An Essential Tenet Of Reformed Theology *Is* Determinism; The Reformed Need To Embrace It

We are free and morally responsible when in possession of certain cognitive capacities that produce different acts given different states of affairs. Freedom is accompanied by dispositional powers to try to choose according to our cognitive faculties. The capstone of our freedom comes in having been endowed with a “mesh” of first and second-order desires (desires to act and the ability to approve of such desires), which differentiate us from creatures of brute instinct, and perhaps those who act according to addictions and phobias too.

When it comes to the question of whether Reformed theology entails a principle of determinism, either disagreement abounds among Reformed theologians or else many within the tradition are talking by each other.

Perhaps some are in theological agreement over this essential aspect of Reformed theology while expressing themselves in conflicting ways. Perhaps. Regardless, there is no less a need to adopt a uniform theological taxonomy by which such theological ideas and concepts can be articulated and evaluated.

Semantics or substantive disagreement?

R.C. Sproul denied determinism yet affirmed “self-determination.” Sproul also rejected spontaneity of choice, whereas Douglas Kelly has favored it. Tom Nettles favors determinism whereas Burk Parsons was relieved to learn it is not an entailment of Reformed Theology. Richard Muller has claimed that Reformed theology does not entail a form of determinism. D.A. Carson and Muller disagree on the freedom to do otherwise. John Frame, James Anderson, and Paul Manata recognize that Reformed theology operates under a robust principle of determinism.

Either we are in need of tightening up our theology within the Reformed tradition or else we need to get a better handle on our terminology. (With the exception of one from above, I am hopeful that there might be general theological agreement yet without clarity of articulation.)

Back to the 1800s:

19th century Princeton Theological Seminary theologian A.A. Hodge rightly taught that Arminians deny that God determines free willed actions whereas “Calvinists affirm that [God] foresees them to be certainly future because he has determined them to be so.” For Hodge, “the plan which determines general ends must also determine even the minutest element comprehended in the system of which those ends are parts.” (WCF 3.1.2)

Reformed theology entails not merely a doctrine of determinism but a principle of exhaustive determinism. Specifically, causal divine determinism is at the heart of Reformed theology.

As the label “causal divine determinism” suggests, adherence to a Reformed understanding of determinism does not consign one to a secular view of bare causal determinism let alone fatalismCausal divine determinism does not contemplate impersonal laws of nature or relations of cause and effect that are intrinsically necessary. Nor does causal divine determinism mean that God always acts directly. Rather, “God…makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.” (WCF 5.2) Indeed, “second causes [aren’t] taken away, but rather established.” (WCF 3.1)

How exhaustively detailed is causal divine determinism?

The decree of God is so exceedingly all-encompassing that for Hodge God “determines the nature of events, and their mutual relations.” In other words, impersonal laws of cause and effect do not impinge upon God, for there are none! Rather, God gives all facts their meaning and in doing so determines how A would effect B. Surely God could have actualized a world in which the boiling point of water is other than it is!

Common examples – physical and metaphysical causal relationships:

If causal divine determinism is true, then God is not confined to work from mysteriously scripted means of possibility imposed by necessary conditional relationships that are intrinsically causal without reference to God’s free determinate counsel. No, God’s creativity is independent. God is the ultimate source of possibility.

Consider that liquid water freezes at 0 degrees C. (No need to get into pressure, additives, purity and nucleation centers etc.) Does God know this fact of nature according to his natural knowledge or his free knowledge? In other words, is this a necessary truth or could it have been different? What grounds such truth – God’s nature, his determinative will, or something external to God? From whence does God source the objects of his knowledge?

What do fish and ponds have to do with this?

Water at 4 degrees C is at its highest density, which means that at that precise point it will expand whether it is heated or cooled. Must that causal relationship necessarily hold true under identical circumstances? Or, could God have determined that water continue to become increasingly dense as it is cooled below 4 degrees C? Hopefully we recognize that God was not constrained to provide fish a safe haven in winter. God could have determined that the density of water continue to increase upon cooling it below 4 degrees C, in which case ice would not rise to the top.

God’s freedom relates to our freedom:

We can apply God’s creative decree to the analysis of human freedom as well. With respect to our doctrine of concurrence we can employ the same concepts of contingency, possibility, necessity and causality when considering how God knows the free choices of men. Indeed we should.

Given an identical state of affairs, God is free to determine that a fragrance or song from yesteryear causally produces a particular disposition to act freely. Yet the precise disposition of the will that would obtain is ultimately determined by God alone.

Under the same conditions (or relevant states of affairs) God can ensure any number of free choices. In the context of hearing a song, God can actualize that one causally, yet freely, looks at an old photo album, picks up the phone to call someone or something else. These alternative possibilities are not contingent upon libertarian creaturely freedom for their actualization, but rather they are true possibilities that God is free to determine as he purposes. Free moral agents participate with God’s purpose by divine decree and meticulous providence, and not by autonomous spontaneity of choice. The unhappy alternative is God’s foreknowledge is impinged upon by uninstantiated essences, making his sovereign purpose eternally reactive and opportunistic.

In short, God determines the free choices of men. Indeed he can do no other! Consequently, God’s exhaustive divine foreknowledge is based upon his having exhaustively determined whatsoever comes to past including the causes that incline the human will. For God to foreknow choices presupposes his determination of their antecedent causes. Yet no violation to the creature is entailed by God’s determination of antecedent causes. God’s determination of our choices is compatible with our freedom and responsibility. Notwithstanding, God must casually ensure the outcome in order to foreknow the outcome. Yet the outcome is consistent with the person, for God is good.

