In the last twenty-five years our understanding of the Reformed tradition has undergone a quiet revolution. With Richard Muller’s brilliant work on post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics leading the way, it is now widely recognized in academic circles (even if the insights are still making their way to the pew) that (1) Calvin is not the sine qua non of Calvinism, (2) that Reformed theology cannot be reduced to the central dogma of predestination, (3) that TULIP is a woefully inadequate summary of Reformed doctrine, (4) that Reformed scholasticism is a rich development of the magisterial Reformed tradition (not a compromised departure from it), and (5) that even within confessional Calvinism there is a surprising diversity of opinion on the substance and shape of key doctrines. In other words, Calvinism has many layers, many themes, and many voices. It is big, broad, and (with basic continuity) goes back a long ways.

But exactly how big and how broad?

For Oliver Crisp, the answer is bigger and broader than many people think. In his book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, Crisp, a professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that “Reformed theology as it is usually reported today is not the whole story” (3). Crisp’s burden is to show that Calvinism “is still regarded too narrowly, even among those cognizant of the recent historical-theological reassessment of the shape and character of the early Reformed tradition” (236). Key themes have been written out of the received narrative (4). In particular, there is more “wiggle room” than has often been thought on things like libertarian free will and hypothetical universalism (239). Crisp’s aim is not to provide a complete account of Reformed theology, but to argue that within Reformed confessionalism there are often acceptably divergent ways of approaching the same problem (238). In short, this book is an attempt to redress imbalances in the Reformed tradition and present a softer Calvinism—one more mindful of forgotten themes and more open to minority viewpoints (240).

A Different Kind of Book

Deviant Calvinism defies easy description. It’s historical theology practiced by a systematic theologian with a bent toward analytic philosophy. Crisp thinks of the book as “a species of retrieval theology: seeking to retrieve the ideas of past theologians as resources for contemporary theology.” In this pursuit, Crisp exhibits remarkable skill and diversity of interests, writing thoughtfully on everything from the Bebbington Quadrilateral to the Westminster Confession to Amyraldianism, and on everyone from John Hick to John Davenant to John Owen. Despite the difficult intellectual terrain, Crisp, for the most part, wears his learning lightly, with a style that manages to be conversational, academic, and playful. No small feat.

Crisp’s approach, however, is not without drawbacks. For starters, the proliferation of new terms—is it the analytic philosophy talking?—can be distracting. At one point, in the space of a few pages, we are introduced to the “ordination-accomplishment objection,” the “divine-benevolence objection,” and “conditional ordained sufficiency” (192-194). I found these labels more confusing than clarifying. Likewise, because Crisp understands this work to be more retrieval theology than systematic theology, he often stopped short of reaching firm conclusions. So instead of finally coming down on the side of eternal justification, which he took a chapter to support, Crisp concludes that “there may be resources” with which to meet traditional objections against eternal justification and that applying “these insights to current ecumenical discussions” may open up “an interesting and potentially fruitful avenue of research” (69). Similarly, he will not finally say whether “deviant” doctrines like libertarian Calvinism and hypothetical universalism are right, only that they “raise interesting issues” (96) and “provide more resources for a version of the doctrine suitable to the contemporary theological climate” (211, cf. 233). Whether such studied ambiguity is a sign of epistemic humility or of pulling your intellectual punches likely depends on what the reader is hoping to find from a work of theology.

More critically, Deviant Calvinism is marked by a conspicuous absence of Scripture. Bible passages are referenced rarely and detailed exegetical work is non-existent. This is not necessarily a critique: there is a place for doing theological work through the lenses of history and analytic philosophy. But, again, the reader should be aware of what he is (and is not) getting into. For example, these few sentences discussing the possibility of universalism were telling:

Alternatively, Augustinians could fall back upon a biblical argument in favor of particularism. And this is what Augustinians typically do. However, as I pointed out in chapter 4, this is not a happy option for the Augustinian, because it generates an Augustinian problem of evil: if God could have created a world where God saves all humanity yet has not done so (because the Bible says God has not), why has God not done so? There seems to be no good philosophical reason for God’s not doing so, apart from the argument of Scripture, and a very strong moral argument for doing so. (137)

It would be unfair to think that Crisp does not care what Scripture thinks (and it should be noted that he ends up arguing against universalism), but there is no sense in this book that Scripture should get the final word on contested matters. If he were only writing for fellow academics, some of whom may not have any interest in what Scripture says, the approach would be understandable. But when the aim of the book is to convince those in the Reformed tradition that they have been too narrow, the approach seems misguided. I suspect the inconsistency is owing at least in part to the fact that this volume consists of Crisp’s chapters and articles pulled together from various books and journals whose intended audiences may not be the same as the audience for this book.

