Christian Doctrines, philosophy, Theological Determinism, theology

A Denial of Theological Determinism

It was not too long ago that I read a book by John Frame, a respected Calvinist theologian, entitled No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. In my review of that book, I wrote, “Interestingly, while I went in reading this book looking for some good arguments against Open Theism, I came out with the realization that theological determinism is a far more dangerous doctrine indeed.” It is time to address theological determinism more fully.

The Debate

There are many sides to the debate over the content of and/or level of determination entailed by of God’s omniscience. Briefly, I will summarize what I see as the four major positions:

  1. Open Theism- Open Theists hold that the future is, in some sense, “open” to the extent that even God doesn’t know for sure what will happen. God knows everything that might happen, and so can plan for every contingency.
  2. Theological Determinism- Essentially, the view that God, in His sovereignty, has determined everything which will happen. It is generally paired with compatibilism, the view that, despite God’s determining of creaturely action, those creatures are still responsible for their behavior.
  3. Molinism- The “middle knowledge” perspective holds that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom–God knows what anyone will do in any situation–and so comprehensively knows the future. However, molinists hold that God does not determine what will happen, He merely foreknows it.
  4. “Bare Omniscience”- Those who hold this view basically fall into a combination of the previous three categories–mixing and matching as they will.

The Biblical Evidence

I’m only briefly going to operate under a claim which I’m sure will be quite contentious for all involved, so I will qualify it heavily:

P1: The Biblical data about God’s omniscience lacks the philosophical development to settle the issue. 

Now, this claim is very qualified: essentially I’m claiming that any one of the four positions discussed only briefly above can claim some kind of Biblical justification. Do I personally think they are all equal? Not at all, actually. But I do think that each position can put forth at least a few passages to try to justify their position. Thus, my suggestion is that the issue needs to be settled philosophically, not exegetically.

Some may latch onto this claim and rejoice, arguing that “J.W. has clearly rejected the Bible! [insert series of Bible verses]!” Such a strategy is wrongheaded for a number of reasons, foremost among them is the forcing of [cited verses] into a preconceived philosophical paradigm. I’m not arguing that the Bible cannot or does not reveal philosophical development. Rather, my argument is that on this issue, the Bible does not present a specific picture. Certainly, there are those who will disagree and say, “Well J.W. is just wrong! The Bible clearly states [favored position]!” It is not here my purpose to enter into a proof-text vs. proof-text argument. Rather, I wish to argue that determinism cannot be true and therefore one of the other positions must be the case. Given that most theologians grant there at least a few verses to support any of the previous positions, I think this is a safe qualification.

Against Determinism

I have argued extensively elsewhere for molinism and against open theism, and it is high time I turn my sights against determinism. I feel that theological determinism is, at best, philosophically untenable. At worst, it is incoherent. I shall put forth three theses to press my claim:

P2: Theological determinism’s only way to preserve creaturely responsibility (and thus save God from responsibility for causing evil) is compatibilism, which is incoherent.

Compatibilism, essentially, is the claim that God determines all things, and people are responsible for their actions.

I confess that, on the face of it, I struggle to understand compatibilism of any sort. But rather than giving in to a lack of imagination, I will seek to understand how theological determinists present compatiblism. Paul Helm, a Calvinist philosopher for whom I have great respect, writes “…God, though responsible, is not to blame for bringing about an evil act on the part of a human being if he has good reason for bringing such an act about, which he must have” (Helm, 164, cited below). Helm argues that God is the sufficient cause for all actions, but not the necessary cause of them. Because of this, Helm holds that “God may be ‘responsible’ for evil in some sense, but this does not mean that he is morally culpable” (Ibid, 164).

Again, I don’t see any way for this to work. First, if God really is the sufficient cause for evils, then it is extremely difficult to see how God would not be culpable. Sufficient causation implies exactly what it seems to: that God’s action alone is sufficient to bring about the evil. Yet Helm seems to think that because he holds that God is not a necessary condition for the evil actions, this removes God from responsibility.

Again, this seems to be exactly backwards, for at least a couple reasons. If God is the sufficient cause of all things, then that means that for any evil I can imagine (let’s say the Holocaust), one need only to refer to God to reveal its cause. Now Helm would hold that humans are the necessary conditions for this evil to occur. In other words, while God may have determined it to be such that the Holocaust would occur, it would not have occurred had there not been creatures to bring it about. But if this is the case, then it seems God is indeed squarely to blame for such evils because, after all, God is not only the sufficient cause of the events, but He also created the necessary conditions and set them up in such a way that these events would occur.

