WILLING TO BELIEVE: The Controversy Over Free Will, by R. C. Sproul (Baker Books, 224 pp.; $15.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Allen C. Guelzo, Grace F. Kea Professor of American History and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Eastern College, Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.

Free will is one of those perennial tough-nut problems, like consciousness and expressway traffic, whose solution seems perfectly obvious until we start thinking about it. It usually appears, from our internal sensation of being able to choose (or to move or to pause over possible actions), that the human will has things perfectly up to itself. But then come the second thoughts: What is meant by the will itself? If our wills are free, do they still obey us? And what is the connection between the us of our consciousness and the it of our wills? Who controls whom, and under what circumstances? Let free will show up, and streetcorner scholasticism happens.

In addition to being a tough-nut problem, free will is also what you might call an iceberg problem, in the sense that whatever answer we give to it is usually connected to a larger mass of less visible assumptions about God and human nature. If the will is not free enough, we get a picture of human behavior that looks like puppets on a string, and a picture of God that looks like Miss Havisham. If it's too free, we get something that looks even less than human, "an erratic and jerking phantom" (in the words of Richard Taylor) "without any rhyme or reason at all," and a God who looks a good deal like Huck Finn's Aunt Sally.

As one of the most articulate popularizers of Calvinist theology today, R. C. Sproul does not like what he sees on the tip of the free-will iceberg. "A majority of professing evangelicals," complains Sproul in the introduction to Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will, have bought a careless and overoptimistic free-will-ism, and that has become linked to the even more ominous adoption of a happy-face anthropology whose fundamental conviction is "that human beings are basically good." It is not clear, from the way Sproul frames his complaint, whether it is defective thinking about free will that has trickled down to "a clear repudiation of the biblical view of human fallenness," or the other way around. Nevertheless, it is clear to Sproul that there is a great deal wrong with the way evangelicals talk about free will.

In technical terms, Sproul sees this as the result of a lamentable shift away from a monergistic concept of the relationship between human wills and God (that is, that God is the single actor in regeneration) toward a synergistic concept (in which God assists and humans cooperate), which Sproul is clearly convinced is only a few paces removed from outright theological syncretism. Part of the reason for this shift, and part of the difficulty monergism has in making its case to modern evangelicals, is the popular perception that freedom and monergism are "either/or" quantities, as though monergism inalterably means that human actions are inconsequential and human wills possess no meaningful freedom, and as though synergism was (by elimination) the only option.

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Sproul argues that what monergism opposes in synergism is not human freedom or moral responsibility but absolute human autonomy, "a degree of freedom that is unlimited by any higher authority or power," and which sits poorly beside the Christian idea of God as an eternal, creative, almighty being who moves people's hearts to act or to believe.

What this means, unhappily, is that Sproul has committed himself to telling two stories simultaneously, one about the psychological entity we call the will and how it operates, and the other about freedom and monergism, where the argument often runs toward ontological abstractions rather than telling us what a will looks like when it is free. Of the two, it's clear that the story about freedom has most of Sproul's attention.

Cast in the form of "an historical reconnaissance" of eight major writers (from Pelagius to Lewis Sperry Chafer), Willing to Believe never actually gets around to establishing what the will even is, which seems at the very least a strange omission in a book about free will. What Sproul does lavish his care upon is demonstrating through his "reconnaissance" how monergists have actually developed respectable definitions of human freedom without having to resort to synergism or free will.

The principal difficulty with this "reconnaissance" is that it rarely probes very deeply beneath the surface of its subjects. Despite Sproul's penchant for twirling Latin theological tags (the book includes a Latin theological glossary), all of the primary sources on Augustine are from nineteenth-century English translations, and his chapter on Pelagius is a summation of several antique secondary histories. There is also an unfortunate drift toward homogenization—to making all monergists say pretty much the same thing and in the same tone of voice. There is no attention here, for instance, to how Calvin made just the kind of conventional theological harmonization of freedom and monergism Sproul likes, but then also expressed a deep skepticism whether that harmonization would convince anyone who was not already convinced of the tremendous power of God and the equally tremendous impotence of humanity. "You ratiocinate, I admire; you dispute, I believe," was Calvin's ultimate reply to synergists in the sixteenth century who doubted the dominion of God over human wills, "Rather admire with me and exclaim: O the height and the depth! Let us agree to tremble together lest together we perish in error."

