The Doctrine of “Determinism” — What Is It?

“Determinism” is a popular dogma — both in the skeptical community and in the religious environment. It has no support in either logic or scripture. Study this topic with us.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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“Determinism” is a term widely used in philosophical and religious circles with varying connotations, depending upon the convictions of those employing the expression. This article will focus upon two of these theories.

Atheistic Determinism

A general definition of “determinism” contends that: “[A]ll events whatsoever are to be understood as the necessary outcome of certain causes and so may be regarded as instances of laws” (Harvey, 1964, 69). In this view, the universe is a conglomerate of causes and effects. How such began is never explained. Snow melts at a certain temperature, leaves fall to the earth, and objects grow older with the passing of time. Similarly, according to atheist Bertrand Russell, human beings, as strictly material objects, yield to causes over which they have no control (1957, 48ff). Hence there is no such thing as “free will”—supposedly!

Russell elsewhere wrote: “The first dogma which I came to disbelieve was that of free will” (1952, 79). He wrote as though he volitionally changed from belief to disbelief—which, from the nature of the case, suggests “free will.” His daughter later wrote: “‘Do we have free will?’ He said ‘no,’ writing philosophically; but he acted ‘yes’ and wrote ‘yes’ when his moral passions were engaged” (Tait, 1975, 184). If one is enslaved by the determinism of natural law, why chastise believers for their “foolish” faith, and urge them to abandon such since, according to this philosophy, they haven’t the “will” to alter their conviction? Every line they write is afflicted with the seizure of inconsistency.

Follow the “no free will” position to its logical consequence, as celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow did, and one is forced to conclude there is no human responsibility for any action. In 1902 Darrow addressed the inmates of the Cook County Jail (Chicago), asserting: “There is no such thing as crime as the word is generally understood. ...The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside” (Weinberg, 1957, 3). What kind of lunacy is this? What sort of world would “determinism” fashion?

Calvinistic Determinism

John Calvin occasionally used the expression “free will,” though he confessed he hesitated to do so lest others conclude that man “of his own nature” might be able to “aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit” (1975, 1.265). The reformer imposed his own definition on “free will,” contending that, “none but the elect have a will inclined to good.” Again, “a right will is derived not from man himself,” but only from God (1.257). When God “converts” a person, Calvin alleged, he destroys man’s depraved will and “substitutes a good will from himself” (1.256). Thus, as one modern Calvinist argues: “Human free will is a myth” (Storms, 1984, 80-81).

Problems With Theistic Determinism

There are serious problems with the dogma of “theistic determination,” i.e., the notion that God orchestrates the choices we humans make.

First, there is the difficulty this theory creates for the biblical affirmation of the goodness of God (Romans 2:4). Jehovah is a being of absolute holiness (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8), thus he is too “pure” to tolerate evil (Habakkuk 1:13). Any dogma, therefore, that casts a reflection upon the goodness of the Creator is corrupt. One Calvinist argues: “[I]f a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do it” (Clark, 1961, 221). What conclusion necessarily follows from that statement? Whose fault is it when men do wrong? Can there even be any “wrong,” if there is no free will? How can God possibly condemn human beings for evil (e.g., murder, adultery, etc.) if he himself “determines the choices” they make? This ideology makes no sense.

Second, the denial of human free will is in conflict with multiple biblical texts of clearest import.

  1. Christ personified Jerusalem as one who had persecuted the Lord’s prophets. He had sought to rescue them from a coming destruction, but they “would not” (Matthew 23:37). They did not will to change their lives!
  2. In one of his parables, Christ pictured rebellious sinners as a “prodigal son,” yet who eventually declared: “I will arise and go to my father ... I will say ... I have sinned” (Luke 15:18). If man is void of free will, this illustration is woefully misleading.
  3. In John’s Gospel Jesus declared that the OT Scriptures pointed the way to him; but, he cautioned, “you will not come to me that you may have life” (5:40). Does language have meaning?
  4. He later announced that if anyone “wills” to obey his teaching, he can know whether his message is authentic or not (7:17).
  5. The NT concludes with this gracious invitation: “[H]e that is thirsty, let him come; he that will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).

