I’ve been thinking for a little while about two related arguments for compatibilism based on Christian theology. In this post, I’ll look at the implications of the traditional approach to the Incarnation, and in a second post I’ll look at what the kind of robust view of inspiration that I favor will require. I’m cross-posting this at my personal blog.
It seems to me that with the traditional understanding of the Incarnation, something like compatibilism must be true of Jesus’ freedom. The traditional view of the Incarnation is that Jesus is fully God and fully human, and his divine nature prevents him from doing anything sinful, but at least in his earthly life he had all the human ability to do so, being fully tempted in every way. This means that we need some sense in which it’s possible that Jesus do something wrong and some sense in which it’s not. The best way I know of that anyone has captured this is to say that it was possible for Jesus to do wrong in relation to his human nature but not possible in relation to his divine nature.
But what does that mean? If it means that two natures constrain him, and one allows it while the other doesn’t, then it just implies that it’s not possible for him to have sinned. His human nature would have allowed it, but the divine nature prevented it. This seems just like the situation for someone with no legs: it’s possible for them to walk with respect to their brain but not possible for them to walk with respect to their legs. So it’s simply just not possible for them to walk, unless it’s ever proper to ignore the obstacle sufficient for preventing that possibility, and it pretty much never is unless you’re talking about attaching new legs or something like that. But there’s no such analogous possibility with Jesus, as if he could lose his divine nature. So this doesn’t well capture the intuition that there’s some sense in which Jesus could have sinned, in order to explain the statements about his having been genuinely tempted. This complaint strikes me as much like the complaint that libertarians on free will offer against compatibilism.
If the causes of our actions can be traced back to events outside our control, then incompatibilists will claim that we are not free. They will say that there’s no possibility that things will be otherwise. A certain variety of compatibilist, however, will say that there’s a sense in which it’s not possible and a sense in which it’s possible. It’s possible with respect to the factors that we usually care about when we consider ourselves free, but it’s impossible with respect to the actual past and laws of nature. When we are concerned with our freedom, what we care about is the fact that we consider options, evaluate them based on our own desires and motivations, and act in such a way that our decision-making process is what leads to our eventual choice. If that process can include options to be considered that are not possible in the broader sense, we still call them possibilities in ordinary discourse, because we’re restricting ourselves to a more limited sense of what it means to be possible. We can consider it a live option.
The incompatibilist view considers this sort of move either incoherent or self-deceptive, but compatibilists think this better matches our ordinary sense of freedom than the libertarian view that we have some ability to transcend the causal order of nature (and super-nature, since we should be including divine causes here too). My thought is that the traditional view of the Incarnation requires something very similar to what the compatibilist is saying here, something the libertarian strongly resists. It requires a sense of possibility and ability that, in the only sense the incompatibilist cares about, is not present.
I think there’s also something closer to the compatibilist model of freedom in the traditional model of the Incarnation. Imagine Jesus facing temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4, say. For it to be a real temptation, he has to have considered the attractiveness of doing what Satan tempted him to do. If his divine nature prevents him from doing it, then there must be something even within him that prevents him. What form might that take? It seems as if it must be some motivation within him that’s stronger than the motivations that he seriously considers when he’s tempted to do what’s wrong, stronger enough that even his consideration of the wrong doesn’t lead him toward sinful desires. It sounds as if his internal state: his desires, motivations, loves, beliefs, and so on are what cause him to do what he does, even to love what he loves and desire what he desires. It sounds as if the compatibilist has a ready-made explanation of his internal state.
The libertarian, to say that he is free in his choice whether to give in to temptation, has to say that there’s no guarantee of him doing the right thing but also that he will be prevented somehow from doing it, even from desiring things at a sinful level. It sounds like the libertarian is forced into accepting the compatibilist’s way of describing freedom in order to maintain the traditional view of the Incarnation. Now it’s possible that there are other ways to handle this that I’m not thinking of, but this does seem to me to be a pretty good argument for compatibilism among those who accept the Incarnation in the traditional way. (Also, I want to be clear that I’m not equating the traditional view I’ve been assuming with orthodoxy. For all I know, orthodoxy is broader than the traditional view on whether Jesus could have sinned. It’s the latter view that I think requires a compatibilist understanding, so I’m open to the possibility that someone will be able to pull those apart and thus get out of this argument.)