Other theological determinists take two supposedly different approaches to the problem. Some argue that because of total depravity, human wills are in fact free. In other words, humans are incapable of choosing good, but that does not mean they are not free or responsible because they continue to freely choose evil. This tactic does not seem to work, however, because theological determinists must also hold that God made humans in such a way that they would not desire good. In other words, God made these people totally depraved to begin with. Thus, those who disagree with determinists could counter by once more asking, “But isn’t God responsible for causing humans to only be free to choose evil anyway?”

The other tactic is to argue that while God is cause of all things, people themselves are the secondary cause. So while God might sustain my existence and even determine that I should do evil, it is I who do evil, not God. I am a creature, and I bring about the evil. God and I are separate entities, so it follows (on this view) that God is not the cause of evil. Now this view is really no different from Helm’s view explained above, but with less philosophical terminology. The problems with it are the same. Suppose we grant that it is the secondary causes, not God, which bring about evil. Whence these secondary causes? Why do these secondary causes act as they do? According to theological determinism, God created, ordained, and sustains these secondary causes. When a being brings about evil, that being acts secondarily–they are not themselves God. But God ordained and caused the world to be such that theses secondary causes would act in exactly the way in which they do. The secondary causes themselves are caused to act by God. So we have only pushed the problem back one step. Why would God cause secondary causes to do evil? It seems God would certainly be culpable for such evils.

Finally, a brief survey of those theological determinists who take the determinism seriously seems to confirm that God is the cause of evil. John Frame, for example, writes:

“The uniform witness of Scripture is that the evils of this life come from God” (Frame, cited below, 140).

“…[I]t is important to see that God does in fact bring about the sinful behavior of human beings, whatever problems that may create in our understanding” (68).

John Calvin himself wrote, in the Institutes:

When, therefore, they perish in their corruption, they but pay the penalties of that misery in which ADAM FELL BY THE PRDESTINATION OF GOD , and dragged his posterity headlong after him. Is he not, then, unjust who so cruelly deludes his creatures? Of course, I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen BY GODS WILL. And this is what I said to begin with, that we must always at last return to the sole decision of God’s will, the cause of which is hidden in him.

It seems, therefore, that theological determinists, when consistent, acknowledge that God causes evil, and indeed wills it. The main reason given is some kind of mystery or hiddenness. I conclude this section with the observation that, despite attempts to the contrary, theological determinism must hold that God causes evil.

P3: Theological determinism is not a “lived” philosophy.

One of the tests for a philosophy–and I should think a theology in particular–is whether it is livable. If something is true, it should reflect reality. Theological determinism holds that every action I take is determined by God. I have found that in practice, I have not yet run into any theological determinist who agrees that they live as though their lives are determined. When bad things happen to them, they are distressed; when relatives are in danger, they pray for the danger to pass without harm; etc. Yet if theological determinism is true, none of these things would matter–all things are determined already. Even were one to pray, that prayer itself would have been determined, along with the outcome. Therefore, theological determinism seems to be unlivable.

P4: If theological determinism is true, I cannot know that it is true. It is therefore self-refuting.

Finally, even if none of the above arguments seem convincing, P4, at least, seems devastating to theological determinism. The argument itself is remarkably simple:

1) If I am determined by non-rational factors to have belief x, then I cannot rationally hold x.

2) On theological determinism, I am determined by non-rational factors to have any given belief.

3) Therefore, on theological determinism, I cannot rationally hold any given belief.

4) Therefore, if theological determinism is true, then I cannot rationally hold that theological determinism is true.

It seems to me that this argument is quite powerful. If theological determinism is true, then my beliefs are determined by God. That includes the belief I currently have that theological determinism is false. However, suppose I believed theological determinism were true. In that case, I have been determined by God to believe theological determinism is true. In fact, my act of deliberating and coming to believe that determinism is true would, itself, be determined. Thus, I cannot rationally hold theological determinism to be true (this argument can be attributed to a podcast from William Lane Craig, though I can’t track down the reference).

Given these reasons, it seems that there are some quite sound objections to theological determinism. Given that there are other positions with at least some Biblical support, it seems theological determinism should be abandoned. The position makes God the author of sin (contrary to the objections of its supporters), it is unlivable, and it is incoherent.

Sources

Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (New York, NY: Oxford, 2010), 2nd edition.

John Frame,No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001).

Image Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caen_palaisdejustice_peristyle.jpg

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “A Denial of Theological Determinism

  1. While I agree with your rejection of theological determinism, I don’t think that the following argument was successful:

    Other theological determinists take two supposedly different approaches to the problem. Some argue that because of total depravity, human wills are in fact free. In other words, humans are incapable of choosing good, but that does not mean they are not free or responsible because they continue to freely choose evil. This tactic does not seem to work, however, because theological determinists must also hold that God made humans in such a way that they would not desire good. In other words, God made these people totally depraved to begin with. Thus, those who disagree with determinists could counter by once more asking, “But isn’t God responsible for causing humans to only be free to choose evil anyway?”

    Typically the proponents of total depravity would hold that our inability to choose the good would stem from original sin and as such it isn’t God who made humans unable to choose the good but rather it is sin (i.e. our wills becoming slaves to sin due to Adam’s transgression) which has produced such an effect. This strikes me as a valid argument that escapes the conclusion you’ve outlined above.

    Posted by methodus | December 12, 2011, 7:47 AM
    • Methodus, thanks for the comment!

      I must object, however, to your rebuttal. Theological determinists also explicitly state that God determined that original sin would happen (cf the quote from John Calvin). Thus, God also determined that Adam and Eve would fall, which means He determined that original sin would occur, which means He determined that total depravity would result.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 12, 2011, 5:53 PM
  2. Hey J.W.,

    We seem to find ourselves, as Christian brethren, at the opposite ends of several issues! I hope me following and critiquing your posts doesn’t irritate you! :)

    First I will say that I’m not a Calvinist, since I find faults and incoherencies (and trivialities) in several of their “points.” But I AM a theological determinist.

    My reply!

    This, “P2: Theological determinism’s only way to preserve creaturely responsibility (and thus save God from responsibility for causing evil) is compatibilism, which is incoherent,” is not what compatibilism does. God isn’t saved from the responsibility for causing evil. You even quoted Helm saying, “God [is] responsible,” so I’m not sure why you framed compatiblism as saying that God is saved from the burden responsibility (oops… upon re-reading, I realize your statement is meant to generally convey the findings of your survey of many flavors of compatibilists, some more wishy-washy than others).

    No, God is 100% responsible under coherent compatibilism. Absolutely, fully, completely responsible for everything that occurs; every joy, every hardship, every horror, every atrocity.

    Responsibility is this: “An actor is responsible for anything he knowingly makes happen in proportion to the information he has.” This is what it means to be responsible for something that happens. Responsibility for local value depreciation corresponds to blame or fault, while responsibility value for local appreciation corresponds to merit. Blameworthiness, in other words, cannot be equivocated with responsibility. It qualifies the *kind* of responsibility wherein the actor knowingly (or with recklessness or negligence) creates local (relative to the actor) value depreciation.

    That’s why Helm is right to say, “God, though responsible, is not to blame for bringing about an evil act on the part of a human being if he has good reason for bringing such an act about, which he must have.” God causes every sin, but it is not sinful (amartia; “without merit”; blameworthy) of God to do so. Acts 4:27-28: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

    You said, “So while God might sustain my existence and even determine that I should do evil, it is I who do evil, not God. I am a creature, and I bring about the evil. God and I are separate entities, so it follows (on this view) that God is not the cause of evil.”

    I agree that this is incoherent. Responsibility is NOT transferred, it is merely shared. Every time I sin, I and God are simultaneously responsible (he transcendently responsible, me proximally responsible, but there is no functional difference in intensity between the two). But where as I am blameworthy (because my blameworthiness or lack thereof is in terms of the locality of my “jurisdiction”), God is not (because his is in terms of the global system, which is ostensibly optimal).

    You say, “Yet if theological determinism is true, none of these things would matter–all things are determined already.”

    That doesn’t mean they don’t matter, as long as we have an appropriately existentialist (a la Ecclesiastes) view of how value (“what matters”) “works.” Furthermore, that we are distressed, we worry, we’re uncertain, we make hopeful appeals to God, etc. proceeds from our *lack of omniscience.* We don’t “live determinism” because we’re knowledge-limited. God’s the only one who truly “lives it,” since everything that happens is the optimal determination of his will.

    You submit,

    “1) If I am determined by non-rational factors to have belief x, then I cannot rationally hold x.

    2) On theological determinism, I am determined by non-rational factors to have any given belief.

    3) Therefore, on theological determinism, I cannot rationally hold any given belief.

    4) Therefore, if theological determinism is true, then I cannot rationally hold that theological determinism is true.”

    First, #1 is not granted. Under determinism, all rationality in creatures (if a definition of “rationality” is invoked such that that humans supposedly have rationality) is functionally emergent of nonrational mechanics.

    But let’s pretend that it is not granted. Your conclusion, “Thus, I cannot rationally hold theological determinism to be true,” is equally “devastating” to determinism as it is to “not determinism.” Essentially, if we grant #1, all we’re saying is that we’re talking about a definition of “rationality” such that no determined creatures have it. I will, if necessary, bite that bullet any day of the week. There are all sorts of intuitive, coherent notions of “rationality” such that no created entity possesses “rationality!”

    You conclude by implying that, “The position makes God the author of sin” is problematic. On the contrary; it’s Biblical. I’ve already quoted Acts 4:27-28 above. See also Acts 2:23. See also Romans 9, especially verses 18-19, wherein Paul admits that one might complain about responsibility under sovereignty (and then fails to address it with anything more than, “Shut up!”; “Shut up!” is echoed by Martin Luther in his “On the Bondage of the Will”; Helm and I, by contrast, are actually addressing the complaint).

    See also:

    “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)

    “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6)

    The word for “evil” here is raah, variously translated as hurtful/evil/wild/displeasing/bad/adversity/treachery/calamity. It’s frequently contrasted with goodness (“They repaid me evil [raah] for good.”).

    And:

    “Do not both evil and good come from the mouth of the Most High?” (Lamentations 3:38)

    The word here is haraowt, which is variously translated as bad/evil/wickedness, etc.

    So, “admitting” that God causes and is responsible for evil is not at all problematic for us theological determinists. Remember that we believe in a theodicy grounded in Optimism (but improved a bit over the centuries); “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20)

    Furthermore, even if we didn’t have Biblical evidence of his sovereignty, we have a simple proof of sovereignty IF given God’s omnipotence and omniscience (you rightly point out that the Bible isn’t explicit on these, but I think you and I agree on them…):

    “For every evil that could occur (say, a murder), God can either prevent it (we have Biblical accounts of God’s miraculous intervention) or permit it to occur. Whether he prevents or permits is entirely and absolutely subject to his arbitration (not ‘arbitrariness,’ of course, since it proceeds optimally from his values). Thus, there is nothing that occurs outside of subjection to his deliberation; thus, he is sovereign (in the sense we as theological determinists mean).”

    Posted by Stan | December 12, 2011, 2:25 PM
    • Stan,

      You do not irritate me at all. Thank you so much for your insightful comments! I apologize for how long I sometimes take to sit down and respond to them.

      Thanks for the post. Now I specifically noted that for the sake of argument I was going to set aside the Scriptural case. I could raise any number of Bible verses to argue for indeterminism. I think that while Scripture may favor one view, it ultimately does not decide the issue, and that is largely because it isn’t intended as a theological treatise on God’s omniscience. So I am not going to get into a proof text war here, at all.

      You wrote, “No, God is 100% responsible under coherent compatibilism. Absolutely, fully, completely responsible for everything that occurs; every joy, every hardship, every horror, every atrocity.”

      While I appreciate the argument to prevent equivocation between responsibility and blame, I confess that when someone writes a sentence like this, I can’t help but be repulsed. I explicitly deny this sentence, and if that is what theological determinism entails, then I deny it as well. Why? Well, it would be hard to get into without going through a proof text war, so I’ll defer it for now. But suffice to say I think God’s character would be highly in question were this the case.

      You wrote, “First, #1 is not granted. Under determinism, all rationality in creatures (if a definition of “rationality” is invoked such that that humans supposedly have rationality) is functionally emergent of nonrational mechanics.”

      As we’ve briefly touched on elsewhere, I think this clearly begs the question. Emergentists and other determinists who attempt to save rationality and free will on determinism say things exactly like this. They say “rationality is emergent” or “rationally is a function” or the like. But that is exactly what is at question: how!? No explanation is ever offered other than “that’s just how it is.” Unfortunately for determinists, other theories of mind can explicate rationality and freedom much more cogently, which–given our experience as free and rational beings–serves to better ground our experiences.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 15, 2011, 11:13 AM
  3. I like your logical thought progression:

    “1) If I am determined by non-rational factors to have belief x, then I cannot rationally hold x.

    2) On theological determinism, I am determined by non-rational factors to have any given belief.

