Example 23 – Mohler on Naturalistic Determinism and Theistic Determinism: A Distinction without a Difference


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Calvinist Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes the following on how naturalistic determinism subverts moral responsibility.

               “The subversion of moral responsibility is one of the most significant developments of recent decades. Though this subversion was originally philosophical, more recent efforts have been based in biology and psychology.  Various theorists have argued that our decisions and actions are determined by genetics, environmental factors, or other forces.  Now, Scientific American is out with a report on a study linking determinism and moral responsibility.

               The diverse theories of determinism propose that our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control.  As Scientific American explains, determinists argue that “everything that happens is determined by what happened before — our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action.” [1]

            So Mohler informs us that theorists in the disciplines of biology and psychology are arguing for naturalistic determinism, that is, “that our decisions and actions are determined by genetics, environmental factors, or other forces.” Reflecting on an article in Scientific American, Mohler states, “The diverse theories of determinism propose that our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control.”  He then indicates what this naturalistic determinism entails.

               “In other words, free will doesn’t exist.  Used in this sense, free will means the exercise of authentic moral choice and agency.  We choose to take one action rather than the other, and must then take responsibility for that choice.”

            Note that given naturalistic determinism Mohler concludes, “If our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control” then we have no free will.  Given naturalistic determinism Mohler concludes, “Free will doesn’t exist.”  “Free will” is defined here as “the exercise of authentic moral choice and agency.”  It includes the fact that “We choose to take one action rather than the other, and must then take responsibility for that choice.”  Mohler is affirming that such determinism does not allow for any “authentic” or genuine moral choice or agency.  Nor does it allow for the power of contrary choice.  To say, “We choose to take one action rather than the other” presupposes that in most circumstances we could have done otherwise.  And Mohler also links free will to moral responsibility.  He states, “We choose to take one action rather than the other, and must then take responsibility for that choice.”

            Now it appears that the determinism is the essential problem here.  If it is, then we will have to consider whether or not theistic determinism, as a determinism, fairs any better in preserving the “authentic moral choice and agency” along with the “responsibility” that Mohler criticizes naturalistic determinism does away with.  Suffice it to say here that Mohler contends that naturalistic determinism is destructive of any authentic concept of free will and the moral responsibility that such free will entails.  On naturalistic determinism “free will doesn’t exist.”

            Mohler continues,

               “This link between moral choice and moral responsibility is virtually instinctive to humans.  As a matter of fact, it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be human.  We hold each other responsible for actions and choices.”

            Mohler deepens the concept of free will and moral responsibility by arguing that it is characteristic of our very nature as human beings.  He states that linking moral choice or free will to moral responsibility is “virtually instinctive to humans.  As a matter of fact, it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be human.”  As human beings we have authentic moral choice or free will, and because of this we rightly hold each other morally accountable or responsible for our actions and choices.”

            Now note what Mohler concludes if such determinism is true.  He states,

               “But if all of our choices are illusory — and everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of something beyond our control, moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”

            Mohler contends that if on determinism “…our decisions and actions are determined by genetics, environmental factors, or other forces” and “everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of something beyond our control” then, 1) “all of our choices are illusory.”  We may think we are making free will decisions, but we are really not, and 2) “moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”  We are delusional if we think there is such a thing as “moral responsibility.”

            So Mohler has perceptively and correctly argued that naturalistic determinism is incoherent with moral, free choices and moral responsibility.  The point is that Mohler is critiquing naturalistic determinism because it annihilates free will and therefore moral responsibility.  These turn out to be “an exercise in delusion.”

            As a Christian, Mohler grounds the concepts of free will and responsibility in the doctrine of  the imago Dei – that is, that we are created in the “image of God.”  With regard to “moral and spiritual responsibility and the authenticity of the experience of choice” Mohler writes,

               “Christians of virtually all theological traditions — including Reformed theology, Arminianism, and Catholicism — affirm moral and spiritual responsibility and the authenticity of the experience of choice.  As a matter of fact, this capacity and accountability is rooted in the biblical concept of the imago Dei — the image of God.  Our Creator made us as moral creatures and planted within us the capacity of conscience.  All this refutes the concept of moral determinism.”

            Moreover, the Scientific American article mentions a research report that found that “individuals who were told that their moral choices were determined, rather than free, were also more likely to cheat on an experimental examination.”  Mohler responds,

               “…the report is both revealing and unsurprising.  If we are not responsible for our actions, they why would people do the right thing?  The most immediate result of such thinking is the subversion of moral accountability.”

