Creating Wiggle Room for Calvinists (Deviant Calvinism Book Review)

The anti-Calvinist blogs will never stop spinning the same message – Calvinism as a system is cruel, it creates a monster God, its fatalistic, and it is pessimistic (just to name a few “characteristics” of Calvinism). Roger Olson, a proponent of anti-Calvinism (who sort of reminds me of hard-nosed pro-Calvinist fundamentalists) has said that

If Calvinism is true, God is the author of sin, evil, innocent suffering and hell. That is to say, if Calvinism is true God is not all-loving and perfectly good.

These anti-Calvinists seem to forget that Calvinism or better yet, the Reformed tradition, is a lot broader and more varied than it is often portrayed. At least Oliver Crisp seems to think so.

In Deviant Calvinism, Crisp argues that Calvinism really is a confessional tradition, however it is a confessionalism that tolerates doctrinal plurality within certain parameters. In this new book he aims to,

Commend to those within and without the ambit of the Reformed community way of looking at several central and defining doctrines of Calvinistic theology and broaden out what is regarded as appropriately Reformed doctrine.

Crisp acknowledges the fact that some myths about Calvinism just don’t seem to go away (no thanks to some in the neo-Puritan camp, Crisp didn’t say that, I did – Calvinism is so much bigger than just neo-Puritianism or being “Young, Restless, & Reformed”). For instance the myth that Reformed Christianity is anti-experiential, that it demands a doctrine of double predestination, that it is atheologically deterministic system, that it denies human freedom, that atonement must be definite in scope, etc.

The cover art for "Deviant Calvinism" was painted by Oliver Crisp himself!
The cover art for “Deviant Calvinism” was painted by Oliver Crisp himself!

Here Crisp takes some of these myths head on by going back into the standard confessions of the Reformed faith and by retrieving the theology of various Reformed theologians across the centuries.

Here are a few things Crisp shows throughout the book:

  1. That one can be both a Calvinist and a libertarian about human freedom.
  2. That one can be an Augustinian and a Universalist.
  3. That there are resources within Calvinist theology that can resist an Augustinian Universalism.
  4. That the scope of atonement need not be “limited.”
  5. That the major objection to the doctrine of universal atonement, the double payment objection, actually fails miserably

And he argues that all of these things fall well within the scope of Reformed confessionalism!

Review

I could not put this book down. I was so enthralled by it and the possibility moving past funadamentlistic neo-Puritianism (i.e. Johnny Mac and his cronies) that I read through it in a day and a half. Not only was it interesting though, it was very well argued. As is well known, Oliver Crisp is at the forefront of Analytic Theology – the theological method which applies the rigor and clarity of analytic philosophy to systematic theology. This method allows the author to make logically tight arguments; the strength of his method is especially on display in his chapter on Hypothetical Universalism (i.e. universal or unlimited atonement). He makes a strong case for how Calvinism does not require the doctrine of limited atonement; he does so by retrieving the theology of 1700’s British theologian John Davenant, The philosophy of John Martin Fischer, Mark Ravizza, and of course Harry Frankfurt. This particular essay is a superb example of what Analytic Theology ought to look like – it interacts with Scripture, historical resources, and contemporary analytic theology.

All in all, I highly recommend this book. It is the type of book that will cause you to think deeply about why you hold to the doctrines that you do, and it will challenge you to think outside of the box. I know it has certainly done this for me, in fact I will be posting some more thoughts about the book on my blog over the next few days.

(Note: I received this book free of charge from Fortress Press in exchange for an impartial review.)

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