Decrees & Determinism
I have written a couple times about the dangers of determinism in the ranks of confessional Reformed thought. I addressed determinism and its roots in Jonathan Edward's theology when reviewing Jordan Cooper's The Great Divide. I have also discussed the issue within the context of prayer. In response to my blog on Cooper's book I hear statements such as "All the Calvinists I know are Determinists." There were also questions about what determinism entails.
Theological acumen among laymen has dropped in the west alongside philosophy. The steady struggle to re-educate the church after a generation of "interpret however you feel" evangelical theology has many more miles to go. Hopefully one of the first distinctions we recover is the difference between determinism (a philosophical concept) and decrees (a theological concept). Determinism is defined by Britannica as follows,
"Determinism, in philosophy, theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes."
There are many natural systems that are deterministic. Computers are built to be deterministic — meaning you would like to see the same behavior given the same input. The game of pool is deterministic — the movement of the cue determines the movement of the cue ball which determines the result of the shot. In these systems, the moral agency is relatively ignored (have you ever discussed the moral agency of a computer program or cue ball?).
This is true because determinism diminishes moral responsibility. If a specific behavior is determined beforehand such that no other event can occur then the event ceases to be a moral event — at least that is how many of us are prone to think. When one accepts the philosophical idea of determinism they are affirming (to some degree) that every determining factor to every human decision comes from outside the person. This is true even in the case of the determining factor being their previous decision. An example of this might be the decision to jump off a cliff. Once someone has made that decision they are not morally culpable for not stopping their fall. Their fate has been "determined." To a large degree, those who hold to determinism must change their perspective on what morality is and is not. It should come as no surprise that as atheists adopt deterministic worldviews it becomes increasingly harder to call anything immoral.
Unfortunately, many take God's work in predestination to be a determining factor such that man is no longer capable of being a moral agent. Yet, the Scriptures clearly require moral agency from man. A man is responsible for his actions whether they be for good or evil. Righteous judgment requires that the true culprit of the behavior be punished accordingly. The accusation that God punishes those who "had no other choice" is often thrown at those who hold to Reformed Theology. This is because the Reformed understanding of God's decrees is oft confused with determinism (this confusion also leads some to accuse Calvinism of logically inferring that God is the author of sin).
In the defense of our accusers, "Calvinists" have not spoken as clearly as they should. Perhaps, this is because many "Calvinists" are not confessionally Reformed. It is true that Reformed believers confess that "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass" (WCF III.I). This is the definitive statement on God's decrees. It may be simplified to say that God has ordained all things. He has predestined all of history from eternity. To state that this ordination by God removes all human responsibility slips into divine determinism. This is to be rejected.
The confessionally Reformed faith affirms that human responsibility is a Scriptural principle. That is to say that history and means are not indispensable nor rendered morally irrelevant. The moral agency of mankind is maintained because not in spite of God's predestination. The Westminster Confession of Faith says, "nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established" (WCF III.I). Though perhaps at variance with our logical assumptions, it is precisely through God's ordaining that our moral agency is affirmed and established. Reformed Theology says that history only matters morally because of God's eternal decree. Reformed Christians must take seriously every teaching of Scriptures. We are not allowed to focus on one aspect to the flattening of another. We may not focus on the decrees of God to such a degree that we become divine determinists. It is our failure to maintain what Scripture says that permits those outside of the Reformed faith to present formidable challenges. They are formidable because determinism is un-Biblical.
I was reminded once again of this whole issue while reading Cornelius Van Til's Common Grace and the Gospel. Though they are many portions I would like to quote, I will restrict myself to just one,
"So far from being a system of philosophical determinism that solidifies human knowledge and responsibility, the reformed faith, being unreservedly based on biblical exegesis, is alone able to deliver to men the unadulterated joy of the gospel as it is in the Christ of the Scriptures." (Common Grace and the Gospel, xlix)
Van Til's emphasis on "biblical exegesis" is in opposition to systematic expressions that depend upon "syllogisms." This is not to say that logical is dispensable, but that Christian-logic must stem from respect to the revelation of God. It is not our business to resolve apparent contradictions such that we abolish the truths put forth by Scripture. Determinism is an attempt by man to work from his knowledge of the world to how God operates. This is not Biblical. We must accept what the Scripture says when it professes that God has ordained all that has come to pass and that man's will and decisions are entirely of his own moral agency.