Determined to Believe? The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility

John C. Lennox, Determined to Believe? The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018. 368 pp. $19.99, paperback.

John Lennox is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and an evangelical Christian with a longstanding concern to defend the Christian faith in the public sphere. In recent years he has risen to prominence as an articulate, well-informed, and winsome apologist, writing books on the relationship between Christianity and science, and engaging in public debates with prominent skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Ruse. His 2007 book God’s Undertaker, which I have often recommended to my students, deftly debunks the myth of conflict between religion and science. I wish I could be so enthusiastic about his recent foray into systematic and philosophical theology, which might well have been titled Calvinism’s Undertaker.

As Lennox explains, his latest book “is written mainly for Christians who are interested in or even troubled by questions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility” (15). Having been asked on many occasions to share his views on this thorny issue, Lennox decided to embark upon a book-length treatment of the topic. The primary target of his book is theistic determinism, which Lennox nowhere explicitly defines but apparently takes to be the view that God determines—more specifically, causally determines—every event in the creation, including the decisions and actions of his creatures. The book consists of 20 chapters and is divided into five parts. In this review I will summarize the content of each part, offering some critical comments along the way, before concluding with some concerns prompted by the book’s title.

Part 1: The Problem Defined

Chapter 1 (“The Nature and Limitation of Human Freedom”) introduces the general topic of the book. Lennox notes that philosophers have distinguished between “liberty of spontaneity,” defined simply as the freedom to do whatever one wants to do (i.e., freedom from coercion), and “liberty of indifference,” understood as the freedom to do otherwise given the exact same circumstances (i.e., freedom to do not-X even though one in fact did X). This second view is identified as “libertarian freedom.” (I note in passing that, contra Lennox, not all contemporary defenders of libertarianism think it should be understood as liberty of indifference.)

Having distinguished these two kinds of freedom, Lennox declares, “In this book when I use the term ‘free will’ I shall understand it in this [second] sense” (25). In other words, whenever Lennox speaks of free will he means libertarian free will. This is a remarkable admission at the outset of a book that purports to adjudicate between different views of free will. If one is asking the question, “What is the biblical view of free will?” it simply won’t do to define free will in libertarian terms, for that implies either that theistic determinists don’t believe in free will or that they’re inconsistent if they do. Such would be blatantly question-begging and prejudicial. Surely most theistic determinists do affirm that we have free will (at least with respect to many of our choices) but they think that free will should be understood along compatibilist rather than libertarian lines.

The following analogy should illustrate what a questionable move this is on Lennox’s part. Critics of Christianity such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris typically define faith as “belief in the absence of evidence,” and on that basis charge that the Christian faith is a danger to reason and science. Lennox would rightly protest at this highly prejudicial definition.[1] He might well counter that faith in the Christian sense should be defined as “trust based on evidence.” But suppose his opponent were to reply, “Sure, I realize that people have defined faith in different ways, but in my critique of Christianity I’m going to stick with defining faith as belief in the absence of evidence!”

I imagine Lennox would be less than satisfied with such a response. He would feel quite justifiably that his position was not being taken seriously and considered on its own terms. Yet the book under review treats theistic determinism (or rather, theistic compatibilism) in much the same way. Instead of offering serious arguments for a libertarian view of free will or engaging with the best defenses of compatibilism, the author attempts an end run around the whole debate, proceeding on the assumption that genuine freedom must be libertarian freedom.

