Saving Calvinism, Oliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.
Summary: An exploration of the breadth of theological resources, including alternate theological positions, within what is often thought to be the narrow bounds of Calvinism.
Oliver Crisp asks us to imagine taking possession of a huge old mansion with many rooms and only exploring a few of those on the ground floor. He thinks that is the situation today for many who tout “the Reformed tradition.” He writes:
“Returning to our example of the old mansion that is only partially occupied. Reformed theology has many rooms that the current generation, the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ of whom Collin Hansen writes, have not explored. Sometimes this means that what goes under the name ‘Reformed theology’ is actually only the downstairs rooms we occupy. There is much more to explore and much more to learn. Some of that task will enrich and enliven us. But sometimes we will be faced with a broadening of our views on matters we thought the Reformed tradition had closed down or narrowed. Often in popular culture today Reformed theology is thought to be a cold, narrow thing. If this volume goes some way toward addressing that misperception by helping its readers to understand how expansive and encompassing Reformed thought actually is, it will have done its job” (p. 17).
In the words of Thomas H. McCall, ““Oliver Crisp wants to save Calvinism—from some of its most impassioned proponents.” Another way of putting it is that Crisp wants to show how Calvinism is far more than TULIP, an acronym that stands for what are often thought to be the defining beliefs of Calvinism–total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Crisp argues that there is so much more to Calvinism, and that even some of these defining beliefs are understood in differing ways among confessional Calvinists.
In Chapter One, he takes on TULIP and shows the broader context of creeds and confessions and doctrine concerning the church, sacraments, and the authority of scripture in an ever-reforming church. Chapter Two explores the doctrine of election and a positive account of this doctrine that comforts rather than arouses dread by exploring the timelessness of God, a supralapsarian view of election, that God ordained the incarnation, and chose us in Christ prior to, rather than after the fall and that the incarnation from creation on was essential in uniting us with God. In Chapter Three, he shows differing positions on free will held by Jonathan Edwards and John Girardeau and addresses the question of how any of these views might be held without making God the author of sin.
Calvinism is often thought to be sharply antithetical to any version of universalism. In Chapter Four, Crisp observes that there were a number of Reformed theologians including William Shedd and Benjamin Warfield who held that the majority of humanity would be saved. This was not a hopeful universalism, but rather an optimistic particularism, rooted in the power of God, his desire that none would perish, and the inclusion of whole classes in the saved of those incapable of belief. Chapter Five turns to the theology of the atonement, classically thought to be the doctrine of penal substitution. He allows that this has been a view held by many, but that other, particularly older writers going back to Anselm held to the idea of satisfaction, that the divine Son who dies satisfies the justice of God, not as punishment in our place but as an act of merit. He also looks at views of penal nonsubstitution and non penal substitution, showing that one single model does not dominate. Finally in Chapter Six, he takes on the issue of the “limited atonement,” setting forth ways in which a hypothetical universal atonement may be possible within Reformed theology.
All this is to demonstrate the breadth, depth, and diversity within the Reformed tradition. I suspect that there will be those who read this account of Crisp’s book who will repudiate that account and insist that Calvinism is “this and only this.” What Crisp has done is not to relativize Calvinism, but to challenge its reduction to “five points” and the concealment of the diversity of ideas that have historically characterized Reformed theology. For those repelled by the perception of Calvinism as narrowly and reductively uniform, this concisely written text might suggest that one look again or more closely and that there are greater riches in this tradition than often thought. One would also hope this might be true of the “young, restless, and Reformed” crowd, that they will indeed at least explore the other rooms and floors of the great mansion of Reformed thought, discovering there are yet great riches than they imagined.