Book Reviews

Debated Issues in Sovereign Predestination: Early Lutheran Predestination, Calvinian Reprobation, and Variations in Genevan Lapsarianism. By Joel R. Beeke. Reformed Historical Theology 42. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017, 252 pp., 65,00 €.

Joel Beeke sets out to trace the doctrine of double predestination in sixteenth-century Lutheranism and in John Calvin and his successors in Geneva through the eighteenth century. He also contributes to the scholarly debates surrounding these issues.

In part 1, Beeke states, “by way of analyzing Article 11 of the Formula of Concord in its historical/doctrinal germination, formulation, comparison, and reception, I hope to show that its role in historical theology’s development of a scriptural doctrine of predestination is by no means negligible as commonly assumed” (16). The germination took place with Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. While Luther affirmed double predestination, some of his theological distinctions, and especially his emphasis on consolation, sowed the seeds of later confessional single predestination. Beeke defends Melanchthon against charges of synergism, but notes his refusal to separate reprobation from foreknowledge does open his teaching up for misunderstanding. A distinctly Lutheran formulation of predestination emerged in the controversy between Johann Marbach and Jerome Zanchi in Strasbourg and was codified in the Formula of Concord. For confessional Lutherans, predestination is singular, election is the historical outworking of salvation, and the doctrine can only be considered in Christ for the comfort of God’s people. Thus, there is no place for reprobation. Beeke contrasts this with the Canons of Dordt and then shows that “Lutheran history confirms that monergistic, single predestination is neither a biblical or rational solution; repressed reprobation must end in repressed election” (74).

Part 2 focuses exclusively on reprobation in Calvin’s theology. After defending his isolation of the doctrine of reprobation, Beeke argues that “Calvinian reprobation is replete with inherent tensions, but Calvin utilized such tensions to present a uniform doctrine that accords with Scripture’s presentation and balance” (92). His approach first examines Calvin’s method and then moves to his historical development as a young theologian, during his time in Strasbourg, and throughout his second tenure in Geneva. As Calvin defended double predestination in various polemical battles, he drew the distinction between proximate and remote causes to explain how man’s will is the cause of sin and God’s the cause of damnation. How these two fit together is a mystery. For Calvin, election and reprobation are inseparable as the unified decree of predestination. In his final edition of the Institutes, “reprobation is accorded a significant place and major import within his theology as a systematic whole.” Yet even here, Calvin’s focus remains on showing that also this doctrine is designed to promote genuine piety” (151). Predestination glorifies God and humbles man.

Beeke articulates two goals in Part 3: “first, to answer the unwarranted accusations of present day academia by revealing the Christological emphases of both Bezan and Turretinian predestinarianism; second, to shed some light on the movement from Beza’s supralapsarianism to Turretin’s infralapsarianism in terms of theology proper and church history” (167). To accomplish his goals, Beeke narrates the story of Geneva after Calvin, a story that ends in capitulation in the eighteenth century. Before relating the history, however, Beeke includes a discussion of the lapsarian options that is worth the price of the book. Historically, as the Reformed consensus developed that the fall must be included in the divine decree, questions of decretal order came to the fore, though supra and infra language was not used until shortly before Dordt. Theologically, the key question is this: “Was man, as the object of predestination, contemplated in the divine mind as created and fallen (infra) or only as creatible and fallible (supra)” (170)? So “Infralapsarians maintain that the decree of predestination must logically follow the decree of creation and the fall” and “Supralapsarians believe that the decree of divine predestination must logically precede the decree concerning mankind’s creation and fall” (169). Beyond these basic definitions, Beeke helpfully breaks the orderings down and offers the positive claims of each position. Overall, he brings great clarity to a complex debate.

In his preface, Beeke remarks that election and reprobation are doctrines that are “friends of sinners” and claims that eternal predestination is a “precious doctrine.” The care he gives to these topics throughout the book reflect these personal convictions. Further, Beeke’s depth of insight and facility in the secondary literature confirm his desire to publish this work for over thirty years (9). For example, regarding rational speculation as a source of theology, he writes, “I believe that confusion on this score has infiltrated Calvin studies primarily because the bulk of modern scholarship insists on dichotomizing a trinitarian, causal, metaphysical, systematic, eternal and discriminatory concept of predestination from a Christocentric, soteriological, historical, pastoral, doxological, and scriptural approach” (103). The reader can expect such perceptive conclusions and syntheses throughout.

The book lacks only a unifying thesis, or at least the clear articulation of one. An introduction to the book as a whole, in which the argument and unity of the work was explicitly communicated, would aid in this regard. As it stands, the reader must work to see a connection between the parts and is left with the question of why these three snapshots of controversy were chosen. To be fair, an association does emerge between Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition through the Marbach-Zanchi controversy and it seems natural to pick up with later Genevans after spending time on Calvin.

