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Freewill: C.S. Lewis, “Our Tiny, Miraculous Power of Freewill”

Freewill: C.S. Lewis, “Our Tiny, Miraculous Power of Freewill”

Editor’s Note: FāVS has launched a new series on Freewill. For the next few weeks our columnists will answer questions on the topic, including: What is free will? Do human beings have it? Is it possible to have some form of free will in one or more areas of life and not in others? What role, if any, does God play? If it exists, does it bring a sense of security, if it doesn’t exist does it lead to complacency? How does your view impact concepts of justice and accountability?

By Nick Gier

The evangelical writer C. S. Lewis unwittingly confirms the impossibility of freewill within the orthodox Christian framework. In his book “The Problem of Pain,” Lewis states: “Our life is, at every moment supplied by him, our tiny, miraculous power of free‑will only operates on bodies which his continual energy keeps in existence. Our very power to think is his power communicated to us.” 

Freewill is the action of an autonomous, self‑determining being with the power to think and decide on its own without external support or impediment. If, according to Lewis, our “very power to think” is supplied by God, how can the Christian be called a free and autonomous being?

In this same book, Lewis reiterates the biblical analogy of the potter and the clay. Such an analogy leaves no room for free‑will in “clay‑like” humans. Is the clay “free” to be what it wants to be? As Lewis states: “He makes us, we are made: he is original, we derivative.” The doctrine of free‑will assumes originative power on the part of humans. Lewis’ theology gives us no metaphysical ground for such power.  

Free Agents

In orthodox Christianity, God is always acting through us; we are not acting on our own. Lewis stresses the derivative nature of human beings in this passage: “For we are only creatures; our role must always be that of patient to agent, female to male, mirror to light, echo to voice.” A mirror is worthless without light, an echo is a mere epiphenomenon, but a female, contrary to Lewis’ sexism, is perfectly able to take care of herself. These are definitely not appropriate images for free agents and morally responsible beings.

Let me quote more in order to emphasize the utter lack of any foundation for freewill in Lewis’ evangelical theology: “Our highest activity must be response, not initiative. To experience the love of God is to experience it as our surrender to his demand, our conformity to his desire, but in the long run the soul’s search for God can only be a mode of his search for her, since all comes from him.” It is obvious that if there is freewill here, it must indeed be a miracle, a paradox, or more bluntly, a logical contradiction.  

Another evangelical writer, J. I. Packer, concurs with Lewis: “Freedom is found only in subjection to God and His truth; and the more subject, the more free.  This is the paradox of Christian liberty. Man becomes free only in bondservice to Jesus Christ.”

In his famous response to the Christian humanist Erasmus, Martin Luther admits that “you would not call a slave free, who acts under the sovereign authority of his master; and still less rightly can we call a man or angel free, when they live under the absolute sovereignty of God.” In terms of the humanism which is at the basis of our western civilization and which forms modern political systems of representative democracy, any form of slavery, even slavery to God, would be an abomination. 

God Works in All

Luther was unflinching in his recognition that divine omnipotence implied that God was the original cause of all things and actions, including the actions of Satan. Luther’s position is clear: “God works all in all. God even works what is evil in the impious. Judas’ will was the work of God; God by his almighty power moved his will as he does all that is in the world.” 

All contingent wills then are extensions of God’s will, including the will of Satan. “Since God moves and does all, we must take it that he moves and acts even in Satan and the godless; evil things are done with God himself setting them in motion.” In Luther’s reading of divine omnipotence, there is no basis for human autonomy and self‑determination.

About Nick Gier

Nick Gier of Moscow was coordinator of religious studies at the University of Idaho from 1980 to 2003. Read his articles on civil rights at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/CivilRights.htm. Email him at ngier006@gmail.com.

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