The Incarnation and Compatibilism

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I've been thinking for a little while about two related arguments for compatibilism about free will and predetermination based on Christian theology. In this post, I'll look at the implications of the traditional approach to the Incarnation, and in a second post I'll look at what the kind of robust view of inspiration that I favor will require. I'm cross-posting this at Prosblogion.

It seems to me that with the traditional understanding of the Incarnation, something like compatibilism must be true of Jesus' freedom. The traditional view of the Incarnation is that Jesus is fully God and fully human, and his divine nature prevents him from doing anything sinful, but at least in his earthly life he had all the human ability to do so, being fully tempted in every way. This means that we need some sense in which it's possible that Jesus do something wrong and some sense in which it's not. The best way I know of that anyone has captured this is to say that it was possible for Jesus to do wrong in relation to his human nature but not possible in relation to his divine nature.

But what does that mean? You might think it's natural to conclude that if two natures constrain him, and one allows it while the other doesn't, then it just implies that it's not possible for him to have sinned. His human nature would have allowed it, but the divine nature prevented it. But this seems just like the situation for someone with no legs: it's possible for them to walk with respect to their brain but not possible for them to walk with respect to their legs. So it's simply just not possible for them to walk, unless it's ever proper to ignore the obstacle sufficient for preventing that possibility. But it pretty much never is proper to ignore that obs tacle unless you're talking about attaching new legs or something like that. But there's no such analogous possibility with Jesus, as if he could lose his divine nature. So this doesn't well capture the intuition that there's some sense in which Jesus could have sinned, in order to explain the statements about his having been genuinely tempted. This complaint strikes me as much like the complaint that libertarians on free will offer against compatibilism.

If the causes of our actions can be traced back to events outside our control, then incompatibilists will claim that we are not free. They will say that there's no possibility that things will be otherwise. A certain variety of compatibilist, however, will say that there's a sense in which it's not possible and a sense in which it's possible. It's possible with respect to the factors that we usually care about when we consider ourselves free, but it's impossible with respect to the actual past and laws of nature. When we are concerned with our freedom, what we care about is the fact that we consider options, evaluate them based on our own desires and motivations, and act in such a way that our decision-making process is what leads to our eventual choice. If that process can include options to be considered that are not possible in the broader sense, we still call them possibilities in ordinary discourse, because we're restricting ourselves to a more limited sense of what it means to be possible. We can consider it a live option.

The incompatibilist view considers this sort of move either incoherent or self-deceptive, but compatibilists think this better matches our ordinary sense of freedom than the libertarian view that we have some ability to transcend the causal order of nature (and super-nature, since we should be including divine causes here too). My thought is that the traditional view of the Incarnation requires something very similar to what the compatibilist is saying here, something the libertarian strongly resists. It requires a sense of possibility and ability that, in the only sense the incompatibilist cares about, is not present.

I think there's also something closer to the compatibilist model of freedom in the traditional model of the Incarnation. Imagine Jesus facing temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4, say. For it to be a real temptation, he has to have considered the attractiveness of doing what Satan tempted him to do. If his divine nature prevents him from doing it, then there must be something even within him that prevents him. What form might that take? It seems as if it must be some motivation within him that's stronger than the motivations that he seriously considers when he's tempted to do what's wrong, stronger enough that even his consideration of the wrong doesn't lead him toward sinful desires. It sounds as if his internal state: his desires, motivations, loves, beliefs, and so on are what cause him to do what he does, even to love what he loves and desire what he desires. It sounds as if the compatibilist has a ready-made explanation of his internal state.

The libertarian, to say that he is free in his choice whether to give in to temptation, has to say that there's no guarantee of him doing the right thing but also that he will be prevented somehow from doing it, even from desiring things at a sinful level. It sounds like the libertarian is forced into accepting the compatibilist's way of describing freedom in order to maintain the traditional view of the Incarnation. Now it's possible that there are other ways to handle this that I'm not thinking of, but this does seem to me to be a pretty good argument for compatibilism among those who accept the Incarnation in the traditional way. (Also, I want to be clear that I'm not equating the traditional view I've been assuming with orthodoxy. For all I know, orthodoxy is broader than the traditional view on whether Jesus could have sinned. It's the latter view that I think requires a compatibilist understanding, so I'm open to the possibility that someone will be able to pull those apart and thus get out of this argument.)


I've known libertarians who argue that Christ really could have sinned and that nothing prevented him from sinning. I'm not sure they've thought through all the implications of this, but they do often affirm Christ's peccability.

Forgive me for commenting (as this is really outside my area) Upon reading your post I find myself in want of some account of the Euthyphro dilemma. Is the Divine nature of the incarnate Jesus incapable of sin only in some analytic sense such that it wouldn't be sin if the Divine did it? Or is there some richer sense of the "incapability" at work here. What would it mean for God to sin...

(Again feel free to ignore/ delete my comment if it is not relevant.)

Or is there some richer sense of the "incapability" at work here. What would it mean for God to sin...

God's character is perfectly righteous, so he always acts righteously.

In addition, the perfect moral code has it's source in God's character. It reflects righteousness because it reflects God's character. Sin, then, is acting in opposition to a moral code that perfectly reflects God's character.

You can find my take on the Euthyphro dilemma here.

The short of it is that I don't think evil is defined in terms of God's nature, will, or choices in the sense that whatever God might happen to like, choose or do is automatically made good. The idea of God commanding us to torture infants for the fun of it is incoherent given that God is morally perfect, whereas one approach to the dilemma is to say that God could have done so, and that would have made it morally right to follow the command. On the other hand, it's also not right to say that good is independent of God. It's based on God's metaphysically perfect nature, and that's necessary and thus not changeable.

It's not analytic, then, if by that you mean that anything at all could have been good, as long as God was ok with it, and God could have been ok with anything. Which things are morally good and bad depend on God, though, in an important enough sense that it's impossible for God to do wrong.

i am initially uncomfortable when there is too much talk of the divine nature of Christ preventing him from sinning - the whole notion of the God-Man's temptation occurs in the domain of his humanity. the word union may also suggest that it isn't possible to make too fine a distinction here (Nestorius?).
the role of the other persons of the trinity in Jesus temptation is perhaps helpful in considering the genuine nature (i.e. the possibility for sin) of the temptation. neither the Spirit nor the Father were tested, yet the Son was tested. one of the things that the efficacy of the atonement rests on is the fact that the one consubstantial with us, consubstantial also with regard to will, did not sin. it must therefore also be stated that Jesus' human nature - under the influence of and in obedience to the Spirit - restrained him from sin.


Bruce, I'm not sure what to say about the substantive claims in your comment. I've spent a lot less time on the details of the Incarnation than I have on free will. But it strikes me that what you're saying doesn't actually touch my argument. I'm not arguing that the actual reason Jesus resisted sin is because of his divine nature. I don't need that at all. All I need is that the reason Jesus couldn't have sinned is because of his divine nature.

It may be that his human nature provided him the resources for resisting temptation's pull toward sin. If his human nature allowed for the possibility of sinning and also the possibility of not sinning, then perhaps it had enough to be sufficient for resisting sin given that it was not a fallen human nature.

But my argument insists that, since the divine nature is incompatible with sin, he couldn't have sinned. The reason he couldn't have sinned is that he has the divine nature, even if his actual explanation for his not sinning didn't rely on that. That's enough to generate the problem for a libertarian conception of freedom, because he didn't have the freedom to do otherwise according to libertarian readings of "the freedom to do otherwise".


I posted most of this over at prosblogion as well.

I'd suggest it is best to get clear on the doctrine first before attempting to gloss it philosophically, if that be possible.

The classical discusison of this is not in the Scholastics, and hence not in Aquinas. The place to look is in the Dyothelite/Monothelite-Dyoenergist/Monoenergist controversies of the 7th-8th centuries. The champion for the Dyothelite side was Maximus the Confesor, a layman no less.

