Critique of Libertarianism

by John Frame

The following is an excerpt from chapter 35 of Systematic Theololgy: An Introduction to Christian Belief by Dr. John M. Frame. ENDNOTES at bottom

Libertarianism has a long history in Christian theology. Most of the church fathers held more or less this position until Augustine, during the Pelagian controversy, called it into question.1109 Since then, there has been a contest between the Augustinian and Pelagian conceptions of freedom, resulting sometimes in various unstable mixtures of the two. Both Martin Luther1110 and John Calvin1111 maintained an Augustinian compatibilism, but the Socinians, and later the Arminians, offered vigorous defenses of libertarianism. Today the libertarian view prevails in much of evangelical Christianity and among Christian philosophers.1112 Theologically, it is defended by traditional Arminians,1113 open theists,1114process thinkers,1115 and many others. Few theologians oppose it, except for self-conscious Calvinists, and even thinkers in the Reformed tradition sometimes gravitate toward libertarianism1116 or speak unclearly on the subject.1117

But libertarianism is subject to very severe criticisms:

1. Scripture does not teach it in any explicit way. No biblical passage can be construed to mean that the human will is independent of God’s plan and of the rest of human personality. Libertarians generally don’t even try to establish their position by direct exegesis (as, for example, I tried above to establish a biblical view of human ability and compatibilist freedom). Rather, they attempt to deduce it from other biblical concepts, such as human responsibility itself, and the divine commands, exhortations, and pleadings1118that indicate human responsibility. But in this attempt, they accept a rather large burden of proof that their arguments do not bear. Libertarianism is a rather technical philosophical notion, making various assumptions about causality, the relation of will to action, the relation of will to character and desire, and the limitation of God’s sovereignty. It is a huge

order to try to derive all these technical concepts from the biblical view of human responsibility, and I will try to show below that libertarians’ attempts to do so have been far from successful. If, however, they fail to bear this burden of proof, then we must abandon either libertarianism or sola Scriptura.

2. Scripture never grounds human responsibility (in the sense of accountability) in libertarian freedom—or, for that matter, any other kind of freedom. We are responsible because God has made us, God owns us, and God has a right to evaluate our conduct. God’s authority is, therefore, according to Scripture, the necessary and sufficient ground of human responsibility. Sometimes our ability or inability is relevant to God’s judgment, and therefore to our responsibility in the sense of liability, as we have seen. But Scripture never suggests that libertarian freedom has any relevance at all, even to liability.

3. Nor does Scripture indicate that God places any positive value on libertarian freedom (even granting that it exists). That is a significant point, because the free-will defense against the problem of evil (see chapter 14) argues that God places such a high value on independent human free choice that he gave it to creatures even at the risk that they would bring evil into the world. One would imagine, then, that Scripture would abound with statements by God to the effect that causeless free actions by creatures are terribly important to him, that they bring him glory. But Scripture never suggests that God honors causeless choice in any way or even recognizes its existence.

4. Scripture never judges anyone’s conduct by reference to his libertarian freedom. Scripture never declares someone innocent because his conduct was not free in the libertarian sense, nor does it ever warrant a judgment of guilt by pointing to the libertarian freedom of the individual. We have seen that Scripture sometimes refers implicitly to freedom or ability in the compatibilist sense. But it never refers to freedom in a demonstrably incompatibilist sense.

5. In civil courts we never assume that libertarian freedom is a condition of moral responsibility. Consider Hubert, a bank robber. If guilt presupposed libertarian freedom, then in order to show that Hubert is guilty, the prosecutor would have to show that his decision to rob a bank was without any cause. But what evidence could a prosecutor bring forth to show that? Proving a negative is always difficult, and it would clearly be impossible to show that Hubert’s inner decision was completely independent of any divine decree, natural cause, character, or motive. Similarly for any other criminal or civil prosecution. Libertarianism would make it impossible to prove the guilt of anybody at all.

6. Indeed, law courts normally assume the opposite of libertarianism, namely, that the conduct of criminals arises from motives. Therefore, courts often spend much time discussing whether a defendant had an adequate motive to commit the crime. If Hubert’s action could be shown (contrary to point 2 above) to be causeless, independent of motives, then he would likely be judged insane and therefore not responsible, rather than guilty. Indeed, if Hubert’s action is completely independent of his character, desires, and motives, one can well ask in what sense this action is really Hubert’s.1119 And if it is not Hubert’s action, how can he be held responsible for it? We can see, then, that rather than being the foundation of moral responsibility, libertarianism destroys moral responsibility.1120

7. Indeed, Scripture contradicts the proposition that only uncaused decisions are morally responsible. As we saw in chapter 8, God in Scripture often brings about the free actions, even sinful actions, of human beings, without in the least diminishing their responsibility. In the present chapter, we have seen how God’s sovereign control of human actions and man’s responsibility for the same actions often appear together in the same passage.

