Interview w/Austin Fischer, pt 1
Austin Fischer is the Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas.
He is a graduate of Truett Seminary at Baylor University.
“Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed” was published in January 2014.
He writes and speaks, and you can follow him online at purpletheology.com.
Buy a copy of his book, HERE.
1. What attracted you to Calvinism?
As is the case for many young evangelicals, the primary pull of the New Calvinism on me was two-fold. On a pragmatic level, a surprising percentage of the most visible evangelical leaders and preachers are Calvinists, so it’s natural to pick up the theology of the people you are listening to. If you’re a young evangelical, the majority of the people you listen to and read are probably Calvinists, and it rubs off on you.
On a more philosophical level, I liked the certainty I felt Calvinism gave me. I like to compare it to a big mansion with fine lines and beautiful architecture. Once you bite the bullet and step inside, there’s a place for everything; and as someone who grew up dealing with the fallout from postmodernism (skepticism, relativism, nihilism), it’s comforting to believe that nothing happens unless God ordains it. Overall, I think this this is the primary reason for the spike of Calvinism among evangelicals, at least from a sociological/psychological perspective. It is a good theology for the times, offering a sturdy “postmodernism fallout-shelter.”
2. What held you there?
From the beginning, I knew Calvinism had its difficulties, but I held to it because I was convinced the Bible didn’t leave me any option. Most of the Calvinists I respect the most are honest about Calvinism’s difficulties, but feel they are forced to live with them because the Bible demands it.
This is important to note if we want to have constructive conversations about Calvinism instead of constantly talking past one another. We need to think about Calvinists as people shaped by the Bible and not just in bland, abstract philosophizing.
3. What caused you to ‘take a second look,’ as it were, at the system?
To compress a long, arduous journey into a sentence or two, I realized that, if I were a Calvinist, I had to believe in double predestination; and double predestination forced me to believe things about God that I found difficult to reconcile with character of God revealed in Jesus Christ crucified. And because “Jesus is God” is the most fundamental truth in the Bible (and to quote Moltmann—“we see God’s hands all over creation but it’s only in the crucifixion that we see God’s heart”), I realized my Calvinism needed some rethinking.
4. How did you begin to investigate and/or wrestle with the issues confronting you in Calvinism?
We need to trace out our beliefs to their logical conclusions. I firmly believe that, because our beliefs shape us (whether or not we want them to or are aware of it), we need to know where our beliefs are leading us. So, when I bumped up against some issues in Calvinism, I forced myself to be rigorously honest about them, following them as far down the rabbit hole as I could instead of pulling the rip cord and bailing out when things got difficult.
To be more specific, when I realized how much of a problem double predestination and the doctrine of reprobation were, I read everything I could from the smartest Calvinists I knew (Calvin, Edwards, Piper, Sproul, etc.) to see if they could offer a good answer.
5. How did it affect you on a spiritual/devotional level whenever you began to see Calvinism’s deficiencies?
When I was on my last legs as a Calvinist, I remember going out to a retreat center, wandering around in the woods, and happening upon an old wooden cross. And as I looked up at it, I remember being overcome with grief and confusion, trying to make sense of how the God who would stoop so low as to be crucified could also ordain the eternal crucifixion of the majority of humanity for sins he ordained they commit. I remember the angst that filled my heart as I realized the cross was no longer a place of suffering divine love for the whole world but a strange display of partiality for a small slice of the world.
In other words, I realized I couldn’t stand before the cross and make any meaningful sense out of what was happening, or why I would kneel before it and worship. It was God taking the punishment for sins God had ordained humans commit so God could save a small fraction of them, but then damn the majority of them.
I think Christian spiritual devotion is predicated on the belief that God is every bit as good as he is great, and since I no longer had a good God (at least not in any sense that I could make sense of), my devotional life suffered greatly.
Obviously, a great many good and faithful Christian Calvinists don’t have this problem, and I don’t begrudge them at all. But I just can’t ignore the reprobate in the way many seem able to. I once could, but I can’t anymore.
6. How did Calvinism affect your view of God?
Before Calvinism, I had a fairly vanilla, deistic view of God. I was a self-absorbed teenager, and God didn’t figure into my life too much one way or the other. He would do his thing, and I would do my thing; and our lives rarely seemed to overlap.
So on the positive side, Calvinism really got my attention and helped me see that God was intimately involved in the world, and that I had better align my life with God’s life if I wanted hope, peace, joy, and meaning. Calvinism does a great job cutting through apathy and presenting a breathtaking, transcendent view of God. And I loved it.
But as noted, when I forced myself to go down the rabbit hole, I realized that breathtaking, transcendent picture came at quite a price. First, I realized that when you really did the math, God’s breathtaking transcendence boiled down to raw power. And while limitless power is certainly divine, I think it becomes something less than divine when it is not controlled by blazing, generous goodness. As noted, I failed to see how the God of double predestination was good and generous; so while I thought God was great (=all powerful), I didn’t see how he was good.
Second, I realized determinism undercut God’s ability to genuinely relate to us. Evangelicals and Baptists place a heavy emphasis on one’s “relationship with God,” and a genuine relationship with the God of Calvinism was something I simply couldn’t make sense of. If everything is determined, then the notion of personal relationships between God and his creatures is nonsense. Paul Helm does as fine a job as any trying to make sense of this, so I read him copiously, but couldn’t escape the conclusion that a personal relationship with God does not make sense in Calvinism.
Since leaving Calvinism, I suppose my vision of God is rooted in the crucified, self-giving love of Jesus. That is the litmus test for any vision of God. As Dallas Willard says it, “The acid test for any theology is this: Is the God presented one that can be loved, heart, soul, mind, and strength?” But make no mistake—the crucified God isn’t soft or weak. Rather, the blazing goodness of a crucified God is, in my opinion, more demanding than most people can handle. Because if the God we worship goes up onto the cross and down into the grave for sinners, what’s our excuse for failing to do the same?
7. What steps did you take to begin to reconcile the issues facing you?
My journey came down to one question: who is God? When I went all the way down the Calvinist road, I could not ultimately accept the answer I found for biblical, theological, philosophical, and experiential reasons. So, when I came back around to the question (who is God?), I asked myself where one should begin the quest for an answer to such a question. And the most profound and satisfying answer was the simplest; one I had grown up hearing but not really understanding: Jesus. If you want to know who God is, then you go to Jesus because Jesus is God.
From there, I came to believe (both from the explicit teaching of Scripture and the very structure of Scripture, and in particular the Gospels) that the crucifixion is the center of divine revelation, the deepest peek into the heart of God. So, everything I believe about God must be able to square itself with a God who would rather die for sinners than give them what they deserve. If not, it is insufficiently biblical.
The other steps I took were a progression from this center.