Example 17 – John S. Feinberg on Determinism vs. Fatalism; A Distinction without a Difference


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Calvinist theologian John Feinberg writes the following in defense of what he calls “consequent necessity” which attempts to explain how a Calvinist determinism (God ordains all things) is not fatalism.

“…determinism also is not the same as fatalism.  While some hard deterministic positions are equivalent to fatalism, not all are.  A position is fatalistic if it claims that there is an inherent necessity in the way things are so that they could not be any other way.  Thus, if a person in our world wears glasses, there is no conceivable world God could have created in which that person would not wear glasses.  It is inherent in the concept of that person that she or he wear glasses.  For a fatalist, the same is true of everything that happens.  Fatalists who believe in God claim that even God had no choice but to create the world as he did.  The inherent necessity[1] in everything is such that God had to create, and there was only one creative option open to him.

In contrast, I hold that while all things are causally determined, causal determinism does not entail fatalism.  I do not hold that what occurs is absolutely necessary in the sense that there is no other way things could happen.  Rather, I hold what is known as consequent necessity.  I believe that once certain choices are made (by God or whoever) certain things follow as a consequence.  But before these choices are made, no inherent necessity dictates what must be chosen. For example, it was not absolutely necessary that Adam sin in the sense that there was no other Adam God could have created.  Consequently, it was not absolutely necessary that God decide to send Christ as redeemer.  However, once having made the choice to create Adam as sinning, it was necessary for God to send Christ as redeemer.”[2]

Feinberg defines theistic fatalism (i.e., fatalists who believe in God) as the belief “that even God had no choice but to create the world as he did. The inherent necessity in everything is such that God had to create, and there was only one creative option open to him.” As fatalism is defined here, I think we are on safe grounds disagreeing with both propositions – a) that God had to create, and b) there was only one creative option open to him.

So let’s move on to what Feinberg believes “in contrast” to theistic fatalism. He believes “all things are causally determined.” He believes “what occurs is absolutely necessary” but not “in the sense that there is no other way things could happen.” He believes “that once certain choices are made (by God or whoever) certain things follow as a consequence. But before these choices are made, no inherent necessity dictates what must be chosen.” He goes on to point out for example that “it was not absolutely necessary that Adam sin in the sense that there was no other Adam God could have created.” But God did make “the choice to create Adam as sinning” and therefore “it was necessary for God to send Christ as redeemer.”

Feinberg seems to be saying that God had options as to which world he would make, for instance, a world in which Adam sins or a world in which Adam does not sin. And this seems to bring into the discussion God’s foreknowledge of what would happen in each of the myriad of worlds God could choose to make. He could make a world in which he knows Adam will sin or a world in which he knows Adam will not sin. Even if we agree with Feinberg on this point, the more fundamental questions are going to be what Feinberg means when he talks about God “having made the choice to create Adam as sinning” and “all things are causally determined” and “what occurs is absolutely necessary.” And on these points Feinberg seems to defend his “causal determinism” against the charge of fatalism by what he calls “consequent necessity.” That is, “that once certain choices are made (by God or whoever) certain things follow as a consequence. But before these choices are made, no inherent necessity dictates what must be chosen.” In other words, there are other ways things could have happened depending upon certain other choices being made.

Now, this seems to me to lay the commencement of Feinberg’s causal determinism or the “consequent necessity” that he claims is in play in our world and characteristic of our existence upon God and his choice of which world to make. Once God makes that choice, everything else follows in due course, that is, “what occurs is absolutely necessary.” But is this actually true? Is this really the case in our world? Is this consistent with the testimony of Scripture? Feinberg states that “it was not absolutely necessary that Adam sin in the sense that there was no other Adam God could have created.” But need God have created another Adam, a different Adam, for Adam to have avoided sinning? Why can’t it be that God chose to create a world in which Adam was free to sin or not to sin on the basis of his own God given libertarian free will? Was it the fact that God chose to create a world in which Adam sinned that caused Adam to sin? Was it the fact that God did not choose to create the world in which Adam did not sin and therefore that would have caused Adam not to sin? Is it the case that God’s initial creative act has within it a “causal determinism” such that once that creation is initiated all things occur with absolute necessity?

