October 7, 2010

Determinism? It’s a heresy, why?

Filed under: Calvinism,Metaphysics,Theology — William Witt @ 3:48 am

I think I must be in a cranky mood today. At any rate, the following is also something I originally put on a certain (NeoCalvinist) Anglican(?) blog in response to the following:

The man born blind in John 9 was not an accident of biology. He was born blind so that the Lord Jesus could give him sight. Joseph was not sold into slavery by accident. He was sold into slavery by the express intended purpose of God to redeem many. The Assyrians did not destroy Israel on their own accord. They came as the arm of God to punish. The Lord Jesus was not crucified by fortunate happenstance. The men who delivered Him up and killed him did so by divine decree. There are no random molecules in the universe. Everything is governed by the decretive will of God. Nothing happens except that He has decreed it from the beginning. No death, no misfortune, no suffering, no sorrow, no misery is beyond his reach, or outside the scope of His will. That is why we can say that everything has purpose in this life, and that everything will eventually reveal the glory of God. We do not have to understand. It is sufficient that God understands.

Providence means that God is capable of bringing good out of evil. But God does not decree or create evil. Evil is entirely the result of the rebellion of creatures, which God permits, but does not cause. Certainly “No death, no misfortune, no suffering, no sorrow, no misery is beyond his reach, or outside the scope of His will.” It does not at all follow that “Nothing happens except that He has decreed it from the beginning.”

God does not decree sin. God hates sin, and his Son died to redeem us from that sin which God hates. To state that God decrees sin is to place on God the responsibility for that which he hates, and condemns, and the effects of which his Son died to alleviate.

The relation between God and creatures is absolutely unique, and not one that any creature can even imagine because all of our knowledge takes place within the finite contingent structures of created reality. But God is not part of that reality at all. We literally cannot imagine the relation between God and creatures, and determinism is as much a case of such an idolatrous attempt to imagine the connection, as are attempts that imply that (as my interlocutor put it), God “struggles with a creation in which random suffering is exactly that – random, devoid of purpose.” Both positions are equally “nonsense.”

The vast majority of Christians throughout history have not found it necessary to posit determinism in order to assert God’s providence and control of his creatures. Indeed, God’s sovereignty is more honored if we recognize that God creates creatures in such a manner as to give them a genuine but contingent created integrity. God is quite capable of working through genuine created causality to bring about his intentions. He does not have to be a determinist to do so. God does not create evil, and he does not decree sin. God does not create or cause that which he hates.

Of course, God is quite capable of using the evil that he does not cause, and which he hates, to accomplish his purposes. Of course, God is capable of working through the sins of Joseph’s brothers or Pharaoh or Pilate to accomplish his purposes. But God did not determine that Joseph’s brothers betray him or that Pharaoh would enslave the Hebrews, or that Pilate would crucify Jesus. To suggest such is close to blasphemy.

I realize such discussions are interminable, and generally raise more heat than light. Rather than enter into endless discussion, I point readers to my philosophical and theological betters. One might read Augustine. But certainly Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker have thought through these things as carefully as have Calvin and his successors.

The language of Scripture is phenomenal when it comes to describing God’s relation to creatures, as it is phenomenal when it describes things like the rising of the sun, scientific realities, or God’s body parts (“The arm of the Lord is not shortened . . .”). Scripture nowhere provides detailed metaphysical discussion of such questions as the relation between primary and secondary causality, or, how God works through created contingent events in such a manner as to provide not only for his sovereignty but their integrity as creatures. To assume that it does is to make a category mistake, like those Vatican officials who chided Galileo for contradicting the clear teaching of Scripture about the rising of the sun.

There has been in the history of the church reams of paper and gallons of ink spent on discussing questions relating to how divine sovereignty relates to created contingencies. Every metaphysical issue—incarnation, Trinity, creation, grace, sacraments, etc.—is a variation. If it were simply a matter of quoting a few passages of scripture, the issue would have been settled long ago.

Most Calvinists have no idea of just how rich and complex the discussion has been. Needless to say, most Christians have not been determinists. The ecumenically orthodox consensus of the church is that:

1) God is the supreme Good, in whom there can be no evil—not because whatever is, is good, or because something becomes good merely because God wills it, but because God’s nature is inherently good, and God cannot will or create evil.
2) In discussing the relation between Creator and creature, not only divine aseity and sovereignty, but also created contingency and genuine created reality, must be preserved. God creates and works through created contingencies in such a manner that they retain their integrity as created contingencies.
3) Sin exists, but God is in no way the cause of it. Sin is completely contrary to God’s will. God is in no way the cause of the sinful actions of creatures. God permitted, but did not cause, the fall into sin.
4) God is sovereign over his creation. God is present to each creature and each created event in that he gives existence to whatever is. If God were to cease creating and sustaining the universe for even a moment, it would collapse back into nothingness.
5) Although God is not the cause of evil, God is capable of bringing good out of evil, and does so. If God could not bring good out of evil, he would not be sovereign.

