Determinism isn’t dreary (whatever else it may be)

Having done a piece recently on free-will, referring back to the work of one of America’s greatest philosophers, Jonathan Edwards, I see that V J Torley has done a new column on the same theme. His interest is more the denial of the will in materialism than the theological debate, but I want to pick up on one of his intial points for my own purpose:

The ambitious view of free will can be described as a libertarian account, in contrast with what Mele refers to as the modest view, which says that “the ability to make rational, informed, conscious decisions in the absence of undue force – no one holding a gun to your head – is enough for free will.” The modest view is fully compatible with determinism, which makes it a rather unexciting version of free will: all of my choices might be pre-determined by my past history, even though nobody is forcing me to act the way I do. The ambitious view of free will challenges this dreary determinism. [my emphasis]

Now philosopher Alfred Mele’s twofold distinction seems to match Jonathan Edwards’, whose critique is of the “ambitious” version rather than the “modest”. As I said in my other post, one needs to read Edwards to understand the issues, but sufficient to note here that the “modest” version does not deny choice that is conscious (“I think I will choose” –  “I myself have chosen”), rational (“Let’s see – A makes more sense or will do more good than B, so I’ll choose that”) and informed (“Now I know the arguments, I prefer X to Y.”)

You may ask what more could be added to make choice “libertarian” – as does Edwards, who seeks to demonstrate that most of what is, in practice, added is incoherent. But the thing that Torley sees as the key no-no for being modest is “determinism” – and that is what Edwards finds as well. I described this in my previous post in terms of libertarian objections to the reality of divine foreknowledge, which inevitably entails that a choice is “determined” in its original sense of “fixed” – yet may still be still rational, informed and conscious. If you can’t live with that you become an Open Theist, or more often fudge the issue.

Torley, particularly focusing on scientific determinism, speaks only of “past history” as the determinant of will, conjuring up images of “what has happened to me from outside” in terms of moving particles and blind physical laws. But Mele’s category would equally apply to the “determinism” arising from my past decisions, my character, my education, my predilections – in fact, everything that in real life does govern our choices – and that before one gets to any question of divine involvement. Edwards points out how irrational is the attempt to divide choice from all determining causation – not least because in the end it necessitates all decisions to be made purely by chance. After all, nobody ever says, “My office is first right on the corridor, and I’ve worked there happily for ten years. I’ve always had a strong work ethic. Furthermore, my bonus will be on the desk when I arrive. I’m in good health and a normal mood, and have no desire to make any libertarian gestures, so since these things all increase my inclination to start work I’ll turn 3rd left. Well, that was a surprise – it’s the broom closet, but hey-ho at least it was a free decision!”

But I want to concentrate on the sentence in bold, and its “dreary determinism“. But first, two caveats.
First, in the “free-process creation” scheme, I’ve often pointed out the incoherence of talking about “freedom” with respect to irrational creatures anyway. So does Jonathan Edwards:

If this which I have mentioned be the meaning of the word Liberty, in the ordinary use of language; as I trust that none that has ever learned to talk, and is unprejudiced, will deny; then it will follow, that in propriety of speech, neither Liberty, nor its contrary, can properly be ascribed to any being or thing, but that which has such a faculty, power or property, as is called will. For that which is possessed of no will, cannot have any power or opportunity of doing according to its will, nor be necessitated to act contrary to its will, nor be restrained from acting agreeably to it.

Which is blindingly obvious, except to most TEs. Incidentally he adds that by the same token, the idea that the will itself is free is nonsensical – people can be free, but their faculties can’t. A bird’s power of flight can’t have the power of flight – and the will can’t determine itself. This is important if one is saying that the will is free of our own previous knowledge, inclinations or reasoning.

Second, in the question of human choice, the issue of the justice of divine involvement, by concurrence or otherwise, and human responsibility is another story for another day. In both areas, though, the idea that God’s determination somehow makes things “dreary” is quite common as a separate argument. I mentioned in the previously linked post the idea of “the dead hand of design” preventing true spontaneity and originality in creation; and I guess Vincent Torley has the same idea in mind in the human realm. But though it makes an emotional appeal, it’s hard to find any real meaning in it.

