Determined to Believe: Chapter 2 - Determinism Destroys Meaning & Free Will is Fundamental to Biblical Narrative

This is a book study on John Lennox’s book ‘Determined to Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility’. Lennox openly acknowledges that he has not provided definite solutions to these deep questions of the faith and that there is mystery involved. He clearly acknowledges that God is sovereign, but that we need to think carefully about what the word ‘sovereign’ means Biblically. This book, per my understanding, is an invitation for Christians to spend time thinking deeply about what the Bible means when it describes God as sovereign.

Greetings fellow bookies (@Interested_in_book_studies) - we are now on Chapter 2! I look forward to hearing your favorite quotes and your reflections on this subject matter.

My main takeaways were:

  • science has not definitively shown that we are nothing more than our minds - we still cannot explain human consciousness and it is reductionistic to insist we are nothing more than our brains
  • determinism robs us meaning and morality
  • we can appreciate or spiritual heritage without being bound by it
  • John Lennox is thankful for the reformation :slight_smile:
  • free will is fundamental to the Biblical narrative, beginning with the Garden of Eden where God intentionally put Adam / Eve in a situation that required them to exercise free agency

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the causal nexus? In what way is it insufficient to explain human consciousness?
  2. In what ways does naturalistic determinism fall victim to reductionism?
  3. How does determinism make morality meaningless?
  4. Did all of the leaders of the reformation teach theological determinism?
  5. Can we appreciate our spiritual heritage while still disagreeing with some of the conclusions of those who have gone before us?


The Oxford Handbook of Free Will cheerfully tells us that there are ninety different kinds of determinism. We shall have to be content with very few.

In its general form theistic determinism does not lay down how God does the causing, only that he does so.

The most famous living theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, is a physical determinist. It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.

Leading German neuroscientist Wolf Singer, co-author of the so-called “Manifesto of Brain Researchers”, thinks that, since the mind will eventually be completely explained naturalistically in terms of physical states and processes in the brain, we should give up all talk of freedom of the will.

there is a close connection, particularly on the atheist side, between determinism and reductionism

In a much cited paper that appeared in Nature, John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues argued that our “subjective experience of freedom is no more than an illusion”.

human freedom is connected in most people’s minds with morality and human dignity. Do we really wish to leave morality behind, to say nothing of the concept of love?

Sam Harris insists that anyone examining their own life will “see that free will is nowhere to be found”.

Causal determinism, whether genetic or otherwise, overreaches itself. It not only destroys morality, it destroys all meaning. The supreme irony of all of this is that many of the atheists quoted are precisely the people who think that Christianity oppresses people, demeans them, and removes their freedom. Now they tell us that we have no freedom at all – such logic is wonderful to behold!

Philosopher of science Tim Lewens of Cambridge argues that this argument is not weakened by quantum indeterminacy…It is chance, not control, that dictates which of these futures will materialize.

One of the most useful books on the whole topic is Mythos Determinismus (The Determinism Myth), subtitled “How much does brain research explain?” by Brigitte Falkenburg…She says that: “In the end, brain research cannot show that neuronal behaviour determines the contents of our consciousness.”

God is not constrained by the causal nexus, and he has created human beings in his image who are not completely constrained by it either.

The key question is: just what does God’s sovereignty involve?

This passage (Garden of Eden) is crucial for understanding what Scripture itself means by God’s sovereignty. It is clearly to be understood not in terms of absolute control over human behaviour but as a much more glorious thing: the devolving of real power to creatures made in God’s image, so that they are not mere programmed automata but moral beings with genuine freedom – creatures with the capacity to say yes or no to God, to love him or to reject him.

human freedom in this sense is fundamental to the biblical narrative.

inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign.

The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness, for he could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

The very fact that I am writing this book may well, from the perspective of history, be at least in part traceable to the phenomenal energy, ability, and courage of Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers

God’s guidance is never purely and simply the kind of micro-management that leaves the individual no choice.

