Determined to Believe: A Critique

Jack O'Grady

In the epilogue to Determined to Believe, John Lennox says that he does not expect those who disagree to take an ad hominem approach against him. It occurred to me when reading this just how difficult it would be to launch an ad hominem attack on John Lennox. His incredible warmth makes him effortlessly likable. He is also a man of formidable intelligence, holding multiple teaching positions within the University of Oxford, who has boldly used his immense gifts in the defense of the Christian faith, especially against the challenge of the New Atheists. In his latest book, he moves away from debates surrounding atheism, science and faith, into an internecine debate within Christian doctrine - specifically that of predestination, or as he prefers 'theological determinism'.

Lennox explains that there are two types of 'determinism' popular today, one among some naturalistic atheists who understand human decisions to be the result of biology and the physical structure of the brain, the other among Calvinists who believe that God determines every detail of existence. Whilst Lennox claims that he is not out to attack any theological system in particular,[1] it becomes abundantly clear that it is indeed Calvinism that is the subject of his polemic.[2] This is made somewhat fuzzy by Lennox's insistence on using the term 'theological determinism', which is not one that any Calvinist theologian I am aware of would own. Indeed, a recent authoritative work on this subject describes 'theological determinism' as the belief that 'God is the sufficient cause of all natural events and humans lack moral responsibility for their actions'.[3] This is a position a Calvinist could not hold, predominantly because of the second part about moral responsibility. There is, therefore, a certain lack of precision about exactly who the target of Lennox's polemic is.

This is made all the more tricky by virtue of the fact that Lennox does not interact at length with any fully formed doctrinal position. He quotes Calvin a few times, though mostly repeating the same short quotation (which is taken from book three of the Institutes, on predestination, not on general providence - indeed, Lennox does not make a distinction between these two concepts). There is certainly no extended exposition of or interaction with Calvin's thought, nor is there even a mention of most of the authoritative Reformed theologians such as Turretin, Owen, Hodge, or Bavinck. Modern Calvinist works on this very subject do not get a look in, such as Berkouwer's Providence of God, Helm's book of the same name (other than a single, short quotation), or Alexander and Johnson's (eds) Calvinism and the Problem of Evil. Suffice to say, non-Reformed theologians who are important to this subject, such as Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, are similarly overlooked. Lennox explains this absence, which seems inexcusable for a book of over 350 pages, saying that his aim is 'not to settle precisely historically what, for instance, thinkers from Calvin to Edwards taught, but rather to discover what the Bible teaches'.[4] Despite sounding virtuous, Lennox is in danger of being evasive: he has set up the entire book as a polemic against a view with which he disagrees, yet he refuses to allow any serious expression of so-called 'theistic determinism' to provide the backdrop for his argument.

Sadly, in absence of any extended engagement with Reformed theology, we encounter a series of unsupported and unreferenced claims about what 'theological determinists' think. This is the case, for example, when he tells us that 'many writers and thinkers' begin with Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, 'then proceed to read everything else in light of their interpretation of these passages'.[5] Similarly, no support is offered for his claim that theological determinists fall back upon 'a mystery that we are not allowed to question',[6] or that 'some authors... tend to omit the words 'in him' from Ephesians 1:4'.[7] This seems to occur all the more frequently during Lennox's exegesis of Romans 9, where we are told that his opponents only see predestination unto belief in this chapter because of an 'assumed paradigm' imposed on the text[8] and that 'some theistic determinists'[9] focus on Romans 9 and ignore chapters 10 and 11. Again we are informed about what 'many theistic determinists hold'[10] regarding a particular detail in verses 6-8. Lennox may be right, but it is very difficult to say since he does not offer a single reference to support any of these claims.

