Whetting Appetites: A Preview of “Deviant Calvinism” by Oliver Crisp

Whetting Appetites: A Preview of “Deviant Calvinism” by Oliver Crisp December 12, 2014

Whetting Appetites: A Preview of Deviant Calvinism by Oliver Crisp

About a week ago (late November, 2014) I announced a coming series of interactions with Fuller Seminary theologian Oliver Crisp’s new book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Fortress, 2014). I encouraged those who wanted to participate in the discussion to buy it and gave everyone two weeks before the start of the series. However, the book has been lying on my desk, looking up at me, and crying “Read me!” for two weeks now and I just had to pick it up and start reading it. So consider this a preview and teaser of the book—just to get more of you interested in the coming series of interactions with its chapters.

Several articles and books by Reformed theologians have appeared in the last few years calling for greater recognition and acknowledgement of Reformed diversity. The impulse seems to arise from dissatisfaction with the way that “Young, Restless, Reformed Movement” (RRRM) has seemed to captured the “flag” of Reformed theology—at least in America in the last few decades. John Piper, of course, is the unofficial leader, the “guru,” of that movement and so his brand of Reformed theology (if it should even be called “Reformed”) or of Calvinism has come to be the standard for many especially younger Reformed/Calvinist Christians. But he has not been alone in setting the standard at a certain place—so called “five point Calvinism” including “double predestination” and what I call “divine determinism.”

Many years ago another Fuller Seminary theologian named James Daane protested the equation of Reformed theology with what he called “decretal theology”—pretty much the theology now being touted as “Reformed” by many associated with the RRRM. His book was The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit (Eerdmans, 1973). Daane, a student of Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer, argued that Reformed theology is broader than “five point Calvinism” and did not necessarily include belief in divine determinism or double predestination. He strongly criticized those in his time who equated Reformed theology with those doctrines.

More recently (than Daane but not as recently as Crisp) Covenant College theologian Kenneth Stewart made somewhat the same argument in Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (IVP, 2011). Also, several articles have appeared in Christian Century and Christianity Today making similar arguments—that “Reformed” is a broader category than “five point Calvinism” or “high federal Calvinism.”

What none of these protesting Reformed theologians has mentioned (so far as I know) is that Arminianism is a branch of the Reformed family tree—at least in some of its manifestations. Well, that depends, of course, upon who is defining “Reformed!” It is, apparently, an essentially contested concept—like “evangelical.” There is no “pope” or even magisterium of Reformed Christianity to declare once and for all what it is. So, since being Reformed is popular, a tussle has erupted over how it should be defined. The World Communion of Reformed Churches, an umbrella group of over one hundred Reformed denominations, includes the Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands, the Arminian denomination with roots back to Simon Episcopius and the Dutch Remonstrants of the 1620s. Few American evangelical Reformed theologians and leaders would spread the Reformed “net” that broadly. But there certainly is disagreement about what can be counted as Reformed and who should be considered Reformed. Ironically, since the vast majority of YRRM people are baptistic in some sense, some Reformed spokesmen deny that credo-baptists can be Reformed!

So, Crisp, a well-known and highly regarded evangelical thinker, steps into this fray with a book cutely titled Deviant Calvinism. I’m not usually easily seduced into buying and reading a book by its title, but I must admit this one caught my eye and captured my attention. Of course, I think all Calvinism is “deviant”—from the Christian consensus of the first four centuries. (I speak there—in that sentence—of course of Calvinism’s distinctive doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace to say nothing of limited atonement.) And I think it is deviant from Scripture, tradition (the consensus of the Great Tradition of Christian thought), reason and experience. But I have explained that in detail in Against Calvinism.

I have now read the Introduction (pp. 1-11) of Deviant Calvinism where Crisp reveals some of his presuppositions and aims. He emphasizes that Reformed theology ought always to abide by the rule “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda”—“reformed and always reforming.” He clearly does not think the Reformed tradition is static. He claims that, contrary to popular misconceptions of Reformed theology, “Reformed theology was never identified with the project of one person and was never supposed to be a straightjacket binding its practitioners.” (2) His basic principle is that “the Reformed churches must continue to be reformed in light of the word of God.” (2) Specifically, he lays his cards on the table, so to speak, by saying that the doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement have never been definitive of the Reformed tradition. (2) So it is okay for a Reformed theologian to think outside the “TULIP box.” They always have and continue to do so in spite of the YRRM and its leaders who all appear to think the TULIP box and divine determinism are necessary hallmarks of Reformed theology and who equate “Reformed” with “Calvinism.”

