Free Will in Philosophical Theology

March 5th, 2014 / 15 Comments

The majority of great philosophers and theologians have believed in free will. Contemporary discussions of what free will is and how it might function, however, have not always been clear. In his new book, Free Will in Philosophical Theology, Kevin Timpe takes free will as his central concern to explore theological issues.

Timpe is well suited to write this kind of book. He is a leading force/voice in the contemporary philosophy of free will discussions. He calls his own view of the nature of free will, “source incompatiblism,” and this view is presupposed in this work.

Timpe’s goal for the book is to clarify the possible role a particular kind of virtue libertarianism might play in thinking through a range of theological issues that involve free will. He also intends not to affirm anything clearly at odds with the main historical thrust of Christianity.

After an opening chapter and brief discussion on the nature and importance of free will, Timpe looks at the relation between free will and the good. He argues that an agent’s moral character puts constraints on what actions he or she is capable of freely choosing to perform. When an agent chooses, he/she acts for the sake of some end perceived to be good in some way.

Although recognizing the influence of passions, Timpe argues that passions and emotions do not undermine free will. But they can inhibit the proper expression of freedom. Happily, growth in moral character inclines one to choose the good more often: “An increase in virtue will strengthen the connection between the agent’s passions and the good” (17).

Sin and Salvation

Hamartiology is an important theological issue, especially as it pertains to freedom of the will. Timpe addresses hamartiology in a chapter exploring the primal sin, which is the original – first – sin committed by an agent created by an essentially good God.

The question arises: Why would an agent created as good choose evil? The primal sin, which because it was first was not influenced by previous sins or sinner, is difficult to explain. Timpe argues that voluntarist accounts of the fall are not more problematic that intellectualist accounts. He concludes that there is inexplicability at work in accounting for the primal sin: “It looks then as if a Christian account of primal sin cannot avoid all arbitrariness” (48).

Moving from sin to conversion, Timpe takes up the issue of salvation and the divine and creaturely roles therein. His argument in this chapter is that God’s grace is the sole non-instrumental efficient cause of saving faith. But humans control whether they come to saving faith.

In this, Timpe seeks to avoid Pelagianism, on one hand, and theological determinism, on the other: God’s grace is necessary but not sufficient for saving faith. Timpe hopes also avoids the problems associated with believing God gives grace needed for salvation to only some (e.g., limited election), while also endorsing the belief that grace is the cause of creatures coming to faith.


Two chapters address eschatological issues. The first explores how an individual’s free will affects the condition of that individual in the afterlife. Christianity has historically believed a necessary condition for an individual spending eternity in hell is that individual not choosing to respond correctly to God. A resident of hell does not choose God and is therefore not the kind of person fit for heaven. Persons freely form moral characters in the present life. Negative character formation makes them no longer psychologically capable of accepting God’s offer for reconciliation in the afterlife.

Such persons cannot move from hell to heaven through free choices, argues Timpe, because the person’s moral character becomes set at death. To justify the claim that moral character is set at death, Timpe argues that “whatever reasons one thinks there may be for why it is that death secures the psychological impossibility question, that it does so is established by the Christian tradition” (77).

As far as the redeemed are concerned, Timpe argues they retain freewill in the afterlife and yet are incapable of sinning. This “free but not capable of sinning” proposal may sound puzzling, and Timpe calls it “the problem of heavenly freedom.” Saints do not freely choose to sin when in heaven, he claims, because any temptation to sin suggests that these saints are not in a state of highest bliss. And any place not of highest bliss is not worthy of the name “heaven.”

Few people destined for heaven, however, have a fully formed character necessary for resisting sin everlastingly. To resolve this problem, Timpe embraces the necessity of purgatory. He is attracted to a sanctification model of purgatory, rather than a punitive/satisfaction model. The sanctification model offers a developmental process whereby human character can be formed fully allowing saints to be free in heaven but unable to sin.