It reminds me of a worthy old song by Bert Jansch, Anti-Apartheid. Written from the heart, it contains justified outrage at what South Africa was like in 1965. But it also contains some lines at which one initially nods in emotional agreement, though they turn out to be totally nonsensical:

if men were of one colour how silly life would be
a regimented army to work the factories
that produces daily a gift of boredom given free

This says more about his own Bohemian lifestyle than about race: why on earth would the non-existence of races lead to a regimented industrialised dystopia? And how does racial diversity prevent it, other than the tendency in the pre-Wilberforce centuries to turn just one race into the regimented and oppressed workforce? (I have no beef against Jansch, by the way – he made me a cup of coffee once).

Similarly, there is nothing whatsoever in determinism of the kind Mele describes that makes it “dreary” to either God or man, except for that tiny minority with the education to understand “determinism” and the stupidity to let it either depress them or rule their lives (for example, Christians who take God at his word that their lives are foreknown, but won’t take him at his word that they have true choice and real accountability). Remember that for most of history, most people have believed that God, gods or heavenly bodies influenced their choices, and that God knows the future, and yet they went on making choices just the same. Another song is a little more philosophically intriguing and playful than Bert’s, and that’s Paul Mc Cartney’s Penny Lane, in which he says of the pretty nurse selling poppies that:

Though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway.

We wonder if she’s been reading too much philosophy or Hypercalvinist theology, or is the joke that she can never avoid being a line in the song that Paul has written to include her existential angst? But if a real nurse felt that way, she’d soon shake herself out of it and get on with exercising her power of choice daily, because whatever she may believe about determinism, she knows she is making real choices. Many of them, I’ll wager, are fun and not dreary at all.

The play is, in this instance, a good analogy for examining divine determination and dreariness (though it is proportionately less so when thinking about determination and accountability). Imagine creation as a play written by God and performed just the once for us, the audience as well as the actors. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume it’s fully scripted and directed rather than in any way improvised.

Now, if you go to see a new play by your favourite author, without having read any reviews, you’re fully aware that the thing is scripted, and has been rehearsed to perfection by the cast. But that doesn’t alter your anticipation, nor your absorbtion into the story, the tears that come in the weepy bits, the laughter at the funny bits, and the surprise at the plot turns. It’s all new, and exciting, because you’re living out the performance in real time. It’s fully determined – but not dreary at all, if it’s a good play.

Let’s consider poor old God, though, as some of the writers do, particularly in the “open process” camp. They imagine, I suppose, God’s having everything worked out at the beginning of creation and then being bored stiff to see it play out like the 50th TV Christmas showing of The Sound of Music. It’s made even worse because, in general, they don’t picture God acting in creation in real time, which would be “interfering”, so they seem to think he wants to see creation itself provide the laughs and tears for his jaded divine entertainment.

But of course, God creates not in time, but in eternity. In this he is somewhat like a human playwrite, who has a whole different experience of the play from the audience, working in a different time-frame as he discovers the nuances of his characters, invents novel sub-plots and so on. He may write from page one through to the end, inventing as he goes along. Or he might see the whole story in one beatific vision and let it all pour out in stream-of-consciousness fashion. He may write the end first and then work up to it. He may deliberate and correct endlessly. But whatever his methodology, if he likes his craft, the fact that what emerges is a fully determined blueprint for a future theatre performance is not dreary to him in the least. It’s what writing plays is about. And like all creative efforts it has both its pains and its sheer joy – but is only ever dreary if the creative juices run dry – which is hardly to be supposed of God.

The one thing one has to remember is that the playwrite is always in on the play in a fundamentally different way from the audience and the characters. God, likewise, is in heaven, and we on earth. It makes all the difference.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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26 Responses to Determinism isn’t dreary (whatever else it may be)

  1. Jon,
    I understand the conclusion that foreknowledge entails determinism. For clarification, however, would you say a little more about the relationship between determinism and the divine will? So, you speak of God’s determination. Do you see all that is determined as having being determined according to God’s will, that is, having been decreed by him?
    You will recall that previously I have proposed that some events are not according to God’s will, and, it would appear, are not divinely determined.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      First, let me reinforce that the issue addressed by this post is the “bare fact” of our decisions being real in eternity if God merely foresees them, or if they are determined by our past experience, by our deliberation and so on. The classical Arminian position has tended to reject all those things in favour of a general axiom that “I must have been able to choose other than I did”.

