Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Terminology Tuesday: Determinism

Determinism: The view that all natural events, including human choices and actions, are the product of past states of affairs in accordance with causal necessity. Thus the determinist holds that, given the state of the universe at any particular time, plus the causal laws that govern events in the natural world, the state of the universe at every future time is fixed. Various kinds of determinism are possible depending on the nature of the causally determining forces. Most determinists today are scientific determinists who believe the laws of nature are the determining factors, but theological determinism, in which God directly determines every event, is also possible.1

1. C.Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 34.


Ex N1hilo said...

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,' calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

LittleGoose said...

Are Calvinists always determinists? I instinctively think so, but a lot of Calvinists that I know do not agree. They say that determinism is the view that every action and choice is the product of a past state of "natural" affairs. Calvinism they say teaches that God predetermines all things that come to pass (usually the emphasis is on salvation). Is this correct?

Also, the argument that I have often heard against determinism is that if determinism is true then your belief in determinism is simply the product of a previous state of affairs and therefore you would have no reason to believe in determinism. Is this correct? and if so, does it apply to Calvinism?

and to be plain, I am a Calvinist. I just want to understand the position better.

Ex N1hilo said...

LittleGoose wrote:

Are Calvinists always determinists?

It depends on how you define the term "determinism." I have heard or read several people argue against Calvinism by saying:

1) Calvinism teaches determinism. (True in a sense.) And much of Calvinist thinking is dependent on a deterministic view of reality.
2) Determinism is the idea that all objects and all events follow necessarily, by natural law, from past states of affairs.
3) Determinism (so defined) is false; and fits much better with an atheistic view of reality.
4) Therefore (much of) Calvinism is false.

In this case, the one arguing against Calvinism is equating the Calvinist view of determinism (more properly called fore-ordination) with the pagan concept of fatalism. And understand, atheism is merely a flavor of paganism.

In fact, the argument fails at point 2. The idea, as you put it, LittleGoose, "that every action and choice is the product of a past state of "natural" affairs" is contrary to the doctrinal position taken by every Calvinistic theologian and creed that I am aware of. It's just about the polar opposite of what Calvinists mean by "God...ordaineth whatsoever comes to pass;" as in the Westminster Confession.

The idea is that a loving, personal being, the Triune God, ordained all things for the glory and the joy of the members of the Godhead, and for the good of those creatures who love God and are called according to His purpose. There is no natural law that determines what must happen apart from the Father's purpose. Such natural law as operates in the world, does so by God's will for as long as it suits his purposes. These laws are merely an instrument in His hands. God works "through, apart from, or above" these means as He wills.

I have discussed this point with a number of people; and, for the most part, they just fall back to "well, determinism means fatalism; so you Calvinists teach fatalism." If they will not allow us to define our terms, but insist that we mean something other than we mean, there can be no constructive dialog. Which is a shame, since this is an important topic about which the bible has a lot to say.

I recommend people read Jonathan Edwards' discussion of Original Sin in "The Freedom of the Will"; not to convince them of the Calvinist view on this matter, but to arrive at a better understanding of it.

Drew said...

If theistic determinism is true then:

1. The eternal predestining is not the product of human free choice.

2. The fact that the eternal decree determines all things is not the product of human free choice.


3. Nothing is the product of human free choice.

Compatibilism is false.

Ex N1hilo said...


If 1 and 2 are true, how does 3 follow?

Drew said...

Because for something to be the product of human free choice, that choice has to make a difference. If the eternal decree of God determines all things, then human free choice cannot make a difference in anything. There are multiple other ways to state the argument:

1. The eternal predestining is not up to us.
2. The fact that the eternal decree determines all things is not up to us.
3. Nothing is up to us.

Or if you prefer:

1. No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature (and perhaps the decree of God).
2. No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature (and perhaps the decree of God) entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).
3. Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.

If you don't have power over X, then you don't have power over anything X entails.

Ex N1hilo said...