This is made worse by the fact that Lennox relentlessly caricatures the position he is disagreeing with. At one point he illustrates his opponents view using the example of God controlling his arm to make him punch someone before holding him responsible for it (this shall be examined further below). He informs us that contrary to the Reformed view, God does not 'micromanage'.[11] In one bizarre paragraph, he argues that the fact that God gave a few specific instructions to Abraham, rather than popping up constantly to tell him what to do at every turn, is somehow a point against 'theological determinism'. The salience of this argument to a discussion about whether God guides events from 'behind the scenes' is unclear. We are repeatedly told that, contrary to the Reformed position, God's will is not 'arbitrary' (seven times),[12] and that God is not a 'despot' (twice),[13] a 'dictator' (four times)[14] or a 'moral monster' (twice).[15] The fact that any Reformed theologian would agree that God cannot be described using any of these emotionally charged labels, coupled with the absence of any serious engagement with a particular theological system, suggests a patent straw-man approach. This is especially obvious when Lennox sums up two ways of thinking about God's sovereignty: ''One is in terms of divine determinism. Another is that God is a loving creator who has made human beings in his image'.[16] One could be forgiven for thinking that this is perhaps not an entirely balanced summation.

The most pervasive aspect of Lennox's argument is that it is made within a framework in which God's will and human wills occupy and compete over the same space. For example, Lennox speaks of God 'devolving power' to humans by giving them free will,[17] thus suggesting that in order to avoid determinism, God must move out of the way and cede some space for humans to act. He depicts the Reformed position as enabling a situation in which God 'takes over and "directly controls" the molecules in my arm - for instance, as it swings to hit you',[18] a situation which Lennox rightly says should not leave him responsible for this action. Here it appears that, for Lennox, God's action and human action do not operate in the same event at different levels - it must be one or the other. This framework is also evident where Lennox tell us that Calvinists believe that God causes people to sin then cruelly blames them for it[19] and says that repentance has no meaning if God causes people to sin.[20]

It will therefore be unsurprising that Lennox never mentions the doctrine of 'concurrence', a major part of the classical doctrine of providence which explains how God can sovereignly guide creation without overriding the real responsibility and will of human beings. The notion of a non-competitive, compatible relationship between God's action and creaturely action, which has had some excellent attention in modern theology in the work of Katherine Tanner and Rowan Williams, has no place in Lennox's scheme. This comes out further in Lennox's description of Reformed notions of sovereignty as suggesting 'dictatorship' or 'depotism'.[21] Lennox is imagining what it would look like if a human had the same rights of sovereignty as God has, before improperly importing this moral abhorrence back into a divine context. Whether intentionally or not, Lennox appears to think of God as a being who is 'within' the cause and effect nexus of creation, whose will and action competes over the same space as human will and action. Suffice to say this is an utterly different framework than the classical theistic approach of the Reformed and other 'deterministic' theologians (and, I would argue, the Bible itself, eg. Acts 2:23).

This wider 'competitive' framework significantly impacts upon Lennox's exegesis. We can see this most clearly where he treats examples of human responsibility in scripture as evidence against a Reformed interpretation. Of course, this only works as evidence if we presuppose the position that we have to choose between God in some sense causing someone to do something or that person choosing for themselves. For example, Lennox presents Jesus' appeals to people's minds and moral sensibilities in John 7 and 8 as positive evidence for libertarian free will. He concludes that 'Christ treated them as responsible moral agents who were capable of making moral decisions'.[22] Similarly, he seems to think that exhortations to 'believe' in Scripture prove that it is a human decision and therefore not something decreed by God.[23] If we assume the either/or framework, then all Lennox needs to do is point out that Scripture expects humans to make real moral choices to prove his point. If we do not assume this framework, these examples from scripture are of little relevance to the debate.

One of Lennox's other major arguments is that he understands scripture to teach that faith comes before regeneration. He writes, 'Jesus says: the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone believes in him may have eternal life. He does not say "so that everyone who has eternal life may believe"'.[24] It is not clear that this verse does quite rule out the precedence of regeneration over faith in the way Lennox wants it too. Indeed, Lennox appears to expect that, if the Reformed position were true, every relevant verse would lay out a fully formed ordo salutis package. His argument on this point is ultimately compromised by the fact that he does not engage with several of the most important texts used to demonstrate that regeneration precedes faith: there is no discussion of John 3:1-8 ('the wind blows where it wishes' John 3:8), nor Acts 16:14 ('The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message') or 1 Corinthians 12:3 ('no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit').