      Even that is confusing: what do we mean by “other than I did”? There’s only one reality. Clearly, if I’m not coerced I chose as I wished in that reality. The rest is just hypotheticals. The above examples are to do with “the nature of reality”, and the specific question of God’s will isn’t directly involved.

      But the question of God’s will being done is far more problematic, in the sense that we’re more likely to presume on God’s own business and get it wrong by applying our own creaturely experience. Sin is clearly contrary to God’s will, and he cannot be its author (so says Scripture). Yet, assuming his foreknowledge, he at least willed to create the world as it would be, sin and all, for his own purposes – and indeed, we read, Christ was set apart as Saviour even before the creation of the world. If even a human general foresees that a victory will only be gained at the cost of many evils, he can will the battle that necessarily includes the cost. So you can either say that he wills the victory, but not the evils, or that he wills the evils by engaging in the battle at all. “Will” can clearly be understood in different ways. God could have avoided all evil by avoiding all creation, but chose not to.

      God, of course, has mysterious ways of turning evils to good. But, again assuming even mere foresight, he cannot be caught out, as we are, by things not in the plan. It’s a different situation for the general planning an easy victory who gets ambushed by something he never counted on. If you create a situation with your eyes open, then you can’t be disappointed, though you can still be grieved.

      Then there’s the related question of how God uses (as Scripture says he does) evils for his own ends. He raises up the Babylonians for the good purpose of judgement, using their bad attitude to execute it, and so on. Yet in doing so, he does not promote sin (cf my piece on Job). My own, simple-minded thought is that human sin is harnessed by his knowledge and wisdom to ultimate good, the way a politician might know his opponents well enough to give them the opportunity to make fools of themselves and further his cause.

      But there is also the question I raised in previous posts of concurrence: this is primarily a general question of how God can govern his world at all, and if he initiates and sustains all actions, the question is how he initiates and sustains acts that are sins against his declared will. Those theologians who didn’t simply remove God into a position of hand-wringing non-involvement developed ideas of God’s being responsible for the act, tied to his ultimate good purposes, but not the sinful motive , which is a purely human or demonic issue and so still accountable. Even the minimalist “mere conservationists” must live with the fact that God sustains in being people and situations that are evil, when he might easily simply refuse to sustain them and let them cease to exist.

      Lastly (meaning my ideas have run out, rather than that I’ve covered the ground – I did say in the post that it was an issue for another day!) we have to deal with the Scriptures that speak of God actually inclining the heart (for example, his moving the hearts of Jews to return to Jerusalem in Ezra 1), and that includes the issue of grace. But I guess it also encompasses passages like that one in 1 Kings 12, in which the fact that the king listened to the young bloods instead of the wise counsellors was ” a turn of events from the Lord” in order to fulfil prophecy and divide the kingdom.

      Key to such passages and concepts is that there is never any question of God’s working against human will and liberty, as if he were an external agent rather than the ground of our being. One parallel would be that to say God’s power to create is irresistible – yet when he creates, there is nothing to resist him anyway, and the word “irresistible” is just used figuratively. But I’m still trying to work on ways to explain such ideas adequately.

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I know this bit of mockery is from certain atheist quarters, yet there may be just a bit of legitimate (and perhaps unanswerable?) question buried beneath the scoffing … (seen on a poster with the smiling pious face of western Caucasian Jesus)…

    So let’s get this straight. God creates everything, including evil, and then comes into the world to sacrifice himself … to himself … to save us from his own wrath. Ta daaa!

    …me again.
    Can one at least sympathize with the uncomfortable squirming over in Armenian and Open theism corners?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The shallow criticism of outsiders is not a reason for doing shallow theology ourselves – that seems to be one of the motives of those TEs who base much of their doctrine on theodicy: “The atheists are offended by the natural evil in the world, so we have to get God off the hook somehow.”

      How did Satan tempt Eve? By making it seem plausible that God is other than he declares himself to be – indeed, that he is more like us, or our human enemies. Surely this is a case where 1 Corinthians 2 is applicable. Every man – including me, I remember – is a Pelagian until regenerated by the Spirit.

