Can Christians Who Believe in Libertarian Free Will Consistently Believe in Eternal Security?

A few months ago, I went to a regional meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society at Southwestern Seminary, and while I was only able to attend one day of it, I got to hear some interesting papers.  One presentation was by a Reformed philosopher who advanced an argument against the consistency of believing in eternal security–the belief that once someone is truly saved, he cannot lose his salvation–while also believing in libertarian free will (positions that are arguably held by the majority of conservative Southern Baptists).  It was an interesting paper and he presented it with passion, though I ultimately did not find it very convincing.  I think his mistake is that he presented a false analogy with another argument that he believed people make against Calvinism, which makes his parallel argument against eternal security unsound.  Keep in mind that he believes in eternal security; he only presented the latter argument as a way to show that Christians can’t have both libertarian free will and perseverance.

The Principle of Alternate Possibilities, Eternal Security, and Calvinism

In “classical” libertarianism, the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) is the heart of free will.  The principle basically states that what is required for a truly free choice is that there were genuine alternatives at the time of the choice.  These alternatives are not merely theoretical but actually possible, meaning that the agent had the power and option to choose them and was not determined by outside causes to choose only one option.  If these requirements are not met, then even if the choice looked free from the outside (no obvious obstacles to choosing different options), the agent was not free.  This is the everyday, “common sense” view of free will for most people.  Libertarians often argue that if there were no real alternative possibilities, you could not hold someone morally responsible for that choice, which matches most people’s moral intuitions.

Compatibilists do not hold to PAP (or at least, not in the same sense) because they believe that free will can be construed in a way that is compatible with determinism.  Thus, while choices are determined, an agent can still be free so long as those determining factors run through him in the “right” way; for example, they do not force him to act against his desires in a coercive manner, such as a gun to the head.  Due to classical Calvinism’s strong theological determinism, pretty much all Calvinists are compatibilists (we’ll leave aside for now those philosophers who identify as libertarian Calvinists).  Compatibilists argue that there are ways to make sense of moral responsibility even if someone could not have done otherwise.

The presenter pointed out that there is a popular argument against Calvinism that utilizes compatibilism and the above moral intuitions.  The argument goes like this:

  1. If we have moral responsibility, then we have the ability to do otherwise.
  2. We have moral responsibility.
  3. Therefore, we have the ability to do otherwise (MP, 1, 2).
  4. If Calvinism is true, then we do not have the ability to do otherwise (because Calvinism contains compatibilism).
  5. Calvinism is false (MT, 4, 3).

Obviously, a typical Calvinist would reject premise 1, but as the presenter conceded, the argument is valid.  However, he gave a parallel argument against eternal security:

  1. If we have moral responsibility, then we have the ability to do otherwise.
  2. We have moral responsibility.
  3. Therefore, we have the ability to do otherwise.
  4. If eternal security is true, then we do not have the ability to do otherwise.
  5. Therefore, eternal security is false.

Since the forms of the arguments are identical, he argued that a person who accepts the first argument as sound has to also accept the second argument as sound.  Now he of course was familiar with the fact that many Christians do in fact reject Calvinism and eternal security such as classical Arminians, but his point was that you can’t have one without the other.  This allegedly puts a lot of non-Calvinist Protestants in a bind, particularly Southern Baptists who are well-known for their insistence of the “once saved, always saved” mantra (though there have always been Baptists who don’t believe that).

Argument Examined

Just as it was not the presenter’s purpose to prove the truth of Calvinism or of eternal security, so it is not my purpose to prove or disprove either.  My aim here will be as modest as his, which is to answer these questions: Can a Christian consistently believe in eternal security and libertarian free will?  Does his argument actually show an inconsistency here?

First off, there are other kinds of libertarianism.  Various kinds of what is called source incompatibilism exist, which do not view PAP as central to free will.  Instead, they believe that as long as the agent is the ultimate source of his decision, then his choices are free.  This is still a rejection of compatibilism because it denies that an agent can be free by determining factors that are external to and precede him, but sourcehood incompatibilists also may not have a problem believing that a free agent could not have done otherwise so long as the source of that decision is the agent himself.  Strong source incompatibilists may reject PAP altogether but remain incompatibilists.

This is a live option for libertarians, but rather than diving into sourcehood, it may be more interesting at the moment to see if more traditional kinds of libertarians can resist this argument.  And I think they can do so pretty easily.

I think one of the primary errors in this argument is that it is positing a false analogy; while classical Calvinism and compatibilism are universal in scope, admitting no events or choices that are not determined, libertarianism does not need to say that every single conceivable option is available.  Libertarians frequently think that prior choices may limit future ones; for example, if you choose to go to the University of Texas, you are therefore not free to choose to register for a class at the University of Florida in the same semester.  Also, libertarians don’t have a problem with believing that some choices are irrevocable.  Numerous real life examples can be given, but perhaps one of the more famous movie ones is the choice that Morpheus gives to Neo in The Matrix.  Some choices cannot be undone, but that does not mean that they were not free to begin with.

Thus, a libertarian who wishes to uphold eternal security can easily construe repentance and faith as permanent changes such that it is not possible to go back.  Once someone is saved, he cannot “unregenerate” himself, but this does not mean that the decision of faith was not free in a libertarian sense.  The choice simply delimits the options available in the future, and one of them is not apostasy.

The argument can therefore be changed into something like this:

  1. If we have moral responsibility, we can do otherwise in at least one choice in our lives.
  2. We have moral responsibility.
  3. We can do otherwise in at least one choice in our lives.
  4. If Calvinism is true, we do not have the ability to do otherwise in at least one choice in our lives.
  5. Therefore, Calvinism is not true.

The mirror argument for eternal security clearly does not work here because replacing 4 with “If eternal security is true, we do not have ability to do otherwise in at least one choice in our lives” is clearly false.  All it means is that there is no option to abandon the faith entirely, not that libertarian free will universally doesn’t exist.  There may be other decisions available as well, such as whether or not to walk consistently and not backslide, so it makes no sense that somehow libertarian free will must be rejected simply because one choice (apostasy) is not available to someone.  I think this form of the argument can be made much more precise (libertarians obviously believe that there are many more choices where one could do otherwise and which are morally significant), but I think it’s enough to show that the alleged parallelism between these arguments is superficial at best.

The presenter was actually questioned on this by an audience member when he was done, but his answer was curious; he basically tried to say that such permanent change and irrevocable choices go against experience, which was a bit surprising.  I think we see such things all the time.  Thus, I see no reason why someone who uses the first argument against Calvinism is therefore forced to accept the soundness of the second.

Conclusion

Again, this is not a discussion about whether or not Calvinism or eternal security is right or wrong.  Nor is this an attempt to look at the various scriptural texts that are pertinent to each (obviously, since I didn’t do that at all).  All I’m doing is examining whether or not someone who uses compatibilism against Calvinism is also therefore bound to reject eternal security due to a parallel argument, and that strikes me as utterly unconvincing.  I didn’t even go into other possible answers, such as the Molinist one where a Christian can fall away but won’t due to God’s utilization of middle knowledge.  In any case, perhaps there are other problems for people who reject Calvinism but accept eternal security, but the above argument doesn’t seem to be one of them.

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