Why Argue For a Position You Don’t Hold? Clarifying Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism

deviantI’ve already written about it once before, but one of the more interesting books I read last year was Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism. As I said there, 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 well-being 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 within the tradition.

I’ve been happy to see the way the book has sparked quite a bit of interest online through posts and reviews, some critical (apparently Roger Olson is miffed that Crisp sounds too much like a Calvinist…) and others quite positive. One issue though, that merits a bit of explanation or clarification is that of Crisp’s intention and method, as I think there has been some confusion on this point.

Crisp engages in a mode of theology that has been gaining in popularity recently, which has been termed “analytic theology.” Essentially, some theologians and philosophers of religion have been appropriating the insights of Anglophone analytic philosophy and applying them to mainstream theological discussion. So, whether it’s a matter of using more precise, contemporary modal logic, or using some of the epistemological insights of Alvin Plantinga for the purposes of theodicy, analytic theology chooses different philosophical conversation partners. It also adopts a mode of argumentation that prizes clear, conceptual definition, extended analysis of just what issue is up for grabs in any given argument, and logical rigor. Contrary to some rumors, from what I know of analytical theological types this isn’t out of some “rationalistic” impulse to systematize the faith into some easily graspable construct either. Many simply want to get back to the days when theology actually tried to ask and answer questions with care and clarity.

Given my undergraduate background in philosophy at a school that’s got a bit of an analytic bent, reading Crisp’s work took me back to the old days. I suppose that’s why I was unfazed by the one feature of Crisp’s work that has been causing readers some trouble: his tendency to argue for a number of positions that he apparently doesn’t hold, or at least gives no indication that he holds.

For instance, in one chapter he argues that the Westminster Confession is somewhat metaphysically underdetermined and so it is possible to believe in a form of Libertarian freedom consistent with Calvinist soteriology. Or again, he argues that views like eternal justification or justification in eternity don’t necessarily have the antinomian tendencies or corollaries that many have accused it of, and on that score it more consistent with mainstream Calvinist orthodoxy than is supposed. To my knowledge, Crisp doesn’t actually hold any of these positions. He’s simply clearing some elbow room in the tradition to say that these aren’t necessarily heterodox opinions to hold.

Now, to many, this might seem like an odd, counter-intuitive, and quite distracting theological endeavor to engage in. Why argue in favor of positions you don’t hold? Why defend what you may end up ultimately discarding?

I see two motives, one stemming from his analytic bent, and a second from basic Christian theological conviction.

1. Clarity. In the first place, I see this as a feature of his analytic pursuit of clarity bleeding through. I recall one important article on the problem of evil by Stephen Wykstra taking a significant amount of time to defend a position against two critical articles, only to then turn around and offer a third argument against that very same position. Taking the time to rule out bad arguments against positions you don’t like, or even ruling out bad arguments for positions you do like, clarifies the discussion at hand. Clearing out bad arguments narrows the field of discussion and un-muddies the waters so real dispute can take place. Alvin Plantinga does this sort of thing all the time.

For instance, some have rejected Calvinism or Augustinianism, because they have been turned off by the very common argument made by many Calvinists that the sole, or chief end of God in election or reprobation is the glory of God in the public display of attributes. Crisp argues, as Bavinck did before him, that if that argument proves anything, it proves too much and works much better for Universalism. Now, that may seem like a blow for many Calvinists looking to uphold Reformed theology. Instead, it can be seen as an opportunity to drive us back to clearer scriptural and exegetical arguments. In other words, getting rid of an argument that doesn’t work actually helps your case by not allowing your interlocutor to be distracted by the bad argument and forces them to face your better ones. Or, again, dispensing with bad arguments against positions you don’t hold allows you to focus on the arguments that actually do work.

2. Charity. The second reason is a bit more straightforward. Christian charity ought to motivate us to fairly represent the positions of those we disagree with in the best light possible, before disagreeing with them. It is a form of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves in the intellectual life. If we love someone, we don’t lie about them. We try our best to tell the truth about them in all areas. Showing that a position wrongly advocated by a brother does not necessarily entail or lead to antinomianism or something of that sort, is a form of truth-telling.

As always, there’s more to say here, but I think a couple of these concerns are at play in Crisp’s work. So yes, while it may seem a bit counter-intuitive and confusing to devote lengthy pieces of work to defending positions you don’t actually hold, I think there is an important place for them in public theology because there ought to be a place for clarity and charity in our work of elucidating the truth of God for the sake of the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Crisp’s Deviant Green Lantern (Libertarian) Calvinism

Note, becoming a Libertarian Calvinist does not result in acquiring Green Lantern powers.

Note, becoming a Libertarian Calvinist does not result in acquiring Green Lantern powers.

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