The ins and outs of Calvinism

For Austin Fischer, Calvinism is a matter of cosmic concern. It’s a black hole – or at least it postulates a God who behaves like one. According to Fischer, the Calvinist God is a being of unfettered sovereign will, heaven-bent on displaying his own glory, even if it requires the damnation of countless souls. Nothing escapes the all-consuming, inscrutable, eternal counsel of this God, especially not the comparatively minor strivings of the human will. Fischer, a pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas, used to consider himself part of the Calvinist crew. After reading John Piper’s Desiring God as a teen, Fischer came to see that the scriptures – Romans 9 especially – unequivocally describe God as a reprobating, foreordaining, predestinating sovereign.

(An awareness of this Piper fellow is key to Fischer’s story, because Piper is arguably the most significant leader of a rather recent – trendy, even – expression of Reformed theology, popular among erstwhile evangelicals in the United States. It’s an expression that finds some deep resonances with the Dutch variety many of us have inherited, but there are some fairly significant differences, too. These young, restless and Reformed folk might not be keen on infant baptism or have a Kuyperian Kingdom vision, but boy do they love talking soteriology – or in lay terms, the doctrines of salvation).

Once an attractive doctrine, it’s that emphasis on God’s sovereignty that ultimately sent Fischer on his journey away from the Calvinists. For him, it’s an over-emphasis, one that leaves little room for human freedom and initiative in the drama of salvation. Reprobation and double-predestination are “one hell of a problem,” but – perhaps most damning of all – Calvinism seems to create a rupture in the Trinity itself. Fischer has a hard time reconciling self-giving, self-sacrificing, crucified Messiah he sees in Jesus with God the Father, who decrees damnation before the foundations of the world.

Fischer insightfully argues that the crucified Jesus ought to be the “foundation and criticism of all Christian theology.” Our theology ought to be “subjected to merciless interrogation in the shadow of the cross,” implying that a theological scheme at odds with the picture of the crucified Christ ought to be chucked out. Otherwise, we end up with things like the “awkward dilemma of Calvinism,” where God the sovereign Father “causes people to suffer,” only to send Jesus along to patch things back up.

There’s something beautiful and true about raising the crucified Christ as the standard bearer for Christian theology. That doesn’t mean that the conclusions Fischer draws from that insight have the same truth and beauty. In fact, that’d be my core criticism of the book: Fischer offers a few eloquent insights which then become the foundation for some sketchy conclusions. Maybe that’s to be expected from a slight, 109-page treatment of weighty issues such as these.

Fischer’s complaints are familiar complaints. Some of them are caricatures, too (though I’ve no doubt that along the way he’s heard self-styled Calvinists unwittingly caricature themselves). It’s also heavily-travelled terrain, so I’m reluctant to embark on a point-by-point response here. Still, it would’ve been nice to see Fischer do a bit more homework before embarking on this project. Had he explored the terrain more diligently, he’d know that most Reformed folk aren’t ardent supralapsarians who affirm double predestination. Had he acquainted himself with the history and development of the Reformed tradition, he could’ve avoided making rather groundless assertions about Calvinism’s inability to “naturally produce disciples,” because of its dim view of human initiative. Such an allegation ought to sound strange to Dutch Reformed folk who know well the deep personal devotional habits of our tradition, and the Kingdom-heralding institutions and endeavours they’ve worked to build along the way. Had he pushed deeper in his exploration he would have uncovered – and this is where I get the most defensive – that the Reformed tradition is so much broader than a particular soteriological scheme. The Calvinism of John Piper and Mark Driscoll isn’t the whole deal.

That said, reprobation, election and predestination are part of the Reformed tradition, and they require our reckoning, especially since they can seem so horrid on the surface.  Fischer’s brief work can be helpful with that reckoning, insofar as it gives a fresh voice to the age-old questions. Of course, his alternative theology isn’t without its own problems either, and I would’ve appreciated hearing more from Fischer on that score. Folks who convert to a different tradition rarely turn the same critical gaze onto that new tradition as they did on the old. Fischer can affirm human initiative or free will as if they’re a sufficient riposte against Calvinist theology, but then he has to come up with some way to comfort the little Baptist girl who anxiously goes to the front of the church at each altar call because she’s not sure she loved Jesus enough that week. At the very least, the Reformed tradition, besotted as it may be with God’s sovereignty, brings with it the good news that he is heaven-bent on rescuing us, in spite of ourselves.


  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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