Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey in and out of Calvinism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).
Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed is about Austin Fischer. No matter what the author’s intent was, it is hardly a book about theology and very much a work about how Fischer feels that he has far more to say and more insight to offer than he truly does. Book reviews should begin by summarizing the main argument of the work under review, but Fischer offered no central argument. This volume is about how Fischer quit being a “Calvinist,” and apparently Fischer must be such an important person that his personal rejection of Calvinism should show all his readers how foolish their possible Reformed pursuits are as well. It is likely clear already that this reviewer has serious critiques of this book, and a blog review, in contrast to one in an academic journal, more easily facilitates moving directly to those criticisms.
It will be obvious to readers of this space that any reviewer would take issue with the conclusions set forth in a book written against Reformed theology, but the problems with this book are far from limited simply to Fischer’s conclusions. There are, first of all, several problems regarding Fischer’s method. Now, it may well be acceptable for the usual pastor or Christian not to have a sophisticated understanding of researching and argumentative method, but Fischer has published a book, which entails the at least implicit claim to have thought well about the topic being addressed. The first problem with this book, however, is that it is so thoroughly based in metaphors. Fischer began the book with a description of a black hole’s force of gravity, which imagery he used for the book’s subtitle. Admittedly, he made some useful application of this imagery to our human tendency towards Narcissism.1 Still, when Fischer claimed that Calvinism replaces the inescapable gravitational force of the black hole that is ourselves with “the black hole of deity,” one has to question the felicitousness of that metaphor. For one, do not Christians actually want to be pulled closer and closer to God? It seems an odd thing to critique a theological system by pointing out that it has God at the center and says things in a way that keeps pulling people towards God. One wonders what Fischer might want Christianity to achieve if he rightly rejected that it should point us to ourselves, but also seemingly implied (again by use of metaphor) that the “black hole” with God’s glory at the center is not the gravitational pull in which we should be either.2
The continual implementation of metaphorical language creates a real methodological problem concerning clarity. Although the imagery is not always that of a black hole, Fischer continually wrote in metaphorical terms. Even Christ’s crucifixion becomes a driver for “the logic of crucifixion” more than it ever was the accomplishment of redemption.3 I would not claim that Fischer rejects the cross as an event of penal substitution or as the historical accomplishment of redemption, since he does not say that, but the point is that the cross functions more like a metaphor than like anything else in this book. It all sounds nice to write about cosmic events, event horizons, building new (theological) homes, and monsters in the basement, since these certainly have rhetorical effect, but this reader was often left asking, but what does he mean?4 Metaphors can be useful explanatory tools, but they are not supposed to be the thing itself. Unless metaphors are linked to a concrete idea, they are left vague, and become abstracted devices to make your case based on disconnected rhetoric rather than on the truthfulness of claims about God and his dealings with us. That vagueness, however, is precisely both the point and the problem of Fischer’s method. His point did not seem to be to get us to truth claims, but to convey how abstractly deep his way of thinking about God appears now that his has left Calvinism. The problem, however, is that Fischer’s endlessly abstracted metaphors may pull some readers away from a Reformed understanding of God if they buy into the rhetoric, but they are left with having nothing real to say about God on the other side. Fischer’s flowery prose foist a false façade of depth upon readers when it is in reality nothing more than wordsmithing.
The second problem with Fischer’s method, as will be no surprise to readers of the Heidelblog, relates to his understanding of what “Reformed” means. He certainly leaned more heavily on the term “Calvinism” than on “Reformed,” but the problem remains the same, since he explicitly used them as synonyms.5 Fischer’s primary example of Reformed theology throughout the book is John Piper, and his supporting cast of Reformed thinkers are essentially limited to Bruce Ware and Mark Driscoll.6 Granted, he had a few quotes from Jonathan Edwards (which even then…), but it is hard to imagine that these were more than residual affects from having Piper as his main exposure to “Calvinism.”
There are several problems that then stem from the way that Fischer has understood and described Reformed theology because of the selection of people whom he has chosen as his Calvinist interlocutors. The first relates to his lack of any sort of confessional understanding of Reformed theology. Regular readers of the Heidelblog would anticipate the criticism that each of these men are Baptistic.7 Even though I am full agreement that “Reformed” and “Baptistic” are labels that cannot reasonably be applied to the same referent, in this case, the merely Baptistic aspect misses a more substantial point. Even our confessional Baptist brothers who hold to the 1689 Baptist confession and argue that they, as Baptists, deserve the “Reformed” adjective, such as James Dolezal, Richard Barcellos, and my friend Matt Bingham, would demur at having Piper, Ware, and Driscoll as their representatives.8 Fischer’s examples go even beyond the debates about whether confessional Baptists can be called Reformed because even confessional Baptists, and much more the Reformed, significantly disagree with Piper about spiritual gifts and their nature in regards to the sufficiency of Scripture, with Ware about nothing less than the doctrine of the Trinity, and with Driscoll about whether or not he is even a proper minister in a true church at this point.
Fischer’s total lack of confessional awareness can be extended further. Perhaps it is too much to ask him to know all the riches of the full Reformed tradition. Not everyone is called to master historical theology. The problem remains though because men like Joel Beeke, Michael Horton, and Sinclair Ferguson have been promoting basic confessionally Reformed theology at a popular level for years. R. C. Sproul’s writings are some of the most accessible and yet most direct treatments of various features of Reformed theology and they are not obscure or difficult to find. Fischer claimed that he journeyed in and out of Calvinism, but, in reality, he was exposed to a few popular Baptistic thinkers who happen to believe in the doctrine of predestination.9 Even confessional Baptists have critiqued Ware’s revision of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in which he attempted to combine the doctrine of election with a version of Middle Knowledge.10 The Reformed rejected the Arminians’ use of Middle Knowledge, not because it simply wasn’t consistent with God’s election, but even more so because it undermined the Creator-creature distinction. Fischer’s examples of what he thought Reformed theology is entail that the only viable conclusion is that he actually did not truly understand the object of his critique even at the basic level.
