Is Calvinism Fatalistic?


Is Calvinism Fatalistic?


Thanks for your question. It is a common one. In actuality, Arminianism, not Calvinism is fatalistic. Among other doctrines in which they also disagree (see the Theological Flowerbeds - D.A.I.S.Y. vs. T.U.L.I.P. below), Arminians, as opposed to Calvinists, take the position that man has far greater freedom to shape his future than is stated in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. In essence, Arminianism arose as a rejection of Calvinism and its doctrines of predestination and election. Please read on.

Brief Definitions

What is Fatalism?

Alfred Hitchcock produced some of my favorite movies. One such movie was, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," starring Doris Day and James Stewart. This movie was also my introduction to Fatalism. Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) was introduced and soon became Doris Day's signature song on the comedy, "The Doris Day Show."

Fatalism is the unbiblical idea that regardless of what choices one makes, some event "X" is inevitably going to happen. It teaches that some kind of blind impersonal force controls everything; an impersonal determinism. Therefore, fate is aimless and arbitrary. A dark cloud of hopelessness and inevitability hangs over the victims of fate. No matter what they say, think, or do all their choices are all absolutely meaningless. It is a godless doctrine!

What is Predestination?

On the other hand, the biblical doctrine of predestination/election, teaches that God has a loving divine goal and he is working all things out according to his own will and purpose (Eph 1:3-11; cf. Dan 4:35; Isa 14:24; 46:10). Predestination teaches that God neither ordains, does, nor permits, anything except that which serves his divine purpose (Psa 33:11). God is sovereign over the universe; the One who does all things as he wills.

Fatalistic Charges

As beautiful as the song, Que Sera, Sera, was to me at one time, things don't just happen. Christians reject fatalism. Rather, they understand that the only loving, holy, wise, good, and sovereign God has control of every detail of life (Matt 10:29-30). They believe God is sovereign over all - the entire universe.

However, Calvinists are often accused by those who adhere to Arminianism of being fatalistic - or at least to have fatalistic tendencies. However, just the opposite is actually true. While Calvinists understand God's providence to mean that he has sovereignly foreordained all that comes to pass, without being the author of evil, (see WCF V, Of Providence) providence is not purposeless and arbitrary! Rather, providence is the outworking of a specific plan by a loving purposeful God. Unlike fatalism, God is immanent and personally relates to those in this world (Deut 32:10; Psa. 68:5; 103; 131; John 14:16, 23; Rom 8:16, 26; Gal 4:6, etc.). Moreover, providence does not render one's choices meaningless. Men are free to make choices - meaningful ones - according to their nature (Jer 17:9; John 6:44; 8:34; Jas 1:13-15). Unlike Arminianism, in Calvinism, man has free agency in that he is a free moral agent and makes genuine choices that have very real consequences, but he is limited by his fallen nature. Perhaps an illustration would help:

There is a story of a little Dutch boy, which embodies very fairly the difference between God and Fate. This little boy's home was on a dyke in Holland, near a great wind-mill, whose long arms swept so close to the ground as to endanger those who carelessly strayed under them. But he was very fond of playing precisely under this mill. His anxious parents had forbidden him to go near it; and, when his stubborn will did not give way, had sought to frighten him away from it by arousing his imagination to the terror of being struck by the arms and carried up into the air to have life beaten out of him by their ceaseless strokes. One day, heedless of their warning, he strayed again under the dangerous arms, and was soon absorbed in his play there forgetful of everything but his present pleasures. Perhaps, he was half conscious of a breeze springing up; and somewhere in the depth of his soul, he may have been obscurely aware of the danger with which he had been threatened. At any rate, suddenly, as he played, he was violently smitten from behind, and found himself swung all at once, with his head downward, up into the air; and then the blows came, swift and hard! 0 what a sinking of the heart! 0 what a horror of great darkness! It had come then! And he was gone! In his terrified writhing, he twisted himself about, and looking up, saw not the immeasureable expanse of the brazen heavens above him, but his father's face. At once, he realized, with a great revulsion, that he was not caught in the mill, but was only receiving the threatened punishment of his disobedience. He melted into tears, not of pain, but of relief and joy. In that moment, he understood the difference between falling into the grinding power of a machine and into the loving hands of a father.

That is the difference between Fate and Predestination. [Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 1, Edited by John E. Meeter, published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970].

Arminians, not Calvinists, are the ones who are actually fatalistic. As H. M. Curry wrote in the booklet, Feast of Fat Things:

. . . the Arminian rejects the decree of election on the ground of the certainty of the result decreed, and at the same time admits the foreknowledge of God. Is not the result as certain by foreknowledge as by the decree? There is nothing gained by denying the decree and substituting for it the divine foreknowledge. This denial involves the objector in a greater difficulty than that which he sought to escape, and which he imagined was chargeable upon predestination alone. By rejecting the decree, and admitting the foreknowledge of God, he has shut himself up to the dread alternative of blank Fatalism, which rules God out of the empire of human history, including even the divine redemption. The question which now arises for all Arminians and partial predestinarians to answer is, as the whole future is known to God, and therefore certain, therefore determined, by whom or by what has it been determined and rendered certain? The objector has ruled God out, let him bring forth his substitute. He has now dethroned the eternal Jehovah, will he leave the throne of the universe vacant, or whom will he place upon it? He here places himself in a dilemma from which he cannot escape. He has on the one hand a vacant throne, and on the other an absolutely certain future. He has to account for a determined future, while his principles will not allow him to admit an intelligent personal determiner. Here it can be easily seen that outside of God's decrees as the determining cause, all must be attributed to the soulless, passionless, unintelligent idol, Fate.

So, if God knows the future with absolute certainty (which Arminians admit), then the future is (by definition) already predetermined. If next Sunday is predetermined and an Arminian doesn't desire to acknowledge that the day was decreed by God, they only have three choices:

1. Some other god, other than the God of the Bible, determines the future and is therefore more powerful and sovereign than he. This is idolatry.

 2. Some blind impersonal force does the determining. The idol of fatalism.

3. Admit their Arminian doctrine is incorrect and repent and acknowledge the truth of Calvinism.

Three is the only biblical and logical choice for any believing Christian.

Related Topics

Theological Flowerbeds - D.A.I.S.Y. vs. T.U.L.I.P.
The Ever-Guessing god of Open Theism

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).