02 June 2009

Book review — How Then Should We Choose?, edited by Douglas S. Huffman

by Dan Phillips

How Then Should We Choose?, edited by Douglas S. Huffman
(Kregel: 2009; 269 pages)

I have always loved the format of these multi-perspective books.

Spokesmen for particular views on disputed issues (prophecy, ordinances, doctrines) present their own positions relatively concisely, then interact with each other. With this volume, Kregel presents a symposium of sorts on the vital issue of the will of God.

Douglas Huffman edits the work, and brings a fair bit to the subject. Huffman researched this topic for his MA thesis at Trinity, and starts the book off with a useful introduction (13-32). In it, he defines terms, sets up the book, and lays out case studies with which each proponent must deal: people in dicey situations, needing to make decisions. It is a creative touch, and a great opportunity for each "school" to show how the rubber meets the road

However, at the book's end Huffman provides a conclusion that I found more hazy than helpful ("Hey kids — what if they're all right?"; 235-248). But, after that he provides a jewel of a Bibliography, which is labeled according to the authors' perspectives (249-256).

In the body of the book, three views are presented.

First to sally forth are Henry and Richard Blackaby, presenting the "Specific-Will" view (33-85). I have already interacted with this at length here, in my usual ambivalent and mealy-mouthed way. To wit:
This chapter is just about the single most appalling trainwreck I've read in recent memory, whether viewed exegetically, hermeneutically, theologically, or pastorally. The implications, if taken and followed out seriously by anyone (—God forbid!), are absolutely catastrophic.
I still agree with me.

Then, the first to evaluate it is Garry Friesen, author of Decision-Making and the Will of God, representing the "Wisdom" view. To my everlasting bafflement, Friesen comes across in a manner that...okay, I deleted what I wrote first, took a few deep breaths, and will make this much nicer comment instead: it makes me wonder two things:
  1. Does Friesen really believe that his approach is the Biblical approach? (I certainly do, and I surely think Friesen does.)
  2. Does Friesen just not see what a prescription for a living nightmare the Blackaby approach is? (I certainly do... and, reading this, I have to wonder whether Friesen does.)
Friesen actually says he "was impressed with the biblical [?!!] and effective argument for" the Blackaby view, and further dubs it a model presentation (85, emphasis added). He speaks glowingly of the exquisite care in handling Scripture and pastoral wisdom with which their essay glowed (86). My mouth literally hung open. I wondered whether I was in Bizarro-world. But then Friesen gets down to business and makes a very effective Biblical critique of the Blackaby view.

Then Gordon T. Smith critiques from the "Relational" perspective. He's a good writer, and his critique is effective, but lacks the rigorously Biblical edge Friesen eventually brought to bear.

Next up is Garry Friesen for the "Wisdom" view (101-159). Again, inexplicably, in presenting his view, Friesen begins... by praising the Blackabys! "Their books are examples of speaking the truth in love" (101, emphasis added). Well, if their books are "the truth," then I take it Friesen will be retracting his own? Because if the Blackabys are right, then Friesen's central contention is nonsense — and vice-versa.

The closest I can get to understanding this behavior, is that this is Friesen's idea of being loving and kind and nice. But his words go beyond treating the Blackabys with charity (good!), to commending their views and approach as Biblical and effective and true (bad!).

One more word on that. The Blackabys do not return the favor. Clearly, Friesen's powerful Biblical critique and solid case have shaken them — though not enough. Even when they're not supposed to be critiquing Friesen, they do, and not particularly kindly, displaying none of the flattery Friesen shows them.

I dwell on this to make the point we often make and try to model here: critical truth is worth a spirited, bare-knuckled confrontation. Some ideas badly need to be exposed and body-slammed for the wretched mishandling of Scripture that they are. Ideas I say; ideas. And ideas have consequences. As we saw in the metas for the previous posts, real people and real churches are hurt by the Blackabys' doctrine.

I think Friesen goes too far in showing charity towards the Blackabys, by seeming to embrace and coddle their harmful, un-Biblical ideas. If their teaching is un-Biblical, then I think our main concerns should be (A) the honor of God, who I think is misrepresented in this view; and (B) the people and churches whom this teaching harms.

Friesen comes to summarize his own view in four principles:
  1. "Where God commands, we must obey
  2. "Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose
  3. "Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose
  4. "When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good" (103)
He develops that Biblically, practically, and at length. Though he refers to his own (epochal) book and web site to a somewhat distracting degree, Friesen makes a sound Biblical case.

The Blackabys mock his view as invented (159), subjective (159), and not as popular as theirs (160; yes, they really do say that). They try to do a lot of damage-control, and bring out-of-context Scriptures in a weak attempt at propping up their position (i.e. maybe Philip had an inner impression, even though "Scripture does not identify" it as such [164]). To add to the list of hermeneutical and theological oddities noted in my previous posts, they reject the long-established Biblical categories of general and special revelation (166), and seem to reject Romans 9:19 as well (167).

Smith's critique is much more friendly and appreciative; he agrees with Friesen to a great extent, but fears that Friesen's approach by itself amounts to a sort of practical deism (170).

Which brings us to the "Relationship" view, presented by Smith himself (174-226), It is... a strange chapter. The view is a sort of mediating view between Friesen's and the Blackabys. Scripture is the basis, but the Christian life is about a relationship with Christ, which (to Smith) demands emotional and other communications of Christ ("speaking") to the believer, through the Spirit, apart from Scripture.

It is "strange" in that Smith does not actually build his specific case from Scripture, except the verses that depict the Christian as having a relationship with Christ. To fill in what is missing, Smith leans heavily — not on Scripture, but — on an assortment of later, uninspired writers (187-201). And what an assortment! I kid you not: Origen of Alexandria, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius Loyola. The latter ges 4.5 pages. Thaaat's right, Ignatius — founder of the Jesuits, servant of Jesus, Mary and the Pope — has more of specific use to teach us about having a relationship with Christ than the Scriptures.

Smith then says that "This listening [to Christ, personally and intimately] ...is the foundation of our Christian experience—a listening evident in our attentiveness to the inner witness of the Spirit" (202). Yet he came nowhere near either exampling nor establishing such a "foundation" from Scripture, to my mind. Like the Blackabys, he insists on God "speaking" to us apart from Scripture; and like them, he made no case from Scripture that we should expect any such thing.

This is always remarkable and significant. Leaning so heavily on post-Biblical writers, many of them not Biblically orthodox, is (to me) a tacit admission that the case cannot be made from Scripture. Charismatics are forced to do exactly the same thing in explaining how to get baptized with the Spirit, how to tell when the Spirit is nudging you, how to get tongues, and so forth. I would think — I would hope! — that a little light would go on for such well-meaning souls. "Hm, if I can't make this case from Scripture, then maybe... just maybe...."

Friesen seizes on this, and deals it a kind but very effective blow (227-228). At the same time, Friesen is right to acknowledge that he stands to learn from Smith's stress on a heart-relationship with God, and that his view is often faulted for seeming mechanistic, though he intends no such thing (226).

Features: Bibliography, footnotes, indices.

In sum: another very solid contribution from Kregel, who deserves our thanks for delving into this vitally practical subject. Recommended.

Dan Phillips's signature


Matt said...

Thanks for the review, DJP. Perhaps it's (a little) off topic, but since reading "Decision Making and the Will of God" by Friesen, I'm still left with a question.

We affirm that we have freedom in non-moral areas (spouse, job, etc.). Yet how "free" are these choices? If everything that occurs in the universe happens only by the decree of God, then isn't "freedom" a bit of an awkward word to use here?

If we're doing the James 1:5 thing, and then proceed in faith, can we not later look back upon our decision and say "that decision was decreed by God in such a sense that alternative decisions would not have been"?.

In other words, if the decree of God is absolute and exhaustive, then doesn't that apply to the non-moral "wisdom" areas as well?

