Determinism in the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah

For consistent Calvinists like John Piper, an inevitable implication of the sovereignty of God -- and what it means for God to be God -- is a prominent thread easily detected throughout all of their other doctrines. Commenting on Isaiah 46:8-11, in his sermon, "The Sovereignty of God: 'My Counsel Shall Stand, and I Will Accomplish All My Purpose,'" Piper informs us that God "declares his foreknowledge ... by declaring his fore-counsel and his fore-purposing." (link) The concept of foreknowledge in Calvinism is simply understood in terms of foreordination. God does not truly see or foreknow what will happen -- He has foreordained all that will happen.

More specifically, God is not "a fortuneteller, a soothsayer, a mere predictor. He doesn't have a crystal ball. He knows what's coming because he plans what's coming and he performs what he plans." (link) This view of God's sovereignty is a consistently-held view among Calvinists. Dr. Wayne Grudem insists that all events "are entirely caused by God."1 He appeals to the doctrine of concurrence, to which Arminians also appeal, but positions the matter in a meticulous yet quasi-compatibilistic frame:
The doctrine of concurrence affirms that God directs, and works through, the distinctive properties of each created thing, so that these things themselves bring about the results that we see. In this way it is possible to affirm that in one sense events are fully (100 percent) caused by God and fully (100 percent) caused by the creature as well. However, divine and creaturely causes work in different ways.2 (emphases original)
Crudely stated, God, in this Calvinistic view, foreordains what we do, even directing us to the enacting of what we do -- including, of course, all of our sin and evil -- but we allegedly freely do what God has foreordained we do, and then He holds us accountable for doing what He decreed we do. This is the truth of the Calvinistic matter of God's sovereignty even if most Calvinists will complain about the manner in which we who reject their theory explain the only consistent and logical implications of that theory.

In other words, Calvinists like Piper and Grudem cannot maintain that God controls us in a meticulous manner, even decreeing our thoughts, words and actions, and at the same time insist that what we do we do freely. Grudem argues that the "individual steps we take each day are directed by the Lord,"3 which, by necessary consistency, must include sin; whether we succeed or fail is directly from God;4 He meticulously and exhaustively influences all rulers in all places;5 yet also insists that we have and make our own choices.6 Is this nothing shy of double speak? Yes, it must be, for a freely-chosen-yet-decreed-action is about as logical and biblical as the idea of a married bachelor.

More importantly, Dr. Grudem argues that, since God does not "directly perform anything evil,"7 and therefore cannot allegedly be blamed for sin and evil; yet God, nevertheless, "influences the desires and decisions of people."8 These Calvinists are merely following the errors argued by John Calvin: "Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of His judgments."9

In fairness, Grudem confesses, as does John Calvin, that we do not yet understand how God can ordain that we carry out evil, hold us accountable for carrying out the evil that He foreordained, and yet God is not to be blamed for decreeing that we act sinfully.10 But what is tragic here is how Calvinism, by its inappropriate hermeneutic, creates its own theological problems.

These are self-created problems which render Calvinists unable to explain what appears to be a commonsense notion against the holiness and justice of God. In other words, God does not meticulously decree our sin and evil, does not bring about such in every case mentionable, and therefore cannot be blamed for evil in any sense whatsoever. The reason why Calvinists think that God could, in any rational sense possible, be blamed for evil is because they misinterpret Scripture and thereby create unnecessary theological problems.

Reading through the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, we discover that a solid basis for the sovereignty of God in the Hebrew scriptures and in the Hebrew mindset properly structures and defines the matter of God's relationship to humanity and sin -- a structure that is directly opposed to any concept of Calvinistic determinism. These agents of YHWH, the God of Israel, view the only living and worthy Deity in a state which insists and magnifies His holy and just nature, His righteous and unblemished character, and His innocence in the evil of wicked creatures. When God brings about calamity, not evil per se, He does so not because He has strictly decreed to do so, but in a holy response to the free actions of His relatively-free creatures.

For example, the prophet Isaiah begins the explanation of the vision granted to him by the Lord, concerning Judah and Jerusalem, thusly: "I [the God of Israel] reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me." (Isa. 1:2 NRSV; cf. Isa. 30:1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13) Note the contrast: God, the righteous, called a people to be His own special community, Israel, and reared them as His very own children. He nourished them, provided for them, and instructed them in His ways. But they rebelled against Him. How did they become rebellious?