      • pngarrison says:

        “Every man – including me, I remember – is a Pelagian until regenerated by the Spirit.”

        So the Arminians haven’t been regenerated? You don’t really want to go there, do you?

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          pngarrison – the first answer is that most Arminians reject Pelagianism, as the Church did, as heresy. “Semi-pelagian” was the insult used by Reformed writers, and I don’t think it meant “semi-regenerated”.

          The fact that there is quite a concerted attempt by some to re-habilitate the teaching and Pelagius himself shows that there are those willing to embrace its ideas, so any link between Pelagianism and regeneration is more direct there.

          The second point is a logical one: “all unregenerate persons are Pelagians” does not entail that “all regenerate persons are not Pelagians”. In fact, I see with the help of Mr Google that I unconsciously watered down a saying of George Whitefield, that began “We are all born Arminians,” but he regarded John Wesley as his brother in Christ despite their heated disagreement.

          These issues are matters of ideas and reason, which is why I suggested Merv that reacting to the scorn of unbelievers may be no more useful that explaining to Gnus reasons why God is not a pixie and “Jebus” has an “s” in the middle.

          My Pelagian remark was actually picking up on a serious point made by Edwards: we pick up our ideas and vocabulary on “liberty”, “choice” etc in childhood, and they work well in human contexts. To apply them to God means extending them metaphysically, and the analogies often fail.

          Thus in human life, “impossible” means we cannot do something however hard we try. But to speak of its being impossible for God, or the resurrected saints, to sin does not imply they’d like to sin but can’t, but that their righteousness is a simple reality, not an unstable state.

          A bit more in my reply to Merv below.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    The ‘bare fact of our decisions’, a ‘pre-determined existence’, and ‘God’s will be done’, are often difficult to link together. I suspect most examinations that appear scientific try to deal with the ‘bare fact’ of some controlled decision making experiment and then extrapolate from this to a hypothesis dealing with brain function, motor reflexes, responses, and finally be termed decisions.

    In matters that require a human being to exercise his/her will in terms of making a decision that will determine a future, or respond to a problematic present, the decision may be seen as an authentic expression of his will and volition. Context, and the person’s circumstances, which translate into means, power, and capabilities to put into effect a particular decision, are of paramount importance. We may feel free to do and act, but we may not always be able to do as we wish. Thus we are constrained, but we can be aware of our limited choices. It is important to recognise that we can never be free from being free – i.e. we cannot pre-determine our reality so that our entire existence is set from birth – we will always find ourselves choosing, and also finding out that we would have chosen otherwise by reflecting on some past choice.

    Our response(s) to choice, actualisation of intent, and judgement of outcomes, can be viewed within a world as sensible (sense response or empirical) response to phenomena (facts provided in the world) and/or reasonable, based on responding intelligently to the act in the world. Otherwise we are confronted with the pathological/beneficial that results from choices confronting humans, such as cruelty or mercy, love or hate, and so on. The choice of cruelty by a human being will result in the active ‘formation’ of this attribute; we are also free to choose otherwise, and with a choice of mercy, that human being will show ‘growth’ within a godly context of displaying mercy and justice in act and being. It is this part of the argument of will, which we may begin to discuss a pre-determined world by God – within freedom, the choice for cruelty is pathological to oneself and is destructive to other human beings. Conversely the choice of say, mercy and helping the needy, is a free choice that also leads to benefits to oneself and others. This is a brief statement, but we can see that both outcomes are set, or a pre-determined for human beings, and yet they also depend on the choices human make. When we speak of God, we can see that He has determined the entire context and outcome for whatever choices we may, or may not make.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yes, I like this formulation GD, brief though it is.

      Your third paragraph resonates with a previous column, about how the free choices of the Lord Jesus, or of the Father himself, are determined by the unchanging goodness of his character: his freedom lies in being able to do none other than the best. Conversely, our decisions to do wrong are a mark of a pathological departure from liberty.

      It looks as if you glanced at the V J Torley thread regarding lab experiments – did you check out the rather amusing post by “Charlie” in which the experimenter investigates whether Charlie has free choice by telling him to choose which button to press, and Charlie responds by persistently refusing to press either.

