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Determined to Believe? by John C. Lennox

22 June 2018

Some debates can be a little too in-house, says John Saxbee

IN RECENT times, any scientist prepared to advocate for God in the public square has enjoyed some celebrity. The so-called New Atheists have argued for the incoherence of theism on logical and scientific grounds. A scientist equipped and ready to challenge them on their own terms is a rare and welcome ally in defence of religious faith in general, and Christianity in particular.

John C. Lennox is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and has gone toe to toe in public debates with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. He is the author of God’s Undertaker: Has science buried God? (Lion, 2009).

Now he has come rather more “in-house” as it were, to engage with the tension between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. While he acknowledges the significance of this issue for the philosophy of religion throughout Christian history, it is his own Evangelical Reformed tradition that dominates his discussion. Indeed, very few secondary sources are cited from outside that tradition.

This means that the focus is on theological determinism with divine foreknowledge, predestination, election, justification, and blessed assurance forensically examined in the light of what the Bible actually says.

Lennox rejects labels, although he has himself been described as a Calminian, i.e. a cross between Calvin’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty and Arminius’s defence of human free will and responsibility.

In a nutshell, his argument is that a theological spectrum exists, with God’s sovereignty at one end, and human free will and moral responsibility at the other. Both beliefs are authorised by the Bible, and so anyone who opts exclusively for one end of the spectrum or the other is playing fast and loose with scripture. Truth does not lie at one end or the other, or in the muddled middle: it lies at both ends. How so? That is a mystery with which we must live “until the Lord comes and tells us what we should really have thought”.

His target is “unbalanced extremism”, and he is clearly most concerned to protect human freedom and responsibility against the worst excesses of theological determinism. If God condemns us for doing what he predestined us to do, then God is immoral. That is an intolerable conclusion; so, to some extent, short of Pelagianism, we must be responsible for our own response to God’s invitation to have faith in Christ and order our lives accordingly. In return, scripture assures us that genuine faith will endure, and salvation is secure.

While Lennox repeatedly insists that it is scripture that is inspired, and not the interpretation of scripture, he does focus a great deal on the exact meaning of words used in the text, and the context in which they are used. In other words, interpretation of scripture matters a great deal, and his claim to be letting the text speak for itself is somewhat disingenuous.

Overall, we sense that, as an apologist for God’s existence, Lennox is a welcome ally, who writes with clarity and a nice line in homely illustrations. But, when it comes to finer points of doctrinal detail, his narrow theological allegiance renders him altogether too defensive and academically constrained.

Somehow, notwithstanding his best intentions, it is difficult to escape a feeling that a really important debate about sovereignty and free will has been narrowed down to a spat between conservative Evangelicals in private.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Determined to Believe? The sovereignty of God, freedom, faith, and human responsibility
John C. Lennox
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