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Choose your own adventure if you can

 By Matthew Claridge–

Luke Surl

Determinism is a tough pill for many people to swallow. On a purely intellectual level it seems to contradict common sense and experience. Human beings don’t appear to be like billiard balls responding simply and inexorably to a shove here or a push there. We like to think of ourselves as having the ability to change course and defy the inputs of nature and nurture. It’s the American way, right? Against this popular “can do” spirit, Calvinism is often forced to take a defensive, “guilty until proven innocent” tack. The Calvinists bear the burden of proof in establishing, against common sense and experience, that human volitional choices are indeed “pre-determined.” Nonetheless, I think this ironic catch-22 from the pages of a choose-your-own-adventure presents the Calvinist with an opportunity to begin an offensive move.

First, this comic brings into sharp relief the fact that determinism is not the exclusive “problem” of the Calvinists. Every philosophy, religion, and worldview must grapple with the hard facts of determinism. This is certainly true of all Eastern, Pantheistic faiths and all secular philosophies (which usually end up being pantheistic themselves). In this example, the old man takes the side of secular orthodoxy. The consumer public operates on the principle that they are free to do whatever they want because secular materialism gives them the right.  But the secular wizards behind the curtain know that it is all a charade. The illusion of “freedom” has now become the opiate of the masses. Sure, most unbelievers won’t care about the conundrums of theological determinism, but they jolly well be aware of the secular version they have replaced it with.

The same could be said for the plucky Catholicism of G.K. Chesterton. One has to be particularly hard-hearted to not absolutely adore G.K. Chesterton. I feel his pain for the morose, stodgy staleness of some forms of Calvinism. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice a profound oversight in his preference for the wild and romantic theology of medieval Catholicism. Guiding that wild and romantic theology was a very Aristotelian cosmology in which all activity in the universe (including human choices) is generated by irresistible attraction to the Prime Mover, God. As fascinating as this picture is, it hardly avoids the charge of being less deterministic than Calvinism. The problem with G.K. Chesterton and other advocates of “indeterminism” is that eventually on some basic level they are inconsistent with the facts and, in many cases, their own beliefs and traditions.

The question then becomes not whether determinism is a fact, but what we do with it as a fact. Herein lies the positive power of the Christian and Calvinistic approach to determinism in contrast to others attempts. Though I differ with Chesterton at a certain level, his explanation of the contrast between the frivolity of ancient paganism and the apparent gloom of the Dark ages provides us a step in the right direction. He makes the point in Orthodoxy that the pagan was “happier as he approached the earth, but sadder as he approached the heavens” because “when the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly.” The deadness of the fates stands in sharp contrast to the liveliness of the God of the Middle Ages because what separated the medieval cosmology from its pagan roots was the fundamental belief that the Prime Mover was not an impersonal Idea, but a personal Agent.

This “Absolute Personality” (John Frame) inherent in Christianity provides us with a thicker explanation of determinism. A superb instance of this is found in Edwards’ The Freedom of the Will where he introduces a distinction between physical necessity and moral necessity. Let’s consider these categories for a moment.

Taken on its own, the actions of physical necessity are amoral, neither good nor bad. The earth does not “choose” to rotate around the sun because it believes it good to do so. By contrast, Edwards’ defines moral necessity in these terms: “that necessity of connection and consequence, which arises from such moral causes, as the strength of inclination, or motives, an the connection which there is in many cases between these, and such certain volitions and actions” (pg. 156). He defines moral causes as “a moral faculty, or sense of moral good and evil, or of such a thing as desert or worthiness or praise or blame, reward or punishment” (pg. 165). In other words, the cause of our moral choices, in all their vast complexity, derives from a predisposition of our will/heart/mind to a conception of the “good.” That is, whereas the causes of physical necessity are instinctual; the causes of moral necessity are worshipful.

Edwards’ is quick to add that despite the significant difference between these two types of necessity, they are still forms of necessity: “moral necessity may be as absolute, as natural necessity. That is, the effect may be as perfectly connected with its moral cause, as a naturally necessary effect is with its natural cause … the will in every case is necessarily determined by the strongest motive” (pg. 157). A physical effect is determined by the strongest impersonal force; a moral effect is determined by the strongest personal motive.

Now, I’m not about to go into a full-blown defense of Edwards’ distinction between moral and physical necessity. Read his book for yourself. My point is that only the absolute personalism of Christianity is able to produce a thicker, more robust, more honest, and more dignified explanation of the phenomena of determinism. Outside of Christianity, all forms of determinism are essentially impersonal. In the secular version on display in the above comic, there is no room for Edwards’ distinctions. All events, including all actions of personal agents, are the product of physical necessity. Personalism is an illusion. There is no “wise” or “good” personal intelligence directing the process of the world, let alone a personal intelligence at work behind my own decisions. We are all mindlessly obeying our genes, memes, or whatever.

In sum, a Calvinist should first establish that determinism is not a unique problem to his theological system; it is a universal “problem” for every philosophical and theological system. Second, he should then establish that only Christianity (and a consistently Calvinistic version of it) is able to offer a truly realistic account of human actions that respects him as a fully moral and responsible agent.

Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has two children.


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