How Deviant?

Given Crisp’s goal of introducing a softer Calvinism with wider boundaries, it is surprising that most of the book does not exactly push at those boundaries. Half of the eight chapters do not do much to lobby for a “deviant” Calvinism. Chapter 1 argues for the important role experience plays in the formation of doctrine—a good reminder for some of our stodgy brethren, but as a general category hardly a controversial point. Chapter 4 makes a case for Augustinian universalism, which Chapter 5 goes on to rebut. Chapter 6 explores the inner logic (and striking contradictions) of Barth’s universalism. All are fascinating logical and historical explorations, but they do little to advance the main thesis of the book.

Of the four remaining chapters, Chapter 2 argues “that there is more to be said for eternal justification than is often thought” (68). To be sure, this is not the majority opinion of Reformed theologians (nor can it be supported by the Westminster Confession [WCF 11.4]), but even if we were to make room for eternal justification (and men as well esteemed as Abraham Kuyper have affirmed it), it is not clear to me who in the Reformed camp is clamoring to enter this room. The issue hardly seems pressing. Rather, the burden of Crisp’s plea for a more generous Calvinism seems to rest on two other points: a (partially) libertarian freedom of the will and a (possible) hypothetical universalism (Chapters 3, 7, 8). Almost all the wiggle room on Crisp’s wish list concerns these two doctrines.

Of these two points, Crisp’s chapter on libertarian Calvinism is the less convincing. According to Crisp, there is a hard determinism, a “folk version” of Calvinism, which maintains that because God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, we are never free to act contrary to God’s decretive will. Consequently, in this folk view, free will has no place in Reformed theology (75). Crisp calls this incompatibilism because it denies that divine determinism can mesh with human free will (77). This is where Crisp goes “deviant,” arguing that because the Westminster Confession teaches that man in his innocency had the capacity to do good or evil (WCF 9.1-2), the Confession must be affirming that the “human pair had free will consistent with alternate possibilities” (73). And once you have man at least sometimes operating with this libertarian free will, Crisp sees no reason to suppose we do not have significant freedom in most areas of life. Except for the decision to believe in Christ, which must be worked in us by God directly, Crisp believes that our wills are free and that this limited libertarian freedom is not excluded by Reformed theology.

The problem with this reasoning is that it confuses free will as a moral category with the larger questions of philosophical necessity and contingency. To recognize that Adam and Eve had wills which were not bound by sin to choose what is evil is not the same as saying their wills were not still subject to the all-encompassing ordination of God. Most Calvinists would reject Crisp’s incompatibilist label, for they very much see divine determinism compatible with human responsibility, not because the human will is undetermined (i.e., as the liberty of indifference) but because the will is not subject to external coercion or compulsion. We are not “senseless stocks and blocks” whose wills are overridden by force (Canons of Dort III/IV.16). For Calvin, the will, however bound to wickedness, is still self determined (Inst. II.iii.13; II.v.7, 14-15). Likewise, Turretin argued to the same effect by postulating six different types of necessity. The will can be said to be free even if it is bound by a moral necessity (along with the necessity of dependence upon God, rational necessity, and necessity of event) so long as it is free from physical necessity and the necessity of coaction. That is to say, if the intellect has the power of choice (freedom from physical necessity) and the will can be exercised without external compulsion (freedom from the necessity of coaction) then our sins can be called voluntary and we can be held responsible for them (Elenctic Theology, X.xii.3-12). While Crisp’s insistence that the God of Calvinism is not the direct cause of all things is a necessary correction to some folk versions of Reformed theology, his larger claim about the presence of libertarian notions of freedom in the Reformed tradition is unconvincing.

