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Eternalist Theological Determinism

In “Theological Determinism and the ‘Authoring Sin’ Objection,” the third article in the book Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, Heath White lays out a model of theological determinism that, he argues, withstands the objection that God is the author of evil. An interesting feature of White’s view is that it is theologically deterministic without being necessarily Calvinistic with respect to soteriology. White does not reject Calvin’s soteriology in this article and nothing he says, so far as I can tell, commits him to it. The main historical figures lurking in the background, I believe, are Augustine and Aquinas rather than Calvin. Anyway, what this post will do is describe White’s theological determinism and how he responds to the charge that God is culpably bound up with evil given determinism. Then I will say something about the view.

The Theological Determinist Model

Theological determinism (TD) is the view that (i) facts about God’s will wholly determine every contingent fact; and (ii) the facts about God’s will explain every other contingent fact. TD implies that God’s will is maximally specific; there is no contingent fact not determined by God’s will. As a result, there is no libertarian freedom since every choice is determined by something else.

There are different models that capture the two parts of theological determinism.  On White’s preferred eternalist model, God timelessly causes all moments of the four-dimensional spacetime block. God’s causal activity brings things into existence. Call this primary causation. So for any event E, it is true that God acts as a primary cause of E.  E may have causal sources other than God’s causal activity; it may also be brought about by intra-worldly causes. An intra-worldly cause of my performing an action A at T2 is that at T1 I intended to A and I intended to A because (in part) at T0 I desired to A. These mental states preceding the action are instances of  secondary causes; secondary causes are any causes part of the temporal order the explain the existence of later states.1 White puts the distinction this way:

God’s primary causal activity brings things into existence; he makes something rather than nothing. Intra-worldly secondary causes make one thing happen rather than another. (82)

TD commits one to determinism only with respect to primary causes and not with respect to secondary causes.

Two Problems for Eternalist Theological Determinism

The problem for eternalist theological determinism is that “God appears to be intimately bound up with the production of evil. Therefore, it appears, God is responsible for the evil in the world, and maybe this means he is even evil himself”(84).  This is because according to TD, all events are settled by God’s will.

White’s approach is to distinguish between two different problems and then tackle each in turn. To say that God “does” evil, White writes, might mean that God causes evil. It might also mean that God intends evil.

The Problem that God Causes Evil

The problem is that if TD is true, then it is thought that God is the cause of all that is evil and all that is good. White takes advantage of the Augustinian view of evil in order to resolve this problem. According to that view, evil is a privation of the good. It is not, strictly speaking, a thing, and hence it is not a thing to be caused. Evil is no more a thing than are the holes in a piece of cheese; only the cheese, a substance, is a thing. To illustrate how this works: death is an evil, so God does not cause death per se; rather, God causes individuals to exist for a limited duration (86).

The Augustinian claim, that evil is not a thing to be caused, cannot do all the necessary work to avoid the problem that God causes evil. As White says,

the main motivation for insisting that God causes no evil is undoubtedly to absolve God from responsibility for evil. But then a non sequitur threatens. If God creates a piece of Swiss cheese, it may be strictly correct to say that he does not cause the holes in the cheese, but it would defy credulity to say that God is not responsible for the holes in the cheese. Likewise, if the world contains miserliness and death, we do not allow God to avoid responsibility for these evils merely by describing them as absences. (88)

So what more is needed then? The trick is to highlight that causation is a normative concept instead of a merely metaphysical concept. To illustrate, I fail to take care of my bike, and when I take it to the shop to have the gears examined, the tech touches the gears and it all falls apart. So I say, “Look what you did!”, even though I stood behind the counter and watched. But of course I wasn’t at all innocent in this. The gears all fell apart because of my negligence. God’s situation is not like mine though, White thinks, because God has no duties or responsibilities to cause good in his creatures. I may have a duty to promote certain goods, but God does not have a duty to create as much good in his creatures as he might.

So the response to the objection that God is responsible for evil because he causes evil is this: God causes only goods – things that actually exist – and God has no duty to cause more good than God has caused.

The Problem that God Intended Evil

Even if God does not cause evil, he determined that the world be such that Judas would betray Jesus and be damned. But for God to intend this to happen seems to be infelicitous. White’s response is to take a note from the principle of double effect. Not every foreseen consequence needs to be an intended consequence. So long as what God does intend is not intrinsically morally wrong, at least one good effect is intended, and the good outweighs the (merely foreseen) evils, the theological determinist can avoid saying that God does something wrong by intending something evil all the while being in complete control over the evils that occur.

How might this work?

