by Roger Olson
February 9, 2014
With the publisher’s permission I am posting an excerpt from Austin Fischer’s new book Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed here. Please buy the book. In fact, buy two copies–one for yourself and one to give to a friend who isn’t sure if being a Calvinist is right for him or her.
Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, by Austin Fischer
Introduction: Black Holes
When a big star dies, a remarkable thing happens.[i] Its own gravity crunches it until it becomes a small core of infinite density—matter squeezed together so tightly the known laws of physics cease to exist. The dead star now has a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. And at this point, the dead star has become a black hole, and everything within its reach is dragged towards its center. It can swallow planets, stars, and even other black holes. Get too close and you’ve bought a one-way ticket on a journey to the center of a black hole. Its gravity is irresistible.
Gravity is an integral part of human life. It doesn’t take us long to learn that what comes up must come down. And it’s not as if anyone enforces gravity—it just is; a physical force to be accepted and not conquered. Gravity is also a spiritual force in the sense that we humans find ourselves drawn to things beyond our control. We are constantly sucked in to things—a job, a person, a hobby, an addiction. But of course if you really put spiritual gravity under the microscope, you see that the thing we are being sucked in to is ourselves.
We are black holes—walking, talking pits of narcissism, self-pity, and loneliness, pillaging the world around us in a desperate attempt to fill the void inside us. Unless something is done, you will spend the rest of your existence as a human black hole, eternally collapsing in on self in a tragic effort to preserve self. It’s bad news.
But Christians believe there is good news that is better than the bad. We believe something has been done—that through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has done what we could not do ourselves. We no longer have to live under the crushing gravity of self because where sin and selfishness abounded, grace now abounds all the more. It certainly is good news, but…
Options for the Restless
Leave it to us to take something so beautiful and other-centered and turn it into something (you guessed it) about us.
The universe-altering message of the gospel becomes a message about me: Jesus died so I could be happy and comfortable forever and ever. While this may pass for gospel in many circles, there is a growing swell of opposition to it in many others—a recognition that such thin, therapeutic, self-centered expressions of Christianity lack the gravitas to hold a human life together, much less make it thrive. A crowd of voices calls us out of consumerism, moralism, and skepticism and into sacrifice, risk, and commitment.
And for those who are restless for more, Neo-Calvinism[ii] often appears as the strongest—and perhaps only—alternative for thinking biblical people. It offers the new center of gravity that can finally draw us away from self. Such was my conviction, and I still believe Neo-Calvinism is a strong alternative to cultural Christianity.
But I believe we best say yes to God’s glory and sovereignty by saying no to Calvinism. I believe that I—along with many others, past and present—have found an even better option. It’s not new, and it’s not novel; indeed I would argue it is simply the historic consensus of the church. But correctly understood, it offers the greatest hope for a restless church. Unlike Calvinism, it doesn’t replace the black hole of self with the black hole of deity, making both God and the Bible impossible (more on that later); however, it does offer an infinitely glorious God, a crucified Messiah, and a cross-shaped call to follow Jesus.
These are my convictions, and anyone with convictions faces a dilemma: would you rather be convincing or honest? Is it more important to get people to agree with you or to honestly present the best of worthy options? While I have certainly tried to be convincing, I think the truth is best served when we are honest, and so I have also tried to be honest. And the best way I have found to be honest is to tell you my story: a journey in, and out of, Calvinism. As Chesterton once confessed, sometimes you have to be egotistical if you want to be sincere.[iii]
In this reminiscing, something became clear: theology and biography belong together.[iv] We try to make sense of God as we try to make sense of our own stories, our own lives. As such, theology is meant for participants, not spectators. I write as a participant and not a spectator in the hopes it will help you become a better participant in your own theological journey, wherever it takes you. These things said, let the journey begin. Only it can’t quite begin without two quick detours.
Detour #1: The Wrong Girl
I once had a friend who was convinced the wrong girl was the right girl. He thought she hung the moon while walking on water and while I thought she was nice and all, I was convinced there was someone out there better for him. Whether I was right or wrong isn’t the point—the point is that when I talked with him about it, I wasn’t trying to sabotage his current relationship so much as I was trying to encourage the prospects of a new one. I feel much the same when I talk to people about Calvinism because while I think you could put a ring on her and live happily ever after, I also think there’s someone better out there. On top of that, it’s a shame to be known for what you’re against, so for clarity’s sake I’m not trying to get anyone to not be something (a Calvinist), but to be something.
Or to make the point with different strokes, the silhouette of the crucified God of Golgotha is an image chiseled into my heart. When sin within rises, chaos without descends, confusion all around lays waste to any semblance of comprehension—when I don’t feel like I understand a damn thing—I look up there and I understand enough to say thank you. I understand enough to call it love.
