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?