From the upcoming Protestant Dictionary for Theology and Church

In 1994 I wrote this article for the German Protestant Dictionary for Theology and Church (volume 3). In 2024 I updated the entry on “fate” for the second updated edition starting 2017, volume 3 probably will be published in 2025.

[1994 bibliography: “Schicksal”. pp. 1763–1764 in: Helmut Burkhardt, Uwe Swarat, ed. Evangeli­sches Lexikon für Theologie und Ge­meinde. Bd. 3. Brock­haus: Wuppertal, 1994]

Fate (Schicksal in German, taken from the Dutch language in the 16th century), means a course of history as a whole or of an individual’s life that is not determined by people but is assigned to them, regardless of whether this seems to make sense or can be explained by divine or superhuman intentions. Belief in fate can be vague and indefinite or, as in astrology (which has provided the most widespread basis for belief in fate), cast in an established system. All concepts of God imply either that God or the gods determine or oversee fate, or that God or the gods are determined by it. Different religious and non-religious concepts of fate in a culture often overlap each other. Each culture has its own understanding of fate, which is not necessarily determined by the officially dominant religion. Rather, it often follows popular beliefs or earlier indigenous religious beliefs. A history of the concept of fate would therefore at the same time be a history of religion. However, it would also be a history of culture.

The importance of concepts of fate for attitudes toward social, economic, and political issues and their influence on historical actors has up to now been given far too little consideration in historical research. In Western philosophy, the concept of fate began to play a role only in the 20th century, especially in the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

If fate is not thought to be influenced by a higher power, or if the fate determined by higher powers appears to be senseless, random, unpredictable, unchangeable, and unable to be influenced, then one may speak of fatalism. The French word fatalisme is derived from the Latin fatum (fate), and since 1724 it has taken on the narrower significance of meaninglessness, which Immanuel Kant classically described as the point of view that there is “a blind necessity to the origin and course of the world.” Fate can carry this meaning of fatalism, but it can also be controlled by a higher power, such as God. Also, fate has often used to signify that which was sent by God. In Christian language, fate as well as providence could be used vicariously to represent God and his intentions.

In many religions (e.g., Babylon, Egypt, and Islam), fate is determined by the gods. Conversely, fate is personified in many mythologies and presented as a supernatural power. With respect to the Occident, three religions have presented impersonal or personified fate as standing in the highest place in the hierarchy, even above even the gods. In Roman religion, fatum was an uncontrollable and unpredictable power to which even the gods had to submit. In Greek religion, moira was both a personal birth goddess who predestined individual lives and a principle that determined history. Here, too, gods only execute fate. In Germanic belief, fate, personified in the three Norns and other female beings who spin the thread of fate, stood above the gods. More recent studies of Nordic (Germanic) religion, however, deny the central role of fate among Germanic peoples. Germanic belief in fate was temporarily revived in an ahistorical form under National Socialism, as Hitler portrayed himself as the leader sent and protected by fate. He often equated fate and “providence” with God and believed that fate could be influenced by acts of strength and victory.

In Western Christianity (e.g., Augustine, Boethius, and Thomas Aquinas), fate (fatum) was subordinated to divine providence, and fate and providence became expressions to refer to God’s omnipotence. Biblical revelation speaks of an omnipotent God who directs the history of the world as well as the lives of individual believers and leads them to a desirable goal. This belief in predestination differs from other views of fate, in that (1) the predestination of events goes back to a personal God who does not plan and act arbitrarily but in a justified and responsible manner toward a goal (salvation history). For that reason, (2) seen from God’s viewpoint, all events have meaning, serve the good of the Christian, and awaken trust rather than despair in individuals (Romans 8:28), and (3) the knowledge of predestination and of God’s omnipotence does not lead to fatalism. Rather, it establishes the responsibility of the individual (Philippians 2:12–13; Nehemiah 2:20; Acts 27:22–24, 31). However, the relationship between God’s predestination and determination of events, on one hand, and human free will on the other hand remains open. This is one of the most important discussions in the entire history of theology and the history of the philosophy of Christianity.

German literature used: Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens 7, 2nd edition 1987, 1045-1055; RGG3 V, 1403–1410; M. Tworuschka: “Fatalismus,” Hb. religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe Vol. 2 1990: 422–424; G. Mensching: Der Schicksalsgedanke in der Religionsgeschichte, 1942; J. I. Packer: Prädestination und Verantwortung, 1964; Th. Schirrmacher: Ethik, 1994, Vol. 1, 137–188; K. P. Fischer: Schicksal in Theologie und Philosophie, 2008; F. Rehlinghausen: Die Semantik des Schicksals, 2015.

Thomas Paul Schirrmacher


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