The Undoing of classic Causal Determinism in Theology through resurrection

Here T. F. explains and undoes the usual understanding of how events in history and causation relate one to the other. He defeats the idea of causation, appropriated by Classical Theists, in general; and Classical Calvinists & Arminians, in particular, that there is a necessary relation between the event that happened, and the events that led to the happening. He makes a disjunction between Factual event and Necessary event; the former being that which we understand as an actual happen-stance of the past, and the latter having to do with the idea that because that happen-stance happened, that the events that led to its happening also were necessarily organised in a certain way in order for the the conditions of that event to be so — as if we, as historians (or scientists, theologians, etc), can absolutize causes based upon an idea of uniformitarian conception of Event. Obviously this is a little complicated, and not for the faint of heart, but I think it important to be grasped in order to understand what Evangelical Calvinists mean when we say that we eschew the logico-causal-determinism of ‘classic’ thought. Here’s T. F. Torrance (this whole discussion takes place in the context of TFT talking about resurrection):

(a) Interpreting ordinary historical events

(i) Freedom and necessity in historical events

Let us try to understand this from a merely natural point of view. Think of a historical happening: in taking place it appears as a free happening. Once it takes place, it cannot be undone. Throw a stone through that window and you are engaging in a free act, but once it has taken place, the act cannot be recalled — we cannot turn it backwards as we can a film of the event. Thus once an event has taken place, it becomes ‘necessary’ — in the sense that it cannot now be other than it is. At this point, however, we are liable to suffer from an illusion, for we tend to think that because it is now necessary fact, it had to happen. This is the kind of optical illusion we suffer from on the golf course when our opponent putts a ball from the other end of the green and it goes right down into the hole — immediately that happens we somehow think it had to happen from the start, but what we have done in a flash is to read the final result back all along the line of the ball’s course into the free act behind it. It is through this kind of illusion or indeed delusion that some historians think that historical events are to be interpreted in the same way in which they interpret the events of natural processes as concatenated or linked together through causal necessity.

The distinction between causal necessity and factual necessity

But it is important to distinguish in historical happening between causal necessity and factual necessity, between causal determination of events and the fact that once they happen they cannot be otherwise. An historical event, once it has taken place, is factually necessary for it cannot now be other than it is, but an historical event comes into being through a free happening, by means of spontaneous human agencies. Certainly all historical events are interactions between human agents and nature, as well as interactions between agents and other agents — so that there are elements of causal determination in historical happening that we have to take into account, physical factors relating to the kind of patterns of space and time in which we live and work. But historical events are not by any means merely natural physical processes, for as happenings initiated and bound up with purposeful agents they embody intention which often conflicts with and triumphs over the course of events that nature would take on its own.

(ii) History is the interweaving of natural processes with human intention

It is this interweaving of natural processes and human agencies, of nature and rational intention, that gives history its complicated patterns. The course of events has often quite unforeseen results, for human acts may fail to achieve what would have been expected or may achieve far more than would or could have been anticipated. But in our interpretation of history we must never forget that in the heart of historical events there is free happening which bears the intention in which the true significance of history is to be discerned. Thus while we must appreciate fully the physical factors involved, we must penetrate into the movement of time in the actual happening in order to understand the event in the light of the intentionality and spontaneity embedded in it. The handling of temporal relation has proved very difficult and elusive in the history of thought, for it has so often been assimilated to logical relation and so transposed into something very different. The confusion of temporal with logical connection corresponds here to that between spontaneity and causal determinism in natural science. We can see this error recurring, for example, in notions of predestination where the free prius of the divine grace is converted by the scholastic mind into logico-causal relation, while the kind of time-relation with which we operate between natural events is imported into the movements of divine love and activity. It is a form of the same mistake that people make in regard to the resurrection, when they think of its happening only within the logico-causal nexus with which they operate in classical physics. (Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009, 249-50)

In keeping with Torrance’s usual mode of thinking from the Incarnation & Atonement (here the resurrection being the focus), he seeks to excoriate any ideas of logico-causal determinism as the lens through which profane historians would attempt to interpret the ‘historicity’ and ‘facticity’ of the resurrection itself — Torrance’s discussion here, is all taking shape within his line of thought associated with Kata Physin (or according to the nature of the thing, or his more popular method Theological Science). As he deconstructs the post hoc ways of what might be called ‘natural theology’ (meaning all modes of intellectual inquiry which make inferences from supposed stable events, works, physical nature, etc. to their “necessary causes”), by implication, he also gets at theological constructs (like classic Calvinism-Arminianism, Neo-Orthodoxy like Brunner’s) that operate with this same modus operandi.

The moral: There are unseen, unknown contingencies built into the nature of things themselves that make it impossible to accurately infer a stable causal chain of events from the event back to the cause itself. The answer to this, in relation to knowledge of God, is to see the event and cause conjoined together in the person-act of Jesus himself. It is from this vantage point that we then are set up to know God, in Christ, but no longer as some sort of deterministic causal agent; but instead, as personal, triune Divine agent who apocalyptically breaks into the contingencies of history re-creating them towards their telos or created purpose in Christ (cf. Col. 1:13ff) — the resurrection, then, being the instantiation of this within time-space history.

I doubt this has cleared much up, but if nothing else it helped me to write this out for my own process. I also would surmise that it is because of the nuance of this kind of thought, evinced by TFT, that Evangelical Calvinism will continue to have problems with making headway with the typical American Christian. It is easy to understand causal-determinism, because that’s what “we see” in “nature” all the time (there is an “apparent” coordination between how things appear to the naked mind’s eye, and how we then assume things in themselves “must” be — so it is natural to operate with a docetic understanding of things — but this is not Christian, nor Evangelical Calvinism — it is the mode of Classical Calvinism & Arminianism [and I realize this is hard teaching, who can hear it?]).



  1. Thanks Bobby to share all this. For me anyway, TFT’s construct is Barthian, intellectual and certainly dialectic. But I’m not sold! I am still classic Augustinian/Calvinist and Scholastic. One of the “untrained” I guess? 😉 But here are many Reformed, Catholics and Lutherans. Yeah, you (like so many forget them Lutherans).. 🙂


  2. Brian MacArevey · ·

    Great post Bobby. I am certain that, given time for the world to catch up, Evangelical Calvinism will have much to offer he world 😉 This is definitely important stuff that can help people break out of that classical mold that constrains us all.


  3. Fr Robert,

    Yeah, that “untrained” point has more to do with the idea that I think most American Christians just don’t work at “thinking” Christianly (not necessarily having a formal theological education, per se); I also don’t mean by that, that folks who do “get” what TFT is getting at and still disagree are not then “untrained”, it’s just that those folks would fall into the category of simply being “wrong” 😉 . I don’t think I forget “those Lutherans,” at all! In fact you know that Affective Theology I often reference? It is more Luther[an] than Calvinian in its assumptions (I’m well aware of my Lutheran brethren, let’s not presume too much here on the blog, Fr Robert).


    Thanks, glad this hit home. I’m hopeful that some of this will catch on sooner than later; we’ll just keep plugging along 🙂 . But it is that classical mode that we’ve all been conditioned by in the West that I think “at the least” needs to be brought to light for folks. I’m not totally opposed to all “classic” stuff, but as far as methodology goes I mostly am.


  4. Brian,

    God is a classicist! 😉 “Remove not the old (ancient) landmark or boundary.” (Prov. 23:10) Also, Gal. 4: 4-5.


  5. Bobby,

    As much as you “dislike” classic and Reformational method, it is simply and historically Aristotelian and Augustinian! You just cannot duck this! 🙂 It is here that people like Muller and now even Horton simply prevail historically anyway.

    I am an friendly antagonist here to the EC! 🙂


  6. Fr Robert,

    I’m not trying to duck this. In fact, you continue to not acknowledge the depth of the Calvinist tradition; or my points on “Scottish Theology” (like that of Hugh Binning, James Fraser of Brea, Hugh Binning, et al). You fail to acknowledge my reference to Janice Knight, yet her work is substantial (just not “popular”) scholarship and historiography.

    But yes, I don’t like Aristotelian thought; it is totally incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus. As soon as you can demonstrate how Aristotelianism articulates God’s being in biblical and Trinitarian ways; I’ll sign on. But until then, here I stand!


  7. Bobby,

    That was a friendly “duck”! 🙂 And i don’t deny the variations in the history of Calvinism, I just don’t believe we can negate the history of the Aristotelian and Augustinian influence on the Reformation and the Reformers! This really is my point and defense. And whatever EC is? It is rather new, and not really Scholastic, but Dialectic in the more modern sense. I don’t know how this can be denied? We talk method, but we must also talk history. And I stand with the historical Aristotelian and Augustinian ideas, and note there are plenty of Anglican Aristotelian’s, and also Augustinian’s! So here I stand! 🙂

    *AS I have said, I love the man TFT, and I will use and quote him, just like Barth. Both just great men and theolog’s certainly. But, neither are infallible..and so often, most often we are simpy but profoundly pressed back to the face and page of Holy Scripture itself. Here is the Reformed principle!


  8. Brian MacArevey · ·


    Sure thing; wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water 😉

    Fr. Robert,

    maybe…but God is not an Aristotelian! 😉


  9. Brian,

    But God is both transcendent & immanent in His creation, the God of history!


  10. @Fr Robert,

    Yet, that is my point. There is a history in Calvinism that is NOT Aristotelian; it is here where “EC” finds its moorings and orientation (not primarily in Barth or TFT, even if I appropriate TFT often). I guess you’ll just have to read our book to see what I mean. If anything we are “Evangelical Calvin[ian]” with some constructive work done on some of our parts (EC is more of a “mood” and less of a “movement”).


    Ah yes, you know me 😉 .


  11. Bobby,

    I can accept that, the FV is also more of an attitude and desire, rather than a hard movement; at least to me! That is another reason why we also need the life and history of the Church. Even though the Church is always a pilgrim body.


  12. Fr Robert,

    Yes, I hope you haven’t been taking me to say that I don’t think that Federal Calvinism, or Scholasticism Reformed is not a substantial piece of the Reformed heritage; because I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that EC has historical ground (amongst SOME Scots who parted from their Westminster Brethren), and though, we also represent ground that is working constructively “within” the heritage of the Reformation principle of semper reformanda (even if that little anecdote is itself a newer development within the Reformed lexicon . . . albeit not a new idea in principle).


  13. Bobby,

    Not in the main, but one can see that you almost distain classic Federal Calvinism! I must confess I am not yet keen on the EC, but I don’t “distain” it. Just like certain versions in the past of dispensationalism, we must work through them. And I am somewhat friendly towards Progressive Dispensationalism. Yeah, theology is and needs to be a humble task! I have changed my mind many times theologically, and I will perhaps do so even a bit more before my time ends. I just hope I am grounding myself and those others I have taught along the way? God is always good, and sovereign! 🙂


  14. Kevin Davis · ·

    I would really like to see what Richard Muller or Willem Van Asselt think about this. From what I’ve read/heard from them, they would seem to be happy with the “logico-causal determinism” criticism of some forms of Reformed theology (e.g., Edwards) but they would deny that this applies to the major figures of 17th century Reformed scholasticism. Even at the ground level (those untrained folks), I’ve had close Presbyterian friends (in the PCA) tell me that God’s causality, vis-a-vis the human will, cannot be schematized.


  15. Kevin,

    I have the new: Introduction To Reformed Scholasticism, edited by Willem J. Van Asselt, with forward by Richard Muller. It is a sweet read! Also Van Asselt has several articles himself.


  16. @Kevin,

    Yes, I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy with it as it applies to 17th century Reformed scholasticism. At the ground level I’ve heard all kinds of stuff myself (and I consider myself to be at the “ground level” 😉 ). Surely there is a continuum on this even amongst the Reformed, but I still think there is a particular “continuum” they are all on in ethos. I must say, though, Kevin, you’re curious to me; where do you place yourself on this whole continuum? You seemed to have moved further towards more “classic” stuff as of late.

    @Fr Robert,

    I’ve read that book, and it is good.


  17. Hey Fellers! Coming at determinism from left field. Again, my bias, but men vastly more educated than am I disagree on determinism, so I’ll feel free to throw in a little on the ground logic and preference.
    In materialism, there is no freedom. None. That a quark can move to the left or to the right without a known cause, just begs the question “what is the cause and when will it be discovered?” Another moot question: IF there was no God, only the material universe, that universe, or nature would be a god unto itself. That energo-material universe would be 100% determinstic. Each and every move would have been predicated on all of the previous moves which before them were caused by moves before them. You get the picture. Every materialistic professor in every university agrees. A large % of reformed Doctors agree with the materialists on determinism. They ONLY disagree on the uncaused cause.
    Thankfully, creation is not materialist. God-Spirit created creation ex-nihilo.
    It just seems to me (logically) that creative God would have wanted true freedom from His subjects. Such like the Angels – free to follow Satan, or to remain true to their creator.
    Now problem: Adam fell, and with him, all humanity. The sons of Adam now enslaved to sin, and are sinners. You call it concupiscence. So God, Father Son and Holy Spirit (as determined since forever) moved to remove man’s stony heart, and replace it with a heart of flesh.
    “And I, If I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” So God restores the order so that every man is drawn back to God. Man does not in any way save himself. Grace is not works otherwise grace is not grace. But man is saved by grace through faith, so faith is not works, so how can you say oh man that faith is a work? Ok. Back to determinism:
    IF the universe was god, straight up materialism, determinism would be the unbreakable law.
    God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is so above that. True freedom is completely logically impossible. But with God all things are possible.

    One more thing, Sovereignty means to reign over every thing. It does not mean to control everything. No king has ever controlled his subjects 100%, nor does the Bible say that they should try. It says that the king is to reward the good and punish the bad. It does not say that the king is to determine who will be good and who will be bad, nor who will be given mercy and who will be held in account, but that the judge should judge EQUITABLY.
    “Divers weights and measures I despise” vs “You get grace because I like you. You is a homey”.
    “You is a smelly old goat! Get you gone!”
    Now that would have been an object lesson: “Nathan said to David, thus says the Lord, ‘because you have done this thing the sword will never depart your house. Now choose this day which of your sons will serve the Lord and which will rebel and tear apart your house and die violently.'”

    These “rantings” of mine don’t usually get a response. But it just seems like determinists have one game ending argument “The Sovereignty of God”. The argument will not move forward with “I’m right, and God agrees with me.”
    “No I’m right, just ask God”
    In outcome, there is a difference ONLY in particulars between a deterministic materialistic universe, and a deterministic Almighty God.


  18. Well, Duane, I think the points that TFT make in the quote and some of the things I try to highlight in my own comments actually do undercut causal-determinism. So those professors you reference would have to deal with that; they can’t just say “Sovereignty,” like anything else it needs to be qualified.


  19. Kevin Davis · ·


    I’ve mostly been rather friendly toward classic Reformed theology. The main thrust of my criticisms have been directed at confessional Reformed caricature and misreading of my beloved “neo-orthodox” theologians, from Forsyth and Denney to Barth and Torrance.

    As for Reformed orthodoxy, I do think that the neo-orthodox criticism of scholasticism was a bit overplayed and a bit too reminiscent of anti-foundationalist po-mo vacuity. My friendly reading of scholasticism comes from my own previous engagement with the nouvelle theologie of de Lubac, von Balthasar, Ratzinger, et cetera. The thing I admire about the nouvelle theologie is that they were going back to the sources of Catholic scholasticism, in patristics and the medievals, and positively re-shaping the tradition without wholly abandoning it. They weren’t trying to do a radical break with scholasticism, just refining it. That’s my vision for Reformed theology: to refine, not bury, the old orthodoxy of Dort and Turretin.


  20. Amen Kevin! This has been somewhat my road also, but then of course I was raised RC, and my first degree was a BA in Catholic philosophy. I have never really been anti-Roman, or Catholic. But yes, the later people like De Lubac, von Balthasar and certainly Ratzinger’s Catholic Augustinian theology have been helpful. And hopefully the best of Reformed theology will always stay close and after the catholic truth! And here I am an Anglican certainly. 🙂


  21. @Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing that. Maybe I just start calling you von Staupitz from now on 😉 . I respect both you and Fr Robert’s approach; nevertheless, it’s just not me. That said, I can still learn from the medieval scholastics; but usually for me, that means understanding, simply, the history of ideas vs. appropriating that kind of theological project as my own.


  22. Kevin Davis · ·

    “Von Staupitz” sounds pretty cool. Seriously, if it weren’t for the conservative instincts of von Staupitz influencing Luther, then Luther may have been just another anti-ecclesial radical and, ergo, no Reformation.


  23. Kevin Davis · ·

    Fr Robert,

    It’s good to know someone else who has read the nouvelle theologie. It’s a remarkable and inspiring body of work that has come from those men. Their vision of the Catholic Church is, by far, the most persuasive that I have encountered.


  24. Indeed Luther and Staupitz, had a spiritual father & son relationship, and certainly it was Staupitz who forced the unwilling Luther to earn his theological doctorate, who counseled him in some of his many trials, and who therefore set him him on his Reformational road. And of course both lived in the Augustinian order. And early as David Steinmetz has said, Luther was certainly a disciple of John Staupitz. But then Luther discovered his new “hermeneutic”, i.e. Christ! And he and the full Reformation were off and running! 🙂


  25. I think its important to bear in mind the profound impact that Bernard of Clairvaux and Jean Gerson had upon Jean von Staupitz and thus Luther (even Calvin quotes Bernard voluminously). My point is that this illustrates that neither Luther (or Calvin) were part of a Roman Catholic guild that was seeking to refine scholasticism; just the opposite, they were part of a stream of thought that was anti-scholastic and pro forma mystic.


  26. Bobby,

    Well I would agree once the Reformation got under way, and we should note that Calvin was somewhat of the second generation Reformation or Reformers. But Luther with Staupitz, were early Catholic Augustinians. And yes the monastic Bernard was a great influence on both Luther and Calvin. And we cannot under estimate the early influence of Staupitz on Luther. But we cannot make Luther a systematic thinker either. But for both Luther and Calvin the Word is only gracious and faith is only a gift if behind them lies the mystery of predestination! And Luther does not accept the nominalist identification of predestination with prescience and does not believe that there is any way to remove the scandal or mystery from election! And for him, as Calvin, simply man’s willing and running is “from” God! They are both Augustinian!


  27. Fr Robert,

    That’s my point, they weren’t seeking to reify the scholastic mantle. Even though Calvin follows Luther, somewhat, I would still place him amongst 1st tier Reformers. And I also I agree that both Luther and Calvin were “Confessional” in their mode of theological method vs. scholastic or “systematic” (which is where Melanchthon comes in with Luther with his Loci Communes, but even that is different from our contemporary style of systematic theology or even something like Turretin’s elenctics). I agree that they are both Augustinian as well, but then that begs the question; which Augustine. It can be argued that they both understood a distinction between pre-Pelagius Augustine and post-Pelagius. That’s an important one, since post-Pelagius Augustine’s doctrine of sin shifts from simply privatio to also concupiscence; and thus the sin/grace symmetry is no longer just an issue of externals, but becomes an relational/Trinitarian issue of self-love vs. God’s love which is overcome in Christ and provided grounding for the individual through the donum or the Holy Spirit to the elect (cf. Rom 5.5 one of Augustine’s favorite passages).


  28. Bobby,

    I was speaking as to Calvin’s age with Luther, etc. And of course the later Augustine himself, as to Romans 7, etc. Roman’s Seven was kinda my gear-box, since I did much of my Th.D. there! 🙂 I follow the classic Luther & Calvin, who followed the later Augustine here!


  29. Yep, the later Augustine is the one that should be followed on such things.


  30. Kevin,

    Yes, Rome has had some good theologic’s since WW2, etc. But again sadly, moral theology has been somewhat lacking in places, and Vatican II did not seem to help here. Again, both modernism and postmodernity, seem to have caught the RCC off guard? She always seems to adjust late, and sometimes in poor manners. Note the Sacrament of Reconciliation is almost unattended!