SAVING CALVINISM: EXPANDING THE REFORMED TRADITION, by Oliver D. Crisp

Published on February 12, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

IVP Academic, 2016 | 167 pages

Reviewed by Thomas J. Nettles

Oliver Crisp continues a theme that clearly is important to him in his literary productions. His hopes for those who consider themselves affectionate toward the Reformed Tradition is a commitment to a broad understanding of that theological tradition and a more thorough grasp of the historic literature. The resurgence of Calvinism in a variety of groups constituting the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement has prompted Crisp to give Calvinism both a more targeted definition in its form while he wants a more broadly conceived definition doctrinally. In form, Crisp focuses on a presbyterial or Episcopalian ecclesiology and a view of the “sacraments” that includes infant baptism and a view of the eucharist that includes a “high view of these instruments of God’s grace to his people” (30, 31). In doctrine, Crisp looks toward a commitment to an ever-expanding confessional basis much kinder and gentler than conceived by Calvinism’s critics. He forms his argument in an introduction and six chapters.

The introduction explains his concerns with the growth in the popularity of Calvinism. He encourages a broad acquaintance with the sources of the Reformed tradition. Also, he gives an overview of each successive chapter in the book. Crisp has an engaging gift of summary.

Chapter One, “On Calvinism,” Crisp gives a brief definition of TULIP. He shows that the Reformed tradition is more than having “an affinity with a particular cluster of theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin and who align themselves with something like TULIP” (28). He makes a distinction between Calvinism and Reformed. He seems keen on excluding Baptists and nondenominational free churches from the Reformed tradition and ties the tradition tightly to a series of confessions aligned with a view of the sacraments that “are thought to actually convey grace to the recipient” and that have a “stated adherence to an episcopal or Presbyterian form of church government” (30, 31). In defending “tradition” as a source of authority he startles the reader with the assertion, (to use his term, “a little theologically flat-footed”) that “there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Old or New Testaments.” Then after showing how early church father (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian) presented the issue, he pointed to Constantinople 381 as the first place in which we find “a clear, unambiguous statement of the doctrine of the Trinity” (34). The doctrine of the Trinity “depends on being able to tease out what is implied in Scripture” giving a “significant role for tradition in the shaping of Christian doctrine” (34). He also looked at the influence of culture and historical location as influential on doctrinal commitments—slavery, Naziism, apartheid—and also how these mistaken ideas are countered in other confessional statements. He includes a discussion of Calvinism as a world view and concludes the chapter with an apology for openness to more insight from the word of God in future doctrinal discussions, particularly with “sisters and brothers in other Christian communions” (45).

Chapter two, “God’s Eternal Purpose,” consists of a discussion of election and reprobation, the “dark side” of God’s purpose (47, 65). One section on God’s purpose in creation includes a discussion of God’s timelessness. The “divine decrees” investigates seriously the issues of infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. He seems disposed toward the latter for it makes provision for the incarnation apart from its relation to human sin and redemption (56-58). In discussing the relation of justice to grace, Crisp is drawn to the idea that God can forgive without a corresponding infliction of justice (62); he also sees much that is positive in Barth’s universalism (62).

Chapter three, “Free Will and Salvation,” after a brief discussion of the influence of Adam’s natural headship and federal headship on the issue of the human will, looks to Jonathan Edwards and John Girardeau for two different approaches to the concepts of the will’s operations. That humans presently are sinful and do indeed experience evil and propagate evil in this world begs for an explanation as to why God created such a world. The “greater good” argument and the “skeptical theism” argument both tend toward the recognition of mystery in the existence of evil. Between these positions, there are differing levels of confidence that in the end God has the purpose of a transcendent good emerging from this unbroken history of sin, evil, suffering, and universal hatred of good. He concludes that “we are not in a position to state categorically that there is no good reason why God would bring about a world like this one, in which there is so much suffering as a result of sin” (85).

The fourth chapter has the provocative title “Calvinism and Universalism.” He deals first with the general issue of “particularism” in salvation. He argues that universalism is consistent with particularism for the particular individuals for whom Christ died may include all the individuals of mankind. Two other options that fall short of an absolute affirmation of universalism are “hopeful universalism” and “optimistic particularism.” Both see hell as a theoretical final destination for some people; the hopeful universalist hopes that it may remain uninhabited, while the optimistic particularist believes that the Bible teaches that some will be there certainly, but we are optimistic that the number will be very few. Crisp holds the optimistic particularist position without ruling out either universalism or annihilationism as unorthodox. Though he recognizes that some of the theological arguments for those views are plausible, he thinks that the weight of the Bible is for the optimistic particularist. He also credits the concept of humaneness as one criterion to be considered in discussion of these issues (105-106).

Chapter five, “Calvinism and the Cross,” affirms a unity of Christ’s atoning work in both his incarnation and his death. These are two aspects of one thing. He then considers four views that have fallen within the Reformed camp promulgated by different theologians. Anselm’s satisfaction view covers five pages of text (113-117). The second view, penal substitution, has many similarities to the satisfaction view. According to Crisp, among the distinctive points of difference is that in Anselm’s ransom Christ’s death was not substitutionary but, as the wages for sin which he did not owe, was a work of supererogation. In discussing penal substitution, Crisp calls it the “most maligned account of the atonement in contemporary theology,” and, for his own part, conceded “there is a serious issue about the picture of God that penal substitution presumes” (118). He then discussed “nonpenal substitution” as a reformed option from McLeod Campbell and the Torrance brothers. It focuses on “perfect penitential obedience” to God as that which Christ has done to justify God in forgiving sinners who will accept the need for a life of penitence. The fourth Reformed option is “penal nonsubstitution.” This basically is identified with the New Divinity moral government view of the atonement. He includes a consideration of whether one should see these as theories, models, or motifs of the atonement and whether it might not be better to look kaleidoscopically at them as specific vistas seen through different segment, or windows, of the kaleidoscope. Although penal substitution seems to dominate the confessional history of Reformed thought, Crisp sees the options suggested by theologians in traditional Reformed denominations as an opportunity to expand the Reformed options. The fact that some of these models, or theories, or motifs seem to contradict each other should give us a “healthy dose of intellectual humility” (127).

“Calvinism and the Extent of the Atonement,” chapter six, is given largely to a discussion of the Reformed credentials of “hypothetical universalism,” the view that Christ’s atoning work is sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect. Crisp discusses historical figures that have defended the truthfulness of this proposal—Amyrault, John Cameron, John Davenant, Peter Lombard, and even the Synod of Dort—and then sets forth objections to this view. He gives the “double payment” objection, the “limited faithful” objection, the “inconsistency” objection, the “injustice” objection, and the “not-truly-Calvinist” objection. To each of these he seeks to provide the kind of defense that proponents of hypothetical universal atonement would argue. His summation of the chapter indicates that this view is more satisfying to Crisp himself for defenders of definite atonement have to “do more exegetical gymnastics” and down play the “apparent tension latent in Scripture on this point” (148). The Arminian is faced with the same difficulties at the other end of the spectrum. As for the hypothetical universalist—“She can hold both sorts of biblical data together in a coherent whole. That is not mean achievement” (148).

Crisp’s concluding chapter summarizes the basic thrust of each chapter and reiterates his contention that “Reformed” has a historical provenance and confessional heritage that must include some hierarchical understanding of “the shape of the church” and a specific view of “the sacraments.” He looks on this as a “much richer notion” than merely being a devotee of TULIP while having other principles of ecclesiology. At the same time, he has worked with devotion to show that “there is actually greater diversity in the Reformed tradition than a cursory glance at TULIP would lead one to expect” (151). His discussion, in line with his sub-title, Expanding the Reformed Tradition, has highlighted the “scope for difference, even disagreement, on matters that are hardly peripheral to what we think about reconciliation in Christ within the fold of the Reformed faith” (155).

Issues of ecclesiology are in no way diminutive or gnat-like, but Crisp seems unalterably insistent on straining on the gnat of his ecclesiology and swallowing the camel of great soteriological diversity. He is more insistent on the immutability of infant baptism as “Reformed,” than he is on penal substitution or the doctrine of hell. To a Baptist who considers himself soteriologically, confessionally, and historically Reformed, this seems to be a strange attempt at “expanding the Reformed Tradition.”

 

Tom J. Nettles
Louisville, KY

Buy the books

Saving Calvinism: Expanding the Reformed Tradition

IVP Academic, 2016 | 167 pages