Personal Reflections on "Deviant Calvinism"
May 14, 2015
How wide or narrow is the Reformed faith? In his recent book, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, Fuller Seminary Professor, Oliver Crisp, uses the tools of historical theology and analytic theology to address various questions, such as the broadness of Calvinistic theology. He does this not merely as a question of historical fact, but in order to help the church today understand that Reformed theology has a breadth to it that is not quite as narrow as some have presumed. This diversity that Crisp draws attention to can only be helpful for Reformed theology today, according to the argument in his book. It is a "constructive theological project" aimed to show that Reformed theology has "important resources" for contemporary systematic theology (p. 3).
Interestingly, he puts forth strong cases for positions he does not necessarily hold to, which is commendable. In other words, what is the best possible case for position x? Or, to use an example from his book, what philosophical, logical, and theological possibilities exist for justification-in-eternity to not lead to antinomianism and thus remain within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy (see p. 61)?
What Crisp attempts to do is not an easy task. He is also drawing attention to an important discussion that needs to take place. I confess that I still struggle in my mind about what the appropriate boundaries are for Reformed theology. Those who think it is an easy question may be a bit naive. With my sympathy towards his project made clear, I am nevertheless of the view that his idea of broadness may be too broad for me and the historical analysis may suffer in a few places.
First, I wonder if the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Crisp views Arminians as a branch within the Reformed tradition, as many Remonstrants today wish to argue. Crisp states on page 27 that "most Reformed theologians (though perhaps not all) are said to affirm monergism." In the footnote (fn. 18) he then claims: "Reformed theologians are typically theological determinists, but some have advocated theological libertarianism, like the Arminians." Does Crisp think the Arminians are, in some sense, Reformed? Or are those Reformed who have advocated theological libertarianism doing so in the same way the Arminians did? I don't know what Crisp is getting at exactly. I am also left wondering who these Reformed theologians are who were not monergists? I can't think of anyone.
Crisp states on the next page (28) that it is not clear to him that "Arminians are synergists." He also raises the question over how the human will may "contribute" to salvation. So if there are (hypothetically?) Reformed theologians who are not monergistic, but it is also not clear to Crisp that Arminians are synergistic, then what categories does he have in mind to sort this problem out? Are Arminians monergistic but some Reformed are not?
As we study the historical context of debate between the Arminians (Remonstrants) and Reformed, we note that they had strong disagreements on almost every major point of theology (e.g., providence, Christology, trinity, covenant, doctrine of God), especially justification. For the Arminians, it is the (human!) act of faith that is (by grace!) counted as (evangelical) righteousness, as if it were the complete fulfillment of the whole law. It is a genuine human act, coming forth from the liberum arbitrium. So that is synergistic, in my mind.
In addition, we should also add that Arminius's vigorous commitment to scientia media meant that God responded to hypothetical human willing prior to God's providential concursus. All Arminians believe they are saved by grace, as do Roman Catholics, but Molinism allows for a subtle form of synergism (so Richard Muller), which is precisely what differentiates Arminian soteriology from Reformed soteriology.
Historically speaking, the term Reformed has reference to a particular confessional tradition. Arminius, for example, came into conflict with this confessional tradition. He tried to claim he held to the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession, but this was deceptive on Arminius's part. I wonder if Crisp thinks that Karl Barth is part of this Reformed confessional tradition, as well?
Second, I am a little perplexed by some of the historical work in Deviant Calvinism. Let me draw attention to the chapter on eternal justification.
Crisp makes the distinction between justification in eternity and justification from eternity (p. 44). But I am personally unaware of any seventeenth-century author who makes this distinction. Is this his own "analytical" way of clarifying the issue or is this his reading of the historical documents? Moreover, the distinction between formal and material justification is not historical, to my mind. Also the idea that God's eternal act of (eternal) justification is incomplete (p. 45) does not have a Reformed pedigree, as far as I know. The intermingling of the analytic approach with the historical approach leaves me confused at times.
I also do not think the topic of eternal justification is really all that important today, nor was it in the past. It is certainly not a "central and defining" doctrine of Calvinistic theology (see Crisp's comments on p. 238). The chapter deals with an interesting issue, but hardly a topic that will help the church today, in my view. There are other more pressing issues that I would like to have seen Crisp address, especially since his chapter on "double payment" had much value to it.
Third, the use of literature in the book to mine these incredibly complex debates seems to be too heavily focused on secondary sources. For example, there are Latin sources (e.g., William Twisse, Vindiciae Gratiae), which should be essential for discussing the topic of eternal justification in its historical context. Crisp is not uncomfortable with complex stuff, but the Protestant scholastics were even more nuanced than what I found in his chapter on the topic. Also, the topic of hypothetical universalism is exceedingly complex, and only a sustained rigorous analysis of the primary sources is going to get us beyond what the (sometimes average) secondary literature has offered thus far (note: Aaron Denliger's excellent essay on the topic in this book).
Speaking of sources, it is not easy to bridge historical theology with systematic theology or analytical theology. Crisp has my sympathy for the difficult task at hand. But, I am also concerned by the lack of exegetical or even basic biblical interaction in the works of analytic theologians in general. Helpful proposals for the church today need to be exegetically grounded in Scripture, in my view, even if they are helped by analytical theology.
Fourth, I am curious as to why some systematic positions that Crisp labels as Calvinistic were not regarded as such by Calvinists in the seventeenth century? In a book like this, I would like to know why the Dortian Calvinists of the seventeenth century viewed libertarianism as un-Reformed. But the question is not mentioned in regard to their objection on the matter, and therefore not answered. On this topic, see the Canons of Dort, III/IV.14; rejection III/IV.6,8).
Fifth, I came away from this book thinking that perhaps my own emphases on Reformed diversity are quite a bit different than Professor Crisp's ideas on "broadening Reformed theology." In one respect, I agree with much of what he's trying to do. But, on pages 14-15, Crisp speaks of Reformed and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity as "siblings, not enemies, related to one parent, namely, Western Catholic Christendom" (15). He adds that it is a mistake to think of the Reformed and Roman Catholics as "two distinct religious entities" (15). (Remember, the Pope was the antichrist in the original WCF).
As I understand Rome, she till holds a view of justification that is antithetical to the classical Protestant view that we are justified by faith alone. Are we not still anathematized for holding that we are justified by faith alone? We are only siblings in the sense that Rome has run away from the family, and, by her excommunication of us, has actually excommunicated herself. Our squabbles continue to revolve around the heart of the gospel, not peripheral issues.
It is true that the Reformed tradition has diversity. My own publications attest to that fact. And it is true that there are some over-zealous Reformed types out there who want to narrow Reformed theology in such a way that some of our leading lights would be excommunicated from the Reformed pale. It is also true that some are simply unaware of the breadth of the Reformed tradition. But the diversity found in the OPC, PCA, and PCUSA all differ. Is Calvinism now able to embrace gay marriage, theistic evolution, and a denial of a literal Adam? (I'm by no means suggesting that Crisp is obliged to answer these questions, but where does this broadening end? I'd love to see Crisp address the current denial of a literal Adam, especially since he has such expertise on the topic of Adam's sin and its consequences for humanity. Update: looks like that may be a reality, see here).
Crisp says in the conclusion that "it has been the burden of this book that Calvinism is still regarded too narrowly" (236). But the "broadening" found in Deviant Calvinism raises for me many questions. Based on the other chapters in the book, the diversity Crisp appears comfortable with in the Reformed tradition is, for me, a PCA minister, a diversity that stretches too far.
In conclusion, I buy almost all of Oliver Crisp's books. They always challenge me, get me to think, and sometimes make me feel incredibly stupid. His book is not the final word, and there is more to be said. The conversation is not over, but we are making progress. Professor Crisp has gotten me to think more carefully about how Reformed churches can identify the boundaries of Calvinism more faithfully and clearly in relation to the Reformed tradition, and for that I am thankful. After all, it is easier to poke holes than offer a program. So, yes, I have some criticisms, but they are moderated by how difficult the task really is.