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

Review of Oliver Crisp’s “Deviant Calvinism” Part Two December 20, 2014

Review of Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology Part Two


This is Part Two of my series of review essays of Oliver Crisp’s new book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology and deals with Chapter 2: “Eternal Justification.” 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 “eternal justification”).

In Chapter 2 Crisp takes up a debate among Calvinists that I was not aware of. Well, I may have heard of it, but I was helpfully informed about the divergence of opinion by his chapter. I take it this is a debate solely among Calvinists.

Here is the issue: Given that God decrees who will be saved, when are they justified (declared righteous by God)? According to Crisp one Calvinist tradition says that the elect are declared righteous by God “in eternity” such that they are justified simultaneously with God’s decree to save them. Another Calvinist tradition says that the elect are declared righteous by God “from eternity” such that, although their justification is secured, guaranteed, by God’s eternal decree about them they are not actually justified until God imparts faith to them. A third Calvinist tradition says that the elect are justified “in history.” This third view says that “God’s decree to justify the elect is something like a promise by means of which God places God’s self under an obligation to bring about the justification of the elect in time.” (57)

Much of the content of Chapter 2 is simply the elucidation of these three Calvinist views of time and eternity in relation to election and justification and Crisp’s exploration of their implications. It seems to me that only a passionate Calvinist will have very high interest in this matter. And even many of them will find it less than absorbing. As an outsider looking/listening in, I find the whole issue interesting but bemusing.

At the end of the chapter I cannot tell which of the three views Crisp embraces; he defends all three as legitimate variants of Calvinism. He defends all three against charges and accusations that they lead to antinomianism and unwarranted speculation—criticisms Calvinists who hold one view often make against the other views. And, of course, non-Calvinists have sometimes accused all of the views and Calvinism’s talk of “divine decrees” itself as unwarranted speculation and possibly leading to antinomianism.

The first two views—justification-in-eternity and justification-from-eternity—assume an atemporal God. That seems speculative to me; I find no warrant for it in Scripture itself. It is, in my opinion (as I have explained here before), philosophical rather than biblical. (Not that the two are always at odds; they just happen to be in this case.) All three views (including justification-in-history) assume monergism, which is why this whole debate is intra-Calvinistic. (Although many Lutherans hold something like the justification-in-history view.)

It seems to me that the justification-in-eternity view corresponds closely (perhaps not exclusively) with supralapsarianism. Crisp mentions as advocates of it Karl Barth and Herman Hoeksema—both supralapsarians. It seems to me the justification-from-eternity view corresponds closely (perhaps not exclusively) with infralapsarianism. And the justification-in-history view (to which Crisp gives less attention) is most compatible (of the three) with Arminianism. Crisp mentions Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer’s criticisms’ of the first two views as speculative and ahistorical. In Against Calvinism I used Berkouwer’s criticisms of “decretal theology” (channeled through James Daane, a student of Berkouwer’s). According to Berkouwer, the idea of “eternal divine decrees” regarding individuals’ salvation is unbiblical as in the Bible God is intimately involved with humans in history and saves people in history through historical relationships. Berkouwer did not absolutely reject the idea of eternal election, but he wanted to turn Reformed theologians’ attention to history and away from speculation about the backgrounds of election in eternal decrees.

If I were a Calvinist I would absolutely reject the justification-in-eternity view because it is contrary to the biblical emphasis on faith as necessarily instrumental to justification (a, if not the, main point of Romans!). And I would regard justification-in-eternity as leading to either universalism or hyper-Calvinism. I would not see much difference between justification-from-eternity and justification-in-history and would probably favor justification-in-history for Berkouwer’s (and Daane’s) reasons.

I was disappointed in this chapter for two reasons: 1) I thought it belonged deeper in the book, not in such a forward position, and 2) I wanted to know which view Crisp himself favored and why. The reason it belongs deeper in the book is that attempting to read it will convince some readers the book is not worth reading. This chapter could lead a person to believe the whole book will deal with Reformed scholasticism and intramural debates among Calvinists. If it does, I will be disappointed in the whole book (even though I’m sure I will find it interesting and informative as I found this chapter). Compared with Chapter 1 this chapter did not pull me further into the book. But I will press onward anyway.

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