Review: God Reforms Hearts by Thaddeus Williams

…Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free. (49)

These words, written by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, reflect one of the most common Christian responses to the problem of evil and suffering in the world. At first glance, the so-called “free will defense” has considerable appeal. It seems to absolve God of responsibility for the existence of evil, by shifting that responsibility to creatures endowed with autonomous agency. It also affirms human uniqueness and dignity by elevating us above the level of mere robots or puppets.

But what if the free will defense rests on a misunderstanding of God, humanity, and evil? What if it confuses our common-sense intuitions about the human will with unwarranted philosophical speculation? Thaddeus Williams, a theology professor at Biola University, raises these questions in his brilliantly written book, God Reforms Hearts: Rethinking Free Will and the Problem of Evil (Lexam, 2021). In particular, Williams challenges the notion that humans must have libertarian free will—that is, the capacity to choose between alternatives—in order to have a genuine, loving relationship with God.

Understanding Williams’s argument requires disentangling our concepts of freedom and necessity. To clarify, Williams uses the recurring illustration of Claudia’s love for Jim. Consider these three cases (pages 30-31):

  • Case 1: Jim, a mad scientist desperate for love, installs A.A. (Artificial Affection) hardware in Claudia’s brain that programs her to “love” him. Claudia says, “I love you,” and cannot do otherwise.
  • Case 2: Jim, a neurotic desperate for love, holds a gun to Claudia’s back and commands her to love him. Claudia says, “I love you,” and cannot do otherwise.
  • Case 3: Claudia has a powerful internal desire to maximize Jim’s welfare, a propensity so strong that she cannot bring herself to reject him. Claudia says, “I love you,” and cannot do otherwise.

In all three cases, we can say that Claudia is under a certain necessity to love Jim. The first case is what Williams calls the “Necessity of the Machine,” the second case he calls the “Necessity of the Gunman,” and the third case he calls the “Necessity of the Heart.” In the first two cases, it is apparent that something important is missing from Claudia’s love for Jim. She is being coerced, either by physical compulsion or by threat of violence, and so it is not truly “her” loving Jim. But the third case is different. Here it is the desire of her own heart that draws her to love Jim; she is not being forced, even though she cannot do otherwise.

These three cases demonstrate how the free will defense trades on a certain ambiguity in our notion of freedom. While it is true that authentic human love requires both freedom from the Machine and freedom from the Gunman, it is less clear that it requires freedom from the Heart. In fact, argues Williams, such freedom from the Heart would entail an absurdity that is actually contrary to authentic love. What sort of love is it that stands independent of our own desires? On what basis do we choose to love rather than not to love? Is the choice random—the metaphysical equivalent of the flip of a coin? Or is the question itself unanswerable—we choose to love, simply because we choose to love? At this point, libertarian free will begins to sound less and less intuitive. Common sense tells us that people choose what they choose, because of their particular character and desires.

Williams then proceeds to examine the philosophical and biblical evidence with respect to libertarian free will. In particular, he deals with the common argument that “ought implies can,” the biblical instances of God’s grieving when humans reject him, and the biblical portrayal of God’s relational vision for humanity. Through each line of argument, Williams shows that libertarian free will is unwarranted—authentic human love is fully compatible with the Necessity of the Heart.

Williams then surveys the different theological perspectives on how God works in the human heart: Heart Persuasion, Heart Cooperation, Heart Activation, Heart Reformation, and Heart Circumvention. Williams cleverly depicts each perspective as a different off-ramp from which we may exit our theological freeway: the first exit is Pelagia, then Cassiana, then Arminia, then Augustinia, and finally No Man’s Land (referring to the fact that such a view denies our very humanity). Williams then highlights how libertarian free will would actually require a fourth kind of freedom: in addition to freedom from the Machine, the Gunman, and the Heart, a libertarian will must also be free from the Reformer—that is, from God himself. However, it is difficult to support such a conclusion from Scripture.

In a book of this size and scope, Williams can’t be expected to say everything on the subject. However, I was left with a couple of questions which, if addressed, could help strengthen his argument. For example, what sort of freedom would Adam and Eve have had in the Garden before the Fall? Could they have had freedom from the Heart? And if not, what does that imply about God’s moral responsibility for giving them hearts inclined toward disobedience? Further, I was a little unclear on Williams’s critique of probabilistic libertarianism (pages 204-206). Couldn’t petitionary prayers work by supernaturally reducing a person’s “relative tendencies to anti-love”? Williams treats a person’s relative tendencies to act as though they were fixed values, but it seems to me that a libertarian could argue that the point of petitionary prayer is precisely for God to change such values—yet below the 100% probability entailed by the Heart Reformation view. (Don’t misunderstand me; I think Williams is correct that such a view is biblically unsupported; I am speaking strictly philosophically here.)

Such questions notwithstanding, Williams manages to cover a lot of ground with remarkable clarity, precision, and persuasiveness. The book is also very well researched, with over 250 sources in the bibliography. The book might be a bit of a challenge for those unfamiliar with the basic theological terrain, but it would be ideally suited for a philosophy undergraduate or a seminarian.  Highly recommended!

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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