Overall, I recommend this book without reservation. Beeke faithfully handles a difficult theological and historical subject. While it is a scholarly monograph, it is written in an accessible enough fashion that a broader interested audience will certainly benefit from it. And Beeke’s concluding remarks reveal this larger purpose. Three will illustrate this: 1) “The attempt to affirm the Augustinian doctrines of total depravity and salvation by grace alone, but to reject Augustinian double predestination, results in a system that is incoherent and unstable.” 2) “The abolition of requirements for subscription to confessional statements in the name of toleration opened the door for apostasy from essential Reformed doctrines.” 3) “A theological synthesis that seeks to satisfy both the minds of unbelievers and honor the teachings of Scripture fails to do either, but results in theological liberalism that has lost the core of Christianity” (221-22). These and similar theological considerations undergird the excellent historical work of this book.

Andrew S. Ballitch

Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church

Louisville, Kentucky

Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God. By Carl R. Trueman. The 5 Solas Series. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017, 261 pp., $21.99 paper.

Much confusion surrounds the idea of grace today. The phrase “salvation by grace” is not controversial. Without definition and specification, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and all varieties of Protestant Christians would affirm this concept. What Carl Trueman does in Grace Alone is offer a definition of grace, a definition both biblical and faithful to the Christian tradition, which culminated in the Reformation. From his exegesis and historical narrative, he then draws lessons for the present day.

Trueman articulates his thesis in his opening: “grace is far more than a mere attitude or sentiment of God. God does not turn a blind eye to human rebellion. In fact, he tackles it head-on in the person and work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ … to talk about grace is to talk about Christ” (17). A bit later, he memorably remarks that “sin is violent, lethal rebellion against God; and biblical grace is God’s violent, raw, and bloody response” (31). With this contention in view, chapter 1 begins the first part of the book, “Sola Gratia in Scripture and History,” with biblical exegesis. Trueman’s survey demonstrates that the unified witness of the Bible testifies to the Christian life originating in and being lived by God’s grace.

Chapters 2 through 6 make up Trueman’s historical theology of grace, in which he highlights Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. In the Confessions, Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, he narrates the grace of God in his life. It is a story of enslavement to sin and the unilateral work of God in Augustine’s salvation. Doctrinal precision is added in Augustine’s defense of his position against Pelagius. This controversy brought clarity to the related concepts of human freedom and original sin. The will is only truly free when it chooses to love God. The sinner is like a fish that uses its natural capabilities to beach itself, at which point the creature is less free and will die, though it can still choose to flop around on the shore (78). God’s sovereign grace is thus necessitated. There were advocates of this Pauline-Augustinian notion of grace throughout the Middle Ages. Trueman provides Aquinas as one example in chapter 4. While Aquinas’s idea that Adam and humanity needed grace in the state of innocence is problematic, he is an ally on the sovereign priority of God in salvation.

Chapter 5 initiates the discussion of grace in the Reformation era with justification by grace in the theology of Luther. Luther viewed his Bondage of the Will as one of very few of his works worth preserving. He understood the Reformation as fundamentally about the nature of grace. The human will is impotent in matters of salvation and therefore salvation is a monergistic work of God. Trueman does not uncritically appropriate Luther, however. The logic that God’s foreknowledge is based on his foreordination makes the treatise overly deterministic and problematic as a result. The Reformed tradition, with Luther, did not regard it as possible to believe consistently in justification by grace through faith without being predestinarian. Though in Calvin, one finds two helpful qualifications. First, he warns against speculating beyond what Scripture reveals. And second, Christ is the mirror in which one should gaze upon God’s sovereign, electing grace. In Christ the free favor of God is clearly seen and in Christ God sets forth his merciful intention in such a way that all who come by faith will be saved.

The whole of Protestant piety depends on the fact that salvation is all of God. In Part 2, “Sola Gratia in the Church,” Trueman focuses on the place, ways, and means of confrontation with God’s grace, namely, the church, word, sacraments, and prayer. For the Reformers, the church both originated in God’s grace and drew its ongoing life from grace. Because church is not our response to grace, but “a component part of God’s plan of grace, we need to structure it according to God’s design” (171). Trueman points to two elements: elder governance and doctrinal confession. The proclamation of God’s word is the primary means of God’s grace. The Reformers adamantly insisted that it was not with the eyes and tongue that one apprehends God, but rather with the ears. When the preacher preaches faithfully, it is God who speaks to the people, and divine speech is not merely communicating information, but it is the “typical mode of his presence and power” (180). The Spirit works to regenerate and sanctify through the proclamation of the word. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace by which Christ is offered. The sacraments, according to the Reformers, enrich the way we receive Christ; they reinforce and seal the promises of God in Christ. Finally, prayer ought to be considered as both a response to God’s grace and a means of grace. Prayer is an avenue by which God builds up his saints and furthers his kingdom. By way of summary and conclusion, Trueman answers the question of what a “grace alone church” would look like today with ten identity markers.