One of the major sections of the book offers an exposition of Romans 9-11. It is a good statement of a non-Calvinist interpretation of these chapters, taking cues from N.T. Wright and the dispensationalist theologians Griffith Thomas and H.A. Ironside. Lennox pays special attention to the Old Testament background to Paul's arguments, not least when it comes to examples of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, and the image of the clay and the potter in Romans 9. However, he does at times seem to place an emphasis on his own interpretation of the Old Testament texts, rather than the specific ways that Paul is using them. This is evident where Lennox interprets Jeremiah 18 as saying that 'the clay is living and what the potter does with it is in part dependent on its response to him'.[25] Whether or not this is the case, it could be argued that Paul is making precisely the opposite point when he uses the image of the potter in Romans 9. This section could have done with interacting with modern commentaries in the Reformed tradition, such as those of Schreiner, Kruse, Morris, Murray and Moo.  This all said, we have here a good, clearly explained presentation of a non-predestinarian (in the Augustinian sense) interpretation of Romans 9-11.

The final argument we shall examine has its own chapter, but is also the pervasive argument of the whole book. This is the moral objection to 'theistic determinism', which is that God condemns people for not believing, despite the fact that they cannot believe unless he determines it. This again reflects Lennox's 'competitive' framework, but it also carries the assumption that a failure to believe in Christ is the basis upon which God condemns people. We might respond by pointing out that the Bible suggests that humans are already condemned on the basis of sin prior to hearing and responding to the gospel (Colossians 3:6). What is more troubling at this point is the methodology. It is striking how often Lennox appeals to us to judge what would be right or wrong for God to do by using our own sense of moral reasoning. We see this implicitly where he describes an argument made by the late R.C Sproul as 'callous, hard and even cruel'.[26] It is more explicit where he tells us to assess the Reformed view using our 'God-given moral judgement' since the Reformed position contradicts 'the most elementary moral logic'.[27] Elsewhere he warns against saying anything contrary to 'biblically based moral intuition'.[28] This may sound plausible, but how does one define or make objective 'Biblically based moral intuition'? Lennox later dismisses an argument made by Lloyd Jones on the basis that it does not conform to 'moral logic and common sense'.[29] Whilst Lennox is not advocating a full-blown subjectivist or rationalist approach to theology, he is certainly gesturing away from a standard evangelical methodology.

Lennox's book is ultimately let down by his lack of engagement with a full presentation of the Reformed position. Reading it is rather like watching an accomplished boxer take on a punch bag. The boxer is strong, fast and skilled, but the opponent does not look much like the real thing and we do not know how he would fare against someone who can hit back. This absence leads to his major theological error, that of assuming that God's will and human wills compete over the same space, rather than operating in the same events at different levels. It is also the root of the main problems with his exegesis. The great irony is that this failure to properly represent the opposing view was precisely one of the major problems with the New Atheists, to whom John Lennox has responded and engaged with so brilliantly. Despite the shortcomings of this book, my hope is that we will continue to support and encourage him in the area of addressing the relationship between science and religion, where he still has an enormous amount to offer.


[1] p.85

[2] p.86-87

[3] O'Connor, Timothy Against Theological Determinism in Free Will and Theism: Connections, Contingencies and Concerns (Timpe and Speak Eds.) See James Anderson (Systematic Prof., RTS) on whether Calvinists are 'determinists.'

[4] p.58

[5] p.44

[6] p.63

[7] p.118

[8] P.237

[9] p.275

[10] p.245

[11] p.52

[12] pp. 23, 111, 119, 123,.226, 268, 286.

[13] pp. 45, 297.

[14] pp. 32, 46, 58, 293.

[15] pp. 58, 64, 145.

[16] p. 53

[17] p.45

[18] p.54

[19] p.64

[20] p.66

[21] p.45-46

[22] p.208

[23] p.142

[24] p.140

[25] p.270

[26] p.123

[27] p.145

[28] p. 147

[29] p. 277

Jack O'Grady is an Anglican ordinand at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and PhD student at King's College London.