First off I must say that this is a topic I am still working thru in my personal studies and so though the conclusions that I draw here are my beliefs I am very open to critique. Indeed I actually would love to hear some, especially from believers of different persuasions than I. As iron sharpens iron so a critique from one older and wiser in the faith can do much to ‘grow up’ a young man entering in upon theological debates.
The basic crux of the debate
Is God sovereignly controlling everything or is man free? Are these two compatible perhaps? Is man just a robot in the hands of God? Has God given man such freedom that man can disrupt God’s plans? Is man free or is God free? Or both?
These issues have been debated for as long as there have been Christians. From Augustine and Pelagius all the way up to the reformation debates of Luther and Erasmus and then on to modern times the discussion has continued. They are inseparably linked to the Calvinism/Arminianism struggle and are thus extremely hard to treat without delving into that can of worms but I will attempt to steer clear as that is a topic I do not wish to get into at this time.
Why all the fuss?
Many Christians look at theological issues such as this and think that it is just a bunch of old farts sitting around quibbling over nothing. In their view these issues are not merely a waste of time to discuss but probably sinful as well because of all the strife and separation that arises.
While there are some theological disputes that I think this could be said of this is most definitely not one of them. The issues at hand have huge implications on how we live out our life on a day to day level. David and Randall Basinger brought up a few examples in their book, ‘Predestination and Free Will’. The following is theirs:
“…Take the missionary candidate who is having difficulty raising her support. She may believe God is closing the door to her present plans and leading her in another direction. After all if God wants her on the mission field He will bring in the money. Another candidate however, might conclude that he is not working hard enough to raise the money. He might schedule more meetings or work up a better slide presentation. If failure continues he might conclude that other people’s decisions not to give have thwarted God’s will.”
Another example from the book:
“Consider a married couple in which the husband carries a genetic defect. Should the couple have children? Some might choose to have children believing that each child is a special and direct creation of God. Hence if God wants them to have a healthy baby, then they will. If He does not they will joyfully accept their special child as a gift from God. Other Christian couples might argue that, in view of the high probability that their child will inherit the defect, the responsible thing would be to adopt children or to use their childlessness to offer service to the church.”
We could line up more examples of this problem from here to the moon. It strikes at the core of how we relate to God thru our daily actions and choices. Our beliefs in these areas will greatly affect our decisions when faced with similar problems.
In view of how deeply these beliefs affect us I think it necessary that we each evaluate the scriptures and think these things thru. It is not that we are building an opinion where nothing stood previously. We all have a structure that we run our issues thru and there is a divine sovereignty factor and a human freedom factor in each of our minds. The question we all face is: Is our understanding of these two concepts true to the facts? In other words is it true to scripture?
Now I do recognize as I just implied that scripture is the final authority in all matters of truth. However this is not meant to be primarily a scriptural paper. I am not intending to give an exhaustive scriptural defense of any position. There will be scriptures quoted and a biblical case made. This will be toward the end after the positions have been defined adequately. But the purpose is more to shed light on the philosophical underpinnings of the debate. With a structure in view the reader will hopefully be better able to understand what all the fuss is about and where they believe the scriptures point. May God be glorified in all everything we do especially in our teaching and beliefs about Him.
I do not believe that there is a definition for either side of this debate that fits like a glove. The best I think I can do is to give some basic beliefs that each side would hold to. If the shoe fits, wear it. If it doesn’t, throw it at the next guy.
One point that should be made is that you will notice significant areas of overlap when defining the various camps on the various issues. This really cannot be avoided as this whole debate is one over which system of looking at freedom is correct. Each view in each category of definitions only fits with one or at most two of the definitions in another category. They fit together with them in a very tight way and stand or fall together so it is hard to entirely separate them when defining the issues. Sorry for any confusion that arises from this.
As best I understand it indeterminism is the belief that when man is faced with a choice, option A or option B, there are no causal influences (internal or external) that would necessitate that he choose either one. Put another way he is not constrained by any influences to choose option A or B. He has total freedom to choose either one. For example, John Doe walks up to the food stand on lunch break. He has the option of a hot dog or a cheeseburger. Let us say that John typically chooses the hot dog because he is not a big fan of cheeseburgers. The indeterminist would state that though there is a prior influence on John to choose the hot dog he is still completely free to choose the cheeseburger because no influence no matter how strong is sufficient to cause us to choose one way or the other.
So man is completely free (to do that which is possible) in every choice. Influences exist but they never constrain the will to act in any particular way.
