Is everything foreordained?

Probably the most distinctive tenet of Reformed theology is that ‘God did freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass’ (Westminster Confession, III, I).  The doctrine is often contemptuously dismissed, but it says no more than what Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, ‘In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’.


Besides, it is no mere academic formula.  It has brought hope and patience to countless Christian sufferers.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, clung to it in the darkest days of his imprisonment.  In a letter to his friend Hans von Dohnanyi on April 5, 1943 he wrote:

‘You must know that there is not even an atom of reproach or bitterness in me about what has befallen the two of us.  Such things come from God and from him alone, and I know that I am one with you and Christel in believing that before him there can only be subjection, perseverance, patience – and gratitude.  So any question “Why?” falls silent, because it has found its answer.’


Every occurrence

The idea itself is perfectly simple: every occurrence in the universe has been foreordained by God.  There are two points to emphasise.


First, when we speak of foreordination we mean foreordination by God.  Sovereignty does not lie with fate or chance or natural law or some capricious tribal demon, but with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Foreordination is irradiated with Christology.  It is the risen Lord who has all the authority in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28.); and it is the Lamb that John sees in the centre of the throne, opening the scroll (Rev. 5.) 


Just as there is in God no un-Christlikeness at all, so the divine decree is an absolutely consistent expression of holy love.


Secondly, foreordination is all-embracing.  The Bible makes this absolutely clear.  For example, fortuitous events such as the throw of the dice are in the hands of God:  ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Proverbs 16:33).  The same is true of the most insignificant occurrences in the natural world: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father’ (Mt. 10:29).


Similarly, the morally good actions of men are foreordained by God: ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Eph. 2:10).


What is more astonishing still, the reprehensible works of men lie within God’s foreordination.  This appears with particular clarity in relation to the crucifixion, which was simultaneously the pivot of the divine purpose and the climax of human sin: ‘This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross’ (Acts 2:28).


No event in the cosmos, then, is outside God’s purpose.  But beside this doctrine Reformed theology has placed three caveats.


First, God is not the author of sin (Westminster Confession, III,I). This didn’t mean that God did not foreordain sin.  What it meant was that such foreordination did not make him the author of sin.  This clearly implies a distinction between foreordaining and authoring; but as to the exact nature of the distinction theologians had little to say.  The furthest they went was to concede that, provided we use the word carefully, we can speak of God permitting sin.


We find this in, for example, the Westminster Confession’s chapter on Providence:  God’s providence extends even to the first fall, and to all other sins, ‘and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful binding, and otherwise ordering of them …’


The intention of this statement is to deny a bare permission, while at the same time allowing the use of the idea of permission itself.  The concept goes back to the New Testament and especially to Acts 14:16, ‘In the past, he (God) let all nations go their own way.’ In this sense, permission is not an alternative to foreordination but one particular form of it. 


The truth is, we know there is a difference between the way that foreordination bears on evil and the way it bears on good, but we struggle to express the difference.  The best we can do is to suggest that there is a creative or causal foreordination and there is a permissive foreordination.


We are in trouble simply because of the nature of sin itself.  It is anomia(without law) and this makes it impossible to give any coherent account of it.  It is a black hole, a singularity, an absurdity of which no one (not even God himself?) can give an explanation.  But it is not outside the Plan, or part of another plan or of another’s plan.  This, too, God works for good.


Secondly, foreordination does not rule out freedom.  There is no doubt that in many minds the idea of a divine decree is linked to the idea of necessity, as if foreordination equalled determinism; and there have of course been Calvinists who have been determinists, most notably Thomas Chalmers and Jonathan Edwards.  But, as William Cunningham argues in a brilliant essay (Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity), there is nothing in the Reformed system of theology which requires men to hold the doctrine pf philosophical necessity.


Cunningham’s eccentric colleague, John Duncan, expressed similar sentiments.  Referring to Thomas Chalmers, he wrote, ‘He and I often talked of Edwards and Philosophical Necessity.  He never could see that there was a third thing between Necessity and Contingency – viz. Liberty.’


The danger here is that we may confuse theology and philosophy.  Foreordination is a theological doctrine, based on scripture.  Determinism is a philosophical theory.  There is no necessary link between them.  In fact, there is no reason why someone who is a Calvinist in theology should not be a Libertarian in philosophy.  The Westminster Confession almost invites one to adopt precisely this position.  Having asserted the doctrine of universal and unchangeable foreordination it immediately adds: ‘yet so, as thereby neither … is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.’


