Determined to Believe?

By John Lennox

A Critical Review

By Liam Walsh

John Lennox is an amazingly talented intellectual figure. I was turned on to his apologetic work after seeing very high reviews, and then reading his ‘Seven Days that Divide the World,’ which is an absolutely remarkable book on how science and Scripture meet – especially concerning the book of Genesis. Lennox has also had several debates with intellectual figures from various backgrounds, and he is typically charitable and winsome and wise in his banter in these events. (His discussion here at the Veritas Forum was particularly compelling). I recently saw that he had written this book on the free-will/Predestination | Calvinism/Arminianism debate, and I knew I had to read it.

Throughout the book, Lennox disposed of labels. He does this based on Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1. While he certainly has a point, I think he takes it a bit too far, believing that Christians should have no labels at all for theological systems that are names of people. However – to solve this he simply stamps his own label of ‘determinism’ onto the old label of Calvinism – an uncharitable, and misleading title for the theological system, in my view.

Unfortunately, I have to say I was very disappointed with Lennox’s arguments in this book. He seems to be largely unfamiliar with the views of classic Protestant Calvinism. He treats rather – almost entirely, Hyper-Calvinism only. Throughout the book, Lennox makes some good arguments, but they address a debate between free-will Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. They don’t actually come close to addressing classic orthodox Calvinistic beliefs as he intends.

In almost the same breath, Lennox criticizes (albeit in a somewhat charitable way) figures such as Calvin, Luther, Edwards, and also moderns such a as Piper, Sproul, and Horton – stating the absurdity of views that believe so strongly in God’s sovereignty that they, for example, don’t believe in evangelism, don’t believe in human responsibility, or even, believe that God is actually the author of sin.

The glaring problem, is that none of these names mentioned actually believe any of these absurd Hyper-Calvinistic doctrines. In fact no orthodox Calvinists actually believe these things. Lennox fails to point out any examples of orthodox Calvinists who actually believe that evangelism is not something Christians should do. He also does not give any examples of orthodox Calvinists (via confessions of faith or theological works written) stating that humans are not responsible for sin and that God is. However, much of  his argument is based on the absurdity of these beliefs. An argument (I think) his Calvinistic opponents would heartily agree to.

Lennox seems to have failed to see that when Calvinists think of predestination, they don’t think about it in a robotic mechanistic way. Calvinists see God as sovereign over all things – but in that sovereignty God uses means to achieve nearly all of his work. So – for example, evangelism is absolutely crucial for Calvinists – because God uses means to accomplish his work. It is only the Hyper-Calvinist who can sit back and say, ‘well God is ultimately in control of all – so why do anything?.’
When God changes hearts, it is by the means of giving us new affections for him and his beauty and kindness. It is not fair to Calvinists to say that they believe God drags the unbeliever, kicking and screaming all the way, into becoming Christians against their will. This is just a wrong understanding of Calvinism. However this is exactly how Lennox presents Calvinism throughout the book

Lennox’s book is more philosophical than exegetical. However he does do a wee bit of exegesis in his argument – however he limits his work to word studies instead of exegeting what each passage actually says. He does some fancy foot work with his word studies proving that the words in question don’t mean what Calvinists say they mean all the time and then concludes that therefore we don’t have to believe they mean those things in the noteworthy Calvinistic passages – which, in my mind, let’s him sidestep the problem; it’s also just not good or full exegesis. This debate has been going on for centuries, and it will require vast amounts of exegesis to get to the root of – a chapter of word studies is simply not enough to tackle this kind of massive theological debate.

Lennox’s main axe to grind throughout the book is that Calvinism cannot create a system where humans can be responsible for their own sin. He concludes that Calvinists must believe that humans are not responsible for their sin – leaving God himself as responsible (this was in chapter 5 I believe). This is, however, a view that is simply not true. I know of no orthodox Calvinist thinkers who believe this.

Contrary to Lennox’s view, Scripture rather, presents two simultaneous realities. (1) One is that God is absolutely sovereign, and he controls every minute detail of everything – from the insignificant: even each hair we lose each day or tiny bird suddenly dying in the forest – to the very significant: each decision made by every great ruler (see Matthew 10 & proverbs 21:1 respectively). The other simultaneous reality (2) is that we are responsible for all of our evil that we knowingly and willfully commit – especially for things we judge others for yet do ourselves (see Romans 1:18-3:20).

The biblical response to these two realities should not be to emphasize one over the other, but rather to seek a full compatiblism (a term sometimes used for Calvinism – and probably a better term) of the two seemingly exclusive realities.

To students of theology this should not seem to be such a strange concept. After all, we seek a compatibilism in a great many theological areas – including the Triune nature of God, the humanity and divinity of Christ, several aspects of justification (that imputation of Christ’s righteousness  is not – strictly speaking – fair or logical), and several other areas – especially the areas nearer to the nature and character of God himself. This is simply one of the aspects of theological concepts that are too high and beautiful for us to fully grasp as humans. If these aspects of God don’t make absolute logical sense to us now – it should not be seen as a worse problem than say, some of our plethora of scientific mysteries. We should know, after all, that God – the maker of our physical realities – is infinitely more complex than them. And if there are mysteries in those realities, there will necessarily be mysteries in the greatest of realities.

Ultimately Lennox’s book fails to even get the opposing side’s position correct – and for that reason the book fails to be persuasive. Since he mischaracterizes the view he is debating, he likely won’t be persuading any opponents to his side of the argument. Unfortunately the end of this book will largely just stir the pot more and proliferate the misunderstandings of each side of this ancient theological debate.

See also D.A. Carson’s excellent critical review of this book: Are Some People Determined to Believe the Worst About Reformed Theology?

Spiritual Depression

by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

A Short Review

By Liam Walsh

This book was one of my most life changing reads. I picked this one up years ago, after seeing it quoted extensively in John Piper’s great book: ‘When I Don’t Desire God.’ At the time I had no idea who Martyn Lloyd-Jones was, or how much of an impact this book would make on me. Lloyd-Jones, a prolific mid 20th Century London preacher, preached these messages in the mid 1950s! Through this excellent book, he taught me how to apply the gospel to my thinking situationally. Before reading this I didn’t know how to analyze my own thought life, or how the gospel came to bear on guilt, sullenness, or shame and condemnation.

This is an absolutely life changing book! It identifies all kinds of wrong thought patterns that people fall into, addresses why they are not consistent with what the Christian believes, and how to fight for faith in the truth of Christ and experience deeper joy in him. These old sermons are truly life transforming!

Lloyd-Jones shows in painstaking detail how the various truths of the gospel apply to these kinds of problems. He addresses a myriad of issues. He covers everything, from preaching to yourself instead of listening to yourself, justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ – not by religious works, assurance by the work of Christ, guilt and shame over sin as taken by Christ, – to vain regrets, fear of the future, arbitrary negative feelings, craven fear of God versus holy awe, fatigue of religious performance, various trials and suffering, intimacy with God, contentment, and many others. This book is fantastic! And it is absolutely great for anyone seeking to understand how to address these things in Christ.

Years ago, I found this special anniversary hardcover volume published by Granted Ministries (see here). It is the nicest version of Lloyd-Jones’ classic that I’ve seen. It also even comes with a CD containing the audio of the original sermon series the book was based on. This beautifully crafted volume is an amazing help to a variety of practical struggles every Christian fights. You can also listen to all of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ audio sermons at the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Trust site! His 24 sermon Spiritual Depression Series is still excellent! (though the nearly 70 year old audio can be taxing – it is usually quite good!).

How to Master the English Bible

by James Gray

a Short Review

by Liam Walsh

This very short 100 year old book was great! I had heard this recommended a few times and was intrigued by the (near audacious) title and finally decided to explore this one. 

Honestly, there is not a lot that’s profound about this book, but it does hone in on the obvious in a marvelously striking way. The author’s primary task is to show how to read Scripture with the most profit for knowing it well. The plan is actually very simple. He recommends that the reader start with Genesis, read it, and re-read it until the reader can generally outline it, and judge they have an excellent grasp on it. 

From there, the task is to simply move through each book of Scripture in order – ignoring the artificial chapter and verse breaks. Gray urges that the reader read each book in a single sitting if possible. As the reader gets through this – they should also attempt to make a rough outline of each book – further revising it with each read. 

I had heard much of this practice before – but Gray’s argument for going in canonical order I had not heard before – and it was actually pretty convincing. I’ve experimented with the re-read process a bit and have found it remarkable for what it allows me to see and understand that I had not before. It also works to give the reader a macro-view of each Bible book – if you will. After this read, I’ll be adopting this process more regularly from now on. 

The second half of the book is an exhortation for preachers to preach and teach expository sermons through each book of the Bible. The plea is a good one. 
Gray argues 1) that contemporary society (over 100 years ago) didn’t read their Bibles – and were so busy that they usually wouldn’t learn them on their own, 2) that the Bible was no longer taught in schools – so wouldn’t be learned there, 3) that the Bible typically wasn’t taught from the pulpit – it was more or less moralistic life lessons or interesting oratory – but not expository teaching through the Bible (sound familiar?..), and 4) that the Bible wasn’t even taught in Sunday school classes – but those were mostly just games or fun things to keep children occupied or maybe even topical lessons for adults (sound familiar?..). His plea, is that if the Bible isn’t taught and exposited through in the pulpit then where would it be? Where was anyone to go to learn it?
His question is a good one. And I find myself baffled just the same at the general lack of expository preaching in most churches.

Gray ends by warning his readers that if Christianity didn’t change this process, authentic biblical Christianity would be near unrecognizable in the coming generations. I dare say his words may have been a bit prophetic. This part struck particularly close to home for me after having recently left a church for a turning away from expository preaching (among other things), and now having a near hour drive in order to be part of a church that does preach through scripture (driving past dozens that do not on the way). 

I’d highly encourage pastors read this, especially if they don’t preach expository sermons through whole books as their regular bread and butter in the pulpit. If nothing else, simply to see the issue from a different perspective. 

Excellent book! And I’m excited to start the journey and tackle the book of Genesis (a whole bunch of times).

Saving the Bible from Ourselves

by Glenn Paauw

a Short Review

by Liam Walsh

I loved Glenn Paauw’s main argument in this book, which is that our Bibles are long overdo for a makeover so that we can actually enjoy reading them like we can do with any other book. I did have some misgivings about the book when the author started getting into theology, however this book was still absolutely great.

Paauw points out that the cheap way most Bible’s are mass produced, the overwhelming presence of tiny numbers and cross references, tiny print, thin pages, and the over-all poor appearance contribute to the general abandonment of Bible reading in our culture.

Paauw makes his point with elegant, winsome, and sometimes hilarious writing. He even puts his book together to image in a way what a beautifully crafted Bible might look like (with colorful headings, quotes or poetry set apart and formatted correctly). He also builds the structure of the book in a Hebrew chaism. The book was a pleasure to read because of these as well as his gifted writing ability. There was also some fascinating history that Paauw gave, like the fact that the New Testament was originally set in 3 parts in order to match the “First” Testement’s 3 parts: 1: Gospels & Acts, 2: Pauline Epistles, 3: Catholic Epistles & Revelation in the NT, to match 1: The Law, 2: the Prophets, and 3: the Writings in the OT respectively.

However I also did have some reservations about the book. At times the author presents his theological views as simply correct without much engagement of the Bible on them. For example, he seems critical of justification by faith alone, and supports the new perspective on Paul in a way that doesn’t really engage Scripture, or those on the other side. It also appears that he posits the monistic soul sleep after death position as opposed to a belief in heaven after death. He presents the view of heaven as more or less rediculous and only from Greek philosophy as opposed to the Bible. He quotes Alistair Begg here as an example of wrong thinking. He doesn’t in all this speak of the alternative, and more biblical position of heaven as an intermediate state, which is after death, but before the creation/restoration of a new earth and the future resurrection. He also in places seems to undermine preaching itself and as far as I can tell, instead endorses only public Bible reading in it’s place. He seems to denigrate study of detailed specifics in Scripture in favor of reading whole books in one sitting and looking only at the themes. All this being said, this is the flavor of the book while reading. However I don’t want to emphasize these points too strongly, because Paauw is always a little cryptic about his own beliefs. I couldn’t in the end get a sense of what theological tradition Paauw himself was from, or whether he was or was not evangelical, or orthodox in his Christian views. Not that any of these things matter as far as his main argument is concerned. But when he starts getting into theology it seems to me he could present his position with more clarity and evidence and with more fairness to the other positions.

However, as long as the reader knows their convictions on these theological issues this book is a marvelous read. Paauw’s observations on the Bible and the publishing industry – and the history of these is fascinating. Paauw’s considerations and suggestions were, I think, one of the driving forces behind publishers adopting the modern reader’s Bibles – for which I am very thankful to him.

Over all, this really was a great and engaging read, and Paauw had some excellent wisdom on how we can be better at crafting the good book. I changed my Bible reading habits as a result of this book (more reading of whole books!). A worthy read for anyone interested in the Bible, our intake of it, and it’s physical form.

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage

by Gavin Ortlund

A Short Review

by Liam Walsh

This book will be a paradigm changer for many. It is an absolutely excellent work. Ortlund is navigating the question of what issues are worth drawing dividing lines between Christian groups. One of Jesus’ prayers before going to the cross – and one of the longest prayers in Scripture – (the high priestly prayer) was for the unity of his followers. The unity of the church matters greatly to Jesus. However – Christians have many different views on many things and doctrines. How are Christians to navigate these differences? And if we are to divide, in what way should we divide? 

Ortlund develops a four tiered system for navigating the importance of disagreements between Christians in their doctrinal convictions. All four also have differing ways Christians should divide as well. His four tiered system is as follows:

1. Doctrines which are essential to the Gospel
2. Doctrines which are essential for the health of the church and practice
3. Important doctrines theologically – but not enough to justify separation between Christian groups
4. Issues unimportant to gospel witness and ministry collaboration 

Ortlund has created a very nuanced approach, and has spent much time thinking on and developing his system. Not only do these four tiers contain different theological beliefs, but Ortlund also details 4 ways in which believers are to ‘divide’ over these issues. 

Tier one constitutes a division between Christian believers and unbelievers. It includes issues such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and justification in Christ’s death through faith. Tier one is also the most drastic of all the dividing lines. These issues should be stood and fought for – albeit in a loving, humble, and Christ honoring way. Ortlund also helpfully emphasizes that there are many Christians who hold errant views in this category who are just ignorant of the details – or just haven’t studied these issues yet. He also highlighted the difference in the way one approaches a doctrinal difference as a large indicator as well – humbly, or in an arrogant and prideful way. 

Tier two is a tier for extremely important issues, but not issues that should divide between whether we consider someone a Christian or not. However these issues are the ones that affect much of a persons Christian life. Prayer or sacraments are often greatly affected. 1st tier doctrines which are essential to the gospel can also be affected by these 2nd tier doctrinal beliefs. These issues, he argues, are usually grounds for switching churches or organizations over. Issues that fall in this category for Ortlund are baptism, the lords supper, Calvinism/Arminianism, strong cessationism/strong continuationism, and some nuances in justification (double vs single imputation) for example. However, in saying that a difference in these views can lead to dividing churches, he emphasized that it should not lead to a relational divide between Christians. Our desire to uphold the love and unity of the church should match our desire for truth. As Ortlund puts it, ‘gospel doctrine, and gospel culture should both be upheld equally.’

Third Tier issues were issues which have some importance – but don’t affect the more important doctrines and don’t affect life and practice of believers. Ortlund argues that though these are important issues, Christians should not divide over them. He places in this category the old vs young earth creation debate and some of the end times chronology controversies. Preferences of alcohol consumption he also places here. I personally would also place politics in this category – as something that,  while it is important, it’s not something which Christians need divide over. 

The fourth tier issues are those that are unimportant for life and ministry in the church, and are more simply preference issues. In this category Ortlund places worship styles and other more outward stylistic preferences. 

Reading this, it seemed right on target to me. Granted, my theology lines up with Ortlund extremely closely – but, even so, I’m amazed at the things Christians divide over. Even entire denominations often, divide over very minor theological preference points such as end times views, creation day lengths, or alcohol consumption stipulations. This book was a breath of fresh air – and contains much wisdom in how Christians should approach theological differences. 

In our current climate, with so many churches splitting or dividing over politics, I would have appreciated more conversation on politics and how Ortlund would fit them into this system. However – the book is really one about theology, not politics. So I suppose it’s fitting that it addresses only the former. [Speaking of politics, I couldn’t help thinking that a system like this would be a step forward for any system of beliefs – especially the polarized state of American politics right now. This would allow polarized groups to work together on the issues they agree on even when they have significant disagreements in other areas.]

I enjoyed this very much. This should be read by any Christian who ever wonders which issues they need to take a stand for and which ones to not let divide, but rather make their stand for unity – often in the face of opposition from both sides. It also had me checking my own heart on some particular doctrinal nuances I hold – that I’m particularly proud of – in a not good way..