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How Not to Worship a Black Hole: A Review of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed by Austin Fischer

CASCADE_TemplateAuthor: Austin Fischer
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Cascade/Wipf & Stock (2014)
Language: English
ISBN: 9781625641519

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Over the last 15 years, I’ve engaged in far more discussions, “debates,” and arguments over the subjects of election, predestination, free will, determinism, foreknowledge and the like, than I’d actually be comfortable admitting. Some Christians care very little for these subjects, not simply because they are anti-intellectual or want to avoid conflict, but because they don’t understand what they have to do with their picture of God’s character. For me, however, these subjects have been critical. I’ve heard it said regarding theology that for many people—but perhaps particularly for certain personalities—one’s head and one’s heart have to agree, in order for that person to genuinely worship God. When it comes to these subjects, that has always been my desire: to worship God with my whole self. That is why I have never been able to either stomach emotionally nor substantiate intellectually the God constructed by Calvinism. I both cannot find it taught in Scripture, nor can I love and worship the portrait of God it paints.

That is not to say that I don’t recognize that many millions of Christians can and do. In the process of honing my own views, I have learned a great deal about Calvinism from Calvinists themselves. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many long-term relationships with Calvinists, including mentoring and professorial relationships. The vast majority of the Calvinists I’ve interacted with in person have been thoughtful, godly people. (Some unfortunately have not been). Online, however, I cannot say the same. The vast majority of the Calvinists I’ve interacted with through the medium of the internet have come across as arrogant, militant, and intellectually dishonest. That is perhaps why I continue to read books on this subject. A part of me is still deeply puzzled by the phenomenon of New Calvinism 1. In fact, it surprised me that I was not aware of this book sooner. While I’m normally one of the first to hear of books rebutting Calvinism, I didn’t know this book existed until a Facebook friend named Taylor Scott Brown began posting quotes from it as he was reading it. A few weeks later, my friend Erik Merksamer (aka “Mixmaster Merks”) read the book and lent it to me. So now that I’ve read it myself, I’d simply like to outline the book for anyone who might read this review before making a decision about reading it, add some of my own thoughts here and there, and give it my hearty recommendation.

An All-too-familiar Story

One of the reasons Fischer’s book packs a disproportionately powerful punch into such a compact container is that he leverages his own story, his own theological pilgrimage, in the deconstruction of Calvinism—and it is a story with which many tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Christians in the U.S. can intimately relate. It is the story of a young evangelical searching for a deeper, more meaningful connection with God who finds it in the austere and pietistic teaching of Calvinism. However, like Clark Pinnock before him 2, Fischer recounts his journey in and out of Calvinism. Also like Pinnock, Fischer’s journey will coincide with a journey through evangelical academia and evangelical Christian culture in North America.

Better to Feel Pain Than Nothing At All

Right away, Fischer explains what enticed him to embrace Calvinism in the first place (and it wasn’t irresistible)—Fischer actually recalls that he resisted quite a bit. A part of him appreciated Calvinism because it ‘put him in his place.’ But another part of him resented Calvinism for ‘rubbing his nose’ in his fallen human nature. This is a common first-blush response to Calvinism: It hurts. so. good. The pain of being told you are not the center of the universe, and that God is, feels authentic and true. In contrast to the prevailing culture in North America, which seems to be obsessed with convincing young people in particular that self-esteem is the most important part of an emotionally healthy life, Calvinism rebels and teaches that self-esteem is sinful and ungodly. Furthermore, many millions of young evangelicals have unfortunately also discovered that the message of the church in North America is not much different from the message of the world. Churches cater to their congregants, giving them ever more cushy chairs (not pews!), coffee and bagels in the lobby, maybe even a full mall-like campus to peruse, but definitely an encouraging and “relevant” message for them to ponder on their commute back to their comfy suburban homes or to work the next day. “No!” says John Piper and his Calvinism. “God is the Center! Not human beings!” Fischer was sure this was true, and Calvinism was the vehicle that delivered the message.

Allow me to press pause on Fischer story thus far to make an important observation. The claim that God is the center of the theological universe for Christians just plainly isn’t exclusive to Calvinism, no matter how much Calvinists may shout that it is. Non-Calvinists have not deliberately nor accidentally replaced God with themselves as the Creator and Sustainer of their lives, let alone the universe. This is simply a talking point used by Calvinists to contrast their position with those of others, as well as an attempt to present their view as unique. Well, it simply isn’t. All Christian theology claims that God is the center around which our universe theologically revolves. “Free-willers” (as non-Calvinists are sometimes called in the book) are not essentially nor merely idolaters who reject God as God. Now, back to Fischer’s story.

The Good and Necessary Consequences

Once Fischer had succumb to the weight of Calvinism crashing down on him, he then squirmed under the pressure of its ‘good and necessary consequences.’ What of suffering? (aka ‘the theodicy question’ or the ‘problem of evil’) Here is where many Calvinists either dig their heels in and go so far as to say God ordains, and renders certain, all injustice, all disasters, all crimes, and all sin. Or, Calvinists will equivocate at this point, and plead ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox,’ like it”s a Get Out of Blasphemy Free Card.

Fischer is far too polite and nuanced to say what I’d say on this point: The good and necessary consequences of the Calvinist’s portrait of God is a monster the likes of which the most evil depot or tyrant in history pales in comparison. Hitler has nothing on the God of Calvinism! Pol Pot was a boy scout compared to the God of Calvinism! Every single day, somewhere in the world, human beings experience torture, starvation, brutal violence, sexual abuse, and the God of Calvinism is ensuring every second of it happens! Such a “God” is not only not worthy of worship; such a “God” is worthy of only our contempt and righteous indignation.

If you’ve spent any amount of time discussing these subjects with Calvinists, you will inevitably arrive at the point in the conversation when the Calvinist plays the “God’s-Ways-are-Higher-Than-Our-Ways” card. Fischer is told only “liberals” start from what God “should be like”, and read the Bible in that light. In other words, only “liberals” have presuppositions. (Preemptive posturing). Fischer is told that what he thinks “love” and “justice” and “goodness” mean is not what God thinks they mean. Our concept of these things is tainted by our total depravity. But, for some strange reason, Fischer isn’t convinced:

“It’s fine to say that God’s goodness does not directly correspond to human notions of goodness, but what exactly could I mean when I say God is good? In what sense was God good if he had done something like creating people so he could damn them? Pardon the pun, but if that is good, what the hell is bad?” (p.24)

And even though Fischer has successfully stumbled upon some of Calvinism’s incoherence, he doesn’t directly confront the underlying fallacy of the principle supposedly derived from Scripture. Calvinists like to quote Isaiah 55.8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 neither are your ways my ways,”
 declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

But Calvinists forget to put these two verses in context. God is calling Israel to repentance, so that God can forgive Israel and establish an “everlasting covenant” (v.3). In the verses immediately preceding verses 8 and 9, it reads,

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
 call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
 and the unrighteous their thoughts. 
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
 and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”

The way in which God’s ways are higher than human ways, and God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, is in God’s unmatched and unfathomable mercy. The people of Israel do not deserve God’s mercy, but God is freely offering it. That boggles the human mind, which demands retribution. Instead of retribution, God offers amnesty. We cringe at the thought! We balk at his ways! But God says, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways higher than your ways.” This is as far from God saying “My concept of goodness is to damn people to hell before humanity was created” as is conceivably possible. It is the complete opposite in fact! It is God saying, “My concept of goodness is to extend mercy and pardon to people who deserve to go to hell.” And yet, this is where Calvinists run to justify their belief in what Calvin himself called the ‘horrible decree.’

Fischer stumbled upon the good and necessary consequences of this picture of God, and he is rightly disgusted. Next, Calvinism will undermine his trust in the Bible that is supposed to teach him Calvinism.

The Philosophical Tail Wagging the Biblical Dog

I once attended a debate between two well-known and published seminary professors, one a Calvinist and the other a Free will theist. The Calvinist prefaced his comments by saying, “You [Free will theists] let the philosophical tail wag the biblical dog.” The Calvinist was referring to the difference between the Calvinist’s view of “free will,” also known as Compatibilism 3, and the Free will theist’s view of free will, also known as Libertarian free will 4. What the Calvinist professor obviously failed to recognize is that both perspectives on free will are philosophical constructs which are not explicitly taught in Scripture. Such a claim is merely more preemptive posturing: “My presuppositions are better than yours!”

In Fischer’s experience, the philosophical presupposition that allowed Calvinists to claim that God’s love, justice, and goodness have no human analogy served to completely undermine his trust in the supposed source of Calvinism: the Bible.

“If Calvinism is right and we are so unbelievably wrong about God’s love, justice and goodness due to our humanity, why would we think we are right about God’s integrity and truthfulness in revealing himself in the Bible? In fact, in light of how wrong we (apparently) are about love, justice, and goodness, is it not only possible but probable that we are equally wrong about God’s truthfulness and integrity? […]

In a strange turn of events, my Calvinism had taken back the very Bible it had once given me. The theology that had trumpeted the Bible’s inspiration and authority had now discredited both.” (p.33-34)

It appears that, for Fischer at least, Calvinism wagged the biblical dog by the philosophical tail so hard, the tail broke off and the dog went hurdling through space. Oops!

Building Your Theological House Upon a Rock

Fischer’s journey deep within Calvinism has now left him numb and depressed. He has lost the basic capacity to simply contemplate Jesus on the Cross and say “thank you!” All meaning and beauty has been drained out of the Gospel and all truth has been stolen from the Bible. But Fischer is not content to remain a cynic. He refuses to be merely another demolitions expert, skilled at deconstructing theological systems. He desires a theological home, a tribe with whom he can build a life of faith that is not only intellectually satisfying, but also energizes a life-giving relationship with God. So he spends a near-equal amount of this brief book constructing a healthy, biblical, theological home for battered and weary refugees from Calvinism like himself.

This is perhaps the point at which I was most proud of Fischer. If I were listening to these chapters preached from a pulpit, I’d be that guy shouting “Amen!” and waving my Pentecostal ‘hanky’. Fischer wants a Christian theology, not just any old theology. So he begins where Christians begin: with the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah. I loved that Fischer exposes the unpublicized truth about Calvinism’s hidden God behind Jesus Christ crucified. This is one of Calvinism’s best kept secrets. There are a lot of New Calvinists these days who talk about being “Christ-centered,” but this is simply not honest. Calvinism’s essential tenets do not allow a person to see God in the face of Christ crucified. “Where do you see God as Jesus is being crucified?” (p.45) And this truth also exposes the violence Calvinism does to the Trinity:

“This sets up a rather awkward dilemma in Calvinism wherein God the Father is making people suffer and God the Son (Jesus) is healing people of the suffering the Father is inflicting. How was I supposed to believe God would inflict eternal suffering on people for sins he ordained they commit, when Jesus (the exact representation of God) always healed people of their sufferings? For me this was neither mystery nor paradox, but sheer divine schizophrenia. It opened up a fissure in the very heart of God by splintering the Trinity, setting up Father and Son in opposition to one another—the Father crucifies sinners while the Son is crucified for sinners.” (p.47)

Jesus, the Biblical Picture of God

Once Fischer is disabused of the Calvinist portrait of God he goes back to the Bible with a renewed passion to construct a biblical theology centered on Jesus. This, it turns out, was much more intuitive than he imagined. The whole Bible points to Jesus, and more specifically it points to Jesus on the Cross.

“…all four Gospels unremittingly hone in on one twenty-four hour period as the center and climax of not just the story of Jesus, but the story of Israel, of humanity, and all creation. […] And if scripture teaches us to look first and foremost at Jesus in the Gospels, and the Gospels train us to focus on the crucifixion, it would seem clear that the cross offers us the deepest glimpse into the very heart of God.” (p.45)

In the light of the picture of God created by the Crucified Messiah, subjects like free will, God’s sovereignty, God’s love, the image of God in humanity all begin to make sense for Fischer.

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)

The Dog with the Least Fleas

Another highly admirable aspect of the new theological house Fischer has found, is that he can be honest about its faults. Fischer does not present Free will theism as a flawless destination where all Christians should land. He readily acknowledges that it too has mysteries and “monsters in the basement.” However, it should be clear by now, that whatever bullets he or you or I will have to bite to affirm Free will theism are far less problematic than the fatal bullets of Calvinism. No perspective this side of the Age to Come will be perfect. But Fischer would urge us not settle for a theological house built on the quicksand of Calvinism.

One of the challenges Fischer points to is a perennial favorite for Calvinists: the topic of “earning one’s salvation” or “boasting.” For the uninitiated, Calvinists contend that apart from monergism, the view that God unilaterally acts in spiritual regeneration with unconditional election and irresistible grace, humanity has in some way “earned” their salvation by having the ‘ultimate decision.’ This human response, Calvinists contend, is the “works” against which Paul railed and the Reformation protested, and that such a decision entitles humans to boast of their righteousness in heaven. Against this charge Fischer summarizes common Arminian rebuttals, including a recent version by Roger Olson.

Let’s take another brief break from Fischer’s story to interject a note on the fundamentally faulty premise upon which the Calvinists’ entire reasoning rests. The Calvinist reads Paul’s letters (where the dreaded “works” comes from) through the lens of the Protestant Reformation. But Paul simply was not a sixteenth century Protestant reforming the Roman Catholic Church. Paul is a Hellenistic Jew forming the first-century Church out of Jews and Gentiles. The “works” against which Paul rails aren’t Catholic indulgences, but the keeping of the Jewish Torah. And the keeping of Torah wasn’t an attempt to “earn salvation,” but a badge of privilege which Jews thought entitled them to salvation. Once one realizes that Paul is not arguing against the medieval notion of storing up righteousness by doing ‘good works,’ but is instead arguing against the practice of excluding Gentiles from the community of Christ based on their cultural-ethnic identity, one is disabused of the “works righteousness” boogeyman. 5

A second challenge Fischer acknowledges is divine foreknowledge or the omniscience of God. Here, Fischer slightly disappoints me. In one of the only references to Open theism in the entire book, the view is not properly explained and is lumped in with the dilemma of God creating a world in which he foreknew so much evil would result. Since so much of this book was so well thought through, I’m going to give Fischer the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the oversight of including Open theism in this dilemma is due to a lack of understanding. However, it’s clear from his endnotes that Fischer has read Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd in which he would have at least been exposed to Open theism on its own terms. Nevertheless, Fischer here compromises the integrity of his new building by installing a faulty load-bearing beam.

Open theism, when understood correctly, actually relieves the very tension Fischer here ascribes to it. Having a “very good idea” of what might possibly result in the future (which is how Fischer mostly correctly characterizes the Open view), is worlds apart from the Classical Arminian position of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. The Classical Arminian finds him or herself caught on the horns of the same dilemma as the Calvinist. God’s foreknowledge of the future is “definite.” This means all of what God foreknew about humanity’s fall into sin, the grotesque evil that human beings would inflict upon each other, and the eternal damnation that awaits all who ultimately reject God was Certain before the world was created—even though Classical Arminians affirm the Libertarian free will that Calvinists abhor. What little relief Libertarian free will has granted Classical Arminians in granting human beings responsibility for their choices, has been wrenched back from them by the doctrine of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. In either case, whether God causally ordains all evil (as in Calvinism), or whether God simply foreknows it as a certain (as in Classical Arminianism), the result is the same: The question of why create the world to begin with towers over their views like an ominous dark cloud.

However, the Open theist simply doesn’t face the same dilemma. In Open theism, the future of humanity was neither fixed from eternity by Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge nor by causal predetermination. Instead, God created the world with genuine possibilities to actualize or not actualize. In Open theism, a world is a place where the evils which have occurred did not have to necessarily. This cannot be said of either Calvinism nor Classical Arminianism. Therefore, Fischer’s haste to lump Open theists in with other Free will theists as having to confront this dilemma was ill-informed. 6

With a New House Comes New Furniture

Fischer’s journey is not yet completed. He, like us, will continue to contemplate the God revealed in Jesus and will no doubt grow in his knowledge and understanding of that God. However, as a result of his exodus from Calvinism, Fischer has gained a new posture toward theology that will serve as critical furniture in his theological house. Fischer has learned some humility.

Back when Fischer was a Calvinist, he had all the answers. Even as a freshman in college, Fischer thought he was ready to graduate because parroting John Piper’s answers to complex theological conundrums made every challenge simple: “God was the self-glorifying, all-determining reality who did everything for his glory, and I knew it because the Bible told me so. Can I have my diploma now?” (p.19) But after he’d journeyed to the center of the black hole he’d been worshipping and barely escaped with his faith, he learned to walk with a limp.

See, Fischer learned that certainty can be an addictive idol. Certainty can become a person’s security instead of God. And the God of the Bible isn’t as interested in making you secure in your certainty as he is interested in inviting you to join him on an adventurous and risky mission. The God of the Bible is not a tame lion who is boringly predictable. The God the Bible might choose not to show up in the whirlwind or the fire. The God of the Bible might choose to show up in the most unlikely places, like a peasant, refugee baby or an executed Messiah.

Chapter 9 of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed shows that Fischer has built into his new theological house the furniture that will support a healthy life of faith. He recognizes that his perspective is subjective and always will be. He recognizes that his experience will be different from that of others. He also recognizes that while he may not have it all figured out, his love for God compels him to keep speaking and teaching what God has taught him.

Recommendation

Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is by far the most succinct, scholarly, accessible, and engaging refutation of the New Calvinism I’ve read—and this area is something of a specialization I’ve developed. In 108 pages, Fischer manages to pack his own journey in and out of Calvinism, poignant reflections on some very complex theological challenges, and memorable pithy phrases into an immensely readable package.

This book is for any evangelical who has brushed up against the New Calvinism in any form.
If you are a Calvinist, read this book!
If you are not a Calvinist, but you have been frustrated by less-than-pleasant interactions with Calvinists, read this book!
Or even if you know nothing about Calvinism, but have heard that term tossed around flippantly, read this book!

This book should be required reading in every evangelical Christian college in North America from now on. And from now on, I’m going to be recommending (and perhaps even distributing) this book to any and all interested parties. Thank you, Austin Fischer, for writing this vitally important book at this critical time.

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  1. As Scot McKnight and Austin Fischer both explain in the book, it’s difficult to choose a label for the phenomenon of the recent surge (in Western countries) of adherence to the five doctrines summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). This set of doctrines constitutes the most succinct expression of what is called “Calvinism.” However, there is still much debate on whether a person must adhere to all five doctrines to be considered a “true Calvinist.” Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear whether the recent up-tick in adherents to this system of soteriology should be called “Neo-Reformed,” “Neo-Calvinists,” “Neo-Puritans,” “New Calvinists,” or something else. For my part, I have probably used any one of these monikers for this same group. However, in Against Calvinism, Roger Olson makes an excellent and succinct case for why “Reformed” is not a good descriptor for this group since even Classical Arminians are “Reformed” and even many non-Arminian Reformed Christians do not center their faith around TULIP. What does characterize this group is that it is overwhelmingly white, Western, middle-to-upper-class and identifies with the teachings of figures like John Calvin, John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, and others.
  2. In 1989, Clark Pinnock published an essay entitled “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” in a book titled The Grace of God, The Will of Man (Academie Books, an imprint of Zondervan). In this essay, Pinnock details his journey from “five-point” Calvinism to a form of Arminianism that would later come to be known as “Open theism.” As of 3/9/14, the essay can be accessed at:[http://www.pinpointevangelism.com/libraryoftheologycom/
    writings/calvinismarminianism/FromAugustineToArminius-Pinnock.pdf
    ]
  3. Compatibilism
  4. Libertarianism
  5. For more on why ‘works’ in Paul do not equate to ‘earning one’s salvation,’ I recommend these books by N. T. Wright:
  6. For more on Open theism, I recommend these books: