A More Generous Calvinism?

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In the last twenty-five years our understanding of the Reformed tradition has undergone a quiet revolution. With Richard Muller’s brilliant work on post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics leading the way, it is now widely recognized in academic circles (even if the insights are still making their way to the pew) that (1) Calvin is not the sine qua non of Calvinism, (2) that Reformed theology cannot be reduced to the central dogma of predestination, (3) that TULIP is a woefully inadequate summary of Reformed doctrine, (4) that Reformed scholasticism is a rich development of the magisterial Reformed tradition (not a compromised departure from it), and (5) that even within confessional Calvinism there is a surprising diversity of opinion on the substance and shape of key doctrines. In other words, Calvinism has many layers, many themes, and many voices. It is big, broad, and (with basic continuity) goes back a long ways.

But exactly how big and how broad?

For Oliver Crisp, the answer is bigger and broader than many people think. In his book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, Crisp, a professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that “Reformed theology as it is usually reported today is not the whole story” (3). Crisp’s burden is to show that Calvinism “is still regarded too narrowly, even among those cognizant of the recent historical-theological reassessment of the shape and character of the early Reformed tradition” (236). Key themes have been written out of the received narrative (4). In particular, there is more “wiggle room” than has often been thought on things like libertarian free will and hypothetical universalism (239). Crisp’s aim is not to provide a complete account of Reformed theology, but to argue that within Reformed confessionalism there are often acceptably divergent ways of approaching the same problem (238). In short, this book is an attempt to redress imbalances in the Reformed tradition and present a softer Calvinism—one more mindful of forgotten themes and more open to minority viewpoints (240).

A Different Kind of Book

Deviant Calvinism defies easy description. It’s historical theology practiced by a systematic theologian with a bent toward analytic philosophy. Crisp thinks of the book as “a species of retrieval theology: seeking to retrieve the ideas of past theologians as resources for contemporary theology.” In this pursuit, Crisp exhibits remarkable skill and diversity of interests, writing thoughtfully on everything from the Bebbington Quadrilateral to the Westminster Confession to Amyraldianism, and on everyone from John Hick to John Davenant to John Owen. Despite the difficult intellectual terrain, Crisp, for the most part, wears his learning lightly, with a style that manages to be conversational, academic, and playful. No small feat.

Crisp’s approach, however, is not without drawbacks. For starters, the proliferation of new terms—is it the analytic philosophy talking?—can be distracting. At one point, in the space of a few pages, we are introduced to the “ordination-accomplishment objection,” the “divine-benevolence objection,” and “conditional ordained sufficiency” (192-194). I found these labels more confusing than clarifying. Likewise, because Crisp understands this work to be more retrieval theology than systematic theology, he often stopped short of reaching firm conclusions. So instead of finally coming down on the side of eternal justification, which he took a chapter to support, Crisp concludes that “there may be resources” with which to meet traditional objections against eternal justification and that applying “these insights to current ecumenical discussions” may open up “an interesting and potentially fruitful avenue of research” (69). Similarly, he will not finally say whether “deviant” doctrines like libertarian Calvinism and hypothetical universalism are right, only that they “raise interesting issues” (96) and “provide more resources for a version of the doctrine suitable to the contemporary theological climate” (211, cf. 233). Whether such studied ambiguity is a sign of epistemic humility or of pulling your intellectual punches likely depends on what the reader is hoping to find from a work of theology.

More critically, Deviant Calvinism is marked by a conspicuous absence of Scripture. Bible passages are referenced rarely and detailed exegetical work is non-existent. This is not necessarily a critique: there is a place for doing theological work through the lenses of history and analytic philosophy. But, again, the reader should be aware of what he is (and is not) getting into. For example, these few sentences discussing the possibility of universalism were telling:

Alternatively, Augustinians could fall back upon a biblical argument in favor of particularism. And this is what Augustinians typically do. However, as I pointed out in chapter 4, this is not a happy option for the Augustinian, because it generates an Augustinian problem of evil: if God could have created a world where God saves all humanity yet has not done so (because the Bible says God has not), why has God not done so? There seems to be no good philosophical reason for God’s not doing so, apart from the argument of Scripture, and a very strong moral argument for doing so. (137)

It would be unfair to think that Crisp does not care what Scripture thinks (and it should be noted that he ends up arguing against universalism), but there is no sense in this book that Scripture should get the final word on contested matters. If he were only writing for fellow academics, some of whom may not have any interest in what Scripture says, the approach would be understandable. But when the aim of the book is to convince those in the Reformed tradition that they have been too narrow, the approach seems misguided. I suspect the inconsistency is owing at least in part to the fact that this volume consists of Crisp’s chapters and articles pulled together from various books and journals whose intended audiences may not be the same as the audience for this book.

How Deviant?

Given Crisp’s goal of introducing a softer Calvinism with wider boundaries, it is surprising that most of the book does not exactly push at those boundaries. Half of the eight chapters do not do much to lobby for a “deviant” Calvinism. Chapter 1 argues for the important role experience plays in the formation of doctrine—a good reminder for some of our stodgy brethren, but as a general category hardly a controversial point. Chapter 4 makes a case for Augustinian universalism, which Chapter 5 goes on to rebut. Chapter 6 explores the inner logic (and striking contradictions) of Barth’s universalism. All are fascinating logical and historical explorations, but they do little to advance the main thesis of the book.

