Divine Determinism

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If we as Christians want to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” and if we want to fulfill the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to the lost, then we need to be thinking rightly about God. In other words, our theology needs to be correct. All people, Christians and non-believers, acquire their “theology” or their “philosophy of life” from someplace. For most of us, our worldview is shaped by our parents. How often have we heard, “My father was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat, and by golly, I’m a Democrat too!” Well, that’s often where our beliefs begin and end. Other people start off inheriting their beliefs from their parents, then off to college they go, where they are brainwashed by either their peers or more likely their professors. They went into college believing one thing and came out believing another.

Christians are the same. Which is fine, as long our parents or professors are filling our heads with true, Biblical ideas. This is, unfortunately, often not the case. It’s surprising how Biblically illiterate our parents, our Sunday School teachers, or even our pastors may be. The most influential Christian people in our lives are often sorely lacking in a fundamental knowledge of what the Bible teaches. They may know and teach a lot of “church doctrine,” but “church doctrine” is sometimes not the same as Biblical doctrines. That’s funny, since the church is supposedly in business to teach the Bible! But what happens so often is that instead of teaching what the Bible says, what gets taught in many churches is what the pastor thinks or what some theologian thought or what some denominational constitution or book of order teaches.

But if we want to think rightly about God, we need to know what the Bible teaches. It’s good to know what the great thinkers of Christianity thought, but it is essential to know what the Bible teaches. It’s good to know what John Calvin or John Wesley thought about theology, but what if they were wrong sometimes? The Bible, however, is never wrong. It is God’s revelation to man. And that’s why you need to know what really says.

How much of what we do and think is foreordained and rendered certain by God? According to one wing of the Christian church, everything is. They teach that absolutely everything down to the minutest detail of history and individual lives is ordered by God. Even evil thoughts and actions are ordained by God to further His will. This is called “Divine determinism,” and maybe you believe it. Maybe you don’t. C. Everett Coop believed it. In fact, he famously spoke on the topic, “God Killed My Son.” Dr. Koop’s son was killed in a tragic mountain climbing accident and Dr. Koop believed that God had foreordained his son’s death and that it was no accident. God quite literally “killed his son.” It gave Dr. Coop great peace to think this; knowing that his son’s death was not an accident and that there was some grand purpose behind it.

A lot of Christians believe this for the same reason. And if you don’t think too long about it, you may believe it too. It was a quick death. Dr. Koop’s son died immediately. He didn’t suffer. So you can see how appealing this aspect of Divine determinism is. It puts a purpose behind a horrible event.

But does God work that way? If He does, it’s hard to see a purpose behind a lingering, painful death by, say, cancer or some other disease. Is that Divine determinism at work, too? Some would say it is. God causes some people suffer terribly for reasons known only to Him. If you believe God orders the tiniest details of our lives, then that’s what you have to believe.

Ulrich Zwingly, John Calvin and Providence

Where did the idea of Divine determinism come from? A lot of scholars trace it back to Ulrich Zwingli’s and John Calvin’s ideas of “providence.” To put it simply, God’s providence is “God’s rule over and direction of all things in the universe. For if anything were guided by its own power or insight, just so far would the wisdom and power of our Deity be deficient.” Zwingly, who greatly influenced Calvin, flatly denied that any event in the world is “contingent, fortuitous or accidental.” His teaching was that God is the sole cause of absolutely everything that happens.

But where did this idea come from? A lot of it comes from philosophy Zwingly believed, but there are Bible verses that seem to indicate Ulrich Zwingly was on to something. Here is just a handful:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33 NIV)

For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27 NIV)

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 NIV)

There are many more verses like these, but just these three seem to support Ulrich Zwingly’s teaching of God’s absolute providence. Later on, John Calvin continued in Zwingly’s footsteps, except while Zwingly’s theology was more philosophical, Calvin’s theology was grounded more in Scripture. His teaching was simple:

No wind ever arises or increases except by God’s express command.

Even Adam’s fall, Calvin thought, was foreordained by God. Calvin continued:

Since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to displace its force to the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience.

It seems pretty clear that Calvin believed that everything, even horrible, evil things done by the unsaved are rendered certain by God.

Other Calvinists

Jonathan Edwards, great revivalist preacher and philosopher, taught the idea of Divine determinism in the strongest way possible. As far as he was concerned, all things on earth, including sin and evil, follow a course laid out for them by God.

God, however, is forever untainted by the sin He Himself foreordains. Take Adam’s sin, for example. Adam sinned because his intentions were sinful. Even though God foreordained Adam’s sin, God cannot be held culpable in any way because God’s intentions in Adam’s sin were not at all evil. As Edwards wrote,

In willing evil God does not do evil.

It’s hard to get around the fact that Jonathan Edwards believed, in some fashion, that God is the author of sin.

If by “author of sin,” is meant that permitter, or not the hinderer of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say this, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I don’t deny that God is the author of sin.

For Edwards and most Calvinists, “God is the author” of sin means that while God certainly did not force Adam to sin, or anybody else for that matter, God does render man’s sinful actions sure and certain. Most, if not all, Calvinists – R.C. Sproul and John Piper included – hold this high Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty: everything down to the smallest particle of history – history in the grand scale and history in the individual – including every human being’s thoughts and actions, are foreordained by God and necessarily rendered certain by Him so that everything and everybody carries out God’s will.

Remember, though, God is in no way stained by the sin He foreordains even though the person committing the sin has no choice in the matter. As another famous Calvinist wrote:

God wills righteously those things which men do wickedly.

