By Justin Brierley
Someone I know (let’s call him Joe) recently owned up to an embarrassing incident during his time at Bible college.
Another student there (let’s call him Trevor) was a confirmed Calvinist, who believed that everything in life had been predestined by God – from eternal salvation to the colour of the socks he’d put on that morning. In fact, such was his love of John Calvin that he even kept a plaster-of-Paris bust of the Reformer in his bedroom.
Joe frequently got into disputes with Trevor. Joe believed that God gives us freedom to choose or reject him and that Calvin was wrong about predestination.
On one occasion they got into such a heated argument that, in a fit of frustration, Joe grabbed the bust of Calvin and smashed it to smithereens over Trevor’s head…fortunately no lasting harm was done (except to John Calvin).
Calvin may have written his theology 500 years ago, but his thoughts continue to influence much of the Church today.
Calvin was a key figure of the Reformation, alongside Martin Luther, the monk who rediscovered the truth that salvation was a free gift of God’s grace without need of any efforts on our part. But Calvin took that thought a whole lot further.
If God’s grace alone is sufficient for salvation, then we must have played no part in it at all. God chose us, we did not choose him. In Calvin’s mind, God had predestined those who will be saved and those who will be damned. The lynchpin for this view was contained in Romans: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (8:29).
According to many Calvinist theologians, the Bible also testifies to God’s total and meticulous control of every aspect of life. Whatever influence humans think they may have over their destinies, in reality God is the one who has planned it all out from the beginning. As Calvin himself wrote in The Institutes: “Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”
Has God predetermined every thought in every heart?
This perspective amounts to a ‘deterministic’ view of reality. The world is the way it is and could be none other, because God has predetermined every atom and every thought of every heart. In such a universe, human free will is an illusion. We are all playing our designated parts in a script that was written before the world began. To Calvinists this is a testament to God’s glory. To others it looks like the work of a puppet master. Like an impossible optical illusion, the puzzle of free will can be confusing for many Christians. But they aren’t alone.
Calvinistic Christians have more in common with many atheists than they may realise. Determinism has also become a very popular philosophy among their godless counterparts. For some time, prominent voices in atheist circles have also been announcing that the notion of free will is past its sellby date.
Popular atheist author Sam Harris wrote a book titled Free will (Free Press) which, drawing on research in neuroscience, argued that our innate sense of freedom is merely an illusion foisted on us by nature. None of us is actually in control of what we do. So far so Calvinist. But rather than believing God has predestined us, atheists like Harris say the universe is responsible.
Atheist determinism springs from a ‘materialist’ worldview. All that exists is the ‘material’ stuff of the universe. Everything about us and the world we live in can ultimately be explained by the physics of atoms, electrons, quarks and neutrons, interacting according to the predictable regularity of natural laws.
Think of it like this: the skill of the snooker player is in predicting as accurately as possible how the balls will ricochet off each other in order to find the pockets on the table. But, theoretically, if a snooker player lined up their very first shot with perfect precision and perfect force, they could clear the table in one shot. The universe is like that, but on a much bigger scale.
Every single physical event, from the movements of electrons to the orbits of the planets, follows predictable laws of cause and effect. Therefore, the way the universe is now is a direct result of the way it was when it first began. If you rewound the clock by 13 billion years to the exact same physical state of affairs, things would roll out in exactly the same way they already have.
But, in such a universe, the idea that we have any measure of free will evaporates. Every aspect of our existence was predestined by a cosmos blindly following the laws of cause and effect.
Unbelievable? presents: The Big Conversation
Are we determined to behave well?
In this excerpt of their dialogue, atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett (DD) and Christian philosopher Keith Ward (KW) talk to Justin Brierley (JB) about whether or not we have free will
DD: I assume that you’ve been raised to be a moral and non-violent man Keith?
KW: Non-violent, yes (smiles).
DD: If I were to hand you a gun right now and suggest “why don’t you shoot Justin in the arm?” just to prove you have free will, would you?
KW: I might surprise you!
DD: You might, but you won’t! And you won’t because you know better. I bet very, very large sums of money you’re not going to do it and it’s going to be a free choice, but you’d better hope that it’s not an undetermined choice because if it were then you might suddenly find yourself doing it, in spite of all of your previous experience.
KW: Ah…my view is not that you would find yourself doing it, but that you could decide to do it, which is very different.
DD: Well, who is the ‘you’ that’s doing the deciding?
KW: But I’ve got a ‘you’. You’ve just got a brain! The subject self which I’ve got is the soul. In Christian terms it is also an agent self, so it decides between courses of action. So, it is not determined by its past behaviour – I would not actually shoot Justin – but there are things that I would do to Justin if you asked me to.
JB: I’m starting to feel a bit worried here…But seriously Keith, when Dan talks about your moral upbringing, you say those things don’t determine your actions, even if they strongly influence the way you lead your life?
KW: That’s true. But, nevertheless, there are tipping points and when people are put in crisis situations they can act out of character.
JB: So Dan, Keith says he could still do otherwise.
DD: Yes, and if he did otherwise, we’d want to know what determined him to do otherwise.
KW: I’d say I just decided.
The Big Conversation is a video series featuring world class thinkers across the Christian and atheist communities. For the full debate, further videos, bonus content and the Unbelievable? newsletter visit thebigconversation.show
One proponent of the deterministic view of the universe is Daniel Dennett. Alongside Harris, he is one of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the New Atheism’ (Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens made up the other half). Dennett, however, disagrees with Harris over whether determinism delivers a death blow to the concept of free will (rather like Trevor and Joe, they’ve also had some vitriolic arguments about it). As a ‘compatibilist’, Dennett claims that we are still free in a meaningful sense, as long as we are not being forced to act against our own will by anybody else.
When he appeared on an episode of The Big Conversation to discuss these matters with Christian philosopher Keith Ward, Dennett dismissed the problems raised by determinism as “uninteresting questions”. But they certainly interested Keith Ward, who insists that even the compatibilist version of freedom is hopelessly misguided if a deterministic universe has wired all our thoughts, desires and choices to begin with.
A God of love only makes sense if he has given us the ability to freely choose or reject him
In contrast, as a ‘libertarian’, Ward believes that humans are truly free creatures with the genuine ability to choose alternative outcomes in the future. That we are neither subject to a puppet-master God nor a puppet-master universe matters a great deal.