Of the four remaining chapters, Chapter 2 argues “that there is more to be said for eternal justification than is often thought” (68). To be sure, this is not the majority opinion of Reformed theologians (nor can it be supported by the Westminster Confession [WCF 11.4]), but even if we were to make room for eternal justification (and men as well esteemed as Abraham Kuyper have affirmed it), it is not clear to me who in the Reformed camp is clamoring to enter this room. The issue hardly seems pressing. Rather, the burden of Crisp’s plea for a more generous Calvinism seems to rest on two other points: a (partially) libertarian freedom of the will and a (possible) hypothetical universalism (Chapters 3, 7, 8). Almost all the wiggle room on Crisp’s wish list concerns these two doctrines.

Of these two points, Crisp’s chapter on libertarian Calvinism is the less convincing. According to Crisp, there is a hard determinism, a “folk version” of Calvinism, which maintains that because God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, we are never free to act contrary to God’s decretive will. Consequently, in this folk view, free will has no place in Reformed theology (75). Crisp calls this incompatibilism because it denies that divine determinism can mesh with human free will (77). This is where Crisp goes “deviant,” arguing that because the Westminster Confession teaches that man in his innocency had the capacity to do good or evil (WCF 9.1-2), the Confession must be affirming that the “human pair had free will consistent with alternate possibilities” (73). And once you have man at least sometimes operating with this libertarian free will, Crisp sees no reason to suppose we do not have significant freedom in most areas of life. Except for the decision to believe in Christ, which must be worked in us by God directly, Crisp believes that our wills are free and that this limited libertarian freedom is not excluded by Reformed theology.

The problem with this reasoning is that it confuses free will as a moral category with the larger questions of philosophical necessity and contingency. To recognize that Adam and Eve had wills which were not bound by sin to choose what is evil is not the same as saying their wills were not still subject to the all-encompassing ordination of God. Most Calvinists would reject Crisp’s incompatibilist label, for they very much see divine determinism compatible with human responsibility, not because the human will is undetermined (i.e., as the liberty of indifference) but because the will is not subject to external coercion or compulsion. We are not “senseless stocks and blocks” whose wills are overridden by force (Canons of Dort III/IV.16). For Calvin, the will, however bound to wickedness, is still self determined (Inst. II.iii.13; II.v.7, 14-15). Likewise, Turretin argued to the same effect by postulating six different types of necessity. The will can be said to be free even if it is bound by a moral necessity (along with the necessity of dependence upon God, rational necessity, and necessity of event) so long as it is free from physical necessity and the necessity of coaction. That is to say, if the intellect has the power of choice (freedom from physical necessity) and the will can be exercised without external compulsion (freedom from the necessity of coaction) then our sins can be called voluntary and we can be held responsible for them (Elenctic Theology, X.xii.3-12). While Crisp’s insistence that the God of Calvinism is not the direct cause of all things is a necessary correction to some folk versions of Reformed theology, his larger claim about the presence of libertarian notions of freedom in the Reformed tradition is unconvincing.

Crisp’s exploration of hypothetical universalism was more compelling, even if less radical than meets the eye. Canvassing the theology of the Anglican Bishop John Davenant (1572-1641), and borrowing from the seminal work Jonathan Moore has done on John Preston (1587-1628), Crisp argues that English hypothetical universalism—the belief that Christ died for all men on the condition that they believe—has a long history in the Reformed tradition and is not to be confused with Amyraldianism, a variant of hypothetical universalism which also called for a controversial reordering of the decrees. It is now widely believed that the Synod of Dort, while certainly not endorsing the position, left open a back door for delegates like Davenant who held to particular redemption for the elect and a conditional intent toward the non-elect.

Crisp’s historical work is well researched and his arguments carefully nuanced. Overall, he makes an important point. But I wonder if his conclusion is less envelope-pushing than meets the eye. In his recent book on the theology of the Westminster Standards, for example, J.V. Feskso (hardly a deviant Calvinist) reaches the same conclusion (187-203). This is not to discount Crisp’s contribution or the need for it to be heard. It is, however, to question how much generosity is gained by hypothetical universalism. After all, as Lee Gatiss has pointed out, Calvinistic hypothetical universalism is, in the end, still a variant of limited atonement: Christ died effectually for the elect and only conditionally for the non-elect. The conditional intent for the non-elect is not in place of particular redemption for the elect (as in Arminianism), but in addition to or prior to this effectual atonement for those who will believe (For Us and For Our Salvation, 99). What’s more, it is hard to see what concrete advantage accrues to the non-elect by saying Christ died for them upon the condition that they believe, when God does not in fact grant the gift of faith to any of the non-elect. This is the same point made by Dabney, whom Crisp employs in making the case for hypothetical universalism, when he observes: “To say that God purposed, even conditionally, the reconciliation of that sinner by Christ’s sacrifice, while also distinctly proposing to do nothing effectual to bring about the fulfillment of that condition He knew the man would surely refuse, is contradictory. It is hard to see how, on this scheme, the sacrifice is related more beneficially to the non-elect sinner, than on the strict Calvinist’s plan” (Systematic Theology, 520). Hypothetical universalism appears to do more for the Calvinist’s psyche than for the state of the non-elect. To be sure, hypothetical universalism—at least of the non-Amyraldian kind—has not been considered outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, but this is owing to its congruence with stricter notions of particular redemption, not because of a marked departure from them.

Conclusion

This is not the first book I’ve read by Oliver Crisp, nor will it be the last. Even when exploring “liminal places” (3), his theology is deeply informed by and respectful of the Reformed tradition. This work is no exception. The history is informative, the breadth of knowledge striking, and the arguments provocative. One can learn much from this book. My main complaint is that in the two instances meant to make the case for “deviant Calvinism,” the first example (libertarian free will) is not really Calvinist and the second example (hypothetical universalism) is not all that deviant.

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