My Review of Kevin’s Review

By on May 16, 2014

Austin Share On GoogleShare On FacebookShare On Twitter

Here’s my review of what I thought, generally speaking, was a fair review of my book by Kevin DeYoung. I’ll focus in on a few key critiques and offer some responses.


#1…Really Reformed?


It’s worth noting the chronology in Fischer’s journey. He became a Calvinist in high school (p.8) and started rethinking his Calvinism already as a freshman in college (p.19), which is not a lot of time to explore the depths of the Reformed tradition. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t sincerely Reformed and couldn’t understand the basic contours of election and reprobation, but it does put his “deconversion” story in context…What it does mean is that this is not the journey of a lifelong Calvinist or a deeply entrenched Reformed thinker who threw in the towel, as much as it is the story of ana earnest young Christian who didn’t grow up Reformed, was never trained to be Reformed, but who embraced Reformed soteriology for a short time as a teenager before he found a better alternative in the Arminianism of his esteemed professors. –DeYoung




I’ve discovered a 6th point of Calvinism!…the perseverance of the Calvinism of someone who is truly a Calvinist :). I jest, but the basic point that there is a “point of no return” (by which I mean a point where you are so steeped in a worldview that de-conversion is basically impossible), and that I wasn’t there yet is fair enough, though a red herring of sorts that isn’t really helpful.


In particular, I think it subtly implies that my de-conversion was rooted in a misunderstanding of Calvinism and if I had only stuck with it longer and understood it better, things might have been different. I call this a red herring because no one has been able to point out what I didn’t understand about Calvinism. Would I have been less likely to de-convert had I been a Calvinist for 20 years instead of 5? Of course, but that’s not really saying much.


#2…Is Reformed Theology Represented Accurately?


I believe Fischer has tried hard to be fair with Calvinism. He does not make ad hominem arguments. He does not take cheap shots. But despite these good intentions, Fischer’s arguments suffer from a lack of familiarity with important distinctions frequently cited in the Reformed tradition. For example, Fischer suggests that Calvinists believe that when people are raped, maimed, murdered, and tortured that God ultimately did those things to them (p.21). What’s missing here is an awareness of the distinction between remote and primary causes. No Calvinist I know would say God rapes people. God is never the “doer” of evil. Arminians may not find the distinction compelling, but Reformed theologians have always made clear there is a difference between God ordaining what comes to pass and the role of human agency in actually and voluntarily performing the ordained action. –DeYoung




Now we’re getting somewhere! The issues involved here are certainly tricky and here was the tightrope I tried to walk while writing.


I am well aware of the various nuances in the Calvinist doctrines of primary and second causes. I leaned on them during my time as a Calvinist. God doesn’t actively cause sin and evil; rather, God withholds the grace that humans need to do good and once he does that, they sin “freely” (that is, in a compatibilistic sense). Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, Piper and Helm all make different accents, but this is the basic line of thought: although God “ordains” sin and evil, God is never the actual doer of sin and evil. God ordains it but humans still freely do it and are responsible for it (=compatibilism).


So I wanted to do justice to all of that while at the same time not getting so bogged down in the red tape and causal euphemisms that I failed to communicate what I found to be the inevitable conclusion of consistent Calvinism; namely, evil and sin and hell exist, ultimately, because God wanted (in a STRONG sense of the term) them to. To borrow the example DeYoung cites, I completely agree with him: no Calvinist believes God rapes people (of course!!!!). However much worse than that, I don’t see how a Calvinist cannot conclude that the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever existed will be damned, ultimately, because God wanted them to and to that end, set in motion events that would guarantee their damnation.


So should I have gone into more detail regarding all the nuances of causation in Calvinism? I think it’s a fair request for Kevin to make and if I had it to do over I would. However, I do think that the New Calvinism has been very coy with the way it has cloaked the doctrines of determinism, compatiblism, and double predestination in euphemisms, neutering them of their intelligibility and substance. Since writing, I’ve received lots of emails from people who thought they were Calvinists and had no idea double predestination was a part of the package. That’s some pretty important fine print to be unaware of.


