Review of Oliver Crisps’ Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology Part Four
This is Part Four of my series of review essays of Oliver Crisp’s new book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology and deals with Chapter 4 : “Augustinian Universalism.” I invite those reading the book with me to agree or disagree with my interpretations of Crisp’s views and I invite others (anyone) to step in to comment on the subject matter itself (in this case “libertarian Calvinism”). But if you are not reading Crisp’s book, do not express agreement or disagreement with my interpretations of the book. Feel free to ask questions only.
This chapter especially stands out (among those read so far) as an exercise in “analytical theology”—a philosophical approach to theology that focuses on logical analysis of theological claims. I can’t not note here that Calvinists who have accused Arminians (such as I) of emphasizing logic to the detriment of exegesis ought to complain about Crisp—one of their own who barely mentions Scripture in a chapter saturated with logical analysis aimed at altering traditional Calvinism (which here he calls “traditional Augustinianism”).
In this chapter Crisp analyzes “traditional Augustinianism” which I have often referred to simply as “double predestination” or “high Calvinism.” Crisp wishes to take it all the way back to Augustine but often uses as his model the theology of Jonathan Edwards (which I have also done when criticizing the same view).
Crisp’s thesis in this chapter is (put in my own words) that there is nothing in the logic of traditional Augustinianism (and he mentions Calvin himself as an example of this theology), that requires reprobation or hell. In other words, according to Crisp, the logic of traditional Calvinism displays compatibility with necessary universalism (to say nothing of hypothetical universalism). In other words, according to Crisp, one can embrace the crucial points of traditional Calvinism, as displayed by the theologies of God’s sovereignty in salvation found in Augustine, Calvin and Edwards, and still deny that any individual human being will suffer in hell eternally. Nothing in the internal logic of that theology requires hell.
Of course, many Calvinists will call this “deviant Calvinism” (which Crisp admits) and respond that Scripture requires belief in eternal torment in hell for some human beings. Those objections are not to the point of this chapter. All Crisp seems to want to do here, in Chapter 4, is prove that universalism is logically compatible with the basic impulse of traditional Augustinian-Calvinism, God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation.
Now many people will find that uninteresting simply because they know that, over the centuries especially since Calvin, many Calvinists have leaped from double predestination to single predestination, election of all people to heaven, universalism, without abandoning belief in God’s absolute sovereignty. An excellent example with which Crisp opens this chapter is Friedrich Schleiermacher. Some will claim Karl Barth as another, non-liberal, example. (Crisp denies that what he is calling “Augustinian universalism” and Barth’s Christ-the-only-reprobate-person view are the same. He points to “structural differences.”) So what is different about Crisp’s “Augustinian universalism” which could just as well be called “Calvinist universalism?”
It seems to me that Crisp’s Augustinian universalism is identical with Schleiermacher’s universalism (Schleiermacher, unlike later liberal theologians, affirmed that God ordains whatever comes to pass without exception) except that Crisp’s Augustinian universalism affirms something like penal substitutionary atonement—that Christ’s death on the cross was a display of God’s justice through wrath. According to Crisp, nothing in the internal logic of Augustinian-Calvinism requires that 1) Christ died only for a restricted number of human persons, or 2) that hell is necessary for the display of God’s justice.
Crisp seems concerned, with Arminians and others, to rescue God’s reputation as good and loving from the apparent evil involved in sovereignly ordaining a certain number of persons created in God’s own image and likeness to eternal torment in hell. But he rejects Arminianism (pp. 106-107) as any option for Augustinian-Calvinists whose basic impulse is God’s absolute sovereignty—that God ordains whatever comes to pass. According to Crisp, insofar as I understand him correctly, the only logical reason for hell in traditional Augustinian-Calvinism is the manifestation of God’s glory through the display of all his attributes including justice through wrath against sin. (He does not deny that there may be other reasons for believing in hell; he is only concerned here with the internal logic of Augustinian-Calvinism.) Can one hold onto God’s absolute sovereignty, belief that God ordains all that occurs, and that God’s end or purpose in creating is to glorify himself through displaying all his attributes (Edwards) and deny restricted election and reprobation of a certain number of persons? Crisp’s answer is yes.
Here is my response to Crisp’s main line of argument in this chapter: I believe (perhaps in agreement with Crisp although his own view is left somewhat unclear) that if a person is determined to hold onto the Augustinian-Calvinist-Edwardsian view of God’s sovereignty, that God ordains all that happens without exception, exercising meticulous providence that is “fine grained” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Helm), then the only way to rescue God’s goodness is to affirm universalism. And I agree with Crisp that nothing in the internal logic of that tradition rules this out. God can be absolutely sovereign in the strongest sense imaginable and display all his attributes for his full self-glorification and save everyone through Christ’s death so long as Christ’s death is understood along the lines of penal substitution (whether under that name or not).
However, I think a better way to rescue God’s goodness and avoid the “Augustinian problem of evil” (viz., that God ordains to hell) is classical Arminianism. Why? If we stick to logical analysis it is because insofar as one’s relationship with God is sovereignly ordained by God without one’s free consent that relationship is a condition and not a real relationship. I won’t go into great detail expounding that point here because I have done it several times earlier here (and in Against Calvinism). Suffice it to say that I cannot think of any analogy where, in ordinary experience and language, we would call a relationship between mature persons “real” where its establishment or continuation was not at all mutual.
I will end with a question about evangelical politics. How will conservative evangelical Calvinists respond to Crisp? Crisp teaches systematic theology at an evangelical seminary (Fuller). Will there be (has there been and I haven’t noticed it) an angry outcry from Crisp’s fellow Augustinian-Calvinists among conservative evangelicals—similar to the outcry against open theism? If not, why not? I see a few possible reasons (but none are satisfying to me): 1) Crisp is perceived as a philosopher (almost all his references are to philosophers) and the conservative evangelical gatekeepers of orthodoxy are not interested in what philosophers say; 2) Crisp is too subtle for them to fully understand; 3) Crisp is only analyzing ideas, not affirming any unorthodox ones; 4) Fuller has been written off as a hotbed of heresy anyway (not my view); 5) So long as Crisp stays on the Reformed side of the evangelical divide he’s protected from harsh criticism; the conservative evangelical gatekeepers of orthodoxy are really only interested in attacking non-Reformed evangelicals. Perhaps all are reasons why, so far, the heresy-hunters among conservative evangelicals have not attacked Crisp (so far as I know).