God does not force men to sin but men WILL sin because God will withdraw or withhold His influence to deter them. Therefore, this wing of the church says that everything, including sin, is ordained by God for His own glory.

Is that the right view?

While much of Calvinism is worthwhile, some Calvinist teaching just doesn’t make much sense, at least to a majority of Christians.  All orthodox Christians from all wings of the Church, affirm the absolute perfect goodness of God. From Calvinists to Arminians to everybody in between, we all agree that God is totally good. There is NO debate on that. There are dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of Bible verses that either directly or indirectly uphold the theology that God is good. Here are a few:

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17 NIV)

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16 NIV)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalm 73:1 NIV)

You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:68 NIV)

The list goes on and on. “God is good all the time,” as the song goes. But God is also sovereign. This is also a belief that all orthodox Christians believe. And herein lies the problem. Calvinists, while affirming God’s goodness, also scrupulously protect God’s sovereignty to the point of making it an “all-determining sovereignty,” which we call Divine determinism. But can an all-good God engage in the kind of shady manipulation Calvinism teaches?

Sovereignty

That God has a plan for His creation is not disputed. God does have a plan – a will – for all of us and when we speak of God’s sovereignty we are saying that, to put it simply, “God is in control.” Non-Calvinists, though, often speak of God’s permissive will. This, they say, explains the story of Joseph. Here is how Joseph, who probably wouldn’t consider himself a Calvinist, viewed the events of his up-and-down life:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. (Genesis 50:20 NIV)

If you don’t like that example, here is a New Testament verse that says the same thing in a general way:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

God foresaw and permitted sinful people, like Joseph’s brothers and Potifar’s wife, to do the sinful things they did because He is sovereign, and in His sovereignty He would take the sinful actions committed by those people and turn the results around so that He would be glorified. But – and here’s the departure from Divine determinism – God did not foreordain the sin or render the sin certain. He simply knew beforehand that sins would be committed and who would commit them and why. God’s foreknowledge is absolutely perfect because He knows what’s inside the heart of man:

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:10 NIV)

Because God knows what is in the hearts of all men, He knows their thoughts and intentions. He knows what they will do. God doesn’t have to foreordain their actions, He already knows what they are planning. He doesn’t have to manipulate sinners to guarantee what they will do. His foreknowledge is perfect in ever way.

Here is where your theology determines your view of God. If you believe in Divine determinism – or God’s sovereignty to the endth degree – then God is the author of all that is good but also the author of all that is bad. He doesn’t just allow sin, He causes it so that He will be glorified. In other words, God ordains evil (and everything else) to glorify Himself. Adam sinned, not because of a decisionAdam made, but because God set the first man up for a fall. This view of God will determine how you view sinners and even how you view things like evangelism. Sinners may be lost, but they are lost because that’s how God wants them to be, because in their lost condition they somehow glorify Him. Huh?

The alternate view of God’s sovereignty is a more “passive” view. Yes, God is involved in His creation, but He doesn’t trick, manipulate or coerce people into doing what He wants them to do. He could if He wanted to, but God limits Himself. He allows His creation freedom of will – including freedom to sin – knowing that even that can bring about His will. That freedom man has is a gift from God. You can also consider it a curse. In His sovereignty, God allows His perfect will to be stymied by the actions of man.  He lets this happen because He loves man and respects him.

God’s two wills

Instead of God being a cold, impersonal force that sneakily controls man, what if God really is personally involved in the lives of man to the point where He knows them so well nothing they dream of doing surprises Him? This view of God sees Him as having not one but two wills for His creation. God has a perfect will for His creation. This will is what God truly wants to happen. A good example of God’s perfect will is this:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

And yet we know NOT everyone will come to repentance. Most people won’t. God’s perfect will is one thing, but God also has a consequent will. This is His will based on the consequences of Adam’s fall and man’s subsequent rebellious nature. This will graciously allows man to choose not to repent. God doesn’t manipulate man into not choosing Him. He genuinely limits His influence, and in doing so man makes his own, free choice.

Does this view of God do damage to His omnipotence or His sovereignty? Not at all. God is sovereign by absolute right, but He willingly limits that sovereignty temporarily.

The god (Satan) of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4 NIV)

As I stated, this self-limited sovereignty is just temporary. God’s full sovereignty will become actuality in the future when “the god of this age” is defeated for good.

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28 NIV)

So, whose view of God is right? Is God sovereign, or does He operate in divine determinism? Consider this:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:9, 10a NIV)

So Jesus lived and acted as His Father would. He did nothing His Father didn’t want Him to do. Including this:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:3 NIV)

Jesus “could not” heal everybody in town because the people had no faith (a sin, by the way). As God, of course Jesus could have healed everybody, but He limited His awesome power because the people refused to believe. Is the power of God dependent on man? Not at all. But, we serve a God who makes covenants with man. God has willingly bound himself to man in a covenant relationship. If man rebels – if man refuses to exercise faith, for example – God’s hands are tied as far as that man is concerned.

We serve a God who is not a Calvinist. Nor is He an Arminian. Our God is a sovereign God, above any labels we try to velcro onto Him. David Bentley Hart wrote:

How radically the gospel is pervaded by a sense that the brokenness of the fallen world is the work of rebellious rational free will, which God permits to reign, and pervaded also by a sense that Christ comes genuinely to save creation, to conquer, to rescue, to defeat the power of evil in all things. This great narrative of fall and redemption is not a charade, not simply a dramaturgical lesson regarding God’s absolute prerogatives prepared for us from eternity, but a real consequence of the mystery of created freedom and the fullness of grace.

 

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