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The temptation to routinize complex arguments has its worst effects when Sproul turns to two figures who, as a student of the late John Gerstner, he might have been expected to handle with more finesse. The first of these is Jonathan Edwards, whose Freedom of the Will (1754) is often read as though it were the urtext of American Calvinism. Oddly, Freedom of the Will was not, in strict terms, a theological book, since the most critical parts of Freedom of the Will were devoted to the psychology of the will and the logical inconsistencies of free-will-ism. What's more, Edwards's centerpiece argument about the will—that everyone possesses the natural ability to will freely (in that everyone can will and has the natural endowments to execute choices), but only those regenerated by divine grace possess a moral ability to will the good—generated deep and abiding suspicions among Old School Calvinists like Hodge and Warfield. For a century after Edwards's death Calvinist churches in America were racked with indecision over "Edwards on the Will" (it played a major part in the 1837 New School-Old School Presbyterian schism). None of this hinders Sproul from endorsing the natural/moral ability formula, despite the fact that this places him, rather strangely, on the side of the New Schoolers rather than the great Princetonians.

It also places him, even more strangely, on the same side as Charles Grandison Finney. Perhaps because Finney "is a hero" to the very "contemporary evangelical community" that he criticizes so strongly in his introduction, Sproul finds little in Finney "that is theologically orthodox," and a great deal that isn't. Finney not only reduced regeneration to simple decisionism, Sproul complains, but also heaved aside forensic justification, threw over any limitations on the extent of the Atonement, and defined human depravity out of existence. Sproul seems utterly unaware that Finney lauded Edwards as his great model and indignantly identified himself as a Calvinist in the struggle of Calvinism with "low Arminianism," and deployed precisely the argument Edwards had made on natural and moral ability throughout his great revival campaigns in upstate New York and New York City from 1826 to 1835 (and cited chapter and verse from Freedom of the Will to prove it).

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That Finney had a particularly coarse and brash way of using Edwards is true, but it is also beside the point. Even Finney's notorious claim that revival was "a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means and not a miracle" was simply to say what Edwards had said about human choices being the right responses to motives. Some of Finney's other unorthodoxies have similar Edwardsian roots, although there is no account of them here, either. Sproul takes no notice of how Edwards's doctrine in Original Sin has no concept of immediate imputation, nor does he recall that in 1750 Edwards explicitly endorsed Joseph Bellamy's teaching on unlimited atonement as "the proper Essence and distinguishing Nature of saving Religion." Between too much homogenization and too little reading, Sproul falls unwarily into articulating notions of freedom and monergism which, oddly enough, don't differ all that much from Finney—kinder and gentler, perhaps, but still more like Oberlin than Princeton than he seems to realize.

If Sproul can be faulted for not reading far enough into the details, he also has to be faulted for leaving too many genuinely important things out. Sproul touches on none of the late medieval theologians (Bradwardine, Ockham, Biel) and major Calvinist confessions and catechisms to examine notions of willing and freedom, and takes only passing notice of one of the most influential Protestant summations of monergism, the Sententia (or canons) of the Synod of Dordt. He is also strangely silent on the modern free-will debate, where the drift of both high and low culture has been, not toward assertions of overweening autonomy, but toward no-fault victimhood, evolutionary determinism, and abuse excuses.

What is missing most, however, is a conclusion. The final chapter surveys the semi-Calvinism of dispensationalist theologians Lewis Sperry Chafer and Norman Geisler, but without any summary of the previous chapters and without the missing definition of the will. We are left instead at the end with the assumption that monergism has only to be reconciled to freedom to get piety. I suspect that this might have surprised our most famous monergist, John Calvin, who believed that piety would get you to monergism, and then you would stop worrying about freedom. "Our view is simply that [God] possesses by right such great power, that we ought to be content with his mere nod," Calvin wrote in De Aeterna Praedestinatione Dei in 1552. "Attend to who God is and who you are. He is God, you are man." Four and a half centuries later, I still don't know of a better place to begin talking about free will.

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