      That seemed to be used in the (predominantly libertarian) discussion to show how the will can buck all “causes” and do its own thing – in fact, of course, what it shows is that the Charlie in the lab, with his past history, is making a considered point… of all the possibilities and motives in play, including being compliant to the researcher, the best seems to him to prove he can choose as he wants.

      I wonder whether his choice would be any less free if the overt purpose of the experiment – to demonstrate neurological determinism – was in fact a cunning blind to research non-conformity to authority?

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        I have struggled with the materialists view that natural selection has created an illusion of free will in us – this strikes me as so weird that I cannot take so called experiments by such people seriously – and I do not like to waste my time with such non-sense..

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          I have a hypothesis that the reason they end up denying the obvious is that they’re trying to work with the same kind of view of free will as “autonomy” (following the Renaissance Prometheus theme) as the religious libertarians. As a result, finding the “will” is not operating in some kind of contingent vacuum, but is connected to causes, they reject what was a faulty concept anyway.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I just read an article in a recent Smithsonian periodical about research showing that people have less patience with each other as temperature climbs. Volunteers counted the seconds they could wait at a green light before the person behind them honked (and whether it was a friendlier short reminder honk vs. the blaring ‘you idiot’ honk). Sure enough, on hot days, or in hotter southern cities there was a correlation between oppressive temperatures and short fuses. No surprise there. Violent behavior and quick offense also correlate. They were delving into ramifications of warming climate change.

    But while it is obvious that our choices (or our will towards kindness and forbearance) are influenced by all sorts of external factors, yet we don’t view it as any encroachment on free will. There are still so many biological programs out there that hold out eternal hope that we will analyze every last synapse of the brain and lay any alleged free will bare to the reductionist process. Of course it is interesting to think about how we think. But (as Lewis suggests in “Abolition of Man”) the entire program short circuits itself in the end. Or forces the researchers to only apply their findings to “other” excluding themselves from the analysis and thereby limiting the scope of their results. It remains a philosophical conundrum always sitting there while we just get on with attending to the important daily tasks of tending to home and community.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Regarding my earlier post above, I know much of it is (has been ) easily answered, but some of it not so easily. While we have generations of church fathers who have distilled and refined our understandings into an impressive body of doctrine, it still may be of some value to step outside the camp entirely on occasion to hear the point of view of the naive child who maintains that the emperor doesn’t have any clothes on. It is a charge that would only trouble those of us who believe in God’s absolute sovereign will shown in every detail of history (which I do). And a certain amount of hand-waving might be legitimately necessary to make the problem “go away”. Far be it from me to think that everything should be explainable on our level. But from those theists who seem more confident that it all might be explainable, I’m always eager to learn more.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      I think we have all, at some point in time, asked ourselves what makes us the people we have become – and most of us realise to varying degrees that our upbringing, our community, our values and beliefs, and our physical characteristics, are somehow the ‘explanation’ to this question. Our beliefs and faith, (or supposedly absence of faith) are important aspects of such a conversation.

      Such a complicated question cannot be answered with a simple analogy or observation, such as ‘people may get angry and impatient under such and such circumstances’. Even a simple observation such as hot weather makes people impatient, in fact would be stated, some people with particular temperaments may, at some time, display that behaviour.

      Free will as a topic for debate, must be defined as an aspect of humanity, but not the totality of all that constitutes a human being. What makes it so intriguing as a subject (besides the theistic outlook) is that we cannot envisage any other species to display free will – yet since only humans display this, and humans disagree on various aspects of it, we cannot use an external standard which can be calibrated scientifically, to even measure degrees of free will.

      I suppose the very fact that we are discussing free will and presenting various points of view is at least suggestive that we are free to have such a discussion. The materialist’s position is untenable, since he would, in the final analysis he would say all of this is the result of electrochemical neural activity and natural selection has seen fit to delude us into thinking we are having this discussion, so that we may evolve – into what? However detailed discussions can be very lengthy because each person will come to his/her own outlooks, and each of us will have a somewhat different take on free will. This too is instructive.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Your observation on human uniqueness can be quite instructive, I think, since the creatures clearly do make choices in a limited way, and the more intelligent make more of them. If anything, they appear more arbitrary (aka “free”) than ours – is this elephant going to charge or retire? The answer seems pretty contingent.

