Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The tension between free will and predestination

One endless theological conundrum is the relationship between free will and predestination. [Related issues actually occur in physics with respect to the compatibility of theories that are deterministic and those are not... but that is another matter.] I make no claim to understand this mystery and do not think I ever will, just like there are many things in physics I struggle to understand but do not necessarily expect to be able to understand..

An important passage is in Romans 9 where Paul discusses the issue in terms of God hardening pharaohs heart:
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
But did Pharaoh have any choice? Today (3 a.m, in Toronto!) I was reading Exodus 9 about the ten plagues that preceded the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. I noticed that for the first five plaques it says that
the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.
In contrast, for the remaining five it says:
the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh
Hence, it could be argued that what is going on is similar to in Romans 1 where Paul argues that
"since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to"their own sinful desires and the natural consequences of them.

This does not resolve the tension but amplifies it. We should live with it!


  1. Very interesting topic! I've been enjoying following your blog. My father taught physics and computer science at small liberal arts college in the States, but is not a believer (though a colleague whom he greatly respects is is a Christian), and I've been very fascinated and encouraged by your posts.

    On the topic of your post - I would note that the first two references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is God's declaration to Moses that "I will harden Pharaoh's heart." Of course, as you noted, Pharaoh did really harden his heart, but Scripture makes clear that God is sovereign over even our decisions. (See also Joseph's statement to his brothers about God's intention for their evil acts and Acts 4:27-28) You are certainly correct that it is a deep mystery how God can soverignly ordain and use our free acts. D.A. Carson has written and taught about compatibility. Also, John Piper (whom I believe your wife likes!) has a fantastic book about God's sovereignty - The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 - which deals fully with God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

    Sorry for the long, rambling comment, but as I said, I enjoy your blog and am fascinated by this particular topic.

    Lee Lauridsen
    Lawrence, Kansas

  2. Dear Lee,

    No need to apologise.
    I appreciate the positive feeback and it sounds like Piper's book would be worth checking out.


  3. Piper has been a big help to me in this regard as well.

    I also found John Frame helpful, in his Doctrine of God.

    But the mystery remains. I think it's a bit like the mystery that water is to fish. But that's another can of worms.

  4. Ross,

    I think you're on the right track here! Love your work!