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What is indeterminism?


Indeterminism is best understood in contrast to determinism. Determinism and indeterminism are philosophical rather than theological terms.

Determinism is the philosophical position that states that none of our actions are free but are rather determined by antecedent causes. Freedom of the will is simply an illusion. A man may pick out a blue shirt and a red tie to wear one morning, and it appears to be a free choice. However, according to determinism, his choice was not free. He has preferences, which have been determined by chemicals in the brain, psychological influences during childhood and at all times previous to this point in time, a profession, and maybe hundreds or thousands of unknown and unseen natural forces that are exerting influence on him—and which have also been influenced by similar forces. As a result, the choice to wear a blue shirt and a red tie was predetermined.

If we could see and understand all forces exerting an influence, we would be able to predict with 100 percent accuracy what someone would do in any given situation. Of course, we cannot do that, so it seems to us as though people make free choices; in reality, they make the only choice they can. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a determinist, and this comes through in his Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Holmes is a great detective because he has greater-than-average insight into the influences acting on other people; he can therefore discern who did what and why better than anyone else. Even criminals have no choice, so, in Doyle’s world, they are not punished on a moral basis, although they may need to be locked up to protect the rest of us.

Indeterminism simply denies that all choices are predetermined by antecedent causes. Indeterminism affirms that people really are free to make choices.

The Bible does not speak of either indeterminism or determinism. The Bible affirms that God is in control of everything but also that people are responsible for their choices. Speaking of temptations in the world, Jesus said, “Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:7). Saying that “such things must come” sounds like determinism; however, “the person through whom they come” is held responsible, and that suggests indeterminism. The concept that determinism and indeterminism can be reconciled is called compatibilism—the proposition that God’s control is compatible with human choice and responsibility.

Since indeterminism is not a biblical or theological term, we would hesitate to say that indeterminism is biblical, but neither would we affirm determinism. Compatibalism is the better term. We are all completely in God’s control, yet He allows us to make choices. We may be free to do what we want, but until we have been made alive in Christ, we don’t want to do anything that pleases God, and in this sense our wills are bound. As long as we are determined to control our own lives, we live in opposition to God (see Romans 8:5–8). In our natural state, we cannot please God. It is only when we are made alive in Christ that we are free to live pleasing to God.

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This page last updated: April 5, 2022