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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Determinism is an obvious possible deduction from
the definition of the divinity or God in most systems
of theology. These systems normally define God as a
being who is omnipotent, who is omniscient, and whose
omniscience includes foreknowledge of all future
events. It would seem that any being who possessed
these characteristics fully would have to be ultimately
responsible for every event that occurs in the universe.
Thus no individual lesser being, such as a man, could
be truly free to act or to make a decision on any matter,


important or trivial, at any time, in any place, in any
conceivable circumstances.

This deduction, however, carries certain disturbing
implications, and even provokes contradictions in many
systems of theology. For most of these systems also
include in their normal definitions of God the idea that
He is infinitely good, and the ultimate source of all
that is good in the universe. This creates the serious
problem of explaining the evil that seems to be such
an obvious and recurrent feature of all experience. It
creates the particularly serious problem of explaining
the ultimate forms of evil forecast by certain systems
of theology, such as the eternal damnation of the souls
of a high percentage of the entire human race. If God
is truly omnipotent and truly good, how can He permit
evil to exist, particularly forms of evil which are com-
pletely catastrophic and irreversible, such as the eter-
nal damnation of a human soul?

There are several fairly obvious possible logical
escapes from this dilemma. One can conclude, as be-
lievers in many primitive religions do, that God is evil
or neutral. One can conclude, as many modern liberal
believers in progress do, that God is not omnipotent
at every point in history. Or one can argue that evil
is really an illusion, and that everything which seems
evil serves some ultimate good purpose.

These logical escapes do not satisfy most theologians.
They do not seem to them to be confirmed either by
experience or by revealed truth. Most theological sys-
tems thus seek to face the dilemma by creating a
theodicy, or defense of God's goodness and omnipo-
tence despite the existence of evil. And most theologi-
ans, aware of this dilemma, shrink from endorsing
determinism. Those who emphasize God's omnipo-
tence, and particularly His role in the salvation of
individual human souls, may approach determinism
closely. But they hesitate to endorse it openly and
frankly. The term “determinism” tends to be used in
theology mostly as a polemicist's epithet, directed
against theological arguments which are charged with
overemphasizing divine omnipotence. It is thus more
precise to speak of approaches to determinism in the-
ology, rather than actual determinism.


In the Christian tradition, the nearest approaches
to determinism are to be found more in ideas about
man's ultimate destiny than in ideas about the course
of man's life in this world. They are to be found partic-
ularly within systems derived from the thought of Saint
Augustine of Hippo, the greatest early theologian of
the Western Church. They have been derived most
commonly from Augustine's doctrines of original sin
and predestination. These doctrines Augustine devel
oped from his reading of the Pauline epistles in the
Christian New Testament. In developing his inter-
pretation, Augustine (354-430) was almost certainly
influenced by the preaching of Saint Ambrose (ca.
340-97), and other prominent earlier Western theolo-
gians. He departed from the views of influential East-
ern theologians such as Saint John Chrysostom. But he
reacted most explicitly against the teachings of his
contemporaries, the British monk Pelagius and his

Pelagius seems to have been an austere moralist, who
worked hard to convince Christians of their duty to
lead good lives. The Pelagians argued that the evil,
particularly the moral evil, which they acknowledged
to be endemic in the world was due to free acts of
will by individual human beings. Men decide freely
to perform wicked deeds, in full knowledge of the fact
that these deeds are wicked and that those who do
them incur punishments decreed by God. This wicked-
ness, or sin, became pervasive, as men imitated each
other and became the slaves of sinful habits. God
punishes wicked acts in a variety of ways, partly in
this life through natural disasters like illness, partly in
the life to come by eternal punishment of the souls
of the sinful. If a man wants to escape from sin, and
its many unpleasant consequences, he can do so by the
exercise of his reason and will, in imitation of Jesus
Christ, who led a perfectly good life. Man can thus
decide to avoid sin and do good. He can thus escape
punishment and win rewards. He can even escape the
ultimate punishment of eternal damnation and win the
ultimate reward of eternal bliss in heaven. God gave
man the faculties of reason and will for these purposes.
God also gave man freedom to use these faculties as
he wished, and made man responsible if he did not
use them as he should.