God’s Freedom

Timpe closes the book by using his virtue libertarian model to examine the question of God’s own freedom. Despite differences between God and other agents, the considerations for free agents generally apply to God. Timpe addresses those who argue that libertarian accounts of God’s freedom run into conceptual problems if God’s nature is essentially good. As he sees it, a God without moral freedom would not be the greatest conceivable being.

God’s use of freedom differs from creatures in some ways, however. While moral freedom is necessary for creatures to form moral characters, moral freedom is not necessarily for God. God’s moral nature is eternally set, and God is not free to be immoral. God always does what is best despite being free.

In the final section of his chapter on divine freedom, Timpe addresses William Rowe’s work on God’s freedom and choice to create a world. Frankly, this section was the least understandable in what was otherwise a highly readable book. Rowe says that given every possible world, God could have created a better one. Timpe replies that “God could have a reason for picking one from among a set of worlds, even if He could have — by necessity — picked a better” (117). Timpe seems to be arguing that God’s perfect nature prevents God from choosing to actualize other possible worlds, and yet God could have chosen otherwise.


The two major areas in which I found Timpe’s proposals unsatisfying pertained to eschatology and divine freedom. I am inclined toward afterlife scenarios in which the damned may eventually be redeemed. This inclination makes me unsatisfied with Timpe’s claim that sinners are psychologically “set” for eternity never to choose God’s gracious offer of redemption.

As far as the state of the saints in the afterlife, I’m attracted to views that allow for growth in grace in heaven (not purgatory). I’m inclined toward proposals that lead to saints developing holy habits inclining them toward righteousness but always allowing for the possibility that even saints may use their freedom wrongly.

The other major area I found unsatisfying may have more to do with my lack of clarity about Timpe’s last chapter (especially his work on Rowe). That is, Timpe’s view of free will seems centered primarily on the “choosing” aspect of libertarianism, or what he calls the “source” of incompatibilism.

I’m inclined to agree on the importance of this choosing aspect, but I also equally emphasize the choices of libertarianism, that is the various options whereby the chooser chooses but could have done otherwise. And this makes me wonder if the God Timpe envisions ever faces genuine options to do otherwise than the one option God’s perfect nature requires. Here our divergent notions of God’s relation to time and omniscience (I’m an open theist) seem to make a difference in how we think about God’s relation to the future and the options (or, apparently in Timpe’s case, option) a necessarily loving God encounters.


Although I have different metaphysical commitments than Timpe with regard to God’s relation to time and although by disposition I am less inclined to defend some beliefs in the classic tradition (e.g., purgatory), I often agreed with his proposals. A virtue libertarian with theological motivations like mine and not Timpe’s may have written a little different book. But this book is a strong foray into tackling problems presented free will theists, and it does an admirable job of offering plausible solutions. In sum, this is a strong book on free will in philosophical theology.

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Thanks for the work Kevin and for the review Tom in areas that boggle me wee brain. I’m wondering though after reading the review if or where you see free grace snuggling into this conversation?

Brint Montgomery

Nice review, tom. Thanks!

Kevin Timpe

Thanks Tom for the largely sympathetic review. I think you do a good job summarizing what I’m trying to do in the book.

In my earlier purely philosophical book, I argued that satisfying the sourcehood requirement for free will entails having some possibilities. And I think the same holds for God’s freedom. I maintain, for example, that God could have refrained from willing to create.

It doesn’t surprise me at all, given our larger methodological differences, that you’re not inclined to accept the traditional claim that dominates Church history that those in hell cannot get out. Like you, I do not want to say that the reason is that God is no longer seeking their redemption. But, as you know, I argue that it is facts about the human agent and her will that makes her no longer able to turn toward God. Same with your view about the redeemed being able to sin. As I argue in the book, such a place would simply fail to be heaven, a place (following than which none greater can be conceived).