It seems that we need to bring into this discussion the matter of God’s foreknowledge in relation to the necessity of the occurrence of what he foreknows. It seems to me that the crux of the matter is not whether by simply creating a certain world God thereby has determined what will happen in that world, but rather what kind of world he chose to create. Perhaps Adam sinning or not sinning was a genuine decision on Adam’s part and only the result of God choosing to create a certain world, that is, a world in which his human creatures have free will. Did God know what would happen in the world he chose to create. Certainly. God foreknows all things. Did God create a world based upon his foreknowledge of what would happen in any world he could create? Perhaps. Did God create a world in which he determined all things and thereby he foreknows what will happen? I don’t think so. But that is the Calvinist view. God predetermines all things and by virtue of his predetermination he foreknows what will occur. This seems to be the type of “causal determinism” or the “absolute necessity” Feinberg says characterizes the world. I suppose God could have chosen to create the type of world that once it was created would be characterized by causal necessity. And again, such a world would have that necessity originating in God himself and remaining there in the sense that all things would be “causally determined” as Feinberg contends is the nature of the actual world. But I think we have to ask what Feinberg means by “Adam as sinning?” Did God create a world in which Adam acted freely in sinning and therefore could do otherwise? I think God did, but I don’t think Feinberg means this. What he means is that once God chose to create the world in which Adam sins, then Adam must sin. In fact, all things must occur as God knows them and has created that world. Does Feinberg mean to say God chose to create the world in which he foreknew Adam would sin of his own free will? It would seem that he doesn’t. What he does is lay the “consequent necessity” of Adam’s sinning upon God creating a world in which he knew Adam would sin. God could have created a different world in which Adam does not sin, but in this actual world that God brought into existence Adam must sin. So it would seem that Feinberg is saying that once God creates, whatever world he chooses to create, all that occurs in that world has been causally determined by God; all things occur as consequent necessities. It is absolutely necessary for all things to occur as they do. I do not see this as any different than fatalism. Recall Feinberg’s definition. “A position is fatalistic if it claims that there is an inherent necessity in the way things are so that they could not be any other way.” Well, once God created a world, according to Feinberg “there is an inherent necessity in the way things are so that they could not be any other way.” He calls it “consequent necessity” which is causal determinism or absolute necessity. The fact that there is no inherent necessity for God to have created this world and could have chosen to create another world does not relieve us of the fatalism of Feinberg’s “causal determinism.” For in “causal determinism” things can’t be any other way. It’s a distinction without a difference to say God could have created things to be another way and therefore fatalism doesn’t apply, but once God created any world things cannot be any other way. Post creation fatalism kicks into gear. Feinberg states, “…once certain choices are made (by God or whoever) certain things follow as a consequence.  But before these choices are made, no inherent necessity dictates what must be chosen.” Did God have the option of creating a world in which his creatures had libertarian freedom? I think so. And I think as we examine our world and the Scripture that is precisely the kind of world God did create.

Now, its odd that Feinberg includes “whoever” in his statement above. How is it that the choices we creatures make are deterministic in either their performance (you had to do what you did) or results (only certain results will follow)? Again, it seems to me that you and I make real choices in which we could have done otherwise. When Feinberg includes “whoever,” this seems to affirm that we have the ability and genuine freedom to choose between options. But if that is the case then things are not causally determined or characterized by absolute necessity. We can all agree that certain consequences follow from the choices we make, but whether post-creation we can make choices that are genuinely free, or, whether they are just the deterministic workings of the world as God chose to make it is the question. It seems to me that Feinberg must mean that once God created a world, then at that point all is causally determined; all is absolutely necessary. As best as I can understand him, it is at the point of creation when God chose which world he would create that set in motion a “causal determinism.” Everything that would occur would do so with absolute necessity. But this seems to preclude human freedom. But in actuality we continue to make choices that are genuine in that it is we that make them and we could do otherwise, that is, our choices are not causally determined or of absolute or consequent necessity.

Let’s return to the issue of God’s foreknowledge, for it seems to be integral to Feinberg’s position. The question here is whether God’s foreknowledge of future events makes those events necessary, that is, causes those events to occur. If God’s foreknowledge of future events makes them necessary then we live in a fatalistic world. What God foreknows, simply by virtue of him foreknowing all things, determines all things, include everything we think and do. But God’s foreknowledge of future events does not make those events necessary. God can know the future free will actions of people and yet that does not make them necessary, that is, his foreknowing them does not inevitably cause these actions to occur. For instance, if Adam did not choose to sin, that is what God would have foreknown. Adam chose to sin and that is why God foreknew Adam’s sin. To foreknow what a person will do has no effect on them doing it. They do it of their own free will, and God’s foreknowledge functions in the manner of knowing that choice not causing or determining it.

