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Book Review: Deviant Calvinism by Oliver Crisp

Book Review: Deviant Calvinism by Oliver Crisp

Author: Oliver Crisp

Publisher: Fortress Press

Reading Level: Moderate

Pages: 192

“If this volume goes some way toward readdressing that balance and challenging Reformed thinkers…it will have succeeded in the task for which its author sent it out into the world…a recognition that the themes it contains are not deviant forms of Calvinism after all.” (240)

Calvinism. Define it and Oliver Crisp will critique your definition. This is the rather presumptive thesis of Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (henceforth Deviant Calvinism), yet Oliver Crisp does a fantastic job. Though perhaps not in the way expected, Deviant Calvinism addresses the Reformed tradition from a framework bent toward “removing objections and arguments that are wide of their mark, [so that] those working on the doctrine of atonement today should have a clearer picture of where the real dogmatic lie” (215, spoken in the context of the “double-payment objection”). This results in a primarily philosophical and apophatic approach (proof through negative) against specific stigmas and “myths” of Reformed theology (1-11, 236-240).

This unique approach advantageously shows the Reformed tradition is not limited by the modern understanding of the tradition. However, Deviant Calvinism limits itself by consistently setting aside the Scriptural validity of discussed views (e.g. footnote 23 on pg 115, etc.) despite affirming the Scripture’s final authority (39). With this mindset, Deviant Calvinism addresses the themes of the atonement’s efficacy (chapters 5, 7 & 8) and universalism (chapters 4-6). However, before reaching these theological cornerstones, Crips address the relation of scripture and tradition to faith (chapter 1) as well as the theological theory of eternal justification (chapter 2). Despite no direct application to later chapters, Crisp’s discussion of eternal justification is one of the best examples of opening new avenues to old thought (this view was held by Barth, Kuyper, and Gill; pg 42). Individuals with limited knowledge of historical Reformed theology may find this to be new but that is entirely the point of Crisp’s focus on marginalized doctrines in the Reformed tradition.

In speaking to universalism, Crisp introduces to modern Calvinism interesting philosophical challenges via Augustinian Universalism (chapter 4) and historical questions in Barthian Universalism (chapter 6). Despite avoiding the Scriptural issues of the topic, Crisp provides valuable insights to why Augustinianism does not inherently exclude universalism. The primary argument that God must demonstrate holiness through judging the wicked (the “essential attributes” argument) is effectively handled (104-106). However, Crisp does not utilize the Eternal Sufficiency of God (He cannot “need” any portion of creation), which seems to be a more sufficient and simply defense. From a different starting point the controversial Barthian doctrine of election allows Crisp to demonstrate a universalism based upon election in Christ. This excellent chapter reveals more clearly that the substance of Deviant Calvinism is mostly “rehearsed” theology of the past (170). Crisp’s goal is not to present new theology but the historical precedent for views often looked down upon by modern theologies. In both of these cases strong doctrines of election are demonstrated to support (if not imply) a universalist theology. Since universal redemption requires a universal atonement, Crisp addresses this concept in the final chapters of Deviant Calvinism.

Chapter 7 addresses the theological tradition of “Hypothetical Universalism.” Often confused with the modern Amyraldism, Crisp demonstrates the long tradition of this perspective within Reformed thought and how some who held the view were signers of important confessions (176-183). Though Crisp does not sufficiently express the Westminster Confession of Faith’s refutation of this doctrine (183) he helpfully shows how hypothetical universalism is possible by a simple “[re]ordering of the divine decrees” (189). Crisp addresses weighty philosophical arguments defending the English version of hypothetical universalism that even standard “Calvinists” will find useful in their doctrinal apologetics (201-209).

The concluding chapter in Deviant Calvinism addresses the “double-payment” objection used by definitive/limited atonement adherents (chapter 8). Along with excellent terminology distinctions (224-227), Crisp effectively demolishes the common “double-payment” objection.

In conclusion, Deviant Calvinism is not a great theological book. It does not address the Scriptures in a way that many conservative readers will appreciate. However, it is an outstanding reflection on the marginal paradigms of the Reformed tradition and it is thorough in its philosophical discussion. Deviant Calvinism will not present new ideas to individuals familiar with the checkered past of the Reformed faith. However, it will address many common misconceptions and myths of what the Reformed faith must be. In the end, Deviant Calvinism isn’t that deviant at all. Whether or not it is Scripturally deviant remains an entirely other matter.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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