Doctrine of Creation (Part 10)

October 21, 2012     Time: 00:24:00

We have been thinking in our class about divine providence and in particular the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. We are looking at Calvinism, Arminianism and Molinism. Last time I described these three different attempts to make sense of the biblical data concerning divine sovereignty and human freedom. Today we want to say something by way of assessment of these views.

Assessment of the Different Views on Divine Providence

Calvinism and Universal Divine Causal Determinism

Let’s begin with a critique of the Calvinist view which you will remember I described as universal divine causal determinism – God determines everything that happens in the world. It seems to me that there are five very powerful reasons for rejecting this view.

First of all, universal divine causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture. You will remember we saw that the Scriptural data affirm both a very strong view of divine sovereignty as well as human freedom and contingency and responsibility. Causal determinism simply can’t make sense of both streams of biblical tradition. The classical Reformed theologians recognize this. They will typically acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with those texts affirming divine sovereignty is simply inscrutable. This is a mystery which we cannot understand. You can reconcile these texts by simply interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. You will remember we said last time that everyone agrees that human beings are free. The real question is: is freedom consistent with causal determinism or not? Compatibilists maintain that you can be causally determined to do what you do and still be said to be free. If you interpret freedom along compatibilist lines, then there is no problem in reconciling freedom with universal divine causal determinism. Indeed, compatibilism entails determinism. According to compatibilism, if you are free you are causally determined. However, the problem with this solution is that adopting compatibilism achieves a reconciliation of these Scriptural streams of tradition only at the expense of denying what that one stream of tradition seems to affirm; namely, genuine indeterminacy and contingency. Because on compatibilism, there really isn’t any contingency or indeterminacy – everything is causally determined. So I don’t think that universal divine causal determinism gives a coherent interpretation of Scripture. It affirms divine sovereignty but it is forced to ride roughshod over all of those texts that affirm contingency and indeterminism in the world.

Secondly, universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed. When you think about it – there is a sort of dizzying self-defeating character to determinism. For if you come to believe that determinism is true, then you have to believe that the reason you have come to believe it is simply because you were determined to do so. You haven’t been able, in fact, to sift through the arguments and the evidence and to freely weigh them and make up your mind on the basis of the argument and the evidence. It is just that you have been causally determined to believe in determinism.[1] So, the difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and becomes a determinist and the person who weighs those arguments for determinism and rejects them is simply that the one was determined to believe in them and the other one was determined not to believe in them. So when you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and even your present realization of that fact – you come to realize that your belief in determinism is itself determined – then there is a sort of vertigo that sets in. Everything you think – even the very thought that you are thinking about that – is itself determined. It is outside your control. You were just determined to believe in it. So while it would be the case that determinism could be true – maybe determinism is true – nevertheless it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed. Determinism is literally self-defeating – it is rationally unaffirmable – because its very affirmation would undermine the rationality of that affirmation. In affirming determinism to be true, you are in effect affirming that that decision is not rationally made but simply determined to be true. So universal causal determinism, it seems to me, cannot be rationally affirmed.

Third problem: universal divine determinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility. It is very interesting that the great Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck admits that if you construe divine conservation in terms of God’s continual re-creation of the world or of things at every moment then there would be no human freedom. Remember when we talked about divine conservation, I rejected the interpretation that conservation of the world in being is a sort of creation. It has been characterized as continuing creation and I said that is wrong because that would mean nothing lasts through time – nothing endures through time. Rather, at each moment, God recreates something new in the place of the old thing. Bavinck says if you think of conservation in those terms (as God continually recreating the world) he says, “All created beings would then exist in appearance only and be devoid of all independence, freedom and responsibility. God himself would be the cause of sin.”[2] So Bavinck thinks that if you construe conservation in terms of continual recreation then God does become the author of sin because human agents have no independence, freedom or responsibility. But think about that. Given determinism, there is no more independence, freedom or responsibility than there is on re-creation. If determinism is true then even if you reject re-creation at every moment there is still no more independence, freedom or responsibility. On the deterministic view, even the movement of the human will is itself determined by God. God causes people to choose evil and they cannot do otherwise. God determines their choices – he makes them do wrong. If it is evil to make another person do wrong then on this view not only is God the cause of sin and evil but he becomes evil himself which is absurd. He would not only be the cause of evil in the sense that he is producing it, but he is making other people do evil. And if you think that is wrong – to make another person do evil, if that is itself evil – then God becomes evil on this view which is absurd. By the same token, all human responsibility for sin is removed on this view because our choices are not really up to us. God causes us to make them. So we can’t be responsible for our choices because nothing that we think or do is up to us. It is determined by God. I do think that the oft repeated claim that Calvinism makes God the author of sin and denies human responsibility really does stick.[3]