On the other hand Determinism is the “general philosophical thesis which states that for everything that ever happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen.”1 As we are here looking at this issue from a Christian standpoint I will not venture into defining the non-Christian views of determinism.
Within the Christian determinists two camps arise (as best I can see it). As the reason a Christian would hold to this belief is because of a strong view of God’s sovereignty the disagreement stems from this doctrine. Is divine sovereignty compatible with human freedom? Some say no and thus deny human freedom. These are generally classified as hard determinists. Others would answer yes. These are known as the soft determinists. Among these soft determinists two other camps arise. Camp 1 affirms Divine sovereignty and human freedom but says that it is a mystery we will never understand but must believe. Camp 2 states that the seeming mystery is understandable. They say that the two are compatible but one must carefully define freedom. These are known as the Compatibalists and this is the position I will be defending throughout this paper. Another question flows logically out of this. What is freedom?
This concept is defined in two different ways but the camps are not split in the same way here. The indeterminists agree with some of the hard determinists on the definition of freedom (Again this is to the best of my knowledge. What I say here should not be taken as gospel truth but rather the thoughtful ramblings of one trying to figure this out). This definition of freedom is known as contra-causal freedom. It is the ability to choose anything that is possible (possible in the sense of anything that we possess the physical, mental or spiritual means to do).
The opposing definition, the one held by the Compatibalists is that freedom is the ability to do what one wills to do. One is not free to do, in this view, what one does not will to do. Though you may possess the means you do not have the desire to do so and thus it will not occur. The Compatibalist believes that genuine freedom is not the freedom to do whatever one possesses the means to do but the freedom to do what you want to do.
It is on this point that I am the most confused at this stage of my studies so bear with me as I attempt to lay out the positions. If I err I would love to hear from you so I can correct it.
As best I understand it there are two major camps and then two much smaller ones among Christians. The smaller ones are positions A and D. The camps I have lined up in order of how much control God has in this world from least to greatest. The first two can be either deterministic or not. The last two are deterministic. Each of these positions holds to the statement that God is sovereign but the definition of this differs greatly.
Position A is that God is sovereign in the sense that he is creator and is thus in authority over everything. He is God and thus is to be obeyed. Sovereignty does not entail, according to this view, that God is in control of everything. They would state that he most certainly is not else there would be no sin. If God is in control and there is sin then we cease to have a good God. So God is sovereign but not in control of everything and man rebels against God and does things that are not his will. There is no distinction between the decretive will and the, for lack of a better term, perfect will of God for all that exists is the perfect will (though some would believe in the permissive will of God). This view places God at the helm of this world not overriding any person’s individual choices and desires but still accomplishing His purpose in the end though His purposes are often confounded by wicked men. How God actually can accomplish anything in this world without affecting someone’s freedom is the question I would ask them.
Position B holds to God’s sovereignty in the same sense as position A, that He is creator and thus in authority but not in control of everything. The difference is that they will open the door to God overriding or guiding the will of man in some cases to accomplish His will. This is not the way God usually works but occasionally He does and to prove such they will point to instances in scripture such as Pharaoh. This is I believe the most widely held of all four of the camps and is by far the most popular in Arminian circles.
Position C is the second most widely held though it does trail B at a distance. Its defendants would hold that God is in total control of and wills everything that occurs in this world. They define this control over free actions according to the Compatibalistic definition of freedom and thus declare that God set up the initial conditions of this world so that His designs would be accomplished all throughout its history. The charge of God thus having willed sin is answered by their distinction between the decretive, preceptive and perfect wills of God. God’s decretive will is what He has decreed from all eternity will take place. But among this are some events which violate His preceptive will (that which He commands) and thus violate His perfect will (those things that are in accordance with His holy character). A helpful way to see this is to distinguish a narrow view of things, meaning a close up look at individual situations, from a broad view of the purpose of creation. God while He does not desire the individual sinful actions to occur in the narrow sense does in the broader sense will that sin exist. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “It is not sin in God to will that sin be.” This view obviously opens up criticism of God’s holiness. But numerous verses can be brought up that show that God is indeed active in guiding situations that do indeed involve sin.
Position D is held by those in the hard determinist camp. God is in complete control of every action including all of our sins. The difference between them and position C is that they do not bring in Compatibalism as an answer but merely as stated before proclaim that God did the act but is not responsible. Thus with no place for human freedom it is no wonder that they are attacked as throwing sin on God. And rightly so I believe.