Crisp’s reason for writing this book appears on page 3: “Reformed theology as it is usually reported today is not the whole story.” He wants to explore and expound the rest of the story—of Reformed theology—outside the confines of conservative (mostly) American Calvinism. He doesn’t pull any punches in denying that TULIP Calvinism is the whole of Reformed theology. He compares that equation with “conflating the contemporary Tea Party of American politics with the historic Republican Party.” (4)

In his Introduction Crisp previews some of the points for which he will argue in the rest of the book. For example, according to him, “the Reformed confessions neither require nor deny divine determinism. In fact, a species of theological libertarianism is consistent with Reformed theology, given certain qualifications.” (5) (Crisp says he does not “endorse such libertarianism.”) He also tackles the subject of the scope of the atonement and argues that belief in a universal atonement has been solidly within the Reformed tradition for centuries. (Of course, R. T. Kendall proved long ago that Calvin himself did not believe in “limited atonement” and almost certainly did believe in some version of universal atonement.) Crisp adamantly, almost vociferously, denies that belief in universal atonement within Reformed theology ought to be relegated to “Amyraldianism” and states that it pre-dates Moise Amyraut. (6)

In the last several pages of the Introduction Crisp makes clear one concern of his book—to discuss “universalisms” within Reformed theology. Some conservative Calvinists will shiver with shock when they read his claim on page 7 that “The Princeton stalwart Benjamin Warfield famously remarked that Calvinism is the one Protestant tradition of Christian theology whose assumptions can be pressed in the direction of universalism.” (His documentation points to Warfield’s The Plan of Salvation, rev. ed., chapter 5.) I wish I had that fact at hand when I wrote here and in Against Calvinism that Calvinism, not Arminianism, inclines toward universalism!

Clearly, for Crisp, and this will be explained throughout the book, “universalism” has several possible meanings including “hypothetical universalism”—that it is possible that all will be saved (even if such will not be the case). He hints at sympathy with Karl Barth’s hopeful universalism while admitting that Barth was vague about the matter. (8) clearly, though, Crisp includes Barth within the contemporary Reformed tradition—something that will no doubt cause controversy especially among the Westminster Theological Seminary crowd.

Finally, toward the end of the Introduction, Crisp argues against the common conservative Calvinist claim, going back to John Owen (in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ) that universal atonement leads inevitably to universal salvation. The argument is, of course, that if Christ died for the sins of all then those in hell are being unjustly punished because Christ already suffered the punishment for their sins. Crisp rightly says “There is no good reason to think that those who are damned are punished twice for their sin if universal atonement is true. The damned are not punished at all in the first instance; it is Christ who acts as their surety and who takes upon himself the penal consequences of their sin. And Christ’s work is not said [in universal atonement] to be effectual for the salvation of all humanity; it is only said to be sufficient to that end conditional upon faith….” (10-11)

Now I am eagerly looking forward to reading the rest of Deviant Calvinism, but, for the time being, unless the rest of the book alters my opinion, Crisp seems to be heading in the same general direction as those who call themselves “evangelical Calvinists” inspired by the theology of T. F. Torrance. I earlier here reviewed the volume Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church edited by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Wipf & Stock, 2012) and argued that what those authors called “evangelical Calvinism” is hardly distinguishable from classical Arminianism. Throughout my review of Crisp’s book I will be asking how his “deviant Calvinism” (assuming that is his label for his own view) differs from classical Arminianism.

Now I invite interested persons to get the book—Deviant Calvinism—and begin reading it. In about a week I will review and respond to the first chapter which is programmatic—dealing with theological method. One caveat: Please do not disagree with Crisp’s book or my interpretation of it if you are not reading it with me. I will continue blogging about other subjects, so I am not closing the door of this blog to others. I simply prefer that disagreement with Crisp’s views and/or my interpretations of his views be limited to those who are reading or have read the book.

A SIDEBAR: I am peeved at Fortress Press for not giving me a complimentary copy of Deviant Calvinism. The tradition at AAR/SBL has been that publishers give a complimentary copy of a book to a noted scholar who promises to review the book. My friend and co-author Stan Grenz used to leave AAR/SBL with at least twenty books—nearly all complimentary copies from publishers including Fortress Press! I told the publisher’s representative, a former student of mine, that I would review the book on my blog and I stated that I would gladly take the last copy on the last day of the conference—which usually draws the book as a gift even if it is the “display copy.” Instead, I had to make a special trip to the publisher’s booth on the last morning the conference, just before leaving for the airport to fly home, just to pay full price (minus the conference discount) for the book. I do not blame my former student; I blame the publisher for not being more generous with review copies—at least to me.



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