Chapter 2 (“Different Kinds of Determinism”) begins well by distinguishing the physical determinism of atheists such as Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris from the theistic determinism held by some Christians. Unfortunately matters go downhill from this point, as the discussion of theistic determinism abounds with question-begging claims and straw men. Lennox assumes without argument that theistic determinism (the view that God ultimately determines everything that takes place in his creation) entails theistic causal determinism (the view that God causally determines everything). Lennox doesn’t even consider the possibility of a theistic non-causal determinism, let alone a hybrid view in which God determines all things by a combination of causal and non-causal means. Furthermore, Lennox seems to think that theistic determinism entails intramundane causal determinism (the view that every event within the creation is causally determined by prior events within the creation).[2] But this doesn’t follow at all. Even if intramundane determinism were incompatible with human freedom and moral responsibility—a disputable claim in itself—that wouldn’t rule out theistic determinism as such.[3]

As just one example of Lennox’s failure to represent fairly the other side, consider the following:

For there are different ways of understanding the concept of sovereignty. One is in terms of divine determinism. Another is that God is a loving Creator who has made human beings in his image with a significant capacity to choose, with all its marvelous potential of love, truth, and moral responsibility. (53)

Note the clear implication: theistic determinists must deny that God has made human beings in his image with “a significant capacity to choose”! Of course, no orthodox Calvinist would say any such thing. The point at issue isn’t whether God created us with the power to make real, significant choices, but whether that claim (which both sides affirm) is consistent with divine determinism. Lennox thinks it isn’t—but he offers no argument.

Further examples of begged questions and prejudicial caricatures are in no short supply:

  • Theistic determinists think God is “the irresistible cause of human behavior, whether good or bad” (53).
  • Paul Helm’s claim that all events are under the direct control of God is an “apparently extreme deterministic position” (54).
  • Theistic determinists imply that “God takes over and ‘directly controls’ the molecules in my arm” (55). (A mischaracterization of statements by Paul Helm and R.C. Sproul.)
  • Genuine human freedom means “a real capacity to act independently of [God’s] direct control” (55).
  • Theistic determinists hold that God “fixes human destiny like a master chess-player or puppeteer, irrespective of the responses of the humans involved” (58). (Lennox here commits the all-too-common mistake of conflating determinism and fatalism.)
  • Theistic determinists “maintain that human free will is an illusion” (59). (Only if one defines free will in the prejudicial way that Lennox does.)

Dozens of other examples could be drawn from the rest of the book, but the point is made. Before the Bible has even been opened, before a single text has been examined, the deck has been stacked. Compatibilism has been ruled out a priori. Real freedom is libertarian freedom. Any form of determinism undermines moral responsibility, and since the Bible clearly affirms our moral responsibility, it must teach something other than theistic determinism. The God of theistic determinism cannot be the God of the Bible!

It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly all the problems with Lennox’s arguments in the book can be traced to these missteps in the first two chapters. The way he defines terms and frames the issues predetermines his conclusions.

Chapter 3 surveys what Lennox takes to be the “moral problem” with theistic determinism. The problem is basically two-fold. First, theistic determinism implies that God is “actively involved in evil” (63) because evil is “directly caused” by God (64, 68). Second, theistic determinism implies a fatalistic view of predestination such that “if I am going to be saved I will be saved, and I can do nothing about it in either direction” (63). As I’ve already observed, theistic determinism as such doesn’t commit one to the idea that God directly causes evil, and Calvinists have almost without exception denied any such implication (e.g., by drawing a distinction between primary and secondary causes). Furthermore, Calvinism is an expressly non-fatalistic form of determinism, since it affirms that our eternal destiny does depend on the choices we make. What’s at stake in the Calvinist-Arminian debate is not whether our choices make a difference—of course they do!—but how those choices are related to God’s eternal decree.

Unfortunately, once again, Lennox demonstrates that he doesn’t really grasp the Calvinist position and how it should be properly distinguished from the alternatives. He simply assumes without argument that theistic determinism has objectionable implications and dismisses it on that prejudicial basis.

Chapter 4 sets out Lennox’s reasons for avoiding “terms like Calvinist, hyper-Calvinist, Reformed, radical Reformed, Arminian…” (85) He offers some wise counsel about avoiding partisan quarrels, the danger of pigeonholing with labels, and the hazard of embracing theological systems or paradigms that subsequently function as Procrustean beds into which the words of Scripture must be forced. Lennox insists that his motivation is only to pursue the truth, to find the right answers to the important questions about divine sovereignty and human freedom, rather than to take sides in some war of theological traditions. Without questioning his sincerity, I must admit to finding this chapter a little disingenuous. Like it or not, labels serve an important purpose. They can be abused, of course, but neither can we do without them. I suspect every theologian whom Lennox identifies as a “theistic determinist” (another label!) would readily accept the label “Calvinist” or “Reformed” as fairly characterizing their position. Whether or not he uses the conventional labels, Lennox is entering into a long-standing theological debate and he is undeniably taking sides.