If we talk about these choices being "free", doesn't it open up the possibility that Ephesians 1:11 and Romans 8:28 are just about a God who runs after us, cleaning up behind us and trying His best to make the most of the situation without violating anybody's freedom?

If this is off-topic to the review itself, feel free to delete it.

donsands said...

Thanks for the review.

I am reading through Genesis, and I was pondering just how the Lord did speak to Abraham.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Gen. 22:1-2

Was it through an angel? Or a voice from heaven, as with Christ hearing the Father?

I have been around Blackaby disciples, and when they pray they say, "Listen to God." And they like to share a word they have on their heart from the Lord.

It's dangerous, because it gets you away from Scripture I think.

"..but the Christian life is about a relationship with Christ, which (to Smith) demands emotional and other communications of Christ ("speaking") to the believer, through the Spirit, apart from Scripture."

I know a lot of people who live this way, and don't read their Bibles very much at all. And so studying the Bible, and meditating upon the living Word is not there as well.

DJP said...

Yeah, Matt, I think you've completely missed what Friesen is saying.

"Freedom" in this context is not "libertarian free will unaffected by any influence." it is "free to make a wise choice, confident of God's blessing."

This whole question is a matter of what does God hold me responsible to learn and obey?

Friesen (and Scripture) say that it is the revealed will of God, found in the Word, period.'

The other views add at least one other authority — a subjective, whispy, vaporous source that requires a Byzantine series of tricks and tests to discern; and which, even then, God holds us morally culpable for disobeying.

So if a choice is not covered by Scripture (i.e. hamburger or cheeseburger; available single Christian prospective-spouse A or available single Christian prospective-spouse B), we are "free" in the sense that either choice may be made with God's blessing.

Anonymous said...

sounds like an excellent book. Friesen's book on Decision making was revolutionary for me when i read it in the 80's - and i met him at Multnomah when i was a student there.

it freed me up from the paralysis of finding the DOT of God's will to the right application of biblicaly inspired wisdom.

Friesen is a nice guy, also.

DJP said...

You and me both, Andrew. When asked to list the books that have had the greatest impact on me, that one is always in the top tier.

Matt said...

we are "free" in the sense that either choice may be made with God's blessing.Right, I understand this. I'm just curious if, upon making the choice, we can look back and say that it was by the decree of God?

Don't get me wrong, I am in 100% agreement with Friesen's view, and am strongly opposed to the "specific will/listening prayer/whatever-it's-called-this-week" view. I believe that the specific will view is actually based in unbelief. It seeks to peer behind the veil of God's hidden decree. It's opposed to Deuteronomy 29:29.

I'm just curious if there are small details (cheeseburger vs. hamburger) that fall outside of God's decretive will, or if this will is exhaustive. It's a genuine question, and one not based on the assumption that I have to "figure out" what that decretive will is, if it exists.

DJP said...

God's sovereign will is absolutely exhaustive. If verses such as Proverbs 16:33 and Matthew 10:29 don't mean that, I'm not sure what they mean.

Matt said...

Thanks DJP. We're 100% on the same page, as I most certainly thought we were.

The reason I ask is because I had coffee with my (non-Calvinist) pastor a few weeks back, and we were both lamenting the specific will/listening prayer fad that has made major inroads in our area. When I criticized this trend, he asked me "Well, you're a Calvinist - don't you believe in specific will?".

I essentially answered that yes, I believe God has an exhaustive plan for all things, but that the difference between the Calvinist and the "still small voice-seeker" is that a Calvinist doesn't attempt to know in advance what that specific will is. He prays for wisdom according to James 1:5, makes the best decision, and then has full assurance that God's will is playing itself out.

Wanted to make sure I'm not speaking out of turn or misrepresenting.

Thanks for all the help on this topic. I've shared your "Non Sola-Scriptura Blackaby View" posts with about a dozen people who have asked me about listening prayer. I plan to distribute them to my SS class this weekend as well. Thanks!

clearblue said...


Do you believe that God answers prayer today? Or that God by His Spirit is able to illuminate His Word as you study it (or is it all your wisdom)? Do you pray to God to give insight to you as you study His Word?

