Predestination and Free Will

Written by David Basinger and Randall Basinger (eds) Reviewed By Gordon Woolard

Any book carrying this title would be controversial and therefore difficult to review. This book compounds the problem by its format: four major essays with three responses each. That’s sixteen articles each deserving its own review! I will need to summarize my reactions to the book first in some comments on the format, then in some remarks on the general problems I find in all the essays.

The book is subtitled: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. This is not really accurate (in comparison with other books in this series) because only two basic views are included. The areas of agreement between Messrs Pinnock and Reichenbach and between Messrs Geisler and Feinberg are so great as to eliminate any profound differences of view. They differ on philosophical points which the average reader will not readily find helpful in distinguishing their views. This is a poor editorial choice for a book which states: ‘when discussing an issue as complex as the one before us, it is impossible to consider all facets’ (p. 14). With such complexity why choose from such a limited and repetitive perspective? I think it is unfair to leave out a contributor from the more traditional Calvinist position but then to allow all four essayists to criticize this position. It makes it seem that the strong Calvinist has nothing ‘logical’ to say about divine sovereignty and free will since this was the criterion used to choose the essays (p. 14). The reader may also find it difficult to keep sixteen articles straight when trying to formulate a position based on what he has read. Since each article tends to shoot the others down one is left with the feeling that the traditional ‘mystery/apparent paradox’ position may be all we can hope for after all.

I admire the four authors for their desire to be biblical in theology and practical in application. I am disturbed, though, by a consistent lack of wrestling deeply with certain fundamental problems. None of the writers seriously addresses the effects of sin on human nature. They all grant man a large area of autonomy where he is totally free and able to accept or reject God’s grace. Yet Christ, Paul and John speak of the need for man to be born again by the Holy Spirit, a need to be made alive from death, and the need for an anointing of the Spirit in order to know spiritual reality (Jn. 3; Eph. 2; 1 Jn. 2). This consistent biblical position challenges man’s supposed total and inviolable freedom to choose to please God, the very definition of good. Each author presents a God who tries to save dead people by any persuasive means possible except by regeneration which is in fact God’s sovereign means to overcome our spiritual death and active rebellion. I think the essayists put each person before God’s law or will in the same way sinless Adam stood. Yet none seems to see the implications of Adam’s fall on our standing before God or our ability freely to choose good as sinners.

The consistent refrain of the book is that true freedom means God must keep his hands off our minds and bodies and just wait for us to respond to his overtures. He can only try to influence towards good. This is summarized by one author thus: ‘God cannot both create free creatures and also eliminate all evil at the same time’ (p. 45). My question is: What about heaven? Heaven is supposed to be a place with no tears, pain or death; where all sin and temptations are removed. How is God to eliminate these things while retaining freedom for the creature? If we answer, ‘We’ll be changed and glorified, does that mean we’ll be less free, less human than we are now with our freedom to sin? It seems to me that there is a place in heaven for God’s strong, determined will to prevail and where we are still gloriously free to be what God intends. If that is true for heaven, is it not possible to see even now a sovereign, dynamic God whose will is done and whose kingdom does come, working with rebellious creatures (free within the limits of their fallen natures)? One author is correct in saying that to ask ‘how’ is not to the point because this would imply a mechanism which God uses. But how are we to understand the infinite mind and abilities of the Creator? This book has difficulties defining man’s freedom let alone God’s freedom!

Newton said that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Something must give way. In trying to reconcile the two bodies of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom it is God who is moved over to make room for man. God is often said to be unable to do many things because this would violate our freedom. The two basic solutions proposed involve changes in normal scriptural understanding. Messrs Pinnock and Reichenbach move away from the classic expressions of God’s omniscience and omnipotence in order to protect an open-ended universe. Meanwhile, Messrs Geisler and Feinberg keep a stronger, traditional view of God but also emphasize man’s ultimate autonomy in receiving God’s grace. This completely misses the point of the fallenness of man and the need for radical renewal.

After reading sixteen articles about what God cannot do I prefer to leave the premise question unresolved for now but retain Scripture’s high view of God’s power and sovereignty and of man’s true moral responsibility for his sin and sinful nature.

Gordon Woolard