God, Freedom, and Self-Definition

Reflecting on God’s providence, John Webster writes:

‘God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolute spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and toward created ends, not self-authorship or aseity.’ (God Without Measure, 1:139).

Webster defends the compatibility of God’s governance with true human freedom. He refers to the view of freedom that he rejects as a ‘destructive convention’. It is a convention because it is the habit of so much human thinking: we quickly assume that if we are to be free our choices must be indeterminate. We must be able to choose to be whatever we wish to be, irrespective of who we are. As soon as who I am explains my choice, then my choice is no longer truly indeterminate and thus I am no longer free. This convention is destructive because it insists on a kind of freedom that actually detaches and alienates me from who I am by denying the givenness of my created nature.

To this we might add with Jonathan Edwards that any account of human freedom as indeterminacy renders freedom itself meaningless. By insisting that my truly free choices must be detached from who I am it rejects any causal explanation of my choice. The result is that my choices end up amounting to nothing more than random actions. Hence the convention is deeply destructive, because it denies any decisive role for who I am as a creature in my actions.

As I read these sentences in Webster I found myself suddenly transported from the depths of his engagement with Thomas Aquinas and Francis Turretin into the midst our present madness. The destructive convention is alive and well around us in contemporary attempts to establish the possibility of self-(re)definition. Here is a denial of creatureliness, of the givenness of who we are, an attempt to treat myself as a tabula rasa on which I may write – in a choice not determined by my creator –who I am. The commitment to indeterminacy is so potent that it even allows me to constitute myself against the evidence of the sex chromosomes that are present in nearly every cell in my body.

The widespread contemporary embrace of the destructive convention cannot end well for any individual or society because it involves rejecting the true freedom which is ‘existence in accordance with created nature and toward created ends’. As such the convention can only bring slavery and frustration. If it does not but seems to satisfy, then that is only because of the blinding, soporific effect that sin has, an effect that will not normally last through the course of this life and that will end tragically on the morning of the resurrection of the dead when eyes are opened and we awake to eternity.

As Turretin makes clear, the idea of freedom as indeterminacy is an important value for both Pelagianism and Arminianism. Might it therefore be right to see in the rampant contemporary affirmations of self-determination the bitter fruit of ancient theologies?


Revd Dr Garry Williams is director of the Pastor’s Academy and teaches on the doctrine study days, the master’s course, and the PhD programme. He also supervises pastors who work on doctrinal topics for their study projects. He is Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Michigan). He serves as an ordained elder at ChristChurch, Harpenden.

This article was originally posted on the Pastor’s Academy blog. Used with permission.