        The main difference, it seems, is that we are capable of deliberating, ie letting rationality and moral awareness determine our choices. In other words, it’s closely tied up with reasonable ness rather than randomness.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Merv – my only contention with this point is that today’s critics of Christianity are, in many case, hardly naive children but committed to ideologies out to destroy faith. And some (both outside and inside the churches) are only naive because they’ve not troubled themselves to look at the work the fathers of the Church have done.

      One example of the genuinely naive, relating back to my discussion with pngarrison above on “born Pelagians”, is how hard children find it to understand grace. All three of my children (and, I remember, I myself in my youth) had big problems with Jesus’ parable of the workmen, in which the last arrivals were paid a whole days wage for minimal effort, and those who worked all day got no more. “That’s not fair“, they insisted.

      But in that case, of course, the Emperor, being Jesus himself, had clothes, and it was the children who needed to change the way they thought. I’m not sure how possible that is before one receives grace oneself, and even thereafter the Adam in us keeps wanting to revert to works.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        The thing is, Jon, that your kids were quite right to say “That’s not fair ” because it isn’t. The argument that has to be made is that sometimes there are purposes that are more important than impersonal “fairness.”

        So, for example, an employer might pay a full week’s wages to an employee who missed a few days due to a family death. In such a case, the other employees would probably praise the employer for compassion rather than grumble about unfairness.

        But what if the employee missed those days because he was lying in bed with a hangover from drinking and partying every night? I think the other employees would rightly grumble about unfairness in that case.

        Is it possible that much evangelism has been unsuccessful because it has not addressed the difference between these two cases, and explained how that difference works out when translated from the sphere of labor to the sphere of salvation? In some versions of evangelism, it certainly sounds as if God doesn’t care in the slightest whether you missed work because of a death in the family or because you voluntarily stayed up late to play poker, and voluntarily drank yourself into a stupor, when you knew you had to work the next day; you’ll get the same generous treatment in either case. I think this is the hump that many thoughtful non-Christians (I’m not talking about the new atheists) have trouble getting over.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    You’re right to draw the distinction both between fairness (justice) and mercy – and also between mercy and cheap grace. The first pair in itself is the thoroughly orthodox matter of the parable I cited, but still rankles with the human sense of equality – especially in our modern democratic times.

    The latter pair probably has its roots in modernity too, though I’ve never sat down to work out how, but results in that “once saved, always saved” mentality most respectably popularised (in the UK, at least) by R T Kendall in a book of that name, which I annotated as critically as I ever did any Arminian text when I read it. It’s probably the result of radically dichotomising law and grace, to the extent of abolishing the first; the supposed effect being that if you once pray the sinner’s prayer your subsequent career as childmolester or cocaine addict makes no difference. It reminds me of a salutory headline I saw in a national newspaper about the conviction of a “Born-Again Rapist.” Neither thoughtful Christians, nor atheists, should be expected to get over that scandal.

    The antidote to that is in the good work that the old theologians, especially the Reformers, did on grace and election. Grace doesn’t get you to heaven despite everything – it conforms you to Christ despite everything (just as does the linked idea of predestination as being inextricably bound up in Christ himself and his sanctifying work, very much treated in Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians – a good read.)

    Your analogy, I think, would work better if it was not the unengaged labourers who were in the pub or the whorehouse, but those who were alleged to be working already: the beautiful scandal of the gospel (which I think is inherent in the parable), is that the man who repents after a life of dissolution is indeed sometimes shown undeserved mercy and grace (even though it’s not fair!). But the genuine, effectual, character of that repentance is actually part of grace, not an added condition.

    Hence Jesus’s parables about unfaithful servants, foolish virgins etc – all of which are directed at those who count themselves believers but are tempted to despise grace.

    To judge the doctrines of grace by “Once saved always saved” advocates would be as unjust as to accuse all Arminians of being Open Theists, which I hope I’ve not implied. The only difference (if I’m correct) is that “Once saved always saved” is just a profound misunderstanding of grace; whereas if one holds as axiomatic that “necessity” destroys free-will, and if you once suspect that divine foreknowledge entails such necessity, then denying God’s foreknowledge becomes a concomitant if one wants to avoid a fudge.

  7. pngarrison says:

    Just noticed this quote on The Anxious Bench.