The teaching in sum is this. Christ has two wills or two powers of choice which are employed by one divine person. What Christ lacks and what is not essential to human beings is the gnomic will, which is a specific mode or employment of the natural faculty of will or choice. The gnomic will is a use of the power of choice where theuse of that power is not yet fixed with the good telos of the respective nature. This comes through habituation. The reason why it is fixed is that a created agent has as yet not been habituated since he has a begining (lest souls pre-exist). The gnomic will is also in part characterized by deliberaiton motivated by an ignorance about genuine and apparent goods.

But Christ is not a person with a begining and so he lacks that specific employment or use of the natural human faculty that makes sin possible. Christ is therefore impeccable from the get-go inhis human power of choice. This impeccability does not preclude the AP condition, pace Pruss above. There is a difference between the condition that there be a plurality of options and a plurality of morally opposed options. For Maximus, there is no need to read free will as requiring the latter. So I think Pruss is wrong when he writes above,

"So, SI and API are closely related, but only in the case of caused agents. In the case of uncaused agents, the two fall apart, and it is thus it is at least prima facie possible to accept SI and yet to say that God, and the Logos, necessarily avoids sin and yet is free."

This is only true if the AP condition requires objects of differing or opposed moral value and the good is simple. But Maximus with his insistence on the essence energies distinction rejects the idea that the Good is simple in say the way that Augustine speaks of it.

Christ can enjoy libertarian freedom in his human power of choice without the possibility of sinning just so long as he has a plurality of good objects to choose between. And this is what he does in Passion, when at one moment he freely chooses the good to preserve his life with his human power of choice and with his divine power of choice wills to go to the cross, since both are goods willed by God.

To say that the human power of choice was moved or predestined by God as Augustine and Aquinas seem to is just another version of the Monoenergism that was rejected in Maximus's works and the 6th council in the seventh century that upheld his teaching.

As for the temptation, the traditional locus for that is also in Maximus in his discussion of 2nd Cor 5:21 where he indicates that Christ takes up our corrupted human nature in the incarnation, experiencing our passions and temptations even though he personally performs no sinful acts. Christ is impeccable even though he truely experiences our temptations.

Something else related to consider is God's choice in creation, which is also a choice between alternatives but with impeccability. Another related set of cases would be the saints in heaven, who enjoy freedom but with impeccability.

sure jeremy, but i think it may coincide when it comes to what the union of Christ's two natures entails. it is certainly impossible for the divine nature to sin, but i am not sure if this predicate can be so directly applied to Christ, because his person is the union of two natures. how we can say of the two natures is of course a question with a very long pedigree.
i also wouldn't be too comfortable suggesting that his human nature was sufficient for resisting sin even given that it was not a fallen human nature. capable yes, but sufficiency rests on the interrelationship between the creature and the Spirit, although i do think that it becomes a little speculative with respect to Adam. how do libertarians go with Calvin's definition of freedom as he sets it out in the first bit of the Institutes?


Perry, the libertarian freedom I'm discussing is the libertarian freedom not just to do otherwise (where any good alternative is sufficient) but the freedom to sin. On your account, Jesus did not have that in his earthly life, right?

Monoenergism is the view that Jesus only had the one divine will and no human will. That's not the divine determination view, which would hold that Jesus' divine will just is God's will but that Jesus' human will is a separate will that is predestined to choose whatever God's will chooses. The metaphysics is different. On this view, Jesus' human will is like how Calvin or Leibniz would have seen every human being's will, which you'd be hard-pressed to confuse with God's will.

Bruce, what is Calvin's definition of freedom? I don't think I've ever read that. If you can give me a reference, I can see if it's in my Calvin anthology.


If the AP for condition for libertarians is just the ability to choose between alternatives then this could include choosing to sin, but not necessarily so. And that is what the traditional doctrine states, namely that the ability to sin is not essential to freedom, and not essential to being human. If this weren't so, then people in heaven aren't human and we have akind of eschatological docetism (not to mention Christological Docetism).