The problems raised above about Fischer’s method show that he did not even begin to build his case on the right foundation, but approached the whole issue in a flawed manner. He did not say much, since the vagueness of his detached metaphors left the whole argument without concrete points, and his examples of Reformed theology showed that he never actually engaged with the theological system that he has sought to criticize. If when Fischer wrote that he believed “we best say yes to God’s glory and sovereignty by saying no to Calvinism” that he simply thinks there are better ways to think about God and theology than those outlined by Piper, Ware, and Driscoll, then I am in whole-hearted agreement with him.11 He, however, thought that he had drunk deeply from the fountain of the entire Reformed theological system when in fact he had only licked drops of water off the ground by a birdbath.
These critiques of the problems in method also have further ramifications in that, since Fischer used a significantly compromised method, his conclusions were stillborn. Fischer claimed that Reformed theology made belief in the Bible impossible, since we all know what love, justice, and integrity is, but Calvinism teaches that we have to redefine what we certainly know is true about those things in order to ascribe them to God.12 While Fischer was ready to say that the Bible’s authority and inspiration is a belief that cannot be proven, our knowledge of what things like love, justice, and integrity are is certain. This way of reasoning clearly evidences rationalist thinking, but furthermore, Fischer seemed to forget his own point that the Bible has to tell us things about God. He apparently thinks that in reality, the Bible just has to tell us the things that we don’t already know about God by our a priori certain knowledge of what God has to be like. Further, Fischer asserts that the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, which apparently no one “for the first four hundred years of church history” believed, means that Jesus is not God.13 In his words, “You can’t have a ‘crucified-for-sinners God’ and a ‘creates-sinners-in-order-to-crucify-them God.’ If you want to be biblical, you can’t have a God who is only half like Jesus, because if God is only half like Jesus, he’s nothing like Jesus.”14 Apparently, Fischer knows who Jesus is so well that he cannot be God if Romans 9 entails God’s sovereign election of sinners. That would lead to “divine schizophrenia” wherein Calvinism creates a God “wherein God the Father is making people suffer and God the Son (Jesus) is healing people of the suffering the Father is inflicting.”15 As expected from his lackluster understanding of Reformed theology, Fischer has failed to understand sin, which is why his conclusion fumbles as a result of his poor method. Calvinism is ready to say that suffering is our fault. God may inflict it because of our sin, but God did not create humanity as sinners (despite what is entailed in Fischer’s highly-hyphenated quote from above). God further inflicted suffering upon his own Son on the cross, so that he might rescue sinners. One does have to wonder if Fischer properly understands the cross at this point. Although he half-hearted concedes some truth to the doctrines, he plainly stated that justification by faith and substitutionary atonement “are not the gospel.”16 It would be nice to have a clearer picture of the gospel that Fischer does have to offer, but one gets the idea that even he does not yet know what the gospel is other than not Reformed theology’s gospel.17
With all of Fischer’s claims to have the biblical insight over Reformed theology, you might think that he would have cited more Scripture. We are instead left with his metaphors and his attempts to tell us what Jesus must be like. Citing Gregory Boyd, the open theist, to show how Reformed theology must be wrong because God would not make people suffer, he claimed, “Without exception, when Jesus confronted the crippled, deaf, blind, mute, diseased, or demon possessed, he uniformly diagnosed their affliction as something that God did not will…Jesus consistently revealed God’s will for people by healing them of their infirmities.”18 Perhaps Fischer overlooked in John 9 when Christ said that the man had been born blind for God’s glory. Perhaps even more Fischer missed how John 11:5–6 says about Martha telling Jesus that Lazarus was dying “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Think about it for a minute. Jesus loved Lazarus so – therefore, hard inference (οὖν) – he waited two days knowing that it would mean that Lazarus would die before he arrived. Jesus’ love prompted Jesus to wait while Lazarus died. Jesus knew that loving Lazarus had far more to do with raising him from the dead and using him for God’s glory (again John 9:3) than with whatever Lazarus thought it meant for Jesus to love him. Fischer has perhaps not thought as deeply about who Jesus is and what Jesus is like as he thinks he has. In the end, Fischer has failed to deal not only with what Reformed theology says, but also with what the Bible says, and I get the impression that this book is mostly about how he has looked a little at both and simply said, “I didn’t like what I saw.”
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
- Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey in and out of Calvinism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 1–2.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 13–17.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 45–50.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 29, 37–39, 51–52, 72–73.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 110n13.
- Fischer referred to Piper throughout, but for discussions about Ware or Dricoll, see Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 5n2, 40–41, 43, 61–62, 67–68.
- I say “baptistic” because I’m not even sure that it would be fair and proper to label Driscoll as a Baptist, since Baptists do have their own Christian respectability whether or not you think that they can legitimately attach the adjective “Reformed.”
- Matthew C. Bingham, “‘Reformed Baptist’: Anachronistic Oxymoron or Useful Signpost?” in On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 27–53.
- R. Scott, Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 343–46.
- Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004).
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 2.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 29–35.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 48.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 49 (italics original).
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 47.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 93.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 92–93.
- Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, 47 (ellipsis and italics original).
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- Resources On Defining Reformed
- Time To Kiss New Calvinism Goodbye