by Leighton Flowers
I just recorded a debate over the question, “Does God Predestine All Things that Come to Pass” for Premier Radio’s “Unbelieveable?” podcast hosted by Justin Brierley. My theological opponent was once again our Calvinistic friend, Chris Date, most well known for his work on Rethinking Hell. I was told the podcast will be available in the next week or so. Upon hearing about this news, my good friend Dr. Johnathan Pritchett, of Trinity Seminary, said something like,
“I’m glad you’re having this debate on Unbelievable because your last discussion went so long it was like eternal conscious torment!” lol
Chris Date and I have sparred on the topic of determinism a few times and though we both tend to be a bit long winded, I find him to be an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate brother who defends his position as well as an indefensible position can be defended. 😉
First, let’s be clear about what Chris is advocating for in this discussion, because sometimes I think the main points of contention can get buried under a lot of philosophical and theological jargon that can confuse those who are not familiar with this discussion. Chris is a self-proclaimed “theistic determinist,” which he describes as affirming,
“God predetermines everything that takes place in time, including all desires, decisions, and actions of human agents.”
That means that when a man is prideful or lustful, that God predetermined that pride and lust. In fact, on Chris’s view God predetermines all evil desires and actions of all his creatures at all times and in all places.
Chris believes that God decides what man will decide in every instance (not just regarding salvation, but everything). So that means that Chris’s decision to affirm determinism was itself determined by God and my decision to reject determinism was likewise determined by God. And the decision of every audience member listening to that discussion, as to whether or not they accept determinism, has likewise already been decided by God (not merely known in advance and permitted, mind you, that is not Chris’s position).
On determinism, your decisions are determined by factors that are beyond your control (i.e. God’s eternal and unchangeable decree). On the other hand, Provisionists, like myself, believe you are the cause of your own choices. We would say that the cause of a choice is the chooser. The cause of a determination is the determiner. There is no determinative cause beyond the agent himself for his morally accountable choices on our view, while on Chris’s view, God’s decree is the decisive cause of all things.
Those of you familiar with my podcast and the typical conversations I have had with other Calvinists will likely not hear anything new in this debate. Most of the same talking points are regurgitated from both sides and due to the time restraints much of the commentary just touches the surface of the arguments. You should still listen to it though, just use double speed so you don’t get too bored.
I did want to develop one particular point that was raised in the discussion regarding the selling of Joseph by his brothers (Genesis 50). This is a classic proof text used by Compatibilists to establish their deterministic worldview. They will argue that if the brothers intended the sale of Joseph, an evil event, and God also intended this same event, then that proves God predetermined an evil event. And if God predetermined one evil event, for which men are still culpable, then indeterminists, like myself, have no moral grounds to object to their claim that God predetermines all things while still holding mankind justly responsible for their actions.
There are a number of problems with this argument, some of which I touch on in the debate but did not have the time to fully develop. I would like to focus on two of those points here:
- Proof that God intends an evil event to happen does not prove that God determines all evil events that happen.
- Proof that God intends an evil event to happen does not prove that God determines the motive or desire of all the parties involved in that event.
Chris actually addresses these points in a rebuttal of Roger Olson as seen recorded in his book:
Olson suggests that these [events like Joseph being sold] are all exceptions to the rule, and that even in such exceptions God merely knows how to get people to freely do what he wants them to do. “God may,” he offers, “and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.” But the latter constitutes nothing more than one plausible account of the mechanics of divine providence and foreordination. If God wills to bring about some event, knows infallibly under what conditions free creatures will bring it about, and presents them with such conditions, then he has chosen beforehand to sovereignly ensure that an event takes place by the hands of free creatures. This simply is divine foreordination; God is the primary cause and free agents are the secondary ones.
When Olson says “freely” he obviously means libertarian freedom, something Chris elsewhere denies, but in this instance Chris seems to concede this is one “plausible account of the mechanics of divine providence.” This pleases me because it demonstrates that Chris affirms that libertarian free will is plausible, and it does not require God being the determiner of men’s prideful evil intentions. Also, this explanation perfectly fits the police sting analogy that I offered in our discussion, which goes something like this:
Appealing to God’s sovereign work to ensure the redemption of sin so as to prove that God sovereignly works to bring about all the sin that was redeemed is an absurd, self-defeating argument. It would be tantamount to arguing that because a police department set up a sting operation to catch a notorious drug dealer, that the police department is responsible for every single intention and action of all drug dealer at all times. Proof that the police department worked in secretive ways to hide their identities, use evil intentions, and work out the circumstances in such a way that the drug dealer would do what they wanted him to do (sell drugs) at that particular moment in time does not suggest that the police are in anyway responsible for all that drug dealer has done or ever will do. We celebrate and reward the actions of this police department because they are working to stop the drug activity, not because they are secretly causing all of it so as to stop some of it. Teaching that God brings about all sin based on how He brought about Calvary is like teaching that the police officer brings about every drug deal based on how he brought about one sting operation.
In a sting operation the police know with some level of certainty that if drug dealers are put in the right circumstance that they will sell drugs, thus the police work to ensure those conditions so that the criminals will freely choose to sell drugs at a pre-appointed time and location where they will be caught. The police are working to ensure this event will take place by the hands of willing (libertarianly free) criminals.
So, let us apply this same standard to the Genesis 50 account. If God wishes to bring about the sale of Joseph, and He knows with certainty under what conditions the brothers will freely act to sale him, and ensures a way to put them within those conditions, then (based on the concession above) I think Chris and I would agree that God is ensuring that event takes place by the hands of the libertarianly free brothers. Chris admitted that this is “simply divine foreordination; God is the primary cause and free agents are the secondary ones.” And notice, libertarian free will is still fully enact under Chris’s concession and God is never established as being the determiner of the pride which motivated the brothers to commit this crime. Clearly Chris need not maintain his meticulous view of divine determinism in order to explain how God might bring about these types of events.
Consider that Joseph’s brother’s original intent was to kill Joseph, not merely sell him. Now, from where did that intention originate? According to the text it was jealousy and pride. Well, where does this pride find its origin? Is it God’s decree?
This is the root of our disagreement!
From where do evil intentions come? What is the origin? What is the cause of pride, lust and moral evil?
So, the Scriptures say pride comes not from the Father, yet determinists would have us believe God decisively and unchangeably determines the pride and lust of every creature at all times and in all places? As demonstrated, this is not a necessary conclusion from this text or any other.
We say sinful intentions originate in (or “come from”) the creature, not God or His “sovereign decree.” Whereas the determinist seems to say that “whatsoever comes to pass” has its origin in the decree of God.
 Chris attempted to focus the attention on a nuanced grammatic point within the original language that I considered irrelevant to our point of contention given that we both agree that God intended the same evil event (the sale of Joseph). Inexplicably, Chris continued to insist that my particular interpretation would not work grammatically despite my concession on that point. The point of contention I wished to focus on is that God did not predetermined the brother’s pride, which was the motive of their crime. This point demonstrates that God may intend that an evil event come to pass without causing men’s evil character, motivations or desires in the process, thus leaving their culpability for the crime fully intact.
 By “libertarianly free” I simply mean that the choice is not determined by factors beyond the moral agent’s control. The cause of the choice is the chooser.