Thank you for responding. The problem I have with the argument in your first post is this: You seem to be saying that, if humans lack the power to fore-ordain what shall come to pass; that is, to create ex nihilo, as God does, then nothing they choose to do matters at all. Even if we grant that that is so, it does not follow that compatibilism is false; just that it doesn't appeal to you.

In your second post you wrote:

Because for something to be the product of human free choice, that choice has to make a difference. If the eternal decree of God determines all things, then human free choice cannot make a difference in anything.

Again, this does not necessarily follow. For, among the things God has determined, are, not only the choices you will make; but also, that you will do so freely, willingly; and that those choices will have effects; that they will make a difference, within and upon the created world, but not upon God Himself, nor upon His decrees—which seems to be what you want.

In the first re-statement of your argument, you conclude, “Nothing is up to us.” This overlooks that there is more than one level or type of causality. When an architect draws up a blueprint for a new office building, he determines ahead of time how it will be built, what materials will be used, a timetable, etc. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the choices and actions of those involved in erecting the structure are unimportant and ineffectual. Or that the workers really have no part in its construction; that their participation is merely illusory. The architect's choices determine what the choices of the project managers' choices will be, which determine what the foremans' choices would be, which determine what the workers choices would be. Ultimately, it was God who determined it all. And the choices were free all the way from God on down to the man who laid the tile in the restrooms. All these choice were real causes that had real effects, although they were pre-determined.

In the second re-statement of your argument, you state that “Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.”

There is One who has full, ultimate power over all the facts of the future. In Romans, chapter eight, verses thirty-eight and thirthy-nine, Paul tells us,

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Here he names “things present” and “things to come” as among those things God has created. This ability to create the facts of the future belongs to God alone. You can't have it. Instead of desiring to be as God, how about taking pleasure in and finding happiness in being a creature, with a creaturely will, subordinate to God's will; and creaturely abilities, subordinate to God's; but with the tremendous priviledge of bearing God's image, and reflecting God's glory back to him. That's a much more highly exalted and wonderful place to be. Much more profitable and effectual than taking of the fruit and eating, and clinging desperately to the impossible dream of taking God's place.

If you don't have power over X, then you don't have power over anything X entails.

This is your presupposition; which you assume, but do not demonstrate. If it is not true, your arguments fail.

Drew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Drew said...

Almost everything I have read in the above post is not an argument, but a bare assertion. My whole point is that it is LOGICALLY IMPOSSIBLE that any determined act can be free. Therefore, to assert that God determines our free choices is as incoherent as saying that God creates square circles. An assertion to the contrary is not an argument. Romans 8 states that God has chosen to love us, and that forces outside ourselves cannot pry us away from God. It is not an assertion of determinism. Predestination and free will are both Biblically asserted. I am not arguing that there is no way to reconcile both of these. I am merely arguing that compatibilism is not an option in doing so.

1. If X is not up to us, then anything X entails is not up to us, provided that the fact of the entailment is not up to us.
2. The eternal predestining is not up to us.
3. The fact that the eternal decree entails all facts of the future is not up to us.
4. Therefore, No fact of the future is up to us.

You seem to object to premise 1, which I find pretty ridiculous. It should be quite obvious that if something is not up to us, what it entails is not up to us. It is used all the time in court. If you can show that whatever entailed the victim's death was not up to the defendant, then the victim's death was not up to the defendant.

Another way to state it is that we have lots of examples of this and no counterexamples. How do we know that the laws of arithmetic are not up to us? Because the axioms that entail them are not up to us. How do we know that the nonexistence of married bachelors is not up to us? Because the incoherence of such a proposition is not up to us. How do we know that the truth value of a tautology is not up to us? Because the law of identity is not up to us.

I challenge anyone to find a single (non-question-begging) counterexample to premise 1. It seems quite obvious that if x is not up to us, then whatever x entails is not up to us, so long as the entailment is not up to us.

Ex N1hilo said...


I would like to give your recent post a serious response, which will require me to address some of your points at length, along with Scriptural proofs. I think it best not to ask Brian to make his blog the vessel in which we navigate the very deep theological waters we are approaching. If you wish to continue this discussion, as I do, would you please consider moving it over to my blog site?


