Review of Freewill and Theism: Connections, Contingencies, and Concerns edited by Timpe and Speak

January 24, 2017

Timpe, Kevin and Daniel Speak, eds. Free Will and Theism: Connections, Contingencies, and Concerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 316, $85.


In this collection of essays, readers will encounter an interesting array of topics related to free will and philosophical theology. For example, essays cover issues related to divine providence, the doctrine of hell, the problem of evil, the doctrine of divine conservation or divine sustaining of the universe, and the compatibility of God’s freedom with His essential perfection. Even though these essays cover different topics, there is one major question that runs throughout the entire book: does something about theism entail libertarian or compatibilist accounts of freedom?

One of the most impressive features of this volume for me is the editing of the essays. The contributors are not directly debating one another. It is not the case that one contributor writes an essay, and then another contributor responds to the original essay. However, the reader will often feel like she is reading a debate between dialogue partners. The editors have selected the contributors carefully in this regard. In many of the essays, a contributor has written up a nice summary of arguments that he or she has developed over the years in papers and books. Then the next chapter will include someone responding to the previous contributor’s prior work on the topic. So even though the essays are not directly responding to one another, they often feel like a lively debate. Allow me to give some examples.

Over the years, Jerry Walls has developed a series of arguments against compatibilism based on Christian doctrine. One line of reasoning goes as follows. If God determines the actions of sinners, then God is responsible for those sinful actions. Human persons will not bear any blame for their actions since God is the one who has caused those actions to occur. This has several undesirable consequences for Christian belief, one of which is that God will be the author of evil. This is because God is the one solely responsible for evil actions occurring (pp. 94-96). Another undesirable consequence is that God would appear to be a moral monster for punishing people in hell since the damned were determined by God to sin (pp. 83-88). God is the one responsible for their sin, and yet He punishes them anyway! This, says Walls, is not an acceptable position for Christians to affirm. In Free Will and Theism, Walls offers an excellent summary of these arguments. In the chapter after Walls, Tamler Sommers offers a critique of Walls’ previous versions of these arguments. So even though Sommers is not directly responding to Walls’ essay, it still feels like a debate because Sommers is responding to the arguments that Walls has offered. This format is very beneficial to the reader, and makes the volume as a whole interconnected in ways that collections of essays normally are not.

Another example of this comes from the essays by Derk Pereboom and Timothy O’Connor. Pereboom has a long career of arguing for theological determinism, and the theological adequacy of denying human freedom. O’Connor has a long career of arguing for libertarian freedom. Pereboom’s essay does a great job at summarizing his position on theological determinism. He offers several justifications for his position as well as several critiques of the libertarian account of freedom that O’Connor defends. Pereboom attempts to show that a theological determinist can maintain that God determines everything, and yet humans are still morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for their actions (pp. 115-119). Further, Pereboom argues that denying libertarian freedom does not make the problem of evil intractable (pp. 120-127). As one might expect, O’Connor disagrees with Pereboom on several fronts. Interestingly, O’Connor concedes that denying libertarian freedom does not make the problem of evil much worse. However, O’Connor argues that theological determinism makes God the author of evil, and makes the Christian practice of confession and struggle against sin deeply problematic. For if God is the one determining my actions, how exactly should I confess my sins? I suppose one should say, ‘Lord, please help me not sin, if that is what you have determined to take place’ (p. 138).

Not all essays in this volume have this debate feel to them. For example, Megan Griffith’s critique of agent causation, and Laura Ekstrom’s critique of libertarian freedom are basically stand-alone essays. Rebekah Rice offers an interesting dilemma for theists who wish to affirm that God acts for reasons, and that reasons are not causes of God’s actions. Rice’s paper engages with the work of other contributors, but it doesn’t have the same debate feel to it. This is by no means a strike against her paper. The dilemma she develops is definitely worth considering.

Some readers of this journal may be disappointed that the volume is not very theologically thick. Most of the contributors are philosophers, and the theological discussions are often quite sparse. While I would like to have seen more explicit theological engagement, that may be asking for too much. The volume is focusing on theism, not Christianity. The chapters from Jerry Walls and Jesse Couenhoven are the most explicitly Christian in the volume. Most of the content from the other essays could easily be applied to any theistic religious tradition. That being said, I think this volume is an important contribution for anyone concerned with issues related to free will and its place in Christian theology.

For students, this book will not serve as an introduction to free will, nor as an introduction to the place of free will in theology. The essays in this volume assume some level of familiarity with free will and philosophical theology. If you are looking for a good introduction, I would recommend starting with Kevin Timpe’s Free Will in Philosophical Theology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014). Once a student has read this, then she can move on to Free Will and Theism.

R.T. Mullins

Indianapolis, IN


Wrap Up