Calvinism and Determinism

Are You a Determinist?It’s often claimed that Calvinists are determinists. The claim is true as far as it goes; the trouble is that it doesn’t go very far, and it can lead to a lot of confusion and unwarranted conclusions. For there are many different types of determinism. Some of those types seem to be entailed by what Calvinists believe; some are consistent with Calvinist beliefs but not entailed by those beliefs; and some types are inconsistent with what Calvinists believe. (By “what Calvinists believe” I’m referring to mainstream historic Calvinism, as represented by the teachings of John Calvin and the major Reformed confessions and catechisms. I recognize, of course, that there’s diversity within the Calvinist tradition, but here I plan to focus on typical Calvinist claims.)

Along with the claim that Calvinists are determinists goes the assertion that Calvinists are committed to a compatibilist view of free will, where compatibilism is defined as the thesis that determinism is compatible with freedom. Again, this claim is true enough, but it’s rather vague as it stands because in theory there are as many versions of compatibilism as there are types of determinism: for every type of determinism we can formulate a corresponding compatibilist thesis (viz., that freedom is compatible with that type of determinism). Indeed, there are even more versions of compatibilism than there are types of determinism, because there are also various kinds of freedom. For any particular type of determinism, that type may be incompatible with some kinds of freedom (e.g., the freedom to have chosen otherwise than one did in fact choose) but compatible with other kinds of freedom (e.g., the freedom to act according to one’s desires in a way that is responsive to reasons).

All this to say, the idea that Calvinists are determinists and compatibilists is rather more complicated than many people recognize. My purpose in this post is to try to clarify matters (at least to some degree!) by distinguishing various types of determinism and briefly commenting on whether or not Calvinists are committed to each type. (Understand that I’m not aiming here to defend Calvinism, compatibilism, or determinism, but only to shed some light on the relationship between them.)

Determinism, defined in the broadest sense, is the view that events are determined by (in the sense of entailed by or necessitated by) prior events or conditions. But that leaves open the questions, “Determined by what?” and “Determined how?” In what follows, I tease out some of the different answers to these questions and their relationship to Calvinism. (I don’t claim to provide here a comprehensive typology of determinism, only a selective list of important types.)

Logical Determinism

The strongest type of determinism is logical determinism: the view that everything is determined as a matter of sheer logical necessity. On this view there are no contingent truths or events at all; this world, the actual world, is the only possible world. Things could not have been different than they in fact are.

Within this type of determinism we could distinguish two sub-types: narrow logical determinism and broad logical determinism. Narrow (or strict) logical determinism would be the view that everything is strictly entailed by the laws of logic alone. I don’t know of anyone, let alone any Calvinist, who has defended such an extreme form of determinism.

Broad logical determinism, on the other hand, would be the view that everything is necessary in the broad logical sense. (Broad logical necessity is sometimes characterized as metaphysical necessity.) The broad logical determinist will deny that everything is strictly entailed by the laws of logic alone, but will hold that everything is necessary in the sense that 2 being the square root of 4 and elephants having DNA are necessary.

I think some Calvinists have affirmed broad logical determinism (or something close to it). The only clear instances I could point to would be the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (at least on one common interpretation) and a couple of students whom I failed to persuade that there could have been a different number of elephants in the world than there actually are.

However, I’m confident in saying that the vast majority of Calvinists have rejected this strong (and implausible) position, and there’s nothing in Calvinism as such that requires broad logical determinism. If Edwards held that view, it wasn’t merely because he was a Calvinist but because he was committed to additional philosophical theses which, in conjunction with his Calvinist convictions, led him to that conclusion. (It should be noted that Edwards held to a number of idiosyncratic and controversial philosophical theses, such as occasionalism and idealism; he’s not your average run-of-the-mill Calvinist, to say the least.)

The bottom line, then, is that Calvinists as such aren’t committed to any form of logical determinism.

Physical Determinism

Physical determinism is the view that every event is determined by prior events in conjunction with the laws of physics (laws that are typically assumed to be fixed and unalterable, whatever they happen to be in terms of an ‘ideal’ physics). On this view the universe is essentially a very large collection of physical objects following predictable paths determined by physical laws.

Newton's Cradle

It should be obvious that Calvinism doesn’t entail physical determinism. I’ve come across a handful of Calvinists who are physicalists with respect to human nature (and for all I know there are some Calvinists who are physicalists with respect to the entire created cosmos) but surely Calvinism as such isn’t committed to physicalism. Moreover, physicalism doesn’t entail determinism; a physicalist can be an indeterminist (e.g., if he thinks that quantum mechanics involves a real ontological indeterminism). And a physicalist who is open to divine intervention within the cosmos would affirm only a qualified physical determinism (i.e., events are physically determined assuming no divine intervention).

Causal (Nomological) Determinism

Causal determinism is the type of determinism usually in view in contemporary philosophical discussions of free will. For example, debates over compatibilism tend to focus on whether freedom is compatible with this type of determinism. Causal determinism is the thesis that every event is causally necessitated by prior events in accordance with the laws of nature (which, once again, are typically assumed to be fixed and unalterable). This type of determinism has also been called “nomological determinism” (from the Greek nomos: law).

Causal determinism isn’t strictly equivalent to physical determinism, because a causal determinist need not be committed to physicalism (the view that all causes and events are physical in nature). A causal determinist might think that there are mental events (i.e., thoughts) that are distinct from, and not reducible to, physical events, but which are also governed by laws of nature, broadly defined. In other words, there might be both physical and non-physical (e.g., mental) events, all of which are governed by a complex but unified set of natural laws.

Again, it ought to be clear that Calvinism doesn’t commit one to causal (nomological) determinism. Indeed, most Calvinists will deny causal determinism on the grounds that it would rule out divine supernatural intervention (e.g., miraculous events that violate or temporarily suspend the laws of nature, such that later events aren’t entailed by earlier events in conjunction with the laws of nature).

Divine Determinism

Divine determinism, broadly defined, is the doctrine that everything is determined by God. So defined, divine determinism isn’t committed to any particular account of how God determines everything, only that he does do so. Divine determinism doesn’t entail logical determinism, physical determinism, or causal determinism. It is conceptually distinct from all the types previously discussed.

I think it’s beyond reasonable dispute that Calvinism is committed to divine determinism, since historic Calvinism teaches that God actively foreordains all things; for every event E, God wills that E occurs, and God’s willing that E occurs is a sufficient condition for E’s occurrence. But that leaves quite a bit of room for discussion and disagreement about how that divine determination of events should be understood. So a more fine-grained analysis of divine determinism is needed. In what follows, I distinguish three different sub-types of divine determinism. (I don’t claim that this covers the entire terrain, only that it acknowledges a large part of the terrain.)

Causal Divine Determinism

Causal divine determinism, as I define it here, is the view that God determines everything by some kind of causation; in other words, God is the ultimate sufficient cause of every event. That still leaves open a lot of questions about the kind of causation by which God determines events. Note in particular that causal divine determinism does not assert or entail any of the following claims:

  • that God is the only cause of events (i.e., there are no real second causes);
  • that God is the direct or immediate cause of every event;
  • that God always employs positive causation and never negative causation;
  • that divine causation is on a par with intramundane causation (i.e., the kind of causation that operates within the created cosmos);
  • that God stands in the same causal relationship to good events (or good creaturely actions) as he does to evil events (or evil creaturely actions);
  • that the language of ‘permission’ is inappropriate or incoherent when speaking of God’s relationship to evil.

In other words, a causal divine determinist can reject all of the above without falling into any obvious logical contradiction. It’s also important to see that causal divine determinism doesn’t entail causal determinism in the technical sense defined earlier (i.e., nomological determinism). The verbal similarity may tempt one to make that connection, but the two views are logically distinct.

I take the view that mainstream Calvinism represents some version of causal divine determinism. I would argue (but will not argue here) that causal divine determinism is reflected in the writings of John Calvin, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and (most importantly) in many of the biblical texts to which Calvinists have appealed in defense of their doctrines. But as I’ve noted, even if I’m right about this, it still leaves a lot of questions open. It also means that Calvinists are committed to compatibilism only in this sense: they’re committed to the thesis that human freedom is compatible with causal divine determinism (and not just any kind of determinism).

Non-Causal Divine Determinism

Non-causal divine determinism is another sub-type of divine determinism. It can be defined as the view that God determines everything, in the sense that he actively foreordains all things, but he does so by non-causal means, at least in part. The notion of non-causal determination is quite coherent in itself (examples available on request) and so non-causal divine determinism seems to be a coherent view in principle.

As I’ve contended elsewhere, Molinism is a form of non-causal divine determinism which attempts to reconcile a strong view of divine providence with a libertarian (non-deterministic) view of creaturely freedom. According to the Molinist, God foreordains all things according to an infallible decree, but he actualizes that decree by way of a mixture of causal and non-causal means. God strongly (causally) actualizes circumstances so that his libertarian-free creatures will make the very choices he knows in advance they would make if they were placed in those circumstances. Thus there is no chain of sufficient causation from God’s decree (or his actualization of that decree) to any creature’s free choice, although God nonetheless “brings about” (in some weaker sense) that choice by his manipulation of circumstances.

As I said above, I believe mainstream Calvinism reflects some form of causal divine determinism. If I’m wrong about that, Calvinism must be committed instead to some form of non-causal divine determinism, in which case it remains to be explained how exactly Calvinism is to be distinguished from Molinism.

Passive Divine Determinism

There’s another sub-type of divine determinism that deserves to be noted. Calvinism and Molinism represent versions of active divine determinism: God acts in such a way as to determine all events according to his infallible decree. By way of contrast, passive divine determinism can be defined as the view that God determines all things, but passively rather than actively. To put it another way: God non-willingly determines all things. Here I’m thinking particularly of the view (held by, e.g., non-Molinist Arminians) that God foreknows all things but doesn’t foreordain all things. According to this view, God knows infallibly everything that will take place in his creation, even though much of what takes place is contrary (in every respect) to his will. God has infallible exhaustive foreknowledge, but he doesn’t have an exhaustive decree that he infallibly brings to pass.

I think there’s a clearly intelligible sense in which, if God infallibly foreknows that an event E will occur, E is determined by God’s foreknowledge. E is determined or fixed in advance; it simply cannot fail to occur, given God’s prior foreknowledge. God may not have decreed E, or actively willed that E occur, or resolved to bring about E by some means or other, but E is nevertheless entailed by God’s prior beliefs about E. E isn’t absolutely necessary, but it is consequently necessary given God’s foreknowledge.

Obviously this is a much weaker type of divine determinism than those types affirmed by Calvinists and Molinists. But I suspect that many so-called Open Theists, who consciously reject this view, would agree with me that it’s reasonable to see it as a kind of determinism. They reject it in part because they think it’s incompatible with a libertarian (non-deterministic) view of free will.

The debate over how divine foreknowledge can be reconciled with human freedom has raged ever since the medieval period, if not earlier times. The fact that this problem is widely acknowledged and has proven so difficult to solve (at least if one assumes that we have libertarian freedom) supports the idea that divine foreknowledge involves a kind of determinism, albeit a weak one. Hence this longstanding debate can be understood as a debate over a particular compatibilist thesis: whether freedom is compatible with passive divine determinism. (In fact, the label ‘compatibilism’ has often been used for the thesis that divine foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom.) As I remarked at the outset, for every type of determinism there is a corresponding compatibilist thesis.

A Few Words About Fatalism

This post has focused on determinism, but it’s worth saying a word or two about how all of this connects with fatalism, not least because one sometimes hears the claim that Calvinism is fatalistic.

The term ‘fatalism’ can bear a range of different meanings. Sometimes it’s defined as “the doctrine that all events are determined by (or subject to) fate” — which doesn’t shed much light on what fatalism actually entails. Sometimes it’s defined as “the doctrine that all events are fixed in advance” — but again, that leaves considerable room for interpretation. (Fixed how? Fixed by what?)

Oftentimes fatalism is treated — quite misleadingly, I suggest — as equivalent to determinism. But as I’ve taken many words to explain, that leaves many important questions unanswered too, for there are various types of determinism. Furthermore, nearly all advocates of divine determinism would strongly disavow the label ‘fatalism’, not least because ‘fate’ is typically understood as an impersonal power or principle. So it would be lazy and irresponsible to suggest that Calvinism is fatalistic simply because it affirms a form of determinism.

Chess with Death

A more interesting (and I think more common) way to understand ‘fatalism’ is as the view that events will turn out a certain way no matter what we do. The central idea here is that future events (at least the major life-impacting ones) are fixed in such a way that our choices are irrelevant; those events aren’t dependent on, or affected by, our decisions or actions to any significant extent. So a fatalist might believe (based on the pronouncements of a fortune-teller perhaps) that he will die on a certain date, or in a particular fashion, regardless of any course of action he might take now.

