Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Divine Predestination and Philosophical Alternatives

One of the most vexing problems in philosophy concerns the problem of what appears to be a highly structured universe and the seemingly undeniable fact of human freedom. For centuries philosophers have struggled with this problem without much progress. The problem arises from the fact that we have conflicting beliefs about two different states of affairs. First, we are confronted with what seems to be the unavoidable fact of human morality. From the standpoint of experience, it seems abundantly clear that humans are morally responsible for their acts. The view that some acts are praiseworthy while others stand self-condemned seemingly needs no defense. Who among us does not condemn the atrocities of Auschwitz? Indeed, is there is any among us that did not praise the captain of the US Airways flight when he landed it safely on the Hudson River without loss of a single life.

However, we are also confronted with the fact that seemingly every event in the universe is the consequent of some antecedent cause. Halverson writes, "It seems self evident to many people, for example, that every event has a cause."[1] The fact of universal determinism and the fact of human responsibility seem to create an insurmountable dilemma for philosophers. It is a dilemma for which the solution remains contested to this day. Philosophy has generally suggested three alternatives as a solution to this problem. The task of the Christian is to examine these three alternatives in the light of Scripture. To be more precise, the task of this project is to examine the three alternatives offered by philosophy in light of the biblical doctrine of predestination. The question I shall offer is this: do any of the three alternatives proffered by philosophers in this project cohere with the biblical doctrine of predestination?

The three positions are Hard Determinism, Libertarianism, and Compatibilism. I will treat these three positions in the order I have listed them above. Following an explanation of each view, I will provide a brief explanation of divine predestination as taught in Scripture.

Hard Determinism makes the argument that the freedom that is a condition of moral responsibility is not compatible with universal determinism. Since it is true that universal determinism is the nature of the case, then it only follows that humans are not free in the sense that is required to render us morally responsible. The logical outworking of Hard Determinism then is that human beings are not morally responsible. Since every event, to include human behavior, is the consequent of some antecedent cause, it follows that humans do not possess the freedom necessary to be morally responsible.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, contends that the freedom that is a condition of moral responsibility is not compatible with universal determinism. Moreover, it is clear that humans do in fact possess this freedom. Therefore, universal determinism is false. This view is probably the most common view among non-philosophers. Frankly, it is most common in all likelihood because most people simply fail to reflect on the issues involved in the question.

A third view is the view known as Compatibilism. This view is also called soft-determinism. This view is the view of most philosophers. Philosophical Compatibilism affirms that the freedom that is a condition of moral responsibility is compatible with universal determinism. Therefore, we may be morally responsible even if determinism is the case. What must be understood about soft determinism is that it is no less a deterministic system than hard determinism. The difference lies in how each view defines human freedom. The question now to which we turn is whether or not any of these views comport with Christian doctrine, specifically, the doctrine of predestination.

The biblical doctrine of predestination teaches that God has predetermined whatsoever comes to past. No event has ever occurred that God did not decree. The Apostle Paul teaches us that God is always, continually, working all things according to the counsel of His will. (Eph. 1:11) In fact, there is nothing that happens that God has not ordained it to happen from eternity past. Every event to have ever taken place in the history of humanity has only taken place because the sovereign God of the universe decreed it to take place. At the same time, Christian doctrine affirms without hesitation that human beings are morally responsible for their actions even though God decreed their actions in eternity past.

Hard Determinism contradicts the clear teachings of Scripture in regard to human responsibility. Paul tells us that humanity is morally culpable for its immoral behavior and is without an excuse. (Rom. 1:20) In addition, Paul informs us that human beings are created in the image of God and know intuitively that they are morally culpable for their behavior. (Gal. 2:14-16)

Libertarianism fares no better than Hard Determinism. Scripture teaches that human beings are enslaved to their sin nature. Their will is bound by their innate desire to engage in various lusts, lies, murders, drunkenness, and various other sinful passions. Paul describes the condition of men as being held captive by Satan to do his will. The human will is not an island unto itself. The human wills to do what the mind thinks is best or desires most. The human will has a causal relationship with desire. In addition, human desire has a causal relation with human nature. Christian doctrine teaches that men are not free from God's divine decree. Judas, it was said by Christ, would have been better off had he not been born. Pharaoh did exactly what God determined he would do. Peter explains in Acts 4:28 that even the rulers that murdered Jesus did so by the predetermined counsel of God. And yet, these men would be held responsible for their actions. So then, Libertarianism is not consistent with the biblical doctrine of predestination.

Finally, we must ask if philosophical Compatibilism can do better than its alternatives. While philosophical Compatibilism may come closer to cohering with biblical predestination, it still falls short. The main problem with philosophical Compatibilism is in its affirmation of universal determinism. This view is contrary to Christian theism in that it holds that the universe is governed by impersonal natural laws operating in law-like fashion. Hence, this explains why we see such regularity in the universe. There is no room in Christian theism for impersonal laws of nature operating in and of themselves. Scripture everywhere teaches that God upholds the universe and all that is in it by the power of His Word. A better alternative to philosophical Compatibilism is theological Compatibilism. But that is a subject for a different day.





[1] Halverson, William H. A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Random House, 1981) 240.

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