Deviant Calvinism

Oliver Crisp admits that he has “been drawn to the margins of theological orthodoxy or to the doctrinally eccentric.” His reason is constructive: “those occupying such liminal places are intrinsically interesting subjects for theological exploration,” not least because “their work . . . throws light on upon the shape and character of more mainstream theology” (3).

Still, Crisp insists, his recent Deviant Calvinism isn’t “about theology from the margins.” It only appears so because contemporary Calvinists don’t know the breadth of their own tradition. Several chapters of his book, for instance, examine Reformed theologians who developed alternative accounts of the scope of the atonement, challenging the “L” (limited atonement) in the famous TULIP acronym that supposedly summarizes Reformed theology. According to Crisp, limited atonement “is not the only view permissible within Reformed confessionalism.” Universal atonement is “a strand of Reformed thinking, which goes all the way back to the early Reformers of the sixteenth century” (5). The various versions of this “hypothetical universalism” all “share in common the claim that the work of Christ is universal in its sufficiency but applied to an elect number less than the total number of fallen humanity” (176). In the words of John Davenant, one of the leading advocates of this view, God “appointed, willed, and ordained that the death of his Son should be, and should be esteemed, a ransom of such a kind that it might be offered and applied to all men individually. And this God evidently accomplished” (quoted 192-3). In Crisp’s summary, “God ordains and intends that the satisfaction of Christ be a means of salvation that is truly sufficient for all but conditional upon faith,” a faith that is given only to the elect (193).

Crisp argues that this view isn’t excluded by any Reformed confession, even the Westminster Confession, which comes the closest to excluding it. The Canons of Dort, for instance, declare that the “benefits of Christ’s work only to those with faith, whom God has elected,” but Crisp argues that “this is entirely consistent with the claim that the work of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of all humanity in principle,” and that it was in fact intended to be sufficient, while “effectual only for the elect who are given faith” (180).

Crisp refutes the notion that hypothetical universalism reduces to Arminianism. The fact that the two positions overlap in language and content doesn’t mean they are equivalent, and they aren’t: “Whereas the hypothetical universalists claimed that God effectually applies the work of Christ only to those whom God has eternally elected according to God’s good pleasure and will, the Arminian’s claim that God elects those ‘individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace come to faith and believe’ and persevere in the faith. In other words, the Arminian scheme allows that God’s election depends on foreseen faith, whereas the hypothetical universalist scheme claims that God elects independent of any knowledge God has concerning foreseen faith” (188). On this critical point, the hypothetical universalists stand with advocates of particular atonement against Arminians.

Crisp lays out the objections to hypothetical universalism and argues that the position has resources to respond. On the most serious objections, hypothetical universalism has essentially the same problems as Augustinian or Reformed theology in general (e.g., objections concerning moral responsibility). On the other hand, hypothetical universalism has a distinct advantage in being able to take the Bible’s universal statements about the atonement at face value: “the hypothetical universalist in company with Barth . . . can claim that we should simply take both sorts of biblical material at face value and find a way of making sense of them both, despite the soteriological tension that this creates.” It is not that the biblical account is incoherent, but rather “that there is a sense in which the atonement is universal in scope as well as a sense in which God provides the atonement as a means by which to save the elect” (198).

Crisp isn’t advocating hypothetical universalism, but his careful assessment of this view, and of other forms of “deviant Calvinism” is a sign not only of the under-appreciated complexity but the contemporary vitality of the Reformed tradition.

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