Saving Calvinism: Expanding the Reformed Tradition. By Oliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. 165 pp. Paper, $18.00.
This book has a fascinating title and subtitle. The dedication is even more fascinating: “To Robin Parry: Evangelical Universalist, Dear Friend.”
Crisp is a Professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. And he considers himself a Reformed theologian. However, his views are rather shocking for this reviewer.
First, let’s consider points I much appreciate in this book.
The author distinguishes between Calvinism, which is essentially agreement with the five points of TULIP, and Reformed, which is someone who not only believes the five points, but who believes that baptism (primarily for babies) and the Lord’s supper are sacraments that convey grace and who believe that the government of the local church should be either episcopal (bishops) or Presbyterian (groups of pastors called presbyteries and sometimes even larger groups of pastors called synods) church government. Thus Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, and Nondenominational worshippers can be Calvinists, but not Reformed.
The idea that tradition and majority opinions are necessarily right is rejected by Crisp (e.g., p. 100). He does not believe that the torments in hell, if anyone is in hell (more on that in a moment) are not unbearable (p. 105).
He calls the Calvinist view of those whom God passes over (i.e., does not elect) as “the dark side”: “Its [election’s] dark side has to do with the eternal destiny of those not chosen” (p. 47; see also p. 58ff).
Crisp admits that sometimes the Reformed tradition is found to be inconsistent with Scripture and in such cases there needs to be ongoing reformation (p. 44). I found this to be an outstanding statement: “[Reformed] confessions of the past…are theological guides. However, they too must be subjected to the Word of God anew each generation… Sometimes they will be found wanting. So it seems that there is reason to think that the reforming task is an ongoing one” (p. 44).
The author admirably rejects the idea that the majority must be correct: The fact that the majority position on a gi ven topic is one thing rather than another does not in and of itself make the majority right. Truth is not established by democracy; it is independent of the number of votes we give it. Indeed, the truth is sometimes held only by a tiny minority” (p. 100).
Second, let’s turn to those aspects of the book which are troubling.
The author appears to be an egalitarian, arguing that women should be in ministry, evidently including the role of senior pastors who proclaim God’s Word in church (p. 43). He repeatedly uses feminine prepositions like she and her when referring generically to someone (e.g., pp. 88, 119-20, 138, 148).
While Crisp is open to annihilationism (p. 106), his view is optimistic particularism (p. 107; see also pp. 65, 87, 88), the view that hopefully all be saved, but that most likely a small percentage will not. He even goes so far as to imply that nearly all who never hear the saving message will be visited by God and given a compelling personal witness that will lead all or nearly all of them to some sort of faith in Christ, which Crisp considers saving faith (p. 94).
The author is vague about what a person needs to believe about Jesus to be born again (e.g., p. 93).
There is no Scripture index, which is disappointing. I found no discussion of passages like Matt 7:13-14 and Luke 13:23-24 where the Lord specifically says that few will be saved and most will end up being eternally condemned. If one argues for universalism or near universalism, he ought to at least discuss these texts.
His discussion of four Reformed views of the atonement: satisfaction (pp. 113-17), penal substitution (pp. 117-119), non-penal substitution (pp. 119-121), and penal non-substitution (pp. 121-23) are both helpful and disturbing. Crisp seems to be arguing that Calvinists and Reformed people should be open to views of the atonement other than penal substitution. He calls for “a healthy dose of intellectual humility” (p. 127). But if God has made an issue clear, as He has in this case, why is it humility to be open to false views?
There is much helpful material in this book. But the bottom line is that the author’s main goal is to expand Reformed thought to include the idea that all or nearly all people will ultimately be saved.
I can only recommend this book for mature believers who are extremely well grounded. Pastors might wish to read it. But I would definitely discourage most believers from reading this book as Crisp is a very good writer and is clever in the way he introduces his aberrant views.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society