Review of Oliver Crisp’s “Deviant Calvinism” Part Three

Review of Oliver Crisp’s “Deviant Calvinism” Part Three December 24, 2014

Review of Oliver Crisps’ Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology Part Three


This is Part Three of my series of review essays of Oliver Crisp’s new book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology and deals with Chapter 3 : “Libertarian Calvinism.” 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.

In Chapter 2 Crisp takes up another debate among Calvinists but also one that impinges on non-Calvinist criticism of Calvinism (which at times Crisp treats as synonymous with Reformed theology). The thesis of the chapter is that the “Reformed view” (as expressed in the Westminster Confession but also in other classical Reformed confessions) does not imply “hard determinism” but leaves room for belief in free will and moral responsibility in matters unrelated to salvation: “It seems to me that in what the Confession does say, there is conceptual space, so to speak, to prescind from determinism touching all human choices and to affirm some limited version of libertarianism.” (74-75)

The argument provided for this thesis seems to me based on certain presuppositions. First, Crisp tends to define “Calvinism” and “Reformed” by written, authoritative confessional statements (such as the Westminster Confession) rather than by what most vocal Calvinists believe. That is certainly his prerogative, but it overlooks the fact that many, perhaps most, of the outspoken contemporary proponents of Calvinism are Baptists or members of other “free church” traditions. Second, Crisp works with a distinction between “hard determinism” and some other kind of determinism (presumably “soft”) that is not entirely clear to this reader. He frequently says that Reformed theology/Calvinism does not commit one to hard determinism leaving open the question whether it commits one to any kind of determinism. To me, the distinction between “hard determinism” and any other kind of determinism is unclear. Determinism is determinism. It means that for every event there is an antecedent cause that renders it certain and exhaustively explains its occurrence (whether that explanation is known or not). In human decision-making determinism, as I understand it and use the term, says that such antecedent causes are outside the deciding agent.

In this chapter Crisp quotes from different parts of the Westminster Confession to demonstrate that it leaves room for non-determinism and even libertarian free will in matters not related to salvation. That may be; I don’t claim to be an expert on the Westminster Confession. But it seems to me there are sentences in the Confession that also incline it toward determinism. Crisp admits that one possible interpretation of the Confession is that it is internally inconsistent although he is disinclined to think so.

I have a few qualms about Crisp’s argument. First, he juxtaposes his own view of Reformed theology (as non-deterministic) with what he calls “the folk version” or “folks view” of Reformed theology. Here is his account of the “folk version”: “The reasoning usually invoked by advocates of the folk view goes something like this: According to the Reformed, God eternally ordains whatever comes to pass. Now, if God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, then I am not free at any moment to choose to act contrary to what God ordains I do at that moment. But free will requires the ability to do otherwise at the moment of choice, in which case the Reformed view must deny that I have free will.” (75) Why call this the “folk view?” I and most non-Calvinists, including many scholarly critics of Calvinism, think this is exactly what classical Reformed theology implies by “good and necessary consequences” even if it does not directly state it. Of course, everything hinges on what “free will” means—whether power of contrary choice (libertarian free will) or doing what one wants to do (compatibilism). I would argue that the vast majority of conservative, classical Reformed theologians (including Lorraine Boettner whom Crisp cites near the beginning of his chapter) also believe this “folk view” of Reformed theology. (See my chapter on Divine Determinism in Against Calvinism where I cite numerous Reformed/Calvinist theologians beginning with Calvin himself to argue that classical Calvinism does, indeed, imply what Crisp calls the “folk version” of Reformed theology).

My second qualm has to do with Crisp’s (to me) confusing language about free will. Most of that (to me) confusing language appears on and around page 77 (for those who are reading the book along with me). On these pages Crisp admits there are “a number” of Reformed theologians who advocate versions of hard determinism and its concomitant “incompatibilism”—that free will is incompatible with determinism. My own reading of the theologians he mentions, however—Boettner, Jonathan Edwards, and Francis Turretin—leads me to think they affirm compatibilism—a view of “free will” compatible with determinism. But, of course, everything hinges on what one means by “free will.” In most of the literature I have read on this subject “compatibilism” is the belief that “free will” only means ability to do what one wants to do—ability to act on one’s strongest inclinations—not “power of contrary choice.” “Incompatibilism” is usually defined as free will that is incompatible with determinism because it is “power of contrary choice.”

So, things begin to get confusing when, at the top of page 77 Crisp says “Hard determinism is a species of incompatibilism, because the hard determinist claims that determinism is incompatible with human free will.” That would be true if “free will” could only mean “power of contrary choice,” but incompatibilism, as I understand it, is belief that free will only means ability to act on one’s strongest inclinations—which at least Boettner and Edwards embraced (as do many other modern and contemporary Calvinists).

I apologize for focusing so much on one page—77—but I really struggle with what Crisp says here. What am I missing? To explain further, in mid-page Crisp argues that hard determinism, with its concomitant denial of free will (?), is “theologically untenable, even unorthodox.” “The presumption in almost all Christian theology, including Reformed theology, is that human beings do have free will (whatever that means), and that they are morally responsible for those actions that are free. That is, there is a presumption among such theologians (I think, among almost all traditional, orthodox Christian theologians) that human beings must be free in some sense in order for their actions to be morally responsible. Moral responsibility is not decoupled from freedom in this theological literature. Indeed, to decouple these two things would be regarded as a step away from orthodox Christian belief.”

The gist of that statement is true: all, or nearly all, Christians have always believed that, in order for human beings to be morally responsible they must act freely. The problem is in the “whatever that means” parenthetical qualification of “free will.” The “theological literature” Crisp refers to—Reformed theology—typically defines free will as ability to act on one’s strongest inclinations (compatibilism) even if one could not do otherwise. How that is compatible with moral responsibility is one issue between Calvinists and Arminians who, partly because of the moral responsibility issue, reject compatibilism in favor of libertarian free will (ability to do otherwise than one does).

As I said, I’m having trouble getting past page 77! It seems to be capable of being read in different ways. Is Crisp arguing that at least some Calvinists (major ones he names!) are unorthodox because they deny libertarian free will in favor of hard determinism? Or is he allowing “incompatiblism” is not inconsistent with moral responsibility? I don’t know where the failure lies. It’s either in my denseness or Crisp’s perspicuity (in this particular part of the book).

I also have a qualm about Crisp’s treatment of Jacob Arminius and “the Remonstrant party that took up his cause [after his death] at the synod [Dort].” Crisp allows that Arminius’ views were “not unorthodox” while implying that the Remonstrants at Dort were not. My own study of both Arminius and the early Remonstrants (e.g., Simon Episcopius) leads me to disagree with this common assertion. Anyone who reads the Remonstrant Confession of 1621, authored by Episcopius, will be hard pressed to find any substantial disagreement with Arminius’ own views. But at least Crisp allows that Arminius was “not unorthodox.”

Crisp argues for “libertarian Calvinism” by which he means belief that in matters not directly related to salvation human persons have libertarian free will and are not determined by God or anything outside themselves. He believes there is room for this belief in classical Calvinism. He argues that “God ordains whatever comes to pass” does not imply determinism. “Note that this libertarian Calvinism does not deny that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass. It denies that God determines or causes whatsoever comes to pass.” (87) Some human actions, he says, “are not determined by God but are foreseen and permitted by God.” (87) Of course, Calvin himself adamantly denied this, but, as Crisp mentions, Reformed theologians (even those who call themselves Calvinist) are not obligated to agree with Calvin about everything; they are only obligated to agree with the “Reformed confessions.”

Here are three propositions that Crisp seems to affirm and believes are not inconsistent with each other: a) God ordains whatsoever comes to pass; b) some human actions are free actions (that is, actions that exercise free will) for which the humans concerned are morally responsible; and 3) free will requires the ability to do otherwise. (88) He argues that “many historic Arminian theologians have been willing to affirm all three, given certain qualifications.” (88) This is true so long as “certain qualifications” include that “God ordains whatsoever comes to pass” includes “bare permission” (not efficacious permission) and a distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills. But I doubt that very many Calvinists will agree with “3” and there’s the rub. If I am not mistaken Crisp, at least some of the time, grants that in many decisions not pertaining to salvation human persons have libertarian free will—ability to do otherwise than they do. In other words, the three propositions do fall into conflict given the interpretations of “God ordains” and “free will” held by most Arminians and most Calvinists.

What Crisp seems to be aiming at in this chapter and with his “libertarian Calvinism” is a kind of mixture of Calvinism and Arminianism—at least as both are popular understood and normally interpreted by leading Calvinist and Arminian theologians. He grants that even sinners have free will and denies exhaustive divine determinism of all human choices (although I think he fails to come completely clear about what he believes about free will and divine ordination) while holding on to monergism—belief that if a person is saved it is because God chose him or her and saved him or her efficaciously without free cooperation.

Crisp ends Chapter 3 by arguing that his libertarian Calvinism is not a species of Arminianism (due to its monergism) and is a species of Calvinism (due to its agreement with the Westminster Confession as interpreted by Crisp and not by Jerry Walls and others who believe it implies exhaustive divine determinism).

It would be difficult to do justice to Chapter 3 without responding to it sentence-by-sentence. I obviously don’t have room for that here. Let me just say that, in my opinion, Crisp’s “libertarian Calvinism” is not consistent with the vast majority of modern and contemporary Calvinisms in the U.S., especially those influenced by Jonathan Edwards, or even Calvin himself. And I doubt it is consistent with the Westminster Confession. And it is not acceptable to Arminians because of its soteriological monergism—even if Crisp goes on to embrace some form of universalism. The issue (I repeat…) is God’s character. If God chooses certain sinners to redeem out of the mass of damned humanity and leaves others to eternal hell when he could save all because salvation is unconditional and irresistible, then God is not good as I understand “good” under the sign of the character of Jesus Christ—the most perfect revelation of God’s character possible.

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