We can imagine God contemplating a large number of schematic blueprints of such [four dimensional spacetime] blocks. He takes note of the good aspects and the bad aspects of each block. Any good aspect he would see as a reason to create the block (i.e. that universe); any bad aspect he would see as a reason to not create the block…. God weighs his various reasons for creating, along whatever the proper scheme of values is. He then creates the right world, or picks one of a set of eligible candidates. His reasons for creating the world he does are simply the world’s good aspects, and all these aspects are intended. The bad aspects he foresees but does not intend. (90)

The bad foreseen aspects are not means to some good aspects. Applying this to the lapsarian debate:

God contemplates a universe with a Fall but no redemption, one with no morally significant activity, an Incarnation but not Fall, and an Incarnation and Atonement in a Fallen universe. He ranks them in that order [the last being the most desirable], and creates an instance of the best alternative. The Fall need not be a means to redemption, and the redemption need not be a response to the Fall. Rather, what appeals to God about this world, and what he intends, is the redemption of creation, and the Fall makes that possible but is not what God intends. (93)


I’ll break this evaluation up into small sections for ease of reference.

Theological Determinism is not an Empirical Thesis

Recall that the determinism exists amongst the primary causes, where each primary cause is a relation between the world at a time (an effect) and God’s timeless activity (a cause). The secondary causes might be deterministic or they might not be. Suppose they aren’t deterministic. It doesn’t follow that human agents are not determined. A consequence of this is that for all the interesting work in physics that suggests the universe is indeterministic, and for all the people who introspect and see that their psychological states do not have the oomph to necessitate a particular action, none of this is evidence that they are not determined. It is only evidence that they are not determined by secondary causes. And this suggests that whether theological determinism is true is not an empirical thesis.

Whether God can cause evil

Assume that the privation theory of evil is correct. We saw earlier that the privation theory is not to be presented as a solution absent the claim that God does not owe us any goods. That is, we also have to assume that God has no duty to cause good in his creatures. Even with this additional claim about God’s absence of duties, you might think this is morally problematic. Those two claims are compatible with the claim that God can cause only enough good to make a world that no one would reasonably desire to live in. Then God may cause hellish worlds, even intending only the good parts; but I deny God could do.2 If you need to imagine something to get the drift, first think of how much you do with having thumbs and fingers. Now imagine the difficulties you’d have if you were caused to have one less. Still OK with your life? Imagine being caused to have one less. Continue this until your life becomes very hard. Now start do the same thing with your teeth. Now your sight. Now a limb. Eventually, I think, you’ll get to the view that had God caused only so much good but no more, you would not choose to live in such a world.3

There is a way around the inadequately-good-world problem. In White’s section on the second problem, that God cannot intend evil, White discusses the Principle of Double Effect. One of the widely accepted clauses of that principle is that the good done provides a good enough reason to produce the evil. Now this looks like a duty that is violated in creating a hellish world. If White accepts this clause, then the inadequately-good-world problem does not arise, for God could not make such a world with not enough good; the reason is that the amount of good does not provide a good enough reason to produce the evil. But then the principle that God does not have a duty to cause good in his creatures seems to be false. If God creates at all, he has a duty to create enough good. 4

Return to what started the whole problem, for which the privation theory was initially proposed. The initial worry was that if theological determinism is true, then God is intimately bound up with the production of evil. And the privation theory got some initial traction by denying that it was a thing God could cause or produce. However, what the above suggests is that God could be thought of intimately bound up with the production of not enough good. As a result, I don’t think White is correct to think that the problem is best understood in part as the claim that God causes some thing, although it is true that people do object to theological determinism in this way.

Whether God can intend evil

White’s proposal is that God can foresee and cause but not intend the bad that occurs. This is an interesting proposal.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this is coherent, even in the case of divine action. Unfortunately, I’ve also come to the conclusion that it is false.

Take the evil event of being sold into slavery. Being abducted and sold into slavery are bad. But in Genesis 50:20, we see the evil described as intended by two different groups: Joseph’s brothers and God. “As for you, you meant [חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם] evil against me, but God meant [חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ] it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Provided we think Joseph’s brothers intended Joseph being sold into slavery – they didn’t do this by inadvertently – then we have a good reason to believe God intended (or timelessly intends) Joseph’s selling into slavery.

The claim that God raised Pharaoh up in Romans 9:16, I think, is not by itself adequate to be a problem for White’s view. After all, there is nothing inherently wrong with intending to give power to some human leader. The problem comes in 9:18, where God is said to harden whomever he wills. The Greek here, θέλει, often translated as to will, also translate to wish, to want, to decide.

In Isaiah 19, the Lord is said to have purposed against Egypt (19:12, 17); he has “mingled within her [Egypt] a spirit of confusion” (19:14). Isaiah 23:9: “the Lord of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor the honored of the earth.” Again, I don’t think it is plausible to hold that God’s purposing and mingling are merely causal relations without intentions.

I think this is pretty good evidence that God intends rather than merely foresees and causes bad things. I’d be curious to see how White handles these sorts of passages.


