Deviant Calvinism

Article by   October 2014
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Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2014, 260 pages, $27.99/£21.99

Oliver Crisp has a deservedly high reputation for his clear expositions of Christian doctrine from an analytical and philosophical angle, notably in regard to the Incarnation, and to topics in the Reformed tradition, including discussions of the theologies of such notables as Jonathan Edwards and William Shedd. He writes seemingly effortlessly and with clarity and humour. This is one of his latest (it is always courting trouble to say of some particular tome that it is 'his latest'), and like some others the basis of the book is a group of papers on some particular theme or thread, some already-published,  in some cases revamped and added to. 

So it is here, the theme being 'deviant' Calvinism, though some of the positions are said to be an avowal of a more 'generous' Calvinism. And when glancing at the contents page it is clear that half of them are particularly concerned with universalism in some shape or form. 'Deviance' concerns courting universalism in some shape or other. Not that Oliver's intent is to advocate universalism.

Oliver is identified with 'analytic theology', with the project of using the tools of current analytic philosophy in the interests of a greater clarity in contemporary theological discourse in an effort to decode the language of the guild of theologians, and this book is also in pursuance of this project. He has developed his skill as a fairly temperate speculator, a necessary skill when pursuing the question of what some concept means or implies, and a way of testing one's intuitions. I would add that such a skill, in an 'analytic theologian', needs to be matched by an awareness of the danger of what my old boss use to call a 'contempt for the facts'.

Here I must declare an interest. Oliver is a former doctoral student of mine, a friend (not with its usual Facebook connotations), and someone who has the habit of sending his work in progress to me. I was in on some of the talk that led him to write on some of these themes, and I was in on one of the papers, perhaps more. 

The chapters of Deviant Calvinism include 'Tradition, Faith and Doctrine', 'Eternal Justification', 'Libertarian Calvinism', 'Augustinian Universalism', 'Universalism and Particularism', 'Barthian Universalism?', 'Hypothetical Universalism?' and 'The Double-Payment Objection'. All are interesting. But for reasons of space and preference I shall here spend a little time on the papers on libertarian Calvinism, on Augustinian Universalism and on the hypothetical universalism of Bishop Davenant and others. But I had almost to cut my hand off to forbear wading into Oliver's discussion of the Reformed faith within a catholic Christianity.

The chapter on 'Libertarian Calvinism' is chiefly about the Westminster Confession. I'm with Oliver on the matter of principle, that any Confessional or conciliar document is a work of compromise, both about what is said on the negative as well as the positive sides of things, and over what it is silent about. Conciliar and Confessional documents are political in character, articles of peace, through which a benign providence is at work in all the shenanigans, or not, according to your point of view. They may also in their language be 'metaphysically underdetermined' (Oliver's phrase). This would not be surprising: what piece of English prose is not so undetermined? Even the language of metaphysicians is usually capable of further metaphysical refinement and discrimination. Oliver goes with the idea (coming from some remarks of Jerry Walls) that the Confession may have something for the compatibilist, and something for the libertarian, deliberately or accidentally, (bearing in mind that these terms don't occur in the document itself. 

My suggestion is a different one. While a modern reader is likely to think that the terms 'freedom' and 'liberty' when used of people are being used interchangeably, I wonder whether the Confession uses these terms with greater care than we may at first think. Not so much a matter here of the language being compromised, as in being nuanced. 'Freedom' is tied to choosing the good, 'liberty' to the natural powers of human choice. So when the first couple are said to be created free they are created in a state such that they willed nothing but the good. But in the exercise of their choice, being in a mutable state, they lost the good. In effectual calling the person called is made to respond 'freely, being made willing by his grace'. He or she are made free to choose the good. By contrast the Confession refers to what we routinely choose as being is a result of being in state of liberty, of 'natural liberty' as the Confession refers to such liberty in one place. If I'm correct on this then there are not two doctrines of free will jostling each other. There is one, referred to as 'natural liberty', whatever that doctrine turns out to be. 

And so I don't think that Oliver needs to worry about libertarianism appearing in the Confession. There has been the odd Calvinist libertarian, but in the nineteenth century. Oliver mentions J.L. Girardeau. A minor deviance, in my judgement.

On Augustinian Universalism, Oliver has an argument against Augustinian particularism in a section entitled 'The Problem of Arbitrariness'. If the number of the elect is a part of the whole of humanity n, then why does God not elect n+1, or some other number greater than this though less than the whole?  Everyone less 1, say?

Usually Oliver discusses the views of theologians and of Confessions and the like, not Scripture directly. No doubt there is good reason for this but sometimes there is good reason to advert to Scripture even when discussing the rights and wrongs of some doctrine. Suppose that a theological argument disables a whole swathe of biblical language. Then there is good reason for the Christian analytic theologian to pause. And this is what I think should happen as a consequence of entertaining the problem of arbitrariness. I'm thinking of the many references in Scripture to the 'good pleasure' of God, or what 'seems good' to him. Someone who accepts the problem of arbitrariness as a critique of the action of God, disables a whole range of actions bearing the prefix 'It is God's good pleasure that...' Such language has then to be reinterpreted as not having its obvious meaning, or be politely sidelined. And when you think about it, much about creation and redemption is open to the charge of 'arbitrariness'.

In Deviant Calvinism sometimes the doctrines are or have been 'live options' others are nothing more than academic discussion points. The theses of the chapters are at odds. In his discussion Oliver presents hypothetical universalism as a 'softening' of regular Calvinism, but it is in fact just as 'hard' as its cousin, in fact it is a case of it. If you are for or against Augustinian particularism then you will be for or against hypothetical universalism, which is only hypothetical universalism after all, but is in reality a form of Augustinian particularism. It is surprising that Oliver, with his keen interest in the Trinity, does not explore the Trinitarian consequences of Hypothetical Universalism in one or other of its versions.

I hope these critical comments show the interest of the issues that Oliver raises in his new book. You'll sometimes be puzzled by what you read, sometimes perplexed and often pleased. Oliver's laying bare of some of the features of these doctrines provides a series of templates against which you can better discern the shape of our own doctrinal understanding. Good stuff!

Paul Helm is professor of theology at Highland Theological College in Scotland and Teaching Fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. He is author of The Providence of God, The Secret Providence of God, and John Calvin's Ideas

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