The issue, I emphasise, is not whether the Bible teaches the sovereignty of God – it does. The issue is what it means by that teaching. For there are different ways of understanding the concept of sovereignty.

God is not the irresistible cause of human behaviour, whether good or bad – otherwise our actions and characters would be deprived of moral significance and it would make no sense to talk of us doing or being “good” or “bad”.

Richard Muller persuasively argues in his recent book, there is great variety among seventeenth-century theologians in the reformed tradition, many of whom even opposed determinism.

whatever conclusions we come to about what Calvin and his successors actually believed about determinism and free will, it is surely reasonable to say that these theologians were at least instrumental in leading many people then and now to become determinists

It is this prior question of what Scripture teaches that will principally concern us here.

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First of all I like how Lennox slowly transitioned from naturalistic determinism to theistic determinism. He quotes many from the naturalistic side (and I must say, Dawkins’ dancing to one’s DNA is probably his most popular quote; I can name at least three or four apologetics books offhand that include it!) and then from the theist side.
When I read this quote below by Lennox here, I immediately think of the dehumanization of today’s atheistic scientism and how that effects our culture as a whole. Andy Steiger from Apologetics Canada calls it Zombie Culture (any worldview that leads to the dehumanization of people):

It is evident from the above quotations that there is a close connection, particularly on the atheist side, between determinism and reductionism - the view that entities are no more than the sum of their parts and can be therefore be completely explained when reduced to these parts in analysis. (p 38)

Lennox also does well to not only to examine both atheistic and theistic determinism, but to show a few of the problems that can arise from each. For the both versions he points out that morality is a problem along with love. How can we be responsible for our actions if we really have no free will to have chosen otherwise?

Causal determinism, whether genetic or otherwise, overreaches itself. It not only destroys morality, it destroys all meaning. (p 40)

Lennox argues in his intro to theistic determinism that just because God created the natural world to follow regulatory laws, it does not mean that we go along with that. He writes, “God is free to feed new events, phenomena, and so on into nature from “outside” (p 42). He means that God created free will as a supernatural phenomenon that is different from the deterministic natural world. I would be inclined to agree with him here, but I’m not so sure if it’s only because I’m determined to do so. I have yet to figure this out.
Anyway, I love the wisdom he shows when he says he’ll address the controversial passages of the NT like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 on predestination later in the book instead of addressing it now and seeing all of scripture in light of it. I do believe this happens too often when discussing this issue, so I’m glad to see this wiser approach. He tries not to step on the theistic determinist’s toes while navigating God’s sovereignty in Genesis 1, but does get really close with this:

The word “sovereignty”…could be understood to mean absolute control in every detail of life…But this smacks of despotism and totalitarian dictatorship, rather than speaking of a God who makes the universe in which love can not only exist but is supremely characteristic of God himself. (p 45-46)

Obviously your average Calvinist would get heated over this characterization (think of the spirited James White, for example). I’m not sure how they would respond to this, but I’m sure this is not how they see God in any way. I do know that they put a huge emphasis on God’s grace, though. Lennox does himself no favours when he quotes Luther and Calvin so early, but he acknowledges this and does well to soften the “blow”, so to speak. I did find the Calvin quote quite odd for a Christian, though, on not all people being created equal. I would like to hear others’ thoughts to expand on this idea. (I do find it interesting that he quotes Alvin Plantinga’s free will defence argument. Plantinga is Reformed himself and only views this argument as one of many possible arguments against the problem of evil.)
He goes all out in this chapter, challenging theistic determinists “as to whether the God of theistic determinism is the God of the Bible.” I can imagine the cringe amongst our Calvinist friends. One of the great pushes by Calvinists is that they believe (very strongly) that they are the only ones that are being completely fair to the biblical passages while others (namely, Arminians) ignore important chapters like Romans 9, etc.

Quoting Edward Palmer expressing his thoughts on God even foreordaining sin really startled me. I’m not quite so sure on how to react to that. Do people really believe God foreordained the Holocaust? Is that really consistent with the God of love that we talk so much about? Please correct me if I’m wrong. I would love to hear more insight on this from others as well.
To end my rant, I’d like to express my intrigue of what Lennox introduces at the near end of this lengthy chapter: that Calvinists in the past had not always supported theistic determinism and that also he sets his course not on what historical thinkers thought on this issue or to provide analysis philosophically on compatibilism, but look at what the Bible reveals to us. This is a wise thing to do, and I support it.


@O_wretched_man Great thoughts! I agree that Lennox takes a wise approach by beginning with the Garden of Eden to discuss free will. I suspect that he will soon discuss the nature of Biblical covenants in the OT - the blessings and curses associated with obeying or not obeying. Absent free will, such warnings make no sense because the outcome is already predetermined. It would be like God saying, “I already have decided what you will do, but don’t disobey because that will be bad…” If people cannot choose to do good, such a warning makes little sense.

I completely understand where Calvinists are coming from though - for a brief time in college I was one, but I was not happy about it. Every time I preached to youth my heart would ache - are some of these kids not ‘chosen’? At that time in my life Romans 9 seemed so clear - how could I deny it if I wanted to honor God? The version of Calvinism I embraced said that we had free will in most things, but we could not freely choose salvation - only God could enable us to choose Him because our will was in bondage to sin. So it was not full on determinism, but it still had a very serious bite - some of the kids I was preaching to might not be chosen. It literally made me feel sick on a few occasions.

I think where we have to be careful is in recognizing that people, being human, are not entirely consistent in their beliefs. Logically I think Lennox is spot on that the idea of predestination leads to a very disagreeable view of God - I experienced that in my own life and heart. However, people who really love Jesus and other people are doing their best to make sense of the Biblical texts and sometimes that leads to them being Calvinist. They fully believe in God’s love, mercy and grace and they even believe that predestination increases the beauty of God’s grace because of how gracious He has been to the elect, who are utterly undeserving.

While I do not want to get off on the tangent of Romans 9 right now since Lennox will address it later, I did want to post this thread here in case someone is reading through and wants to learn how Romans 9 can be read without reading individual predestination into it.


Awesome stuff @SeanO !

When you talk of your brief experience as a Calvinist, I definitely understand. I recently read Romans 9 and felt grief in my heart because I want to be faithful to the scriptures, but I also was aware of the implications of Calvinism. I remember praying to God that if Calvinism is true, that he will lead me to the truth. Thinking deeper on the implications of Calvinism, I had horrible thoughts that scared me, like what if an “elect” mother gives birth to a child that isn’t elect (ie destined to damnation)? What is the mother to do? Or what about vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins? Is he destined to hell because God determined it to be so? Is God really the author of The God Delusion? Maybe I’m taking the implications too far, but these are the thoughts that floated around in my head after pondering Calvinism. James white, a very vocal Calvinist, always challenges other Christians who either make videos or write books that challenge Calvinism or explain why they are not Calvinists.

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@O_wretched_man I appreciated this debate between Steve Gregg and James White on this topic. I am glad this is not an issue that needs to divide believers and that we can challenge one another’s positions in love.

How will you know when God has led you to the truth? What do you think God’s leading will look like?

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I am following along with the reading and the postings. I don’t think I can add much to Sean and Isaiah, but am thoughtful about it. At this point, I am still in the camp of free will, but am holding back until I read a bit more in the book. I do appreciate DR. Lennox’s reasoning and understand what he is saying.

I have a question: Over the years I have heard from different camps concerning determinism and this one has me a bit confused… I have heard that a person before being 'born again" is mostly physically determined, not much different than animals in that they can only dance to their DNA, and after regeneration by God’s choice
a person is theistically determined because the old died and now it is all Christ working. I don’t know how this would pertain to this particular chapter. Kind of a preprogrammed sinner/ and then a strong Calvinist way. I don’t think I see that in reality.

