Are Calvinists Determinists?

A short while ago I was having a discussion with a Calvinist on the issue of determinism.  As a result of my own studies into this topic (i.e., my reading of leading Calvinists themselves), I have come to the conclusion that though there may be a few individuals from the Reformed crowd who reject the notion of exhaustive determinism1, the predominant view among leading Calvinist exponents has been that of exhaustive, theological determinism – so much so that in one sense, ‘Calvinism’ is virtually synonymous with ‘theological determinism’.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this particular Calvinist, taking it upon himself to speak for all Calvinists, cried misrepresentation and stated, “Since when do Calvinists hold to strict causal determinism? Calvinists are not hardcore determinists.  We do not think God causes everything to happen.”

The purpose of this post is to simply provide documentation that universal Divine causal determinism is not some ‘fringe view’ held by a minority of Calvinists, but is (or was) affirmed by some of the ‘major players’ in Calvinism.  

Indeed, the notion of universal Divine causal determinism is so predominant within Calvinism that many of its high profile advocates (such as Calvin, Boettner, White, Palmer and Feinberg) view it as a necessary doctrine, as they see this as the only way that God can have infallible foreknowledge (i.e., foreknowledge implies determinism). But that’s a subject for another post.

John Calvin

“Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered.  His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree.  For it is said, not that he foresaw how far the life of each individual should extend, but that he determined and fixed the bounds which could not be passed … Still, in relation to our capacity of discernment, all these things appear fortuitous.  How will the Christian feel?  Though he will consider that every circumstance which occurred in that person’s death was indeed in its nature fortuitous, he will have no doubt that the providence of God overruled it and guided fortune to his own end.” 2

Furthermore, Calvin argued that “no wind ever rises or rages without his [God’s] special command.”3 To get an idea of how strong Calvin’s view of sovereignty was, consider the following:

“The sum of the whole is this – since the will of God is said to be the cause of all things, all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by his providence; so that he not only exerts his power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do him service.” 4

“But… call to mind that the devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless insofar as he permits, no, unless insofar as he commands; that they are not only bound by his fetters, but are even forced to do him service…” 5

“Hence we maintain, that by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined.” 6

Edwin H. Palmer

“Nothing in this world happens by chance.  God is in back of everything.  He decides and causes all things to happen that do happen.  He is not sitting on the sidelines wondering and perhaps fearing what is going to happen next.  No, He has foreordained everything ‘after the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist – even sin.” 7

Palmer goes on to affirm universal Divine causal determinism to the extent that God causes “all things that happen in all the world at any time”, indeed, “every thought, word, and deed in all of history”.8

B. B. Warfield

“All things without exception, indeed, are disposed by Him, and His will is the ultimate account of all that occurs … It is He that… creates the very thoughts and intents of the soul.” 9

R. C. Sproul Jr.

Sproul Jr. affirmed theological determinism to the point of calling God the “culprit” who “introduced evil into this world”.10

Vincent Cheung

Though some Calvinists consider Cheung to be a ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ (most likely because he explicitly declares that God is the author of sin, and that there is no sincere offer of the Gospel to all men), his affirmation of exhaustive, theological determinism is hardly outside the bounds of ‘orthodox Calvinism’, so to speak, as his language is scarcely stronger than that of Calvin’s:

“This is Calvinism – it is a consistent application of divine sovereignty over everything.  It is a denial of any form of dualism or deism.  Thus I affirm that God controls everything about everything that is anything, including every aspect of every detail of every human decision and action, in such a way that man has no freedom in any meaningful or relevant sense.” 11

“By ‘determinism,’ I specially refer to theological or divine determinism.  It is the teaching that the personal God of the Bible has intelligently and immutably predetermined all events, including all human thoughts, decisions, and actions, and that by predetermining both the ends and the means to those ends.” 12

Paul Kjoss Helseth

In the recently published addition to the Counterpoints series, Four Views on Divine Providence, Paul Kjoss Helseth, representing the ‘Reformed’ view (in the context of the book, ‘Reformed’ is synonymous with Calvinism), affirmed theological determinism to the point of admitting that God is “the efficient cause of sin,”13 and that God actively causes people to act as they do.14  To substantiate his views, Helseth goes on to quote Francis Turretin, saying that God “not only decreed but most certainly secures the event of all things”.15

Some more of the more well-known Calvinists who either affirm or affirmed exhaustive, divine determinism are:

Ulrich Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, R. C. Sproul, Loraine Boettner, Paul Helm, John Piper,16 and Francis Turretin (briefly quoted above).

In summing up, though there may be a few individual Calvinists (like the one I dialogued with) who reject exhaustive, theological determinism, their position should in no way be accepted as the norm.


It could also be helpful to point out that ‘soft determinism’ (aka Compatibilism) is no less deterministic than hard (exhaustive) determinism.  The Calvinists speak for themselves:

“Compatibilism (also known as soft determinism), is the belief that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. In light of Scripture, human choices are believed to be exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). It should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism – be clear that neither soft nor hard determinism believes man has a free will. Our choices are only our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures. Compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most. The former view is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency. (Note: compatibilism denies that the will is free to choose otherwise, that is, not free from the bondage to the corruption nature, for the unregenerate, and denies that the will is free from God’s eternal decree.)” 17

“The compatibilist says that we are not free if our actions are externally caused, but that we are free if our actions are internally caused.  However, the truth is that all our internal ”causes” are themselves externally caused.  All our thoughts and actions are in fact externally caused by God, so that our so-called internal causes are merely externally caused effects that lead to other effects (such as our actions).” 18

1 Such as Alan P. F. Sell, G. C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, James Daane, and Adrio König; see Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism (2011: Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI), pp. 30-32
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16.9
3 Ibid., 1.16.7
4 Ibid., 1.18.2
5 Ibid., 1.17.11
6 Ibid., 1.16.8
7 Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (27th Printing, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI: 2009), p. 25
8 Ibid., p. 120
9 B. B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines. Art. Predestination, p. 9; quoted in Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, pp. 31-32
10 (<;)
11 Cheung, Vincent The Author of Sin, p. 16 (<;)
12 Ibid., p. 27
13 Paul Kjoss Helseth, in Four Views on Divine Providence (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI: 2011), p. 28 (footnote 14)
14 Ibid., p. 31
15 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:512; quoted in Four Views on Divine Providence, p. 41
16 For documentation see Olson, Against Calvinism, pp. 72-83
18 Cheung, Vincent The Author of Sin, p. 21

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