Free Will and Theism

Connections, Contingencies, and Concerns

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Kevin Timpe, Daniel Speak
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Free Will and Theism, Kevin Timpe and Daniel Speak summon a remarkable group of scholars in order to discuss the immortal philosophical problem of free will from a perspective that is as neglected as it is interesting: the potential influence that a theistic commitment may have on the debate over free will.

The book opens with a helpful introduction by the editors, followed by chapter 1, in which Manuel R. Vargas describes some interesting empirical studies that seem to indicate that theists tend to be libertarians. Vargas also presents some philosophical considerations regarding the hidden presuppositions that often influence our philosophy in general, and our philosophy of free will in particular. Chapters 2 and 3, by John Martin Fisher and Laura W. Ekstrom respectively, are original compatibilist accounts that aim to show the philosophical implausibility of libertarian free will.

In chapter 4, Jerry L. Walls offers some useful food for thought to both compatibilists (against whom he argues) and libertarians. That said, the article is slightly condescending in tone, and it contains objections to compatibilism that are presented as new, but which have already been answered in the past, at least in principle (by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, only to name a few). In fact, Tamler Sommers in chapter 5, even though a non-theist, successfully demonstrates that the problem of free will requires more philosophical accuracy and theological digging than is shown in chapter 4. In Chapter 6, Derk Pereboom argues for theological determinism and compatibilism, inasmuch as he believes they are able to make more sense of the biblical doctrine of God’s providence and sovereignty. Along the same lines as in chapter 4, in chapter 7 Timothy O’Connor offers grandiose claims about the supposed theological and philosophical disastrousness of theological determinism, claims that need a greater support than that which is offered here by O’Connor. Walls and O’Connor limit their respective goals in that they give arguments (most often old arguments) in support of the supposed incoherence of compatibilism. Nevertheless, they do this by taking for granted the accuracy of the libertarian and Arminian view of God that they presuppose—a theology that a Calvinist, for instance, would reject—restricting their article to negative proofs aimed at disproving compatibilism and theological determinism. In this way, I think, they address the volume’s main point only vaguely.

In chapter 8, T. J. Mawson argues that classical “theism per se” has no implications for the debate between libertarians and compatibilists. Although I generally agree with Mawson, it seems to me that “theism per se” is a rather abstract concept. There is not such a thing as “theism per se” but only specific theisms, even among the various Christian traditions which agree on general doctrines.

Helen Steward’s chapter 9 contends that libertarianism is compatible with a naturalistic and atheistic worldview. She argues that determinism is a philosopher’s mirage and that, therefore, libertarianism and theism are not strictly connected. Steward’s article is definitely worth reading. That said, I believe Steward has a deeper problem, and that is how to give, on the basis of her worldview, a philosophical justification to any moral concept and value whatsoever (including freedom and moral responsibility), considering that in her worldview there is no objective moral standard; everything is nothing but matter governed by impersonal and unchangeable physical and chemical laws.

In chapter 10, Meghan Griffith argues that scholars involved in the free will debate should seriously consider the agent-causation view of agency over what she believes are other reductive views. This chapter is followed by Michael J. Almeida’s chapter 11, which aims to defend what Almeida calls the impossibility argument. According to this argument, and contrary to the classical free will defense with respect to the problem of evil, God is able to actualize a morally perfect world, although it is not possible for this to happen. This is a rather interesting article because it can appeal to both libertarians and compatibilists. Then we meet chapter 12, where W. Matthews Grant presents an ingenious harmonization of God’s universal causal action with free will intended in the libertarian sense. In chapter 13, Neal Judisch argues that, while theological determinism is optional for theists, divine conservation is not. Judisch believes that divine conservation is a threat to free human agency, and the article is dedicated to harmonizing free agency with a strong view of divine conservation. Chapter 14 contains Rebekah L. H. Rice’s article, which is probably the most technical of all the articles in the volume. Rice advances a criticism of the traditional agent-causation and causal theory of action in order to offer an alternative model that is quite ingenious and, for this reason, impossible to summarize here.

Free Will and Theism concludes with two chapters which, I think, are some of the best of the entire volume. In chapter 15, Kevin Timpe offers a helpful summary of his virtue libertarianism against the background of a discussion dedicated to the relationship between God’s freedom and God’s character. On a similar line, in chapter 16, Jesse Couenhoven shows the insufficiency of the volitionalist account of divine freedom. However, a non-volitionalist account is not sufficient in itself, and it needs to be completed with a normative conception of freedom according to which perfect freedom and goodness are intimately connected. At points I strongly disagree with Timpe and Couenhoven. Nevertheless, they shed light on the free will debate by demonstrating the importance of meditating about the sense in which God is free, while also suggesting that, perhaps, the free will discussion is too focused on the compatibility-incompatibility question.

Free Will and Theism is a helpful tool that will allow the reader to develop a good grasp of the contemporary theistic philosophical debate on free will. Even its weakest articles will reveal to the attentive reader how theism has an impact on our theorizing about free will—maybe not “theism per se,” as Mawson argues, but certainly, I would argue, the respective specific theisms that theists embrace. This is a neglected perspective for investigating the problem of free will: evaluating the meta-philosophical influence that both “theism per se” and an assumed specific theism may have (or not have) on the debate over free will. The insights contained in this volume help to fill this gap.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marco Barone is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Timpe is William Harry Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin College, and a former Templeton Research Fellow at St. Peter's College, Oxford University. His research is focused on the metaphysics of free will and moral responsibility, virtue ethics, philosophy of disability, and issues in the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Free Will: Sourcehood and its Alternatives, 2nd edn (Bloomsbury, 2012) and Free Will in Philosophical Theology (Bloomsbury, 2013). He has edited a number of volumes, includingVirtues and Their Vices (OUP, 2014) and Arguing about Religion (Routledge, 2009). He is currently working (with Meghan Griffith and Neil Levy) on The Routledge Companion to Free Will

Daniel Speak is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University. He has recently served as a Visiting Research Fellow at Biola University's Center for Christian Thought and as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University. He thinks and writes principally about the metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology of free will and about related issues in the philosophy of religion. His articles have appeared in The Philosophical QuarterlyFaith and Philosophy, and The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, among others.



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