Consistent Theological Determinism: A Challenge to James White
James White ridiculed my perspective in his podcasts/broadcasts. Mr. White here is my answer: God is a planning Agent. God has ordered the world and its events according to His own will. God’s covenantal commitment to redeem a people for His Son is founded before creation, if, indeed, we can use the modifiers ‘before’ the creation of time, to show why things occur as they do.1 John 17, known as ‘the High-Priestly prayer of Jesus,’ reveals to us something of the “eternal pact” or “covenant of redemption.” This pre-temporal plan is summed up by the Psalmist: “The counsel of the LORD standeth forever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). VanGemeren states: “Creation and providence are timely operations of God’s purposes. Nothing will ‘thwart’ his plans, which he has purposed for the encouragement of the godly.”2 Elsewhere we read: “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven,” (Psalm 119:89). The New Testament echoes these sentiments as it speaks of believers predestinated from “eternity past” [that clumsy way of speaking, again]: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will . . .” (Ephesians 1:4-5). Also, Paul says:
Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began . . . (2 Timothy 1:8-9, emphasis added).
God’s purpose is the foundation of all things that come to pass. This “will of God” that cannot be thwarted is so because of the eternal decree of God, whereby, He has foreordained everything that comes to pass. Both the Westminster confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism affirm this comprehensive plan to the smallest detail:
“God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass . . .” (WCF, ch.3), and “What dost thou mean by the providence of God? The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A. 27). This is standard reformed thinking on the matter of God’s decree. This, is why I like to say, “God’s will, will be done.” This is borne out by the following Scriptures:
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure. . . (Isaiah 46:9-10).
. . . I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? (Daniel 4:34-35).
People have an adverse reaction to this absolute and certain affirmation. Often, you may hear the charge that we are “puppets or robots.” Of course, we are not material determinists, but as advocates of theological determinism, we adhere to the truth that God’s decree renders all things that come to pass as theologically necessary or certain. The philosophical distinction between necessity and certainty is sometimes helpful. Some theologians make much of this and declare that we cannot embrace any form of “necessary outcomes.” However, I hold to this because of God’s decree. I believe that a consistent understanding of God’s unconditional decree inevitably results in time what God has planned from eternity. I confess that all that God decrees will of necessity come to pass as a reality in the experience of mankind. As such, the decree does not take prior account of secondary causes, as if in a vacuum. It is not that God utilizes theses secondary agents’ thoughts and actions after the fact devoid of His control or influence, and thereby brings about good after we, as secondary agents, have acted. The very idea that we are secondary agents speaks volumes in and of itself. We only act as agents in time, after God has eternally decreed. Again, the Westminster Confession affirms: “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet has he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions (WCF, 3, II).” Also, we act in time as governed by His meticulous providence. God is the prime actor in all events. Of course, all that has transpired is already a part of that decree, unless one wishes to speculate about "God changing the past." I prefer to leave the past precisely where it is. So, I see God as the prime actor in all that transpires. This includes sins such as David numbering the people (God is the instigator, 2 Samuel 24:1. In another passage, Satan is the agent of influence, 1 Chronicles 21:1). But David is the one punished for this sin! Also, when Shimei cursed and threw rocks at David, it is acknowledged that God has commanded him to do so, 2 Samuel 16:10. Also, in Psalm 139, when describing the intricacies of the way God forms humans it is said that he fashions the days before there was one of them. Not only are our days numbered (cf. Psalm 31) but the content of our lives is predetermined. This surely includes all that transpires in a life, "the good, the bad, and the ugly!"3 Free will is thereby an illusion, as our lives have been scripted and planned before by God. A man’s steps are ordered of the Lord (Proverbs 20:24); including filling men with drunkenness then dashing them in judgment (see Jeremiah 13:13-14).
The most significant event in all of Scripture surely is the crucifixion of Christ Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28). This is the prime example of wicked men doing that which God decreed, predestined, and safeguarded by moving the specific details so that it can be said, God gave His Son! God crushed, or bruised His son (Isaiah 53). It is a given in Scripture that God is an Actor in the “drama of life,” but He is not bound by time, is not ‘locked in’ as it were, and thereby is only a re-acting agent. God has predetermined all things. Surely, if one thing is foreordained, then it is a necessary consequence that all things are predetermined. The connective nature of prior causes renders this so. For example, if Jesus was to die, then He was to be betrayed. So, the Betrayer had to be born and come to that point in his life where he would turn against Christ. It is inconceivable to imagine that any factor might have been different, say, that Judas’s parents were childless, or that Judas would die in childhood. That God has decreed these ‘ends’ necessitates that God has decreed the means to those ends. Of course, there is no necessity upon God to create or to do anything as if He could do no other. But God’s eternal decree renders the actual world necessary due to His will. God’s will, logically precedes everything.
Also, from the OT, the Joseph narrative is particularly helpful. Joseph said, "Am I in the place of God!" His words that claimed of his brothers, "You did not send me but God . . ." speak of a primary agency, without intending to deny secondary agency. The point is to highlight the design of God and His working through events. The events are the very same ones, including all the wicked done to Joseph by brothers with evil intent. But it is God that is seen by Joseph as the primary and first cause.
Time would fail me to mention: an evil spirit from the Lord to torment Saul (1 Samuel 16:14); destruction that befalls a city and hath the Lord has not done it? (Amos 3); God creating peace and evil (ra, in Hebrew, Isaiah 45:8), including moral evil; Making things crooked that men cannot straighten (Ecclesiastes 7:3); God's Assyrian rod of indignation (Isaiah 10); the elevation of Cyrus, prophesied 100 years prior to his birth (Isaiah 45:1); the making of all things, including the wicked for the day of destruction (Proverbs 16:4); God bringing evil to Job, as both Job and God profess (Job 2:10; 42:11); Out of God's mouth proceed not both good and evil? (Lamentations 3:38). In Psalm 105:25 & Revelation 17:17, God puts it in the heart of evil men to do evil. Indeed, God does as He pleases in every sphere (Psalm 135:6). His people “have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). God plans; and God acts. We act, only because He has planned!
If predestination is true, and it cannot be doubted in face of so much evidence, it must follow that free will is false. There is no free will in a universe directed and upheld by the Lord God Almighty. There are those who wish to maintain a semi-Calvinist or hypo-Calvinist view that asserts that free will is compatible with determinism. That still leaves one as a determinist, an inconsistent one, however. I prefer to stress theological hard determinism.4 Take the fall of Adam. Was it a free action or was it determined? I believe you cannot have it both ways. If determined, then was Adam truly free? This problem has a long history. I side with God’s decree including the fall of Adam; indeed, even the fall of Lucifer! Free will in a compatibilist-determinist worldview is only free in name. Libertarians, of all stripes, renounce these arguments by compatibilists, and thereby they win the argument by the definition. If free will is compatible with determinism, why not claim that libertarian free will is compatible with determinism? The reason one cannot is that the determinism side weighs too heavily and truly precludes libertarianism or true free will. Compatibilists like to use the language of free will without having the substance. It is more consistent to affirm that free will is an intuition of our fallen nature, but is unreal, unneeded, and unhelpful when dealing with the deep concepts of God and His ways.
The confessions speak of natural liberty intending to argue we are human beings not rocks or machines.5 Natural liberty, then is our human way of existing as image bearers. We do not act, like animals, from natural-instinct. We do act spontaneously as far as our perception can determine. But, we are completely unaware of a myriad of possible sources of influence that are decisive in inclining our decisions definitively. No matter how much Calvinists echo these affirmations of free will, they persuade no one from the other side. I have not met an Arminian that concedes this compatibilist view of freedom. To them only libertarian freedom is real. I tend to agree. Yet, libertarian or contra-causal freedom cannot be maintained without jettisoning the strong deterministic language of Scripture. What is the point of using Arminian arguments about supposed freedom to plead for Calvinist conclusions? James White has done this saying we have “creaturely freedom,” and he even tried to ridicule my perspective. Yet, compatibilist determinism has no advantage over non-compatibilist determinism; it merely shows that we are clutching at straws to try to pacify men when they scream: “foul!” God does not need lawyers to justify His ways. He merely asks that we boldly proclaim His truth. The whole tenor of Scripture is against free will.
At the end of the day, we live out a script that God has decreed. He asked no counsel or took anything into consideration but His own will in this eternal decree. Meticulous providence rules out free will. Calvinists that affirm their truncated version of free will do so to maintain human responsibility. But the Bible does not use free will as an explanatory category to sustain human responsibility. We are responsible or accountable because we are created beings. God’s character, as indicated in His prescriptive law for humans, is the standard by which human behavior will be judged. The criteria for judgment is knowledge, and that based on the explicit prescriptive will of God.
Mankind has made its foreordained and inevitable choice in Adam (Romans 5:12). We are now bound in the death grip of our sins and transgressions. We are kept in bondage to do the bidding of Satan, and the perverted will of our carnal selves. Ephesians reminds us that outside of Christ all that we will is the carnal desire of flesh and of the mind. To speak of free will in the face of such realities is to muddy the waters and to bring confusion. In addition, to speak of free will is to give false hope to sinners that they have some capacity for pleasing God. The flesh cannot please God. The flesh cannot submit to God’s law. By man’s will sin alone is accomplished. What we ought to emphasize is free grace, not free will. I challenge anyone, including you, Mr. James White, to sustain these false notions of free will and make sense of them in the face of God’s eternal decree of absolute predestination.
1. I accept the timeless view of God as presented by Paul Helm in Eternal God: A Study of God without Time (New York: Oxford, 1988).
2. William VanGemeren, “Psalms” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, ed. Frank E. Gabelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 279.
3. See the Scripture well exposited by Raymond Ortlund Jr., “The Sovereignty of God: Case Studies in the Old Testament” in Thomas R. Schreiner & Bruce A. Ware, eds. The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, Vol. 1. Biblical and Practical Perspectives on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 28-34. Among other observations, Ortlund says: “David is affirming that God wrote the script of his life in the great book of God’s intentions before the actual events began to unfold, indeed, before David was even born. And, mixing his metaphors, David also says that the days of his life were formed or shaped, suggesting the action of the potter shaping clay. He means that his life, considered not only as a whole but also right down to his daily experience, was determined (what other word fits?) ahead of time” (“Sovereignty of God,” 32).
4. Calvin affirmed the “Will of God” as the cause of all things, See Institutes, III.xxiii.ii. He was a consistent Calvinist.
5. Both the Westminster Confession, and the Second London Baptist Confession contain a section, Chapter 9, entitled: “of Free Will.” I believe the best explanation of these notions comes from Gordon Clark in his detailed commentary on the Westminster Confession, What Do Presbyterians Believe (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation 2001 ), 105-112. Also see Clark’s views similarly expressed in Predestination: The Combined Edition of Biblical Predestination and Predestination in the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987 [1969, 1978]), 110-144. Clark makes a distinction between pre-fall Adam and his posterity. This much seems necessary to allow for a difference in innocence prior to the fall and enslavement after. Clark consistently refuses to allow for free will, however. Of the Confession Clark said, in another volume, “Now, the Westminster Confession indeed speaks of the natural liberty of man’s will. The ﬁrst paragraph of Chapter IX is: “God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good or evil.” These phrases could seem to be accommodations to the theory of free will, but they can seem so only because the meaning of the phrase “absolute necessity of nature” has been mistaken. The Reformation Principles, a part of the standards of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, makes a clearer statement when it condemns as an error the view that man “is necessarily impelled to choose or act as an unconscious machine.” Even the earlier seventeenth-century phrases must have seemed unambiguous when they were written, for they were chosen against the background of a century of discussion. They are certainly to be taken in a sense consistent with the Confession’s chapter on the divine decree. Here again the Reformation Principles is quite clear, for the immediately following error denounced is “that he can will or act independently of the purpose or the providence of God.” If the meaning of these phrases has been forgotten by some present-day writers, the remedy lies in reading the discussion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1995 ), 224-25.