If we adhere to Calvinism, we must conclude that God decreed for Israel to rebel against Him, through various instrumental means brought about their rebellion, and then He instructed His prophet Isaiah to pronounce a soon-coming judgment upon them for their rebellion -- the rebellion God allegedly decreed. This concept is an emphatic affront against the holiness and justice of God. Thankfully, the prophet will dispel any notion that God decreed their rebellion throughout the tenor of his proclamation.

God rightfully places the blame for their rebellion on the Israelites themselves: "Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!" (Isa. 1:4) God is well-aware that the sin that people commit belongs to them alone; and if we truly believe in the fallen state of humanity, in human depravity, then we understand that we do not need a God-mandated decree in order to sin: we are capable, in our fallen state, of bringing about sin. To suggest that sinful events were decreed by God is not only foolish (and, we think, unbiblical), but also entirely gratuitous.

Because of their own hypocrisy, God rejected their worship (Isa. 1:12-15), instructing them instead: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isa. 1:16, 17) God encourages them to reason with Him, to argue the case, insisting on His willingness to forgive their sins (Isa. 1:18): "If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isa. 1:19-20 ESV, emphases added)



Note carefully the words that YHWH Himself chose: willing and obedient, refuse and rebel. Are we to imagine that God influences our desires and decisions, as Calvinists teach? If so, then how are we to interpret these words from God? How can the Israelites be willing and obedient if God has decreed for them to be rebellious? Or, more to the point, how does such a concept inform us about the character of God? What conclusion are we to make of a God who commands us to be obedient, refuses to grant us the grace sufficient and necessary to be obedient, and yet has secretly decreed for us to disobey Him? In actuality, Scripture contradicts such a false notion.

God, rightfully, holds people accountable for their own sins and rebellious actions: "Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed." (Isa. 1:27-28 NRSV, emphases added) God even states explicitly: "for they shall be ashamed of the oaks that you desired; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen" (Isa. 1:29 ESV, emphasis added): they desired and they chose to worship false idols. Can we in any sense suggest that God was secretly behind their rebellion?

Isaiah quotes God as insisting that the Israelites are solely responsible for their own actions (Isa. 3:8), stating, "The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves." (Isa. 3:9 NRSV, emphasis added) God pronounces blessings to the innocent (Isa. 3:10) and justice to the guilty (Isa. 3:11) -- "for what their hands have done shall be done to them." God even grieves over the willing rebelliousness of His people: "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?" (Isa. 5:4; cf. Isa. 9:13, 14, 15, 16, 17)

Calvinists have a convenient yet quite erroneous and unbiblical answer: "Because You, God, decreed their failure and rebellion." God, however, does not accept such an answer. Why? Because He did not unjustly decree their failure and their rebellion. "But the LORD of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness." (Isa. 5:16) The deterministic concept is to "call evil good and good evil" (Isa. 5:20), a notion condemned by God Himself. He shows Himself righteous not by decreeing sin and evil but by judging sin and evil when people do so freely: "for they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against His peole, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them" (Isa. 5:24, 25).

Moreover, we discover that God despises those "who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression" (Isa. 10:1 ESV). How, then, can anyone suggest that the holy and righteous God of Israel can decree sin, evil, and oppression? Shall God condemn the very practice of which He Himself is guilty? No. Instead, God is able to use people who freely desire to bring about wickedness for His own purposes. (cf. Isa. 10:5, 6, 7, 12; 13:3, 5, 11, 12, 13; 14:4, 5, 6) Do we deny God His rightful sovereignty? Absolutely not! We properly frame and contextualize God's sovereignty.

The God of Israel, regarding Assyria, claims: "It will all happen as I have planned. It will be as I have decided." (Isa. 14:24 NLT) "I have a plan for the whole earth, a hand of judgment upon all the nations." (Isa. 14:26) Truly, God is sovereign. However, this sovereignty does not entail His decreeing our sin and evil. Such a false theory is beneath His integrity, holiness, and justice. He even confesses, "My heart weeps for Moab." (Isa. 15:5) "So now I weep for Jazer and the vineyards of Sibmah; my tears will flow for Heshbon and Elealeh." (Isa. 16:9) His desire is not for judgment and destruction: He longs for the good of His earth and the people He created in His image. "My heart's cry for Moab is like a lament on a harp. I am filled with anguish for Kir-hareseth." (Isa. 16:11; cf. Isa. 63:9)

