Determinism is the belief that all events, including human choices are determined or caused by another. Proponents of this view believe that human choices are the result of antecedent causes, which in turn were caused by prior causes.

Kinds of Determinism. There are two basic kinds of determinism: naturalistic and theistic. Naturalistic determinists include behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, author of Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Beyond Behaviorism. An atheist, Skinner wrote that all human behavior is determined by genetic and behavioral factors. On this view, humans are like a brush in the hands of an artist, though in his view the "artist" is a mix of societal manipulation and chance. The human being is at the mercy of these forces, and is simply the instrument through which they are expressed.

The theistic version of this view insists that God is the ultimate cause who determines all human actions. Martin Luther's Bondage of the Will and Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will are examples of this theistic determinism. It is the view held by all strong Calvinists.

Arguments for Determinism

The Argument from Alternative Possibility. All human behavior is either uncaused, self-caused, or caused by something else. However, human behavior cannot be uncaused, since nothing occurs without a cause. Further, human actions cannot be self-caused, for no act can cause itself. To do so, it would have to be prior to itself, which is impossible. The only remaining alternative is that all human behavior is caused by something external to it.

The Argument from the Nature of Causality. Edwards argued from the nature of causality. He reasoned that since the principle of causality demands that all actions are caused, then it is irrational to claim that things arise without a cause. But for Edwards a self-caused action is impossible, since a cause is prior to an effect, and one cannot be prior to himself. Therefore, all actions are ultimately caused by a First Cause (God). "Free choice" for Edwards is doing what one desires, but God gives the desires or affections that control action. Hence, all human actions ultimately are determined by God.

The Argument from sovereignty. If God is sovereign, than all acts must be determined by Him (see The Nature of God). For if God is in control of all, then He must ultimately be the cause of all. Otherwise, He would not in complete control.

The Argument from Omniscience. Some determinists argue from God's omniscience. For if God knows everything, then everything He knows must occur according to His will. If it did not, then God would be wrong in what He knew. But an omniscient Mind cannot be wrong in what it knows.

A Response to Theistic Determinism.

Non-determinists, especially self-determinists (see Free Will), reject the premises of determinist arguments. It is important to distinguish two forms of determinism, hard and soft. The determinism rejected here is hard determinism:
  Hard Determinism   Soft Determinism
 Act is caused by God. Acts is not caused by God.
 God is the only cause. God is the primary cause; humans are the secondary cause.
 Totally free human choice is eliminated. Human free choice is compatible with sovereignty.

Soft determinism is sometimes called compatibolism, since it is "compatible" with free choice (self-determinism). Only hard determinism is incompatible with free choice or secondary causality of a human free agent.

Response to the Argument from Alternative Possibility. All human behavior is either uncaused, self-caused, or caused by something else. But human behavior can be self-caused, since there is nothing contradictory about a self-caused action (as there is about a self-caused being). For an action does not have to be prior to itself to be caused by oneself. Only the self (I) must be prior to the action. A self-caused action is simply one caused by my self. And my self (I) is prior to my actions.

Response to the Argument from the Nature of Causality. Jonathan Edwards rightly argued that all actions are caused, but it does not follow from this that God is the cause of all these actions. A self-caused action is not impossible, since one's self is prior to his actions. Therefore, all actions need not be attributed to the First Cause (God). Some actions can be caused by human beings to whom God gave free moral agency. Free choice is not, as Edwards contends, doing what one desires (with God giving the desires). Rather, it is doing what one decides. And one does not always do what He desires, as is the case when duty is placed above desire. Hence, is does not follow that all actions are determined by God.

Response to the Argument from Sovereignty. One need not reject God's sovereign control of the universe in order to believe determinism is wrong. For God can control by His omniscience, as well as by His causal power. As the next point reveals, God can control events by willing in accordance with His omniscient knowledge of what will occur by free choice. God need not make (or cause) the choice Himself. Simply knowing for sure that a person will freely do something is enough for God to control the world.

Response to the Argument from Omniscience. It is true that everything God knows must occur according to His will. If it did not, then God would be wrong in what He knew. For an omniscient Mind cannot be wrong in what it knows. However, it does not follow from this that all events are determined (i.e. caused by God). God could simply determine that we be self-determining beings in a moral sense. The fact that He knows for certain what free creatures will do with their freedom is enough to make an event determined. But the fact that God does not force them to choose, is enough to establish that human free acts are not determined (caused) by another but by oneself. God determined the fact of human freedom, but free creatures perform the acts of human freedom.

Weaknesses of Determinism

Determinism is self-defeating. A determinist insists that both determinists and non-determinists are determined to believe what they believe. However, determinists believe self-determinists are wrong and ought to change their view. But "ought to change" implies they are free to change, which is contrary to determinism.

Determinism is irrational. C.S. Lewis argued that naturalistic, complete determinism is irrational. For determinism to be true, there would have to be a rational basis for their thought. But if determinism is true, then there is no rational basis for thought, since all is determined by non-rational forces. So, if determinism claims to be true, then it must be false.

Determinism destroys human responsibility. If God is the cause of all human actions, then human beings are not morally responsible. One is only responsible for a choice if there was free will to avoid making it. All responsibility implies the ability to respond, either on one's own or by God's grace. Ought implies can. But if God caused the action, then we could not have avoided it. Hence, we are not responsible.

Determinism renders praise and blame meaningless. Similarly, if God causes all human actions, then it makes no sense to praise human beings for doing good, nor to blame them for doing evil. For if the courageous really had no choice other than to show courage, why reward it? If the evil had no choice but to commit their crime, why punish them? Rewards and punishment for moral behavior makes sense only if the actions were not caused by another.

Determinism leads to fatalism. If everything is determined beyond our control, then why do good and avoid evil? Indeed, if determinism is right, evil is unavoidable. Determinism destroys the very motive to do good and shun evil.

Determinism is unbiblical. Theistic opponents to determinism offer several objections from Scripture. Defining free choice as "doing what one desires" is contrary to experience. For people do not always do what they desire, nor do they always desire to do what they do (Romans 7:15-16).

If God must give the desire before one can perform an act, then God must have given Satan the desire to rebel against Him. But this is impossible, for in that case God would be giving a desire against God. God would be in effect against Himself, which is impossible.

Theistic determinists like Edwards have a faulty, mechanistic view of human personhood. He likens human free choice to balancing scales in need of more pressure from the outside in order to tip the scales from dead center. But humans are not machines; they are persons made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

Edwards wrongly assumes that self-determinism is contrary to God's sovereignty. For God could have predetermined things in accordance with free-choice, rather than in contradiction to it. Even the Calvinistic Westminster Confession of Faith declares that "Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence He ordered them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently" (5.2)

What soft determinism means to you:

1) God definitely has foreordained from the foundations what will happen to those whom have followed Him and to those whom have not followed Him.

2) God has not predetermined individuals one way or the other. Yet this does not deny, that God:

a) Works to effect things.
b) Allows things.
c) Positively commands things.
d) Negates or negatively requires something not to be enacted.
e) Teaches or advises but does not coerce an action.

Simply put, just because God hasn't fatalistically predestinated the fate of each individual does not mean that God is not active in His creation. Neither does creature choice detract from the Lord's providence or sovereignty over His creation. Nor does creature choice mean that God has not predetermined what shall happen corporally to the aggregate groups of the faithful and the unfaithful (section added to original essay by Eric Landstrom).


Augustine, On Free Will
J. Edwards, Freedom of the Will
J. Fletcher, Checks to Antinomianism
D. Hume, The Letters of David Hume
M. Luther, Bondage of the Will, On Grace and Free Will
B.F. Skinner, Beyond Behaviorism, Beyond Freedom and Dignity
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
Thomas Oden, The Living God

From the Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (ISBN 0-8010-2151-0)

See Also

The Skeletal Basis of Predestination and Freedom


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