonstrably taught or exemplified again and again in the Bible:

  1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.
  2. Human beings are responsible creatures—that is, they choose, they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; but human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God’s sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent.

My argument is that both propositions are taught and exemplified in the Bible. Part of our problem is believing that both are true. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism….

Hundreds of passages could be explored to demonstrate that the Bible assumes both that God is sovereign and that people are responsible for their actions. As hard as it is for many people in the Western world to come to terms with both truths at the same time, it takes a great deal of interpretative ingenuity to argue that the Bible does not support them. In fact, not only does the Bible support both these truths in a large number of disparate passages, both truths come together in many passages. 

He goes on to examine some of these passages in more detail. And there certainly are hundreds of such texts that can be appealed to. Long ago in my personal concordance I started listing all the texts that I came upon in my daily Bible reading that spoke to divine sovereignty, and that spoke to human responsibility.

I have also listed those passages that seem to have both emphases in the same verse, or verses – where God’s sovereignty and man’s free choices act together. We of course both feature one very important passage here, Acts 4:23-30. It reads:

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.’

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Here we have the greatest act of human evil ever undertaken by fallen man. Yet the crucifixion was also the greatest act of God’s grace, resulting in the salvation of those who come to Christ in faith and repentance. The text is absolutely clear that evil humans were responsible for their evil actions, yet God was sovereignly using all this for his divine purposes.

Compatibility, in other words, is what we find here. Carson concludes his examination of this passage with these words:

God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not dimin­ish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God. At Calvary, all Christians have to concede the truth of these two statements, or they give up their claim to be Christians.

Carson, Packer and hundreds of other theologians and biblical scholars have much more to say on all this of course. But as hard as it might be for fallen and finite humans to try to reconcile these two truths, Scripture does just that. Both truths are fully affirmed and championed, and they are seen as two sides of the same coin.

Such compatibilism may be a deep mystery, but it is nonetheless a biblical reality.

For further reading

In addition to the four books that I referred to above, there are many other volumes that could be highlighted. But let me mention just one rather recent volume that is specifically devoted to the issue of compatibilism which may be of use for those who want to take this further.

I refer to Scott Christensen’s What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty (P&R, 2016). I was tempted to quote from it here, but this piece is already getting fairly long, so I will simply mention it and leave it at that.

[1751 words]

2 Replies to “On Compatibilism”

  1. Yes and YES!
    Both truths are confirmed over and over again.
    Indeed some have tried to reduce one to be able to accept the other.
    Some have reduced both into an undefined meaninglessness.
    The old “two railway track” illustration is far too inadequate; it presumes that these truths can be contained.
    Neither truth can be contained.
    Neither our intellect, nor imagination, nor moral judgement can contain the glory of the Sovereign God.
    Neither our intellect, nor imagination, nor moral judgement can contain the awesome responsibility of free will.
    Let God be true and every man a liar. Rom 3.4
    These things are too wonderful for us, and it is before God we must bow and say “show us your glory”.
    So we search out these matters with all diligence, knowing that we will never really even come close to fully grasping either, let alone how they interact with each other.
    Prov 25.2
    “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the honour of kings is to search out a matter”.
    Why are we concerned when we cannot understand some of the mysteries of God?

  2. Thanks so much, Bill. I am sure we will find a lot more ‘happy to be labelled’ Compatibilists out there now that you have drawn our attention to this!

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