Crisp’s exploration of hypothetical universalism was more compelling, even if less radical than meets the eye. Canvassing the theology of the Anglican Bishop John Davenant (1572-1641), and borrowing from the seminal work Jonathan Moore has done on John Preston (1587-1628), Crisp argues that English hypothetical universalism—the belief that Christ died for all men on the condition that they believe—has a long history in the Reformed tradition and is not to be confused with Amyraldianism, a variant of hypothetical universalism which also called for a controversial reordering of the decrees. It is now widely believed that the Synod of Dort, while certainly not endorsing the position, left open a back door for delegates like Davenant who held to particular redemption for the elect and a conditional intent toward the non-elect.

Crisp’s historical work is well researched and his arguments carefully nuanced. Overall, he makes an important point. But I wonder if his conclusion is less envelope-pushing than meets the eye. In his recent book on the theology of the Westminster Standards, for example, J.V. Feskso (hardly a deviant Calvinist) reaches the same conclusion (187-203). This is not to discount Crisp’s contribution or the need for it to be heard. It is, however, to question how much generosity is gained by hypothetical universalism. After all, as Lee Gatiss has pointed out, Calvinistic hypothetical universalism is, in the end, still a variant of limited atonement: Christ died effectually for the elect and only conditionally for the non-elect. The conditional intent for the non-elect is not in place of particular redemption for the elect (as in Arminianism), but in addition to or prior to this effectual atonement for those who will believe (For Us and For Our Salvation, 99). What’s more, it is hard to see what concrete advantage accrues to the non-elect by saying Christ died for them upon the condition that they believe, when God does not in fact grant the gift of faith to any of the non-elect. This is the same point made by Dabney, whom Crisp employs in making the case for hypothetical universalism, when he observes: “To say that God purposed, even conditionally, the reconciliation of that sinner by Christ’s sacrifice, while also distinctly proposing to do nothing effectual to bring about the fulfillment of that condition He knew the man would surely refuse, is contradictory. It is hard to see how, on this scheme, the sacrifice is related more beneficially to the non-elect sinner, than on the strict Calvinist’s plan” (Systematic Theology, 520). Hypothetical universalism appears to do more for the Calvinist’s psyche than for the state of the non-elect. To be sure, hypothetical universalism—at least of the non-Amyraldian kind—has not been considered outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, but this is owing to its congruence with stricter notions of particular redemption, not because of a marked departure from them.


This is not the first book I’ve read by Oliver Crisp, nor will it be the last. Even when exploring “liminal places” (3), his theology is deeply informed by and respectful of the Reformed tradition. This work is no exception. The history is informative, the breadth of knowledge striking, and the arguments provocative. One can learn much from this book. My main complaint is that in the two instances meant to make the case for “deviant Calvinism,” the first example (libertarian free will) is not really Calvinist and the second example (hypothetical universalism) is not all that deviant.

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10 thoughts on “A More Generous Calvinism?”

  1. Phillip says:

    Sorry Kevin, this just doesn’t pass the smell test.

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks for the review. This helps to inform several conversations/discussions I have had regarding both the scope of “Calvinism” and the God’s intent to the non-elect.

  3. anonymous says:

    Sounds a bit like philosophical hegemony, Kevin. Which you wonderfully and astutely addressed. Why should we ever agree that the best ( or better) tools we have for understanding God, God’s attributes, and consequently, our formation of doctrine, and the like, is “analytical” philosophy? Does this mean that the BEST tool we have for understanding “God” IS philosophy? Horrible shock to theologians for CENTURIES who have read and studied His Word, Scripture! If we go this route, by the route of man alone, minding his way to God, it also means God’s own self disclosure is at best secondary, trivial, and relatively useless in discovering and understanding what God Himself has told us about His character, as well as shown us in actual condescension in REAL History. All knowledge is dependent upon what God has said and done. Who HE is. I tend to move cautiously, and such work as Deviant may be lurking as an example of philosophy trespassing on the grounds of theology without even a hint of impropriety or offered as a weird possibly unnatural synthesis between the two. Is not man’s mind dependent upon God, philosophy subservient to God and God’s will? Thus, believers who are actively engaged in philosophy ought follow suit and bend the knee, dependent upon theology in gratitude for the “enlightening” work of the Holy Spirit, obedient to Christ, and His Word. Calvin, I would say is an example of this, and is one of the humble, beautiful greats of History, His written treatment of, submission to, the Holy Spirit, Christ, and Scripture, with no use of the “new pearl of this methodological wisdom” in sight. More than just a flower.

