A Reformed Theologian’s Critique of Divine Determinism

A Reformed Theologian’s Critique of Divine Determinism February 12, 2015

A Reformed Theologian’s Critique of Divine Determinism

Hearty thanks go to publishers Wipf & Stock for re-publishing theologian Emil Brunner’s three volume Dogmatics which was originally published in English by Lutterworth Press in England and subsequently by Westminster Press in America. At least a generation of theological students, including yours truly, read Brunner’s Dogmatics in seminary and found it refreshing and (to say the least) illuminating. In my opinion it is unfortunate that Karl Barth’s popularity as a theologian largely swept aside Brunner’s contribution. Both were Swiss dialectical theologians influenced to some extent by Kierkegaard. Both sought an alternative to both fundamentalism and liberalism. Both were deeply rooted in the Swiss Reformed tradition and were ministers of the Swiss Reformed Church (The Swiss Federation of Protestant Churches). Both objected strenuously to traditional Calvinism from within Reformed theology.

The final section of Brunner’s Dogmatics 1: The Christian Doctrine of God (ET 1949) is “The Will of God.” Chapter 22 is “The Eternal Divine Decrees and the Doctrine of Election.” The chapter begins with a strong affirmation of God’s electing grace in Jesus Christ. But then Brunner turns to blast any deterministic interpretation of election (and providence) away.

Except in the United States, “Reformed Theology” has largely turned its back on Calvin’s (and Beza’s, Edwards’, and Hodge’s) views of God’s sovereignty without abandoning God’s sovereignty as in process theology. This is what makes the American habit of equating Reformed theology with traditional Calvinism ironic. The rest of the Reformed world has by-and-large shifted away from “decretal theology” and divine determinism to a highly modified, often paradoxical (dialectical) view of God’s sovereignty that leaves room for human freedom. British Reformed theologian (who taught also in Germany) Alasdair Heron (d. 2014) stated in his article on Arminianism in The Encyclopedia of Christianity that much Reformed theology has come around to embrace the basic impulses of Arminianism.

Brunner was a Reformed theologian; nobody can seriously contest that without arbitrarily decreeing (!) that their interpretation of what being “Reformed” means is canonical to the exclusion of the wide embrace of the worldwide Reformed communion of Reformed churches! But here is what Brunner said in Chapter 22 of the first volume of his Dogmatics about what many Americans call “Calvinism” and “the Reformed doctrines of grace”:


How terrible and paralyzing is all talk of predestination, of a decree of God, by which everything that is to happen has already been established from all eternity. Is there anything more devastating for the freedom and reality of decision than this idea that everything has been predetermined? … Such a view makes human history a mere game of chess, in which the human figures are moved about on the board by a higher unseen Hand…. In such a view is there any room for that element which alone gives meaning and dignity to human life, the element of responsible, freely-willed action?


[I]f everything is predetermined by the Divine decree, how could any other court of appeal be responsible for this happening than His who had predetermined it? If everything is predetermined, evil as well as good, godlessness as well as faith, hell as well as heaven, “being lost” as well as “being saved”, if it is predetermined by God’s eternal decree, that not only the temporal, but also the eternal destinies of men are assigned unequally, so that some, from eternity, are destined for eternal death, and others for eternal life—is it possible to call the One who has promulgated this decretum horrible [Calvin’s term for it] a loving Father of all men? If this hidden decree of God lies behind the revelation of Jesus Christ, what meaning has the call to faith, repentance, and thankful trust? Does not this doctrine menace the whole meaning of the message of the love of God, and the seriousness of the decision of faith?


If there is any point at which it is urgent that the Church should re-examine the content of the Christian message, it is certainly at the point of the doctrine of the Divine Decree, and of Election (p. 306)


Lest anyone misunderstand, Brunner’s questions about decretal theology, divine determinism, are rhetorical. He believed the answers are clear—based on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

One does not have to be an Arminian to see these problems in traditional Calvinism, as interpreted by Beza, Edwards, Hodge and John Piper (!) . My conversations with many Reformed Christians over my now forty years of studying and teaching Christian theology convince me that many, perhaps most, do not believe in “decretal theology,” divine determinism, the Calvin-Beza-Edwards-Hodge-Piper interpretation of God’s sovereignty. And yet they hold onto their Reformed identity without apology.

Perhaps someone will ask about any American evangelical Reformed theologian who, with Brunner, rejected decretal theology, divine determinism, God’s all-determining sovereignty. I could easily mention Donald Bloesch who, with Brunner, believed such theology undermines the urgency of the personal decision of faith. But that’s for another blog post.

My own theology is really more influenced by these (what I call) revisionist Reformed theologians than by Arminian theology! However, I grew up in an Arminian tradition. I found Brunner and Bloesch (among other revisionist Reformed theologians) at the same time that I was being told by some of my theological mentors that my Arminianism was invalid, that it “led to liberal theology” and was implicitly “humanistic.” I was discovering, however, that many non-liberal, non-humanistic Reformed theologians, including Bloesch, believed much the same thing as Arminianism about God’s sovereignty and human free will. And I found a depth and profundity in Brunner and Bloesch that I found lacking in much Arminian theology.

Who are some other “revisionist Reformed” theologians who, in my estimation, have left the traditional Calvinist interpretation of God’s sovereignty behind even as they eschew the label “Arminian?” I could mention Lesslie Newbigin, Allan P. F. Sell, G. C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkhof, and many more. These (including Brunner and Bloesch) are theologians deeply embedded in the Reformed tradition who would not want to be labeled “Arminian,” but whose theologies of God’s sovereignty are so highly modified and attenuated that calling them “Calvinist” would stretch that label to the breaking point.

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