by Michael Wallace
Synopsis: Determinism is a denial of man's responsibility. Michael emphasizes the scriptural teaching that stresses individual accountability.
The term, "determinism," does not frequently come up in our conversations. Admittedly, my first response to the request to write of determinism was to do an internet search to confirm that I knew what it was. I was close.
The Encyclopædia Britannica defines determinism as the "theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes. Determinism is usually understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do."
Determinism holds that we are merely products of the past. So many factors at play, from physics to brain chemistry, that it is impossible to understand why things happen, let alone control these events. All events were set in motion, and we are merely experiencing what we cannot help but be.
One might wonder how this concept differs from the unscriptural philosophy of predestination. The two differ in that predestination requires an omniscient and omnipotent being to decide how things should be and then set the events in motion. Determinism replaces an Omnipotent God with inorganic matter and the grand forces of nature.
Though it may not be a common conversation topic, the ideas behind determinism permeate today's society. Many are convinced that people can be grouped into sets of "privileged" and "non-privileged" based on race and socioeconomics. In this broad definition, the privileged cannot suffer, and the unprivileged cannot help but suffer.
Modern sociologists often classify people based on the year of birth and then group us in large "generations" where we can be assigned characteristics based on the events of our youth. Thus, you get generalizations of a group of 83.5 million Americans (www.census.gov) that we call "millennials" and say of them that they are spoiled and entitled, but very tech-savvy. A cottage industry has even developed in corporate America to teach those of older generations how to cope with the newer generation that cannot help but "be themselves."
Perhaps the most striking example that comes to my mind was personal interaction with a Christian who was in prison, struggling with substance addiction and other destructive behaviors. When I asked what he thought about being in jail, he responded, "It was just my time." This brother had come to accept that his circumstances in life (absent parents, poor role models, poverty, exposure to drugs, etc.) had unavoidably led to this moment. In his mind, he was a victim, not of institutional oppression or a grand conspiracy, but just of the circumstances of his life. The danger of determinism, or its more commonly observed philosophical offspring, is that it slowly convinces us that we have no control over events in our life. This cannot be true.
This writer does suggest that there is no correlation to our environments and our current and future actions. Scripture confirms that we can be powerfully influenced by our environments both positively and negatively. Paul said the Jews had many privileges, chiefly, "that unto them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2). Elsewhere, the inspired apostle warns us to be careful of who we allow to influence our environment: "Be not deceived: Evil companionships corrupt good morals" (1 Cor. 15:33). Even the destiny of our eternal soul is imperiled when we overemphasize physical possessions. As Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matt. 19:24).
The Scriptures are also abundantly clear that we are expected to rise above our environments to make righteous decisions and live godly lives. Jesus admonished, "Judge not according to the appearance but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). Paul added, "Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world" (Titus 2:12).
We gain insight from the Old Testament on God's view of any philosophies of men that encourage us to deny the responsibilities of our actions. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both deal with a common expression of their day: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jer. 31:30; Ezek. 18:2). This expression was representative of a philosophy that blamed previous generations and events for current troubles. In both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God derides this way of thinking and looks forward to a time when men would no longer use such expressions but accept responsibility for their actions. God then affirms that "the soul who sins shall die" (Ezek. 18:4), but "If a man is righteous and does what is just and right… walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live" (Ezek. 18:5-9)
To illustrate the principle that we can rise above our environment to live righteously in this present age, consider the duty that Paul delegated to Titus, namely, to set in order the things that were lacking in Crete and appoint elders. This task is both necessary and yet further complicated because of the social influences of Crete. Paul affirms that a broad generalization of the people of Crete was true: "One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. This witness is true" (Titus 1:12-13).
Yet, even in an environment where it was accurate to call Cretans liars and evil beasts, Titus is told to find men that were blameless, stewards of God, not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre, a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate (Titus 1:7-8).
If we are merely a product of our environment, how did Paul expect Titus to find men of such character? The key is in verse nine: holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught. Paul knew the power of the word of God. He knew the gospel could change men and save men (Rom. 1:16) because it had done so for him (1 Tim. 1:11-14)!
God will not tolerate man blaming his actions on his circumstances. Consider 1 Corinthians 7:21, which says, "Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)" It is difficult to think of greater socio-economic differences than the one between slave and master. Though Paul confirms that free is better, he offers no room for one to shirk his responsibility to God.
Christians recognize we are influenced by our environment, both negatively and positively. That is why we guard what exposure we give the sinner. As Paul said, "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?" (1 Cor. 6:14). This is one of the many reasons why it is important to find times and ways to assemble with the brethren. Accordingly, we should not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as we see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:25). We also realize that there are sometimes larger forces that we cannot change. We cannot change our parents or the generation in which we were born (full disclosure; I am very "privileged" with both). Yet, in all situations, in all events, the one action we can control is our own. This is what God demands of us (Phil. 2:14-16), and also promises that He will give us a certain privilege when difficult temptations come: "With the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Cor. 10:13).
"Determinism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. June 8, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/determinism.
Author Bio: Michael has worked in the petrochemical industry in Houston, TX for twenty years. He is currently in the Learning & Development department of a large Oil and Gas company. He and his wife, Heather, have three children and are members of Adoue Street church of Christ in Alvin, TX. He can be reached at email@example.com.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.