Friday, June 11, 2010

Does Determinism Undermine Total Depravity?

Theological determinism is the thought that everything occurs because God determined it would before it did. When he actualized the creation, everything followed, and follows, the course decreed for it by God. It is a logical consequence of God's sovereignty, if freewill is not factored in. There are some subtleties and some variations that are possible, but in general, that is how I take determinism.

Total Depravity, in Calvinist theology, is the doctrine that mankind was so flawed by Adam's sin as to be rendered utterly incapable of any true good, without any ability or desire whatsoever to perceive or believe God or to walk according to his command. The doctrine is actually very similar in Armininian conceptions, except, most strikingly, that Arminians believe faith can arise in the depraved through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whereas Calvinists believe faith cannot occur until the depraved has become the regenerated (i.e. born again).

The question that has been roiling through my brain is how the two theories can be held without excluding one another. If determinism is true, then mankind is not depraved, but is exactly, no more and no less, what God willed and wants them to be. If they are not, only he could be at fault, for only his will carries any weight!

If freewill is an illusion, then so is depravity, at least in any moralistic sense. We are merely as we are programmed to be, and do exactly what God determined for us to do. We are not incapable of walking in God's will, but in fact, whatever we do is precisely God's very will. That doesn't sound depraved to me.

I don't think anyone would posit that a furry little shrew is depraved, because it is and does what it is meant to by God's determination. If we are and do what God has determined for us, then I say, neither are we depraved. But since the scriptures are more than clear on the subject, I say determinism will have to go by the wayside.


bossmanham said...

Of course, to get Calvinists to see this is like pulling fingernails.

Also, isn't the whole debate we're having determined on determinism, and the positions we take also determined? So...what's the point.

Random Calvinist: It's the means!!! The MEANS!!!


Cindy said...

It IS inconsistent. The concept of depravity carries with it the idea of loss - as the Genesis account clearly also illustrates. Determinism teaches that the non-elect and the fall of Eden were predetermined from all eternity to be "fallen". In fact, how can one even have a "fall" if there wasn't a pre existing righteous condition.

It would also seem that condemnation is not directly dependent upon the judgment of sin. If an unborn child can be non-elect, then they are not being judged for their own sin. Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2 refute any concept of being punished for sins other than our own.

They would seem to need a new word - perhaps 'condemned' would work. Since it is totally not dependent upon any action of the individual: it's more consistent with determinism.

Shep Shepherd said...

Calvinists don't hold to determinism - at least, not traditional Calvinists (hyper-Calvinists might, depending on the person).

Predestination isn't determinism, for a number of reasons. First, God is outside of time. Time is a part of the created order and God is subject to none of His creation, thus, he is outside of time. God's sovereignty and predestination doesn't mean fatalism or determinism, then, but simply that God is in absolute control of every atom in the universe. The Bible and Calvinists use the term "predestine" to mean that God chose us and our destiny before we chose Him, i.e. God loved us first. It doesn't mean that God sat around before creation, mapped everything out, and set the world running like a clockwork machine or a robot.

God sustains and upholds the universe. He is in absolute control at every moment, past, present, and future. Nothing is outside of His control. This does not mean that we as human beings don't have free will - we DO, but our will is subordinate to God's will (something that even non-Calvinists would agree with, I'm sure).

Calvinists do not believe in determinism, they believe in predestination / ordination. There is a distinct difference. Determinism is brought about by a time-bound, deistic God. Predestination / ordination is the sovereign and loving ordering of the universe by a covenantal, transcendent and immanent God.

Hope that is helpful.

Shepherd from The Knight Blog

SLW said...

Welcome to the Sound, and thank you for your comments.

John Calvin did say, "By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man." (Institutes, Book 3.21.5) Jonathan Edwards said that to will that something be was do decree it; accordingly, it seems to me, whatever is has been decreed by God. Surely, you would agree, that in Calvinism, the only difference between the saved and damned is a determination of God. I cannot see another apt description for these kind of thoughts than determinism.

I actually do agree with your third paragraph as you supposed someone like me would. I don't think that Infralapsarian Calvinists and Arminians are really that far off from each other in many ways, but the great divide will always be how we view election; which underlies predestination, which has to be logically founded upon foreknowledge (Arminians) or determination (Calvinists).

I thank you for offering a counter conception to determinism in predestination/ordination, but if the only difference between one walking in fellowship with God and another one burning in a lake of fire for eternity is a choice God made, then that approach is deterministic, period.

SLW said...

Your unassailable logic would do even NASCAR proud. ;-)

SLW said...

That's an interesting "back door" argument I've never thought of, certainly applicable to supralapsarianism (which I see as a twisted cord of blasphemy and phariseeism (Matt 23:13) that must be corrected).

Here's something to think about: not only is condemnation not ultimately dependent on sin, salvation is not ultimately dependent on the Gospel!

Shep Shepherd said...


Thank you for your kind response. Decretal language such as that used by Jonathan Edwards and Calvin does not = determinism. If you mean flatly that God makes determinations (decisions) then of course it is determinism; but my understanding from your post is that you mean determinism in the sense of fatalism, i.e. men are robots.

Dr. Abraham Kuyper, a very highly regarded Calvinist theologian, notes: “What else does God’s foreordination mean than the certainty that the existence and course of all things, i.e., of the entire cosmos, instead of being a plaything of caprice and chance, obeys law and order, and that there exists a firm will which carries out its designs both in nature and in history? It forces upon us the confession that there must be stability and regularity ruling over everything.”

Shep Shepherd said...

The Islamic view is of a god who decrees events before creation and then watches them unfold. This is clearly fatalism, but this may not immediately appear to distinguish the Islamic view from the Calvinistic view. Calvinists who either misunderstand or misstate their own position are largely to blame for this, and hypercalvinists have not helped matters much at all.

How, then, is the Calvinistic understanding of predestination unique? First, Calvinists believe in "predestination" while still affirming human free will and responsibility. Calvinists deny that human beings are puppets on strings. God’s will is sovereign over man’s will, but man is not a robot. This view creates an undeniable, palpable tension: what exactly is the relationship between predestination and free will? The Bible affirms both predestination and human responsibility, and does not explicitly resolve the tension. God ordains by His own will, love, and wisdom, not based off of foreknowledge (otherwise God would know as creatures know). God is also outside of time, so exactly how he decrees or ordains is mysterious as well. The fact that he is outside of time, however, indicates that he does not fatalistically determine the universe's course and set it in motion.

Dr. Cornelius Van Til, the famous theologian of Calvinistic theology and apologetics, writes:

"The idea of creation was present to God from all eternity, but the actual accomplishment was not. And this is as far as our finite minds can reach. At this stage, we are in danger of inserting our temporal categories into the eternal. We realize that our thinking is but analogical. Yet we also realize that our thinking is genuinely analogical so that the distinctions that we must make are true as far as they go."

Shep Shepherd said...

You state:

"Surely, you would agree, that in Calvinism, the only difference between the saved and damned is a determination of God. I cannot see another apt description for these kind of thoughts than determinism."

This is not the only difference between the saved and the damned. Those who go to hell are those who have rebelled against and rejected God. Of their own free will. This does not mean however that a single moment of their lives was outside God's control.

If you are a conservative evangelical, you probably believe that the Bible is inspired. You don't believe, however, that the Bible was written by mechanical robots who God simply used as "tools." The different styles of writing in Scripture indicate that men exercised their free will in writing it. The Bible is wholly God's inspired word, but it is also written freely by man without any coercion from God. By your logic, it would seem that to say the the Bible is wholly God's Word would be determinism; this, however, is not the case - I know of very few Arminians who actually believe this to be the case.

In short, God is outside of time in the Calvinistic system, so God is not a fatalistic deistic God. Also, God's will being higher in authority and effectiveness than man's will does not mean that man has no freedom whatsoever, as can be seen in the analogy of Scripture's inspiration.

If you are wanting to hold on to an idea that man is totally autonomous, then of course man is not free in that sense. Nonetheless, man is free in the Calvinistic view - but it is a subordinate freedom.

Hope that made sense as I am typing in a bit of a hurry. Sorry for three posts in a row - it wouldn't let me post it in one.

Cindy said...

Do the 'nonelect' ever have the choice to receive the Gospel? No. So their free will is not so very free, but rather limited and controlled by their predestined fate. A peculliar use of the concept of free will.

Shep Shepherd said...