Part 2: The Theology of Determinism

Chapter 5 attempts to focus the issue under debate. Lennox grants that “Scripture clearly teaches doctrines that can reasonably be described by the terms ‘God’s sovereignty’ and ‘human responsibility’, even though neither of these expressions occurs in the Bible” (99). The problem is that people overemphasize one or other of those two doctrines. I don’t doubt that Lennox believes he’s offering a balanced framing of the issue, but even here he cannot help begging questions and caricaturing his opponents:

The first [group] hold that the “tension” may be resolved solely in terms of God’s sovereignty, effectively denying any real role for human responsibility, as God is the direct cause of everything. This is theistic determinism. (99)

I trust the reader can see why this is objectionable. Theistic determinism as such doesn’t entail that God is the “direct cause of everything.” Furthermore, to assert that such a view “effectively [denies] any real role for human responsibility” patently begs the question in favor of incompatibilism.

Chapter 6 (“The Biblical Vocabulary”) considers how the concepts of foreknowledge, predestination, and election are represented in the Bible (or at least in the New Testament; only one Old Testament text is cited). What might have been a responsible linguistic survey degenerates into caricature and eisegesis. For example, on Lennox’s readings, Matthew 22:14 turns out to mean, “Many are called, but few respond,” while Acts 13:48 tells us (despite the passive participle in the Greek) that the Gentiles appointed themselves for eternal life.[4]

The chapter closes with an argument, borrowed from Wesleyan philosopher Thomas McCall, to the effect that if divine determinism were true then everyone would be saved, because God’s universal love entails that he will do everything he can to ensure that everyone freely accepts the gospel and is saved. Leaving aside the flaws in the argument itself, Lennox overlooks the fact that even on his non-determinist view God clearly isn’t doing everything within his power to ensure that every human being freely accepts the gospel. (Why doesn’t God send gospel-preaching angels into North Korea, for example?) The point should be obvious: Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike have to concede that God has other purposes besides maximizing the number of people saved.

Part 3: The Gospel and Determinism

Part 3 is essentially a multi-chapter critique of the Reformed doctrine of total inability, according to which fallen unregenerate people can do no spiritual good and cannot respond to the gospel invitation apart from special divine grace. Chapter 7 seeks to rebut three major arguments “advanced to promote the idea that humans are by nature incapable of any response to God” (130). I presume Lennox has in mind here a positive spiritual response, such as saving faith and repentance, since no Calvinist would claim that the unbeliever is incapable of any response to God. Even then, he seems unaware that the position he opposes isn’t a distinctively Calvinist or determinist view. For example, the Five Articles of Remonstrance (the original statement of Arminian doctrine) assert that the natural man “inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is)…” This assertion was no accident; the Remonstrants were acutely sensitive to the charge of Semi-Pelagianism. In any event, it’s disappointing that chapters 7 and 8 don’t engage with any serious exegesis of the standard prooftexts for total inability, such as John 6:44, Romans 6:16–19, Romans 8:7–8, 1 Corinthians 2:14–16, and Ephesians 2:1–10. Instead, the doctrine and the arguments in support of it are repeatedly mischaracterized.

