Oliver Crisp wants to broaden Reformed theology.
In his most recent book Deviant Calvinism Crisp aims to show that, contrary to popular perception, the Reformed tradition has been much broader and contained greater theological diversity than is commonly thought. This broadness was not a bad thing either. It’s not that we just hadn’t figured things out yet in the past, but rather that this diversity is a healthy, important feature of the Reformed tradition that needs to be recovered for its health and vitality. In a sense, he wants us to remember that “always reforming” is a necessary part of the Calvinist theological ethos.
In order to do so, Crisp engages in a number of studies of retrieval theology, examining marginal, or “deviant” positions (eternal justification, Augustinian Universalism, Barthian election, hypothetical universalism) in Reformed thought on salvation to either show their plausibility, or legitimacy as species of Reformed thought. Although, note to the reader, be very careful in assuming Crisp affirms any or all of the positions he spends time arguing for; part of the time he’s simply creating space.
While I’ve found the whole thing quite instructive, among the most interesting studies so far has been his exposition of what he calls “Libertarian Calvinism.” Typically Calvinism is seen as a form of determinism according to both contemporary defenders and opponents. To be a Calvinist is to be a determinist, and therefore some sort of compatibilist when it comes to freedom of the will. In other words, under Calvinism, any “freedom” you have is only the sort that is compatible with God’s foreordination and determination of it. You’re free because you aren’t acting according to external coercion, because you’re doing what you most want to do–even though that’s been determined, in some sense, by God. God’s sovereignty in election and salvation and a compatibilist view of freedom go hand in hand.
Against this is usually set Arminianism with its “libertarian” view of freedom, which posits that the human will is free in the sense that it can choose between different options, and that choice was not determined in advance whether by God or any other cause. The buck stops with me in every sense of the term. Now, typically Calvinists are supposed to oppose this on various grounds, but especially because of the biblical witness when it comes to the bondage of the will–our inability to choose the good of salvation without God’s supernatural regeneration. Also, because of the fact that predestination and election to salvation seems to imply predestination and a sort of determinism in all things.
Crisp argues that, in fact, when we come to the Westminster Confession–kind of a standard document for international Calvinism–it affirms very clearly that God is sovereign in election, salvation, and that only those who are regenerated according to God’s eternal plan come to faith, and yet, it is metaphysically underdetermined when it comes to the question of freedom in general. In other words, the Confession lays down some parameters about God’s decree, salvation, as well as affirms the truth of human freedom without necessarily delineating how they all work together in detail. So theoretically one may affirm the Confession, affirm Calvinist soteriology, and yet hold that for the most part humans exercise freedom in a libertarian sense in areas other than those concerned with choosing the good of salvation.
Now for many that seems impossible, but a number of contemporary Reformed scholars have actually been making the case that, speaking historically, there have been Calvinists who affirmed precisely that kind of human freedom and contingency in history, all the while maintaining God’s sovereignty in election. But how would that work?
Here’s where Crisp gains +50 theologian points. He uses Green Lantern in an analogy to help us think this possibility through. Yes–that Green Lantern:
An analogy may help make this clear. Consider Hal Jordan. He is a normal human being who is able to make all sorts of free choices in his life that require the ability to do otherwise, consistent with libertarianism. However, he is unable to make choices that would require him to have the superpower of actualizing his thoughts immediately in concrete ways. As John Locke famously quipped, we cannot really choose to fly, because we are incapable of flying: in which case arguing that being unable to freely choose to fly is evidence that I lack the free will to fly is idle. Jordan is like this. He may want to fly, but he cannot: he has no superpowers. That is, until one day, when they are bestowed upon him by a dying alien who gives him a ring powered by a green lantern that acts as a catalyst by means of which he is able to transform his desire to fly into action. It gives him the superpower of being able to actualize his thoughts (with certain important limitations and qualifications that need not trouble us here). Because he has the ring, he can now fly, where before he could only dream of flying.
Now, Hal Jordan (a.k.a. the Green Lantern) is like a fallen human being on the libertarian Calvinist account of human free will in this important respect: like the Green Lantern, fallen human beings are incapable of freely choosing to perform certain actions absent intervention from an external agency. In the case of the Green Lantern, this agency is an alien with a power ring. In the case of the fallen human being, this agency is divine. In both cases, there is a class of actions that the agent cannot perform without the interposition of an external agent who brings this class of actions within reach: for the Green Lantern, this class includes actions that actualize thoughts about flying; for the fallen human being, this class includes choosing salvation.