  1. This is not exactly how White describes them, but I think he would agree with this characterization.
  2. I grant that it is conceivable that God could do this, but I don’t accept that conceivability entails possibility.
  3. If you are moved by those cases where a man can write a book by communicating only through the movement of his eye, otherwise being paralyzed, then remove that movement as well.
  4. Some might balk at the word “duty” here, because it might be thought that duties are given from authorities beyond oneself. I think this is probably the wrong way to think about duties, but even so there is probably some other substitute concept that can do the work to see God has to create a world with enough good if God creates at all.
2018-06-07T21:27:47+00:00 October 26th, 2016|4 Comments


  1. Heath White October 26, 2016 at 7:26 pm


    Thank you for a very fair presentation of my view and a clear and useful set of comments. I hope you don’t mind if I offer a couple of replies/clarifications:

    1. TD is not an empirical thesis – correct.

    2. I have some sympathy for your “inadequately good worlds” objection. But I don’t think there’s ultimately a problem here. Let me explain.

    Personally, I think the “God causes evil” problem is the weaker and less helpful way of stating the “authoring sin” objection. After all, “intimately bound up with the production of evil” does not obviously violate any standard ethical theory; you’d need clearer language. But for someone who wants to pursue that objection, there is the reply that evil is a privation. (And in the original Augustine, “evil is a privation” is a response bound up with worries about God’s omnipotence and immutability; it’s not exactly our problem of evil.)

    What I wished to point out is that the evil-is-privation reply, by itself, doesn’t help if your worry is that God is responsible for evil (rather than merely makes it). For that, you need to add an ethical principle, and the usual one is that God doesn’t owe creatures any particular level of goodness.

    Now, your objection is, roughly, Yes he does—he needs to create an “adequately good” world. As I said, I’m sympathetic. OK—let that be the additional ethical principle, that God is constrained to create an adequately good world. So long as that principle is met, TD survives the objection that God causes evil. If the real objection is “this world is too lousy to make” then “authoring sin” is not the real problem.

    3. Your objection against my solution to the “God intends evil” problem is that it is coherent but false, and the falsity claim is defended with a lot of proof-texting. The minor reply is that whether Joseph’s brothers intended evil is irrelevant to whether God intended evil. The more important reply is that I probably sit looser to the literal descriptions of the text than you do, and would put many of them down to a form of anthropomorphism. These texts are all referring to God’s attitudes toward particular events developing in time, while I am thinking of God zapping four-dimensional spacetime blocks into existence, and there is no reason the biblical authors would have been on that page.

    The other thing is that it’s important to my view that God intend aspects of the world, or events under a description. (Because under one description they can be good, while under a different description they can be bad.) But ordinary language often supports some ambiguity or just non-technical intention language: “I intend to cut my lunch budget this month” is true even if it’s undesirable under that description; technically, what I intend is to save money. So the pronouns in “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good” can be referring to a single concrete event, which is intended under one description but foreseen under another.

    I hope that clarifies a few of my views in the paper, and thanks again for the intelligent and thoughtful comments.

  2. James A. Gibson October 26, 2016 at 8:03 pm

    Hi Heath. Thanks for the response! I agree I was using texts, but it was a little more than proof-texting. I did say “a little”, right? I was most curious what your take on those passages was. So this will give me something to think about further. Thanks so much again!

  3. Dan Johnson October 27, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    James, thanks for this analysis of Heath’s paper. This paper is my personal favorite from the volume — apologies to the other contributors. 🙂 Beautifully written and tremendously insightful.

    I concur with Heath as to his response to the objection about the “crummy worlds” problem; it seems to me that isn’t really a version of the “author of sin” problem any more, but perhaps I’m not properly appreciating your claim that causation is a normative concept. (I have to think about that one some more.)

    But I think I have something to add to his reply regarding his claim that God doesn’t intend any evil. Like you, the only source of my resistance to his view here is the presence of the Scriptural passages you mention. I’m not sure I’m willing to make the interpretive move he suggests; again, I have to think about it more. But suppose he made this dialectical move: “Well, if those passages don’t entail that God intends evil, and if it is a moral problem for God to intend evil, then the theological determinist, like the libertarian, is free to deny that God intends evil by virtue of accepting my (Heath’s) model of creation. If those passages DO entail that God intends evil, then libertarian Christians who accept the authority of Scripture cannot very well object to theological determinism on the basis of the fact that it entails that God intends evil, can they?” In other words, his argument shows that this version of the author of sin objection fails when directed against theological determinists by other Christians, regardless of how you interpret those passages. It puts all Christians on equal footing with respect to this argument.

    I think I made a similar point about the “doing/allowing” distinction in my paper, in connection with the very same Scriptural passages, and I’m pretty sure I made that point on the basis of a comment by James Anderson on an earlier draft. So I am channeling Anderson here, I think.

  4. Hermonta Godwin October 29, 2016 at 2:25 am

    One issue about the use of the privation view of evil is that it seems dependent on the view that death is natural/the way things were designed to go. If that is true, then death does not need an explanation. However if death is not the way things were designed to end, then that change has to have a cause. Using the cheese analogy, the holes dont need to be explained if the original cheese process gave us cheese with holes, while if the original process did not give us holes, then the holes have to be caused by something outside of the original process. I dont think one can cogently argue Biblically or philosophically that death is natural, so then we need account for something that caused the change.

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