This is not a God who decrees calamity for the sake of decreeing history. Judgment and discipline is exacted for one reason: "Because you have turned from the God who can save you. You have forgotten the Rock who can hide you." (Isa. 17:10) Yet, in the case of Israel, when God brought about calamity, He did so in the effort to draw her back to Himself: "But you never ask for help from the One who did all this. You never considered the One who planned this long ago." (Isa. 22:11; cf. Isa. 23:9; 24:5, 6) From God's perspective, "we show our trust in [Him] by obeying [His] laws" (Isa. 26:8), concluding: "For only when you come to judge the earth will people learn what is right." (Isa. 26:9)

We must never adopt any notion of God decreeing sin, evil, and rebellion, for this is exactly what God hates, and therefore He would never decree that we enact the very reality He so very much despises and condemns:
This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: 'Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it ... So the LORD must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the LORD is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help. (Isa. 30:15, 18)
Time and time again God calls out to a rebellious people: "Though you are such wicked rebels, my people, come and return to the LORD." (Isa. 31:6) He warns them against being foolish and rebellious (Isa. 32:6, 7, 8). He longs for them to be honest and fair (Isa. 33:15, 16). He desires for them to walk on the path of righteousness (Isa. 35:8, 9, 10). But He has chosen to punish disobedience and sin (Isa. 37:28, 29). People, however, freely choose contrary to what God desires for them to choose (Isa. 41:24; 42:17, 18, 19, 20; 43:22, 23, 24, 27, 28; 44:18, 19, 20). God creates light (blessing) for the obedient, and darkness (calamity) for the disobedient (Isa. 45:7), concluding: "I would not have told the people of Israel to seek me if I could not be found. I, the LORD, speak only what is true and declare only what is right." (Isa. 45:19)

Thus when we read, "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'" (Isa. 46:10 ESV), we are better able to understand that God declares the future for our benefit, warning of us impending danger, and calling us to be faithful followers of His ways and of His person. His counsel, will, or decisions shall stand, i.e., all that He forewarns (regarding the results stemming from our disobedience) will happen with certainty if we, in fact, disobey Him.

What type of hermeneutic Calvinists employ, however, is viewing verses, like this one, stacking them together divorced from their appropriate contexts, and then declaring that God influences our thoughts and decisions, insisting that this is the only manner in which to view the deterministic sovereignty of God. The Hebrew prophets knew the contrary regarding God's sovereignty; that He in no sense whatsoever exhaustively decreed for His own people, or anyone else, to be disobedient to Him in order to bring about punishment for their previously decreed wickedness. In a statement: Calvinism is directly opposed to a proper understanding of not only biblical interpretation but also the God of Scripture.

God Himself declares, "For the sake of my reputation I hold back my anger; for the sake of my prestige I restrain myself from destroying you." (Isa. 48:9 NET; cf. Isa. 50:1; 65:2). God is not giddy in dealing out retribution. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are angry sinners in the hands of a holy and compassionate God who restrains Himself and limits His power in order to be the Savior that we so desperately need. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way." (Isa. 53:6 NRSV, emphases added; cf. Isa. 57:8, 9, 10, 17; 59:2, 6, 7, 8; 66:3) If "our own way" is not "the way of the LORD" then we cannot insist that God decrees we take our own destructive way when He claims His desire for us to take His way.

Furthermore, God Himself states that He does not decree every event that occurs. Warning about oppression from a foreign nation, after He restores His people (Isa. 54:7, 8, 9, 10), He declares: "If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me" (Isa. 54:15; cf. Hosea 8:3, 4). If the oppression is not from God, then it derives from someone else, and certainly not from an eternal decree. So, He calls out, "Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink -- even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine or milk -- it's all free!" (Isa. 55:1 NLT)

If a lowly person, like an historical Eunuch, insists that he is not worthy, God responds, "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant" (Isa. 56:4), such will be granted the same eternal rights as everyone else. God delights in salvation; He grieves over condemnation. "But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word." (Isa. 66:2 NRSV) If we are to be faithful to and agree with the prophets of YHWH, as well as God Himself, then we are obligated to reject any notion of Calvinistic determinism.

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1 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 320.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 321.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 323.

8 Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

9 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1.

10 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 330.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.