Determinism, Fatalism, and Pantheism

By some definitions, the terms “determinism” and “fatalism” are similar. Some English dictionaries fail to make a clear distinction between them. Merriam-Webster is too ambiguous for our purpose, and Webster’s New World Thesaurus considers the two synonymous. Certainly, even those who affirm “soft” determinism and accuse me of teaching fatalism would not want to accept these definitions, since then they would become “soft fatalists.” The definitions in theological and philosophical literature might be more precise.

By “fatalism,” I refer to the teaching that all events are predetermined (1) by impersonal forces and (2) effected regardless of means, so that no matter what a person does, the same outcome will result.

By “determinism,” I especially 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.

These are not my private definitions, but they are consistent with the common usage in theological and philosophical literature.

For example, Dr. Alan Cairns is a respected Presbyterian pastor and theologian, whose orthodoxy is generally unquestioned, and who is a “soft” determinist himself.[1] He defines “fatalism” as follows: “The theory of inevitable necessity; the heathen oriental philosophy that all things are predetermined by blind, irrational forces and that therefore there is no point in human effort to change anything.”[2]

I insist that it is the personal and rational God who has predetermined all things. It would be slander to accuse me of teaching that “all things are predetermined by blind, irrational forces,” and some have indeed committed this sin against me. Then, I insist that God determines all things by immutably foreordaining and directly controlling both the ends and the means. Thus it is not that there is “no point in human effort,” but that it is God who also controls human efforts as well as the effects of these efforts to produce the predetermined results. It would be slander to accuse me of teaching that all things occur as predetermined regardless of means.

Therefore, it would be slander to accuse me of teaching fatalism, because the term does not apply – it means something very different from what I teach. Nevertheless, many people are more afraid of losing their religious tradition than offending God, and so they slander, persecute, and falsely accuse his people.

Just as some Arminians falsely accuse the Calvinists of teaching fatalism, some Calvinists who affirm “soft” determinism turn around and accuse me of teaching fatalism, but both the Arminians and the Calvinists misunderstand fatalism. They pretend to be scholars, but they are just ignorant religious thugs.

There is another common misunderstanding. Many people assume that there is more freedom under “determinism” and that things are more determined in “fatalism.” This is false.

Things are more determined in divine determinism than in any other scheme. Under “fatalism,” an event is predetermined in such a way that the same outcome results “no matter what you do,” that is, regardless of means. However, under divine determinism, although it “matters” what you do, “what you do” is also predetermined. And it “matters” because there is a definite relationship between “what you do” and the outcome, although this relationship is also determined and controlled by God.

So I affirm divine determinism and not fatalism, but not for the reason that people often shun fatalism. I affirm divine determinism not because things are less controlled in this scheme – they are more controlled – but I affirm it because it is the revealed and rational truth. I cannot be charged with teaching fatalism, because the term means something different from what I teach, and also because I consider fatalism far too weak to describe God’s control.

Then, there are those who charge that my determinism and occasionalism amount to pantheism.[3] These people are ignorant and very stupid. Since pantheism affirms that “all is God,” then it means that when God acts on any object (if God acts at all), he acts only on himself. This is far from what I believe. Rather, I affirm that God has created spiritual and material entities that are other than himself, but that he completely sustains and controls. To say that God completely controls X is very different from saying that God is X.

The accusation backfires. For my critics to charge me with pantheism because I affirm God’s direct and total control over all things implies that they believe, under theism, God cannot have direct and total control over anything that is not himself; otherwise, they would not charge me with teaching pantheism when I affirm that God directly and totally controls all things. Since the created universe is not God, by implication they must affirm that God has no direct and total control over anything in the created universe.

By their accusation, by their application of pantheism, they imply that God is identified with anything over which he has direct and total control. Then, since they claim to deny pantheism, that God is identified with the universe, and since they deny my belief that God has direct and total control over all things, it follows that they believe God has no direct and total control over anything in the universe.

In agreement with Scripture, I say that the potter has direct and total control over the clay, but they say that this is pantheism. This implies that they believe the potter can have direct and total control over the clay only if the potter is the clay, and if the potter is not the clay, then the potter does not have direct and total control over the clay. Since it is indeed true that the potter (God) is not the clay (his creation), it follows that they believe that God has no direct and total control over his creation.

Their objection implies the assumption that God is (identified with) whatever he completely controls. Then, since Vincent Cheung teaches that God completely controls everything, including all human thoughts and decisions, and including all corporeal and incorporeal objects and the relationships and interactions between them (so that one moving object has no inherent power to move another object when the former strikes the latter, but that it is God who actively and directly controls them both, and that a “secondary cause” is a relative and misleading term that cannot attribute any inherent causative power to any created object, etc.), then Vincent Cheung must be teaching pantheism.

After pointing out the assumption (that God is whatever he completely controls), and after pointing out that I reject this assumption, it remains that this is their assumption, on the basis of which they formed their accusation against me. This is why the objection backfires. Since their assumption is that God is identified with whatever he completely controls, this means that if they believe that God completely controls anything at all, then God must be identified with that object, and this makes them affirm some form of pantheism. Holding constant their assumption, the only alternative is for them to deny that God completely controls anything in his creation, but then they no longer affirm even theism.

Therefore, those who accuse me of teaching pantheism must themselves affirm either some form of pantheism or finite godism. Logically speaking, they are not even Christians, but are sinners heading toward hellfire. The charitable assumption is that they are inconsistent, and very stupid. Just as they misunderstand fatalism, they also misunderstand pantheism, and they commit the sin of slander when they accuse me of teaching either doctrine.

On the other hand, I affirm that God completely controls everything about everything that is anything, and this does not imply that he is identified with those things that he controls. He sustains and controls his creation, but his creation is something other than himself.

[1] Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms, p. 186.

[2] Ibid., p. 176.

[3] See A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology.