What Hath Einstein to Do With Calvinism and Arminianism?

I think what often gets lost in the Calvinist/Arminian discussion among many non-specialist thinkers (but specialist thinkers too!) is the idea of ‘causation’. As Western people, especially in North America (but albert_einstein_256515elsewhere in the so called ‘developed’ world as well) we have simply inherited a very analytical and Newtonian mechanical understanding of how things work. We have lost all sense of dynamism in the way things relate, and we have overlaid our personal relationships, whether those take place at home, work, the church, etc., with philosophical baggage. And we attempt to squeeze our relationships into patterns that think of people and relationships more in terms of mathematical equations or logical syllogisms (just think of on-line dating for example; i.e. e-Harmony.com, Match.com, etc; or personality tests that corporations often require their potential or new employees to take; etc.) than in actual personal terms (which cannot be quantified). And so we take this kind of Newtonian or even Euclidian (geometric) understanding of human relationships, and apply that to the way we think about God. But this would be wrong. God, nor humans, created in the image of Christ (imago Christi), are susceptible to being reduced to a mathematical equation or logical syllogism; instead the way God relates, and thus people relate to others is dynamic and truly personal (meaning truly Trinitarian). We can’t measure God’s interaction with His creation/creatures by reducing that to a kind of mechanical matrix of a rigidly conception of cause and effect relationships. And the interesting thing about this, is that nature itself, created by a Triune relational God, bears witness to this dynamic reality; a reality that moves us beyond what we as Western Protestant Christians have inherited through the informing philosophy that guides the classical offerings of Calvinism and Arminianism. Thomas F. Torrance in his book Divine And Contingent Order develops this further, by describing the sea-change that occurred through Einstein’s work on the theory of relativity (don’t let this scare you away), and what this illustrates about the way the universe itself was created, and how this disrupts, or should, our conception of thinking about relationships with other humans, and God in particular, away from a rigid logical understanding of causation. Here is what Thomas Torrance has written:

… Thus Faraday and Maxwell opened the way for a new understanding of nature in terms of field theory which could be set against the Newtonian outlook and which, in spite of Maxwell’s acceptance of Newtonian dualism and mechanism, pointed to a non-mechanical view of the universe in which matter and field are unified.

The decisive step in this direction was taken by Einstein in his rejection of Newtonian dualism and mechanism. Following on clarification particularly by H. Hertz and H.A. Lorentz of difficult problems resulting from contradictions between Maxwellian and Newtonian mechanics, Einstein introduced a fundamental change into field theory, coordinating it with a startlingly new view of the universe and its unitary dynamic order, very different from the Newtonian world-view. He dethroned time and space from their absolute, unvarying, prescriptive role in the Newtonian system and brought them down to empirical reality, where he found them indissolubly integrated with its on-going processes. At the same time he set aside the idea of instantaneous action at a distance, but also set aside the existence of ether (still maintained by Lorentz) and all idea of the substantiality of the field (in Faraday’s sense). There now emerged the concept of the continuous field of space-time which interacts with the constituent matter/energy of the universe, integrating everything within it in accordance with its unitary yet variable objective rational order of non-causal connections. Thus instead of explaining the behaviour of the field and all events within it in terms of the motion of separated material substances characterize by unique unchanging patterns and defined by reference to the conditioning of an inertial system, and therefore in terms of quantifiable motion and strict mechanical causes, Einstein explained it in terms of the objective configuration of the indivisible field and the dynamic invariant relatedness inherent in it–that is to say, in terms of the principle of relativity. It was the radical break with Newtonian mechanics and the Newtonian world-view that made relativity so difficult to grasp, but it was in coherence with this new understanding of the universe and its intrinsic order that Einstein also sought to develop quantum theory, without a duality of particle and field, which, as he believed, calls for the determination of relativistic field-structures in a proper scientific description of empirical reality, rather than a merely statistical account of quantum-experimental events and conditions. If a statistical approach is required in quantum mechanics it cannot rest content with offering an account of how experiments operate, but must offer an account of reality itself. All this implied the unification of matter and field in a dynamic, unbroken continuum–i.e. without the contiguous yet discontinuous connection of particles as in the Cartesian ‘field’–which prompted Einstein to devote so much attention to developing a unified theory and thereby determining the general laws of the whole indivisible filed. Although Einstein himself was not able to achieve this specific aim, nevertheless he succeeded, particularly through general relativity, as the staggering unfolding of its implications and the verification of its predictions have since shown, in opening the way toward a unified view of the universe with a very different conception of order. –Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 77-8.

Okay, much of that may have sounded like gibberish to you (but I assure you, it is not!), but either way, what it should illustrate for you is that the way we think about reality and the way it works should not be something that we superimpose artificially upon it, thus forcing it into the mold we would have it operate in; but instead, we ought to come and accept that the universe itself (contingent as it is directly upon the Word of God, Gen. 1:1; Heb. 1:1-3) has its own given intelligibility, given to it by God, and allow the way it operates to inform the way we think about how God works, and relates to His creation, even in its very composition. In short, if the universe, at a fundamental level, does  not operate in a mechanical logically syllogistic way, then it would be wrong for us to tell the universe that it needs to operate under the conditions that we want it to operate within (Newton, Euclid, et al.).

Bringing this home now: How does this relate to classical Calvinism and Arminianism (among other classical theisms)? Calvinism and Arminianism largely operate from a system of thought about reality (metaphysics), that holds that God relates to creation “mechanically” (like a Newtonian view of the universe); and that God then relates to creation through decrees and built into the creation there are secondary causes that determine how creation itself will operate based upon God’s arbitrary choice. In effect this de-personalizes the relation of creation to Creator, and undercuts the idea that God at His core is Triune and personal. But, as Torrance, through Einstein and others has highlighted, is that the universe at a sub-atomic level is not put together this way; as corollary then, it would be better to recognize that the metaphysics and theory of causation that informs Calvinist and Arminian theology is not adequate, and that we should look for a theological approach that aligns with what is actually revealed and given to us by God; instead of imposing our theories about how God acts toward his creation based upon worn out and out-dated conceptions of metaphysics.



  1. What specifically about field theory can be set against classical Newtonian physics? Does entanglement have any implications here? Or Einstein’s block universe?


  2. WF,

    I’ll let you read TFT’s book here, and let him fill you in. It is only 142pp. The book consists of lectures he gave at various places: ‘Creation and Determinism’ delivered @ the International Institute of Theoretical Sciences combining the International Academies of the Philosophy of Sciences and of Religious Sciences, at its meeting in St. John’s University, Long Island, New York, on 9 July 1977. ‘God and the Contingent World’ was his contribution to the Einstein celebrations held at Bern, Switzerland, on 14 March 1979. And ‘Divine and Contingent Order,’ delievered @ the Oxford International Symposium on ‘The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, at Christ Church on 19 September 1979. Info taken from the preface of TFT’s book.

    My point in posting what I did–and what I did post should be illustrative and suggestive about how TFT might respond in re to thinking about Einstein juxtaposed with Newton and Euclid for that matter–was at most to suggestively problematize the metaphysical/cosmological premises that fund much of classical theism (not all!) in the West.


  3. Interesting. It is hard to escape, in most of our moral theology, a sense of time and space as containers, as the defined parameters within which things happen. Which plays in again when we talk of things happening “out of bounds,” as it were, “unnatural” events, things that do not fit within the parametrized container. Which container is nothing other than our own metaphysics! And if there is physics not contained by it, the container is wrong.

    If things happening are in fact all there is of space and time, if spatial and temporal parameters are simply how we overlay a map onto things happening, if even the separation of discrete things that happen is artificial—all of which physics tells us—then the mythology of the God-ruled, natural, deterministic universe is wrong.

    Worse: even if we wish to posit the universe as a machine out of order, there is no possible frame of reference by which we could determine how, or where, or to what degree, it malfunctions. If there is no God-given and -maintained absolute available alongside, if the world is all that is left of the creation, then there can be no meaningful natural theology. There can be in fact no meaningful “natural law,” unless we mean by that a purely descriptive account of how things do in fact happen.


  4. Which removes all of the artificial simplicity from theological ethics. Your codes, my codes, anyone else’s codes, and that includes the codes of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, as well as the uncodified ethics of each of the prophets, and of Jesus himself in each of the different gospels, and many others besides—these are not in any sense descriptions of the universe. They are not in any sense natural, or derivable from nature. They are not universal. They are all local, and all fundamentally debatable. They are each attempted solutions to the single hardest problem. A problem that will not, and cannot ultimately, be solved.

    But that’s the mistake we make when we tie metaphysics into ethics, especially in theology. When we declare that the universe is itself a moral order, and that as such it is God’s own moral order. (And then, of necessity, deny the claim by proceeding to make exceptions to it.)


  5. Matt,

    I hold to both a theological realism as well as a moral realism, the latter flowing from the former. I think a ‘revelational’ ethics is what elides, rightly so, a natural ethic (of any kind).

    But because I take a different view of Scripture from you, I think, and I am more paleo (or trad even), or just pre-critical, if I have to say it like that; I am going to see Scripture’s giveness more imbued with a supernatural frame, and part of God’s Triune speech, and as such, part of revelation. The activeness then of Scripture is not immanentized by its particular occasions, but is in a continual state of openness and looking toward the one who gave himself to Israel and the Church in Jesus Christ through salvation history, and continues to.

    I think TFT’s points on a Newtonian V Einsteinian universe, while moving beyond closed systems of thought and into open ones, at the same time identifies that the taxis in the created order reflects and reposes upon the Creator (Trinity) order that gives it. And so our ethical constructs think from what is given, and realize that what is given is actually given by a good God in Christ. And part of that comes through the commands, directives, de jure found in Scripture as reflections of the one who graciously gave them; ultimately to point to and live from Christ.


  6. Ah, the bad old idea of “orders of creation,” whether as Schopfungsordnungen, or Schopfersordnungen. You do not therefore believe that the image of God can be lost. You must therefore believe that God preserves alongside fallen nature something of its original good. On what basis can you make any such identifications? Where do you get your baseline?


  7. The answer to that question will probably overlap with my other question, because moral realism is in no way necessary as a consequence of theological realism. The belief that there is a real theological object predicates theology about that object. I doubt you’re making to too-simple claim that the theological object is the moral object, that God simply is moral value. But I’d like you to explain your particular form of moral realism. What is the existence of moral values? Are you a naturalist? A non-naturalist? A cognitivist? Something else?


  8. Matt,

    I believe Jesus is the imago Dei, and so it would be impossible for it to be lost.

    I don’t believe whatsoever in a naturum purum, or that there is a resident good left over after the Fall; where would you get that idea?! As Torrance like to say (paraphrase): we are bad all the way down, so we need grace all the way down.

    But you need to explain better what you are getting at with your first comment. I believe in a Dogmatic order of things; creation follows God’s Word.

    As far as what kind of ethical epistemology I follow, I’ll have to get back to you on that later (I’m going to bed right now).


  9. You forgot voluntarist, Matt.

    But let me think about this more, develop a response, and get back to you through a post at a later date. My response will repudiate a voluntaristic understanding of moral value, and be premised by the dominical teaching that there is no one good, but God, and that moral value is given in the domain of grace and not a reality available from nature (w/o a proper understanding of grace). So yes, I will be appealing, in a general way, to Barth’s deployment of covenant, but I will think this from a more Torrancian perspective (surprise!). If I had more time I might engage with other thinkers, but I only have so much time, and so my responses on this will be limited by that. But ethics is something I need to re-engage, it used to be a favorite locus for me; since it is something I (we) deal with concretely moment by moment each day.

    But like I said: More later.


  10. Voluntarism isn’t a form of moral realism, so of course I didn’t mention it. If moral value subsists only in the will of another, there is no objectively real, independent existence of moral values. Which is what the field generally means by “moral realism.”

    So: you intend to repudiate voluntarism. Moral values are not determined interpersonally by the will of one of the parties, then. Morality therefore does not subsist in the will of God. But, you suggest, moral value does fundamentally rely on the fact that God is the only good moral subject. (Just not on God’s will?)

    You seem to be denying naturalism as a form of moral realism, which is good; no appeals to Genesis, then, or orders of the world, or preservation. And you seem immediately to oppose grace to nature, which interests me. You oppose grace to nature, and then you hint (parenthetically) that grace reveals in nature things nature does not teach. So much Calvin. Be careful that you don’t wind up back at naturalism, then, a sort of Brunnerian gnostic naturalism by which grace reveals natural moral goods.

    But the real problem is that you cannot have both of the two things you said before: you cannot have both “no remaining good in nature” and “creation follows God’s Word.” You cannot have “no natural order” because of sin, and the God-given order of an obedient creation nonetheless.


  11. What worries me most is that you associate grace with law in that move. You associate grace with order, with obedience, with the alignment of the creation with the will of God. As though grace made that happen. As though grace were a force.


  12. If you want to know why I jumped to orders of creation, and on what basis I suggested you believed in them, I’ll show you. You said,

    “I think TFT’s points on a Newtonian V Einsteinian universe, while moving beyond closed systems of thought and into open ones, at the same time identifies that the taxis in the created order reflects and reposes upon the Creator (Trinity) order that gives it. And so our ethical constructs think from what is given, and realize that what is given is actually given by a good God in Christ. And part of that comes through the commands, directives, de jure found in Scripture as reflections of the one who graciously gave them; ultimately to point to and live from Christ.”

    There’s some fuzzy grammar there, but I hear you saying there that:
    a) there is order, taxis, in the world; that the world is in some way styled.
    b) that that order or style, that taxis, in some way proceeds from and returns to the Creator.
    c) that the goodness of God is known to ethics by “what is given,” which I assume you mean to be the creation.
    d) that therefore the creation partakes in some way of the goodness of God in Christ.
    e) that the legal codes of scripture are part of how that goodness of God proceeds into the world.
    f) that obedience to the legal codes of scripture is how the creation is ordered in return to God.

    Do you actually mean to defend any of that? Are you really becoming a Thomist?


  13. (Of course, to be a Thomist you’d have to go virtue ethics, so perhaps the better question is, do you really mean to defend a natural law ethos, and if so on what basis?)


  14. The alternative, it seems to me, is to deny (a), or at least to affirm (a) while denying (b). If there is order in the world, and I do believe there is, any sort of strong doctrine of sin (such as would permit you to affirm with any Barthian that there remains in us no trace whatsoever of original order, and that we are wholly dependent upon grace) will not permit you to attribute that order wholly to God. If we must deny the strongest form of (b), it’s also not clear that any weaker form of (b) could stand. If some of the order in the world is attributable to God, what parts of it are they? How can you tell? I’m betting you resort, as you seem to be doing lately, to scripture as divine revelation here. Scripture tells you what should be natural.

    But then you cannot affirm the later statements as given, either. The order you find in scripture, however you amalgamate scriptural passages into some coherent singular system that makes sense to you, is only a desideratum. It is not actual. It is in conflict with the world. Scripture de jure is imposed upon a disobedient world. Creation does not in fact follow God’s Word, and God’s Word says so.

    You cannot be a naturalist; if you are a realist (and not a voluntarist), and you believe in a dogmatic order of things—an order imposed as God’s will upon disobedient creation—then your scriptural system becomes the non-natural moral real in which you believe. Your interpretation of scripture is your moral norm. And that isn’t actually an objective and independent real. You might say scripture is that real object, but scripture is debatable. Scripture supports many, and contradictory, such systems. At that point you must defend yourself against the charge that you are not in fact a moral realist, and that moral law is subjective.


  15. You said that an ethos derived from revelation is what gets you out of naturalism, but you also said that you were a moral realist. Revelation is your moral real? Show me that objective real. Show me its independent existence. Show me something that at the same time gets you out of voluntarism, because revelation somehow exists in an impersonal fashion. And then tell me how exactly you’re an Evangelical Calvinist, and what that means.

    I’m basically badgering you at this point, so I’ll stop, and wait.


  16. Doesn’t it seem a little anachronistic to blame Calvinism and Arminianism on a mechanical, Newtonian view of the world when the Synod of Dordt started in 1618, years before the birth of Newton, Locke, Leibniz, Boyle, or Spinoza and before Descartes or Gassendi published?


  17. Nathanael,

    The point is a logical/conceptual one, not a chronological one. In other words, it is a matter of reality itself, which is not contingent upon periods of development within the history of ideas. So if Calvinism/Arminianism is based upon a mechanical, necessistarian, logico-causal metaphysics in its genesis (i.e. Thomism/Aristotelianism), and a paradigm comes along that cuts off all instances of a mechanical universe (so Einstein), then ipso facto the metaphysics that largely fund post-Reformed orthodoxy (Calvinism) are undercut; and Einstein then has something to say to Calvinists, Arminians, Ptolemaicists, Euclidians, Newtonians, et al.

    So the argument is de jure.


  18. To describe Medieval Aristotelian (Thomist, Scotist, etc.) metaphysics as “mechanical” and “necessitarian” can really only be called a gross mischaracterization. In point of fact Aristotelians believe that the metaphysical structure of the universe is irreducibly qualitative and cannot be reduced to quantitative, mechanical explanations, contra Newton, et al. The Aristotelian notion of immanent teleology rules out a mechanical conception of the universe from the get-go.

    My broader point is that Enlightenment metaphysics (particularly its notions of causation) are very different than pre-Enlightenment metaphysics and criticisms that apply to one do not necessarily apply to the other. I would suggest this piece as a decent starting point for the differences between pre-modern and Enlightenment notions of causation:

    (Immanent teleology is making something of a small-scale comeback in philosophy these days, see, for example, Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel.)


  19. Nathanael,

    Indeed, qualitative and substance driven; which when applied to Christian Trinitarian theology looks very mechanical and decretal. So I don’t agree, at all! It is no gross mischaracterization whatsoever, all you have to do is engage with the theology of the post-Reformed and Aristotelian causation, for example, is front and center with all of its mechanism and predeterminationism in tact, with the monad driving the car. It is not Triune-friendly, that’s the point. And the idea of irreducible qualitativity only illustrates my point about substance metaphysics and how, for example, grace is conceived qualitatively as created grace, in Thomas Aquinas’ theology in particular. No gross mischaracterization, maybe just a misunderstanding on your part on how things get synthesized in Thomist ways through scholastic and Ramist methodology.

    And I understand your broader point, but I don’t agree. I’m not really interested in analytical theology whatsoever, and so reading Feser will not be of benefit for me. I don’t do Philosophy of Religion here, but hope to entertain Christian Dogmatics from its own terms and categories (kata physin) here.


  20. And Nathanael,

    Even if you do understand the Thomist synthesis and scholastic methodology–which I’ll presume you do–it only goes to illustrate my point against thinking substantively about things juxtaposed with thinking relationally; which is what I believe genuine Revelational theology provides for us.


  21. Ah substance metaphysics! I always find it ironic when I hear the claim that those who hold to “substance metaphysics” are implicitly anti-trinitarian since the fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries were all Platonists of some stripe or another and all made divine simplicity a central element of their doctrine of God. If you want to reject divine simplicity (which I hope is not making too big a leap on my part to assume that you do) and see Patristic theology as corrupted by Greek metaphysics I suppose that is your prerogative. I just hope you realize that you engaged in a reconstruction of the doctrine of the trinity that is “a transformation which will go back to its very beginnings” (to quote Schleiermacher) and not a theology of retrieval.

    (See also, The Quest for the Trinity by Stephen R. Holmes)


  22. I fully affirm Nicea-Constantinople etc, and I just finished Steve Holmes excellent book; even interacted with him about it on Facebook. But when I refer to substance metaphysics, I am referring to its classical theistic form given muscular legs by Thomas Aquinas. Aren’t you the one who wants to make careful distinctions on a continuum?

    And I do retrieval through the mode offered by TF Torrance; have you read him? You would have to read him and his concept of onto-relations to appreciate what I mean, and better understand how retrieval can work engaging constructively with the patristics.

    No, I’m not doing a Schleiermacher, that’s quite a stretch.


  23. I’m sorry about the Schleiermacher comment; that was uncharitable. I suppose I don’t see how your criticism of substance metaphysics can apply to both Locke and Turretin, Descartes and Aquinas but not to Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine. It seems that rejecting “substance” and “nature” in your ontology would require a radical retooling of Constantinople and Chalcedon. (Unless I have misunderstood your ontological program and it is less radical and Barthian than I am implying.)

    It seems we have reached something of an impasse. I have not yet read Torrance (though he is on my list) so I will withhold further judgment until I have.


  24. I would argue, along with Donald Fairbairn, Julie Canlis, Thomas Torrance, and a host of others that the way the Patristics (some of them) used certain philosophical categories (and not Aristotle, really) was in a non-correlationist way. Meaning that while they may have borrowed certain categories (like from Plato, like Irenaeus did in his theology of ascent) from a philosophical lexicon, they reified such language into a grammar that was driven by Christian revelation. We could argue over whether Thomas Aquinas and others did this in the medieval period, with the classical theistic synthesis (i.e. with Aristotle), but I would argue that they were not successful; and then I would point to the way scholasticism Reformed got cashed out materially theologically in Post Reformed Orthodoxy, and English Puritanism, for example.

    I also don’t agree, fully, with Steve Holmes’ critique of Barth, and Barth’s starting point. All one has to do is read Barth–and I know Holmes has, but that only confuses me more–and it becomes quickly apparent that when you are reading him you are reading someone who is more like a Patristic theologian than a modern one (see Bruce McCormack’s book: Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth), with his idea of a self-replicating God–which sounds curiously like Holmes’ summative characterization of Patristic theology vis-a-vis their doctrine of God.

    If you don’t read Torrance, you won’t really understand where I’m coming from.



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