Number four: universal divine causal determinism nullifies human agency. In other words, there really are no human agents on this view. Since our choices are not up to us but are determined by God, human beings cannot be said to be real agents. Rather, they are like mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect much as a man might use a stick to roll a stone. The stick is a mere instrument of the man who is the causal agent in this case. Of course, secondary causes like the stick will retain all of their properties and powers as intermediate causes and the Reformed divines will often remind us of this. But this is just to say that the stick retains all of its properties and powers which make it suitable for the person who wants to use it to do something like move a stone. The stick has properties like a certain rigidity, a certain weight, a certain density that make it useful as an instrument for the person to push or overturn the stone. So Reformed thinkers don’t need to be occasionalists like those Muslim medieval theologians who thought that God is the only cause of everything. There can be secondary causes in the world on the Calvinistic view, but my point is that these intermediate causes are not agents themselves. They are mere instrumental causes. They have no power to initiate action. They are not agents because they have no power to initiate action; they are mere instruments of an agent. So it seems to me that it is dubious on divine determinism that there is really more than one agent in the world. God is the only agent that exists and everything else are just instruments of this single agent. The famous Reformed theologian B. B. Warfield of the old Princeton Seminary insists, “. . . the reality and real efficiency of all second causes . . . as the proximate producers of the effects that take place in the world” is affirmed.[4] He affirms that secondary causes are real and do have power to produce effects as the immediate causes of the event but notice he doesn’t answer the objection that, in a deterministic world, there is only one agent. These intermediate causes are mere instruments – lifeless instruments – in the employ of an agent who has the power to initiate action. This conclusion, if it is correct, not only goes against our knowledge of ourselves as agents – I think each one of us senses that he is a causal agent – but it would also make it inexplicable why God would then treat us as agents holding us morally responsible for the things that he caused us and used us to do. The fact that on universal divine determinism there really is only one agent in the world (and that is God) I think makes real nonsense of Christian theology.

Finally, number five, universal divine determinism threatens to make reality into a farce. What do I mean by that? Well, on this view the whole world becomes a vein and empty spectacle. There really are no free agents who are in rebellion against God, no free agents whom God seeks to win through his love, no one who freely responds to that love and freely gives his love and praise to God in return. The whole spectacle is a sort of charade in which the only real actor is God himself.[5] I am reminded in this connection of a really bizarre cartoon I saw once in which there was an audience pictured listening to a lecture and the lecturer was a marionette – you can see the strings attached to his wooden arms and his wooden head – and, when you looked at the audience, all of the members in the audience were marionettes as well and the speaker was saying, “Now concerning the logical order of God’s decrees of election” and it just made the whole thing a farce. One Reformed puppet lecturing to other Reformed puppets on the virtues of Reformed theology. It is just a charade. So, far from glorifying God, I am convinced that the Calvinist view really denigrates God for engaging in such a farcical charade as this. I think it is insulting to God to think that he would create beings who are, in every respect, causally determined by him and then treat them as though they are free agents, even punishing them for the wrong actions that he made them do or loving them as though they were not freely responding agents. God, on this view, would be like a child who sets up his toy soldiers on the battlefield and then moves them about in his make believe world pretending that they are real persons whose every motion is not in fact of his own doing and then pretending that these toy people merit praise and blame. So it seems to me that this view of universal divine determinism really turns reality into something of a farce.

For those reasons I think that the Calvinistic view of universal divine causal determinism is one that is unacceptable for Christian theology.


Question: I believe you really mischaracterize Calvinism. What you are talking about sounds more like Hyper-Calvinism. Because Calvinism actually does affirm free will; I can read chapter 10 of the Westminster Confession of Faith where it actually explains how free will works within that system.

Answer: What I am rejecting is universal divine causal determinism. Now, if Reformed theology rejects compatibilism then I have got no quarrel with it. In fact, when I read much of the Westminster Confession, I resonate with it. The problem is that I don’t think that the Reformed theologian can give us a coherent interpretation of Scripture. As I said, the Reformed divines – in my first point – typically say that the reconciliation of these texts is just inscrutable. They can’t put them together; it is a mystery. So I think that the Westminster Confession and that position, if you reject compatibilism, fairly cries out for a Molinist view. So what I would offer to my Reformed brethren is to say if you are going to reject compatibilism and universal divine causal determinism, I am all with you. I am with you one hundred percent. But now let’s consider whether Molinism can enable us to affirm all of these other things in the Westminster Confession but without simply having to punt to inscrutability and mystery.

Followup: I would just say that when a Calvinist refers to bondage of the will, they are speaking of specifically of the person’s moral will. That is how I understand it. You don’t agree with that?

Answer: I think that is true of the Lutheran view. Luther said we are bound in things above but free in things below. But my understanding of Calvinism – and I get this not only from reading Calvin but talking with Calvinist professors and friends and theologians – is that God’s sovereignty controls everything, even non-moral choices like whether I choose green jello or red jello when I go through the cafeteria line. Otherwise, you don’t affirm sovereignty; you don’t have a sovereign God if that escapes his providence.

Followup: Again, I would just have to say that is really Hyper-Calvinism.

Answer: I got in trouble in Defenders Series 1 for responding to a question like this about Hyper-Calvinism because I did not know at that time, and I will now say something about this, is that actually what I am describing is not Hyper-Calvinism.[6] There is a theological view that is actually called Hyper-Calvinism and it was a tiny splinter movement in the 17th century among certain British Baptists which affirmed that we should not engage in evangelism and missions work because that is acting contrary to God’s sovereign election of who will and will not be saved. They thought it was presumptuous for us to go out to the mission fields. These are the kind of people that opposed William Cary going to India. So what is often called Hyper-Calvinism just means a sort of extreme determinism but I was corrected on this that that is not what actual Hyper-Calvinism is. The real Hyper-Calvinism was this movement a few centuries ago that thankfully died out that thought of missions work and evangelism as really being contrary to God’s sovereignty and freedom in election. But what I am talking about is somebody who is a Calvinist who will explain sovereignty in terms of universal divine causal determinism. If they don’t do that, great! Then my critique won’t apply.

Question: First, I would like to respond. In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he is quite explicit in stating that there is no autonomous human will apart from the direct causal act of God. He is very explicit about that. So that is not Hyper-Calvinism. That is Calvin’s Calvinism.[7] But the question I had here is: if we are determined, why is that not rational? Why is it that a determined decision is not rational? How does determinism undermine the warrant or justification?

Answer: That is a good question. It seems to me that a person has to be able to think that he has the free ability to weigh reasons and arguments against each other and then to decide whether or not these meet standards of rationality and logic. If he affirms that he hasn’t really been able to do that – that he is just determined to do that – then it seems to me that undermines his warrant for thinking that this gives him rational grounds for affirming this belief.

Followup: I was asking, though, how is it not the case that a determined thing can weigh the decisions? What is it about determinism undermining your ability to weigh your options?

Answer: The question you are raising is: do you need to have freedom in order to weigh things rationally? It seems to me that you do. Otherwise, you have to say the only reason that you think this argument is better than the other is that you were determined to do so. You haven’t been able to rationally reflect upon the pros and cons and see which one meets the better standards of argumentation and plausibility and so forth. You are just determined to do it like water running out of a pipe. It is very difficult for me to see how a purely determined thing can make rational decisions. Determinism could be true, but it seems to me it is very difficult to see how it could be rationally affirmed.

That is the critique I would have of universal divine causal determinism. Next week I am going to offer a critique of the Arminian view that God’s foreordination is based upon his simple foreknowledge of the events foreknown.[8]


[1] 4:52

[2] Herman Bavink, Reformed Dogmatics, God and Creation, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 607.

[3] 10:09

[4] B. B. Warfield, “The Significance of the Confessional Doctrine of the Decree,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. (1970-73; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 1:98-99.

[5] 14:50

[6] 20:00

[7] The great Calvinist theologian B. B. Warfield would agree: “There is nothing that is, and nothing that comes to pass, that [God] has not first decreed and then brought to pass by His creation or providence.” B. B. Warfield, “Predestination,” in Biblical Doctrines, vol. 2 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1929; rep., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), p. 21.

[8] Total Running Time: 23:59 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)