Oliver Crisp on Calvin and Reformed Theology
Date: November 30th, 2014

Who was John Calvin and why did his theological ideas take hold the way they did?  And is Reformed Theology, which traces its roots to Calvin, really as narrow as is typically portrayed?  Prof. Oliver D. Crisp, a professor of systematic theology (and more) at the Fuller Theological Seminary, helps all of us understand the mystery that is Calvinism and Reformed theology and why he named his latest book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology.  As Tony is not much of a theologian, this interview was immensely helpful in making some seemingly esoteric topics readily accessible.

Our conversation begins with Prof. Crisp explaining what hamartiology and soteriology are to Tony, who has a problem with his -iologies.  We learn that hamartiology is the study of sin whereas soteriology is he study of salvation, both of which mesh nicely with Oliver’s interest in Reformed theology.  To better understand Reformed theology, though, we next step back to one of the great founders of this intellectual tradition — John Calvin.  Prof. Crisp reviews Calvin’s wandering ways and his efforts in reforming Geneva, noting that Calvin played the role of theologian, preacher, and politician.  We also compare Calvin’s historical shadow to Luther’s and wonder why the latter cast a much larger one (with Luther getting his very own “Reformation Day” and Calvin did not).  Oliver offers up a few ideas as to why Luther has overshadowed Calvin.  We also talk a bit about Calvin’s relation with the Roman Catholic Church.

We next move into a theological discussion, examining the general themes of Calvin and the Magisterial Reformers.  Prof. Crisp reviews the general themes of these reformers and the more specific views of Calvin.  These folks (and Calvin in particular) tended to emphasize divine sovereignty, the notion that humans are morally corrupt and entirely dependent on God’s grace, incarnation as a substitute, revelation in nature versus Scripture, the doctrine of election, and absolute predestination.  Oliver points out that most people tend to focus on election (predestination) to the neglect of other aspects of Calvin’s thought.  Prof. Crisp’s own work is to highlight the greater theological breadth and depth of Reformed thinkers than what is typically assumed.

Our next segment reviews how the ideas of Calvin and the early reformers spread to places such as Scotland and influenced Presbyterianism.  We also discuss the transformation of Reformed thought through the ages, covering theologians from John Knox to Jonathan Edwards to Karl Barth, as well as the movements of “school theology” and pietism.  In the midst of this Tony remembers to wish George Whitefield a happy 300th birthday, which brings us up to 21st century and what Tony has been perceiving as a revival of Reformed thought, something Oliver calls the “Reformed recovery” or what Colin Hanson terms the “young, restless, and reformed.”  Oliver explains how certain doctrines have been picked up and adopted by non-traditional Reformed churches (such as Baptists and non-aligned evangelicals) as well as some confessional denominations.  We discuss the influences of new multi-denominational seminary training and influential thinkers such as John Piper and Tim Keller.

At this point we dive into theology, with an examination of TULIP, a boiled down, five-point version of the Synod of Dort.  This acronym stands for Totally depraved, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of saints.  It is here that Oliver discusses how not all Reformed theologians subscribe rigorously to these five points and that there is a great deal of diversity within the thinking.  He uses the example of Bishop John Davenant who was a major participant at the Synod of Dort (1618-19) to demonstrate that Reformed thinking was quite variegated from its earliest of days.  Here we dig into other theological topics such as the sufficiency-efficiency debate surrounding atonement, free will, and universalism.  Oliver helps Tony figure out all of this stuff with an analogy to Hal Jordan and his alter-ego, the Green Lantern.

We conclude the interview with Prof. Crisp’s thoughts on how this deep theology matters to the laity after Tony suggests that this all sounds like esoteric debates about how many angels can dance on a pin.  Oliver has two fantastic responses.  First, he argues that there is a virtue in knowing simply for knowledge as an end-in-itself.  Second, Oliver points out that there is a trickle down effect wherein pastors who are trained in theology are able to develop a consistent underlying theology and set of principles that assist them in bringing the Gospels to the wider laity.  Recorded: November 6, 2014.


Prof. Oliver D. Crisp’s bio at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, by Oliver D. Crisp.

Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered, by Oliver D. Crisp.

Revisioning Christology: Theology in a Reformed Tradition, by Oliver D. Crisp.

Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders.

Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders.

Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, by Collin Hansen (mentioned in podcast).


Michael McClymond on Jonathan Edwards.

Russell Kleckley on Religion, Science, and Johannes Kepler.

Steven Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation.

Thomas Kidd on the Pilgrims.

Tracy McKenzie on the First Thanksgiving.


3 Responses to “Oliver Crisp on Calvin and Reformed Theology”

  1. […] the Research on Religion podcast, here is a new, wide-ranging, informative interview with analytic theologian Dr. Oliver Crisp of Fuller […]

  2. […] the Research on Religion podcast, here is a new, wide-ranging, informative interview with analytic theologian Dr. Oliver Crisp of Fuller […]

  3. […] Oliver Crisp on Calvin and Reformed Theology […]

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