Cindy, you say:

"Do the 'nonelect' ever have the choice to receive the Gospel? No. So their free will is not so very free, but rather limited and controlled by their predestined fate. A peculliar use of the concept of free will."

They absolutely do have the choice. Nothing I said above contradicts that. They exercise their free will. Nothing in Scripture or mainstream traditional Calvinism suggests that men are limited by a "predestined fate." What you just said matches the Islamic view of predestination, but not the Calvinistic view.

SLW said...

Thanks, Shepherd, for the thoughtful response.

I see little effectual difference between fatalism and the decretal language of Calvinists in general. The bottom line is that something other than the person unilaterally determines his or her eternal fate. Eternal salvation is all that truly matters, everything else is just coloring in the lines. If one were to say no one would have been saved had not God elected some, the math changes not at all. You stated you were not prepared to see God acting in any kind of a reactionary relationship ("not based off of foreknowledge") with man, so what else is left but an eternal decree established within the counsel of God uneffected by or assessible to the actions of man. Again, that sounds like determinism (or something akin to fatalism) to me.

I have run across (as you probably have too) supralaspsarians that do not allow the existence of freewill and have no problem at all with God authoring sin. I suspect that they may represent the logical conclusion of Calvinistic predestination and decretal language rather than an extremity or aberration in viewpoint.

I am no purveyor of chance, as would be a materialist, so I appreciate the tenor of the Kuyper quote, however I doubt his view would embrace the true freedom and foreknowledge mine does. I see from your responses that you hold to a "softer" determinism than I've encountered with some other Calvinists, but I think is ultimately impossible to hold in tension you speak of, for my reading of what God says in the Bible is that if it was up to him, everyone would be saved.

Shep Shepherd said...

Thanks, SLW. In light of your understanding of how God interacts with human will, would you elaborate on your understanding of how exactly God inspired the authors of the Bible?

You are right in saying that there are passages in Scripture where God says he wishes everyone could be saved. At the same time, God could save absolutely everyone if he so desired - but neither of us are universalists (I think). You explanation would imply that God values human autonomy more than human salvation; my understanding from reading Scripture is that freedom only truly exists in obedience to God and in Christ.

For example, in the new creation, we will be unable to sin, but we will be as fully free as a human being can be.

No person comes to God or rejects God against their will in the Calvinist system. Nevertheless, their will is either sin-bound or it is grace-filled.

The problem with fallen man is that he has, since birth, FREELY chosen to suppress the truth. Fallen man freely chooses to corrupt his own will and blind himself (much as Uncle Andrew deafens himself to the voices of talking animals in the Magician's Nephew by C.S.Lewis). In order to see the world right again, man has to essentially start over - be reborn. God does this to some and not others, but the ones he does not do this to are nonetheless freely choosing to suppress the truth that is plain to them.

Shep Shepherd said...

Anyhow, I think I've taken over your comments section long enough! I just wanted to clarify some things. If nothing else perhaps reading my explanations / clarifications will help strengthen your own arguments for your convictions. I know it always helps me to hear from the other side.

Peace to you in Christ.

SLW said...

It's been a pleasure. I think we probably have more in common than we have that separates us. Stop in again and see us when you get the chance. ;-)

Cindy said...

God could save everyone IF salvation were not offered as a gift to be received or rejected. Since salvation is a gift with free will included as part of the package...then God has, in His sovereignty, made it so that it isn't just up to Him. God, who is the source and author of love and spiritual liberty, knows that love needs to be freely given, and that's what He desires from us.

There is no free will involved in Calvinist salvation doctrine (soteriology). The elect are born again by an act of God completely separate from their will (they are supposedly as if dead on the bottom of the ocean and unable to respond to God at all...i.e. no free will). The only will allowed to the elect is either to sin, or to respond to salvation after God has changed them (which BTW guarantees that they will respond to the Gospel - no free will here either). The free will that the nonelect have is to rebel against God - but never to respond to the Gospel and choose life...ever.

Shepherd, my guess is that you are referencing a "Calvinist" group which doesn't completely reflect what Calvin taught. Even so, once one accepts dual predestination; it's hard to avoid ending in the same place(pun intended). There is no free will in Calvinism, where it really matters - for salvation.

Arminius personally never actually accepted the idea that Christians can lose their salvation, but he believed completely in the ability of man to accept or reject the Gospel. I agree.