So when someone messes with this picture, adding a cryptic backdrop that threatens to stain the whole thing, I’m against the backdrop only because I’m for the picture I think the backdrop ruins. I’m not against the Calvinist picture of God so much as I am grieved by what that picture does to the picture I love, turning the full-truth of Golgotha into a duplicitous half-truth. The rest of the book is a description of what happened when my Calvinism was subjected to the searing scrutiny of that image, in the hopes you might glimpse the terrifyingly beautiful God of Jesus Christ.
Detour #2: Everything
The most devastating combination of words in the English language form a statement masquerading as a question: who cares? When this “question” is asked, a statement is made. The asker is expressing his apathy and disregard for the issue under discussion. It does not appear to matter, so why waste our breath? Why kick a hornet’s nest just so we can count the hornets? And it’s a good “question” to ask because many of the issues that hoard our energies and efforts are dead ends. It’s also a “question” I’ve been asked many times when debates about Calvinism and its alternatives arise.
Does it really matter if Calvinism is true or false? Does it really matter if we have free will? Does it really matter? Not at all, and yet, more than you could imagine.
No, it doesn’t matter because God is who he is and does what he does regardless of what we think of him, in much the same sense that the solar system keeping spinning around the sun even if we’re convinced it spins around the earth. Our opinions about God will not change God; however, they can most certainly change us. And so yes, it does matter because the conversations about Calvinism and free will plunge into the heart of the question the universe asks us at every turn:
Who is God?
And this is a question that has everything to do with everything.
[i] Or to be more precise, a remarkable thing can happen. For a good explanation of how black holes are formed, see Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (New York: Bantam, 1993), 103-104.
[ii] Neo-Calvinism proper is a Dutch strand of Calvinism associated with Abraham Kuyper. I am using it to refer to the high federal Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, as popularized by people like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, etc. The term was used in this fashion in a Time magazine article (March 12, 2009) and seems to have stuck. As such, I am using it to delineate the New Calvinism movement chronicled in Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, and Reformed, although I acknowledge some people prefer to call it other things (for example, Neo-Puritanism).
[iii] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Simon & Brown, 2012), 3.
[iv] This idea is explored in Biography as Theology by James McClendon.
@Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com
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John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, Austin Fischer, and God
by Roger Olson
March 10, 2014
So, John Piper has now responded to Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed” (Wipf & Stock, 2013). (For those of you who don’t know, Austin is Teaching Pastor at The Vista Community in Belton/Temple, Texas and his book is a run-away seller about his spiritual and theological journey in and out of Calvinism.)
Of course, you should read Austin’s book before making up your own mind whose right in the current debate about it–John or Austin. But see their very differing views of it at,
(audio file response by John Piper)
(audio file response by John Piper)
(or found below here)
(or found below here)
Predictably (IMHO), John is arguing that Austin misrepresents his and [Jonathan] Edwards’ view of God. Austin is arguing that he is simply saying what that view looked like to him when he stepped back and considered it biblically, theologically and logically.
In other words, Austin is saying “If I were a Calvinist, this is how I would have to think of God….” In other words, he is using an argument Calvinists themselves have LONG used against Arminianism–namely, the “good and necessary consequences” argument. Here’s how it goes: “IF you believe A and B is a ‘good and necessary consequence’ of A, then it is valid to say you also believe in B.” HOWEVER Austin (and I) go out of our way to say we KNOW Calvinists do not actually believe the “B” we see as a good and necessary consequence of the “A” they acknowledge believing. However, we say that “B” is what WE WOULD HAVE TO BELIEVE if we believed “A” and that Calvinists have not demonstrated how that is not the case–how it is that they can be reasonable and NOT believe “B.”
So, John Piper has said in the past that Arminians “must say” that the cross of Jesus does not actually save anyone but only gives people an opportunity to save themselves. (Don’t ask me where; you can find that yourself. John and I have e-mailed back and forth about it so I know he said it!) That’s the form of argument I outlined above EXCEPT that he collapses “B” into “A” with the “must.” The “must” MEANS “if they are going to be logically consistent…” because NO Arminian has ever said what he says they “must” say.
In other words, John was there (and elsewhere) using the familiar “good and necessary consequences” argument to defeat Arminianism. (I happen to believe there is no logical connection between the “A” and the “B” in his argument, though.)
Austin was (in his book) simply using the same form of argument against Calvinism. Namely: IF you say that God “designed, foreordained, and governs” everything that happens including sin and evil, you are logically saying (as a good and necessary consequence) that God is the author of sin and evil. However, Austin is careful (as I have been careful) to say that almost no Calvinist actually believes God is the author of sin and evil. He’s saying if HE were a Calvinist HE would have to believe God is the author of sin and evil because that is the “B” that is a good and necessary consequence of the “A” that Calvinists DO actually believe.
And, of course, both Austin and I are saying that it’s only reasonable to move from “only A” to “A and B” and that reasonable people will tend to do that.
Now, someone (maybe you!) will say “Who cares about being reasonable if the Bible says ‘A’ but not ‘B?’ Simply believe “A” and deny “B” even if “B” is a “good and necessary consequence of “A.” But wait! Listen! Pay attention! John Piper and all other Calvinists have been saying for a long time that ARMINIANS are not allowed to do that! One of their main arguments against Arminianism has always been that it’s logically inconsistent. They can’t play by double standards. If they value logical consistency they must pay attention when someone points it out in their own theology. They can’t just use the “good and necessary consequences” argument against others’ theologies and then turn around and say it doesn’t matter for their own theology! (Which is what I think they often do.)
Read Austin’s response to Piper. It’s irenic without backing down one iota. It’s reasonable and invites conversation. It’s respectful of Piper. Piper needs to admit that he misrepresented Austin’s view rather than the other way around (IMHO).
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Dear John Piper
by Austin Fischer
Mar 7, 2014
I woke up this morning to find John Piper has posted a video with some thoughts on my book. [Full disclosure: if you’ve read the book, you know Piper had a huge impact on my life and I still have immense respect for him. So hearing him talk about the book was surreal.]
Even though I was sure the book would convert him :) … go figure, it didn’t, and he had some sharp things to say. He was particularly miffed because he felt I had misrepresented Jonathan Edwards, claiming Edwards thought and taught God was a black hole that needs human worship. [So,] a few thoughts….
This is a tricky subject, but I feel the way Piper handled it misrepresented me more than I may or may not have represented Edwards. The nub of the issue is this: I don’t think Edwards or Piper think God is a black hole that needs human worship (a vacuum cleaner, as Piper says)—period, honest to God, cross my heart, scout’s honor. I worship and serve alongside many Calvinists at my church and I know they don’t think that about God.
What I said is that when I traced out Edwards’ logic and thought the things Edwards thought about God, I felt forced to believe God was a black hole that seemed to need to create in order to display all of his attributes (after all, how do you display wrath and justice without a creation?). There’s a huge difference here and throughout the book I go out of my way to make this concession: this is what I felt compelled to believe as a Calvinist and isn’t what all Calvinists believe.
So while Piper says I should be “ashamed” for misrepresenting Edwards, what I hear is that I should be ashamed for not agreeing with Edwards. And that makes me sad.
To turn the tables, most firm Calvinists I know think Arminianism (or anything that’s not Calvinism) inevitably leads to semi-pelagianism. They feel that if they were Arminians, they would feel forced to be semi-pelagian. Fair enough. I very much disagree, but I understand what they’re saying and can respect that.
I’m not going to wag the Protestant papal finger of shame at them and claim they think I think my works get me into heaven and are ignorant and have egregiously misrepresented me. They’re just saying they would feel compelled to believe that if they believed what I did. Again—fair enough. Reasonable, biblical, orthodox minds can look at the same picture and see different things. We’ve done it since Jesus walked out of the tomb. As someone who’s not a fundamentalist, that’s my conviction.
Did I say some sharp things in the book? Yes. Too sharp? I hope not, but I’m not above that criticism. But did I misrepresent Edwards? I’m under no illusion that I understand Edwards perfectly (who can!?), but I don’t think I misrepresented him. This is what I think happened and what I trace out in the book.
I sat and watched the meticulous picture of God that Edwards and Piper painted. I loved so many of the strokes and colors. They finished painting, stepped back and said, “What a masterpiece! The manifold excellencies of the glory of God, displayed in the doctrines of grace.” I stepped back and said, “I really want to see that!…but I’m afraid I see a black hole instead.”
So Dear John,
I appreciate so much of what you do and what you did in my life in a formative time. I think you’re a theological force of nature. I think your ministry brings glory to God. I think you believe in an infinitely glorious and beautiful God who loved you enough to die for you. I don’t think you believe God is a black hole—honest to God, cross my heart, scout’s honor.
But as much as I didn’t want to and as hard as I tried, when I stepped back from the picture of God you and Edwards painted and took it all in, I didn’t see what you saw. I saw a black hole.
I’m truly sorry if you feel I implied you and Edwards believe God is a needy black hole. I know you don’t believe that, so if that’s what you feel I said, I apologize. I’m not sorry that I (along with many others) look at the picture you paint, can’t ignore the reprobate, can’t reconcile it with lots of Scripture, can’t reconcile it with a good God who looks like Jesus crucified for the whole world, and can’t help but see a black hole. I can agree to disagree. Hopefully you can too.
Grace and Peace Brother,