A Response to Mark Jones and Gert van den Brink
May 16, 2015
We're grateful Oliver Crisp has offered his response to the two reviews of Deviant Calvinism which were published this week. Oliver's contribution serves to extend an important conversation over the character and sources of Reformed theology ~ Editor
I wish to address two reviews of my book Deviant Calvinism that have appeared in the pages of Reformation21. (There was a third review of the book by Professor Paul Helm that was published earlier in Reformation21, but I shall have no comments to make on that here.) The first review is by Gert van den Brink. The second is by Mark Jones. My response fall into three parts. In the first, I want to correct some factual inaccuracies (by van den Brink). In the second, I want to consider matters of theological method. In the third, I offer some more general reflections on the book in light of these reviews.
As to the first, Gert van den Brink writes this in the closing paragraph of his review:
My last point has to do with the coherence of the book as a whole. Crisp pleads for justification from eternity, salvation for all people, universal efficacy of Jesus' sacrifice, but also for more room for the freedom of the human will, [as allowable views within the Reformed tradition, not as his own personal views] (updated to clarify). For each of these points, he mentions the names of Reformed authors, but it is clear that, historically speaking, there is nobody who (as Crisp wants now) pleads for these positions together. Furthermore, it is logically impossible to combine freedom as indifference with the absolute predestination of all people. Crisp does not answer the question why the position he defends did not become accepted in the Reformed tradition. The answer, however, is obvious: it is not a coherent position. And for those who even now wish to be regarded as Reformed and as Calvinistic, this is a weighty argument.
I do not endorse justification from eternity, salvation for all people, or the universal efficacy of Christ's sacrifice in the book. Rather, I set out a number of different views that have been taken in the Reformed tradition, but which I do not necessarily endorse. There is value in trying to understand from the inside-out, so to speak, views you don't hold personally. That is what I try to do in this work, in order to correct what I perceive to be a narrowing of how the Reformed tradition is understood in much literature today. I do this by providing a series of doctrinal studies on nodal issues in the tradition--not by attempting to set forth a single unified view on the range of topics I deal with. But I emphatically do not plead for these views, if that means seeking to make an appeal for doctrines that I endorse--and I make that plain at the outset of the book. (The explanatory gloss offered in square brackets in this citation was not written by Gert van den Brink, but offered by Mark Jones when I queried this in personal correspondence.)
On the matter of whether there is a single Reformed theologian who holds all the views I set forth in the book, that would appear to be beside the point given its rationale. But, in any case, systematic theologians don't worry too much if someone has not held precisely the view they espouse, otherwise there could be no constructive theology. We would simply be reiterating the views of those who had gone before us. Just read Calvin's Institutes and then Turretin's Institutes: there is clearly doctrinal progression and difference between these two Reformed thinkers, a matter that I don't think is unusual. This is even more clearly the case if one compares Barth with Calvin--yet both are Reformed theologians.
This brings me to the matter of method. The first objection Gert van den Brink raises has to do with the "intermingling" of historical and systematic theology. I take it he does not have much truck with retrieval theology, which (as I indicate in the Introduction) is the sort of approach to the historical material that I attempt in the subsequent chapters. He goes on to say,
Normally, Crisp's approach is as follows: he claims that in the history of the Reformed tradition there were one or more people [sic] who took a certain position, and because they did so in the Reformed context, the specific position can be regarded as a Reformed one, being within the bounds of Calvinism. In this way he mentions the fact that Arminius lived in a Reformed context, and subsequently he argues that Arminius's views can be seen as Reformed. However, such an approach is a categorical mistake. From the fact that somebody worked in a specific context, we should be careful about their theological leanings or proclivities. Not everybody in Rome is Romish. Crisp's claim that Arminius's views were "merely controversial; they were not unorthodox" (p. 82) is apparently wrong: on the Synod of Dordt, not only the opinions of his followers, the Remonstrant party, but also Arminius's own views were labelled as heretical.
This is what I actually say about Arminius in the book (p. 85):
Jacob Arminius lived and died as a Reformed pastor and professor at Leiden, though he espoused a version of Molinism and may even have been responsible for the introduction of Molinism into Protestant thought. Although the Synod of Dort repudiated a number of his views in its canons, this was subsequent to his death. During his lifetime, his views were merely controversial; they were not unorthodox. What is more, his views are more measured and careful than the Remonstrant party that took up his cause at the synod.
There doesn't seem to be any historical misreporting here; no category mistakes. Mark Jones also takes up my remarks about Arminius and Arminianism, but from a different direction. He worries that Reformed theologians must be monergists (i.e. think that God alone brings about human salvation) whereas Arminians are synergists (i.e. allow that God and humans together bring about human salvation). He notes that I am not convinced that all Arminian theologians are synergists. To this I would add: I'm not convinced that the distinction between monergism and synergism is always a terribly helpful way to characterize the differences that certainly do exist between Arminian and Reformed theologians--as if the Arminian account of human salvation is somehow bordering on semi-Pelagianism, whereas Reformed theology is solidly Augustinian.
Gert van den Brink also accuses me of misrepresenting historical material cited in the book, and this is something Jones also seems concerned about. With regard to justification from eternity, van den Brink alleges that I cite authors that don't espouse this position as if they did. It would be tiresome to deal with each of these in turn, but to take one example, it is well-known that Tobias Crisp (no relation) was regarded as a defender of justification from eternity. Admittedly, Crisp's views are complex and this is reflected in scholarly discussion of his work, e.g. that by Carl Trueman. But Trueman himself writes, "The name most associated with sophisticated expressions of the doctrine of eternal justification in [John] Owen's day was Tobias Crisp." (See his John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man [Ashgate, 2007], p. 114.)
Gert van den Brink goes on to say, "Crisp does not at all even allude to the historical discussion, let alone that he is in dialogue with the positions. Even if he cites Reformed authors, they are seldom from the seventeenth century. There is a lack of interaction with the Latin sources from the seventeenth century, which would have helped his discussion immensely." This is true, and it is a point reiterated by Jones. But (to repeat), this is not a work of historical theology as the Introduction to Deviant Calvinism makes plain. Moreover, it is odd to object that an author hasn't cited works the reviewer would have preferred to have seen used, instead of the Reformed theologians actually cited. We all make selections in the interlocutors with whom we interact. It is surely appropriate to choose interlocutors from the Reformed tradition that speak to a particular topic. The fact that they weren't the interlocutors the reviewer would have chosen is beside the point. (To take a hypothetical example, am I not allowed to use G. C. Berkouwer as a resource when tackling the doctrine of election because John Calvin wrote about it before he did? Must I compare Berkouwer to Calvin on this topic in order for my work to be theologically responsible? It does not seem to me that an affirmative answer to these questions is always the right answer to give, depending on the sort of inquiry envisaged, and the nature of the sources used.)
Of all the things written in this book, the chapter on libertarian Calvinism has come in for the most criticism, and some of that may be justified. But, as I have already indicated (and as Jones makes clear), I was not endorsing this doctrine. I was trying to lay out an account that is there in the Reformed tradition, treating it with seriousness and a certain intellectual sympathy--both of which I take to be hermeneutical virtues. My recent article in the Journal of Reformed Theology on John Girardeau's doctrine of human free will is a kind of follow-up piece that gives one important historical precedent for something like libertarian Calvinism, which Girardeau certainly did think was consistent with the Westminster Confession (whether he was right or wrong about this is another matter, of course). And, as recent historical work has shown, there is certainly a significant change in the way Reformed theologians thought about this matter from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. (See, e.g. Richard Muller's essay on Jonathan Edwards' views in this regard here). Gert van den Brink writes as if my views have no historical precedent, but that is to ignore this recent revisionist historiography, and the minority report of authors like Girardeau and others like William Cunningham, to whom I refer in the book. It is also very strange to find van den Brink distancing the authors of the Reformed Thought on Freedom from any accusation of libertarianism, when the writers of that work clearly indicate that a number of early Reformed theologians were not what today we would think of as theological determinists, and that a number of these thinkers utilized the doctrine of synchronic contingency, which is a principle that fits rather nicely with a certain sort of libertarianism. Interestingly enough, it was a conversation with Professor Donald Macleod, then Principal of the Free Church College, Edinburgh, that first alerted me to the existence of libertarian Calvinism. Macleod intimated, much to my surprise, that such was his own position!
Finally, some reflections on the project of Deviant Calvinism. Often, the way one frames an intellectual discussion is important. Perhaps I could have been clearer about the framing of my work, but it seems to me to be a natural development of previous forays into similar territory (e.g. my Revisioning Christology, and Retrieving Doctrine), and I say more about the method of theological retrieval in those works. Jones worries about the lack of biblical exploration in Deviant Calvinism, as well as about the use of historical sources. That is a fair point. But it is difficult to do all these things in the covers of one book. Whether one likes it or not, the complexity of specialist literatures today means that traversing territory as wide as that which I did undertake is no small task. Adding to that more historical work than I did, and biblical exegetical work as well, would have made this into a very different book. I do not seek to disparage Jones' comment. I only point out the limitations placed upon scholars by the complexity of disciplinary boundaries, and the inevitably limited scope of one short book. I shall redouble my efforts to do a better job in future.
In the closing section of Deviant Calvinism I wrote that one of the aims of the work was "to commend to those within and without the ambit of the Reformed community a way of looking at several central and defining doctrines of Calvinistic theology that broadens out what is regarded as appropriately Reformed doctrine." (p, 233.) No merely human author is infallible, and I certainly see that this is not a perfect book. However, in reviewing the work of others it is surely appropriate to expect charity and a real attempt to read a work accurately. I am grateful to Mark Jones for his comments, and his willingness to engage my work. I hope that Gert van den Brink and I can both learn from it.
Oliver Crisp is Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California