So I guess that while I see that you don’t like some of my conclusions, what I don’t see are arguments about why those conclusions are wrong, or where my arguments for my conclusions go astray.

Ben Duarte

Hi Dr. Oord, under the section of ‘Criticism’ in this review it was stated:
“The two major areas in which I found Timpe’s proposals unsatisfying pertained to eschatology and divine freedom. I am inclined toward afterlife scenarios in which the damned may eventually be redeemed. This inclination makes me unsatisfied with Timpe’s claim that sinners are psychologically “set” for eternity never to choose God’s gracious offer of redemption.” Can you please expand on this? and it is possible to share justification of your perspective on this?

Ben Duarte

Hi Dr. Oord,

Can you please explain why you are more inclined to believe that the damned may be redeemed in the afterlife?

Mike Lady

Piggybacking on the other ?s about your view of individuals being able to be redeemed while in hell, I was wondering if you can bring specific text from the bible that would back your idea since that is our ultimate source in our creation of doctrine. I would pose the same question to Kevin with his purgatorial sanctification view. Thanks

Kevin Timpe

I don’t think we construct systematic philosophical or religious views ‘solo scriptura’.  Purgatory has a very ancient tradition in the Church, going back at least until the 4th century. Many in this tradition claim that it has scriptural roots. But even if it doesn’t, I’m fine with that.

Ben Duarte

Hi Kevin,

I would agree that ‘solo’ scriptura is not a good method for developing a theology, philosophy or religious views, since, it may not be wise to deny the authority of the church. Not so sure that ‘sola’ scriptura is designed for philosophy or religion anyhow, perhaps its more for the construction of a protestant theology? On the issue of Purgatory, (I could be wrong), but, I believe that Rome may find this in her traditional roots, while Eastern Orthodoxy denies it based upon tradition, and protestants deny it by way of scripture. As an orthodox protestant, I prefer a ‘sola’ scriptura, however, I do enjoy philosophical theology, and find that natural theology is helpful in both universe and anthropological studies. Nonetheless, to justify a belief (discover its truthfulness) which method do you find most helpful? scripture? reason? or?


How would one deny purgatory on the basis of scripture (without doing so via solo scriptura)?

I don’t think scripture, tradition, or reason are methods. They’re all sources of epistemic justification, but to different degrees for different tasks.

(I also don’t think that epistemic justification entails truth. There can be justified but false beliefs.)

I think the best I can say for an overall methodology is that we compare a number of views and hold, even if tentatively, the one that seems, given the total justification we have , to be the best. In the book I give reasons for thinking that purgatory I better than it’s leading competitor, what I call ‘the zap view’, whereby we are unilaterally sanctified and perfected by God at death.

Ben Duarte

Hi Kevin,

Not sure that we are speaking the same ‘theological language’- I take your point that scripture, reason and tradition are resources. Perhaps, used as ‘methods’ in the quest for truth? or to seek justification? with ‘reason’ as the most general?

I tend to separate ‘solo’ and ‘sola’ scriptura. In this, ‘solo’ scriptura seems to be an interpretation of scripture in isolation from the Church, while ‘sola’ scriptura seems to give the bible the ‘final’ authority on any given topic (even if the church disagrees)-thus, the principle of ‘sola’ scriptura is that the bible is the authority, not the church (like on the topic of purgatory)- It seems that avoiding ‘solo’ scriptura would be easy in a protestant context.
There can be justified- but false beliefs? If ‘beliefs’ are truly false-in what realm to they reach justification? Isn’t justification based on truth? How does the axiology of X become justified while also being false?
I would agree that sanctification is a process. I don’t see any biblical justification for purgatory (Roman Catholic context).



I posted before, but it apparently didn’t ‘take’. Trying to reconstruct.

No, I mean sources not methods. They are sources of justification (in the epistemological sense). None is a method in itself, but they obviously relate to methods (e.g., scripture to hermeneutics, reason to reasoning, etc…).