8. Scripture also denies that we have the independence demanded by libertarian theory. We are not independent of God, for God controls human free actions. Nor can we choose to act independently of our own character and desire. Recall our earlier references to Matthew 7:15–20 and Luke 6:43–45. The good tree brings forth good fruit, the evil tree evil. If one’s heart is right, his actions will be right; otherwise, no.

9. Libertarianism, therefore, violates the biblical teaching concerning the unity of human personality in the heart. Scripture teaches that the heart, and therefore our decisions, is wicked because of the fall, but the work of Christ and the regenerating power of the Spirit cleanse the heart so that our actions can be good. We are fallen and renewed as whole persons. This integrity of human personality is not possible in a libertarian construction, for in that view the will must always be independent of the heart, the character, and all our faculties.

10. If libertarian freedom is necessary to moral responsibility, then evidently God is not morally responsible, for he is not free to act against his holy character. Nor are the glorified saints in heaven. If the glorified saints do have libertarian freedom, then, as Origen speculated, they could fall again into sin. The implication would be that the redemption accomplished by Jesus is insufficient to deal with sin, for it is not sufficient to deal with the inherent waywardness of human free will.

11. Libertarianism is essentially a highly abstract generalization of the principle ability limits responsibility. Libertarians say that if our decision is afflicted by any kind of inability at all, it is not truly free and responsible. We saw earlier that there is some truth in the principle ability limits responsibility, but I emphasized then that this principle is not always valid, that we are always afflicted by some kinds of inability, and that the principle must therefore be used with great caution. Libertarianism throws caution to the winds.

12. Libertarianism is inconsistent not only with God’s foreordination of all things, but even with his knowledge of future events. If God knew in 19301121 that I would wear a green shirt on July 21, 1998, then I am not free to avoid wearing such a shirt on that date. Now, libertarians make the point that God can know such future events without causing them. But if in 1930 God knows the events of 1998, on what basis does he know them? The Calvinist answer is that he knows them because he knows his own plan. But how, on an Arminian basis, does God know my free act 68 years in advance? Is it that my decision is governed by a deterministic chain of finite causes and effects? Is there some force or person otherthan God that renders future events certain, a being whom God passively observes? (That is a scary possibility, hardly consistent with monotheism.) None of these answers, nor any other I can think of, is consistent with libertarianism. For this reason, the open theists,1122 like the Socinian opponents of Calvin, have taken the step of denying what is so important to traditional Arminianism: God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. But that step is a drastic one, as we saw in our discussion of God’s knowledge (chapter 15). It seems to me that they would have been wiser to reject libertarianism, rather than to drastically reconstruct their theology to make it consistent with libertarianism.

13. As with open theists Pinnock and Rice, libertarians tend to make their view of free will a nonnegotiable, central truth, with which all other theological statements must be made consistent. Libertarian freedom then takes on a kind of paradigmatic or presuppositional status. But as we have seen, libertarianism is unscriptural. It would be bad enough merely to assert libertarianism contrary to the Bible. But making it a central truth or governing perspective is very dangerous indeed. An incidental error can be corrected without much trouble. But when such an error becomes a major principle, a grid through which all other doctrinal statements are filtered, then a theological system is in grave danger of shipwreck.

14. Philosophical defenses of libertarianism often appeal to intuition as the ground of belief in free will:1123 anytime we are faced with a choice, we feel that we could choose either way, even against our strongest desire.1124 We are sometimes conscious, they say, of combating our strongest desires. But whatever one may say generally about the appeal to intuition,1125 intuition can never be the ground of a universal negative. That is to say, intuition cannot reveal to anyone that his decisions have no cause. We never have anything that might be called “a feeling of lack of causation.”

