Review of Oliver Crisp's Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology

I recently had published a book review of Oliver Crisps's book, Retrieving Doctrine. But since it was published in the Koinonia Journal, which does not receive wide circulation, I figured that I would post the pre-production version here for all you - gentle readers - to enjoy. So, without further ado . . .

Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology. By Oliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove, IL; IVP Academic, 2010, 209 pages.
Oliver Crisp delves into the Reformed theological tradition, now explicating, now tinkering, now defending, in an attempt to enrich contemporary theological discussion with insights from the past. Newly installed as professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary after stints at the Universities of Bristol and St. Andrews, and at Regent College, Crisp ranges through the well-traveled work of theologians like Barth, Calvin, and Edwards, as well as the less frequented byways of thinkers like Campbell, Nevin, and Turretin. Such ranging is not devoted to mere historical curiosity, however. Crisp rather intends to “engage theologians of the past in conversation in order to bring their ideas to the table of contemporary theological reflection. What is envisaged here is the retrieval of their ideas for the purposes of constructive dogmatics” (viii). It is difficult to deny the attractiveness of such a program, and yet Crisp’s statement invites the reader to ask a critical question: Does this collection of essays contribute to contemporary theological reflection, or further the task of constructive dogmatics?

Crisp’s volume certainly succeeds as a contribution to contemporary theological reflection. It does so by its willingness to tackle knotty issues in thinkers usually given short shrift by contemporary discussion. Take, for instance, the chapter on the great Genevan scholastic theologian, Francis Turretin, and the question of whether the incarnation is fundamentally necessary or contingent in nature. The sheer horsepower of Crisp’s mind is on display here, as he dissects Turretin’s position and its sometimes hidden presuppositions in order to lay bare the logic at its heart and apply that logic to the question at hand. His analysis leads to the conclusion that Turretin’s logic suggests a certain sort of “hypothetical necessity” associated with the incarnation. While God was not compelled to create the sort of world that God did create, that is, while creation originates in God’s freedom, “where God creates a world of human creatures in need of redemption, his divine mercy constrains him to act in a way that displays his justice and his mercy – and that requires an Incarnation” (91). Anyone who is prepared to labor so carefully over a thinker as rigorous and complex as Turretin certainly deserves encouragement and appreciation.

Take Crisp’s essay on John Williamson Nevin’s ecclesiology as a second example. Nevin, who with Philip Schaff constituted the Mercersberg school of Reformed theology in the 19th century, advocates a metaphysically rich treatment of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church built on an organic account of the unity that obtains between them. Crisp fields some possible objections to Nevin’s discussion, offering it as a stimulus to further ecclesiological reflection and importantly noting the influence of German mediating theology upon Nevin’s thought. Given that such mediating theology is rich in theological resources while also woefully neglected in contemporary conversation – much like Nevin himself – Crisp’s attention is welcome.

Crisp’s conclusion to the essay on Nevin also raises quite pointedly the question of whether Crisp’s volume furthers the task of constructive dogmatics since he concludes with a reflection on precisely what such an undertaking would look like: “The challenge to contemporary divines is to take up where our intellectual forebears left off by changing what is needed…” If the sentence stopped there, who could complain? Unfortunately, Crisp introduces a dependent clause elaborating precisely what counts as such “changing”: “…by changing what is needed, making those adjustments deemed necessary in order to make better sense of the gospel once delivered to the saints” (181). There is much to admire here. The goal of making “better sense of the gospel” is an apt description of the theological task. Difficulty arises, however, insofar as Crisp gives the impression that the only changes necessary for contemporary constructive dogmatics to make with reference to the work of previous theological generations are relatively minor “adjustments.” Is there not at least a theoretical possibility that the legacy inherited by contemporary theologians requires something more akin to total reconstructive surgery if they are to serve the gospel’s proclamation in their own times and places just as previous theologians did in theirs? Perhaps Crisp does not mean to promote such a position, but it is certainly consistent with his broader material commitments. For instance, he frequently refers to “traditional” or “classical” positions, and works rather strictly within the presuppositional confines of what is often called “classical theism” (cf. 99n18 for some rather loaded comments along these lines).

This frame of reference does Crisp a great disservice when it comes to the volume’s two essays on Karl Barth, a theologian who self-consciously rejects many important pieces in the classical theist puzzle. Take the second of these two essays, for instance, which deals with Barth’s alleged universalism. Here Crisp’s tendency to reduce theological positions to their presuppositional bottom line betrays him, as Barth’s more rhetorical mode of argument does not fit easily into such analysis. This leads Crisp to assert that “it is not entirely clear whether Barth wishes to endorse a compatibilist notion of free will, or a libertarian” one (123) when, in point of fact, Barth consistently rejects the latter and only accepts the former in a certain respect due to a thorough reconsideration of precisely what counts as freedom. Even more important is the way Crisp attempts through all this to force Barth’s thought into traditional dualities, which only serves to frustrate Crisp’s own analysis as attested by the way he not infrequently comments – in almost palpable frustration – that Barth’s position is “incoherent,” “confused,” or even “contradictory.” For instance, Crisp castigates Barth for suggesting that one might be simultaneously justified and rejected in Christ (never mind at present the reduction of Barth’s notion of election to the related albeit derivative notion of justification, which is clearly over-determined in Crisp’s essay by concern about an individual’s eternal destination). Of course, this simultaneity is precisely the point of Barth’s doctrine of election, and to dismiss it so readily is a failure to listen adequately to what Barth has to say on the matter, much less to comprehend Barth’s fundamentally historical way of thinking about Christ’s saving work as decisively controlled by the pattern of death and resurrection.

Returning to the question at hand, Crisp’s volume fails as a contribution to constructive dogmatics because its commitment to traditional theological constellations leads to a breakdown in theological imagination. Crisp simply seems unable to think outside of the classically theist box. While he is quite ingenious when it comes to sorting out difficulties and addressing problems within those confines, his instincts betray him when confronted by alternative thought worlds like that offered by Karl Barth. However, this is not to suggest that the volume possesses no charms whatsoever! Crisp succeeds in contributing to contemporary theological reflection insofar as he draws attention to aspects of the theological tradition that such conversation has unhelpfully passed over. Theological students, and especially those concerned with the Reformed tradition, will experience this volume as a window into the theological past where imaginative theologians present them with forgotten insights. Such a cavalcade is well worth the relatively low price of admission.


Source: W. Travis McMaken, "Review of Oliver D. Crisp, Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (IVP Academic, 2010)," Koinonia: The Princeton Theological Seminary Graduate Forum 23 (2011): 123-26.



Bobby Grow said…
Or Bobby 'Grow' ... whatever ;)haha.
Matthew Frost said…
Yes. Crisp is brilliant, but conditioned. Depth in breadth, until he ranges widely enough that he runs out of depth using his standard approaches. Which one can say of the best of us! :)
Anonymous said…
So you know, Travis, I'll be quoting approvingly from your review in an upcoming essay I'm working on relative to Crisp's dealings with Barth on the question of universalism...thanks!
Glad to be of service. ;-)
Coincidentally, David Congdon has written a similar essay (now under review with a journal). You might want to drop him a note and see exactly what line he took.

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