These arguments horrified many Christians, of whom
Augustine was the most articulate. They did not seem
consonant either with the revealed truths of Scripture
or with human experience. They seemed to diminish
the power and majesty of God, to make Him something
less than an omnipotent being. They made it possible
for an individual man to decide freely whether to be
good or bad, and thus to tell God whether to send him
to heaven or hell. And that was an intolerable denial
of divine omnipotence, an insult to divine majesty. In
short it was a heresy, a belief so dangerous that it
doomed its adherents to damnation.

In arguing against the Pelagians, Augustine devel-
oped his doctrine of original sin. He insisted that a
sin is not one in a series of separate acts, based on
erroneous decisions. Sin is rather a radical defect of
human character, from which no man can escape by
his own efforts. It is a defect which first became appar-


ent in the first man, Adam, when he defied God by
violating very explicit instructions, and was thrown out
of the Garden of Eden and condemned to a painful
life and death as a result. This defect is passed on to
every man born into this world by the very way in
which he is created, by the marital act, accompanied
as it inevitably is by shame and lust. Every man is thus
a sinner, even before he is born, incapable of doing
anything that is good, doomed to do nothing but evil
deeds and to suffer the full consequences for this evil
doing. This is the true explanation for the evil we see
to be endemic and uncontrollable in the world about us.

God did not intend that all men remain in this
desperate state, however. He did develop one, and only
one, way for escape from sin and its consequences. This
was through His grace, made available to man through
the life and passion of Christ. By grace a few men are
purged of original sin, and left free to live the good
lives which merit eternal rewards. This grace is a free
gift. No man can ask for it, or decide to appropriate
it, or do anything to deserve it. Grace is given only
to a small fixed number of men, the “elect” or “saints.”
Others are called to the good life, but do not receive
the grace to take advantage of the call. God, further-
more, decided which individuals would receive grace
before any of them were even born. They are thus
predestined to salvation. He endowed these fortunate
individuals with perseverance, so that they would in-
evitably lead the good lives which merit eternal re-
wards. Every other member of the human race will
inevitably remain in the corrupt state in which all are
born, will find it impossible to avoid doing sinful acts,
and will suffer the eternal punishment which God
decrees for the sinner.

These arguments are developed in their most ex-
treme form in Augustine's anti-Pelagian tracts. There
are scholars who would argue that Augustine's true
opinions are better revealed in his earlier works, which
allow a more significant role for human free will. Other
scholars would argue that the two strains in Augustine's
thought can be synthesized, and that there are elements
of both free will and determinism in his thought. The
texts of the anti-Pelagian tracts themselves, however,
come close to asserting a consistent determinism of
man's ultimate destiny. Augustine's successors in the
Christian West were aware of this, and either used
these tracts to approach determinism themselves, or
tried to find ways of attenuating his doctrines so that
the rigor of a full determinism could be avoided.

Augustine's theology was tremendously influential.
It came to be the most significant single theological
system in western Europe for more than a millennium.
And with the rest of the system, the doctrine of pre-
destination, with its deterministic implications, came
to be generally accepted. However it also came to be
a rather controversial doctrine. It made many theolo-
gians uneasy because it seemed to make God the author
of evil. If God predestines the elect to salvation, it was
felt that He must logically predestine the rest of man-
kind to live in sin and be damned. And this conclusion
was difficult to reconcile with God's ultimately good
and loving nature. Consequently a number of theolo-
gians in succeeding centuries proposed modifications
of the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, designed
to introduce some element of human responsibility for
sin and damnation. To the extent that they did so, these
modifications obviously reduced the degree of deter-
minism in the doctrine. Against these modifications,
other theologians worked out the Augustinian doctrine
in ever more rigorous and detailed forms. Their modi-
fications tended to bring the doctrine closer to deter-
minism. However a number of them explicitly denied
the charge that they were adopting determinism.

This process of modification and counter-modifi-
cation continued for several centuries. It probably
reached its climax in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. The great Protestant Reformers were satu-
rated in Augustinian theology. Luther had been edu-
cated as an Augustinian monk, and traces of that
education remained with him throughout his life. Cal-
vin's education had been secular, in classics and in law,
but his writings reveal that he, too, had soaked himself
in the writings of Augustine. For Calvin the doctrine
of predestination came to be particularly important.
In the controversies surrounding it during his career
and among his successors, it was reworked and devel-
oped into particularly extreme forms. Many of these
forms had medieval antecedents, although Calvin and
his successors were not always aware of them.