            Mohler delves even deeper into the negative implications of naturalistic determinism.  He continues,

               “Of course, this pattern of thought also renders human existence irrational.  How can we understand ourselves, our children, our spouses, our friends, or our neighbors if moral responsibility is undermined by determinism.  Our legal system would completely collapse, as would the entire experience of relating to other human beings.”

            I think Mohler is correct, but there are several things to note here.

            First, Mohler is exercising philosophical reasoning and moral reflection in his critique of naturalism to come to conclusions about its truth or falsity.  In other words, Mohler is trusting the canons of reason, and his ability to reason on the basis of those principles, along with his moral intuitions to come to know what is true or false on this matter.  Yet Calvinists are wont to tell us that our human reason is unreliable because of the fall and that the objections to Calvinism are mainly philosophical rather than exegetical and therefore not as valid or compelling.  But I have argued that this claim is wrong on at least three fronts.

            First, the dichotomy between philosophical reasoning and exegesis is a false dichotomy precisely because we need to employ philosophical reasoning to do exegesis.  It hardly needs to be pointed out that exegesis requires sound reasoning and sound reasoning is based on the fundamental laws of reasoning, that is, the canons of reason (e.g., the law of non-contradiction).  Hence, good philosophy is essential to exegesis and hermeneutics.

            Secondly, since the first is the case, the Calvinist claim that non-Calvinist objections to Calvinism are mostly philosophical is false.  There is no doubt that non-Calvinists have sound, weighty exegetical interpretations of the scriptures pertaining to sovereignty, election, predestination, grace, faith, etc.   One finds this to be the case if they are willing to venture outside the teachings of Calvinist authors and speakers.

            Thirdly, a philosophical argument against a position is enough to falsify that position.  When a position, theological or otherwise, violates the canons of reason or our moral intuitions, then that position is false.  That is, when a position or exegesis can be shown to be inconsistent, incoherent, contradictory, unjust or immoral, then we can know that the position is false.  It can be coherent and still be false on other grounds, but it cannot be incoherent and true.

            This is what Mohler is doing here.  He is debunking naturalistic determinism on the basis of philosophical reflection and moral intuition.  Such reasonings show it up to be incoherent with what certainly appears to be our experience regarding free will decisions and moral responsibility.  He is doing philosophy, which is basically clear thinking, on this issue.  He is using the tool of philosophical reflection and assessment to show us that a) the link between moral choice and moral responsibility is “virtually instinctive to humans,” b) that experientially “we hold each other responsible for our actions and choices,” c) that the doctrine of the imago Dei supports that idea that to be human is to have free will and moral responsibility, and d) that on naturalistic determinism, that is,  if “everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of something beyond our control,” then “our choices are illusory” and “moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”

            But now we have to ask whether the theistic determinism inherent in Mohler’s Calvinism falls under the same critique he has offered against naturalistic determinism.  That is, whether it is determinism, of whatever type, that causes the problems Mohler has identified here.  Can his universal divine casual determinism escape the scrutiny and devastation that Mohler’s philosophical reflection levied against naturalistic determinism?  Is Mohler’s theistic determinism as equally flawed due to its determinism?  If the problem lies in the determinism, as I believe it does, then there is no difference between naturalistic determinism and theistic determinism.  There is no difference precisely because they are both determinisms.  Mohler’s critique of one determinism applies to any other type of determinism – even his own theistic determinism.  This is a distinctive characteristic of determinisms.  As determinisms, there is no difference with respect to the logical and moral entailments of each.  They make the worldview of human free choices and responsibility illusory and act as a logical and moral vortex from which there is no escape.  By virtue of their determinism, the moral responsibility and the free will necessary to logically and morally ground that responsibility is gone.  Again, it is as Mohler concluded, if “everything is merely the “inevitable consequence of something beyond our control,” then “our choices are illusory” and “moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”

            But now it is incumbent upon us to assess what Mohler has concluded in relation to his own theology as a theistic determinism.  Do the same conclusions apply?  Recall what Mohler writes regarding naturalistic determinism.  “The diverse theories of determinism propose that our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control.”  But that certainly is an accurate description of Calvinism.  On Calvinism “everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of something beyond our control.”  That is precisely what Calvinism teaches in its eternal decree and how it defines divine sovereignty.  And Mohler rejects naturalistic determinism because of the negative logical and moral ramifications of its determinism.  But how can Mohler escape the same negative logical and moral ramifications of his determinism?  Do these implications of determinism just vanish because his is a theistic determinism?  How so?  How does Mohler’s determinism retain or establish authentic free choice and moral agency, the reality of possible alternatives, the power of contrary choice or ability to choose otherwise and personal moral responsibility?  Theistic or otherwise, as a determinism, it does not.