Compatibalism further defined
As this is the position I am defending I thought it necessary to say a few more words on what exactly it holds to. First, according to its definition of freedom when one is presented with a choice whatever is your strongest inclination to do at the moment will be the option you will choose. To go back to our previous example if John is given the option of a hotdog or a hamburger then John will choose the one that has the most ‘pull’ on him so to speak. Whichever one he desires (and desires are formed partly on the basis of your nature, partly on the basis of past experience and also, the Compatibalist would argue, some desires are given by God so he can freely guide an individual into the action he wishes of them.) is the one he will choose. If his dislike of cheeseburgers is as deep as an utter abhorrence then he will never choose the cheeseburger.
The original definition given for determinism sheds some light on the major difference between the hard determinist and the Compatibalist. Once again determinism is the “general philosophical thesis which states that for everything that ever happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen.” The hard determinist will argue that God’s sovereign will and choices override and deny human freedom and thus nothing else could happen because God’s will is always done. The Compatibalist says that, yes, God’s will is always done but this is done not through overriding human freedom but through using and guiding it.
Implications on Moral responsibility and other moral issues
Each of these views has major implications on the responsibility of man for their sin. I will lay out the arguments on each in the order that I first introduced the views.
One of the main points argued by the indeterminists is that man is not responsible for doing something that he was caused to do (by either an internal or external force). In other words if he did not have the ability to do otherwise (in the contra-causal sense) then his actions were forced and he is not to be held responsible.
I will examine the implications of this argument on the various forms of determinism but first want to point out that the standard of freedom they hold to destroys responsibility as well. If there were nothing, not even something internal that is causally sufficient for man to make a choice in one way or the other then how and why does he choose? This question is one that out of the very nature of their position the indeterminist cannot give an answer. If he chooses based upon what seems the greatest good at the time then the indeterminist has become a determinist. Welcome to the camp. If on the other hand he chooses randomly (without any internal cause dictating why he chose) then how can he be held responsible? If all the choices we make are entirely random and no desire in us dictated the choice then we cannot be viewed as morally responsible for these choices. It can be likened to a computer which according to its hardware is only designed to place random numbers on the screen. The inventor then congratulates and rewards the computer when it runs an even number and punishes it when it runs an odd. Moral responsibility is entirely lost if something in our nature is not the cause of why we choose one way or the other.
The effects of the argument I laid out above at the beginning of the indeterminist section are very strong against hard determinism in particular. In my opinion if one is to be logical its effects are fatal.
The hard determinist states that because God is sovereign over this world this rules out the possibility of human freedom. Man is not free but is a puppet that God moves according to His will. The question then is obvious. How can God punish a puppet? The picture this gives of the biblical God is frightening. A God who is angry at Israel for doing exactly what he caused it to do. A God who destroys Sodom because its inhabitants did exactly as he caused them to do in attempting to rape the two angels. Such a God as this is surely not the biblical God for this view very clearly throws sin on God’s lap.
The proponents of this view are not blind to these critiques. Their counterargument is that we cannot use our fallen logic to critique the justice of God. They use scriptural arguments to conclude that God is in complete control of this universe including our actions thus man cannot be free but in answer to those who attack this view as making God the author of sin they quote Rom. 9:20 “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” They conclude that God is not evil and man is responsible though we do not understand how this is possible. The argument, while it is true in a sense, is twisted and warped in the present context. Though God is in control of everything in our universe the scriptures they cite do not necessitate that we throw aside human freedom and thus come so close to blaming God. This is I believe a very dangerous position to take in treading so close to throwing the ‘credit’ for all the world’s sin on God.
This view if you recall states that, yes, God is sovereign and, yes, man is free but as to how these views fit together it is beyond our comprehension. So it is very hard to lay out any moral implications on responsibility because there are no real substantial claims to critique. The only moral implication I can see is not a responsibility issue but an issue nonetheless. There is a discouragement of studying the word to find the answer to the question. It is not possible to find so don’t waste time trying. To relegate divine truths to the realms of incomprehensibility is not I think very scriptural. Granted, there are many things that we cannot understand fully but I do not believe there is any truth that God has given us in the scriptures that we cannot at least grasp a bit of or understand the basic principles of how it works.
The argument of the indeterminists that I believe struck down hard determinism is also a hard one for a Compatibalist view. Remember the argument was how a man can be held responsible for an action if it was caused by either an internal or external force. If there is no freedom then there can be no responsibility. And if humans have no responsibility then it lands on God.