How is any of that different to God guiding His people (in addition to them using wisdom and applying biblical principles as they grow in spiritual understanding - Col 1:9)?

Do you believe that the Great Commission was only for the apostles as well? Or do you believe the Bible is simply descriptive ('a record of redemptive-history')?

The apostles urged NT Christians to follow their manner of life. Although I have no time for the charismaniacs, I think you are indulging in a very selective hermenuetic in taking certain biblical things (like prayer) and slamming others like guidance.

I think this is a denial of the necessity of Scripture - equally as bad as the denial of its sufficiency. For those who don't understand this, it is as much an error to cut bits out of the bible as it is to try to add other sources of authority in addition to it. You're on dangerous ground, Dan.

In your view, God guided Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel in the wilderness, David on the run, (but not Saul, note), Elijah and the prophets but God's New Testament people (apart from apostles, evangelists like Philip and propets like Agabus) do not get the benefit of God's guidance? We get to simply read the book of Proverbs? We have some arms-length relationship with God, of a lesser nature than that of OT saints?For goodness sake, the Psalms and Isaiah are full of promises of God's guidance!

What you are saying really amounts to a denial of the fact that Christ as the Lord of the harvest still today calls (and directs) people to serve Him just as He calls people to be saved.

DJP said...

Thanks, Matt; it's always tremendously encouraging and humbling to me to hear that the work I do here is of use to folks.

As I've thought about it over the years, one of the most crystallizing ways I've found of expressing the issue is "For what does God hold us accountable?"

The specific-will view says that God has a personal will, that He speaks to us. Well, and what if we don't do what He's "saying"? I don't know any vaguely Biblical definition that wouldn't call that "sin." What is sin but want of conformity to the express will of God, after all?

The B's are clearly annoyed by the how do I know God doesn't have a specific will about the brand of toothpaste I buy? question. I think it's because they can't answer it, and it's a terrible Achilles heel in their position.

So, working on the previous articles, it occurred to me that a way to crystallize that is to say, "Would Jesus have had to die to keep me from going to Hell for buying the wrong toothpaste?"

Because if God had a will He expected me to obey, as touching toothpaste...

...and if I did not "obey" (a word the B's use frequently)...

...then I have sinned...

...and I should go to Hell.

For the wrong toothpaste.

Or the wrong toothpick at a restaurant.

Or the wrong parking-place.

Or muting the wrong commercial on TV.

Or traveling one mph too fast (or slow) on the freeway.

DJP said...

Welcome to the blog, Clearblue. Those are the sorts of reactions people accustomed to the "traditional" view often have, the first time they find someone affirming a robust doctrine of the sufficiency of Scriptures; so, many others have initially shared your reactions as well, initially.

Hopefully you'll find some help in these posts, and this post.

Also, you'll find Friesen's book Decision Making and the Will of God very helpful.

Standing on the Word is far from a dangerous place. I heartily commend it to you. You'll find that the Bible really is everything God says it is (2 Timothy 3:15-17)!

Jugulum said...


Yeah, Friesen's book is wonderful. I agree with the recommendation, but have an addition recommendation.

Friesen's book is an exhaustive treatment--and I believe I'm quoting Dan when I say that it could use a popularized, briefer version.

For that purpose, I recommend Greg Koukl's mp3s of the same name, Decison-Making and the Will of God. He both lays out the Biblical case for the Wisdom model, and he discusses questions like yours.

Some specific thoughts:
1.) It is not a question of whether God guides us today, but how. Not whether the Spirit leads, but how.
2.) It's not a question of what ever happens, but of what normally happens. It's a question of what the Scripture teaches as the normal way that God guides us. The normative way that God expects us to make decisions.
3.) To say that another way... It is not fundamentally a question of whether God ever speaks through visions or uses inclinations or anything like that. Because I believe the Wisdom model is the approach used by the apostles themselves.

It's the approach they modeled for us--and it can be seen in passages like 1 Cor. 7.