Monoenergism came in lots of forms, one of which was the idea that the divine will determined or moved the human will. That view was also condemned. Consequently traditional Christology precludes monergistic views like those of Calvin. And this is why Calvin and the majority of Reformed scholastics altered the traditional Christology. See Muller's, Christ and the Decree: Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins.

Moreover, if the divine determination view were correct, theyare going to have a hard time with John 6 or the Passion where Jesus indicates that he chooses otherwise than the divine will without sin.


Christ's hypostatis is not the union of the two natures, at least not taditionally speaking. Christ is a divine hypostasis in which tere are two natures. Secondly, the divine nature can't sin, but neither can the human nature, since natures don't perform actions, persons do. To say that Christ's person is the union of the two natures is practically Nestorianism.

You can't distinguish between libertarianism and compatibilism in terms of whether we have an ability to do something, because the two views disagree on what it means to have an ability. Compatibilists, at least of the variety I favor, are happy to state that we have the ability to do other than what we do, but this view explicitly denies what libertarians mean when they say we have the ability to do otherwise. Libertarians (at least of the API sort) insist that we have contra-causal abilities, i.e. there is a possible world where everything that happens to me up to my decision is exactly the same, and yet I choose otherwise while in exactly the same state as I was in in the actual world while choosing the way I actually chose. Compatibilists don't think we need that kind of ability. But I would contend that the ability to do otherwise, in ordinary language, doesn't have such a robust metaphysical meaning, and so I have no problem saying I could have done otherwise.

So I would certainly say that human beings have the ability to do otherwise, on at least one reading of what that means. The same problem arises with the ability to sin. If you mean that we can consider the possibility, even if something within us will always lead us to reject it, then I would say that people in heaven do have the ability to sin. If you mean that it's metaphysically impossible for someone in the resurrected state to sin, then I'd agree. I don't think that involved libertarian freedom, but I don't think I have libertarian freedom now either.

Moreover, if the divine determination view were correct, theyare going to have a hard time with John 6 or the Passion where Jesus indicates that he chooses otherwise than the divine will without sin.

I don't see how that follows. Jesus clearly distinguishes between his will and the Father's (which doesn't mean the word for will here means exactly the same thing as what the councils and creeds might have meant by it, by the way). He doesn't say that he actually chooses something contrary to the divine will or something not in the divine will. In fact, he says the opposite in John 6. He says he does the will of his Father, as if the content of both wills is the same, even if there's a metaphysical distinction in that there are two wills (which, presumably, are that the Father's will is the divine will of the later creed/council, a will that Jesus also shares, and his will is his human will of the later creed/council).

In Gethsemane, when he says "not my will but yours" it's pretty strange to think that he's saying he'll go along with God's will but that it's not his will to willingly go along with God's will. It would in fact be a contradiction. So there, also, it must be that he's referring to something he might will if things were otherwise, but since they are not then he's not going to. So you're going to have to see this as what he says it is -- "if it were possible" (and it turns out not to be). If it were possible, he might will something that isn't the actual content of God's will.

One other thing: I'm not entirely sure the monergism that was condemned by some of the early theologians is the same monergism as Calvin. Calvin insists that there's no contribution of the human will that goes beyond God's work in bringing someone to regeneration, but he doesn't reductionistically attribute everything that happens in regeneration just to the divine will. He's a compatibilist, so he's going to say just as much that human choices and thoughts are part of the process of God's bringing the person to be regenerated.

I'm not even sure you need to be a determinist to be a Calvinist. Augustine's view of freedom, for instance, denies causal determinism (of the efficient cause variety, anyway) by saying that our choices are not caused by prior events in the world. They are explained in terms of final causes, though. I have a goal, and the goal draws me to itself in such a way that God can predict what I'll do. He later modifies this to make it clearly libertarian of the "could have done otherwise" model, but in his earliest discussion of it in City of God he's got what seems to me to be a view that is neither full-blown libertarianism nor compatibilism about freedom and determinism, and it's compatible with Calvinism as far as I can tell without being divine determinism.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the monergism that the early theologians you're talking about condemned saw it in something like an occasionalist way. They saw it as if God is moving all the pieces around, with no human role whatsoever. That doesn't sound like any Calvinist I've ever known, except perhaps those who aren't really Calvinists but rather hyper-Calvinist hard determinists.

I would be unable to distinguish libertarianism and Compatibilism if the latter were able to show that could statements were equivalent to would statements. I don’t think they have shown that and I don’t think they can. I think the argument on conditional analysis goes the other way. But perhaps I am not up on a change in the state of the question.

I am not clear on a world with indedeterministic causes why freedom would be contra causal, especially in light of the fact that libertarians hold antecedent causes as contributing but not sufficient causes apart from the agent’s volitional activity.
I was trying to point out that those in heaven are impeccable such that it is metaphysically impossible for them to sin and they enjoy libertarian freewill. For myself, to hold that we lack libertarian free will now as well seems to leave me without a plausible defense against the POE, let alone explain the fall. Why not create everyone perfect and perfectly determined to do right from the get go, but perhaps you have some kind of answer to that. All of the ones I have seen so far imply some form of dualism. But the Felix Culpa line I find far too problematic.

When Jesus in the passion says he did in fact will otherwise, do you mean to say that compatibilists take that to me that he in fact did will otherwise or that he would have willed otherwise had he been so determined to do so?

When you say that Jesus clearly distinguishes between his will and his father’s, do you mean between his human will and the divine will shared by the members of the Trinity or do you mean that there are three wills in the Trinity? And yes, he actually does say he willed otherwise. I never claimed he chose contrary to the divine will, but only differently from that object of choice. In fact I went out of my way to say that both things are willed by God. Again, difference doesn’t imply morally opposed objects of choice. In any case, given that he in fact willed otherwise, is it your position that Christ is determined yet free when he willed otherwise?

In john 6 he says he that he doesn’t come to do his own will but the Father’s. That seems like a contrast, doesn’t it? So I don’t see how the content could be identical.

As for the council’s and Maximus’ teaching on these passages, Protestants are free to reject traditional readings. They are quite proficient at it. Though these are councils that they profess adherence to and have for a long time. So I suspect such a rejection will require some exegetical anachronism or a revision of Protestant Confessions. The question as I put it is what is the traditional doctrine and not what you or anyone else today takes the scripture to mean. So if you wish to reject the traditional doctrine, that’s fine in so far as you are free to do so. You can then go ahead and construct a view and cash it out philosophically. But it won’t be the traditional doctrine.

As for what seems strange I think rather since both are willed by God, his choosing activity is quite unique. Rather than willing contrary to God, he is willing out of a natural disposition to preserve his life, which is something also willed by God. His fear is natural to humanity and good. The two options are both good and both willed by God and so its not a contradiction. And second, unless you embrace a rejection of two wills and the plain reading of the text, you’re gonna be stuck with what seems strange.

The “might will” line I don’t take to be plausible, because he says, “not as I will” not as I might will or would will. Second, if he were determined to will his own death in his human activity of willing, it puts the passage in an unmotivated position. The if it were possible language is not directed to what he in fact wills, but to the end that he says he doesn’t in fact will. “Not as I will…” seems sufficiently clear.

The notion of secondary causes was quite available to Augustine and others prior to him. The Dyothelites and Monothelites were both quite aware of the concept. Second, a good read of Muller’s Christ and the Decree I think will bring to light the Christological basis for Calvin’s Compatibilism in Soteriology and it is quite plain that it is isomorphic to and in comparison to the kind of monoenergism that Pyrrus, Sergius and Honorius were advocating. Besides, there isn’t any difference on the fundamental point that the divine will moves the human to what it chooses, which is precluded expressly by the traditional doctrine in its representatives.

