Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Discussing Destiny: Determinism Versus Libertarianism

As a young believer, new to the faith--I suppose "newer" would be more appropriate; today I'm still less than a decade old in terms of being born again--I was blissfully unaware of a debate that has long raged within the Christian Church when it comes to the notion of "free will." Looking back, I'm not sure how I missed a couple of very peculiar words found in the New Testament. It's almost as if my brain shut down while my eyes skimmed over them; not until I was introduced to the debate did it even strike me that they were there.

First is the word "elect," found, for example, in 1 Peter 1:1 which reads (in the NIV), "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect." I was familiar with the word when used as a verb: to "elect" someone is to choose which of multiple candidates will hold some position. The word "elect," then, used as a noun referring specifically to believers--all believers, and only believers--ought naturally to invoke in one's mind the thought of God's choosing them to "hold" that "position."

Second is the still more striking word "predestined." It appears in Acts 4:27-28 where Peter and John, speaking to God, said, "There were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur." The implications of the word "predestined" seem obvious: it was by God's prior choice to destine them to gather against Jesus that they did, in fact, gather against Jesus. Where this becomes a problem, however, is when it refers to a believer's state, such as in Ephesians 1:5 where it is said of us Christians, "He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself."

A surface reading of the text suggests something amazing, if not a little frightening: that God elects those who, as a result of that choice, are predestined to trust in Jesus Christ. But what would this say about our cherished notion of "free will?" If God chooses those He wishes to believe in His Son, do they have the option of rejecting Him? Conversely, if God doesn't choose others to follow the Son, do they have the capacity to choose Him anyway? At a fundamental level, this is the nature of the debate.


The alternate views within this debate go by a variety of names. To those not terribly familiar with each, perhaps "Calvinism" and "Arminianism" are most likely to ring a bell. Of course, the schools of thought that go by those names are far more complex and encompass a much greater breadth and depth of doctrine than just this question of being chosen versus being able to choose. Further, the teachings of Jacobus Arminius and his followers lead me to question whether their being offered up as the opposite to those of Calvin is truly proper regarding this question.

Another common choice of words for distinguishing these two major views is "determinism" and "libertarianism" (or "libertarian free will"). The former is used to describe the position that God determines those He chooses to be saved and destines them to that end; the latter is used to describe the belief that humans have complete liberty to exercise their free will in choosing to either follow or reject God. To the extent that the words summarize these positions in this way, they serve their purpose. However, when one looks at both positions closely, one finds that neither is accurately characterized by these terms and the meanings they imply.

Application of the term determinism to the one view implies that it allows for no concept of a person's free will to choose one thing over another. Categorizing the other as libertarianism suggests it has no room for the notion that one's choices are influenced by either nature, environment or by God. Yet, adherents to the former camp do recognize the role free will plays in the choices people make, and those who hold to the latter view acknowledge that people are influenced by various factors, including God--like most Christians, many even pray that God would open the hearts of unbelievers.

We therefore need to be careful not to allow our categorization of these views to unfairly paint them into corners in which they don't belong. Nevertheless, I'll use these terms throughout this series for the purpose of identification, but so that I'm clear, here are the two major positions we'll be discussing:

  • Determinism: The view which holds that, because of the effects of original sin, humans will always, if left to our own devices, freely choose to reject God. The reason any place their faith in Jesus Christ is because God chose to intervene. From eternity past God chose those whom He wishes to be saved, not in response to anything they would do or believe in life, but solely according to His own perfect will. In life, those whom God chose are "regenerated" such that, having previously operated from the sinful human nature inherited from Adam and Eve, they now operate from a new life in the Spirit, and place their faith in Jesus Christ as a result of that work of God.
  • Libertarianism: The view which holds that, despite the sinful nature inherited from Adam and Eve, humans have the liberty to act and believe contrary to their natural inclinations in opposition to God, instead turning to Him in faith. Though our choices are influenced by our nature, our upbringing, our environment and other factors--including God--we ultimately have the freedom to do that which we are not influenced to do. Without the genuine capacity to choose God or to reject Him, we cannot legitimately be made justified for the former, nor held responsible for the latter. God knew beforehand from all eternity past what choices we would make, but He did not make those choices for us.


What does the Bible teach? To what extent do we have "free will?" To what extent are we "predestined" to faith? What impact might these views have on our life and on the practice of our faith? We'll look at all these questions and more as time goes on. With this introduction in place, in this series we will thus be "discussing destiny."

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