Category Archives: book review

Book Review- Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, by Robert E. Picirilli

Free Will Revisited is a book by Robert E Picirilli, a Free Will Baptist theologian and professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament studies at Free Will Baptist College.  As the title suggests, the book is a respectful response to the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards on the topic of free will, coming from an Arminian perspective.  The book was enjoyable to read.  It is informative, generous, and fair in its treatment of the views of each of these three theological giants.  Picirilli explains the motivations and type of arguments that each make, their similarities and their differences.  And he contrasts those views of free will with those from a Classical / Reformational Arminian perspective.

The book is 134 pages long.  It’s easy to understand, and can be read over the period of a few evenings.  One thing I appreciate about Picirilli’s style is that his writing is accessible to the lay person.  He takes the time to define the issues in easy to understand terms, and doesn’t speak over the average person’s head.

The book is broken into four parts, which I will review below.

Part 1 is about defining the issues.  What is free will?  Picirilli defines it as the power of alternative choice or libertarian freedom. “This means that the choice or decision is one that really could go either way; that the person is neither compelled by some force outside nor shut up from within by previous condition or experience, so that only one alternative can actually be chosen.

How do worldviews (both naturalistic and theological) relate to free will?  Is it part of being created in the image of God?   Is it compatible with theological determinism?  This is “the view that everything that happens in the universe, including the apparently free choices of human beings, comes about as a result of the fact that God, before the foundation of the world deliberately decreed everything that will transpire as part of his all inclusive plan.”

Most importantly for the Christian, is free will biblical? Picrilli argues that it is, and goes in depth into a number of passages that address it.  One argument that I found compelling here was related to the many “ifs” of the Bible.  He writes, “There are many ifs in the Bible, and they often set alternatives before us.  These alternatives are the way freedom of choice is expressed.”  Picirilli also uses the term “the sweet winds of grace” to explain how we can choose what God sets before us.  Because of our sinful depravity we don’t  have the ability to choose God on our own.  It is the winds of Grace from God that enable us.

Part 2 is the case against free will.  What are the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards against free will?

Luther’s work, “On the Bondage of the Will”, was written in response to Erasmus.  Luther always tied his argumentation to scripture.  He argued that God foreknows of necessity.  This means in Luther’s view, God’s foreknowledge and his plans of predestination prevent free will.  He also compared humanity’s will to that of a horse with a rider.  The rider could be either God or Satan, but either way the horse is controlled by an outside influence.

Calvin’s work, like Luther’s was written in response to another – Albert Pighius.  Whereas Luther focused on scripture for his argumentation, Calvin focused on the church fathers – particularly Augustine.  Calvin also believed that Adam and Eve had genuine free will, which was lost at the fall.  Calvin also had less of a focus on the roll of Satan and the roll of God’s foreknowledge than Luther did.

Edwards work, unlike Calvin and Luther, was not written against any person in particular, but against “Arminians” in general.  Edwards used the rationalistic method in his argumentation, which “seeks for indisputable (self-evident) truths and then attempts to draw out whatever is necessarily and logically implied by them.”  For Edwards every person does what he does by necessity, due to “cause and effect”.  And this cause and effect regresses all the way back to God, who is the original cause.   It is meaningless to speak of free will, because a person is created, and is tied to the cause and effect relationships of everything that came before.  In Edwards view, sin was inevitable even for Adam.

Part 3  addresses the major issues.  What is the Arminian response to the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards?

First, what is the relation of free will to God’s foreknowledge and necessity?  In contrast to Open Theists, Ariminans believe (as do Calvinists), that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future.  Picirilli makes a distinction between necessity (has to be), contingency (does not have to be), and certainty (will be).  Something can be necessary and certain, or it can be contingent and certain.  But it can’t be necessary and contingent.  The fact that something will be a certain way does not mean it has to be that way.  So then, God can know the future exhaustively without exhaustively causing it.  Knowledge of a fact is not the cause of a fact.