    “Jonathan Edwards, who believed that it was ‘exceeding just, that God should take the soul of a new-born infant and cast it into eternal torments,’ …

    I submit this as sufficient proof that, whatever else he was, Jonathan Edwards wasn’t always the soul of wisdom.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Preston, it would perhaps be sufficient proof if it were a complete quote in context, but it isn’t. You can see in the original (which I took trouble to check) that he’s considering a theoretical question of damnation and mercy in general, and the quote comes from the first “either” part of a proposition, of which the “or” part is “or they are not saved by Christ”.

      His point is that Christ died only for those who deserve damnation, so if infants are saved (as traditionally their baptism is intended to accomplish through removal of original sin) it is because they needsaving. He argues that the same question of whether God’s mercy would be deficient in damning infants is equally applicable in the case of the fallen angels (as an extreme case – it’s a question applicable to all moral beings).

      His point is that God punishes anyone only as his justice decides they deserve, so who are we to say at what point he’s deficient in mercy if he condemns? How do we know what infants deserve? Or devils?

      In other words, it’s not enthusiasm for damning infants, but a desire that judgement be left to God, not to our subjective feelings. In fact the last sentence of the section is the most “negative” on the issue, by pointing out that orthodox doctrine says that infants do share original sin (and so need Christ’s salvation).

      The other thing to note is that the quote comes from a handwritten notebook – these are Edwards’ personal deliberations, not a public statement. Such statements are left to others.

      As Article IX of the Anglican Church says, “…and therefore in every person born into this world [original or birth sin] deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.”

      This question is nothing to do with Calvinist v Arminian (or even Edwards’ personal doctrine). John Wesley agreed with George Whitefield on the doctrine, which he defended in denying that Arminians like him were Semi-pelagian, and he said in his published sermon on the subject (#44):

      [Christianity] declares that all men are conceived in sin,” and “shapen in wickedness;” — that hence there is in every man a “carnal mind, which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to” his “law;” and which so infects the whole soul, that “there dwelleth in” him, “in his flesh,” in his natural state, “no good thing;” but “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil,” only evil, and that “continually.”


      • pngarrison says:

        “How do we know what infants deserve?”

        Jon, if what is meant by an infant is someone who hasn’t really chosen or done anything, because they had no capacity to do so, (in other words, if there is no equivocation about “infant”) I don’t think we need divine omnipotence to know that they don’t deserve to be tortured forever. My philosophy mentor was fond of saying that there is no possible universe in which it is a good thing to torture an infant for your own pleasure. (“Forever” would make it clearer, if that’s possible.) The statement takes account of the fact that what has been done matters and knowledge matters; an infant knows nothing and has done nothing, so there’s no conceivable justification for torturing an infant.

        If you say that God might define “torturing an infant for His own pleasure” as not o.k. for everyone else, but o.k. for Him, you are saying, in effect, that the statement “God is good” means nothing, because good in His case can mean whatever He declares it to mean. (Eddie can tell us what late Medieval philosophical view that is – I can’t come up with at this point.)

        As for J. Edward’s point about devils, it seems clear to me he is wrong. If they are fallen angels, and they had direct experience of Heaven, and in some fashion rebelled, they were clearly not in the same position as infants. Granted that we don’t know enough to judge them, but it’s clear, infants there weren’t.

        There’s no reason that I can see to regard the 39 articles, Wesley or Whitefield as infallible.

        • pngarrison says:

          Should be “infants they weren’t.”

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Preston, the way this discussion has gone is a bit odd – you first questioned Jonathan Edwards’ writings on the free-will question on the grounds he had a kooky personal relish for the damnation of infants. I demonstrated that the quotation given was (mischievously) incomplete and out of context, and that his actual views were mainstream (I used the foundation documents of the C of E and the foremost Arminian of Edwards’ own time as typical examples).

            So it seems your argument isn’t so much that Edwards’ treatment of free-will is in any way deficient, but that he and the bulk of the Church’s theologians down the ages have been unreliable because supporters of child abuse (Wesley cites Arminius as supporting the same doctrine of original sin, and the Council of Trent could be cited to represent Catholicism.)