  4. Chris says:

    What’s the “smell test?” Great post. Thanks!

  5. Rick says:

    Great article. You presented and supported your points very well. I would be interested in reading this book since I became a universalist by way of Calvinism. While I was a card carrying young Calvinist I began to doubt limited atonement because I couldn’t square it with the idea of God’s goodness. Well I went with the good so I could keep worshiping and abandoned limited atonement in favor of universal atonement. And with the goodness of God as a starting point and universal atonement in place, universal salvation logically followed. There were other facets to my transition but that’s the theological/philosophical side. Barth also helped like this: if Adam is seen as the universal archetype for all human kind, which the bible undoubtedly presents him as such, then we are to see every person as created for the very purpose of covenant. That means the action of creation is the very first act of love for the creature because it’s the first necessary step towards the goal of covenant. So how do you know God loves you? Well because you exist of course, and so on. The error of “all roads lead to God” is rendered completely unnecessary by the vision of a God whose love for people is in no way affected by their unbelief or wrong belief about him. It doesn’t discount judgement either, but sees it expressed by a God who has bound himself to all people in love. I finally feel as though I have a firm place to stand in the soil of this planet, a proper lens through which to view my fellow earthlings, and actual good news to share with each one of them. Oh yeah, and the worship is good again too. Peace to you.

  6. David Moore says:

    Good summary Kevin. Here is my own description of why some would and others would not call me a Calvinist:

  7. dr. james willingham says:

    Hasn’t any of the theologians of today heard of Therapeutic Paradoxes, Shock Therapy, and Unconditional Prophecies that have a hidden purpose involved? I think Dr. John Eusden caught the spirit of the matter well, when he stated in his Introduction to his translation of William Ames’ Marrow of Divinity, “Predestination is an invitation to begin one’s spiritual pilgrimage,….” One could make that statement of any of the doctrines of the TULIP acrostic and of reprobation. John Owen gives the idea of the matchless worth of the atonement of Christ being of such value that it could redeem the inhabitants of a multitude of worlds. Why not look for an understanding of Sovereign Grace (after all Calvin came lately to the field) that better explains how they can be wonderfully irresistible. Like one 20 year old lady said in the 60s, “O, it was so wonderful that I could not resist it.”

  8. Jack Brooks says:

    I believe that hypothetical universalism glorifies God’s generosity. God isn’t a non-contradictory logic machine, or an accountant auditing books. A Person can exhibit abundant generosity by providing more than the scrabbly little sinner is willing to accept. God told the Israelites in Ezekiel 24:13 that He would have cleansed them, but they all died in their sins anyway. God cannot offer anyone cleansing without having laid the objective, redemptive foundation for cleansing, otherwise He’s Allah who just remits sins for no reason other than He feels like it

  9. Chad Hussey says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that many who embrace the Edwardsian model to inform their theology of the underdetermined reconciliation of the Scripture pertaining to God’s providence, man’s culpability, and God’s salvific will; accuse others of philosophizing and bringing human conceptions to Scripture. It’s as if, having been taught the Edwardsian hermeneutic long enough, it becomes clearly stated in Scripture, and Edwards becomes purely an exegete, rather than a philosophical theologian. This is no knock on the author of the post, but a real concern among the masses in the reformed camp who are not only uncharitable towards Arminians but even fellow Calvinists. This is also a credit to Crisp, Helm, and others who recognize that Edwardsian compatabilism – while some find it a strong solution to the issue – is also a philosophical conception, and there are other Calvinist brothers and sisters who are every bit as devoted to the Word and academically diligent who are committed to minority metaphysical views or content to leave the issue a mystery as the Scripture does.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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