The Softer Face of Calvinism

Reformed theology is more irenic and diverse than you think, says theologian Oliver Crisp

“Few figures in church history have been so much loved or hated, admired or despised as John Calvin. Calvinism—the theological orientation bearing the French theologian’s name—has also had mixed reception. Reformed theologian Oliver Crisp, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, says Calvinism and the Reformed tradition is more diverse and amiable than is often thought.”


Why do you think it was important to write Deviant Calvinism?

I see a lot of misrepresentations of Reformed theology, among people both inside and outside the Reformed tradition. Many people think Reformed theology coalesces around five points or around the soteriological “doctrines of grace” rather than around historic confessions. And I see a lot of Calvinists who aren’t confessional, when in fact the Reformed tradition very much is. If you truly are a Calvinist, then you should be interested in Reformed confessions, I think. And when we look at the confessional tradition, it seems Reformed theology is broader than the more narrow five-point Calvinism.

Also, a number of people outside the Reformed community tend to associate the Reformed tradition with a narrowly dogmatic—in both senses of that term—way of thinking about the Christian faith. And they are rather disparaging about that. But not all of us are narrowly dogmatic. So I thought, Maybe the time has come to make a case for a more irenic, more sanguine, broad approach to the Reformed tradition, because there are great riches in the Reformed tradition that just don’t get reported.

Even though the book is more scholarly than popular, I think it addresses some hot issues in the air at the moment.

How has recognizing diversity within the Reformed tradition impacted you personally?

I come from a fairly theologically conservative background and have become more centrist over the years, but I very much want to hang onto the Reformed traditions.

By centrist, I mean someone who occupies a middle ground on the theological spectrum, open to dialogue and engagement with those to the right and the left of them. My Reformed heritage is important to me, and I am an evangelical. I would characterize my approach to theology as about building bridges to those of other persuasions, and seeking to be a patient listener and charitable interpreter, while taking a clear line on particular issues in keeping with the tradition of which I am a part. There is a long history in Reformed thinking of doing just this, so I do not see any tension between a centrist theological view and confessional Reformed thought.

In your book you refer a lot to the Reformed confessions. Why are the confessions, and not just the works of particular theologians, important for understanding Reformed theology?

It’s a matter of theological authority. In any theological discussion there are certain appeals to authority. As Christians, we believe Scripture is the norming norm, the ultimate basis for theological judgments. The catholic creeds of the first few centuries of the church are a secondary tier of norm that witnesses to Scripture. Then we have confessions that represent particular church bodies, like the 39 Articles of Anglicanism—which are very Reformed, I might add—and the Westminster Confession for Presbyterians. Confessions are a third tier of witness, norms that stand under Scripture and the catholic creeds. It seems to me the work of particular theologians are a step below the confessions, because confessions represent the common mind of a particular ecclesial body.

Read More