Review of “Saving Calvinism” by Oliver Crisp (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016)

I recently received a copy of Oliver Crisp‘s new book, Saving Calvinism. The book is a work of analytic theology, with a dash of historical theology mixed in, and stands in continuity with his previous work Deviant Calvinism. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)

The basic thesis of the book is that Calvinism —or Reformed theology, he distinguishes the two in the introduction but indicates that he will be using them interchangeably in a sort of colloquial sense— often falls victim to what he sees as legitimate critiques regarding its doctrine of God and soteriology. However, so says Crisp, the Reformed tradition has resources within it which serve to answer those critiques, but due to the rise of the New Calvinism (which he identifies primarily as those who affirm TULIP, but not much else), are not usually recognized as Calvinism.

This thesis very similar to the core argument of Deviant Calvinism which argued that several wings of the Reformed tradition exist which were deviant, but were none-the-less Calvinistic.

The basic structure of each chapter follows the same pattern. Crisp describes the dominant Reformed position, summarizes the common critique, and our author reaches into a corner of Reformed history to explain how a given form of Calvinism can address the critique. This pattern is effective if someone accepts his premise that this fringe position reflects a legitimate form of Reformed thought.

However, that is where the work often fails. Although Crisp does demonstrate, usually, that the given position falls within the history of the Reformed camp, this usually is only due to its origin. One of his more outrageous examples is that he considers Arminianism a form of deviant Calvinism because Arminius came out of the Reformed tradition. Crisp applies this same line of thinking to figures like Karl Barth and Friedrich Schleiermacher. This sort of reverse genetic fallacy is only a very superficial form of historical rooting, and having read Crisp in other areas, he is capable of a better argument.

Overall, the general aims of Crisp’s project are commendable. He believes that Calvinism has been artificially restricted to the so-called five points, and wants people to return to the broader tradition. He also desires to see the tradition rooted in Confessionalism, about which I certainly cannot complain. However, his conclusions seem suspicious to me. In both this work and Deviant Calvinism he seems too particularly (forgive the pun) focused on the Particularism of the majority report. This focus takes the form of arguing that Universalism and Reformed soteriology are compatible, undercutting the traditional doctrines of penal substitution and limited atonement, and a favorable disposition toward Karl Barth.

Additionally, and this is more a result of the analytical method than Crisp himself, he tends to phrase everything in overly tentative ways. “It may be the case that…” is a common phrase, and serves to introduce a theology that the majority of Reformed thinkers reject, in a way that cannot be disproven. For example, he says that it may be the case that God has provided a way for those dying to be presented the Gospel immediately by God and to repent in a way that is not outwardly visible to human observers, thereby allowing the doctrine of Predestination to be compatible with Universalism. Sure, it may be the case, but as Crisp himself even says, we have no good reason to think that it is. In this way, he is very similar to Barth in that he seems to be arguing for a position without actually arguing for it. It is difficult to see how, given this phrasing, we could rule any position out.

Finally, understanding that this is not a work of systematic theology, Crisp engages in surprisingly little exegetical work. In chapter 6 he provides only a few example passages and even comments that this is not a sufficient exegetical basis to form an argument, but then proceeds to form an argument. Combined with the slippery “It may be the case” methodology above, it makes for a book that leaves the reader grasping for something concrete.

Please Note: The publisher has provided a copy of this book for review purposes.