One possible modification was the argument that
while God predestines the saints to salvation, He is
not actively responsible for the fate of the damned.
Human will is too weak to choose the good, and thus
merit salvation. But it remains strong enough to choose
the sinful way, and thus deserve punishment. This
version is labeled the doctrine of single predestination,
and it received wide support in influential circles.
Against it, the rigorous Augustinians argued that logic
requires double predestination, both of the saved and
of the damned. God could not give away to men the
power to will actively to be damned and still remain
omnipotent. Early disciples of Augustine, like Gott-
schalk of Orbais in the ninth century, read their master
in this way. So did Calvin.

A second possible modification was the argument
that while God predestines both the saved and the
damned to their respective fates, He does it only be-
cause He knows, as a result of His foreknowledge, that


the saints will lead lives that will merit salvation and
the rest will lead lives that will deserve eternal punish-
ment. The rigorists rejected this modification, also, as
undercutting divine omnipotence in yet another way.
They insisted that an omnipotent God must plot the
course of every human life, as well as deciding its
ultimate result. Or they argued that God's decisions
about each man's destiny could not have followed His
acquisition of knowledge about each man's behavior,
but must have come first or concurrently.

A third possible modification was the argument that
God made His decisions to save some and damn others
after the creation of Adam, the first man. God endowed
the first human creation, made in His own image, with
complete freedom. Only when He saw how badly
Adam used his freedom, did God take it away, and
decree that all of Adam's descendants would lead sinful
and miserable lives, meriting eternal damnation, except
for the small number of saints God chose to exempt
from this fate. This view, that God enacted His predes-
tinating decrees only after Adam's fall, has been labeled
infralapsarian or sublapsarian. It tended to make divine
determinism a historic event, introduced into history
at a definable point, after an attempt to grant free will
to man failed. However it also tended to make divine
omnipotence a historic event, suspended at the creation
of Adam, only to be reintroduced following his fall.
The rigorists consequently rejected this modification
too, advancing an argument labeled supralapsarian.
They insisted that God's decrees of predestination were
enacted before the creation of the first man, even
before the beginning of time. They are part of the
eternal structure of the universe. God could not sus-
pend them, without denying an essential part of his
own nature. This view was advanced by several medi-
eval theologians, by Calvin, and, most vehemently, by
his seventeenth-century Flemish disciple Francis

A fourth possible modification was the argument that
while it was God's initiative which saved or damned
a man, man had to react to this initiative, or at least
had to be prepared passively to receive it. The decision
as to whether any individual was saved or damned,
therefore, was a joint decision, for which both God
and man shared responsibility. This argument, often
labeled synergism, has a long history, and one can
find traces of it in some of Augustine's Greek prede-
cessors. One can find it again in many medieval theolo-
gians and also in theologians of the Reformation such
as Philip Melanchthon. But for the rigorists this, too,
was an unwarranted denial of God's omnipotence and
exaltation of man's powers. Hence they rejected it.

The whole debate over predestination came to one
of its historic climaxes in the Netherlands during the
early seventeenth century. The protagonists in this
debate were two Calvinist professors of theology at
the University of Leiden, Jacob Arminius and Francis
Gomarus. Arminius, who had studied in Geneva with
Calvin's own succesosrs, tried to modify Calvinist doc-
trine in order to reduce its harshness and create some
role in it for human responsibility. Gomarus went
beyond Calvin himself in insisting on all the harshest
logical consequences of his system. The views of
Arminius were most succinctly stated after his death,
in a five-point Remonstrance drafted by his followers
in 1610. This document urged: (1) that God's decree
of salvation is conditional, benefiting only those who
by an act of will accept and persevere in faith; (2)
that God's universal love is reflected in the fact that
Christ died for all men, although only believers are
benefited; (3) that man can truly do good, after he is
born again through the Holy Spirit; (4) that man can
perversely resist God's offer of grace; (5) that the faith-
ful receive divine assistance in leading the good life,
but only if they want this assitance and do not remain

