Thursday, October 4, 2018

Should I Stay or Can I Go? Divine Determinism and the Bible

Divine causal determinism is the view that God causes every aspect of anything that happens. This is sometimes referred to as meticulous determinism. It means that there is nothing that happens, from a person’s thoughts to their will (however this is defined), to their actions that is not made to happen exactly as it does by God. The human agent is not free in any real sense to choose one thing or another. There is no contingency in the world, all events are foreordained. Every outcome was decreed to happen as it does before the foundation of the world. An example of this view comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet has he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.” (WCF, 3, II). See also here and here for other examples of this position.

The philosophical case for determinism, whether divine or natural, has been discussed at length elsewhere. The chief concern in this post is the biblical case. I am concerned about whether the Christian Bible teaches determinism. I think the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Of course, developing a comprehensive case would be a book-length project. My hope is simply to offer a few thoughts deriving from the historical passages presented in 1 Samuel 23:1-14. The exchanges between God and David are very instructive. In his book The Unseen Realm, Dr. Michael Heiser also raises these passages against the determinist/predestinarian view, although the treatment is not lengthy. But the point is well taken, and these passages are especially instructive because of the historical record they present, as opposed to other biblical literary genres.

To summarize, David inquires of God about attacking the Philistines in Keilah, which would save the city. The Lord answers in the affirmative. David’s men are afraid of the Philistines, so David double-checks with God about sure victory. God confirms that David will be victorious. David then attacks and saves the city. Saul finds out David is in Keilah and sets out to confront him. David inquires of God whether Saul will indeed look to pursue him there. God tells David that Saul will come to Keilah. David then inquires of God whether the men of Keilah will betray him to Saul. God tells David that the men of Keilah will betray him. David and his men flee from Keilah, taking refuge in the forest. Saul hears that David is no longer in Keilah and ceases his journey.

What is striking here is that God tells David about future events that both occur and do not occur. The attack on Keilah and victory over the Philistines happen exactly as God tells David, yet the Keilahite betrayal and attack from Saul do not happen as God says. How does the determinist understand these scriptures? The ultimate conclusion must be that God immutably decreed everything in the sequence of events. God caused David to ask questions, caused Saul to begin the trek to Keilah, decreed what He would say to David, and so forth. There was no other way for these events to be except how they occurred.

Tension quickly arises because God is causing David to ask questions where the answer from God about what would happen differs from what actually happened. If there is no contingency, that is, if human agents do not have genuine choice and real impact on outcomes, then the passages become unintelligible. It strains the text to think that there would have been no confrontation between David and Saul if David had remained in Keilah. It strains the text to think that Saul would have continued to Keilah upon learning that David had fled. Contingency and choice is the only plausible reading.

The determinist has a deus ex machina at the ready, and it can be wielded to deal with passages like 1 Samuel 23.[1] It might be just a mystery as to why God spoke to David like this. It might be that God was speaking in hypotheticals to David, where there was an implicit wink that such contingencies were principally impossible. As in the message from God would be something like “David, Saul is on his way. And if per impossible, you were to stay, there would be a battle. But I have decreed from eternity that you will depart before Saul arrives so you will not be betrayed, Saul will not arrive here. I have already immutably chosen what will happen.” Of course, the determinist might also appeal to the completed biblical canon where we can see from a birds-eye view of how and (sometimes) why God made everything as it was. There was accordingly no real chance that David would have stayed at Keilah. God decreed from eternity that David would flee, survive, and progenerate the lineage of Messiah.

We are still left with the fact that God told David about an event that would happen which never had a chance of actually happening. Why would God do this? It was never a “live” option on determinism. This gets at a larger biblical problem for the determinist, which is the utter frivolity of divine commands and most of special revelation. God tells the Israelites they will be blessed in the Promised Land if they obey the covenant commands, and cursed if they disobey. Yet, God had foreordained and then caused their disobedience. God has prophets instruct His people about pending doom for their rampant sin unless they repent. But God is the one causing their impenitence; it is He that is making them impenitent, the humans are not real causal agents in rebellion or repentance. When Ezekiel 18:21 says “if a wicked person turns away from his sins . . .”, it really means if God causes the wicked person to turn away from his sins. When this same chapter says that the soul who sins will die, it really means – per determinism – that the soul that God causes to sin will die.

A coherent reading of the events of David at Keilah is true contingency. There are genuine “if/then” scenarios present, there are rational agents with real choices. The statements from God about what will happen are not necessarily making them happen. David has a choice at the beginning; he can march and defeat the Philistines or not make the trip to Keilah. There is nothing in the text to make us think that it was inevitable that David go to Keilah. We have examples in the Bible where God’s promise of victory in battle does not result in the people listening (Numbers 13). David has a choice to stay in Keilah or flee. Saul had a choice to pursue David there or stay home.

In His omniscience, God perfectly knows what will happen if X or not-X. He knows that if David stays, Saul will attack Him. He knows that if David leaves, he will be safe in the woods. I think the 1 Samuel 23 passages clearly show that God’s knowledge of events does not necessitate their occurrence. This is foul to the determinist because it blasphemes to speak of God knowing something that He does not ordain to pass or related phraseology. If God knows it, He must have immutably decreed it. It is also out of bounds for the determinist to think that anything in God is caused by the actions of creatures, however impoverished a rendering of non-determinism this might be. Yet, the lower view of God maintains that He cannot will and cause creatures to exist that have genuine agency and affect outcomes in certain situations (moral choice, etc.) It is true and part (metaphorically speaking regarding ‘part’ in God) of God’s knowledge that if David stays, he will be attacked. It is also true that if David leaves, he will be safe.

What is simply too difficult for the deterministic case here is the statements God makes to David. If things are determined, then how can God truthfully say that David will suffer betrayal and Saul will pursue him? Surely, if God is speaking about what will occur, on determinism, then the events will certainly occur. Yet the Keilahites do not betray David and Saul does not arrive at Keilah. Since these events did not happen, the determinist must say it is because God did not decree them to be so. But then why did He speak to David as He did? The only way out is to affirm genuine choice on the part of the human agents. God knew what would happen upon any choices made. God’s knowledge of the choices and outcomes of each did not casually determine the outcome. If God’s knowledge determines deliberative agent choices, then there is no way to avoid extremely problematic divine predication (such as dishonesty or non-omniscience). For the determinist, this issue arises because God clearly foreordained the falsification of His own statements about events at Keilah. On determinism, there is no contingency, so God speaking in “if/then” terms to David is out-of-bounds. But reading this reading of the text in a deterministic way represents the importation of a foreign philosophical construct. The result is countless contradictions.

As I stated above, my intent here is a brief exploration of the 1 Samuel 23:1-14 passages in light of divine causal determinism. These passages demonstrate just one case for the untenability of determinism as a biblical doctrine. Of course, the deterministic opponent might simply reply that I have been determined to be a non-determinist, but that was decided for all of us before the world began. However, avoiding this self-inflicted vertigo, which is part and parcel of the determinist position, is the first step toward a remedy.

[1] What I mean by deus ex machina here is that God’s eternal decree, by His secret, inscrutable, immutable will, can be used to explain away anything theologically or philosophically problematic/contradictory.