DJP said...

Agreed about the need for a briefer, more accessible book, Jug.

Lord willing, I'll have the pleasure of posting a review of a really excellent little book called Just Do Something, by Kevin DeYoung. Fills the bill very nicely.

Douglas Kofi Adu-Boahen said...


I gotta wonder, dude. Do you like inviting trouble on yourself LOOOL. Nah I'm kidding...

I grew up Pentecostal with a strong emphasis on the specific-will/still small voice, esp. when it came to big things like which sixth form I'd go to, and recently which university I'd attend. Dad would take these 7-day fasts to find out what "the Lord was saying" for everything, yet I'd peer into Scripture, even as a Pentecostal and just get on with it.

I honestly have come to the belief, as a Reformed Baptist hoping to enter the Gospel ministry, that the view presented by the Blackabys is like saying, "God - you are OBLIGATED to talk to me whenever I need some guidance. Never mind the Book you gave me is just as good as You talking to me - You have to speak to me." It also amounts to a denial of sola Scriptura, but you've got that field covered ;-)

DJP said...

Douglas -

peer into Scripture ...and just get on with it.

Not a bad brief statement, right there.

It's all that and more. So many of these folk say, "Okay, Scripture says we have a relationship with God." Well, true.

But then they say, "Okay, to me, a relationship should have A, B, C and D. So that must mean my relationship with God is like that."

Wrong, methodologically and materially.

(And yes, I eat danger for breakfast.)

Red and Black Redneck said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Jugulum's additional recommendation of Greg Koukl's Decision Making and the Will of God from Stand To Reason. Clear and concise. Basically, Koukl argues that if we are obedient the God's revealed will (i.e. the Scriptures) then we will be in his will.

Koukl also has some fun with the evangelical terms of art such as "door closing and windows opening" and "having a peace about thus and so."

The only time I've experienced a door closing then a window opening was when I was sneaking out of the house in junior high school and I was definitely not in obedience.

Then, of course, there is also Leslie Weatherhead's The Will Of God. (Blechh).

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute! Are you saying I shouldn't turn over those pretty rocks in my driveway to see if God's will is under them?

Love that pope picture. He looks less evil than he does in some of the others.


DJP said...

It's a kinder, gentler Pope. Call him "papa."

lawrence said...

DeYoung's book is excellent...as was his "Why We're Not Emergent"....I think he says a lot of what Friesen communicates, but clearer and more concisely. I look forward to your review.

Strong Tower said...

Call him "papa."You think pappy is to personal, then?

I mean, the relationship thing has gotten a lot of play lately.

Mark said...

I wonder why Friesen isn't so hard set against the Blackaby's version? If he felt it necessary to write a large book on the topic, why tout the other side as biblical?
His book was life changing for me, but even in his book he seems to think letting people believe the other view is acceptable. When I read it, I wanted to yell at everyone, "You're wrong! Can't you see it's not that hard?"
I had too many "second and third best" beliefs to hold on to that lie any longer.

DJP said...

Well, clearly, I'm with you, Mark. Unless it's his idea of being kind and charitable. It weighs with me more to be kind and charitable to the people whose lives will be a wreck if they take the Blackabys' distinctives to heart.

trogdor said...

This thread seriously deserves more comments. Maybe it's because the wisdom method is so obviously the best choice and there's not much to argue about?

I do like the more positive take of the wisdom method, compared to my former means of explanation dubbed the Jonah Method (which is a contrast). The name may be a bit off-putting, but the illustration is fairly sound, I think. Goes like this.

Jonah knew exactly what God wanted him to do. He did everything in his power to do exactly the opposite. God was able to make him do what he was told.

Now... if God is able to lead a rebellious fool like Jonah along the proper path, how much more can he gently guide his obedient children to the best spouse, job, place to live, etc. "Obedient" is the wisdom method - obeying what is clearly commanded, and wisely choosing where no clear command exists. Seeking first His kingdom and righteousness, and trusting that He will orchestrate the details. Without the whale vomit, which is nice.