|The Image of God and Free Will|
Free will is under attack today from thinkers who reject the idea that humanity has a non-physical side, a “ghost in the machine.” Naturalism (also called materialism)—the premise that the physical world of matter and energy is all that exists—has no room for anything beyond our physical bodies to make “free” choices, and thus routinely denies free will. At the same time, however, they also insist that we can know right and wrong and thus are morally responsible, and that we are “causal agents” and thus not bound by rigid determinism.
And yet, what is the “we” that makes us “causal agents?” To a naturalist, the “we” can only be the result of chemical processes in the brain, processes which themselves are the product of other chemical processes, and ultimately of physical laws. Nothing can change the results of these processes—that would be a violation of natural law, which the naturalist says cannot happen—and thus a consistent naturalist has to argue we are nothing more than products of physical laws, that consciousness, free will, “causal agency,” and moral responsibility are nothing more than illusions, epiphenomena of chemical processes which determine our thoughts but over which we have no control and can set no direction other than what has been predetermined by the laws of biochemistry.
Ultimately, this is a dead end road, because it means we cannot even rely on our minds to make rational decisions, since our reason itself is nothing more than electrochemical reactions produced by our brain chemistry.
Biblical view of freedom
But how does free will work? If the naturalist is wrong in thinking the mind is only a matter of brain chemistry, then what is free will and how does it fit into the Biblical picture of humanity?
It needs to be said at the outset that there is no clear answer to this question, and so a complete answer is impossible. Perhaps the easiest entry point to understanding free will is through a variation on the medieval theologians’ ideas of “faculty theology.” This view held that the mind (broadly understood) was separate from the body and consisted of a number of distinct “faculties” that were independent but interacted with each other. The original list was long: intelligence, perception, memory, will, etc. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the number was reduced to three: the emotions, the will, and the intellect, roughly corresponding to the Biblical categories of heart, soul, and mind.
The dialog of the soul
This dynamic explains the instructions in the Bible for dealing with our mental life. Philippians 4:8 tells us that we are to think about the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise—which implies that we need to make a choice to do so rather than to allow our minds to dwell on other things. What we think about habitually shapes our hearts. And Proverbs 4:23 exhorts us to guard our heart, because from it flow the issues of life. The heart, the subconscious mind, is the seat of our deepest desires and is therefore the motivating force behind nearly everything we do. And we guard our heart by refusing to focus our minds on things that do not promote trust in God and to focus on those that do (e.g. Phil. 4:6-7).
What all this means is that while we do have freedom to make choices, those choices are not random coin tosses—they are conditioned by our hearts’ desires, “the weight of our love,” as St. Augustine put it.
Making moral choices
For an action to be morally meaningful, it has to be freely chosen. Again, the naturalist denies this, but the claim that our actions have moral significance is meaningless in the face of the naturalist’s view that we are nothing more than biochemical machines. All our thoughts and actions are the products of physics and chemistry, making us little more than robots that have only the illusion of independent action. Under these circumstances, it is hard to make a credible claim that our actions are morally meaningful.
The importance of freedom for morality means that a person must be able to choose to act either morally or immorally in a given situation. As we have seen, however, our choices, made by our will, are conditioned by the state of the heart and the “weight of our love.” If we love goodness, we will choose the good; if we love something else more than goodness, we will choose that.
So our moral actions depend on freedom, but that freedom in turn is governed by our hearts. This is why Jesus tells us that if we love Him, we will obey His commandments (Jn. 14:15, 21): our love determines our actions. Similarly, this connection between what we love and our actions explains why Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). Or as Paul puts it, love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 13:10).
Taking this idea of freedom beyond the personal level, we also see that God is vitally concerned with freeing us from bondage of all kinds. The centerpiece of Israel’s identity was God’s act of freeing them from slavery in Egypt with the Exodus; the Mosaic Law ordered that Israelite slaves be set free every seventh year; Jesus came to free us from our bondage to sin; the early Christians even went to Roman slave markets to purchase slaves for the specific purpose of setting them free.
Human freedom is thus an important part of the Bible’s message, and a critical element of the image of God. Unfortunately, the freedom to do good also means the freedom to choose the not-good instead. In the next article, we will explore what the choice not to do good means for the image of God that we bear.
For more insight to this topic, get the book, A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel, by Steve Brown. Or read the article, “Moral Choices: Reasons and Standards,” by Charles Colson.
 See, for example, http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#2010.