The current Reformed landscape:

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, a growing number of Calvinists are unwittingly libertarian Calvinists. Many affirm the “five points” yet believe that in other instances we are free to choose otherwise. The logical trajectory of such a philosophical-theology denies (a) the determinative basis for God’s exhaustive omniscience, (b) the future surety of his decree, and (c) God’s independence and unique eternality.

If Christians are not affirming causal divine determinism, they are implicitly denying that human freedom is compatible with God’s exhaustive determination of all things. Consequently, whether self-consciously or not, they are affirming a form of incompatibilism, which in the context of moral responsibility entails libertarian freedom. With libertarian freedom comes a theology proper that is highly improper, and a theory of responsibility that lacks moral grounding.

Let’s address some common misunderstandings along with some implications entailed by the denial of causal divine determinism:

  1. Free Will:

Can’t we choose otherwise, surely Adam could have!

How many times have we heard it? Maybe we’ve even said it!

To illustrate the disagreement on matters of the determinative decree as it relates to free will, consider the two quotes below.

Adam alone had the power of contrary choice. He lost it in the fall, making his will enslaved to sin.
Hence, all his posterity are enslaved to sin. Their will also is enslaved to sin.

I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.

Kevin DeYoung is correct here, “Arminians argue that we have a libertarian free will, which simply put means that we have the power of contrary choice…” So, whether the other Reformed pastor understands this or not, he has asserted that before the fall Adam had freedom in the libertarian sense. Therefore, Frame or the pastor is incorrect, and it’s not Frame.*

Although those two opposing views might appear inconsequential because the prelapsarian state has expired, it’s worth addressing because the first quote is a common sentiment among theologically trained (as John notes) and has far reaching metaphysical and theological implications with respect to possibility, responsibility, truth-makers and truth-bearers, God’s exhaustive omniscience and more.

Regarding the view of the Reformed pastor – his point has significant consequences that transcend pre and post fall ontology. In other words, if Adam had libertarian freedom while in a state of innocence (as the pastor wrongly asserts), then there’s no reason to believe we don’t have such freedom today given that libertarian freedom is by definition not nature dependent. (That’s hardly controversial among philosophical theologians whether Reformed or not.) Needless to say, clarity within the Reformed tradition is needed and overdue.

Let’s be clear, if Adam could have freely chosen not to eat of the forbidden fruit, then God’s decree could have failed. God’s decree could not have failed. Therefore, Adam could not have freely chosen not to eat of the forbidden fruit. (Modus Tollens)

Regardless of the lapsarian state under consideration, even though free moral agents won’t ever choose contrary to God’s foreknowledge and decree, an ability to do so would undermine moral responsibility and betray orthodox theology proper.

If we can’t choose otherwise, how can we be free and responsible?

That we are responsible is indubitable. Therefore, if libertarian freedom is a philosophical surd, then from a Christian perspective free will is compatible with the determinative nature of God’s decree. In other words, our freedom is of another kind than the freedom to choose otherwise.

Without an intention to act there is no act of the will. When an act of the will occurs, the intentional choice is consummated. Both components of the choice obtain. An intention to act gives way to the actual act the intention contemplates. We may safely say the intention of the moral agent causes the act. The act is effected by the agent’s intention.

Now then, what causes an intention to act? If it’s a chosen intention, then what causes the intention to choose the intention to act? (Regress)

Agent causation?

Here’s a libertarian solution to the regress conundrum. It’s called agent causation. Rather than choosing our intentions, the agent simply causes it.

The ability to choose otherwise would destroy moral accountability, for how can the pure spontaneity of agent causation produce morally relevant choices? With agent causation comes a break in the causal nexus whereby the agent becomes the ultimate source of his intention to act. Such autonomous independence and regulative control would detach influence, reason, and relevant history from intentions and willed actions. By implication the agent rises above all influences, where-from a posture of dispositional equilibrium forms intentions from a functionally blank past. In other words, given the liberty of indifference that agent causation contemplates, choices would be unmapped to personal history, entailing a radical break from the person doing the choosing.

Nobody rationally determines intentions in a libertarian construct. There’d be no reason to guard the heart for we’d be able to kick bad habits spontaneously, according to a will that’s impervious to causal influences. Such radical spontaneity would result in pure randomness of choice, destroying moral relevance by detaching choice from person. In a split moment we should expect to see saints behaving like devils, and devils like saints. The implications of non-decretive metaphysical contingency of choice demand it! Any libertarian appeal to will formation doesn’t comport with libertarian freedom. Libertarians may not have their cake and eat it too.

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* The popular Reformed pastor might be confusing WCF 9.2 with “the power of contrary choice”, which is libertarian freedom.

WCF 9.2: “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which is good and well-pleasing to God; but yet mutably, so that he might fall from it.”

That Adam could fall does not imply that Adam could choose contrary to how he would choose. Yet if Adam had libertarian freedom, then he could have chosen contrary to how he did. But if Adam could have chosen contrary to how he did, then Adam could have chosen contrary to God’s decree. The only question left is, could he have?

We can leave the fall out of it. If Adam had libertarian freedom, then prior to the fall he could have chosen to name the animals differently than he did – differently than God decreed he would!

Freedom and power happily comply with compatibilist freedom as discussed above, whereas contrary choice is the hallmark of libertarian freedom.

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