Nor can intuition reveal to us that all our actions do have an outside cause. If all our actions were determined by an agency outside ourselves, we could not identify that causation by any intuition or feeling, for we would have no way of comparing a feeling of causation with a feeling of noncausation. We can identify influences that sometimes prevail over us and sometimes don’t, forces that we sometimes but not always resist successfully. But we cannot identify forces that constantly and irresistibly determine our thoughts and behavior. So intuition never reveals to us whether or not we are determined by causes outside ourselves.1126

15. If libertarianism is true, then God has somehow limited his sovereignty so that he does not bring all things to pass. But Scripture contains no hint that God has limited his sovereignty in any degree. God is the Lord, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. He is always completely sovereign. He does whatever pleases him (Ps. 115:3). He works in all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). Further, God’s very nature is to be sovereign. Sovereignty is his name, the very meaning of the name Yahweh in terms of both control and authority. If God limited his sovereignty, he would become something less than Lord of all, something less than God. And if God became something less than God, he would destroy himself. If God becomes less than God, God no longer exists. We can see that the consequences of libertarianism are serious indeed.



1109. Those Calvinists who place great weight on antiquity and tradition will have to concede, therefore, that the oldest extracanonical traditions do not favor their position.

1110. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (London: James Clarke and Co., 1957).

1111. See many writings of Calvin, especially the treatise Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. The classic Calvinist refutation of libertarianism is Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973).

1112. Many Christian philosophers believe that libertarian freedom is essential to an adequate answer to the problem of evil. Alvin Plantinga’s argument has been especially influential in this connection. See his God, Freedom, and Evil(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).

1113. The most cogent and complete Arminian argument, in my view, is Jack Cottrell’s What the Bible Says about God the Ruler (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1984). See also the other two books in his trilogy on the Doctrine of God.

1114. Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

1115. For example, John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).

1116. See, for example, Alvin Plantinga’s influential God, Freedom, and Evil.

1117. See, for example, Benjamin Wirt Farley, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), and my review in WTJ 51, 2 (1989): 397–400. Richard Muller, in his “Grace, Election, and Contingent Choice: Arminius’s Gambit and the Reformed Response,” in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 2:270, says, “It was never the Reformed view that the moral acts of human beings are predetermined, any more than it was ever the Reformed view that the fall of Adam was willed by God to the exclusion of Adam’s free choice to sin.” I agree that Reformed theology recognizes Adam’s choice as free, but only in a compatibilist sense. Contrary to Muller, Reformed theologians did teach that God ordained the fall (or else whence the debate between supralapsarians and infralapsarians as to the place of the fall among God’s decrees?) and therefore ordained at least one human moral decision. And Scripture mentions many more human moral decisions ordained by God, as we have seen in chapter 8. In fairness to Muller, he does recommend a compatibilist formulation on the top of 269. But compatibilist freedom does not exclude, as he suggests it does, divine predetermination of moral acts.

1118. I showed in chapter 16 how God can command and plead with sinners even though he has foreordained their actions. Essentially the answer is to distinguish between God’s decrees and God’s precepts.

1119. One libertarian reply is that the will is Hubert’s, and so the action is his. But what is meant by will here? Does Hubert’s will have a character? Does it have preferences or desires? If so, then we are back to actions controlled by one’s nature, which libertarianism rejects. Does it have no character at all? Then how is it any different from a mere force that acts at random and is quite separate from anything in Hubert? On that supposition, how can it be Hubert’s will?

1120. Calvinists and other antilibertarians often make this point in colorful ways. James Henley Thornwell says, “As well might a weather-cock be held responsible for its lawless motions as a being whose arbitrary, uncontrollable will is his only law.” Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 180. R. E. Hobart, arguing a secular form of determinism, says, “In proportion as [a person’s action] is undetermined, it is just as if his legs should suddenly spring up and carry him off where he did not prefer to go.” “Free Will as Involving Determinism and Inconceivable without It,” Mind 43 (January 1934): 7.

1121. This is, of course, a manner of speaking. I will argue later that God’s knowledge is timeless in a sense. But if God knows timelessly that I will wear a green shirt on July 21, 1998, then even in 1930 it was true to say that he knew I would wear a green shirt on July 21, 1998.

1122. Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, and others. See the reference to their book The Openness of God in footnote 28 and my critique of open theism in chapter 15.

1123. See, for example, C. A. Campbell, “The Psychology of Effort of Will,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 40 (1939–40): 49–74.

1124. There is much argument in the literature over whether we can ever choose against our “strongest desire.” See my earlier comments on this question. Further, it seems to me that some confusion exists here as to the different ways in which a desire can be strong. If strength refers to an emotional power, then it is plausible to argue that however strong the desire is, we can always choose against it. But if strength refers to motivational effectiveness, then of course the

strongest desire is that which actually motivates, and it is nonsense to talk about choosing contrary to one’s strongest desire.

1125. See DKG, 345–46, for my account.

1126. Thanks to Steve Hays for this observation. He also points out that the libertarian appeal to intuition ignores the role of the subconscious in motivating our thoughts and behavior.

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