May I copy the discussion, as it has transpired so far over, over to my site? If so, that's what I'll do, and Drew and I can pick it up over there. If I may not, I will just post a summary over there, so that we can continue, and if I missed anything important, Drew can post it, if he elects to join me in a discussion there.


I will challenge you on one point here. (As an introduction to my full response, which I will post on my blog site.)

You wrote:

My whole point is that it is LOGICALLY IMPOSSIBLE that any determined act can be free.

If this is logically impossible, it should not be difficult to demonstrate that it is. Will you please do so? So far all we have is your bare assertion of this.

Appeals to the obvious, to common sense, or to our basic intuitions do not constitute logical argumentation or proof.

In an ingenious, but relatively simple way, Galileo showed that, if objects of different masses were to fall at different rates (in a vacuum), that this would entail a logical contradiction. And so, he demonstrated that the Aristotelian view of motion was logically impossible, sweeping aside Aristotle's physics of motion forever.

What I am challenging you to do, Drew, is to demonstrate that the view I have tried to articulate and support--that God ordains that sins occur, while holding men accountable for those sins as acts they chose to do, because they love sin--if you can demonstrate that this view entails a contradiction, you will join in the company of men such as Galileo, who were able to finally dispatched long held, entrenched viewpoints. You will have disproven Compatibilism. You will have swept it aside forever. Along with it, I would add, the doctrine of original sin, and the forensic (Reformation) view of justification will be overturned. If you cannot do so, you ought to cease claiming that Compatibilism is "logically impossible."

Brian said...

Feel free to carry on wherever you wish! : )

Ex N1hilo said...

Thanks, Brian. So, you don't mind me copying the discussion from this page?

Brian said...

Go for it... just post a link in the comments so others have a bread crumb trail to follow.

Ex N1hilo said...

OK. Thanks again. The discussion so far, along with my response, will be posted, hopefully, later in the evening here:


Drew, and anyone else who wishes to will be welcome to post further responses.

Drew said...

Do you have a counterexample or not?

Ex N1hilo said...


I have posted the discussion at my blog, along with a response to your most recent post, including counterexamples to your premise 1, along with discussion of the relevant Scripture passages.

I would be very pleased if you would accept my invitation to read it there, and if you wish, to continue the discussion.

It's here:




Drew said...

Premise 1 is not equivalent to “You can't blame me for something if I didn't have any say in the matter.” and it is not “You cannot credit me with any good that I did not have a say in bringing about.” These are strawman fallacies.

It's: "If X is not up to us, anything X entails is not up to us."

Therefore, all you need to do is copy and paste the following sentence:

"X is not up to us; X entails Y; but Y is up to us."

So the answer is. No, you have not, because you cannot provide counterexamples.

Ex N1hilo said...


You have a point about the restatements I made. They do not capture the exact meaning of your premise 1. They do capture where I thought you were going with the application of this principle to the court system.

So, you have a point there.

I had hoped; however, that you might address the Scripture passages that I believe to be counterexamples to premise 1. And that you would provide logical argumentation to back up your assertion that it is logically impossible that any determined act can be free.

Care to take a swing? Or are you satisfied to strike out without moving the bat?

Ex N1hilo said...

Another thing:

When you say that the principle you stated is used all the time in court, what do you mean? How is is used? Can you give an example of it's application.

I thought I understood the application you were making, but apparently I did not. Thanks.

Drew said...

I already gave the argument as to why it is logically impossible for a determined act to be free. If the three premises are true, then the conclusion follows inescapably.

Having provided no counterexample in the form of: "X is not up to us; X entails Y; but Y is up to us."

To argue that the Bible says otherwise will at most prove that the Bible is not inerrant. That would be tragic, but we have to remember that inerrancy is not at the heart of our faith. It is very much a defeasible and falsifiable doctrine. This is why I will not address Biblical arguments as long as this issue is resolved. Once we accept the argument, we can work on interpreting the Bible in light of that truth. It's not all that hard.

In fact, I find it a lot easier than harmonizing Scripture with an old earth, or harmonizing the numbers in the book of Numbers with ancient population estimates, or harmonizing some of the secondary details of different Gospel accounts (e.g. the death of Jesus relative to the timing of the Passover).

For the record, I do not believe the Bible teaches any sort of determinism, and every argument I have read for it requires taking a superficial understanding of some passage, and then forcefully harmonizing the rest of the Bible to accomodate it. So it's not like I am taking the Bible any less seriously than a Calvinist would.

Ex N1hilo said...


You gave an argument. I disagreed that the first premise of that argument is true, and asked you to demonstrate that it is. You declined to do so, apart from claiming that it is "obvious".

You then stated that the argument you gave is sound in its form, as though that implies the truth of the conclusion.

I offered counterexamples to the premise in question, from Scripture. Again, you decline to engage these texts, except to assert that my understanding of them is "superficial."

At least I can say that I tried to engage your arguments, and to honor God's word in the process, by conforming my posts to what I understand it to be teaching--although my understanding is limited and imperfect.

I had hoped you would be interested in dialog as well.

Drew said...

Where are the counterexamples? I didn't see any.

Drew said...

Also, where does the Bible explicitly (fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated; leaving nothing merely implied; unequivocal) state that there is some X that is not up to us, that X entails Y, and that Y is up to us?

2 Samuel 24:1 is not one. I assume the argument is something like:
1. God's choice to move David was not up to David
2. God moving David entailed that David took the census
3.David's taking of the census was up to David.

Nowhere is any of this stated in the text. It does not state that God's decision to move David to take the census was not up to David. It does not state that God's moving David to take the census entailed that David take the census. It does not even state that David's taking of the census was up to David! So it fails on all three counts.

Romans 1 is even worse. God gave depraved people up to their passions. I suppose the argument goes like:
1. The depravity of the people is not up to them
2. The depravity of the people entails that they give themselves up to wickedness
3. Their wickedness is up to them

None of these are explicitly stated in the text. Indeed, the verse states that after these people became fools, due to their rebellion against God, he then gave them up to their own wickedness.

These arguments are examples of begging the question. There is no reason to draw these interpretations of the text and use them as counterexamples unless you already believe the conclusion you are trying to reach.

That is circular reasoning. And I am done with this conversation.

Drew said...

and I forgot to define entail:
Involve (something) as a necessary or inevitable part or consequence.

Anonymous said...

I put this on Ex N1hilo's blog, but he hasn't responded.

"The problem with premise 1 is that Scripture explicitly teaches the contrary. And it gives us many counterexamples to premise 1. For this reason, I have had to abandon this principle. I have had to say “Let God be true and every man a liar.” I had to admit that I was the liar; denying God's sovereign providential governance over all created things."

This sounds like you've abandoned intellectual congruity for the idea that God is sovereign. And, you've unwittingly put the blame for sin on God. God would be the one who needs to be punished for sin, not us. God would be unjust to impute the sin to one who is forced to commit it.

This is not the case, thankfully. Human causality, or human input into the system, does not require man to create events out of nothing. This is a concerted effort. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are both at play. It's "both/and" not "either/or". God works in and through his created beings according to their nature. If it is in their nature to have free will, then God works in them according to that nature. God, as the first cause, gives causal power to mankind who are the secondary cause. Otherwise, we could determine to do something, but still lack the power to bring it to pass. We are like living breathing characters in a story who are given work in tandem with the author to bring about his ends. The author is not taken by surprise, believe me. God permits evil actions to occur and gives the agents the causal power to bring them about. It was we who determined to do the evil action, but God permits it to occur and uses it for his purposes. There is no needless suffering or evil in the world. All events are used by God for his glory.

Also, what would be the point in God showing his righteous judgment to men who HAVE to commit evil actions? They don't even have a choice in the realization of his righteous judgment. They HAVE to realize it. And because of that, it's not a virtue. No virtues exist where good and evil actions are forced

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