Book Review: Hand in Hand, by Randy Alcorn
Randy Alcorn, Hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice. Multnomah Books, 2014. 240 pps. $14.99.
Discussion regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human choice fills the pages of church history. Every generation of the church tends to wrestle through these doctrines. From Augustine and Pelagius to Calvin and Arminius to the present day discussion in the Southern Baptist Convention, God’s sovereignty and human choice remain a subject of intense debate. Randy Alcorn wades into this discussion with his book Hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice.
Alcorn’s foray into this subject is commendable. There’s much to appreciate in this book. From the start, he rightly acknowledges that God’s sovereignty and human choice, what Alcorn styles as “meaningful choice,” are both essential biblical truths. We can’t ignore either without disregarding the teaching of Scripture. As much as these two truths appear to be a logical contradiction, Alcorn helpfully maintains they are nothing of the sort. They may be a biblical paradox, which our finite minds cannot understand exhaustively in this life, but they are biblical truths worth plumbing.
A BALANCED SUMMARY
Alcorn explores these deep truths by discussing the main historical views of God’s sovereignty and free will. Essentially, he interacts with Open Theism, Arminianism, Calvinism, and Hyper-Calvinism. In doing so, Alcorn demonstrates a thorough and engaging knowledge of each. He details passages of Scripture and their logical arguments. In some of the most interesting pages of the book, Alcorn articulates to the reader how an Arminian and Calvinist would interpret a given passage differently. Overall, the chapters are well-organized, the analysis is careful, and the writing is engaging. Deliberately and unmistakably, the book maintains winsomeness throughout, a fact that cannot be over-appreciated as far too many ford into this discussion with a more provocative mentality.
As the author, Alcorn does not hide his own theological persuasion. He asserts that he is a former Arminian turned “four-point Calvinist.” Therefore he says, “I’m what some call a ‘moderate Calvinist’ and others an ‘inconsistent Calvinist.’ I was once a moderate or inconsistent Arminian. But whatever the terminology, I’ve never been 100 percent in either camp” (21). This identification and experience shapes the entire book. The author navigates the subject as a kind of intermediary between the Arminian and Calvinist positions. In many ways, this aids the reader as Alcorn engages both theological persuasions without the vitriol that often accompanies this theological discussion.
In fact, this serves as one of the book’s main emphases. In numerous chapters Alcorn admonishes the reader to winsomely and honestly engage the views of the other side. He is concerned that our understanding of the other position, whether Calvinist or Arminian, is too often a caricature. As such, he encourages thoughtful dialogue and engagement, rather than straw-man arguments and misinformed accusations. He warns the reader repeatedly against having a sectarian spirit, and he will routinely quote an Arminian pastor or Calvinist scholar to demonstrate what they truly taught. This proves to be a helpful approach and an important warning to the overly zealous.
The great strength of Alcorn’s book is its emphasis on the Scripture. Time and again he exhorts the Christian to consider the entire Bible when formulating their view on these subjects. It’s too easy, he says, for each theological camp to cherry-pick their favorite verses and affirm their theological position based on them. Alcorn voices concern that at times our theological systems may be guiding us rather than the Scriptures. This is a right and holy concern. In response, he rightly insists if our theology is contradicted by Scripture, then we must change our theology. Both Arminians and Calvinists should eagerly agree with such a pronouncement.
However, this also provides the one critique I have of this book. As Alcorn addresses the various views regarding God’s sovereignty and human choice, he unreservedly labels Hyper Calvinism and Open Theism heresies. He demonstrates no hesitancy in doing so. Yet, he is less willing to be dogmatic regarding the truth contained or not contained in the systems of Calvinism and Arminianism. Make no mistake, he maintains that they are unequal and distinct. He says near the beginning of the book, “I am not pretending their theologies aren’t different; they obviously are, and some of the differences are important. What I’m doing is showing that people on both sides of the issue can sometimes make sense.” As much as I agree with this sentiment and am thankful for Alcorn’s graciousness with both sides, I wish he more readily asserted what is error and what is truth. He does this to some degree, but in a consistently passive manner.
He is a compatibilist, but often undersells his own position within the book as he seeks to be winsome in his approach to libertarianism. For example, he writes, “If someone asked, ‘Can humans reject God’s purposes for us?’ how would you answer? My intuitive answer is no. Yet the Bible, without qualification, claims the Pharisees and experts in the law ‘rejected the purpose of God for themselves’ (Luke 7:30, ESV). As a compatabilist, I can interpret this verse within my system, but I should understand why a libertarian will feel it fits his system better than mine” (102). Again, one sees clearly Alcorn’s gracious spirit, but a statement like this without explanation can leave the reader feeling as though no position is actually correct. It would have been more helpful to say Luke 7:30 not only can be interpreted within the system, but fits very well in a compatabilist system. Then he could demonstrate exactly how. In a similar way, when Alcorn speaks about Molinism he offers a pair of brief possible criticisms which “some” may suggest (93). But he doesn’t weigh in on the issue or lend any clarity to whether it is biblically accurate or not. This can leave the reader wondering whether Molinism is or is not a viable biblical option.
I am thankful for Alcorn’s irenic spirit, but at times a little more dogmatism would benefit the reader. Because of this, I would recommend this book to someone already holding a settled position but needing a little more nuance or graciousness toward those with different convictions. I would be far more reluctant to hand this book to someone wrestling with these doctrines for the first time because there’s simply not enough definitiveness to equip the reader to make a conclusion.
FOR CRANKY CALVINISTS & ANGRY ARMINIANS
Nonetheless, I am thankful for this book’s contribution to the discussion of God’s sovereignty and meaningful human choice. Many will benefit from reading its content because its pages are filled with true and helpful dialogue. At the very least, Alcorn has given us a book that offers a needed correction for too many angry Arminians and contentious Calvinists.
To that end, near the end of the book Alcorn writes about the relationship between the Arminian John Wesley and the Calvinist George Whitefiled. Wesley said kind things about Whitefield upon his death and Alcorn stated in response, “I want the same gracious spirit to characterize my own approach to these issues” (189). If Alcorn’s life resembles his writing, then he can rest assured that this is indeed the case. And most of us have much to learn from such a brother.