Belief in fate – that the course of life is determined by forces outside of human control – takes on various expressions in the world. On the one hand, there is religious determinism in which our lives are directed by purposeful, spiritual, unseen forces. Religious determinism is found in religions from polytheistic voodoo, in which various spiritual beings control different aspects of reality, to theistic Islam, in which the supreme being Allah controls all things (Muslims commonly say, “in shah Allah” which means “if God wills.”). On the other hand, there is secular determinism in which our lives are directed by random, natural forces. Perhaps the most influential type of secular determinism is biological determinism which holds that the outcome of our lives is controlled by biological factor such as genes. You see this philosophy at work in legal defenses that ascribe blame for a person’s behavior to genetic factors. Another form of secular determinism is social determinism which holds that our lives are controlled by factors in our social environment. The most extreme forms of deterministic philosophies maintain that human beings have no capacity for self-determination, or the freedom to plot the course of their own lives.
The Bible teaches plainly that our lives are directed according to a plan and purpose that originates with the all-powerful Creator. Our lives are not an accident, but we were made for a purpose; history does not proceed randomly, but unfolds according to a divine plan. Christian theologians call God’s involvement in nature and human affairs the doctrine of providence. This belief is affirmed throughout Scripture:
“Dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28).
“He made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).
“In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:16).
“A man’s steps are ordered by the Lord” (Prov. 20:24).
“The plans of the mind belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” and “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:1 and 9).
These verses suggest a strong sense of determinism in a biblical worldview as well, but, as I will argue in later posts, the biblical picture shows a profound, even paradoxical, relationship between divine control and human freedom. The last verses on this list hint at such a relationship: we have the capacity to make plans and act on them, but the outcome, the results, of those plans are directed by forces outside our control, forces grounded in the plans of God.
Countless volumes on philosophy and theology have been devoted to this topic, so I do not want to over-simplify the matter and presume that I can deal with it satisfactorily in a few blog posts. My aim is to contrast a biblical determinism with other forms in a way that highlights God’s power and goodness while preserving human freedom, while relating this abstract topic to practical Christian living. Since I have the week off I’ll be quite active in blogging. I hope you read and enhance the blog through your comments!