Chapter 9 offers a lengthy discussion of John 6:22–65, which, with its conspicuously predestinarian tone, has long been a favorite passage of Calvinists. It is to Lennox’s credit therefore that he seeks to engage it directly and to offer an alternative non-determinist reading. Unfortunately, Lennox’s modus operandi is to quote a section of the text, offer a misrepresentation of the Calvinist reading of it, argue that whatever the text means it can’t mean that, and conclude that some other—presumably non-Calvinist—reading must be adopted. For example, on verses 37–40:

Whatever it means to be “given by the Father”, we cannot argue that it eliminates human responsibility, since such responsibility is exactly what Christ affirms three sentences later. And, as we have seen, it is not good enough simply to assert that humans are responsible, not if we then proceed to portray God as holding people responsible for something they did not have the power to do. (172)

No Calvinist thinks that unconditional election “eliminates human responsibility.” On the contrary, the Calvinists insists that divine determinism must be compatible with human responsibility. Once again, Lennox is simply taking incompatibilism for granted and insisting that the text must be interpreted in that light. Moreover, the axiom driving his argument—that moral responsibility entails moral ability—is a fundamentally Pelagian one which (as I noted earlier) even the Remonstrants implicitly denied.

As a consequence of his precommitments Lennox is forced to reverse the explanatory relationship between the divine giving and the human coming:

The double reference to the Father’s will [in vv. 39–40] suggests that the second statement explains the first. The emphasis on the first is on the Father’s giving, and in the second on human responsibility to look and believe. That is, those whom the Father has given him are precisely those who have looked to the Son and believed in him. The giving is not an arbitrary act of divine determinism. God is determined that those who come, look, and believe will never be lost. (174)

As Lennox reads the text, the giving of the Father is conditioned on the human response: if someone comes to Jesus, then the Father gives them to Jesus. But that inverts the logic of verse 37. “All that the Father gives me will come to me” means that if the Father gives someone to Jesus, then they will come to Jesus.[5] The coming is conditioned on the giving. On Lennox’s view we would expect Jesus to say, “All that come to me the Father will give to me.” But he didn’t say that.

I’ll refrain from trying the reader’s patience with further criticism of Lennox’s exegesis of John 6. Let me simply suggest that it would be an instructive exercise to compare his exposition with that of, say, D. A. Carson.[6]

Part 4: Israel and Determinism

The same exegetical method is applied to Romans 9–11 in chapters 12 through 15. Lennox recognizes that Romans 9 is a central plank in the argument for unconditional election, so he labors to show that Paul teaches no such thing. Lennox’s commentary is once again peppered with question-begging assumptions (e.g., that divine determinism is incompatible with human responsibility) and misrepresentations of the Calvinist view (e.g., that divine determinism means God’s election is arbitrary and capricious). What’s more, his reading of the text doesn’t even appear coherent on its own terms. He states that Paul is addressing the problem of why “the very nation that was privileged by God to be the vehicle of his revelation to the world now mainly rejects the gospel of the Messiah” (240). This is clearly a concern about the salvation (“rejects the gospel”) of individuals within a group (Israel). Lennox later asserts, however, that verses 10-13 “do not discuss individual election to salvation but corporate election to service and role” (249). One has to wonder how God’s corporate election of Israel to a “privileged role” is supposed to address the problem as it was earlier stated. The election of a group doesn’t explain divisions within that group. Moreover, if the election Paul discusses here isn’t election to salvation, how does this begin to connect with the problem of Jews rejecting the gospel? Which is more likely here: that the inspired apostle lost track of the problem within the space of a few paragraphs or that Lennox is in the grip of a theological paradigm that prevents him from following the internal logic of the text?

As with the earlier handling of John 6, Lennox’s approach is to take incompatibilism for granted, reject any predestinarian reading of the text (because it would undermine human responsibility and make God unfair), and insist upon an interpretation—no matter how unnatural—that manages to preserve libertarian free will. Thus, for example, “we must read the story of Pharaoh in such a way as to challenge the objector’s deduction that God’s will is irresistible” (259). On the contrary, the objector in verse 19 doesn’t deduce that God’s will is irresistible. He assumes it as a premise, and the apostle gives no indication of disagreement. If Paul believed that God’s sovereignty in salvation were circumscribed by human free will, his image of the potter and the clay fails spectacularly to communicate that conviction.

Other problems beset Lennox’s exposition of Romans 9–11, too many to document in a book review that is already overextended. I would simply encourage anyone swayed by Lennox’s exposition to compare it with those of Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, or John Piper, and to consider which interpretation has Paul arguing something quite at odds with what he appears to be arguing on the face of it.

Part 5: Assurance and Determinism

The final part of the book addresses the question of whether a true believer can ever apostatize and how we ought to understand the various warning passages in the New Testament. Here the Calvinist will find less disagreement with Lennox, since he defends the view that someone who is born again by a decisive regenerative act of the Holy Spirit cannot become ‘unborn’ again: “Regeneration is irreversible.” Amen! Lennox thus interprets Hebrews 6:1–12 not as a warning to genuine believers that they might lose their salvation but as a warning to professing believers that that their faith must be genuine.

Conspicuous by its absence in these chapters, however, is any mention of the emphatic preservation promise of John 10:27–29, which is surely one of the strongest texts in support of the position Lennox defends here. Perhaps it would have been counterproductive to focus attention this text, given that it follows on the heels of John 10:25–26 with its predestinarian implications: “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” To be fair, I should note that Lennox discusses John 10 at some length earlier in the book, but there he labors (as with his treatment of John 6:37) to reverse the relationship between the explanandum and the explanans: as Lennox sees it, people become Christ’s sheep by believing (an interpretation hard to square with 10:16).

Determined to Believe?

Having surveyed the contents of the book and highlighted some problems with its argumentation, it’s worth standing back and reflecting on the question posed in its title. One can never be sure whether the author or the publisher is responsible for a book’s title, but it’s safe to assume Lennox approved of the title and would answer in the negative: no one is determined to believe in Christ.

But what does Lennox suppose is the correct position here? Presumably he means to affirm some kind of indeterminism with respect to our beliefs. What then accounts for this indeterminism? Libertarian free will? Surely not, for no one chooses what to believe. (Try it for yourself: see if you can exercise your free will to believe something you don’t already believe.) Our beliefs aren’t under volitional control, at least not in any direct fashion. How many Christians could say that they chose to believe the gospel? Many of us were taught from our earliest years that the Bible is the Word of God and Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross and rose again to save us from sin and death. We never chose to believe the gospel and we don’t choose to continue to believe it.

Neither does an exercise of free will seem to be a typical factor for those who come to faith later in life. How many people think, when reflecting on their conversion, “I heard the gospel and I chose to believe it”? Consider in particular the dramatic conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1–9). Did he choose to believe the gospel? How could he not have believed (Gal. 1:15–16)?

Now consider the alternative. If this supposed indeterminism isn’t grounded in libertarian free will, it must come from some other indeterministic source. How would that be distinguishable from sheer chance? I cannot speak for others, but I would rather that my faith in Jesus be grounded in the good pleasure of a sovereign God than in something akin to a quantum fluctuation. In any event, for all his efforts to refute theistic determinism and make room for libertarian freedom, Lennox never wrestles with the question of how these matters connect with what we believe and how we come to believe it.

It will not have escaped notice that this review has been predominantly critical. I wish it had been otherwise. There is much to admire in Lennox’s approach. His commitment not to shirk the hard questions, his desire for honest and respectful discussion, his evident love for Christ and the Bible, and his passion to see the gospel expounded and proclaimed, all radiate from the book. Nevertheless, my honest assessment is that this book falls short as a critique of theistic determinism (let’s just say it: of Calvinism) and as a biblical defense of the idea that God’s control over his creation is limited by human free will.

  1. See, e.g., John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Lion Hudson, 2007), 15–16.
  2. See for example his statements about freedom from the “causal nexus” (42–44) and “mere programmed automata” (45).
  3. For further discussion of this point, see James N. Anderson, “Calvinism and the First Sin,” in Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, ed. David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson (Wipf and Stock, 2016), 200–232.
  4. “They lined themselves up and believed, and thereby received eternal life.” (121)
  5. <All S are P> is logically equivalent to <If x is an S then x is a P>.
  6. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 1990).

James N. Anderson
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte