Austin Fischer. Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism (Cascade, 2014).
The story of Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed is a familiar one for many. In the foreword, Scot McKnight refers to his own journey into and then back out of Calvinism. The basic story (familiar to many) goes like this: a young, enthusiastic Christian is broadsided by the impressive edifice that is the Calvinist theological tradition. When first encountering its seemingly bizarre declarations (I don’t have free will? God elects some for hell?), the trigger response is incredulity and confusion. But the systematic sweep, robust constitution, austere landscape, and God-intoxicated focus has a way of breaking down objections. And once you’re in, you’re all in.
Some people remain in, but others like McKnight and our author, Austin Fischer, find that a closer look reveals hairline cracks in the edifice, cracks that eventually open up into yawning chasms of cognitive dissonance. Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed tells that story.
Although it’s not really a story. Rather, the book is more a collection of episodic theological reflections which are born out of and make passing reference to the author’s theological journey.
We begin in the introduction with a metaphor: the black hole. Think of an object that pulls in the light to itself and gives out nothing good in return. In other words, the fallen, human state. We are black holes. And Calvinism offers one way to shift the force of gravity away from ourselves and back onto God. However, having made that journey, Fischer is now persuaded that it is not a sustainable approach: “I believe we best say yes to God’s glory and sovereignty by saying no to Calvinism.” (2)
It starts out in chapter 1 on a blind date … with Calvinism. Fischer was a restless Christian in high school when he first read John Piper’s Desiring God and was confronted with that God-intoxicated vision that has captured the wonderment of countless readers. In the first chapter Fischer provides a quick overview of his initial attraction to Calvinism, the subsequent wrestling with its implications — “So you’re telling me that God has already determined everyone who will be in heaven and hell?” — and the journey to accepting significant mystery and the authority of scripture. As Fischer worked deeper into his new-found understanding of the faith, he resolved the tension by concluding that “human-centered theology” was “the culprit behind any and all rejections of Calvinism and its self-glorifying God.” (16)
However, the resolution was only temporary and the cognitive dissonance would soon return perforce. In chapter 3 Fischer describes coming to wrestle with Calvinism and the problem of evil. From Auschwitz to eternal reprobation, Fischer struggled to make sense of how God could decree the moral horrors, sin and rebellion of history. But it’s one thing to consider these problems as abstract conundrums. It’s another thing entirely to consider the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List, one of six million Jews — and countless children — marching to her death. And for what? God’s perfect glory and all-determining providence? Fischer reflects,
“it seemed Calvinism forced me to call things ‘good’ when they could only be considered the most morally repugnant atrocities imaginable, perpetrated by the Creator himself.” (26)
Fischer was still a Calvinist at this point … but the cognitive dissonance was getting worse. In short, set against the problem of evil generally and the problem of eternal damnation in particular, Calvinism appears to eviscerate any comprehensible notion of the love of God:
“If anyone except God did something this brutal and malicious, could you ever bring yourself to call him loving, just, or good? Of course not. And again, we must have the guts to stare this question in the face instead of singing ‘glory to God’ over the cries of the reprobate.” (33)
Fischer then plays a skeptical card: if God’s love can appear so fundamentally contrary to what we understand love to be, how do we know his “integrity and truthfulness” won’t likewise be fundamentally at odds with our lowly conceptions? And this opens a Pandora’s box of skeptical problems with our conception of God and how we relate to him.
Ignatius of Loyola famously declared his fidelity to the Catholic Church by proclaiming: “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.” The Calvinist defers in like manner to the glorious divine decree. But not Fischer, who retorts: “I could not relate to a God whose white was my black. I could fear him, but I could never know him….” (35)
So are we left with a God we can fear but can never know? Fortunately, no. In John 14:9 Jesus proclaims, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” And that brings us to chapter 5 and what is quite literally the crux of the issue: the crucified God. Fischer writes:
“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 made sure they would do? The one who pierces the night air with the cry of godforsakenness on behalf of sinner ordains the godforsakenness of the reprobate?” (46)
On Fischer’s view, the crucifixion requires a revolution in our thinking. Jesus is not the MMA fighter of Mark Driscoll’s school boy, machismo dreams (43-4); rather, he’s the “mangled Lamb” revealed in Revelation 5 (49).
As a young Calvinist, Fischer had believed that God’s love should be subverted to his glory (55). But slowly Fischer came to believe that God’s love, revealed in the cross, just is his glory. God’s glory was, and is “the sovereign, self-giving, suffering, crucified God of Jesus Christ.” (60) Period.
But then, what of free will? Fischer stresses that free will is not the foundation of his faith: the God revealed in Jesus Christ is (61, 98). A focus on the broader biblical narrative reveals that God’s sovereignty in creation is exercised not in terms of absolute control but rather an empowering of creatures to act for the sake of relationship (66-67). Free will may not be on the surface of the page, but Fischer opines that it “grounds and permeates the biblical narrative.” (67) Fischer argues that God’s relationship to creation be understood kenotically as he grants creation space to realize itself in freedom. In contrast to this, he provocatively charges Calvinism with perpetuating our sinful penchant to extend our own power rather than ceding it to others: “sounds like little black holes of self projecting a supermassive black hole of Self into the heavens.” (71)
So does this resolve all our problems and answer all our questions? Not quite. As Fischer warns in chapter 8, there are still “monsters in the basement”. Fischer uses this chapter to explore a deeper grasp of Arminianism. To begin with, he distinguishes between libertarian and compatibilist theories of free will (Arminians accept the former; Calvinists the latter). Next, he addresses some other important questions like the fact that on the Arminian view, God foreknew the reprobate would freely reject him. But if God foreknew our damnation, how is this an improvement on Calvinism? Fischer replies by appealing to Alvin Plantinga’s free-will defense and the related concept of transworld depravity (80-1).
By the time we get to chapter 9 Fischer begins to wrap things up. Here the lesson is epistemic humility as we all — Calvinists, Arminians, and everybody else — learn to “walk with a limp”, accepting that our belief systems all have strengths and weaknesses: “Faith, doubt, humility, and confidence–this is the stuff and substance of theology at its best. Swagger, smugness, and certainty–this is the stuff and substance of ideology at its worst.” (90)
In Chapter 10 Fischer goes back on the offensive by claiming that “one’s theology is not tenable unless it naturally produces disciples of the kingdom.” (96) However, Fischer charges that Calvinist theology (with its repudiation of free will) does not naturally produce disciples of the kingdom. The reason? Our choices are only meaningful if we could have done otherwise, a point that Fischer even extends to the atonement: “We find meaning in Jesus dying for us because we believe he did not have to.” (97) (While I disagree with Fischer at several points, this disagreement is worth flagging. Even if the cross is a necessary reflection of God’s goodness and love, I do not see how that undermines the existential or semantic meaning of the event.)
Fischer concludes in chapter 11 by turning to address that most important of all Calvinist texts, Romans 9: “woe to us if we attempt to whitewash and de-Judaize Romans 9-11 so it’s easier for us to handle and ‘apply to our lives’.” (101) In Fischer’s view, to read Romans 9 as a proof-text for Calvinism is to fail to grapple with the sweep of Romans 9-11 which is really conveying a message about God’s plan to pursue a “partial, temporary hardening” (103, emphasis in original), not a “foreordained, unconditional decree of damnation” (103), and to do so for the sake of reaching all people so that God “may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32).
Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed will appeal to many people. Fischer is an enjoyable writer with a knack for metaphor and honest candor. And I suspect many will find in his honest reflections permission to admit their own doubts and questions with Calvinism.
At the same time, I suspect this book will frustrate many more people because of what they take to be unfair and ultimately unsustainable critiques of Calvinist theology. And I have some sympathy with those frustrated readers. While Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is barely more than one hundred pages, its brevity and loosely narratival structure cannot excuse it from presenting arguments that do not hold up under scrutiny.
To note just one problem, I am unpersuaded that Fischer’s appeals to libertarian freedom and transworld depravity are adequate to exonerate God from ordaining “the godforsaknness of the reprobate”. I’ll put it this way: In world 1, my daughter freely chooses Christ and is thereby elect. In world 2, my daughter freely rejects Christ and is thereby reprobate. How can I possibly understand the love of God if he elects to actualize world 2 rather than world 1? This question may be answerable, but it shows that Arminians don’t have things nearly as easy as the reader if this book might think.
In one sense, Fischer has prepared himself for such objections given his own forceful rejection of “certainty” in chapter 9. As he puts it: “one of the noblest, purest, and most Christian of theological confessions is the acknowledgement of our humanity instead of the concealment of it behind the flimsy charades of swagger and certainty.” (90) I share Fischer’s concern about “swagger” as I regularly find myself exhausted by the braggadocio of those who inhabit their system of belief bereft of humility and an awareness of their own situatedness and fallibility.
All that said, broadside swipes at certainty are unhelpful. To begin with, “certainty” can be psychological (i.e. certitude; lack of doubt) or it can be epistemic (i.e. incorrigibility; infallibility of belief). To reject all instances of psychological certitude is a misbegotten exercise at best. I am certain (i.e. I have no doubt) that there are minds other than my own. Should I doubt this? On a more somber note, I am also certain that rape and child torture are always wrong. Should I doubt this? If so, what exercises am I obliged to do to attempt to reduce my degree of conviction in the truth of these propositions?
As for epistemic certainty, beyond basic analytic and synthetic a priori truths there may not be much we are certain of. But surely we can have incorrigible beliefs about some truths, even if the range of those beliefs is too narrow to satisfy Cartesian angst.
So why am I quibbling over these issues? Distinctions like these are important to make because they qualify and nuance sweeping appeals to epistemic humility which can too easily serve as an escape route for a half-baked theology.
While there are weak points in Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, in my view they are far outweighed by the book’s strengths. This is an enjoyable and breezy read with just the right amount of depth to stimulate further reflection. It provides a solid introduction to those who are beginning to grapple with the issues, a cathartic balm for those who have long chafed against the hard edges of the Calvinist system, and a provocative interlocutor for the Calvinist looking for a new sparring partner. Austin Fischer is a very promising young author and I will be looking forward to his next book.
Thanks to Cascade Books for providing a review copy of this book.
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