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


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


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]

To the distinctions Feinberg points out here I ask, “So what?”  How is this any different, practically speaking, than claiming that God has ordained “whatsoever comes to pass?”  This 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 determined 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 important, rather, the nature of the option he took is the crux of the matter.  “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 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.  All things are set and unalterable.  The Molinist perspective that God could have decided to actualize a different reality does not help the Calvinist given that this reality is deterministic.  And 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 also 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 only God who has made the choices.  The “whoever” is no longer in play.  Whatever happened to Chapter 3 of The Westminster Confession, a standard for Calvinist doctrinal beliefs?  Section 1 titled “Of God’s Eternal Decree” provides a clear deterministic statement of the Reformed doctrinal position.

“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 the1689 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 human free will choices at all.  Feinberg is a Calvinist, not a Molinist.  God has predetermined all things, even what human being 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 yet Adam chose to sin.  And we may ask what 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 in judgment upon them?

            Feinberg seems to slip into a Molinist perspective when talking about God’s decision to create the world when he uses the phrase “…once having made the choice…”  If Fienberg 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 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.             Anyway, I submit that as a Calvinist, Feinberg’s universal divine causal determinism is no different than fatalism.


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


[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