            Now it’s true that the Catholic Church, like others, has always hedged the link between original sin in infants (never denied) and judgement (often speculatively mitigated, as in the various kinds of limbo, but never officially as dogma) – which is effectively, like Edwards, saying that original sin is a real problem, but that it’s God’s problem, not ours.

            “Torturing infants for God’s own pleasure…” that’s treading on holy ground, I think. God declares that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked – in a context that nevertheless says judgement is certain without repentance. It seems he takes pleasure not in suffering, but in justice – of which he is the sole arbiter.

            Hanan’s point below makes the very one Edwards questioned in the passage after your quotation (not mine, remember – this thread was about whether free will is destroyed by God’s foreknowledge!): the claim that if God would do something good men commonly would not, he cannot be just. Edwards raises the matter of infants as a hard case (also raising devils as an easy one – categorically NOT saying they are the same as infants).

            But which good man would condemn anybody to eternal judgement, especially if that is understood as involving suffering? Yet it is Jesus who, in the Bible, teaches most about such judgement.

            We’ve all heard people say that a good God would never judge anybody: by definition, it seems, they’re more merciful than Jesus.

        • Hanan says:

          >If you say that God might define “torturing an infant for His own pleasure” as not o.k. for everyone else, but o.k. for Him, you are saying, in effect, that the statement “God is good” means nothing, because……

          I like this point. It reminds me of when Abraham fights on behalf of Sodom. His argument is that God must be Just. In order for such an argument to even take place, a common understanding of “just” must exist, even for God.

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    It is interesting to look back to our experiences within a religious community when we were young. I recollect a simple connection between doing wrong and being punished, or disciplined, and was told by my parents that this taught me to be more like a soldier who performs his duty, but must accept the discipline that goes with this. In this context, my recollections appear more like, ‘if you do wrong then the devil will see that you go to hell’, rather than God will send you to eternal torment. While the distinction may be slight within the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination, it seems to have been an important distinction to me as a child.

    However I do recall that the local priest would not hesitate to ‘give’ this wicked person or that to the devil if such a person disagreed with the priest – the status of priest as I recall made me very critical of the Orthodox Christian tradition, and it took a long time for me to realise that a priest should serve the church and community, not impose his will on them. However I find the rather strident doctrine of predestination as expounded by some Protestant groups overly simplified. I think the notion that we can see fairness and justice in a relatively simple doctrine that seems to be grounded on ‘God has determined everything’, may lead some people into wrong assumptions about God, justice and grace.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I wonder what the theology was behind your childhood warnings, seeing that God, and not the devil, is the judge of all men? As thye Longer Orthodox Catechism says (#165): What is the curse? The condemnation of sin by God’s just judgment, and the evil which from sin came upon the earth for the punishment of men.

    Satan doesn’t send anyone to hell – rather he is sent there himself.

    I guess it was shorthand for the biblical position that Satan accuses men before God day and night, and his accusations only stick if they are true and they are guilty sinners. So the devil must, I suppose, “see to” this wicked child’s ticket to hell by making sure God knows about it, and appealing to his justice – which is why the satisfaction of God’s justice in Christ is said to be the reason why Satan is robbed of his power.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      There is no doubt or question that God is the judge or that His judgement is just; nor is there any question on the need of all souls for salvation in Christ. My point was aimed at showing that children, and even many adults without lengthy education, may not have the intellectual tools to work through the many areas of theology that we need to get an appreciation of these doctrines – it is this that has been my major criticism of the way Christianity may have been taught at the local level – however, I think for every priest who spoke of damnation, many others took a different approach.

      Understanding justice and mercy is fundamental to a good community, and I am of the view that Christianity has reached the very heights and depths of these matters, as testified by the life, death and resurrection of Christ – it is God’s will that all human beings are saved. This profound truth may be somewhat diluted by talk of hell and damnation – the emphasis is on the need for us to be saved. Also we hear very little on the origin of sin – humans are not intrinsically evil, but can be tempted by the devil to commit sin, and this blinds us to its consequences.

      Having said that, I do not see anything to disagree with you regarding God’s justice and why Satan is robbed of his power. Once robbed of this power anything that Satan says or does becomes ineffectual, and this is especially so regarding children. That does not remove their propensity towards sin and I guess we all have been naughty kids; suffice to say as our understanding of the faith increases, so is our comprehension of God’s eternal mercy.

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