There are two important things to note about fatalism understood in this way. First, it doesn’t entail any of the types of determinism discussed above. Note in particular that this kind of fatalism could be true even if humans have libertarian free will. After all, if future events are fixed in such a way that they aren’t dependent on our choices, it doesn’t matter whether those choices are deterministic or indeterministic. (If you have an appointment with the Grim Reaper on a certain date, you can be sure he won’t be confounded by your libertarian free will!)

Secondly, fatalism (again, understood in this way) isn’t entailed by Calvinism. Quite the opposite, in fact: Calvinism entails that fatalism is false, because it affirms that future events do significantly depend on our choices and actions. Calvinists will insist, for example, that whether you spend eternity in fellowship with God depends crucially on whether you repent of your sin and trust in Christ. That’s far removed from fatalism.

Why Does It Matter?

Why does any of this matter? Here are several reasons. First, it matters because when we talk about important theological and philosophical issues we should aim to minimize vagueness, ambiguity, and equivocation. Clear thinking is good thinking, whatever the subject matter. (No doubt my thinking on these issues isn’t perfectly clear, but I hope it has at least made steps in the right direction!)

Secondly, it matters because one often encounters arguments like this: “Calvinists are committed to determinism, and determinism is demonstrably false and/or irrational.” When presented with such an argument, we should first ask, “What type of determinism do you mean? Are Calvinists really committed to the type of determinism you claim to be able to refute?” There’s a real possibility that the critic’s argument against Calvinism is guilty of equivocation.

Similarly, I’ve seen arguments along these lines: “Calvinists are committed to a compatibilist view of free will, but there are powerful arguments against compatibilism.” Again we should ask, “Exactly what type of compatibilism are Calvinists committed to? Do those arguments apply specifically to that type of compatibilism?” (I would also note that there are no knock-down arguments for incompatibilism and there are some formidable arguments against indeterministic views of free will — but those are topics for another time.)

So here’s the cash value. If you’re a Calvinist, the next time a fellow Christian accuses you of being a ‘determinist’ (as though that were a dirty word) you can reply, “Sure, I’m a determinist — and there’s a good chance you are too. So the question is: Which types of determinists are we? Once we figure that out, the next question we should ask is: Which types of determinism are consistent with the teachings of the Bible?”

Addendum: Determinism: Soft or Hard?

8 thoughts on “Calvinism and Determinism”

    1. Thanks, Remington. Guillaume kindly sent me a copy of that paper, although I haven’t had time to look at it yet. He also sent me his ETS paper, which touches on some of the same issues regarding determinism and causation. (It’s a fine paper, BTW.)

  1. Pingback: Creating a Calvinist T-Shirt | Analytic Theology, et cetera.

  2. Do divine determinists generally deny that there is a best possible world?

    1. I don’t think there’s any general opinion among divine determinists on that. Some will deny that there’s a best possible world. Some will say there is, and this is it. Some will say there may well be, but God has no obligation to actualize it. Speaking for myself, I doubt that there’s one single possible world which is objectively better than any other possible world.

  3. Why do you doubt there’s one single possible world which is objectively better than any other possible world?

    1. Several reasons:

      1. For any possible world, it seems possible in principle for there to be another world that is slightly better (e.g., one more redeemed sinner glorifying God for eternity). If so, there cannot be one maximally good world.

      2. Even if that argument fails, I see no reason why there couldn’t be multiple possible worlds that are better than any other world but not better than each other.

      3. It’s not clear to me that there’s only one ‘metric’ by which one possible world should be judged ‘better’ than another possible world. Compare: there are multiple (and probably incommensurable) criteria by which we evaluate pieces of classical music. Is there (at least in theory) a best possible classical composition? How could one answer that question?

  4. “It’s not clear to me that there’s only one ‘metric’ by which one possible world should be judged ‘better’ than another possible world.”

    I think that’s a good point. If there is a metric, what is its source, or in what is it ontologically grounded? I’m inclined to think that if there is a metric, and there is a “best” possible world, it would have to be grounded in God, else it be grounded elsewhere and threaten divine aseity. I wonder if we can look at this as some do with the Euthyphro Dilemma, by locating the metric for perfection in the divine will, maintaining that the actual world is perfect because it stems from God’s necessarily perfect nature.

    I’m also inclined toward your (2). Both seem plausible :-)

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