As a good church historian, Trueman is sensitive to historical context, nuance which is often lost in popular discussions of significant individuals from the past. He places Aquinas in the context of the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West, Luther in his late medieval background, and Calvin in the variegated Reformed tradition. He notes the development in Augustine and Luther. He understands assurance of salvation as the key existential and pastoral issue of the Reformation. As a good historical theologian, Trueman critically appropriates the past. He explicitly identifies problems, even with such heroes of the Reformation tradition as Augustine and Luther. He is not afraid to appreciate someone like Aquinas and give credit where credit is due. In short, he has no time for caricatures. As a good pastor, Trueman begins with the Bible and does not hesitate to draw applications from exegesis and history for the contemporary church. His discussions of the nature of preaching, the relationship of predestination and assurance, the benefits of formal prayer, and God as the agent in baptism are a few of his more insightful moments.

Grace Alone aims at a popular level audience. Both pastors and church members will find this work readable and helpful. Trueman adds his wit and eye for shortcomings in much of contemporary evangelicalism to The 5 Solas Series, making this both an entertaining book and, at times, one that hits close to home. Those looking for scholarly insight into the Reformation sola gratia will need to look elsewhere in Trueman’s writings. What Grace Alone offers is a distillation of what the Reformers taught and an evaluation of why it still matters today, specifically for the local church.

Andrew S. Ballitch

Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church

Louisville, Kentucky

Not the same God: Is the Qur’anic Allah the LORD God of the Bible? By Sam Solomon with Atif Debs. London: Wilberforce Publications, 2016. 223pp. $10.50 Paper

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? This is one of the most pressing theological issues of our times. This question has wide-ranging ramifications, not only for Christian mission and interfaith relations, but also for the domestic and foreign policy of nations. Yet, it is a question on which Christians find themselves deeply divided.

This important book by Sam Solomon, with the collaboration of Atif Debs, is the most substantial and informed contribution to date on the “no” side of the debate. Too often the “same God” debate has been marred on the Christian side by a superficial knowledge of Islam. What is distinctive and valuable about this work is its deep familiarity with Islamic theology. Both authors, now Christians, were formerly Muslims, and Solomon a Muslim jurist.

While acknowledging the “apparent similarities” (20) between Allah of Islam and the God of the Bible, they contend that these two entities are “diametric” opposites to each other, “in nature, knowability, description, and attributes” (20). The Qur’an, they propose, “has as its main objective to undo the message and mission of Christ”, and the confusion caused by the “same God” claim only hampers Christians’ ability to grasp this. This claim also undermines mission, making it more difficult for Muslims to engage with and respond to the saving attributes of the God revealed in the Bible.

As Solomon points out, it is a dogma of Islam that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, for the Qur’an states “Do not argue with the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) except by what is best … say … ‘Our God and your God is one.’” Solomon proposes further that the sole reason this issue has arisen in interfaith encounters is because Islam asserts sameness (23), so the debate is driven and controlled by an Islamic agenda. On the Christian side, a superficial awareness of apparent similarities, combined with a desire to engage with Muslims can make people insensitive to the “realities of Islam” (32). Solomon is concerned for Christians to grasp that the Qur’an incorporates features of the Bible in order to gain authority for Muhammad, “while at the same time becoming a mechanism to house very different doctrinal claims” (43). On other hand, readily apparent differences between the Qur’an and the Bible are accounted for en masse by the doctrine of taḥrīf or Biblical corruption (54ff).  For Christians to emphasize sameness, while overlooking the doctrine of Biblical corruption is to fall into a trap carefully laid by the Qur’an itself.

The Qur’anic strategy for claiming sameness is to repurpose and Islamize Biblical figures, and indeed humanity itself. Biblical stories are remanufactured in service of the Qur’an’s doctrinal agenda. This is illustrated in the fourth chapter by a detailed analysis of the “omissions, replacements, additions, changes and distortions” in the narratives of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. These Qur’anic messengers serve as model forerunners to validate Muhammad’s mission. The doctrine of fitrah (96) serves as a counterpoint to that of Islamicized prophets, subverting the biblical idea of original sin and replacing it with a conception of the innate Muslimhood of humankind. In this way claimed “similarities” between Qur’an and Bible in fact are exploited to affirm the Islamic character, not only of biblical prophets, but of humanity itself.

