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No Place for Sovereignty

What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism?

by R.K. McGregor Wright, Th.M., Ph.D.

249 pages, by InterVarsity Press

Book Review by Gary F. Zeolla

The following book is available from Books-a-Million.

Dr. Wright and this reviewer were friends when we both lived in Denver, Colorado. We have both since moved to different states, although I have maintained some sporadic contact with him. He is the author of several articles posted on this Web site.

No Place for Sovereignty is Dr. Wright’s first book. And it is sure to be controversial! Dr. Wright takes head-on the Arminian notion of human "freewill."

In the very helpful Glossary at the end of the book, "Freewill theory" is defined as "View that the human will is free to act independently of divine control or external causation. Arminians usually define it as the ability to choose good or evil equally. Hence, ‘the liberty of indifference’" (p.236).

But is this concept true? Or more to the point for Christians, is it Biblical? Most Christians just assume that it is. But Dr. Wright demonstrates that this idea has more in common with Greek notions of autonomy than the Bible.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Chapter One begins with a quick historical overview of the freewill controversy, from the time of the Apostolic Fathers to the present.

Dr. Wright then lists five reasons people believe in the freewill theory:
1. If we have no free will, we are not responsible for our actions.
2. It is essential to the image of God.
3. The denial of free will undermines both human effort and morality.
4. The Bible teaches free will.
5. Free will gets God off the hook in the problem of evil (pp.40,41).

Subsequent chapters then show that each of these claims is faulty, both logically and Biblically. In regards to the first claim, Chapter Two shows that a will "free" in the Arminian sense would not be responsible as it would be no different than chance. Responsibility is based on what God decides, not on what we decide.

As for the imago Dei, Chapter Three presents a study of passages in the Bible in which it is discussed. Dr. Wright concludes, "Throughout all the biblical references to the image of God, its loss in the Fall and its restoration in Christ, not a hint appears that the image necessarily includes anything recognizable as free will. The Bible simply does not use the idea of free will as an explanatory category at all" (p.76).

Chapter Four looks at Genesis chapter three and the Fall. It focuses on Eve’s conversation with Satan and shows it was her desire to be autonomous from God that lead to her disobedience. Some consequences of the Fall are then noted.

As for human effort and morality, Dr. Wright states, "… freewill theory destroys any hope of relating human action to God’s sovereignty and makes human action purely a chance affair" (p.40). These ideas are elaborated on in Chapter Five.

As for whether freewill theory is Biblical, Dr. Wright correctly notes that if any of the five points of Calvinism are true, then there can be no freewill in the Arminian sense. Chapters Six to Eight are then devoted to Biblical proofs of the five points of Calvinism.

Then Chapter Nine addresses the question, "Are there any ‘Arminian verses’ in the Bible?" The chapter soundly exegetes supposedly Arminian verses and demonstrates that they simply do not teach what Arminians "assume" that they do.

Chapter Ten discusses the problem of evil. This question is often considered a "stronghold" for Arminians and unbelievers alike. The chapter first demonstrates that an appeal to freewill does not "solve" the problem but actually makes matters worse.

Dr. Wright then states very bluntly:
Let it be stated plainly here that the problem of evil can be solved in a straightforward manner by proposing that if God decides to predestine or decree any particular evils for any purpose he may intend, who are we to answer back to God (Rom 9:19-24)? However galling it may seem to the fleshly mind, God is the final reference point for what counts as the good, not me, the sinner. If there ever was a practical application of Jesus’ prayer "not my will but yours be done" (Lk 22:42), this would be it. The good is good because God determines it as such, not because it conforms to my irrelevant innate conception of how things ought to be. It is wholly besides the point that I might personally prefer things to be otherwise (p.197).

Chapter Eleven demonstrates that a belief in human freewill can easily lead to a denial of essential attributes of God. As an example, the chapter chronicles Clark Pinnock’s descent from a conservative Christian viewpoint of the attributes of God into finite godism.

This book covers a lot of ground and can be difficult reading at times, especially for those not familiar with the subject. But overall, it does a very effective job of refuting the commonly held notion of freewill, along with Arminianism in general. This reviewer did have a couple of concerns with it though.

First off, for some reason, Dr. Wright discusses "The Great Chain of Being" in a couple of places. This idea is the basis of gnosticism and other false religions. But I really did not see how this idea related to the subject at hand. Moreover, Dr, Wright seems to confuse the distinction between "being" (or "essence") and "position" that are so essential in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Second, the "default" Bible version used is the NIV. As articles on this Web site demonstrate, I am not too thrilled with this version of the Word of God (to say the least). But then, Dr. Wright apparently is not too thrilled with it either. Whenever he actually quotes a Bible verse, he seems to quote more often from the KJV or NASB rather than the NIV. I can only guess that IVP required the use of the NIV as it is the version usually used in the books it publishes.

With these minor qualifiers, I heartily recommend No Place for Sovereignty.

No Place for Sovereignty: Book Review. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).

The Author Replies

Dear Gary:

Thanks for the encouraging review of No Place For Sovereignty. About the translations, Yes, IVP uses NIV, but I asked them to accept my use of KJV or NASB, which I use all the time. I don't like the translation theory behind the NIV because it's too paraphrastic. For serious Bible study one must have a more literal or "word-equivalence" translation.

About the idea of the "great chain of Being": I only included it in No Place for completeness, because, as I said on opening the topic on page 86, the problem of how to "solve" the one-and-many dilemma is that it can't be solved, and therefore in order to make any progress in philosophy, the unbeliever has to "contain" the problem somehow. The best and most universal "solution" or model for this containment has historically been the Great Chain Of Being in one of its dozens of religious incarnations, of which Gnosticism is one of the most obvious. But it can be found in every occult world view, most Eastern religions, and in many systematic philosophy visions (of which neo-Platonism is the most influential in the West.)

I have just finished a whole book on this matter tentatively called The Two World Visions subtitled There are only two religions. This book expands pages 86-90 of No Place into a twelve-chapter book, and I'm looking for a publisher right now.

My wife and I are planning a Manual Of Apologetics subtitled How The Heathen Thinks. Pray for us, that the six manuscripts I've already finished in first draft get into the hands of publishers before the year is out.

Yours In The Lamb,
Bob K. Wright

PS: I bet no publisher will allow that use of the word "heathen" in a title. Too bad: its a wonderful KJV word that says it all!

No Place for Sovereignty is available from Books-a-Million.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above book review was published in Darkness to Light newsletter
and posted on this Web site in August 1997.
"The Author Replies" was added in September 1997.

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