The above would be agreed to by Orthodox, by Catholics, including Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, Dominicans, Molinists, Suarezians, by the vast majority of Protestants, including orthodox Lutherans, the vast majority of Anglicans (e.g., Richard Hooker, John Donne, Joseph Butler), Methodists, and, I think, even most Reformed today, for example, the late Thomas F. Torrance, who wrote a huge amount of material on how the patristic doctrine of creation made a radical change in how Christians viewed the world as compared to paganism, and how this has significant implications for the relation between theology and modern science.

The one exception in the entire tradition would be traditionalist Calvinists. Luther himself was a determinist, but othodox Lutheranism did not follow him in this. There is debate as to whether Calvin was a determinist, or rather, whether determinism was introduced by Beza. In my opinion, a careful reading of the texts indicates that Beza’s supralapsarianism was simply a logical drawing out of the implications of Calvin’s own understanding of providence.

At the same time,there is no inherent connection between a doctrine of Augustinian predestination and determinism. Augustine was the first advocate of unconditional predestination, but he rejected determinism until his dying day. Thomas Aquinas embraced Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, as have many of his followers, but he emphatically rejected determinism because it would make God responsible for sin.

My own thinking on such matters has been greatly influenced by thinkers like Torrance, but also Thomists like Robert Sokolowski, Norris Clarke, Thomas Weinandy, and numerous others. I would also recommend the writings of Anglicans Austin Farrer and Eric Mascall. And, of course, there is the huger discussion in the entire tradition of the church, beginning with the church fathers. Calvinist determinism is just a tributary, and rather a small creek, in the huge river of Christian metaphysics.

I would add to the above that I grant to Calvinist determinism about the same amount of credibility I give to the Orthodox Essence/Energies distinction, to the Non-Chalcedonian Christologies of Copts or Armenians, to Lutheran ubiquity, Roman Catholic transubstantiation, Scotist possible worlds metaphysics, Molinist middle knowledge, or Openness of God theism. Like the above, it is a metaphysical theory that has been embraced by a sizable group of Christians in an attempt to address certain theological problems raised by Scripture, and, in particular, the way in which particular divine and created realities relate. At the same time, each one of these views is a bit of metaphysical speculation that has been embraced by no other Christian body outside the particular body of advocates. As such, while the theories might be right, one tends to think that their continued adherence within the particular group in which they have arisen has more to do with inertia, and preservation of group identity than with well thought out solutions to the problems raised.

Finally, I am aware that Calvinists not only insist that God decrees everything, but that God is not thereby the author of evil, and I am aware of the various ways in which they try to reconcile these two claims. To explain why they can’t be reconciled would require a rather lengthy syllogistic argument outlining various distinctions between necessity, possibility, impossibility, contingency, and various kinds of necessity. However, in short, if God brings things about necessarily, then they are necessary, and cannot not have been. If God brings things about contingently, then they are not necessary, and might not have been. If God decrees all events in such a manner that the fall or sin cannot not have been, then the fall and sin are necessary, and God is the author of evil. This is true even if the necessity of the fall or sin are contingent on human actions, which, in themselves, are voluntary, but nonetheless determined in their outcome by the divine decree. If those human choices are determined by the divine decree in such a manner that they cannot not have been, then God is the author of evil.

However, that God is the author of evil is a heresy not only contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture, but also condemned universally by the Christian tradition–with the single exception of Calvinist determinism.


  1. Theological determinism has struck that same chord with me recently, especially as it appears in Calvinism. The verse that shows does not decree sin is [James 1:13-14].
    Yet the argument goes, that God permits sin, and foreknows sin, so it is God’s foreknowledge that makes sin necessary. This same argument about God’s perfect foreknowledge is the heart of theological determinism. But, this argument is a fallacy (the fallacy of modal logic) which most theologians fail to recognize.
    Confusing the necessary knowledge of some truth condition and the necessity of the truth condition itself is that fallacy. Like all fallacies, this one is particularly seductive, and authored in a lie.

    The fallacy is taking the necessary condition of knowledge to be necessary on its own:
    X knows Y to be true -> Y is true

    The point is, that just because something is known to be true, doesn’t mean that knowledge itself, makes it true (whether or not that knowledge is perfect)

    As an example, consider standing on the top of a building watching a TV being thrown through a window below; even as an imperfect human with imperfect knowledge of the fate of that TV, foreknowledge that it will smash on the ground is not what makes its eventual smashing necessary.

    It is logically consistent for God to have complete knowledge of every event (contingent and necessary) and still not be the cause of it. This means that it is logically consistent for man to be the author of his own fate because of free will (assuming God gives man this freedom), and for God to still have complete and perfect foreknowledge. (In other words, this argument does not necessarily lead to Open Theism)

    Theological determinism is as you say a heresy. Unfortunately well meaning Christians, particularly Calvinists, have bought into this most seductive lie.

    Comment by ekklēsia — October 15, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  2. Dr Witt, Have you by any chance read J B Mozley’s books on baptism and predestination? All three are available online, I think.

