A Fatal Flaw in Calvinism

, posted by JC_Thibodaux

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

A Necessary Implication of Determinism

One of the primary tenets of mainstream Calvinism is the concept of exhaustive determinism (which I’ll refer to as ‘determinism’ here) — all that is and occurs in the universe is exactly as God has exhaustively decreed it to be. In such a worldview, man doesn’t have a will that’s truly free, but does everything exactly as it was predetermined for him. Consequently, there’s no real contingency upon man concerning what God does. God has (in this determinist worldview) unconditionally decreed that His will be done, and His will is in no way conditioned upon anything men say or do. To this, Jack Cottrell makes the point,

No matter how “free will” is redefined and the efficacy of the decree is qualified, Calvinism is still a theology of determinism as long as it declares that nothing God does can be conditioned by man or can be a reaction to something in the world. (Cottrell, J.W.; The Grace of God, the will of man: a case for Arminianism; pp. 102)

Turretin would seem to agree,

“It is absurd for the Creator to depend upon the creature… But this must be the case if the decrees of God are suspended on any condition in man. There is no middle knowledge (scientia media) having for its object future conditional things Therefore there is no conditional decree.” (Turretin, F.; The Decrees of God)

So would Edwards,

“To suppose that God’s decrees are conditional, in the sense of the Arminians, or that they depend, as they suppose, on a foresight of something that shall come to pass in time, is to suppose that something that first begins to be in time is the cause of something that has been from all eternity, which is absurd….” (Edwards, J.; Concerning the Divine Decrees)

Besides demonstrating Turretin’s mild abuse of the term ‘depend’ (which we’ll touch on later), and Edwards’ failure to factor in temporally transcendent perception of contingencies, their writings make it clear that in the determinist view, the choices that God makes about what He will do in the world are completely and totally independent of man’s choices and actions. Unless Calvinists incorporate some form of libertarian agency into their theology (which very few do), then the idea that God does anything based upon any human contingency is absurd. If this philosophy is biblically consistent, we should never expect to see scripture tell us that God thinks or does anything because of something man does.

Much is hidden concerning God’s will

Doubtless it is that many of the thoughts and motivations of God are hidden from mortal men.

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33)

It’s from within the refuge of what God hasn’t revealed concerning His will that Calvinists defend their deterministic philosophy. To the Determinist, everything in the world — to include every thought, intent, and motivation of man — all invariably spring from the secret decree of God. They tend to stress this idea to such an extent, that they often wind up making claims that God fervently commands people to do one thing, while having secretly and immutably decreed that they do the exact opposite. Calvin takes the idea to its logical conclusion.

“Again they object: were they not previously predestined by God’s ordinance to that corruption which is now claimed as the cause of condemnation? When, therefore, they perish in their corruption, they but pay the penalties of that misery in which Adam fell by the predestination of God, and dragged his posterity headlong after him. Is he not, then, unjust who so cruelly deludes his creatures? Of course, I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen by God’s will. And this is what I said to begin with, that we must always at last return to the sole decision of God’s will, the cause of which is hidden in him.” (Calvin, J.; Institutes of the Christian Religion)

Yet some is revealed…

Despite the mystery behind the will of God, He Himself sometimes provides us with some insight as to why He does things. No one who believes the scriptures could deny that God performs mighty works because of His great love and eternal purpose.

“But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:8)

But are factors within Himself the only reasons behind God’s actions? As the determinist philosophers quoted above have affirmed, these can be the only reasons for His actions if their worldview is to be believed. Is it that simple though? Is there more to the story? What if God Himself revealed that He did something because of what a person did?

The Flaw in the Theory

One of the most compelling stories in scripture is that of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The aging patriarch, left without an heir from his wife, Sarah, was graciously given a son by God in his old age. Then one day, the unthinkable happened, as God commanded him to give back his precious child as a burnt offering. As Abraham bound his son upon the altar, his heart was doubtless heavier than it had ever been, yet his trust in God didn’t waver, and he was fully prepared to put that complete faith into action by obeying the dreaded command.

Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” … The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:10-12, 15-18)

So Abraham believed God, and valued Him above all else -even his own son. He walked by faith, and was the father of all who believe. And God blessed him beyond measure due to the fact that he obeyed. The Determinist may do a double-take at that last sentence, but for confirmation need only read closely the reason God gives Abraham for blessing him; the words in this context leave no doubt as to their meaning. Twice, God proclaims that He’s blessing Abraham and his descendants, because Abraham obeyed Him. But wasn’t God’s conferral of this great blessing, according to the implications of determinism, supposed to be strictly due to His good pleasure, not any participation by or contingency upon man?

Herein we begin to see surfacing a major problem for the Determinist. For his philosophy to remain intact, nothing God does can be based upon anything man does. Yet the Bible here clearly states that God blessed Abraham because he was obedient to His voice. Abraham offering his son didn’t compel God to do anything, yet God freely chose to bless Abraham based upon his obedience. This is important to note, since if even part of the reason behind God’s reaction / response / reciprocation towards men is their own actions, then this establishes some form of contingency. This is especially devastating to the determinist philosophy, since in God’s own words, it’s addressing the ‘why’ behind His actions, not merely the ‘how.’

How then could Determinists account for this? If the Bible plainly states that God blessed Abraham because he obeyed, how can this be true if God does nothing based upon human action? Below I list some possible objections.

Objection 1 – The ‘means’ argument

Some Calvinists may argue that God has ordained things such as obedience as a means to men receiving His blessing, but this does not account for God doing a thing because of something man does. For starters, means describe only ‘how,’ not ‘why.’ Taking an example of our own, let’s demonstrate this fact.

Assume for sake of argument that:
* God has unconditionally decreed that some guy named Tim is going to die
* God decides that he will die in a massive train wreck
* Tim is caught in the train wreck and dies
Why did God cause Tim to die?

‘Because he was caught in a train wreck’ is not an answer. The train wreck was the means employed; it explains how the decision was carried out, but does not even begin to explain why it was made.

Concerning this case, Abraham’s obedience wasn’t a ‘means’ to God blessing him at all, by this line of reasoning. In the determinist view, God unconditionally decided to bless him, ordaining that he obey didn’t affect that decision or its fulfillment, and is therefore not a means to it.

Objection 2 – The ‘necessary step’ argument

Some may argue that God decrees a necessary step before His decision is fulfilled. Therefore when someone takes the necessary step that God decreed, the results comes about because that step was taken.

This argument sounds good at first, but is actually quite fallacious. One action occurring before another does not imply that the former action causes the latter. This notion is better known as the Post Hoc fallacy. Likewise in this example, God deciding that a first action must precede a second doesn’t indicate that He decided to perform the second one because of the first. Going back to our example:

Assume for sake of argument that:
* God has unconditionally decreed that some guy named Tim is going to die in a massive train wreck
* God also decrees that Tim will read a newspaper before the train crashes
* Tim reads the newspaper
* The train crashes
* Tim dies
Why did God cause Tim to die?

By the above argument, since reading the newspaper was a ‘necessary step’ in this sequence, we’d have to conclude that God caused him to die because he read a newspaper! God decreeing that Abraham obey before he was blessed, therefore, doesn’t account for his obedience being the reason God blessed him, since necessary steps only clarify sequence, they don’t explain the reasons behind them.

Objection 3 – The ‘unconditional conditional decree’

Most Calvinists probably wouldn’t even touch this one – and with good reason. But I’ll cover it anyway. What if God somehow made a ‘conditional decree’ — a decree really only conditioned upon the criteria He fulfills? What if He decreed, ‘if Abraham obeys Me, then I will bless him’? Then, when Abraham obeyed Him (as God unconditionally predetermined he do), it would be proper to say that God fulfilled His desire and blessed him because he obeyed, right?

This also causes a massive logical problem, since an unconditional decision to produce a result automatically short-circuits any associated conditions. If God blessed Abraham because he obeyed, would we then say that God caused Abraham to obey in order to cause Himself to bless him? Besides being somewhat convoluted and contrived, this is logically impossible. In the determinist paradigm, God’s decision to fulfill His desire to bless Abraham was made unconditionally, with no regard to factors such as obedience. Rather, his obeying God’s command would be merely a necessary accompaniment to that unconditional decision to bless him. This would be equivalent to saying,

“God unconditionally decided to bless Abraham on the condition of his obedience.”

But if Abraham’s obedience were guaranteed by God’s unconditional decision to bless him, then it cannot be truly said that God blessed him because of his obedience. At best, his acquiescence would have been just a necessary step in the process (see above). Unless God somehow uses the means or steps He decrees to influence His own decisions, this objection can’t adequately explain for the Determinist why God blessed Abraham because of his obedience. It must also be noted that such a phenomenon would still be man affecting God’s actions, he would just be doing so by God’s decree.

Objection 4 – Multiple causes

A Calvinist may object that there were more causes in play than just Abraham obeying, to which I would agree. Abraham obeying would have meant nothing if God had not desired to do him good and use him to bless all nations of the earth. The fact of more than one cause, however, is irrelevant to the issue of God blessing Abraham on the basis of his obedience, since a set of causes behind an event doesn’t negate any of its individual components, and hence doesn’t change the fact that God blessed Abraham because he offered up Isaac.

For exhaustive determinism to hold true, what God does can in no way and to no extent be based upon what man does. So if Abraham’s obedience was even one of a much larger set of causes, then the determinist philosophy is falsified.

Objection 5 – The secret will of God

At this juncture, the Calvinist would likely state, contrary to the wording in the text, that God in fact, did this because it was His secret desire to, not because of anything Abraham did, and probably back the claim by referencing passages such as we’ve quoted here, about the secret things of God that are beyond our understanding. But does this really account for what the passage is saying? I would think not, for this reason: Whatever counsels are within God that remain hidden from us, the words He speaks, which have been transmitted to us in the Holy scriptures, are absolutely true, and truth cannot contradict itself. As the scripture cited at the beginning indicates, many things are hidden in God, yet we cannot ignore or dismiss the things He has given to us by revelation. So truth that is hidden does not contradict truth that is revealed. God having hidden counsels and plans in no way contradicts His own statements. If He says He has done something because of our obedience, lack thereof, or some other contingency, then He very well means it.

Objection 6 – God’s stated reasons are anthropomorphisms, merely indicating what He outwardly appears to do

Calvinists sometimes claim that God is speaking to people in ‘human terms,’ and hence might say some things that seem to make more sense to the ‘mind of the natural man’ (which they often equate with Arminianism). So because God is speaking words designed to appeal to the Arminian viewpoint (who, unlike Calvinists, haven’t been given the mind of Christ enough to see past the facade that God is erecting), it’s safe to exclude the idea from our understanding of God altogether, isn’t it?

Four words: “God’s word is truth.” Can this defense for determinism then hold up when compared to scripture? Is it still truth, just in ‘human terms,’ for God to say that He blessed Abraham because he obeyed, when He actually means His deciding to bless him wasn’t at all dependent upon his obedience? That wouldn’t merely be phrasing things in terms that people can relate to, it would be downright deceptive. Even Christ’s parables, which hid their meaning from many a hearer, weren’t designed to mislead people into believing falsehood. When scripture applies anthropomorphisms, idioms, or other literary devices, it’s not for vain exercise or duplicity, but to convey truth of God’s word, for all of God’s word is truth (Psalms 12:6, 33:4, John 17:17). The objection above really amounts to saying that God’s word employs literary devices to obfuscate the truth of who He is, rather than reveal it. But the hole in the determinist case rips even wider yet upon further examination….

It only gets worse

Those who accept the idea of free will generally have no trouble with the idea of God influencing our wills, since a degree of influence doesn’t amount to exhaustive compulsion, and hence we have no trouble declaring, “We love Him because He first loved us.” But it doesn’t work the other way around for the Determinist – as Turretin indicates, it would violate God’s ‘independence’ in their view. God’s independence implies that He has need of nothing outside Himself (as Arminians and Calvinists affirm). The determinist conceit, however, is that His independence entails that He’s not affected or influenced at all by anything outside Himself -not even willingly. They insist that if God were to let Himself be influenced, affected, or base any of His decisions upon anything man does, even in the slightest, it would violate (their version of) His independence. If we applied this concept consistently, such a view would require not only reinterpreting God’s words to Abraham, but His words in a great many other places in scripture as well:

They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding. (Deuteronomy 32:31)

They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the Lord to anger…. (Judges 2:12)

“Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today.” (1 Samuel 28:18)

After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. (2 Samuel 11:27)

“Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'” (2 Samuel 12:10)

“Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.” (1 Kings 21:29)

“Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols their hands have made,my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.'” (2 Kings 22:17)

In every town in Judah he built high places to burn sacrifices to other gods and provoked the Lord, the God of his fathers, to anger. (2 Chronicles 28:25)

They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols. (Psalm 78:58)

Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?” “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?” (Jeremiah 8:19)

“Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else in Judah put him to death? Did not Hezekiah fear the Lord and seek his favor? And did not the Lord relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them? We are about to bring a terrible disaster on ourselves!” (Jeremiah 26:19)

“Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again.” (Ezekiel 5:9)

But Ephraim has bitterly provoked him to anger; his Lord will leave upon him the guilt of his bloodshed and will repay him for his contempt. (Hosea 12:14)

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

“Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness…But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride, my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive.” (Jer. 13:15-17)

“In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:26-27)

“…and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:22)

“Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelation 2:20)

“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. … So, because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:10, 16)

Far more than just in Abraham’s story, all throughout the Bible, we’re told numerous times of God doing things because of something man does. Using objection 6’s “God’s only telling us what He appears to be doing” interpretive method, or some other such contrivance, we would have to recast major portions of scripture into superficial smokescreens, declaring God’s revelations of Himself to be pretenses, and repeatedly insisting that the reasons God gives for His actions aren’t really His reasons at all, just to salvage determinist philosophy.


I’ve heard more than one appeal by proponents of determinism to the ‘beauty’ of their system. Like a priceless pearl, it’s smooth and elegant, being a de facto ‘theory of everything,’ and seemingly provides easy and consistent answers to tough questions. Beauty does not amount to truth, however, and it’s quite easy to be deceived by it if it’s not examined closely. The problem of God authoring sin by itself creates numerous and irreconcilable problems for exhaustive determinism. Its corollary, that God does nothing based upon what men do, is hopelessly and utterly confuted by the testimony of God Himself, Who has clearly and repeatedly stated otherwise. This deterministic philosophy may appear impeccable and invaluable upon first glance, but when examined through the lens of scripture, there’s an irreparable fracture in it -a flaw, that with furthered study, grows ever deeper and more pronounced.

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