    3) Therefore, on theological determinism, I cannot rationally hold any given belief.

    4) Therefore, if theological determinism is true, then I cannot rationally hold that theological determinism is true.”

    Although I don’t know if I would apply it to theological determinism. I would definitely apply it to naturalistic determinism.

    That’s the main problem with atheism (which I am admittedly ignorantly conflating with materialism, naturalism, and naturalistic Darwinism, etc.), I believe. When an atheist is asked where we get our religious impulses from, he inevitably says through evolution. Implying evolution can impart to us false beliefs. Well, if we are so determined by evolution to believe false beliefs, how do we know that anything we believe is rational?

    Posted by Greg Reeves | December 12, 2011, 11:53 PM
    • I agree this is just as problematic (indeed, more problematic) for naturalists. But I think it works pretty well for any deterministic view. If I am determined to hold whatever beliefs I do, then those beliefs are not rationally justified.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 15, 2011, 11:06 AM
  4. “How do we know that anything we believe is rational?” isn’t really a dilemma for atheists (or us Christians). The answer is, “We don’t,” even for several different notions of what means “rational”:

    – If by “rational” you mean “productive,” then we’re fine, since it’s true that we never know if something we decide is truly productive in the long run.

    – If by “rational” you mean “true,” then we’re fine, since now we’re making analytical statements about empirical beliefs (which are always ideally suspect).

    – If by “rational” you mean “reasonable,” then we’re fine, since we know that we come to false conclusions all the time based on reason (in the Kantian sense, “experience + logic,” and individual or even corporate experience can be fatally corrupt).

    – If by “rational” you mean “logical,” then we’re fine, since we know that pure logic loses its transcendent power when combined with anything based on observation; all empirical beliefs are ideally suspect.

    (In any case, as I expressed in my previous post, “#1″ above is not cogent; it is akin to saying, “A brick cannot shelter a man, thus a room-shaped collection of bricks cannot shelter a man”)

    Posted by Stan | December 13, 2011, 11:24 AM
  5. This headline was found on a recent “A is for Atheist” blog post: The Christian Apologist Blogger JW Wartick Offers Fodder for the Case that the Bible Makes No Sense.

    http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com/2011/11/jw-wartick-offers-fodder-for-case-that.html

    Posted by David Knight | December 13, 2011, 5:29 PM
  6. I probably fall into the molinism camp. My studies on creation provided an interesting insight on the topic: Every creative statement starts with the word “let”. Though God causes some things, and prevents other things, He also chooses to let things. To let is not to cause per se, but in His perfect knowledge, He lets with the ultimate confidence that His will will be done. Hence, my actions are my own, which God first lets, and then later uses. From my perspective, it’s right in front of us in Genesis 1. God lets. Just my 2 cents.

    Posted by Mike | December 24, 2011, 1:43 AM
  7. Why not partial Theological Determinism- and Molinism- to give man freedom of choice within his decreed boundaries, This would fit the Scripture better, a shepherd with a rod and a staff doesnt control but guides, scripture is full of things which God decrees, but for man to have moral responsability the monalist model of time would need to be used. ?

    Posted by realexodos | September 8, 2013, 8:50 PM
    • I’m not sure what “partial theological determinism” would entail. What does that mean? I’m trying to make a coherent picture of what might be meant by it, but I can’t come up with one.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 9, 2013, 3:18 PM
    • Every single action of man is orchestrated by God. This follows directly from God’s attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, having a will, and having a willingness to intervene. If something happens and is undone by God, or is about to happen and prevented by God, it’s because it suited God’s big-picture pleasure for it to be stopped. If something happens and “sticks,” it’s because it suited God’s big-picture pleasure for it to stick. This makes everything, absolutely everything, under God’s deliberate orchestration and responsibility according to his big-picture pleasure. Everything that defies his big-picture pleasure will be stopped or undone, by definition

      Folks who want this not to be the case, hoping that God provide libertarian free will somehow, are asking God to make “a rock even he cannot lift” — a logical absurdity.

      For example, I own my house. But God, being the owner of the universe, has transcendent ownership of my house. Asking God to grant me exclusive ownership over my house is nonsense; if he promises never to invade my home, he will have made that promise only because it suits him and his interests to do so. And thus, my house is still, and is forever, subject to his deliberate arbitration and interests. This is true even if it has the “feeling” of God being hands-off; in spite of that feeling, God’s teleological signature would stain absolutely everything in my home.

      Posted by Stan | September 9, 2013, 3:26 PM

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