Book Review: The Psychology of Atheism – By R.C. Sproul


Letter MMuch has been written trying to explain the psychology of theism. The foundational text in that field is probably Sigmund Freud‘s The Future of An Illusion, where Freud theorizes that religion came about as a sort of coping mechanism; it was comforting for early man to personalize the forces of nature and to turn their chiefs into legends, and eventually this evolved into the more institutional forms of religion.

Freud may have been the first, but he was far from the last. Feuerbach theorized that the gods were just man’s projections of himself onto the universal scale. Marx theorized that religion was just a way to keep the working class placated. Nietzche theorized that religion was rooted in fear of the nihil; Bertrand Russell followed a similar line of thinking. More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed religion as a meme, a sort of ‘mind-parasite’.

In each case these writers are not asking “Is there a God?” Rather, they presuppose there is not a God, and then ask why there is religion. At the same time, they suppose – at the very least through implication – that they are explaining away or debunking religion. In each case these writers fail to realize that explaining what a man can or might do is not in the least determinate for what he actually did do. Or, as Sproul puts it:

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Book Review: Chosen By God – By R.C. Sproul

RC Sproul Chosen By God.pngLetter TThe topic of predestination is one of those topics within Christian discussion which is both unavoidable and greatly controversial, and here in his book Chosen By God R.C. Sproul takes on the task of explaining and providing a Biblical account of salvation and the role that the choice of God plays in this.

Predestination as Sproul defines it “in its most elementary form, is that our final destination, heaven or hell, is decided by God not only before we get there, but before we are even born.” 

As Sproul goes about discussing the doctrine of predestination he does so by discussing the way it is related to the sovereignty of God, man’s free will, and the fall. With this foundation laid Sproul continues to discuss the way in which these things work out practically in salvation, in bringing man from spiritual death to life (that is, rebirth). Finally, Sproul discusses the way that foreknowledge plays into this and addresses various related topics such as the extreme of double predestination, whether or not the Christian may have assurance of salvation, and different objections against the doctrine such as whether or not Christians need to evangelize or in what way Christ died for ‘the world’.

Throughout this exploration of predestination Sproul is very open and honest about his limitations and those things that cannot be accounted for; for instance Sproul states “… Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know”  and also that “I have no idea why God saves some but not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why.”

Thus Sproul lets his reader know up front that there are some mysteries which the Reformed doctrine of predestination cannot answer.

Overall, Sproul offers an excellent account of the Reformed doctrine, with such wonderful explanations of salvation as “[Fallen man’s] problem, which we defined as moral inability, is that he lacks a desire for Christ. He is indisposed and disinclined toward Christ. Unless or until man is inclined to Christ, he will never receive Christ. Unless he first desires Christ, he will never receive Christ. In regeneration, God changes our hearts. He gives us a new disposition, a new inclination… If God gives us a desire for Christ we will act according to that desire.”

Similarly, Sproul refutes misconceptions of Reformed theology, such as his statement that: “Calvinism does not teach and never has taught that God brings people kicking and screaming into the kingdom or has ever excluded anyone who wanted to be there… Natural man does not want Christ. He will only want Christ if God plants a desire for Christ in his heart. Once that desire is planted, those who come to Christ do not come kicking and screaming against their wills. They come because they want to come. They now desire Christ.” 

While not perfect, Sproul offers an excellent account of Reformed theology, specifically as it involves the doctrine of predestination.

Memorable Quotes:

– “For now let me say simply that, if the final decision for the salvation of fallen sinners were left in the hands of fallen sinners, we would despair of all hope that anyone would be saved.”-33

– “The saved get mercy and the unsaved get justice. Nobody gets injustice.”-38

– “It’s not freedom that is canceled out by sovereignty; it is autonomy that cannot coexist with sovereignty… Autonomy implies absolute freedom. We are free, but there are limits to our freedoms… God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose.”-41, 42, 43

– “We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order that we may believe… What the text (John 3:16) teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved. Whoever does A (believes) will receive B (everlasting life). The text says nothing, absolutely nothing, about who will ever believe.”-73

– “That we are sinners is easy to admit; that none of us even does good is a bit much. Not one person in a thousand will admit that sin is this serious… For a work to be considered good it must not only conform outwardly to the law of God, but it must be motivated inwardly by a sincere love for God.”-106, 107

– “All that God has to do to harden people’s hearts is to remove the restraints. He gives them a longer leash. Rather than restricting their human freedom, he increases it. He lets them have their own way.”-145

– “Chance is neither. It is merely a mental construct… Chance really explains nothing. It is merely a word we use as shorthand for our ignorance.”-193, 194

Specific Criticisms

As mentioned, Sproul is an excellent theologian and this book presents the Reformed doctrines in a very concise, readable, and insightful manner. Yet, it is not perfect.

– One criticism which might be offered is that Sproul doesn’t have a very strong grasp on what is actually being posited when other groups speak of free will. For instance, Sproul states that “If [Adam] was created with no desire for sin, then we must ask where that desire came from… In creation man was given an ability to sin and an ability not to sin. He chose to sin. The question is, ‘Why?'” (p.29, 30).

The very point of free will is that it is not deterministic, it is not rationalistic; that is, to ask ‘why’ is to beg the question, it is merely not a question which can be asked of free will. If there were a ‘why’, then that why would be what determined the action, not the ‘free will’ of the individual. As F.H. Jacobi puts it “Every avenue of demonstration ends up in fatalism.” To attempt to create a causal chain to prove free will is to fundamentally misunderstand what free will is said to be; to successfully ‘prove’ free will in this way would be to disprove it.

This misunderstanding perhaps presents itself when Sproul uses the analogy of a mule starving due to refusing to choose between bowls of food (p.53).

– Another criticism which might be offered is Sprouls assertion [in reference to sin] that “All that means is that God must have decided to allow it to happen”(p.31). Quite simple, this is a little ways removed from say – the Westminster Confession of Faith – which asserts that “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends…”

Part of this may be a misunderstanding due to the way that Sproul ambiguously refers to free will; often he seems to appeal to free will when he wants to explain sin, but then ultimately denies that it exists.

– Yet another criticism involves Sproul’s statement that “But we must ask the really tough question: Is there any reason that a righteous God ought to be loving toward a creature who hates him and rebels constantly against his divine authority and holiness?” (p.33). Yet, ultimately this not the question which opponents of Reformed Theology are asking; the question they are asking is why – if God created the creature in such a way to ensure the creature would hate him – how can he then hold the creature accountable for something he himself brought about.

– Two minor criticisms include the way in which Sproul creates a sort of straw man argument against the accusation of fatalism; that is, in order to rebuff predestination as fatalism he says “Fatalism literally means that the affairs of men are controlled either by whimsical sub-deities (the Fates) or more popularly by the impersonal forces of chance” (p.191). Thus, Sproul merely offers the least used definition of fatalism (or arguably, a wrong definition, as attributing affairs to chance is roughly the exact opposite of fatalism) and refutes that instead of dealing with the actual objection.

The final minor criticism is the analogy Sproul offers of a judge sentencing his own son to prison (p.196) in order to explain the way in which God laments the punishment of sinners. Yet this analogy falls short, for the judge in the analogy – presumably – did not decree, ensure, and cause (through second causes) his son to commit the crime of which he is being punished.

Minor note: At one point Sproul mistakenly refers to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument as ‘ad hominem’, stating that: “An ‘ad hominem’ argument is carried out by taking your opponent’s position and carrying it to its logical conclusion.” This is likely just an oversight on his part – and his editor’s – but it is still worth noting.

Book Review: The Prayer of the Lord – by R.C. Sproul

Sproul-PrayerPrayer is one of those things in the Christian life that if many of us are honest with ourselves we will admit that we do not do very well.

We neglect prayer when we’re tired, when we’re busy, sometimes we can go days or weeks without praying. As Sproul points out “We’re not all that adept at prayer; it is a practice very few of us have mastered” (p4). In his book The Prayer of the Lord R.C. Sproul provides commentary and instruction on how to pray through the model provided in the Lord’s Prayer.

Sproul’s text basically serves as a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew and Luke, thus he begins his book in similar fashion to the way Christ begins his instructions on prayer – by talking about how not to pray. Thus first, we are to avoid hypocritical prayers, learning from the Pharisees: “Their piety was a sham; it was phony and fraudulent. It was a fake form of godliness…” (p6). A helpful not here is the reminder that when we pray – specifically in public – our prayers are still in a sense private. They are not meant to display our spirituality to the world or to show anything about the person who prays, but to communicate with God. Even in public the person praying “is representing us before the presence of God; that means his words are not for our ears primarily. But if he is not speaking consciously to God, he is not praying properly” (p9).