And as noted in an earlier post (and in Kevin’s as well), I think Calvin would be with me here, because he himself admitted that the doctrine of double predestination was “terrible.” So while it’s fair for Kevin to push me a bit here, I think it’s fair for me to push Kevin and others to be more clear about the doctrines of determinism and, especially, double predestination. Because if they neuter and euphemism them to death so that people don’t step back and go, “Wow…that’s terrible”, I don’t think they’ve explained them honestly enough.


Along these lines, I was on a podcast recently discussing the book with a very smart and consistent Calvinist and I noticed something interesting. We were asked what we thought about the recent spike in Calvinism, and he admitted that he was surprised by it and didn’t seem particularly thrilled about it. This got me thinking and I remembered that he has frequently admitted he thinks the hard doctrines of Calvinism render it a very offensive theology that is destined to be a minority opinion in the church. I didn’t ask him at the time (and I wouldn’t have wanted to put him in a spot), but I can’t help but think he might agree with me here. When Calvinism is preached honestly and consistently, with all of its hard edges showing instead of concealed in euphemisms, it is very difficult and offensive and it seems unlikely it would ever be as popular as it is now in western evangelicalism.


#3…Free-Will Theism Probs: Foreknowledge and Evil


Fischer objects to Calvinism because it suggests that “the God who would stoop so low as to be crucified and buried is the same God doing the eternal crucifying of countless souls for things he had made sure they would do” (p.46)…[But] the sharp disjunction put forward by Fischer could just as easily be constructed out of the Arminian position: “how can the God who would stoop so low as to be crucified and buried be the same God doing the eternal crucifying of countless souls for things he knew they would do when he created them and could have easily prevented?” The Arminian position doesn’t really gain us any theodicy points. –DeYoung




I’ve bumped up against this question a few times. On the face of it, it seems to have merit, but it’s based in a misunderstanding of how foreknowledge works.


Kevin suggests God is basically as culpable for Bob’s damnation in free-will theism as he is in Calvinism, because God knew Bob would end up in hell when he created Bob and yet did nothing to stop it. The assumption Kevin makes is that God could have used his foreknowledge to “easily prevent” Bob’s damnation. But these are two dots that simply won’t connect…a non-sequitur argument.


How could God have used his foreknowledge of Bob’s damnation to prevent Bob’s damnation? I am not aware of any answer to that. It’s not as if God goes, “Hmm…if I were to create Bob, what would happen to him? [Cue foreknowledge] Oh I see—he would be damned. O well, I’m going to create him anyways.”


No—God’s foreknowledge is foreknowledge of what WILL happen, not what MIGHT happen. So God can’t use his foreknowledge to see that Bob WILL be damned and then act to make sure Bob won’t be damned, for then God’s foreknowledge would have been incorrect (a.k.a. not foreknowledge). To be fair to Kevin, it’s an easy mistake to make and many people who believe in simple foreknowledge make the same mistake.


So in short, the suggestion that free-will theism doesn’t really have much more to offer than Calvinism when it comes to God’s goodness in the face of hell is, in my estimation, more smoke than fire. From where I’m sitting, it means the difference in a good God who looks like Jesus crucified and one who doesn’t.


#4…Free-Will Theism Probs: Jesus and Suffering


Similarly, Fischer argues that the Reformed idea of God doesn’t work because in the gospels we see a God who is the healer of suffering and sickness, not the cause of it (47). Not only does this ignore a whole lot of Scripture to the contrary (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20-23; Isa. 45:6-7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14), but Fischer has painted himself into a corner that no orthodox Christian can get out of. If you have, like Fischer does, a doctrine of hell and if you have penal substitutionary atonement – not to mention the whole history of divine judgment in the exodus, the conquest, the exile, and in the consummation – you have a God who causes suffering and is just to do so. –DeYoung




I think Kevin thinks I have painted myself into a corner because he does here what he felt like I did to the Calvinist doctrine of causation: he flattens out what I said into blacks and whites.


I never say God never causes suffering. In fact, I find it hard to believe any biblical Christian could say that. What I say is that the Bible (in both its specific teachings…Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15, John 1:1-18, John 14, etc…and in its very structure) teaches us that Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature, is the image of the invisible God, is the deepest glimpse into the heart of God, because HE IS GOD. And how does Jesus respond to suffering when he encounters it? He heals it. He heals it. He heals it. He heals it. He heals it.


I’m not offering a bulletproof syllogism here. My aim is more humble. I’m saying, “Hmm…Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature, the deepest peek into God’s heart, and every time he encounters suffering, he heals it. What does this teach me about God?” Well, at minimum, it teaches me that the deepest disposition of God towards suffering is to, graciously, heal it. And when I hold that image of God up next to the Calvinist picture of God (where God causes the most unthinkable suffering…hell…for no reason other than to flex his wrath muscle for the elect), I find it hard to reconcile.


I do think God causes suffering. I think the Bible teaches me that God does, often for purposes such as discipline (Hebrews 12:4-11). But I find it very difficult to look at the way Jesus interacts with suffering in the Gospels and then sit comfortably with the doctrines of Calvinism where God ordains the most terrible suffering imaginable on the majority of humanity.



#5…Free-Will Theism Probs: Soteriology


Fischer also struggles to give a response to the problem of our own willing in Arminian soteriology. He affirms total depravity and that we do not have the ability to turn to God on our own. Commendably, Fischer wants to safeguard that salvation is of grace and leaves no room for human boast. But he doesn’t own the uncomfortable conclusion at the bottom of free will theism, namely, that the reason some people open the gift of salvation and others don’t, the reason some people surrender and float up to safety while others struggle and drown (to use Olson’s analogy), is owing ultimately to our decision. Why are some people in heaven and some people in hell? The Calvinist says the decisive factor was God. In free will theism the decisive factor is you. Fischer dismisses the whole issue as a problem we don’t need to worry about (p.79). –DeYoung



I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but in the recent discussions regarding Calvinism and free-will theism, I have noticed that the primary concern for Calvinists is making sure humans can’t boast in salvation, whereas the primary concern for free-will theism is a recognizably good God. Just a thought. Onward we march…


While I completely understand the Calvinist concern to make sure there is no room for human boasting in salvation, I’ve just never been too moved by this line of argumentation. In fact, when I was a Calvinist I remember arguing with someone over this (insisting that if Calvinism weren’t true then humans could boast in their salvation), and my friend saying to me, “God must be pretty insecure if he’s up in heaven, wringing his hands, worried humans might think their participation in salvation merits boasting.”


And so while I really don’t mean to be dismissive, I do just see an impasse here where we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t think that if salvation is by grace, through faith, and faith itself is a gift from God, and yet I have to respond to this gift in some way, this means I was the decisive factor in my salvation (of course lots of this hinges on what is meant by “decisive”). That math will never add up for me. So if the math of salvation has to equal 1, with no room for human boasting, then I’m just fine saying the equation I see in the Bible is 1 (God) + 0 (Me) = 1, and that while my 0 contributes nothing, it is still necessary. I think this tends to be the way the Bible handles this, admittedly, mysterious issue of divine grace and human repentance/discipleship/faith.


The same Paul who says we have been saved by grace through faith that is a gift from God and not a work (Eph. 2:8) also says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Paul has no problem with the notion that salvation is a gift from God and yet Christ (through Paul) begs people to be reconciled to God, as if it were important that they actually do so because they will not be reconciled if they don’t. You can explain this with compatibilism if you want, but you’ll be claiming you have a peek behind the curtain that I don’t see in Paul (and I think most of the early church fathers would agree).


So I am quite happy with leaving it at…salvation is by grace through faith that is a gift from God, and yet in some sense I must (enabled, but not necessarily determined, by grace) receive this gift. I think this is precisely how the Bible frames the issue of God/grace and humans/faith in salvation. If Calvinists want to go further, that’s fine, but the accusation that the formula I’ve sketched above necessitates some sort of “works righteousness” or semi-Pelagianism just isn’t as sticky as I think many Calvinists think.


Thanks again to Kevin for the review, and I hope this brings some more clarity to the conversation.