The Remonstrance provoked a bitter controversy,
in which the Gomarists led the attack. It spread beyond
the Netherlands to other countries in which Calvinist
influences had been strong. The controversy was finally
settled, at least temporarily, in a general synod of
representatives of all the Reformed churches, held in
Dort, 1618-19. The synod of Dort was dominated by
the Gomarists. It adopted a five-point retort to the
Remonstrance which has come to be called the Five
Points of Calvinism: (1) Unconditional election—God's
predestinating decrees derive solely from his decisions,
and do not in any way depend on the beliefs or the
behavior of individuals; (2) Limited atonement—Christ
died for the elect alone, not for all mankind; (3) Total
depravity—man in his natural state is so totally corrupt
and helpless that he is incapable even of desiring salva-
tion; (4) Irresistible grace—once God decides to save
a man he is helpless to resist, and automatically is
saved; (5) Perseverance of the saints—God so assists
His elect to adopt the correct beliefs and live the
proper kinds of life that it is impossible for them to
fall from grace. This is sometimes called the TULIP
formula, an acronym based on the initial letters of the
five points. The formula obviously approaches deter-
minism very closely, since every point limits man's
freedom and exalts God's power. Yet even the canons
of Dort cannot be called completely and consistently
deterministic. For, despite the urgings of Gomarus, the
assembly dominated by his followers refused to adopt
a clearly supralapsarian formula, but instead settled on
one with infralapsarian elements.

Since the seventeenth century, there has been a


general decline in the acceptance of Christian theolog-
ical doctrines that imply determinism. Among groups
that have remained relatively orthodox, semi-Pelagi-
anism has become widespread and Arminianism has
won many adherents. And there have been frequent
attempts to break loose from all forms of orthodoxy,
and to revise Christian doctrine radically, in order to
make it more credible to minds shaped by the revolu-
tionary discoveries of modern science and to make it
more relevant to men preoccupied by the problems
of their own societies. Adherence to the traditional
theological doctrines implying determinism has been
limited to relatively small groups of churchmen who
have remained faithful to a really strict historic theo-
logical system, like Calvinism.

The twentieth century, however, has witnessed some
recrudescence of these doctrines. This is particularly
true of that variety of twentieth-century theology
labeled neo-orthodox, and dominated by the thinking
of the American Reinhold Niebuhr and the Swiss Karl
Barth. In the systems of the neo-orthodox one finds a
significant place for the doctrine of original sin, which
had fallen out of favor among nineteenth-century the-
ological liberals. Original sin tends to be rooted less
in human lust, as in Augustine, than in human finitude.
But the fact that man is a finite creature does, it is
argued, create a radical defect in his nature. It makes
it impossible for him to be truly good, for being invari-
ably good in one's dealings with other men requires
a knowledge of their inner problems and needs which
no individual can ever achieve. Thus man remains in
need of help from some exterior and transcendental
source, if he is to avoid evil. Furthermore, for Barth
at least, man cannot seek for this external help and
appropriate it to himself. It must be freely offered by
God alone, without any initiative from man.

In Barth's system one even finds a significant doctrine
of double predestination. The doctrine is deliberately
made quite distinct from that of Calvin, whose thought
Barth knew intimately and generally admired a great
deal. For Barth predestination is essentially Christo-
logical. Jesus Christ is both the electing God and
the elected man. In Christ, God Himself has both
suffered rejection and enjoyed salvation. All who are
in Christ will benefit from these experiences. This view
tends to make of predestination to damnation an
ephemeral historic event, occurring in the past with
the crucifixion of Christ, while predestination to salva-
tion is a present reality, which will be assigned to true

To the extent that these doctrines of original sin and
predestination limit human free will and exalt divine
power, the modern systems of the neo-orthodox, like
those of their predecessors, approach determinism.


In non-Christian traditions, there are approaches to
determinism which resemble closely those one finds in
Christian theology. There are also objections to systems
approaching determinism which are quite similar to
ones found among Christians. The theology of Islam
provides a particularly important place for determi-
nism. This is reflected above all in the history of the
concept of kadar, or divine decree, which is closely
analogous to the Christian concept of predestination.
The position of Muhammad, the Prophet, as reflected
in the Koran, is ambiguous on the problem, although
it seems clear that he developed a real predestinarian
position late in his life. The earliest Islamic tradition
built on this position by developing a strong belief in
uncompromising fatalism. By the beginning of the
eighth century, however, some Muslims began to
question this dogma, particularly the members of the
Kadariya sect. In reaction to their questioning, a sect
of extreme predestinarians formed, called the Djabriya.
They argued that man bears no responsibility of any
kind for any of the actions which seem to proceed from
him. This makes of man an automaton, and was too
extreme for most Muslims. So intermediate positions
generally prevailed.

Those Muslims who have defended human free will,
do so basically for ethical reasons. They argue that
Allah cannot be just if man does not possess moral
responsibility for his actions. Those who have defended
kadar grapple with the problem of explaining man's
apparent consciousness of free choice. This phenome-
non is sometimes explained as an illusion, sometimes
explained as applying only to unimportant decisions
and not to those of ultimate importance.

The mature position of Islamic orthodoxy, however,
continues to endorse a strong measure of determinism.

The theology of Judaism provides less room for
approaches to determinism than either Christianity or
Islam. But it does provide some. The doctrine of pre-
destination is of particularly little importance, partly
because of the great importance Judaism assigns to the
necessity for ethical behavior among humans, partly
because Judaism did not continue to accept an elabo-
rate eschatology. Even among the Jews, however, there
have been some groups which have adopted a doctrine
of predestination. According to Josephus, this was a
cardinal tenet of the ascetic Essene sect.

In general, however, a more significant approach to
determinism in Judaism can be found in the widely-
held doctrine of providence. Since biblical times, many
Jews have believed that God controls the universe in
ways which benefit His chosen people, both as individ-
uals and as a group. In general, they believe that this
control is made most evident in the temporal life of


man on this earth, rather than being postponed until
some post-temporal life, after death. The Jews, of
course, given their history, have had ample reason to
be aware of the existence of evil and pain in this
temporal life. Such evil is sometimes explained as a
prophylactic or purge, designed by God to prepare
man for a good greater than that to which he would
otherwise be entitled. Or evil can be explained away
as an illusion, or a step in a process ultimately issuing
in something good. Arguments of this sort can easily
be squared with belief in a Jehovah who is omnipotent
and omniscient and who rules the world through His
providence. But evil is often explained by Jewish
thinkers as a punishment administered to man by God
for his wicked behavior, an explanation which would
place full responsibility on man for the evil that befalls
him, but which diminishes the full plenitude of divine
power. In popular Judaism, the dilemma is generally
evaded, with both the doctrine of providence and the
moral responsibility of man being taught.


It is a common reaction to systems including deter-
minism that they should induce fatalism, passivity, a
complete conservatism. For if man can achieve nothing
on his own initiative, why should he try to exercise
any initiative? It is a similar reaction that these systems
should induce amorality, even immorality. For if man
can achieve no reward or recognition for good conduct,
why should he be good? These tend to be the reactions
of neutral observers, however, not those of believers
in theological systems containing elements of deter-
minism. In actual fact, these systems have often been
associated with socially active, even militant, religious
groups, which often demanded a puritanical moralism
of their members. In Christian Europe, the Augustinian
West has been usually more militant than the Orthodox
East, despite the East's greater emphasis on human free
will. The difference was reflected at a fairly early point
in the ecclesiastical history of the two areas. The
churches in the East submitted to the control of secular
governments, first the control of the Greek emperors
headquartered in Constantinople, later the control of
the Russian tsars headquartered in Moscow or St.
Petersburg. Forms of cesaropapism thus have often
characterized the Eastern churches. The churches in
the West, meanwhile, led by the Roman pontiff,
claimed a considerable independence from the secular
states, and often made such claims good. On occasion
the papacy even claimed a measure of control over
the secular states.

