A few of the major Arminian bloggers whose posts I follow have spoken very favorably of Austin Fischer’s book, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. The book sounds very interesting but I don’t know when (or if) I’ll get to read it. So I was delighted to read an extensive review by Kevin DeYoung, a very fine Presbyterian pastor from whose writing I have benefited on previous occasions.
Fischer’s journey in and out of Calvinism
DeYoung opines that Austin Fischer (“the 28 year-old Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas),” has “written an honest, intelligent, accessible book about why he is no longer Reformed,” and he commends Fischer “for writing on such a difficult topic with disarming prose and without biting rancor.”
In eleven crisp chapters, Fischer tells the story of how the image of God in the face of Christ compelled him to leave Reformed Christianity behind in favor of a picture of God that is more loving and more satisfying.
Fischer became Reformed through reading the work of John Piper when he was in high school, but his position was unsettled by a college professor “who was a nagging thorn in my Calvinist side” because of the teacher’s emphasis on the problem of reprobation (p. 25). Fischer began to wonder how God could be loving, just, or good in any sense of those terms, if he willed the eternal destruction of many people.
The remedy to this problem is to start back at square one, and for Fischer that means beginning with the belief that Jesus is God. This is the heart of Fischer’s biblical argument against Calvinism. If Jesus is the exhaustive revelation of God’s character (p.41), we are obligated to test all of our ideas about God against the picture of Christ we see in the gospels. With a Barthian view of inspiration in place and a Moltmann-inspired approach to the incarnation, it’s a natural step for Fischer to ask the question he poses on page 44: “Does the God of Calvinism accurately depict the God revealed in Jesus?” The answer is a resounding no. Jesus shows us a “crucified-for-sinners God” while Calvinism gives us a “creates-sinners-in-order-to-crucify-them God” (p.49). Therefore, we cannot accept the predestinating Calvinist God whose chief end is to glorify himself, because “At the center of the universe, there is not a black hole of deity, endlessly collapsing in on self, but a suffering, crucified, mangled lamb, endlessly giving away self” (p.50, emphasis in original).
In the remainder of his book, Fischer aims to bolster that foundational claim. In DeYoung’s assessment,
Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is a thoughtful book which leans on the likes of Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, Dallas Willard, Daniel Taylor, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Roger Olson to make the case that Calvinism leaves the Christian with a God bent inward instead of directed outward, a God who glorifies himself at all costs instead of loves at all costs, a God who resembles a black hole instead of mangled Lamb. And if those are the choices before us, Calvinism looks like a loser.
What DeYoung considers to be the book’s shortcomings
Deyoung finds “a few serious shortcomings in this engaging book.”
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.
“Fischer has tried hard to be fair with Calvinism,” and “he does not make ad hominem arguments,” but he shows
“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.
Likewise, Fischer assumes several times that in Reformed theology the human will is only an illusion. The picture painted is of a God who makes sure people do what he wants, whether they will to do so or not (pp.46, 71). So God, according to Fischer’s version of Reformed theology, must put the impulse to sin inside Adam (p.75). In his chapter on kingdom discipleship, Fischer argues that Calvinism cannot naturally produce discipleship because at the heart of being a disciple is making a choice to follow Jesus, and in Calvinism “you simply do not have a choice and therefore do not have a will that matters” (p.97). But Dort makes clear that divine sovereignty “does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force” (III/IV.16). Calvinists may believe there is a divine will prior to all human willing and they may deny that our wills are free in a libertarian sense, but they do not deny the reality of human choice or that our decisions matter.
Fischer also describes reprobation in terms that are more extreme than even a supralapsarian Calvinist would use. While he is right to insist the Calvinist own up to double predestination, his description of the position – God creates people in order to damn them (pp.22, 26) – is not how Reformed theologians have explained reprobation. Dort is typical in describing reprobation as God’s decision to pass by the non-elect, leave them in their sin, not grant them faith and regeneration, and finally condemn them for their unbelief (I.15). Again, Arminians may not care for the nuances of infralapsarianism and the order of the decrees, but they should at least interact with the Calvinist position as it presents itself in the best of our confessional tradition.
Fischer does us Calvinists a service in forcing “us to stare at the doctrine of reprobation and consider whether this is a picture of God we can live with. There’s no doubt that double predestination is a tough pill to swallow and that reprobation can feel like a “horrible decree” (to use Calvin’s phrase),” but DeYoung resonates “with Bavinck’s appeal that Calvinism “invites us to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths are beyond tracing out” (Reformed Dogmatics. (4 volume set), 2.395).
What Fischer does not give us, however, is a clear “way through the problems that come with free will theism.“
To his credit, Fischer spots the “monsters” and acknowledges them. But then he doesn’t do much to slay any of the dragons. He refuses to stare them down to the bottom like he does with the Reformed doctrine of reprobation. And when he does find a “win” for his side, the logic ends up helping his position much less than he thinks.
For example, 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). Putting aside whether “made sure they would do” is the best way to speak of the divine decrees, 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.
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.
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).
Again and again, Fischer falls back on mystery, which feels a bit awkward considering how much he criticized the Calvinist for appealing to mystery when it comes to the difficult doctrine of reprobation.
The biggest problem with this book, in DeYoung’s assessment, is that it does not provide careful exegesis to make its point.
For example, [Fischer] affirms that “the Bible talks about God’s self-glorification a lot” and cites nine passages in an endnote. But then the rest of the book criticizes the black hole of a glory-seeking God. What about those texts Fischer learned when he was Reformed? What do they mean now? You can’t acknowledge that “the Bible talks about God’s self-glorification a lot” and then write a book purporting to debunk the whole notion of a glory-seeking God without looking at any of those glory texts.
Later he quotes from a paragraph in which John Piper argues for election by referencing fifteen different texts in the Gospel of John. Fischer’s response does not deal with any of them. He admits that Piper’s Reformed reading “is a fair case to be made.” But then adds, “if you’re looking for Calvinism in the Gospels, you’ll leave parched. You’ll hone in on a couple of teachings in John and then project them elsewhere” (p.48). That could be, but fifteen texts is not “a couple,” and even [if] it were only a couple, you should go to the trouble of showing why “all that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37) and “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44) do not mean what Calvinists think they mean.
Similarly, Fischer dismisses the Reformed understanding of Ephesians 1:11 without any exegetical work except to admit that the Calvinist reading is “possible,” but he “no longer find[s] it the best possible reading” (p.68). To wipe away texts with personal assertions that they don’t work is hardly a compelling argument.
. . . He constantly reminds us that at the center of the universe is not some glory-seeking God, but the mangled lamb of Revelation 5, as if Revelation 4 and the vision of him who sits on the throne receiving unceasing worship has nothing to do with God’s purpose in glorifying God. Fischer makes much of the fact that in Jesus we see a desire to love at all costs, not a desire to glorify himself at all costs (p.58), as if the high priestly prayer in John 17 was not chiefly concerned with the glory of the Father and the Son. Fischer uses the story of Jacob wrestling with God as evidence that good theology always has doubts and uncertainty because when you come face to face with God you walk with a limp (pp.85ff.), as if the text even mentions Jacob limping or other heroes of the faith limping or has anything to do with theological method at all. Moses seems more interested in drawing implications about not eating the sinew of the thigh than in extolling the virtues of chastened epistemology.
After reading Fischer’s book DeYoung knows that Fischer disagrees with Piper, but he has “less of a sense why I should find Piper’s arguments unacceptable because they aren’t handled in any detail,” particularly lacking is detailed exegesis. DeYoung agrees with Fischer’s insistence that what we make of Reformed theology is tremendously important, and he loves “this line at the end of the book: ‘I wish there were middle ground, but . . . where would it be?’ (108). To that, DeYoung says “Amen,” because like me he believes it impossible to be a Calviminian.” Fischer’s book demonstrates how wide and deep the divide is between Calvinism and Arminianism, but he is “thankful that unlike many Christians, [Fischer} believes the debate is worth having.”
My impression concerning the book’s contribution
Sadly, DeYoung’s review leaves me with the strong impression that this book will not actually contribute to the conversation between Arminians and Calvinists in a constructive way. We have already seen that people who are Arminian like the book very much, but it does not appear that it is going to cause well-formed Calvinists to reconsider their own understanding of Scripture, and its lack of exegetical rigor makes it unlikely that many Calvinists will choose to read it. Then again, there may be many young, restless, Calvinists who are still relatively untaught in their newly owned theology and this kind of emotional appeal may be all it takes to move them back to Arminianism. Unfortunately, that would not advance serious dialogue, it would most likely cut it off before it gets under way.