—Deviant Calvinism: Broadening the Reformed Tradition, pp. 86-87
Let’s pause a moment to note a few key points:
First, a respected analytic theologian just used the Green Lantern in an extended analogy to discuss Calvinism. Let’s just pause and sit with that reality.
Also, just to be clear for those who may be confused, Crisp later says that in libertarian Calvinism there is no denial that God ordains all that comes to pass, merely that he determines or causes whatever comes to pass. He determines and causes some, and merely permits and foresees others as part of his overall sovereign plan (pg. 87).
Finally, none of this settles whether we do, in fact, have libertarian freedom in most cases. That actually requires far more argumentation, biblical study, and discussion on the doctrine of God, concurrence, and providence. Still, and this is Crisp’s point, it seems that there is a plausible way of construing human freedom that is quite consistent with basic Reformed soteriology with respect to election, regeneration, the calling of the Holy Spirit, particular redemption, perseverance, and so forth.
It seems, then, that libertarian, or rather, “Green Lantern” Calvinism isn’t the philosophical absurdity that many have might have initially surmised.
“Broadening Reformed theology” indeed.
Soli Deo Gloria
Actually this superhero illustration is superillustrative of Reformed soteriology. But doesn’t this sound like Lutheran soteriology? I mean they affirm that human beings have free will in “civil” matters but in the soteriological sense there is no free will. Salvation requires God’s action upon the unregenerate so that faith arises and man is regenerated through that faith in Christ.
Pretty close (with Lutheranism).
Lutherans believe that we are bound to sin. So that choosing the things of God (before He chooses us) is impossible.
Of course we do believe that we are free in matters on this plane. What color socks to wear…who to marry, etc.
The opposite of so many Evangelicals who have it exactly bass ackwards.
“…there is no denial that God ordains all that comes to pass, merely that he determines or causes whatever comes to pass.”
So what exactly is the difference between “ordain” vs “determine” or “cause”? Are these being used in some technical sense that I’m unaware of?
Also, Hal Jordan was (and is) the greatest Green Lantern. Guy Gardner isn’t even close.
Stephen, in this context, “ordain” means something like “permit the freedom of another agent to act.” It’s used in discussions of passages like Romans 13:1, where we can see 1) that God has instituted civil authority, while at the same time 2) God does not necessarily condone every action of civil authority. God “ordains” wicked rulers in that he permits them to exercise their agency while at the same time not “causing” any evil they may do. 1 John 5:19 – “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” – is another example of God’s ordinance.
And much love for the Green Lantern! I haven’t read much of it, but Blackest Night was the bomb.
I’m sure Crisp has been thinking on these matter for longer than five years, but it was about then that I wondered in “God, the Master of Puppets?” if indeed the only way to salvage seventeenth-century and beyond Reformed theology on this point (and by salvage I mean save it from the very thing Westminster says it doesn’t do, viz., make God the author of sin) was to say that when we’re talking about God’s sovereignty we are talking about his work of salvation among the mass of perdition (i.e., the world). As I wrote there: It has everything to do “with the elect being claimed by God as his portion, not with ‘whatsoever comes to pass,’ not whether my dog will live to see tomorrow, or my last batch of brew will produce a rich, creamy head.” I assumed this when I entered into the Reformed world (from the Lutheran one, which was preceded by my humanist-universalist one). But it turns out, wrongly. I never met a Calvinist that wasn’t as equally jazzed about “whatsoever so came to pass” as he was about absolute, unconditional election.
In retrospect, though, I’m not so sure if even this clears God from the author of sin charge. Refusing to confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead is, ultimately, the greatest sin of all. And if only those that do so are absolutely elected so to do, then, well, you see what I mean (it all reduces to symmetrical supralapsarian-God-caused-the-fall-ism). The only way absolute and unconditional election works without making God the author of sin is if at the same time some are called “elect above the rest,” the rest are equally graciously enabled, with no hindrances, to answer the gospel call.
Not that I have an answer for it, I was talking to Oliver today and he doesn’t actually hold libertarian Calvinism. Most of these chapters are exercises in “theological clarification”; they are attempts to clear space within the broader Reformed tradition.
For myself. I’m still piecing it all together. Usually I go with something along the lines of Creator/creature sui generis relationship, appeal to unfathomability, etc. Still, this is an interesting option.
I think we’d have to invoke something like middle knowledge to make this work.
Doing a more in depth series on Crisp’s chapter on libertarian Calvinism over at my blog, for any interested.
A friendly critique of the libertarian Calvinist proposal, offered by another doctoral student of Paul Helm: