An Analysis of "Deviant Calvinism" (Part 1)
May 12, 2015
The question of how diverse the Reformed tradition is is an important topic of consideration. I have co-edited a volume on Reformed diversity in the seventeenth century, and later this year I have another co-edited volume coming out on Reformed diversity in the eighteenth century. Professor Oliver Crisp has written a book, Deviant Calvinism, that deals with questions related to the diversity of the Reformed tradition. In the near future, I hope to interact a little with the book myself, but also with the topic in general. Paul Helm has reviewed the book here. Below is an analysis of the book by a Dutch scholar, Gert van den Brink, who has published widely on these topics.
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When are you a Calvinist, and when are you no longer a Calvinist? In this book, the English - now a Professor at Fuller Seminary - Calvinistic philosopher of religion, Oliver Crisp, claims that the space (i.e., diversity) which Calvinism offers is much wider than many presume. Too often, according to Crisp, Calvinism is identified with some narrow-minded conviction regarding predestination and limited atonement, which hinders the persuasiveness of Calvinism and gives us an unfair picture of its historical pedigree. In his book, Deviant Calvinism, Crisp stresses the doctrinal variegation in the Reformed tradition, and hopes that, by renewed interest for this diversity, Calvinism may be a serious dialogue partner in the field of dogmatics.
Crisp discusses in this book several topics, investigating how wide the boundaries of Calvinism stretch. He pleads for "Deviant Calvinism," in an attempt to broaden Reformed theology. Crisp focuses mainly on two things: the issue of determinism (predestination and free choice), and atonement (whether it is hypothetical, limited or universal).
I have appreciation for this book, but also points of criticism. My appreciation concerns the fact that, with his publication(s), Crisp brings attention to the intellectual component of Reformed Theology. The questions he asks have the same character as the questions asked and debated by theologians in former days. Doing theology in the Reformed tradition does not mean that a given, immutable doctrine is repeated without one's own intellectual effort, but it is an ongoing intellectual conversation with voices from the present and the past. The diversity in historical Calvinism is a consequence of the intellectual independency of many Reformed thinkers. Therefore, the questions Crisp raises have much in common with the way of doing theology in (e.g.) the seventeenth century. Crisp himself can, from this perspective, be regarded as somebody in this tradition. His book shows his acuteness and sagaciousness.
Nevertheless, I have several criticisms. Let me mention five objections.
The first I mention, is the intermingling of a historical with a systematic approach (though there is a lack of biblical interaction). This flaw lies also at the bottom of the other four points. Normally, Crisp's approach is as follows: he claims that in the history of the Reformed tradtion there were one or more people 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 of 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.
Secondly, Crisp's book is very weak in digesting the historical material. In his argument for justification from eternity, he mentions the names of William Twisse, Herman Witsius and Thomas Goodwin as theologians who were sympathetic toward that position. Further, he makes mention of Tobias Crisp, John Gill and John Brine. However, mentioning these names is problematic. The information is sometimes inaccurate (Crisp, Witsius and Goodwin rejected eternal justification); Gill and Brine were hypercalvinists. Moreover, 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. Most of the times, he quotes from later authors who reflect on the earlier debates (so, he notices the names of John Gill [18th century], Cunningham [19th century] and Berkouwer [20th century]), but these later names have the difficult job in sustaining Crisp's claim that the discussed position has a Calvinistic character, historically.
Thirdly, when Crisp seeks for a historical defence, he should make use of the historical data. But now he discusses the topics without always giving evidence of enough knowledge of the detailed debates of former ages. For those who have knowledge of the historical debates about justification from eternity, the treatment of that topic in Crisp's book is meager. The treatment by Reformed divines in the seventeenth century was much more profound than it is in Deviant Calvinism. That could be because this book is only introductory; but the impression is difficult to avoid that Crisp simply has no knowledge of earlier discussions. Crisp's distinction between formal and material justification is not a historical one, nor is the difference between justification in eternity and from eternity (p. 44). And the suggestion that God's (eternal) act of eternal justification is incomplete (p. 45), is thoroughly un-Reformed, historically speaking. It is, therefore, unclear which historical proponent of each of the two views Crisp could have in mind.
Fourthly, Crisp chooses to let the borders of Calvinism coincide with the content of the official confessions. Especially the Westminster Confession is his reference. He suggests that his own view on the liberty of the human will (the libertarian view, freedom as indifference) can have a place within these boundaries. Libertarianism is the view that, given all preconditions as predestination, regeneration and the working of the Holy Spirit, the human will has still the opportunity to choose a or b. But, again, if he had given more attention to the historical settings, different results would emerge. If Crisp had given weight to the Canons of Dordt, he should have to acknowledge that his own libertarian view is repudiated there (Canons III/IV.14; rejection III/IV.6,8). Crisp relies on Reformed Thought on Freedom of the Dutch research group Classic Reformed Theology, but wrongly. In that book (to which I contributed myself) there is certainly not a defence of libertarian Calvinism, as Crisp wants to have it (p. 96). Libertarianism was strongly repudiated by Reformed authors, as Reformed Thought on Freedom shows. Additionally, those who read the confessions with knowledge of the convictions of the writers and the subscribers, shall understand that the space that Crisp seeks, was certainly not intended. In short: those who want to give themselves a name which is historically laden, shall have to deal with the history of that name. In other words: is it fair to call myself a Calvinist, if I know that my dogmatic position would definitely be regarded as un-Reformed by the Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century?
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.
Gert van den Brink, The Netherlands
PhD student Evangelical Theological Faculty Leuven (Belgium)