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Saving Calvinism: Expanding the Reformed Tradition


My initial response to the title of this book was, “Does Calvinism need saving?” Oliver Crisp, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, thinks it does. His solution is to provide alternatives to what he considers unduly narrow or dogmatic positions taken in traditional Calvinism – for example, double predestination, total depravity and the bondage of the will. Here he seeks to “broaden what is thought of as Calvinistic” by reminding modern Calvinists of “the breadth of resources at their disposal.”

Does Calvinism need saving?

A semantic problem plagues the book, namely how one distinguishes Calvinism from the Reformed tradition. On the one hand, Crisp says we must be cautious when using the term “Calvinism,” but on the other, he tends to identify it with the so-called five points of Calvinism expressed in the TULIP acronym: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Although these five points came from the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), they do not always express precisely the canons. For example, the first canon is not about total depravity. In fact, the term “total depravity” does not appear in the Canons. In any case, as has often been pointed out, the Canons of Dort only represent one facet of the Reformed tradition. Yet Crisp continues to use “Calvinist” and “Reformed” interchangeably. I would maintain that “Reformed” is broader than “Calvinist.” For one thing, as Crisp acknowledges, the Reformed tradition is grounded in a variety of 16th-century confessions. Crisp also is occasionally guilty of making questionable generalizations. For example, “Calvinism is usually identified with the doctrine of theological determinism.”

Crisp discusses five topics that he submits can be enhanced by noting diverse approaches to them. The first is election. Here the discussion get complicated in terms of God and time and the question of decrees, infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism (Crisp prefers the latter.) Here he refers to Augustine and Karl Barth but never to Calvin. And in his discussion of Romans 9, unfortunately, he is unaware of G. C. Berkouwer’s outstanding treatment of this chapter in his book Divine Election.

The next chapter, “Free Will and Salvation” is one of the best. He is critical of Alvin Plantinga, who argues that God permits evil for some greater good. Here Crisp prefers the approach of Jonathan Edwards.

In the next chapter, “Calvinism and Universalism,” Crisp likes William Shield’s optimistic particularism and embraces Benjamin Warfield: Both were orthodox Reformed theologians who believed the majority of humanity will be saved. He also cites William Patterson, an early-20th-century professor of divinity at the University of Edinburgh who stated paradoxically that it is only Calvinism with its doctrine of election and irresistible grace “that could make a credible theory of universal restoration.” Crisp considers annihilationism (held by John R Stott!) but does not consider this more humane than everlasting punishment. When it comes to hell and eternal punishment, he admits that, like Barth, he would like to think that all are saved, but also, like Barth, concedes that we do not “have an unambiguous warrant for this claim.” Crisp concludes: “On balance it seems to me that the testimony of Scripture and the overwhelming view of the Christian tradition is that some who are capable of believing Christ resist God’s grace to the end.”

The last chapter is on Calvinism and the cross. Here Crisp faults much traditional thinking about the atonement because it focuses exclusively on the cross, ignoring the incarnation, life and ministry of Jesus. (This is not true of the early church fathers, notably Athanasius in his classic work, On the Incarnation.)

In regard to the atonement, Crisp acknowledges two traditional notions, satisfaction and penal substitution, and, surprisingly, defends these doctrines but then proposes minority positions worthy of consideration, namely McLeod Campbell’s doctrine of Christ’s vicarious penitence and the view of Hugo Grotius known as the governmental view of atonement, which was taken up by Arminians. All of these views “share a common core theme about Christ as our representative or substitute.”


Actually, none of the alternatives Crisp proposes in these chapters is new. What makes them interesting in this context is Crisp’s conviction that openness to these views will make Calvinism more attractive. Here I have my doubts. On many fronts Calvinism, and above all the Reformed tradition, are taking on a new look and are being well received. Take, for example, the popularity of Tim Keller’s books, on the one hand, and the surprising sales of the new translation of the four volume Reformed Dogmatics of Herman Bavinck on the other. Also one of the most popular and influential theologians of our time is the neo-Calvinist Richard Mouw, Crisp’s colleague at Fuller. And on the larger cultural front, one should not discount the influence of Marilynne Robinson, the famous essayist and novelist who is a friend of former President Obama. In her first collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998) she defends Calvin and the Puritans and has continued to do so in subsequent books and lectures both here and abroad. She is unapologetic promoter of Calvin and Calvinism in places most Calvinists are never heard, such as Yale, Harvard and Oxford.

Of a very different sort of Calvinists is the growing number of Presbyterian charismatic congregations that combine a free expression of the gifts of the Spirit with a Reformed worship that is more traditional than that of the Reformed-Presbyterian churches that have gone contemporary. They may be deviant Calvinists, but they should still be considered one aspect of resurgent Calvinism.

Oliver Crisp is a fine theologian, and his heart is in the right place, but this is not the way to save Calvinism, if it needs saving at all.

I. John Hesselink taught theology at Tokyo (Japan) Union Seminary and Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, where he is past president.