These passages, and scores of others, powerfully refute the “no free will” heresy.

Third, beyond explicit statements of human free will, numerous texts logically imply both the ability and the urgency of man to exercise his personal will power in submitting to divine authority through obedience. Note:

  1. Every command from God implies both the ability and necessity for the recipient to submit to the divine injunction. It is nonsense to suggest that the Lord commands a duty to which the subject cannot possibly yield.
  2. The Bible overflows with warnings for those who neglect to “give earnest heed” to divine obedience (Hebrews 2:1ff). Why caution a person against doing what he could not do even if he so wished?
  3. If man cannot exercise his will in obeying (or disobeying) the Creator, why should he ever feel a sense of guilt—as did Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:7-8), Judas and Pilate (Matthew 27:4, 24), or Paul (1 Timothy 1:13)?
  4. And what shall be said of the numberless texts that contain either “curses” or “blessings” in response to human activity (cf. Deuteronomy 27:12-13), if indeed a man cannot “incline himself either to good or evil,” as Calvin alleged (op. cit., 1.229).

The Motive

Why have a few denied what is so obvious to so many, namely that man possesses the ability to choose right over wrong? Likely the answer lies in the reality that a denial of “free will” somehow “justifies” an immoral lifestyle. Atheist Aldous Huxley expressed it like this: “[T]here is no valid reason why [one] personally should not do as he wants to do” (1966, 19; emp. WJ). If a person is not responsible for his decisions, he can accelerate the reckless life at full throttle—with no pangs of conscience!

Biblical Determinism

There is a legitimate biblical “determinism,” and it stands a universe apart from the perverted ideas surveyed above. The term “determinate” translates the Greek word, horizo (8x NT), meaning “to set a boundary.” It is used in connection with Christ in the following senses.

  1. In the eternal counsel of God, the death of Jesus as the atonement for sin was a divine “determinate” (Acts 2:23; cf. Luke 22:22).
  2. By his resurrection from the dead, Jesus was “declared” (horizo), i.e., determined to be God’s Son in a uniquely powerful way (Romans 1:4). # God’s sovereignty over the nations of the world is emphasized in that he has “determined” the duration of their supremacy and the limitation of their dominion (Acts 17:26).
  3. Salvation from sin is “limited” (KJV) or “defined” (ASV; horizo – Hebrews 4:7) by a certain (symbolic) “day.” It is the “Today” when a person chooses to “hear his voice,” “hardens not” his heart, and “obeys” the conditions of salvation (as implied by “disobedience” v. 6b). The Lord has “determined” to save all who choose to do his will (Revelation 22:17).
  4. God has appointed a certain day on which he will judge the world in righteousness, and he has “ordained” (horizo) that the judgment will be rendered by his Son (Acts 17:31b; cf. 10:42), the guarantee of which was the Savior’s resurrection.

Scripture never states nor implies that God has unconditionally “determined” to save some and condemn others.

  • Calvin, John. 1975. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Two Vols.
  • Clark, Gordon H. 1961. Religion, Reason, and Revelation. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed.
  • Harvey, Van A. 1964. A Handbook of Theological Terms. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  • Huxley, Aldous. 1966. “Confessions of a Professed Atheist,” Report: Perspective on the News, June. Vol. 3.
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1952. Bertrand Russell’s Dictionary of Mind, Matter, and Morals. New York, NY: Philosophical Library.
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1957. Why I Am Not a Christian. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Storms, C. Samuel. 1984. The Grandeur of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Tait, Katharine. 1975. My Father Bertrand Russell. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
  • Wineberg, Arthur. 1957. Attorney for the Damned. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster