Basics · Metaphysics

Theological Determinism

Theological determinism is the doctrine that God determines every event that occurs in the world. It is a feature of, amongst others, the Western theistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. John Calvin (1509 – 1564) argued that God is a perfect being: omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. He experiences and controls the past, present and future at once. Every event is preordained and everyone is predestined to go to heaven or hell. Free will doesn’t exist. Theological determinism of the Calvinistic brand, therefore, is a version of hard determinism.

Saint Augustine (354 – 430) also ascribes exhaustive foreknowledge to God: He knows what will happen in the future and whatever He foreknows must happen. In contrast to Calvin, Augustine points out that God equips human beings with free will which enables Augustine to make the case for genuine moral responsibility and culpability. While He knows in advance how one will decide, He does not interfere with one’s autonomous choices. He allows these to occur, good or evil. Since St. Augustine defends the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and free will, his theological determinism is a version of soft determinism, one which allows for undetermined events in the world (Mendelson, 2016, Chapter 7).

Reverberating Augustine’s argument, and in opposition to Calvin, McCann maintains that God’s relationship to his creatures “is not analogous to that of the puppeteer to his puppet”, as this would destroy freedom, but rather to that of the novelist to her characters: “The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it.” (2005, p. 146).

Defenders of open theism take it further: they hold that God leaves some future events undetermined and does not know what exactly the future holds. This is a departure from the considerations of ‘perfect being’ theology embraced by Calvin or Boethius who states that God exists outside of time and timelessly knows all things from an eternal perspective (Vicens, Chapter 2.a). It also injects an element of riskiness into God’s creation which could be interpreted as recklessness which, in turn, would be inconsistent with providential wisdom and concern for His creatures (Vicens, Chapter 2.a).

Theological determinism offers various sets of propositions evolving around the scope of God’s sovereignty, control and foreknowledge as a supreme being. While a few notable authors deny the existence of human freedom, the notion of moral responsibility and culpability are central to religious theory and practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament it is stated, for instance, that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) or “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (Corinthians 3:17). After all, it seems that these Western theistic traditions lean more towards indeterminism.

Within a religious context, the debate about theological determinism has practical implications for the believers of various creeds. Outside of a religious context though, theological determinism is predominantly of theoretical interest, as a species of metaphysical determinism. The problem that arises is that theological determinism presupposes, by definition, the existence of God. Many contemporary metaphysicists would claim that this injects an obscure concept into the debate about the nature of the world, and unnecessarily so. If God doesn’t exist then all the arguments put forward by theological determinists immediately collapse.


McCann, Hugh, “The Author of Sin?”, Faith and Philosophy (2005), vol. 22, No.2, pp. 144-159.

Mendelson, Michael, “Saint Augustine”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>, viewed on 24 August 2017

Vicens, Leigh “Theological Determinism”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fieser, James, Dowden, Bradley (eds.), URL = <>, viewed on 23 August 2017




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