            Therefore, these same negative logical and moral ramifications also result from Mohler’s theistic determinism.  The description “that our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control” perfectly describes the teachings of Calvinism as to God’s divine decree and sovereignty.  This description accurately depicts the Calvinist doctrines of an eternal decree, divine sovereignty and unconditional election.  God predetermined “whatsoever comes to pass” and therefore everything that occurs, whether good or evil, is caused by “inevitable factors outside our control.”  They are caused by God.  In salvation our wills are “totally passive.”  “Choices” and “decisions” are not “an exercise of the will.”[2]  There are no possible alternatives.  Whether one is among the elect or reprobate, they cannot change their eternal destiny.  Everything that occurs, including and especially our eternal destinies, is determined by “factors outside of our control.”  If this were not so, then according to the Calvinist God would not be sovereign.[3]

            If naturalistic determinism “renders human existence irrational,” then so does theistic determinism.  It is as Mohler states, “How can we understand ourselves, our children, our spouses, our friends, or our neighbors if moral responsibility is undermined by determinism.  Our legal system would completely collapse, as would the entire experience of relating to other human beings.”  Note that moral responsibility is undermined “by determinism.”  He is pointing out that the determinism itself is the essential problem here.  Determinism, of whatever type, is a metaphysical vortex from which human freedom and moral responsibility cannot escape to take on “authentic” meaning and purpose.

            But the “calm waters” of the biblical witness to human freedom and moral responsibility mitigate against the formation of such a vortex.  Divinely speaking, or merely humanly speaking, the concept of sovereignty does not require theistic determinism, nor is theistic determinism rationally compatible with the biblical witness to moral responsibility and the substantial freedom of the human will that moral responsibility requires.  Mohler is affirming this in his critique of naturalistic determinism.  Our review of Calvinism demonstrated it to be a theistic determinism.  As such, Mohler’s Calvinism suffers the same problems he has raised against naturalistic determinism.

            Recall that Mohler contends that determinism entails that “everything is merely the “inevitable consequence of something beyond our control.”  From this he rightly concludes two things.  1) That “all of our choices are illusory.”  We may think we are making free will decisions, but we are really not, and, 2) “moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”  We are delusional if we think there is such a thing as “moral responsibility.”  On Mohler’s theistic determinism the “something beyond our control” is God, and in that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass”[4] everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of what he has predetermined by his will and his will alone.  “Our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control”  ”Everything is “beyond our control.”  Hence, Mohler has given us several substantive reasons to reject his own theology of theistic determinism.  It renders all of our choices illusory and moral responsibility an exercise in delusion. 

            What is intriguing is that Mohler does not recognize that he has persuasively argued against his own Calvinist theology.  He does not acknowledge that his theistic determinism amounts to a distinction without a difference with respect to the issues he raised against naturalistic determinism.  The flaws in naturalistic determinism also apply to his theistic determinism as a determinism.  Mohler states, “Determinism is implied by naturalism and relieves human beings of moral responsibility.”  If that is so, then determinism is also implied by Calvinism, and not just “implied” but is explicitly taught in Calvinism.  Hence, if naturalistic determinism relieves human beings of moral responsibility and the free will upon which it is grounded, then so does Calvinist determinism.  If it does not, we would like to know how this is so.  Can Dr. Mohler tell us?  His compatibilism will not help him here, for that is just hard determinism in different garb.

            Albert Mohler is an intelligent person.  Why then does he not see this?  I submit it is because he does not want to see it.  He has convinced himself, as all Calvinists must do, that the reasoning they apply to naturalistic determinism, and elsewhere, doesn’t apply to Calvinist theological beliefs.  The Calvinist will insist that their doctrines are derived from an exegesis of the Bible, but they divorce exegesis from logical and moral reasoning.  Because this is what the Bible teaches, Calvinists believe their exegesis need not conform to logical reflection or moral intuition.  Calvinist exegesis is not to be made subject to the fundamental principles of rational thought.  Calvinism is impervious to rational critique because it is a priori the truth of Scripture.  Regardless of the philosophical observations, concerns, critiques and implications Mohler has raised against naturalistic determinism as a determinism, none of this need apply to Calvinism because exegesis takes precedence over anything our reasoning might tell us due to it being affected by the Fall.  Thus, rational and moral assessments that bring the Calvinist’s exegesis up on charges of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction can be summarily dismissed by the asserting “that is what the Bible teaches.”  This is of course question-begging.  And it is inconsistent.  Mohler’s mind and reasoning was functioning quite well in his critique of naturalistic determinism.  Why does it become suspect when critiquing Calvinism?  This dichotomy between exegesis and philosophy or clear thinking is the hermeneutical divide between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist method of interpretation.  To put it bluntly, Calvinist interpretations don’t need to make sense. 

            In addition, as I demonstrated previously, Calvinists have given themselves over to the suppression of reason.  They have accepted an intellectual reorientation that is willing to dismiss in their hermeneutic the reasoning that is otherwise necessary to function in everyday life.  When it comes to his theistic determinism, Mohler ignores the very same reasoning and conclusions he leveled against naturalistic determinism.  Again, these were a) the link between moral choice and moral responsibility is “virtually instinctive to humans,” b) that experientially “we hold each other responsible for our actions and choices,” c) that the doctrine of the imago Dei supports that idea that to be human is to have free will and moral responsibility, and d) that on naturalistic determinism, that is,  if “everything is merely the “inevitable consequence” of something beyond our control,” then “our choices are illusory” and “moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”

            All these have direct application to Mohler’s Calvinism.  But Mohler, as a Calvinist, has forfeited the principle and practice of reasoning with respect to his own determinism.  He has forfeited that reasoning which was necessary for determining the truth or falsity of naturalistic determinism and is necessary of determining the truth or falsity of his theistic determinism.  The need to approach theistic determinism with a suppressed reasoning is necessary to embrace Calvinism and remain in it.  I have dealt with this suppression on reason in Chapter 10 “The Calvinist’s Suppression of Logical Reasoning, Moral Intuition and Common Sense.”

            Above I asked how it is that Mohler, given his theistic determinism, can escape the same negative logical and moral ramifications of naturalistic determinism.  Calvinists do so by suppressing their reason and presenting ad hoc and question begging responses (e.g., the flight to “mystery,” “the Bible teaches both theistic determinism and human responsibility,” “incomprehensibility,” “two wills in God,” “second causes and God uses means,” “who are you to question God,” “antinomy,” paradox,” “tension,” etc.), or by redefining “free will” to be “compatible” with determinism which only annihilates free will and affirms a hard determinism.[5]  Some of these responses or explanations are not only incoherent with each other, they do nothing to address the major problems of incoherence and contradiction inherent in Calvinist determinism.  And to resist the application of reason and logic, as well as moral institution when it comes to one’s own exegesis and the theological system built upon it, then it will always remain insulated from the substantive critique that is required to discern whether the Calvinist has correctly interpreted the biblical text.

            And yet, Mohler has employed philosophical reflection and moral intuition to critique naturalistic determinism.  Mohler’s critique of naturalistic determinism is philosophically and morally incisive and convincing, exposing its incoherence and implausibility.  Therefore we take it that Mohler’s Calvinism, as a determinism, suffers from the same critique.  It is not at all obvious how it does not suffer the same devastating critique Mohler leveled against naturalistic determinism.

            Mohler’s assessment of naturalism has given us good philosophical and moral reasons, along with one theological reason – the imago Dei – to think his theology is not the biblical teaching on the nature of God, man, and salvation.  In that such reasoning cannot be divorced from biblical hermeneutics and the exegetical task, we are left with no warrant, intellectually or exegetically, to believe Calvinism is biblical truth.


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[1] Albert Mohler, “So…Why Did I Write This?  The Delusion of Determinism,” August 21, 2008. Accessed 8/16/2018.  https://albertmohler.com/2008/08/21/so-why-did-i-write-this-the-delusion-of-determinism/  I quote from this source throughout this section.

               See also the Leighton Flowers “Soteriology 101” podcast “Mohler vs. Piper on Determinism and Free Will” in which Flowers critiques Mohler’s inconsistency on naturalistic determinism in relation to his own Calvinist determinism. https://soteriology101.com/2016/11/07/mohler-vs-piper-on-determinism-and-free-will/

(26:00 ff)

[2] Here I take “the will” to mean what Mohler stressed previously without engaging in verbal legerdemain.  “The will” refers to what the person themselves as a free moral agent decides and chooses to do.  It is authentic and genuine willing.  Mohler said “…free will means the exercise of authentic moral choice and agency.  We choose to take one action rather than the other, and must then take responsibility for that choice.”

[3] See chapter 3 “The Calvinist Theological and Soteriological Doctrines.”

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

[5] How can free will and determinism be compatible?  The Calvinist will define free will is the ability to do what you desire or want to do without restraint or coercion, but it is God that determines your desires and wants.  See Chapter 8, “Calvinist Attempts to Justify Sovereignty as Theistic Determinism.”

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