Here’s a blog post that makes me worried about if one can affirm sola scriptura without sliding into solo scriptura:

For the history of purgatory, look at the relevant chapter in Jerry Walls’ recent “Purgatory” book, or Le Goff’s “The Birth of Purgatory,” which Jerry draws heavily on.

Also, consult just about any introduction to epistemology book to see how beliefs can be justified but still false. Quickly, a belief is justified for an individual when she has good reason to think the belief is true. (E.g., if I tell you that I’m trying this from Starbucks, you might be justified in believing it if you have reasons to think that I’m a trustworthy source of testimony.) But that doesn’t mean that the belief that you form in a responsible way on the basis of evidence is true. (It’s not; I’m actually in the Flying M coffee shop.)



Thank you for your reply. I would regard the bible, tradition, reason, ect… as ‘sources’, I only mean that they are “methods” in the sense that they are an ‘elements of a procedure’. But, yes, I do take your point.

Sola? and Solo?

I also read the suggested article. In essence, the article is saying that there no difference between them in ‘principle’, which means that they are fundamentally the “same thing”, but, they are not. They are different in etymology, and in meaning. The issue is to consider a ‘reformation context’. Historically, it is a matter of authority (as most know). Scripture or tradition. “Sola” is giving the bible the ‘final’ authority, while still considering the church and the creeds. Although, the value of the churches’ confessions depend on how well they represent scripture. “Solo” is radical individualism. In this, the person interprets in isolation and perhaps, develops a theology unknown to the church. Even where we see the Church as ‘ultimate authority’(as before the Reformation)- they are still schisms in the church. For example, ‘the filioque’- in the 12th century, this created ‘East and West’ Christianity. Yet, both, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Rome still object to sola scriptura due to its cause of ‘schism’- this seems to be an ongoing issue. Another site called Modern Reformation for further reading. I will suggest. Another example might be “sola fide”, which does not mean that we ignore or resist God, tradition or good works, it means that intrinsically, ‘faith’ is what we are justified by before God (apart from works of the law (Pauline theology),- ‘solo fide’ might be ‘faith only’-which is unbiblical.

E.g., if you said you were at Starbucks, whether you’re a trustworthy person, or not, I would believe you. However, since you were truly at Flying M- this belief of mine was always false-but it did not contain apodictic certainty,it was your statement ‘being at Starbucks’ that was also false. In this case, both your statement and my belief were both false. So, no truth to be had-since you were really at Flying M, hence no justification as well. However, I do take your point that I would be ‘justified in believe you’ although, it was not true. In this sense, a false belief was still false-but there was ‘justification’ for my thinking so-but, I wonder how authentic this “justification” was? if it was ontologically   false? Plus, I can ‘know’ that you’re at Starbucks, without actually believing it. Do you believe in justification without awareness? (now I am confused) !?!


I meant to write the 11th century for the ‘East/West’ Church schism, not the 12th. I believe the specific year was 1054, I have seen some suggest 1056. Good thing that I have never claimed to be infallible:! Thanks for the chat. I have not discussed these topics in a while.

Kevin Timpe

Sorry, forgot to check back.

I don’t think you can know X without believing X.

And the kind of justification I’m talking about is epistemic, not ontological.


Hi Kevin,

I take your point. However, does ‘knowing’ X and ‘believing’ X require equal commitment? “I believe that Karl Barth was a good theologian” I know that Karl Barth was a good theologian”.-Is it possible to know that Karl Barth was a good theologian, without actually believing that he was? Perhaps, history, explains Barth as a good thinker of theology, (we may know this cognitively)-but we may not believe that he was so? I must marry the two? They cannot be separated?

Yes, I take your point on this matter too. However, I actually agree that your allegory would receive epistemic justification, I was just wondering if that could be authenticated in a false ontology? not that your scenario would need ontological justification to bear it true. So, it seems that it could.

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