Secondly, Sproul asserts, we should avoid pagan prayer. That is, we should avoid prayer that is used a summons, as a magical incantation, or a mere recitation (even the Lord’s Prayer is not meant to be prayed mindlessly, merely recited).

Finally we should pray knowing that God is a God who is sovereign, who is omniscient. Thus Sproul points out that “prayer does change things, all kinds of things. But the most important thing it changes is us” (p14).

After these preliminary remarks on prayer Sproul goes into analyzing each part of the Lord’s Prayer one by one. Thus he points to the privilege of adoption as sons that is found in ‘Our Father in geaven’; that ‘Hallowed be thy name’ points to the fact that “the very beginning of godliness, the very beginning of transformation in our lives and in our society, begins with our posture before the character of God” (p33) because “No worship, no adoration, and no obedience can flow from a heart that has no regard for the name of God” (p36); that we are to bear witness to the coming of the messianic kingdom through ‘Thy kiingdom come’; that we pray for God’s will to be done over ours with ‘Thy will be done’; that we are to rely upon him daily for everything with ‘Give us this day our daily bread’; that we must ask for God to ‘Forgive us our debts’ and that we should ‘forgive our debtors’ and asserting that duty-bound forgiveness is conditional upon on repentance; that with ‘Do not lead us into temptation’ “Jesus is saying that we should pray that the Father will never cause us to undergo a severe test of our faith or of our obedience” (p88) and that it is especially referring to deliverance from Satan; and finally that through ‘Yours is the kingdom…’ we are shifted back to focus on God and affirms that everything prayed for is within His power, for “The kingdom of God is not of the people, by the people, or for the people… His reign extends over me whether I vote for  Him or not” (p100).

On the whole, Sproul provides an excellent commentary on the Lord’s Prayer and sound instruction on how we should pray. The book could make for a solid devotional reading or for a study resource for better understanding Jesus’ words or simply for instruction on how to pray better. All in all, a good read.

Memorable Quotes:

“Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, every time we open our mouths and say ‘Our Father,’ we should be reminded of our adoption, that we have been grafted into Christ and have been placed in this intimate relationship with God, a relationship that we did not have by nature.”-20

“[Mankind] is not a brotherhood but a neighborhood. Not all men are my brothers, only those who are in Christ. However, all men are my neighbors, and I am required by God to treat these people as I would expect them treat me.”-35

“The kingdom of God was near to them because the King of the kingdom was there. When He came, Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom. He didn’t consummate it, but He started it. And when He ascended into heaven, He went there for His coronation, for His investiture as the King of kings and Lord of lords.”-48

“First, notice that Jesus didn’t teach us to pray that God would sell us our daily bread or render it to us in exchange for our service; instead, in this petition, we manifestly ask God to give us something.”-65

“Got typically works through means, and He normally provides through the means of our labor.”-68

“If we are obligated in every situation to forgive immediately, directly, and unilaterally, there is no need for the whole process of discipline in the church.”-84

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms of this text. There are a few nitpicks where I felt he was putting up a straw man to attack, but this doesn’t really affect the message of the book.

The only place where I would directly disagree with Sproul’s analysis is when he states that ‘Do not lead us into temptation’ means that we should pray that our faith should never be tested, that we are praying for ‘deliverance from severe testing.’ As Derek Thomas points out in his book Praying the Savior’s Way, “Jesus by this petition intends more than a prayer against our faith being tested for its authenticity” (p114)

Or as other commentators have put it: “Jesus does not mean we should pray that we will never face any hardships. Rather, we should pray that we will be ready to endure tests and hardships faithfully. The same situation can be a test one day and a temptation on another.”

“Just as a Christ tells his disciples to rejoice when persecuted (Mt 5:10-12) and to flee from it (10:23), that the times will have wars and rumors of wars yet we should pray for peace (1Tim2:2), so a prayer requesting to be spared testings may not be incongruous when placed beside exhortations to consider such testings, when they come, as pure joy.”

“‘Lead us not into temptation’ does not imply ‘don’t bring us to the place of temptation’ or ‘don’t allow us to be tempted.’ Nor does the clause imply ‘don’t tempt us’ because God has promised never to do that anyway. Rather, the words seem best taken as ‘don’t let us succumb to temptation.’ When we give in, we only have ourselves to blame. The parrallelism renders less likely the alternate translation of the first clause as ‘do not bring us to the test’ either as times of trial in this life or as final judgement. God tests us in order to prove us and bring us to maturity, such tests should not be feared, nor should we pray for God to withhold them.”