An Interview with Oliver Crisp (Deviant Calvinism)

Mark McDowell
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This is Deviant Calvinism week. The author of this new book is Oliver Crisp and I'm delighted and incredibly grateful that he has taken the time to be pestered with some questions about this work. We have also provided a review of the book by Ref21 stalwart, Paul Helm, that can be found in the Shelf Life section.

Oliver Crisp is Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to Fuller, Oliver has taught at the University of Bristol and the University of St. Andrews. He has written as widely on doctrinal topics as he has on theologians. This book further enforces his reputation as a fascinating and provocative thinker who pushes his readers to think more deeply and harder about topics under consideration- this time round, the nature and identity of Reformed theology. We hope you enjoy the interaction.

MM - Could you briefly tell me how you were led to this project and a bit about your interest in its topic?

OC - I have had a serious interest in Reformed history and theology for a long time. In the last decade I've been drawn to marginal or less-well-known figures in the Reformed tradition, and have been writing about them (e.g. William Shedd, John Williamson Nevin, John McLeod Campbell, John Girardeau, John Davenant, Donald Baillie, and so on). I have also been interested in the historical-theological work in the Reformed tradition of recent years that has called into question things like the Calvin vs. Calvinists thesis, the central dogma thesis, and the decline and fall narrative that an earlier generation developed against Reformed scholastic theology. Finally, I've also come to have an interest in retrieval theology, that is, the project of retrieving ideas, arguments, notions, from theologians of the past in order to use them for constructive theology today. These various interests came together in this book. I began to see that there has been a "forgetting" of much of the richness and diversity in the Reformed tradition. Others have seen this too, of course. My volume is just one contribution to the broadening out of our understanding of Reformed theology. I hope it also stimulates other Reformed theologians to do some creative retrieval theology of their own!

MM - One of your aims in this book is to identify the complexion of Reformed theology. Taking the popular dictum, 'reformed, always reforming' as your starting point, you say that 'sometimes it appears that the popular perception of Reformed theology is rather more like a great shire horse stuck in the mud than a majestic Andalusian, charging ahead with its rider' (p.2). Can you tell us why Reformed theology, in your thinking, has tended to find it difficult to continue the work of the Reformation?

OC - I think that sometimes the Reformed community has tended to reify a particular time, particular places, particular thinkers, at the expense of the ongoing challenge of being "always reforming." So, for instance, we look to the sixteenth century, to the Magisterial Reformers, to the confessions that grew out of that formative period, and the great statements of theology that are a gift to the church and think "That is it: that is the high water mark. Everything since then has been going downhill." In other words, we project a Golden Age back onto the sixteenth century. Although I am deeply indebted to, and shaped by, Reformation theology and the confessional deposit that it spawned, I think that such Golden Age thinking is mistaken. We have a theological task to do now, and though retrieval theology has its place, we need to think anew about the Gospel for today. We can't simply take sixteenth-century theology and transpose it into a twenty-first century context. It won't work because the intellectual challenges and context are different. What we need is creative and constructive attempts to fashion Reformed theology for today that draws on the riches of the tradition, but seeks to be truly "always reforming."

MM - To follow up on the previous question, the title of your book has two key terms, 'Deviant' and 'Calvinism'. Why 'Deviant' and who qualifies to be included in this category?

OC -  "Deviant" can mean something that departs for usual or accepted standards. It isn't necessarily pejorative. I wanted to focus on some key issues in Reformed soteriology and ask, Is there room for diversity on these issues--perhaps greater diversity than is often reported today? Is there such a diversity on some of these key theological issues in the tradition that may offer us resources for doing Reformed theology today? What I found was that there was such diversity within confessional bounds, and that there were surprising instances of theologians who didn't take the "accepted" view, e.g. Bishop John Davenant on the scope of atonement. This made me think that some contemporary adherents of the Reformed tradition may be missing out on some of the riches of the tradition because we are sometimes in danger of identifying the riches of the tradition with one particular strand of it, a strand that has come to be mistakenly identified with the whole. So, in a way (and as I indicate in the conclusion to the book) the questions I focus on show that there is more wiggle room in the tradition than we might initially think, so that some versions of "Calvinism" that are often thought to be deviant actually turn out to be theologically acceptable within Reformed confessional bounds.

MM - Your last answer raises a provocative point, and helps move us to my next question, well, two questions: how do you define 'Calvinism' and how would you respond to those who might worry that your work of retrieval and reassessment of 'deviant Calvinists', while broadening an understanding of what reformed theology is, nevertheless, under-represents reformed theology's distinctiveness?

OC - In a sense, your two questions are bound together. How we define Reformed theology (indeed, whether we can offer a definition of it) is tied to the question of what it is that distinguished Reformed theology from other sorts of Christian theology. Like a number of other theologians today, I think of myself as a Reformed Catholic. For me, Reformed theology is a species of catholic theology that can be distinguished from other streams of catholic theology by certain distinctive emphases. For instance, Reformed theology is confessional by nature. There are a number of historic and more recent confessions to which Reformed Christians turn, some of which are subordinate standards, e.g. the Westminster Confession for (much) Presbyterianism. But, of course, the confessions offer different views on the Reformed faith, and are themselves the products of their time and place. Other Christian traditions have confessions, of course (e.g. Lutherans). But the Reformed have a particular penchant for summarizing their faith and expressing it in confessional form on different occasions and times. Second, there are particular thinkers to whom Reformed theologians pay attention, and whose work provides important resources for contemporary theology. Hopefully we read theologians outside the bounds of Reformed theology as our predecessors did. But there is a constellation of divines who are part of our tradition, and whose work informs and fructifies it, e.g. Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Turretin, Ames, Preston, Owen, Schleiermacher, Edwards, Hodge, Barth, and so on. Third, there are particular doctrinal emphases that distinguish Reformed Catholicism from other streams of Christian theology. For instance, an emphasis on divine election and protology, a concern with the absolute sovereignty of God, a widely shared concern about the noetic effects of sin, human depravity, and the need for human salvation in Christ alone, a family of views about the atonement, and a notion that the elect cannot lose their salvation. Sometimes what is thought to be distinctive of Reformed theology is summarized in the TULIP acrostic. This does indeed represent key themes in Reformed thought that are widely shared. But I don't think that can define Reformed theology because not all Reformed theologians hold to all five of these points. For instance, Huldrych Zwingli believed that we are not culpable for being born with original sin, and that God graciously saves humans who have not heard the name of Christ. Bishop John Davenant (amongst others) believe that the atonement is not "limited' but universal. Both of these thinkers are staunchly Reformed theologians, not liminal figures at the margins of the tradition. So perhaps it is better to think of Reformed theology as a tradition distinguished by a cluster of core themes, thinkers, practices, eccliesologies, confessions, and so on--more of a centered set of things that distinguish us from other Christians than a bounded set that separates us off from other Christians.

MM - You mention that one of your chief aims is to investigate reformed soteriology. You spend most of the book treating salvation and I was wondering if you might discuss what 'the softer face of Calvinism', as you have it, looks like when it speaks of salvation

OC - Calvinism is often associated with a way of thinking about the scope of salvation that begins with the decrees of God and ends with the reconciliation of an elect number of human beings. Protology does a lot of the heavy-lifting in such historic Reformed thought, (less so in some contemporary Reformed theologians, like Moltmann). One of the aims of the book is to challenge some of the ways in which this narrative is sometimes presented--as if there is only one acceptable Reformed view about the ordering of God's decrees, about what God intends in salvation, about the scope of salvation, and about the number of the elect. I discuss various issues in the neighborhood of these claims. For instance, the worry about eternal justification: is my election and justification eternally decreed so that my change of heart on coming to Christ is merely an epistemic matter, or is such a view inherently antinomian? Or, to take another issue, must those who adopt a Reformed or broadly Augustinian account of the divine decrees hold to the notion that only a tiny remnant of humanity is saved, or is this scheme consistent with universalism, the doctrine that all are saved by the work of Christ? Are we determined to act as we do by God in every single action we perform, or is the Reformed doctrine of bondage to sin consistent with some robust account of human freedom that, in some instances, includes a notion of alternate possibilities? Finally, is it the case that to be Reformed one must opt for the view that the atonement is particular and definite in scope and intention? In each case, I explore ways in which resources to be found in the Reformed tradition make straightforward answers to these questions problematic. I also suggest solutions along the way--it isn't all about hand-wringing or the presentation of problems, but (I trust) includes the offer of solutions, including some solutions not often considered in contemporary Reformed thought. I am certainly of the view that theologians ought not to curse the dark, but should light a candle instead. I hope that this book does light a candle of a sort, and one that will help illuminate certain questions some think closed off, especially questions pertaining to key aspects of Reformed soteriology.

MM - Deviant Calvinism is written with the pen of an analytic theologian. Much of reformed theology's reassessment of late has come from historical theologians attempting to locate doctrines in their broader cultural and historical contexts. One of the many strengths of the work of analytic theologians and philosophers is the pursuit of conceptual and doctrinal clarity. How is your own approach distinct from that of the historical theologian, and in what way does it aid an understanding of the Christian past? 

OC - I am greatly indebted to historical theology. History is one of my great loves. As I have already indicated, my own approach might be described as a species of retrieval theology: seeking to retrieve the ideas of past theologians as resources for contemporary theology. Often this involves careful reading and reflection on particular works, reconstructing the arguments of theologians, and, where necessary amending or repairing aspects of their thinking that are unclear or don't appear to make sense. Then one is in a position to assess the value of these arguments, and to interact with them in order to provide a contemporary constructive account of a doctrine. Analytic theology helps in this task. It provides certain philosophical sensibilities and assumptions, a literature to which one can turn to find other sympathetic interlocutors, and tools with which to set clarifying and elucidating the logical form of a particular argument. I trust that my work is alive to the complex historical issues involved in such work even if I am not exactly a historical theologian myself. The fact that theology is embedded in a particular tradition or traditions is important, and I think that over the last decade I have begun to see that more clearly, thanks in large part to the work of recent historians of theology who have done such great service in reassessing things like the post-Reformation Reformed tradition.

MM - Finally, what service would you hope this book to have in the life of the Christian in the church? 

OC - An appreciation of the theological tradition to which we belong is surely a good thing. Deepening such an appreciation is, I think, a good thing as well. If the book helps Christians to see that the Reformed tradition has a greater depth and breadth, as well as a richness that perhaps they had not encountered before, then I shall be content. If they are persuaded that some of the lines of argument I offer in the book are worth pursuing further, then I shall be delighted.