And what about Total Depravity?  Again, Arminians agree with their Calvinist brothers.  Picirilli writes that, “I am satisfied that depravity is real and total.  I am equally satisfied that it does not finally negate the freedom of the will.”  This is because of Prevenient grace, God’s initiating grace that draws us. “As depraved as one is, he is still a person, a human being in the image of God.  Sinners are spiritually blind, but the Word and the Spirit can bring them to see the truth of the gospel….the Spirit and the Word can persuade a person of the truths needed for that person to be able to receive the gift of salvation offered in the gospel.”

How does God’s sovereignty and providence relate to free will?  Sovereignty means that God is in control and does as he pleases.  Control does not mean that God causes everything, but it means he knows about everything, provides a means for everything, and fits everything into his perfect plan.  Picirilli notes that “if God sovereignly ordained that humans had free will, then their exercise of it in no way encroaches on his sovereignty.”  Providence “is the activity of God in caring for and governing the universe in accord with his unfailing purpose”.  A distinction made here is that “God does not concur with the sinner in his sin, else we would make God himself a sinner.”  God made Adam and Eve capable of sin, but he did not put them in a circumstance where they had to sin.

And what about Edward’s logic of cause and effect?  Picrilli argues that Edward’s frames his argumentation against free will in a way that no advocate really believes – that it is always a two part thing, a cause and effect, and a choice must always be caused.  This definition allows Edwards to make his “infinite regression” argument, but it’s not how human choices really work.  We choose.  We don’t choose to choose.  Picirili also writes that “One of the powers of the human psyche is to “originate” ideas, and to translate those ideas into actions…”  Not everything we do and think comes from a previous cause.  Secondly, the “infinite regression” argument is ultimately invalid because each person is created by a “self existent Creator-God”.  God created us, and that’s why we can make choices.

Part 4 is the conclusion, in five major points.

First, the sovereignty of God is strong, if not stronger in a world where humans have the power to make choices.

Second, human depravity prevents us from seeking God.  However, God has broken into our world and provided his son for the atonement of our sins.  The preaching of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to choose Christ.

Third, we are saved by faith, and this does not diminish God’s grace or glory.  “A person’s accepting the gift contributes nothing to the work, and subtracts nothing from the giver”.

Fourth, God’s foreknowledge of the future does not contradict free will, because foreknowledge is knowledge in advance, not foreordination.

Fifth, the laws of cause and effect don’t contradict free will.  The exercise of the mental will is more than a mechanical cause and effect, because they come from persons.  Persons originate thoughts and volition.

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Disclosure:  I was provided a copy of the book, and agreed to write a  review.

 

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Free Evangelical Books Online

I ran across a website called The Evangelical Christian Library.  They have 120 free books online, on numerous topics of interest.  There is a nice cross section of Evangelical thought.

Here are some titles that look interesting to me:

The Best of DL Moody, ed Ralph Turnbell, 1971

What the Bible Reveals About Heaven, Daniel Brown, 1999

Evangelical Affirmations, ed Kenneth Kantzer, 1990

The Islam Debate, Josh McDowell, 1983

The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer, 1970

Prayer, Conversing with God, Rosalind Rinker, 1959

The Top 10 Ways to Drive Your Wife Crazy (and how to avoid them), Hans & Donna Finzel, 1996

A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church, C.S. Cowles, 1993


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Book Review: John Calvin Goes to Berkely

Theology Made Accessible in a Novel.

John Calvin Goes to Berkely (author’s website)
John Calvin Goes to Berkely (Amazon link)

This book is the first in a series from University Christian Fellowship. It is a novel that weaves the age old questions of predestination and election into an interesting story line. The local University Christian Fellowship in Cal Berkeley is fractured. One of the members is a staunch high Calvinist. He is attempting to “convert” the rest of the leadership to his point of view, and is receiving outside pressure from his pastor to make this happen. The story revolves around the UCF leadership. Can they be salt and light? How does the fellowship respond to the challenges of a secular university? Can they understand the mystery of predestination? Is it solvable? How will the president Alex Kim cope with the division this issue causes? Can he bring peace and make everyone in the fellowship happy? Or is conflict and separation unavoidable?

