Young, Restless, and no longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey in and out of Calvinism caught my attention and I read it through in one sitting. I will do a two part review beginning with some observations and commentary. In Part 2 we will look closer at the book’s provocative content.
Monday, March 17, 2014 and many University of Michigan Wolverines’ fans are down in the dumps because the Michigan State Spartans won the Big Ten crown with the score 69 to 55 on March 16. Now imagine that a Young, Restless and Reformed neo-Calvinist is a rabid Wolverine fan and Austin Fischer, author of Young, Restless, and no longer Reformed, is a rabid Spartan fan. Believing as all evangelicals do that theology should inform and transform life, we would expect to see the YRR neo-Calvinist sitting motionless and silent as the Big Ten tournament game unfolds. His theology requires such a response. Meanwhile, Austin is beside himself with joy as the Spartans play and he gets very concerned when the Wolverines start a scoring streak. The YRR guy knows that before God created anything, in deep eternity past God willed an exhaustive, eternal decree so meticulous that all nanoparticles do only what God’s decree contains. One nanoparticle out of sync with God’s decree totally destroys, so he is taught, God’s sovereignty. The YRR cannot cheer the Wolverines nor can he scream at the Spartans. Why? The final score (the end) and all the plays that lead to it (the means) are just as they are because God decreed them so. Did I write “God”? The only proper response of the YRR guy is to say, no matter how the game turns out, “Glory to God.”
Watch out for Pelagianism! This is the most dreadful feature of human experience according to Calvinists. Not a nanoparticle of Pelagianism must contaminate the pure atmosphere of “sovereign grace.” A nanoparticle of Pelagianism is worse than the most massive and despicable evil. Yet, if all is decreed and the human will ultimately does not matter, Austin Fischer writes, “And you are expected to act as though it [the will] does. You’re supposed to run on the treadmill and pretend you’re running the race of faith. This forces you into the awkward position of seemingly suspending your theology in order to live faithfully—because living faithfully requires living with meaning and living with meaning requires choice. You believe God determines all things, and yet act as though your will is not completely determined” (97-98 emphasis his). So the YRR cheers for the Wolverines. Does God really decree people to be happy and to love? This produces theological schizophrenia in the minds of Calvinists because the Trinity they worship is schizophrenic (Fischer, 47; a point made also by Gregory Boyd in God at War, see, e.g., 231-237).
I know this tension myself because like Scot McKnight, who wrote the Foreword, and Austin Fischer, I, too, was once a glowing, convinced Calvinist. Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology was my devotional material. I was a mixed up Calvinist, however, because while theologically a Calvinist, I was a peddler of the Four Spiritual Laws (a dreadful Arminian document). I got so frustrated once with a person I was “witnessing to” on a Chicago commuter train that when he resisted my “gospel presentation,” I told him, “The reason you don’t believe is because you’re not one of the elect!” I shudder at having to give an account to Christ for that outburst.
Calvinists must contemplate the implications of their theology. I do not see how it does not drive them nuts. A wise theologian and excellent preacher once told me that “neurotic” is the only word he could find to describe the esteemed David Brainerd as he wrote his journal entries struggling to know if he was elect or not. It seems one would have to hold Calvinism in suspension while going about daily life. That is, until you need to teach or debate it. The heart of Calvinism’s gospel is a view of God’s sovereignty that is not shaped enough by the mangled-lamb Savior, Jesus the Christ, and the love of God.
We are reviewing Austin Fischer’s Young, Restless, and no longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism. I agree with Fischer’s take on the biblical and pastoral weaknesses of Calvinism. I want to focus on four of his many excellent and provocative observations.
First, no one becomes a Calvinist from just reading the Bible. To the YRRs who say, “Calvinism is on every page of the Bible,” I would like to see the concordance on that. On the other hand, the relational interplay between God (divine will) and people (human will)is almost on every page of the Bible. People have to be taught an interpretive, systematic grid based on a handful of beloved Calvinist texts that, like Kool-Aid in water, color the whole Bible. No one doubts that the Calvinist system is pristine, even intoxicating. It’s like a theological creation of Lego pieces, so intricately interlocked. I do remember as a new Calvinist being deeply humbled by the system’s definition of “sovereign grace.”
Second, when you take away the Calvinist fig leaf woven with terms like “mystery,” “passing over,” and “antinomy,” the naked God of the eternal, meticulous decree is not a God Who loves everyone; he selects only his elect. I like the way Austin dismantles the Calvinist two kinds of love (24-25). My opinion is that the game of arranging the ordo salutis is a task of presumptive humans trying to read the mind of God in eternity past. Many people are waking up to the “unblinking cosmic stare” (Dallas Willard) God created by any version of TULIP. I remember riding a tour bus in Mumbai, India, and seeing literally thousands of people up and down every street. I was in a city of millions of people who in the minds of many are reprobate, eternally damned to hell; decreed so by the God I worship; predestined to hell for God’s glory. If that’s so, then glory sounds like a treacherous word. Fischer suggests the God of Calvinism becomes One Who is so turned in on himself for his own glory that he becomes the cosmic Black Hole (14-15).
Third, many texts used to create systematic Calvinism have been shown to be misused. I think Fischer does a good job poking back at the Calvinist misuse of Romans 9 (and Gregory Boyd reclaims many misused texts in God at War). Austin’s section on the Bible made impossible is provocative (33-35). The hermeneutical and theological gymnastics that Calvinists use to diffuse “the plain reading of Scripture” is laughable, if not so seriously twisting the sacred text. Fischer suggests that these differing views of the same texts are traceable to bliks—interpretive lenses through which everything is understood (81-82).
Fourth, and for me most convincingly, Fischer makes clear that the Calvinist God is not the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ. Fischer writes, “… [T]he crucified Jesus is both the foundation and criticism of all Christian theology. … And so, plainly, does the God on the cross look like the God of Calvinism” (45)? Fischer makes a good case for the answer “no.” When we start with Jesus on the cross and work back and forward through the Bible, we do not meet the Platonic- concept-of-perfection-God espoused by Calvinism.
Are there godly, kind Calvinists? Yes, I know many. Are there pesky Arminians and irritating open theists? I imagine there are. I like this from Fischer, “I think Calvinists are right on some things, kind of wrong on some things, and really wrong on some things” (90-91). Some years ago the senior pastor of a large Assembly of God Church told me this story. He met with the denominational leaders of the Christian Reformed Church to discuss church growth in West Michigan. The Assembly’s pastor thanked the Reformed leaders for filling his church and many other Assemblies churches. The Reformed leaders were a little taken back, asking, “How did we do that?” The pastor said, “By preaching your view of God so faithfully. Thank you. People from your churches flock to ours to escape a wrathful, unpleasable God and they find in our churches a God who so ravishingly loves them that he chases them down with passionate desire.” We can argue Pelagianism, Arminianism, semi-Pelagianism, Open theism, and Calvinism ad infinitum. Yet, people, ordinary people, just want to know “What kind of God is at the center of the universe?” At the center of reality is there a meticulously determined decree or a “Lamb, looking as it if had been slain”?
I appreciate Austin Fischer and his book for sparking a fair and amiable conversation on such a vital topic: what is the nature and purpose of God?