Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014, 130pp. $16.00/£10.00
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. Lauded by the brightest stars in the Arminian firmament—Scot McKnight, Roger Olson, Greg Boyd, Rachel Held Evans—Fischer is to be commended for writing on such a difficult topic with disarming prose and without biting rancor. I can understand why Christians on the other side of this issue may feel like this is the Book They’ve Been Waiting For. Of course, given my position as an ordained Reformed pastor it will come as no surprise that I found his arguments ultimately unpersuasive and, in several instances, full of significant weaknesses. But more on that later.
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 p
icture of God that is more loving and more satisfying. As a high school student, Fischer had the “more” itch, a hunger for more out of his faith, more out of life, more out of God, and more out of himself. His youth pastor recommended Desiring God by John Piper. The book scratched a deep itch. Fischer came to see God as bigger, more glorious, and more all consuming. Although he struggled with the implications of some Reformed doctrines, Fischer couldn’t deny (at least at the time) that these teachings were in the Bible. So kicking and screaming he entered the Reformed fold.
He went to college as a “precocious freshman theology major” who was, he notes, “fairly assured I had the answers” (19). But during his freshman year, he encountered “one professor in particular who was a nagging thorn in my Calvinist side.” Fischer was “ruthlessly” exposed to “one hell of a problem”—reprobation. How could a good God create people just to damn them? Sure, God could plan any number of catastrophes to be for the ultimate good of his eternally saved people, but “how will God make it up to the reprobate?” (25). Fischer couldn’t help but think of a scene from Schindler’s List where a little girl in a red coat who is tragically and senselessly killed: how could a good God create her for the purpose of punishing her in hell? Fischer’s Calvinism was beginning to unravel.
At first, Fischer was prepared to accept Calvinism no matter what, as long as he saw it in the Bible. But then he questioned how the Bible could be trusted at all if Calvinism was true. Given the doctrine of reprobation, how could God be loving, just, or good in any sense of those terms? And if God is not virtuous in any way that we understand virtue, then how do we know he has been truthful—as we understand truthful—in revealing himself in Scripture? In other words, if Calvinism is right we must be unbelievably wrong about the most basic things pertaining to God (33).
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 (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” (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” (50, emphasis in original).
That’s the central thesis in Fischer’s argument. The remainder of the book aims to bolster this claim.
- The chief end of God is not to glorify God, but to express love, which is his glory (Chapter 6).
- Yes, God is sovereign, but he empties himself of his sovereign prerogatives and grants us free will so that the divine-human relationship can be authentic (Chapter 7).
- Sure, free will theism presents us with logical and biblical problems, but every system does, and if we have to live with mystery, it’s better to live with the mystery of love (Chapter 8).
- After all, certainty is the enemy of good Christian limping (ala Jacob at Jabbok), and having doubts is the mark of theological maturity (Chapter 9).
- In the end, the gospel of the kingdom is about much more than substitutionary atonement. It’s about making disciples, and Calvinism—which does not allow for choice, decision, or wills that matter—cannot naturally produce disciples of the kingdom (Chapter 10).
- Besides, Romans 11 has nothing to do with personal salvation or damnation and has everything to do with God’s plan for Israel and the faithfulness of God (Chapter 11). 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.
A Few Black Holes in a Book About Black Holes
I think Fischer has written a good book in so far as I imagine it will be energetically passed around by pastors, professors, and churches who are looking for an easy-to-read accounting of the errors of Calvinism. I don’t suppose many of those pastors, professors, and churches also read this blog. Nor do I suppose that a book review is the place to make my case for being young, restless, and Reformed (and truth be told I’m actually not that young and never was that restless). So I will try to refrain from writing a 20,000 word review on a 25,000 word book. If you want to read the case for Reformed soteriology, you can pick up any number of books by John Piper, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, or one of the bazillion resources you can find on sites like The Gospel Coalition or Monergism.
My aim is simply to highlight a few serious shortcomings in this engaging book. I can’t mention every interpretation or every claim I disagree with, but perhaps by introducing a few general categories of critique, I can help future readers of the book—both friend and foe—to ask the hard questions I believe Fischer himself would be happy for his readers to ask.
Is Reformed Theology Represented Accurately?
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 (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. Fischer was given a John Piper book in high school and became Reformed “kicking and screaming.” He then went to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (hardly a bastion of Calvinist ideology methinks) where he began to question Reformed theology. Following college, he went to Truett Theological Seminary where, judging by the acknowledgements, Roger Olson was something of a mentor to him. None of this makes Fischer’s story suspect or his arguments illegitimate. 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 an
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.
I believe Fischer has tried hard to be fair with Calvinism. He does not make ad hominen 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 (21). What’s missing here is an awareness of the distinction between remote and primary causes. No Calvinists 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 (46, 71). So God, according to Fischer’s version of Reformed theology, must put the impulse to sin inside Adam (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” (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 (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.
Have the Problems with Arminianism Been Squarely Faced?
The most effective aspect of No Longer Reformed is how Fischer forces 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). I think in the end the best thing the Calvinist can say is “who are we to talk back to God?” (Rom. 9:20) and “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). Fischer eventually comes to find this response untenable. For my part, I resonate 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, 2.395).
Whether the doctrine of reprobation should finally be accepted or not is a question that Scripture alone must settle. What Scripture also must settle is whether the Arminian can see his 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 (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.
- How can God relinquish his sovereignty in granting free will and still be sovereign himself? “[T]ake it up with God” (70). That’s just the way he does things.
- Where did Adam’s sin come from if it wasn’t ordained by God? We can’t explain it. “It’s a mystery” (75).
- How can we reconcile that a loving God created this world and created us knowing that sin and rebellion would happen? “[W]e are left capitulating to a mystery” (81).
- And why do some accept Christ and others don’t? Once again: “It’s a mystery” (76).
Surprisingly, Fischer then
goes on to quote Jerry Walls saying, “The Calvinist cannot tell us why or on what basis God chooses some for salvation and passes others by” (76). But of course, the Calvinist can say on what basis some God predestines the elect. It is “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:5-6). Maybe it’s because Fischer champions doubt and pillories certainty that he can be so unbothered by the problems of free will, Adam’s sin, and why some believe and some do not (76). But he certainly has not stared at the Arminian difficulties as fully and as viscerally as he probed the difficult doctrines he saw in Reformed theology.
Has the Case Been Made Based on Rigorous Exegesis of Specific Texts?
Most problematically for Fischer’s case is his penchant for dealing in biblical generalities rather than getting into the weeds of the text. For example, he 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” (48). That could be, but fifteen texts is not “a couple,” and even 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. No attempt is made to interact with the texts Piper cites.
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” (68). To wipe away texts with personal assertions that they don’t work is hardly a compelling argument.
Fischer’s tendency to hover about the text makes for a series of definitive statements that are much less than meets the eye. 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 (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 (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.
No Longer Reformed is full of pithy phrases and arresting sentences, but often the most clever lines set up false dichotomies that can’t be supported by Scripture. Do we want a God who reigns from a rugged cross, or a God who reigns from a celestial throne? A God who controls everything, or a God who wants to have a genuine relationship with us? A God whose love is just a cog in the glory machine, or a God who loves because he is love? These are biblical themes meant to be held together, not driven apart for rhetorical effect. And besides, hasn’t John Piper (channeling Jonathan Edwards) made his whole ministry about showing how these diverse excellencies are not mutually contradictory? After reading the book I know that Fischer disagrees with Piper, but I have less of a sense why I should find Piper’s arguments unacceptable because they aren’t handled in any detail.
At the risk of repeating myself, let me say it again: the prose is warm, the writing personal, and the arguments serious, but there is next to no detailed exegesis in the book. Even when Fischer finally talks about Roman 11 in the very last chapter, he simply restates N.T. Wright’s basic line—Paul is talking about Israel, not asking sixteenth-century questions—and then proceeds to explain all of Romans 9-11 as concerned with the temporary hardening of the Jews and the ingathering of the Gentiles. No doubt, Paul is trying to explain in Romans 9 how the promises to Israel have not
failed. But to make his point, he argues that not everyone descended from Israel belongs to Israel (9:6), which leads him into an explanation of election and reprobation. And Paul’s thinking must include the idea of individual predestination, for he uses the example of twins who were set apart for different purposes by the plan of God (9:9-13). The point in “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy and hardens whomever he wills (9:14-18). Fischer’s comments on Romans 9, like his comments on most passages, are true enough in broad strokes, but fail to engage the particularities of the text. To settle for the exploration of big themes at the expense of verse-by-verse exegetical work is to enjoy the wonders of the forest and ignore all the trees.
Although I disagree with Fischer on a lot of things, I agree with his insistence that what we make of Reformed theology is tremendously important. I love this line at the end of the book: “I wish there were middle ground, but . . . where would it be?” (108). Amen. It’s not possible to be a Calviminian. If you care about theology and care about consistency—like Fischer does—you’ll see how different understandings of God’s sovereignty set you on markedly different intellectual, devotional, and practical trajectories. Austin has a different approach to biblical authority, a different place for substitutionary atonement, a different understanding of the freedom of the will, a different take on epistemology, a different level of confidence in whether God knows all things, and a whole different set of authors he looks to for theological guidance. These are not small issues we are dealing with. It’s no wonder, then, that the Calvinist-Arminian divide is so wide and deep and that becoming Reformed or becoming no longer Reformed is such a big deal. So even if I find Fischer’s book unconvincing—and actually reinforcing for my Calvinist convictions—I can be thankful that unlike many Christians, he believes the debate is worth having.
This review first appeared on Reformation 21.