God’s decree affects each creature according to its own nature: inanimate objects according to physical laws, animate ones according to biological laws and moral ones according to the laws of responsibility. Whatever freedom is essential to responsibility, man has it, and foreordination never over-rides it.  God foreordained that Judas Iscariot would betray Christ.  But he also foreordained that he should do so freely, by his own choice; and that he should be held responsible for that choice.  Similarly, God foreordained that we should come to Christ.  But he also foreordained that we should come freely, ‘being made willing by his grace’.


The idea that, whereas Calvinism stands for the sovereignty of God, Arminianism stands for human freedom, is a caricature.  The liberty of the will (and, as a result, the responsibility of man) is a central tenet of Reformed theology: ‘God’, says the Westminster Confession, ‘hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil.’ (IX.I).


Today, it is the freedom, rather than the foreordination, that is under threat.  There is a strongly deterministic streak in modern thought, largely because we want to apply the principles of the natural sciences to all areas of human behaviour.  Psychologists, sociologists, penologists – sometimes even missiologists – are constantly describing human behaviour in simplistic terms, as if man were the plaything of his genes or his environment or his antenatal experiences; or, alternatively, that skilled communication techniques can easily bend him to their will.


Any similarity between such an analysis and the Reformed doctrine of foreordination is entirely accidental.  Man can choose.  He has a will.  He is free.  And he is all of this because God has foreordained freedom.  What a magnificent proposition it is: the liberty or contingency of second causes is not taken away, but rather established!


It is interesting to turn to one of the great Reformed theologians of the 19th century and see him making precisely this point. This time it is A. A. Hodge:


‘So much is this the case, so universally  do all the real governing currents of modern thought outside of Christian theology run in the direction of universal determinism, rather than in that of the admission of the indeterminate, the contingent, the spontaneous and free, that many of us who are the staunchest Calvinists feel that the need of the hour is not to emphasise a foreordination, which no clear, comprehensive thinker doubts, but to unite with our Arminian brethren in putting all emphasis and concentrating all attention on the vital fact of human freedom.’


In the century since Hodge wrote these words science, philosophy and psychology have continued to flirt with materialism, and the emphasis on freedom is more necessary today than ever.  Society does not consist of mere victims but of free and responsible human beings.


Liberty of second causes

The remaining caveat was that foreordination does not eliminate contingency.  Again, the Westminster Confession is remarkably explicit: the liberty or contingency of second causes is not taken away, but rather established. These words recognise the existence of second causes such as, for example, the meteorological factors that govern weather conditions.  Many of these causes operate as part of a regular, predictable nexus.  But some other second causes are contingent.  What the Confession means is that just as the foreordination of God creates space for freedom so it creates space for chance and accident.  God has foreordained chance.


Attitudes to this problem have been revolutionised by the discoveries of 20th century physics.  We now know, in terms of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, that there is an element of contingency or chance at the heart of matter itself: it is impossible to predict the behaviour of an individual sub-atomic particle.


‘According to the basic principles of quantum theory,’ writes Paul Davies, ‘nature is inherently unpredictable … there is always an irreducible element of indeterminism in the operation of sub-atomic systems.’ Davies goes on to quote the distinguished Danish physicist, Niels Bohr: ‘When it comes to atoms, the rules are those of roulette.’


This is what prompted Einstein’s famous riposte: ‘God doesn’t play dice!’  At the level of physics, Einstein was wrong.  The behaviour of these particles israndom.  The problem is not merely one of human inability to measure.  It is the way things are.  There is no pattern, so far as individual particles are concerned.  This does not mean that they operate without foreordination.  What it means is that God has foreordained that each particle will behave randomly and contingently.  His decree no more eliminates accident that it destroys freedom.


Sub-atomic movements are, of course, predictable by God.  But even this does not mean that they perform according to a pattern which he sees.  He predicts them precisely as random and pattern-less.


How?  To the how we have no answer.  As theologians we know from scripture the great truths of foreordination, sin, freedom and contingency.  We can assert the facts with confidence.  When we try to reconcile them (or explain the relations between them), we cease to be theologians and become philosophers.


Our theories may, sometimes, happen to be true.  But only when they are derived from Scripture can we say, ‘Thus saith the Lord’.