The fifth chapter explores the implications of the Islamic doctrines of tawḥīd “unity” and tanzīh “incomparability,” which means Allah is “free of all anthropomorphisms and absolutely incomparable to anything or anyone” (129). This construct implies that Allah is unknowable. Another implication is a denial of any likeness or participation by Allah in the human condition, such as the biblical account of God walking with Adam in the Garden (134), tabernacling with his people (168) or communicating directly with people. Yet another implication is the strict prohibition of any kind of discussion, questioning or speculation concerning the attributes of Allah—indeed of the whole discipline of theology—since “they will never encompass anything of his knowledge” (Sura 10:110), and “Allah cannot cross over his realm in the other world to man’s world for any reason” (160). This distant creator cannot even speak directly to humans, but must do so using a new revelation process, waḥy, or “sending down” verses through two intermediaries: the angel Jibrīl (Sura 42:51), and a human messenger, Muhammad. This mode of communication reveals, not Allah’s person, but his will. Furthermore, the concept of the unity of Allah degenerates into the dogma of the finality of the messenger: instead of a personal relationship with their god, Allah offers people only a connection of obedience and devotion to Muhammad, whose will is equated to that of Allah, by which Muhammad is elevated to the status of co-legislator with Allah.

Contra Miroslav Volf’s Allah, Solomon emphatically rejects any notion that the Qur’an supports love of one’s neighbor: instead it teaches al-walā’ w-al-barā’ “allegiance and rejection,” which calls for association and sympathy with fellow Muslims, but dissociation and rejection of non-Muslims. Furthermore, Allah’s relationship to Muslims is not covenantal. So, there is nothing which can be equated with the biblical concept of covenantal love, neither on Allah’s part, nor from human beings towards Allah, who are instead commanded to love Muhammad as Allah’s proxy.

In conclusion, Solomon finds that “the attractions of ‘similarity’ and ‘sameness’ which appear in the Qur’an are nothing but a mirage intended to validate the counterclaims of Islam and its prophet” (194). The real function of apparent similarities with the Bible is to show that the distinctive monotheism of Islam is the only true message. Christians who swallow the bait of similarity, in a naïve desire to engage Muslims and bring them to Christ, are attempting to take a stand on what they suppose to be “common ground” but is nothing but quicksand.

This theological agenda, Solomon points out, has been coordinated with an historically instantiated “formidable system of enslavement and constitutional discrimination from which there is little room to move or chance of escape” (196). Solomon’s chief concern is about the subversion of Christian missions. Missions is compromised when one attempts to build a gospel message on the sameness illusion. In doing so, one unwittingly validates and conceals false Islamic monotheism. The solution, at every point, is to affirm “the person, the message, and the mission of Christ Jesus” (197), who is the fulfillment of the prophets and the image of the invisible God.

One of the unique values of this book for Christian thought-leaders is its overview of Islamic theology, particularly in relation to prophets, revelation, and the unity of Allah. It defines and illustrates theological terms which are key to grasping the structure and intent of Islamic theology in relation to biblical faith. This is a much-needed corrective to well-meaning but simplistic accounts of Islam which make much of the (apparent) similarities between the faiths, but are not well-grounded in Islamics.

Although this is a deeply interesting and informative work, some aspects of the way the materials are presented are frustrating. There are multiple critical references to Miroslav Volf’s Allah. However, these references, while clear enough to someone who is familiar with Volf, are not explicit. Likewise, when Solomon refers to “current missiological practices” and “many Christian theologians and missiologists” setting aside biblical typologies to accommodate a Qur’anic agenda, readers would have been greatly assisted if the theologians and missiologists had been identified and their works referenced.  

Not the same God also raises a crucial question of intent. It reports that “Muhammad and Allah … are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the Jews.” On the other hand, it concludes that the Qur’an “has as its main objective to undo the message and mission of Christ” (21). This seems to imply two levels of intent in the Qur’anic text. On the one hand, there are the Qur’an’s immediate preoccupations with the Jews, as well as other groups, such as the Meccan pagans and the “hypocrites.” On the other hand, there is, according to Solomon, a deeper, organizing theological principle which stands implacably opposed to the gospel of Christ and coordinates Qur’anic doctrines to this end.

Not the same God is a major landmark in Western Christianity’s ongoing challenge of coming to terms with Islam and its absolutist claims. A valuable primer in Islamic theology, it also offers a comprehensive framework, not only to understand the differences between the Islamic Allah and the God of the Bible, but also to account for the deceptive attraction of the “sameness” trap which continues to entice many well-meaning Christians.

Mark Durie

Adjunct Research Fellow

Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam

Melbourne School of Theology