Determinism, Chance, and Freedom

This was mentioned in Dr. Vines’ sermon. I believe he called Calvinists “hard determinists.” In reality, the WCF implicitly selects for soft, not hard determinism, and in at least one article (9.1) it may be construed to opt for neither determinism or indeterminism. Moreover, hard determinism itself is a minority position in Reformed theology. (And for those wanting to oppose Calvin to Calvinism, you may do so when (a) you trace the full trajectory of his thinking and do more than prooftext from the Institutes, and (b) you place him in the context of the whole of the Reformed tradition. He is not and has never been the sole standard by which the Reformed tradition is to be judged).

Determinism, Chance and Freedom

by John M. Frame

[“Determinism, Chance and Freedom,” for IVP Dictionary of Apologetics.]

Determinists believe that every event (or every event in a certain category) has a cause that makes it happen exactly as it happens. Among the varieties of determinism are the views of (1) Plato, who held that one’s ethical choices are determined by his view of what is good, (2) B. F. Skinner, who believed that stimuli, dispositions and motives govern all human behavior. (3) Democritus, Hobbes, Spinoza, and many others, who have held that every event in the universe is determined by a physical cause. Of special interest to us are (4) theological determinists, who hold that all events occur exactly as God has foreordained them. These would include Calvin and others in his tradition. The classic exposition of theological determinism is Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will. Note that it is possible to be a determinist in sense (4) without being a determinist in sense (3). That seems to be the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says in 3.1 that “God did… ordain whatsoever comes to pass,” but also says in 9.1 that man’s will “is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil” (compare 5.2).

William James, in his article “The Dilemma of Determinism,” distinguished between “hard” and “soft” determinism. On his view, soft determinists hold that all events, including human decisions, are determined, but that some kind of freedom and moral responsibility also exists. Hard determinists hold (what James thought was the more consistent position) that the determination of human decisions requires us to reject the concept of moral responsibility. Other writers, however, have used the hard/soft distinction differently, defining soft determinism as a view that is largely deterministic but that allows for some uncaused or self-caused human choices

Chance can refer (1) to uncaused events, or (2) to events of which the causes are uncertain and normally uncontrollable. When we throw dice, we often say that the result is “by chance;” but we then don’t usually mean that the result is uncaused, only that the causes are hard to ascertain or control. Laws of probability enable us to predict the results of such chance events over the long term (for example, 50% of coin flips come out tails), but not in individual cases. Chance can also be (3) a synonym of fate, conceived as an impersonal force that makes everything happen as it happens. In the first sense, chance is incompatible with determinism. In the second sense, it is compatible with determinism. In the third sense, it presupposes determinism.

Freedom is a more complicated notion. Generally speaking, a person is free when (1) he has the ability to do something, (2) there is some obstacle or barrier that might have prevented him from exercising that ability but is not now preventing him. Someone is “set free” from prison, for example, when he can go where he likes without the barriers of prison walls, bars, guards, etc. People have political freedom when they are able publish political opinions, organize political parties, etc., without government interference. So freedom is always “freedom to” and “freedom from:” freedom to do something, and freedom from some obstacle.

On this account, there are many different kinds of freedom, since there are many different things we can be free to do, and many obstacles we can be free from. So we speak of economic freedom, political freedom, religious freedom, freedom from illness, and many others.

The following kinds of freedom are of particular interest to theologians and apologists: (1) Moral freedom, or the ability to do good, despite the barrier of our sinful condition. God gives us this freedom by his grace (, ). When Scripture speaks of human freedom, it is almost always in this sense.

(2) The freedom to act according to our own desires. This kind of freedom is sometimes called compatibilism, because it is compatible with determinism. Scripture doesn’t describe this capacity as “freedom,” but it does ascribe this capacity to all human beings. Jesus teaches, for example, that the good person acts out of the desires of his good heart, the wicked person out of his wicked heart (). There are times, of course, when we are unable to do what we “want” to do, at some level of wanting (as ). But in most of the decisions of life, we do what we want, in the face of potential obstacles.

(3) Freedom from natural necessity, the freedom to act without the constraint of natural causes. This is the freedom mentioned in my earlier reference to the Westminster Confession. Its theological importance is its implication that human choice is not necessarily or always the result of natural causes. As image of God, we have dominion over the earth and in some ways transcend the world process. And we may not excuse our sins by saying that they were forced upon us by heredity or environment.

(4) Freedom from all causation, sometimes called libertarianism. I have freedom in the libertarian sense when, no matter what I choose to do, I might equally have chosen the opposite. So my choices are not only free from natural causes (as in (3)) but also from divine causation. Indeed, my libertarian choices are also free from myself in a way, for they are not determined by my character, dispositions, or desires. These inner motives may influence a free decision in this sense, but they never determine it. So a libertarian free decision is entirely indeterminate, uncaused. Thus libertarianism is sometimes called incompatibilism, since it is incompatible with determinism.

Libertarianism has been taught by a number of philosophers from ancient Greece (Epicurus) to the present (Alvin Plantinga). It was the position of some church Fathers including Justin Martyr and Tertullian, Pelagius, the opponent of Augustine, the Jesuit Luis Molina, Fausto and Lelio Socinus, Jacob Arminius, and present-day Arminians, open theists and process theologians.

Libertarians argue that we must have this kind of freedom because (1) our intuition reveals that we have it, and (2) it is necessary for moral responsibility, for we cannot be held responsible for anything we are determined to do.

Opponents of libertarianism, however, reply that (1) Human intuition reveals that we choose among various alternatives, but it never reveals to us that any of our choices are absolutely uncaused. Intuition cannot prove a universal negative. (2) Far from teaching that libertarian freedom is essential to moral responsibility, Scripture never mentions libertarian freedom. (3) This doctrine would make it impossible for us to judge anyone’s guilt in a court of law. For to prove someone responsible for a crime and therefore guilty, the prosecution would have to take on the impossible burden of proof of showing that the decision of the accused had no cause whatsoever. (4) Law courts, indeed, assume the opposite of libertarianism, namely that people are responsible only for actions that they are sufficiently motivated to perform. If it could be shown that an accused person committed a crime without any sufficient cause or motivation at all he would most likely be judged insane rather than guilty. (5) Scripture contradicts libertarianism, by ascribing divine causes to human decisions (, , , , ), even sinful ones (, , , , ). In none of these (or many other) cases does divine causation eliminate human responsibility. In fact, these texts often mention human responsibility in the same context. (6) Scripture also contradicts libertarianism by teaching that human decisions are governed by the heart (), and by teaching that the human heart itself is under God’s control (, ). (7) In Scripture, the basis of human responsibility is not libertarian freedom, but (a) God’s sovereign right to evaluate the conduct of his creatures (), and (b) the knowledge (, ) and resources () God has given to each person. (b) shows that in Scripture there is an important relation between responsibility and ability, but the abilities in view here do not include the absolute ability to choose opposite courses of action.

These considerations lead to the conclusion that the Bible teaches theistic determinism, one that is “soft” in James’s sense. Scripture renounces chance in the first and third senses above, but not in the second. And it teaches that human beings sometimes have moral freedom, usually have compatibilist freedom, never have libertarian freedom. Scripture may imply that we have freedom from natural causation as well. Certainly it doesn’t deny that, but I don’t know of any passage that clearly affirms it.


J. M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ, 2002).

­­_______, No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ, 2001).

J. Edwards, Freedom of the Will (New Haven, CT, 1973).

W. James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” in Essays in Pragmatism (New York, 1955), 37-64, and in many other editions of James’s works.

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