Does Divine Sovereignty Require Determinism? Calvinists Seem to Think So.

If God is sovereign, then God can do whatever it pleases Him to do.

If God can do whatever it pleases him to do, then God is unrestricted in his activities in the world.

But it does not follow from this that God can do just anything, does it? Can God create a square-circle? Can God create a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?

Not at all. God cannot do these things. But that’s not a problem.

But why cannot God do these things? Take our two questions. In the first place, the concept of being square is antithetical to the concept of being circular. It is a conceptual contradiction, like creating a married-bachelor. There are not nor could there ever possibly be square-circles.

Or take the second question. This question really boils down to asking us to consider whether God is so all-powerful, such that he can place himself in a situation that would render him power-less (like lifting an all-powerfully created rock). In other words, it’s really asking us to consider whether God can be both all-powerful and power-less at the same time. This is, of course, logically absurd and impossible.

What, then, about divine sovereignty and human freedom? Can God be sovereign, and humans be free in the Libertarian sense?

Imagine a third question: Is God so sovereign so as to be able to create (Libertarian) free will beings?

Oftentimes this sounds like the square-circle or married-bachelor question. Problem is that this is just not manifestly so! And simply saying that it is doesn’t make it so!

The statements “God is sovereign” and “humans have (Libertarian) free will” are not even remotely contradictory on the face of it. We just said that the concept of being square is antithetical to the concept of being circular; similarly, the concept of being married is antithetical to the concept of being a bachelor, which just is an unmarried male. But is the concept of being a “sovereign” really antithetical to the concept of somebody else’s being “free”?

Imagine a King in his Kingdom. The human king can still reign as sovereign over his people whilst allowing the people to go about their business freely under the sovereignly decreed constraints and laws of the land decided on by him. It’s not obvious that the King ceases to be a King just because he decides to allow the creatures to operate and to function by themselves within a realm of constraints decreed by himself. If they break the Law of the King, he can justly punish them. But usually they live out their lives freely under his benevolent eye.

What is it about divine sovereignty, then, which is supposed to make it so conceptually antithetical to (Libertarian) free will?

Well, freedom (in the Libertarian sense) roughly means to be the first un-caused cause of one’s own activities (agent causation) and by implication to be free and able to choose from a range of several alternatives (principle of alternative possibilities, or PAP).

What does divine sovereignty mean? Seems to me that on the straight-forward biblical teaching, to say “God is sovereign” and to call him “Sovereign LORD” means simply to confess the authority of God over the whole world: one’s own life included. God is the good, holy and loving Judge of all the earth, who alone is worthy of honour, worship, adoration, reverence and praise as our ruler and our sustainer. God is the good governor of our world working all things to the good ends for his Kingdom and his people. He is therefore ‘in control’ and so we give him glory.

But it seems to me that the Calvinists want to take the biblical concept of divine sovereignty one, extra, biblically unwarranted (philosophical) step further. This means that, for Calvinists, it is actually a conceptual contradiction to say “God is sovereign” and “man is free (in the Libertarian sense).” Therefore, God is not free to create (Libertarian) free creatures any more than he is free to create square-circles and married bachelors.

But what would it take for a concept like divine sovereignty to be antithetical to to Libertarian Free Will in the sense that I stated it above? Well, divine sovereignty would have to be such that its being the case (its existing, or being true) would make it false that both agent causation and PAP are realities in human life.

What would such a world look like? Just this: Human creatures would not be the first un-caused cause of their own actions, and it would not be possible for them to choose from different alternatives than what they, in fact, do. Humans would be rather pre-determined to do what they do. By whom or by what? By the Deity. God, in one way or another, would have to cause agents to do what they do, and would himself set each one on a sure and certain path of God’s own choosing.

(And then God would hold them responsible for what they do — despite the fact that they did not cause their own actions, and had no power to do other than what they did.)

It’s not my goal here to make a judgement about the truth or falsity of this view. I’m simply drawing out an assumption underlying Calvinist intuitions about the incompatibility of divine sovereignty and (Libertarian) human freedom: The Calvinists have an extra-biblical, philosophical-theological construct called ‘metaphysical pre-determinism’ which for them best explains how God governs the world world to his intended ends for the good of his Kingdom and people. For the Calvinist, it is therefore metaphysical pre-determinism which best explains how God best governs the world. Roughly, X metaphysically pre-determines Y to do A when X ‘sets’ the necessary and sufficient conditions required for Y to do A, where these conditions exclude the agent causality and PAP conditions for human free choice in the Libertarian sense.

Now of course, only if human freedom requires agent causation and PAP, and only if our concept of divine sovereignty requires metaphysical predeterminism, only then must we deny their compatibility. Only then is God not free to create creatures that are free in this way. Maybe we can craft a doctrine of freedom which is compatible with determinism. Many a respectable Christian gentlemen take their relationships to be a matter of holding two seemingly contradictory truths in tension. It’s just a mystery how they work together. Other accounts are more systematic and sophisticated.

But how do we prove the latter? How do we prove that the Bible teaches metaphysical predeterminism when it talks about divine sovereignty? How can we be sure we aren’t simply getting our extra-biblical secular philosophical presuppositions and explanatory framework and reading it into the texts about God’s sovereignty, purpose and interaction with humans in the world? Why not rather think that divine sovereignty does not require metaphysical predeterminism, and simply say that God has the freedom, the power, the right, the wisdom and (dare I say) the humility to create free creatures to reflect his own image and likeness? That is my inclination.

So I end with two simple thoughts:

1. Is metaphysical pre-determinism really derived exegetically from a close reading of the Scripture, or is it really just a systematic sense-making explanatory system for divine government of the world in the Bible?

2. If the answer to (1)’s former disjunct is No, and then the answer to the latter disjunct is Yes, then it seems to follow trivially that scripture is just underdeterminative as to precisely just how to make sense of divine government over the world. Why then so easily accept so radical a position as metaphysical pre-determinism to explain the biblical teaching about divine sovereignty? Why identify that radical position with ‘divine sovereignty’ itself? Why force divine sovereignty to be incompatible with (Libertarian) free will in this way? Maybe simply given the plain biblical text, there is no explicit contradiction between divine sovereignty and (Libertarian) free will after all — from the text. But if this is true, then the biblical teaching about divine sovereignty and (Libertarian) free will are not obviously incompatible after all. What are obviously incompatible are two conflicting, extra-biblical, philosophical explanatory constructs called determinism and (Libertarian) free will. But that has nothing to do with the biblical teaching about divine sovereignty per se. In that case, it is massively unfair for Calvinists to cast the debate as a “Divine Sovereignty vs Free Will” issue or something like that. That already assumes the debate about the meaning of “Sovereignty” has already been decided, when that is far from clear. Could you imagine a debate on “Divine Goodness vs Divine Love”? I can’t. And I don’t see a difference between the two.

* * *


See here for a good article explaining Free Will from an Arminian perspective.


See here for the first in a series responding to criticism of the above article you just read.

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