Anyone else heard this?


@mitwit I have never heard of the view that we are determined prior to salvation by natural causes and after salvation by Christ. However, that view is very easy to prove wrong because Christians still sin. If we were 100% determined by Christ after salvation, we would literally never sin in any way. And on the flip side, how could God hold people morally accountable prior to salvation if they are just dancing to their DNA?


I agree with you Sean. Yet there are lots of “reckonings” out there. I have been exposed to quite a number of different people that somehow all have differing view points and they can be quite adamant in insisting their viewpoints are ESSENTIAL to realize truth, even to realize salvation!!. I don’t get into arguments, but even among family these discussions can be challenging to unity and I usually speak little ( they are tuff to deal with) and so I try and change the subject, which makes me feel a bit isolated in my beliefs. Then I spend time trying to engage in what we can agree on.

I think this subject can be a cause of division that injures if we are not very watchful and careful. But I think searching for truth and continuing to love a person… well, both must be pursued and peace sought somehow between persons.


I also think that much of what is trying to be understood among Christians is what Dr. Lennox mentioned, that being how God IS exercising His sovereignty. I think it is here that we must be careful to not make God in our image but understand what He has shown us of Himself (the God of the bible) and understand our right relationship to Him.
" It is,of course, Scripture that is inspired and not our interpretation of it…"

I think of Colossians 2:2-3…My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, CHRIST, IN WHOM ARE HIDDEN ALL THE TREASURES OF WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE."


@mitwit I’ll pray for wisdom as you engage on these topics with your family :slight_smile: My heart aches when secondary doctrines are used as a measure of whether or not people are being faithful to Christ and the Scriptures. I believe the ability to hold a belief on a secondary doctrine strongly while still discussing it graciously and sincerely believing someone with an alternate view honors / loves Jesus as much as you do is a sign of spiritual maturity.

I personally believe part of the cause is the idea that faith is mainly about what you believe rather than Who you believe in. If our faith is defined entirely by believing the right things, then it is easy to see how we might become very judgmental of those who believe otherwise, even on secondary issues. But if our faith is about Who we believe in, then we can share the same grace and love Christ has shared with us even with those with whom we disagree.

Really like Greg Boyd’s critique of ‘certainty seeking faith’ or faith that seeks psychological certainty.


It tells us that we are nothing more than the sum of our parts, and once we know how they work we will be explained. He quoted Lewis which said that if this is true, your convictions are nothing more than a fact about you, like the colour of your hair. This leads to no definition of truth, and means we cant know that our conviction is true. I loved this.

Another point about this chapter is that it’s not whether or not God is sovereign. He is. It’s about what does that mean. It’s about what does scripture say about it. Before we can discuss free will, determinism, compatiablism etc we need to know what that means from a biblical perspective. Otherwise we might read meaning into the text, instead of first starting with the text and interpreting it.

We note that it can be said determinism from an atheist perspective can be said to be determinism from the bottom, whereas Christian determinism can be said to be determinism from the top.
When reduced to the sum of your parts from the bottom vs reduced to being a type of marionette from the top.

Lennox was also spot on about the reformers. I’ve had conversations with people about this topic where they are gobsmacked that I can disagree with those early reformers. The very reason we can discuss it is because of the reformers and constantly going back to scripture. We are having this conversation because of them! I am so grateful for that. That doesn’t mean however that it means they were right about everything and that we should follow in every tradition following them.


@c3vanzyl Great point about being able to respect the reformers without agreeing with their conclusions. Their zeal is an inspiration, but I certainly do not go around smashing organs :wink: They were not right about everything - as I suspect none of us are…

Also well stated that Lennox acknowledges God’s sovereignty, but wants to dig deeper into what that means Biblically. It is a great danger we face when reading Scripture that we define Biblical terms the way we want and then exclude all other definitions, effectively equating our interpretation with the true meaning. That is a dangerous business and I think Lennox is wise to point out that we must be humble as we consider these concepts.