    Comment by John — October 22, 2010 @ 12:50 am

  3. John,

    I am reading Mozley’s book on The Review of the Baptismal Controversy, which is ostensibly about the question of baptismal regeneration.

    However, its first chapter, entitled “Proof from Scripture” is a definitive refutation of Newman’s critique of “Protestant” interpretation of Scripture as subjective “Private Judgment.”

    I would regard Mozley’s book on Newman’s Theory of Development, combined with this chapter on biblical interpretation as the two definitive refutations of Newman.

    Comment by William Witt — October 23, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  4. Dr Witt,

    Will you be posting on Mozley’s Review of the Baptismal Controversy? I would enjoy learning your opinion of its main arguments.

    The book grew out of two earlier works, The Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination and The Primitive Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration. The first in particular might interest you. Correct or not in his conclusions, Mozley thought long and hard about them.

    Comment by John — October 24, 2010 @ 6:47 am

  5. Short answer is “yes.” I’d like to look at Mozley for two reasons. First, this is one more contribution to the development of doctrine question, which I hope to come back to time to time.

    But also, Evangelicals especially continue to be confused about the baptismal regeneration question, and I think Mozley’s discussion quite helpful.

    Comment by William Witt — October 26, 2010 @ 5:11 am

  6. Dr. Witt,

    I am not clear on how you are using the term determinism. While Thomas eschews certain forms of determinism, such as mechanistic determinism, he seems clearly to endorse a theory of theological determinism. Perhaps you can clarify.

    Comment by Perry Robinson — October 28, 2010 @ 3:06 am

  7. Perry,

    I am afraid that I am not clear how you are using the term “theological determinism,” so I cannot clarify very much.

    I do discuss somewhat of my understanding of the question of determinism and human freedom in Thomas in my third page on “Thomas Aquinas on Creation (Or How to Read Thomas Aquinas) 3. Creation and Intentionality,” which you can find on the left menu. I would also refer readers to my post on “Austin Farrer: Anglican Philosophical Theologian” in which I discuss Farrer’s conception of dual agency, which has parallels to the notion of dual causality found not only in Thomas, but Karl Barth.

    In the post above, I list five points of ecumenical consensus, every one of which Thomas would affirm, and every one of which a theological determinist (like Calvin) would deny.

    Basically, Thomas affirms a doctrine of double agency. God is the concurrent cause of all human free will actions in the such a way that they continue to remain free. However, God is the cause of good and evil actions in different ways. God works with created contingent causes in such a way that rational creatures remain free in their actions. God’s double agency does not determine the creature’s actions in one direction or another. In cases of evil actions, God is the cause of the being of the action, but not the evil itself. (God’s relation to evil is genuinely permissive. He neither wills nor determines evil to take place.) In the case of good actions, God is the cause of not only the action, but of the good of the action.

    A short summary of Thomas’s position can be found in ST. ad 3:

    God moves man’s will, as the Universal Mover, to the universal object of the will, which is good. And without this universal motion, man cannot will anything. But man determines himself (my emphasis) by his reason to will this or that, which is true or apparent good. Nevertheless, sometimes God moves some specially to the willing of something determinate, which is good; as in the case of those whom He moves by grace, as we shall state later on.

    It is clear from the above (as also from Thomas’s account of divine foreknowledge) that Aquinas does not understand double agency to mean that God moves the human will in such a way as to determine it to one direction. The one area where Thomas might be accused of determinism is in his theology of grace, where he follows Augustine. That is, Thomas does believe in Augustinian predestination. But there is an ambiguity here insofar as Thomas does not speak of predestination and reprobation in a parallel manner. He is clear that those who are saved are saved because of God’s grace, but also is clear that the reprobate are reprobate because of their own free will. See the whole discussion of predestination in ST 1.23.

    I don’t follow Thomas on predestination here–Thomas understands operant grace in such a manner that the predestined will inevitably belief and persevere–but I think it is clear that he is not a determinist. There have been Thomists who are determinists, I think, specifically those who follow the position of Domingo Banez. But Thomas is not a Banezian. You will find no discussion of divine premotion in Thomas, and he discusses foreknowledge in terms of eternal presence precisely because he wants to avoid any notion that divine foreknowledge predetermines free will human actions. So at the most I think one could argue that there is a tension between Thomas’s account of predestination, in contrast to his general account of providence and his account of reprobation.

    For those who want to pursue these questions further in Thomas, I would recommend:

    Bernard Lonergan. Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. U of Toronto Press, 2000.
    David Burrell. Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions. U of ND Press, 1993.
    John Farrelly. Predestination, Grace, and Free Will. Newman Press, 1964.
    Norris Clarke. Explorations in Metaphysics: Being-God-Person. U of ND Press, 1995.

    Honesty compels me to admit that I have been much influenced in my reading of Thomas by people like David Burrell, who was my dissertation advisor. I think that the Banezian determinist reading of Thomas is simply wrong-headed.

    Comment by William Witt — October 29, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

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