AN ESCAPE FROM CALVINISM:
YOUNG, RESTLESS, NO LONGER REFORMED
A Book by AUSTIN FISCHER
Reviewed by Jack Cottrell, August 2014
Austin Fischer is not yet 30 years old, but he has experienced a very interesting theological pilgrimage which he describes in his book, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey in and Out of Calvinism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books [Wipf & Stock], 2014; pb, 116pp.). He feels that his reflections on his journey might be helpful to others who are wrestling with the “mysteries” of Reformed theology. I agree that they may be of some help.
By the time Fischer entered college, he was a committed Calvinist, having been persuaded by the arguments of Neo-Calvinists such as John Piper and Donald Carson. But during his college years, the more he tried to bring the details of Calvinism into focus, the more disturbed he became about its view of God. His conclusion was that he could no longer embrace this system of theology. Thus he undertook the process of deconstructing Calvinism and reconstructing his view of God. The main question, he rightly says, is: “Who is God?” (4).
In my judgment he is more successful with the deconstructing than with the reconstructing.
In deconstructing Calvinism Fischer has certainly laid bare its main weaknesses. He rightly recognizes that Calvinism is a complete determinism, with God being “the all-determining reality” (9). And everything God determines is done for one main purpose: “It’s all about God’s glory. All as in everything” (8). For Calvinists “God was the self-glorifying, all-determining reality who did everything for his glory” (19).
But if God determines everything, that means he must have determined to create evil in all its forms, even such “horrendous evil” as Auschwitz—and all for his glory (20-22). As Jonathan Edwards has explained, “God ordains evil so he can display his holiness in judging it and his grace in forgiving it, and this is good for us because it allows us to behold the fullness of God’s glory” (20).
But even worse than Auschwitz, God has also created hell; and he has created some people for the very purpose of condemning them to hell for eternity—all for the purpose of glorifying his wrath. I.e., “God ordains the eternal damnation of the humans he also wants to save because he wants to display his wrath and justice even more than he wants to save them” (15). Thus the reprobate “were created so they could be damned,” and all “for the glory of God” (22-23).
The problem is that this seems to contradict God’s love, justice, and goodness (9-10, 32). “Love, justice, and goodness had been warped beyond recognition as they were sucked into the black hole of glory” (27). “How is God loving, just, or good when he sends people to hell for sins he ordained they commit?” (11). When we raise this question, we are simply told that these things are mysteries that transcend our mere finite minds. So it all boils down to this: “are you willing to live with this mystery? . . . Will you affirm that God will send people to hell for sins he made certain they would commit? Will you worship a God who might have created you in order to damn you?” (11). The fact is that the qualities of love, justice, and goodness now seem to mean “the exact opposite of what we think they mean” (32-33). Thus it becomes impossible to understand the Bible anymore, and even to understand God himself (see chapter 4). We are left with irrationalism. As Fischer remarks, in the Calvinist context “my rational equipment was so broken that God was utterly unknowable” (35).
Thus far, in his deconstruction of Calvinism I believe Fischer has got it right. But when he begins to reconstruct his view of God (and the Bible), he runs into some problems. His ultimate conclusion about God is quite acceptable, since he sees that the sovereign God can limit himself by creating free-will beings and still be sovereign (61ff., esp. 68-70). He has a good explanation of why free will matters (96-97). But along the way he takes some questionable turns that lead him through some theological swamplands.
These problem areas arise when Fischer’s theological reconstruction expands from theology as such to include methodology and apologetics—how we know what we know. I.e., the question now is not just “Who is God?” but also “How do you know?” (19). We might think that the answer to the latter question will be, simply, “The Bible tells me so.” But this is Calvinism’s methodology: it appeals to the Bible for everything! As Fischer describes his early Calvinist belief, “God was the self-glorifying, all-determining reality who did everything for his glory, and I knew it because the Bible told me so”—especially in Romans 9 (12, 19). All of this seems to make Fischer reluctant to accept the Bible as such as the final authority for his reconstructed view of God (see 29ff.). This has two consequences.
For one thing, in his effort to find the non-Calvinist truth about God, Fischer is no longer willing to advocate certainty about what he believes (30-31, 86ff.), but warmly embraces doubt instead (89-90). “Doubt is closer to faith than certainty is,” he says (90). I believe this reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of certainty as such. It is true that no finite being (as all creatures are) can have absolute, 100% certainty about anything; but this still allows for such high probability that we can and do have moral certainty about many things—including the truth of the Bible. (Also, we should not confuse objective certainty—which we do have, with absolute certainty—which we do not have; see 30-31, 87).
For the other thing, Fischer’s reluctance to accept the Bible as such as his source and norm for true knowledge about God leads him to rely instead on the trite “canon within the canon” to which Christians usually retreat when they are nervous about the Bible—namely, Jesus Christ as depicted in the Gospels, with the principal focus being on the cross (37ff.). As Fischer himself describes it, “I had become a Calvinist because I did not think the Bible left me much of a choice. I began walking away because Calvinism had made both the Bible and God impossible. I took my last steps out the door because I did not think Jesus left me much of a choice, and in the process I had found the foundation for a new home—a home that revolved around the worship of a mangled lamb” (50). As Fischer interprets the event of the cross, he is able to substitute the love of God for the glory of God as the one normative factor about God and his works.
Fischer thus becomes guilty of two of the most common theological errors in modern Christendom. One is an error of theological method, which is the isolating and elevating of Jesus to the level of the sole norm for theological truth. This is how Fischer affirms it: “This means Christian theology moves from Jesus to God.” This “demands that we be ruthlessly Christocentric in our theology” (40). Thus he came under the conviction “that the only foundation for theology was the revelation of God in Jesus Christ” (51). Here Fischer follows in the footsteps of Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (53ff.). This is a serious error; I call it the “Christological fallacy.”
The other error is the isolating and elevating of the attribute of divine love to be the single attribute of God that embraces and determines everything God is and does. God’s love is his glory; “love is who God is” (58-59). This error ignores the Biblical teaching that there are two equal sides to God’s moral nature: his goodness and his sternness (Rom. 11:22). God is love (1 John 4:8), but God is also the consuming fire of wrath (Heb. 12:29). Folding the entire nature of God into the all-embracing attribute of love opens the floodgates to all sorts of theological errors.
My point is that it is not necessary to distort truth and distort Scripture in these ways in order to refute Calvinism. There is no conflict between God’s glory and God’s love. To suggest that we must choose between “a Being who glorifies himself at all costs or loves at all costs” (109) is a false choice. Also, God’s love does not exclude the parallel integrity of his wrath. Nor do we diminish the authority of Jesus Christ when we submit ourselves to the equal authority of his Word, in both its Old Testament and New Testament content.
I am very happy that Austin Fischer has found his way out of Calvinism, and that he is “no longer Reformed,” even if he has taken some wrong turns in the process. There is enough good stuff in this book that makes it worth reading (and the author’s writing style makes it easy to read). Also, there is much in the book that makes me think that Fischer has not gone too far down some of these false trails, and that he may correct his course without losing sight of his goal. I do hope that this happens.