The author James McCarthy does a fine job in presenting the major points of Calvinism and Arminianism, and the history behind these movements. The story is written in such a way that these theological points of view are made interesting and accessible to the average reader. It is fair to state that the author comes to basically Arminian conclusions regarding the issues at hand. The book also contains a bit of interesting history about Berkeley. The motto of Berkeley is: Fiat Lux. “Let there be light”. The author is obviously familiar with the campus. The reader will come away with a better understanding of how this rather unique college works.

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Book Review: The Shack

What would you do if you were invited to spend a weekend with God? What questions would you ask him? Maybe why evil exists? Why is there pain? That is the background for the book “The Shack” (Author: William P. Young).

The Shack has become a phenomenon. As of today (9-8-08) it is ranked #6 in sales on Amazon.com, and has over 1,200 reviews.

There is a dual reaction to the book in Christian circles. People either love it or despise it. I fall into the former category, with a reservation. I enjoyed the story. It brought me to tears a number of times. As the father of two girls, I empathized with the main character, “Mack”.

The Shack is about the problem of evil. Why does God allow for terrible things to happen? Mack’s youngest daughter Missy is brutally raped and murdered. This causes a rift in his relationship with God. Mack cannot trust a God who would allow such a terrible act. In the story God invites Mack to come to meet him at the site of the murder. Mack goes to meet God, and so the story continues.

The Trinity is represented by three persons: Papa (who is a black woman), Jesus (as himself), and Sarayu (an Asian woman). Some people have been bothered that the Father and the Spirit were represented by women. However, in the storyline it is made clear that they are not really female, they are simply an anthropomorphism of God – much like “Aslan” represents God in the Narnia books.

What I liked about the book was how well the author illustrated the loving nature of God. This aspect of God’ s character shined through. God deeply loves Mack. He desires to heal Mack, to be in relationship with him, and to set him free. God loves all of us that way, the author makes it clear. A phrase that is repeated is that God is especially fond of you (each of us).

In the story God does not desire evil, it is not ordained by him. Yet God is able to accomplish his purposes through the way he responds to evil – with his unconditional love.

One concern I have about the book is that it seems to imply universalism – the idea that everyone will be saved in the end. This concept is not explicitly stated, but I can see readers arriving at such a conclusion.

The outright hostile reviews of the book are unwarranted. They seem to primarily come from Calvinists who have an ax to grind with the (Arminian) theology of the author. This is unfortunate.

In conclusion, I recommend this book. However, it should not be taken as “gospel”. It should not be read in place of scripture. In the end it is simply a story – but a very moving one at that.

Some other reviews:
Greg Boyd (positive)
Tim Challies (negative)

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Book Review: Passion for the Heart of God

Passion for the Heart of God, by John Zumwalt

Zumwalt makes the case that the reason the church exists is to fulfill the great commission. God loves people. It breaks his heart that there are so many who have never heard his name. He yearns to be in relationship with the unreached people of the world. What grieves God ought to grieve us too.

Zumwalt argues that much of the problem with the Western church is that we have lost focus on what matters to God, and instead focus on ourselves. He argues that the Christian walk is not meant to be easy. Blessings that we receive aren’t meant for us to be used selfishly, but are given so that God’s name will be known among the nations. The same is true of the nation of Israel. Israel was chosen not just to be blessed, but instead to be used by God as part of his plan to reconcile every nation to him.

This is a challenging book. It is easy to understand, but it is not so easy to apply.

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Review of Roger Olson’s Book: Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities

Review of Roger Olson’s Book: Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities

The Calvinist/Arminian debate is often conducted in a way that is hurtful and lacks grace. If you are looking for a book that explains the Arminian view and at the same time treats the Calvinist view with respect, then this is for you.

This book is not a rejection of Calvinism, but instead is an explanation of why Arminians believe the way they do. Olson does not set out to disprove Calvinism.

I appreciated that Olson is not afraid to tackle those from his tradition if he believes that their theology is flawed in any way. For example he points out some of the shortcomings of the later Remonstrants (like Limborch) and he also points out some of the weaknesses of John Wesley.

The book was not an easy read. It was written at a level where I had to struggle at times to fully comprehend. The chapter on the theories of atonement was the most difficult.

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