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.
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