That All Shall Be Saved — Part 5 — Freedom and the Will

Scott Sloan
Nov 19 · 6 min read

“The plain and obvious meaning of the words “freedom” and liberty, in common speech, is power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases.” (Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, A Jonathan Edwards Reader, page 204)

In the fourth and final meditation of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved, he tackles the question of human freedom and the question of the will. Many of those that come from the Arminian/Wesleyan Tribe believe that God can’t save everyone because of humanity’s free will. He allows humanity to choose whether or not they would like to have a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. Many Evangelicals believe that “hell is closed on the inside.” David Bentley Hart tackles this train of thought in this meditation. He writes:

“God must be the whole proper end of the rational will, and must therefore be able in himself to fulfill the rational appetite for truth and happiness. The soul needs nothing in addition to the divine nature in which it is called to partake (2 Peter 1:4), and certainly not the supplement of either a natural or a moral evil.” (Kindle Loc. 2352)

In Thomas Talbott’s reflection on That All Shall Be Saved, he writes concerning the will:

“But if God has foreordained a glorious end for each of us; and if, according to Paul, our ultimate destiny “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16 — NRSV), then a host of confused questions are apt to arise concerning the nature of our independent rationality, the nature of human freedom, and the purpose of an earthly life. “

Then what about freedom and liberty? How does Hart define freedom in light of the will? Concerning freedom, David Bentley Hart writes:

Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is. The freedom of an oak seed in its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God. ..To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures are framed, and for which, in the deepest reaches of our souls, we ceaselessly yearn. Whatever separates us from that end, even if it be our own power of choice, is a form of bondage to the irrational.” (DBH — Kindle Loc.2384, 2389)

Yet, can we agree that our divine purpose and true happiness is found in God alone or union with God alone, but what about free will? What about those that do not want God, and who would rather shut the door on God on the other side? Hart’s answer is describing the two natures of the will, the natural will and the gnomic will appealing to the early church Father, Maximus the Confessor. He writes:

“In terms of the great Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662), the natural will within us, which is the rational ground of our whole power of volition, must tend only toward God as its true end, for God is goodness as such, whereas our “gnomic” or “deliberative” will can stray from him, but only to the degree that it has been blinded to the truth of who he is and what we are, and as a result has come to seek a false end as the true end.” (DBH, Kindle Loc. 474)

Hart argues that even in our “gnomic” will those that choose apostasy and to “close the door on God” really desire God and his goodness. (DBH Kindle Loc. 2552–2572). Therefore Humanity’s deepest desire and freedom is found in God himself, thus the will is free only in the sense that its deepest longing is for union with God himself.

To me this sounds that as much as David Bentley Hart loathes Calvinism, this ties into Calvinist’s doctrine of election, and the sovereignty of God. Jonathan Edwards writes in his treatise The Freedom of the Will“:

“But, as has been proved, all events whatsoever are necessarily connected with something foregoing, either positive or negative, which is the ground of its existence. It follows therefore, that the whole series of events is thus connected with something in the state of things, either positive or negative, which is original in the series; i.e. something which is connected with nothing preceding that, but God’s own immediate conduct, either his acting or forbearing to act. From whence it follows, that as God designedly orders his own conduct, and its connected consequences, it must necessarily be, that he designedly orders all things.”

Similar to Hart, Jonathan Edwards is connecting the dots going back from a volition or choice by the will to the ultimate cause which is God himself that God is the designer and instigator of all things. Tying it to David Bentley Hart’s argument in the fourth meditation on freedom and the will, as creatures made in the image of God, our deepest desire and longing is for God himself. Since Jonathan Edwards did not know much about Maximus the Confessor and other Eastern Orthodox Saints, his frame of mind is Calvinism. He doesn’t write about the two different wills (the rational will and the gnomic will). Yet Edwards relies on the sovereignty of God to show that humans are not free. God in his foreknowledge and divine providence orchestrates all things including our will and choice even our sinfulness. According to Edwards, our will and choices reveal God’s divine election and who is in and out whom God chooses. Hart would have issues with that line of reasoning from Calvinism and counter that because of humanity are image bearers of God, all of humanity has a desire for union with God. It doesn’t matter what a human chooses, in the end, because of humanity’s divine purpose, a human will always choose to be united to God even if their actions say the contrary. Edwards would say for a soul that does not choose God is predestined for damnation. Hart would counter and say a soul that’s desire is not God is enslaved and irrational.

Conclusion

Myself, being a hopeful universalist or what Brad Jersak calls a hopeful inclusivist, I hope that all people will be united to God at the final judgment. Hart has shown in his fourth meditation that the will really is not free. Our desires and our divine purpose as image bearers (Gen. 1:26–27) is to find our resting place and final consummation with God himself. Just like the Calvinists, Hart believes that God orchestrates events and circumstances where the will eventually find its home in God. Even those in their gnomic will who make bad choices, eventually their choices reveal their desire and preoccupation with God himself. Calvinists may call this efficuous grace or divine providence, and Wesleyans call it prevenient grace. Unlike Calvinists, Hart argues that God in his goodness does give humanity freedom to choose.

I don’t know if this fourth meditation will convince those that come out of the Arminian/Wesleyan perspective that all of humanity is destined to be united in God. I believe many have been influenced heavily by CS Lewis that “hell is locked from the inside,” and God in his love for us will never violate our free will. Thus, God can’t save everyone. Now those open and relational theologians like Thomas Jay Oord do believe in the possibility of post-mortem salvation and that God will continue to woo and persuade souls even in death to choose love, i.e. himself. Thus in the end just as Hart and many Eastern Orthodox Theologians have argued, “God will be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28)

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