In more modern times, predestinarian Calvinist
churches were the most militant and puritanical prod
uct of the Protestant Reformation. When the religious
tensions created by the Reformation became so acute
that they boiled over into open warfare, it was most
often the Calvinists who took the leadership of the
Protestant cause. This bellicosity was first evident
among the Swiss cantons, in Zwingli's day, even before
Calvin became the recognized principal leader of the
movement. It became even more pronounced and
large-scale in France, where Calvinist Huguenots
helped to plunge the nation into more than thirty years
of religious wars beginning in 1562. It was repeated
in the Netherlands, where the Calvinist Beggars helped
provoke the eighty-years' war for Dutch independence
in 1572. Also in Germany the Calvinists of the Palati-
nate organized a Protestant Union, which helped push
all central Europe into the Thirty Years' War in 1618.
In England the Calvinist Puritans won control of Par-
liament, and then tried to change the form of govern-
ment by force, from 1640 to 1660.

Even in the twentieth century, neo-orthodox theolo-
gians with elements of determinism in their thought
have been noted for their concern with social problems
and morality. Both Niebuhr and Barth have been sensi-
tive to the need for large-scale reforms which is most
commonly exploited by socialists. Both were also early
to recognize the great moral evil of fascism and to
urge that Christians resist it with force, even war when
that seemed necessary.

The correlation between determinism and militancy
in Christian civilization is not, to be sure, a perfect
one. In the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the
seventeenth century, the neo-Augustinian Jansenist
movement was in most respects markedly less militant
even though markedly more puritanical than its chief
opponent, the Society of Jesus. But in general the
correlation between Christian determinism and mili-
tancy is striking and surely significant.

Similar historical examples of a correlation between
determinism and militancy can be found in other sys-
tems. They are particularly striking in Islam. The cen-
turies after the Prophet's death when the doctrine of
kadar was generally accepted were the very years
when Islam generated its most explosive force, con-
quering large parts of the Near East, the Middle East,
Africa, and India. The recrudescence of Muslim mili-
tancy with the arrival of the Turks several centuries
later, seems to have coincided with a revival of a kind
of determinism. It took a Turkic form in the doctrine
of kismet, a form of fatalism about the development
of this temporal world, not necessarily connected to
questions of man's eternal destiny.

This frequent correlation between theological de-
terminism and social militancy poses problems of great
psychological and cultural interest. They may be be-


yond the competence of a historian of ideas. But there
clearly seems to be something about the beliefs that
there is a God who controls the universe completely
and that those who believe in Him are His chosen
instruments, which induces a social activism which can
become militant, even frantic, even fanatic.


Useful introductions can be found in several encyclo-
pedias and dictionaries of religious thought, especially in
articles on the histories of doctrines like predestination and
providence. See in particular the articles on predestination
in The Jewish Encyclopedia, on kadar in the Encyclopédie
de l'Islam,
and on predestination and providence in the
Dictionnaire de théologie catholique. The latter two articles,
by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, were developed into books
and translated, as Providence (St. Louis and London, 1951),
and Predestination (St. Louis and London, 1953). Further
introductory material can be found in handbooks of dog-
matic history. For the Christian tradition, see in particular
Reinhold Seeberg, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte
(Darmstadt, 1959-65, 4 vols. in 5, reprint of the third edition
of 1920-23); an English translation is available under the
title Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids,
Mich., 1966, seventh printing), but is based on the substan-
tially shorter first German edition. The bibliography of
specialized monographs and articles on the subject is very
large. Some useful examples: Georges de Plinval, “Aspects
du déterminisme et de la liberté dans la doctrine de saint
Augustin,” Revue des études augustiniennes, 1, 4 (1955),
345-78; J. Bohatec, “Calvins Vorsehungslehre,” in J.
Bohatec, ed., Calvinstudien (Leipzig, 1900), pp. 339-441;
Paul Jacobs, Prädestination und Verantwortlichkeit bei
(Darmstadt, 1937; 1968); John T. McNeill, The His-
tory and Character of Calvinism
(New York, 1954); G. C.
Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl
(Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956). Almost all of these
studies concentrate quite strictly on the history of doctrines,
and do not consider the historical circumstances in which
they arose and spread. A partial exception is the McNeill


[See also Evil; Free Will in Theology; God; Islamic Con-
ception; Necessity; Reformation; Religious Toleration; Sin
and Salvation; Theodicy.]