I am familiar with the reading of Augustine that you present, but I don’t agree with it. Augustine’s view of free judgment or will is grounded in the Stoic conception of secondary causes and impulses. The cone rolls because it is its nature to do so, even if it is acted on by some other force. The con rolls the way it does because it is a cone. Nothing can take that away from the cone unless one makes it something else. The same is true for the will for Augustine. The will wills of itself and not of necessity, where the latter is some external impulse relative to human nature. His earliest view is not in the City of God, but in his anti-Manichean work On the Free Choice of the Will. His later position rejects key parts of this and in fact moves in a deterministic direction. This is why he rejects something very much like the Free Will Defense in his mature thought.

So no one that I know of in the Dyothelite debates took the motion of the human will by the divine in an occasionalist way. Added to this is the fact that practically identical conceptions of compatibilistic responsibility are found in late Platonism prior to both the Dyothelite debates and to Augustine. In Plotinus for example, the arguments for agents being responsible for pre-embodied sins even though they could not will otherwise and were moved to do so are practically identical to those found in Augustine’s later writings, many of the scholastics and the Reformers. Read it for yourself and see.

good point perry - poorly expressed by me - what i was attempting to articulate was the implications of an hypostatic union rather than merely a hypostatic conjunction.
jeremy i'd give you a page number but i don't have a copy of the institutes at hand - calvin discusses the nature of human freedom in the first book from about chapter 10 i think.


Perry, I see the compatibilist view I have in mind in David Lewis' articles in the 1980s and in Leibniz's discussions of free will. It ultimately traces back to the first philosophical compatibilists, the Stoics, who insisted on genuine contingency despite determinism. Lewis' move is to take possibility-talk as relative to particular variables rather than absolute possibility in the sense of the libertarian. It's possibility-in-a-restricted-context rather than possibility in an absolute sense.

I'm not convinced that a compatibilist free will defense will fail. We had a discussion of such a thing here. But I do think there are plenty of other things compatibilists can say in response to the problem of evil. John Feinberg has an excellent book on the subject.

I don't think Jesus' statement in Gethsemane needs compatibilism to explain it, just an understanding of how natural language works. He would have preferred otherwise in that no one likes suffering and dying, even if they know they'll be resurrected. But because there's something more important than his desire not to suffer and die, namely his desire to fulfill the divine plan, a plan he fully endorses, his real preference is to go to his death. If you ignore the considerations of why it's really for the best, and you focus on his immediate preferences.

When I say that I'm not doing my will but my wife's, I'm not saying I don't want the thing she wills. By doing it, I am willing it. I'm just saying that, were things different, it wouldn't be what I'd choose. But things aren't different, so I'm willing what she wants. Human language often works that way. We talk about our preferences as what we wish but as what we're not ultimately choosing. So in one sense it's our will, but in another what the other person wants is our will. Jesus' statement makes perfect sense along those lines without thinking the content of his will is any different from the content of the Father's will.

John 6 could be understood the same way, actually, but I think it's not the most natural way to take what he says there. The most natural way to take that is that he's simply affirming that he doesn't really have an independent will that's going to will differently from the Father's. He doesn't go astray in willing his own way. He doesn't come up with stuff on his own to will. He wills what his Father wills. Remember that this is in the context with a debate over whether he's genuinely from God. The Pharisees accuse him of being of the devil, and he says he's just delivering God's message, speaking what God has for him.

I think the problem is that you're reading any use of the word 'will' as a metaphysically-loaded reference to an ontological entity, and that's just not how language works. We don't usually mean to ontologize the will when we talk about willing something. I can say I'm of two minds about something without meaning that I have two literal minds. I can say that my will is conflicted without necessarily referring to a literal part of my will going one way and another literal part going another way. Sometimes it just means there are two things I want, and that's compatible with one of them taking precedence when I consider them both with full rationality. It wins out, and that's the thing I really will. So I don't think the texts you're pointing to are about this issue at all.

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