So, regarding the distinctions Feinberg points out here I ask, “So what?”  How is his view in the end any different, practically speaking, than claiming that God has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass?”  His “consequent necessity” is a distinction without a difference as it bears upon whether all things are predetermined or not.  The fact of the matter is that on Calvinism things “could not be any other way.”  Whether there is “an inherent necessity in the way things are” is not very relevant given the fact that on Calvinism God has both determined and causes the way things are.  There is no virtue or meaning in claiming that “I do not hold that what occurs is absolutely necessary in the sense that there is no other way things could happen.”  The fact is that things are not going to happen in any other way.  Whether God had other creative options open to him is not germane to the issue as to whether God predetermined and thereby causes all things to occur as they do. That is what Calvinists teach. “Inherent necessity” is a meaningless point given theistic determinism.  Even if things are not inherently necessary, on Calvinist determinism they cannot be altered in any way.  There is no possibility of choice or change in any meaningful sense.  Reality, the course of events, your beliefs, desires, actions and eternal destiny in heaven or hell are not going to be any other way than what God has predetermined they be.  All things are set and unalterable.  What seems to be the Molinist perspective here, that God could have decided to actualize a different reality depending upon what he foreknew of what each person would do in different circumstances God would put them, does not help the Calvinist given that this reality is also, like Molinism, a static determinism.  I have questions about how Molinism can properly account for the temporal, present dynamic relationship between God and man so often testified to in Scripture. Nevertheless, any other reality God could have chosen to create, would, on Calvinism, also be deterministic.  It would preclude human free will and responsibility because it is a theistic determinism.  The Calvinist theology of the divine decree and their insistence that divine sovereignty entails that all things be preordained by God to occur as they do guarantees this determinism.  Avoid the word fatalism on the basis that God could have set in motion a different set of events if you like, but the bottom-line is that in the end, things cannot be any other way.  You too are determined.

            Note again the following statement, “I believe that once certain choices are made (by God or whoever) certain things follow as a consequence.”  As a Calvinist, how does Feinberg perceive the nature of these “certain choices?”  And how is it coherent for him as a Calvinist to say, “But before these choices are made, no inherent necessity dictates what must be chosen.”  No “inherent necessity?”  What about an “external necessity” rooted in the decree and causal activity of God?  It is God alone who has made the choices.  The “whoever” is no longer in play.  A clear deterministic statement of the Reformed doctrinal position is found in Chapter 3 of The Westminster Confession, a standard for Calvinist doctrinal beliefs. It states in section 1 titled “Of God’s Eternal Decree” that,

“1. God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…”[3]

And what of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, another standard of Reformed Calvinist doctrine?  It adds the phrase “all things.”  It reads,

“God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass;…”[4]

            Furthermore, what is the precise nature of these “choices” Feinberg speaks about?  Are they libertarian free will choices or are they predetermined “choices.”  On Calvinism they must be divinely predetermined “choices” and therefore they are not of the human beings free will and therefore not choices at all.  Feinberg is a Calvinist. God has predetermined all things, even what all human beings will desire, think and do.  It is not as though God decided to make a world in which Adam sinned of his own free will.  On Calvinism, God predetermined and caused all of what Adam ever thought and did before he made Adam and the world.  On Feinberg’s Calvinism it wasn’t Adam who sinned of his own free will.  It was Adam who sinned according to the predetermined will of God that issues forth in his divine causal activity upon Adam who acted accordingly.  But this determinism is not what the Genesis text indicates.  The text clearly teaches that God created Adam not willing that he should sin and free not to do so. But Adam chose to sin.  And therefore we may ask Feinberg why it was necessary for God to send Christ as redeemer upon Adam’s sinning?  Was God not free to destroy his human creatures at that time as a judgment upon them? Why is it that all that happens subsequent upon Adam’s sinning now happens by necessity?

            Feinberg seems to affirm a Molinist perspective when talking about the possible worlds God could have brought into existence. But this view also leads to a “consequent necessity” of all things, or causal determinism. Feinberg refers to this determinism when he uses the phrase “…once having made the choice…” and “once certain choices are made…certain things follow as a consequence.” If Feinberg were a Molinist he may be able to affirm human freedom and responsibility in that of all the possible worlds God could have chosen to make, he made the world in which Adam sinned of his own free will.  This helps somewhat, but again, Feinberg contends that by virtue of God choosing to make a world, at least the world we now live in, results in “causal determinism” and all this being absolutely necessary. Molinism is supposed to allow for genuine human freedom, but I have questions about how Molinism can properly account for the temporal, present dynamic relationship between God and man so often testified to in Scripture.

Nevertheless, I submit that as a Calvinist, Feinberg’s universal divine causal determinism is no different than fatalism, because his Calvinism also results in there being, here and now, “an inherent necessity in the way things are so that they could not be any other way.”


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home


Go to Example 18 – Fred H. Klooster on the Sovereignty of God


[1] This is what philosophers refer to a de re necessity or absolute necessity.

[2] John S. Feinberg, “God Ordains All Things” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Huma Freedom, David Basinger and Randall Basinger, eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 23-24.

[3] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), III.1, p. 30. (Emphases mine)

[4] The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, https://www.the1689confession.com/1689/chapter-3  Accessed 2/4/2019.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s