Compatibalism’s response is that they are begging the question in assuming that their definition of freedom is the only one possible. Man is free but that does not mean that his actions are not sufficiently causally influenced by various factors. In other words man causes his own action but the reason he chose A and not B is caused by his own nature, desires and past influence. Defining freedom in such a way escapes their attack and their only recourse is to insist that their definition of freedom is so.
Thus the responsibility is on man because man freely (compatibalistically) made the choice and God is sovereign and in control because He decreed this from all eternity by planning everything and setting up the original parameters so that He could accomplish His own ends thru that same freedom.
A Scriptural case
The two main areas that scripture touches on in this debate are human responsibility and divine sovereignty. There is ample biblical evidence for each. God places the responsibility for sin squarely on man’s shoulders while also claiming for Himself control of everything that comes to pass.
Regrettably there is not much light shed by scripture other than by inference from the doctrine of sovereignty what type of freedom man has. One’s understanding of His role in the affairs of this world will deeply affect whether you end up a determinist or an indeterminist (terms defined below).
So below I will list a few verses defending divine sovereignty. I do not think it necessary to defend human responsibility for sin as no one would dare question that it is a consistent theme throughout the bible. Man sins and is blamed and punished for it. Divine sovereignty on the other hand is much more tricky not because of the lack of scripture to clarify the matter but more because there are many philosophical presuppositions that have greatly influenced our thinking in these areas. As our axioms and thinking as well as our day to day lives need to submit to the truth of scripture let us try not to force any alien concept onto it but merely let it speak for itself.
Ezra 6:22 And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.
Job 5:10 He gives rain on the earth, and sends waters on the fields.
Job 14:5 Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with you; you have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.
Ps. 115:3 But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.
Ps. 135:6-7 Whatever the Lord pleases He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deep places. He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain; He brings the wind out of His treasuries.
Prov. 16:9 A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.
Prov. 16:33 The lot is cast into the lap but its every decision is from the Lord.
Prov. 21:1 The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.
Isa. 26:12 O Lord, You will establish peace for us, for You have also done all our works in us.
Is. 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure,’
Is. 45:7 I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create calamity. I, the Lord, do these things.
Jon. 2:3 For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.
Amos 4:13 he who forms mountains, creates the wind, declares to men what his thought is, forms morning darkness.
Eph 1:11 works all things according to the counsel of his will.
How to read the extravagant claims of these verses is confusing for the modern Christian mind so influenced by humanistic teaching of total independence. We love to think of ourselves as in the driver seat with no one to tell us what to do. But if we read these verses in their plainest sense we see a far different picture. We see a God who does all that he pleases, who is in some way in control of our actions and at this sovereign God’s whim He orders all the natural element to do as He bids. These are not just a few verses scraped together. This is the theme of all scripture. In deciding which to include there were many that would have fit very well here but for lack of space could not be included.
There are also many more verses that speak of God as being active in hardening and softening the human heart. There are those that speak of His work thru the evil in this world, with the classic example being the statement by Joseph to his brothers, “You meant this for evil but God meant it for good.” Another could be seen in the very crucifixion of Christ. Acts 4:27, 28 say:
“For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.”
The acts of those who killed Christ were in some sense planned by God. Thus we see God working in nature. We see His hand in everything that comes to pass. The picture here is not of a God who winds the world up and sits back and watches it go. Not either do we see a God who, as it has been put, “waits with baited breath” to see what man will do so He can respond. We do see a God who directs our steps, makes peace and creates calamity, turns our hearts as the water, sends the rain, accomplishes all our works IN us and who works all things according to the counsel of His will.
Now I must venture off into my belief regarding these passages. As stated before I am still working thru these doctrines but in my opinion there is simply no way these scriptures and the many more like them can be fit into any other system of freedom but the Compatibalist one. All forms of indeterminism with their hard stance on total human independence do not have space for God being in any sense in total control of the goings-on in this world. Likewise though hard determinists recognize God’s control they then overlook how God does blame man and thus in some sense man must be free to choose his way. The only view I see that links these three truths, divine sovereignty and human freedom and thus responsibility together in a biblically consistent and logical way is Compatibalism.
No matter what side of the current topic you come down on I pray that you walk with our King in righteousness and set your heart on loving Him with everything you are. Theology and study apart from this love of God is naught but a waste of time. May God bless you as you continue to love and serve Him.
All for the King who works all things according to the counsel of His will!!!
1. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Determinism, Richard Taylor