A Review of “The Trauma of Doctrine”

I was intrigued when I saw Paul Maxwell’s book The Trauma of Doctrine about to launch, particularly for the subtitle of “New Calvinism, Religious Abuse, and the Experience of God.” I have interacted with a lot of Reformed writers and sources, and while I wouldn’t term myself a Calvinist (nor would they likely claim me) I regard Calvinism and Reformed theology as something every student of theology must engage with. It’s simply too important historically to ignore or dismiss.

Maxwell’s book is not the usual theology book. Much of it is taken up with clinical discussions of trauma, the self, psychology, personal agency, commonly held views on treatment, and the like. It goes into great detail on some of these points, which is to say the book is at least as much about trauma (perhaps more) as it is about doctrine. Indeed, his analysis of what goes on in a person who experiences trauma is detailed and thorough. A couple of chapters would seem to fit in a psychology textbook with no alteration.

In the early pages, Maxwell refers to his own childhood trauma, which apparently occurred at the hands of his father, but he doesn’t offer a lot of detail about it. But it obviously played a huge role in shaping him and who he is. This is one of the keys to the book: Maxwell writes from a place of trauma, and his own difficulty in processing it, and speaks of losing his faith.

“I came to the point halfway through my academic studies when I lost my faith entirely. There were compounding stressors on my life—including the political and social fabric of Reformed evangelicalism and the untimely death of my father due to an opioid overdose—that climaxed one Easter morning during church… On that Easter morning, my faith died. On the cusp of beginning my doctoral work in theology.”[1]

For Maxwell, this moment culminated in TIA: “Trauma Induced Apostasy.” Many of the following pages analyze the soul, what it means to be a human in an ordered (or unordered) universe where God exercises, in Reformed parlance, “Meticulous Providence.” Along with this, Maxwell identifies Total Depravity as the other potential stressor for the faith of some who encounter Reformed theology in the midst of trauma. It isn’t the fact of the doctrines but the degree to which they are controlling influences in Reformed theology that make them unique, and for which questions about good and evil are natural results. As Maxwell explains, “theodicy is any ‘answer to the question of why God permits evil.’”[2] Reformed theology presents a “unique obstacle” when it comes to theodicy, because it asks we accept not just tension, but contradiction. (I realize many would object to that description and say there is no contradiction at all.)

This is one of the strengths of the book; examining the entailments of these ideas. If God is meticulously provident such that every action, every evil is not only permitted by Him, but indeed planned by God, then one cannot say that something like childhood sexual abuse was but an evil that occurred in a sin-cursed world. One has to say that it is an event decreed by God to happen, in exactly the way it did happen. Total depravity can come into play when those who suffer trauma are told they are completely evil, and the perpetration of their abuse is by no means inconsistent with this. As Maxwell states it, for the person who is convinced that Reformed theology is correct, the understanding of one’s trauma may look like this:

  • God does have Meticulous Providence.
  • God is good.
  • God ordained my abuse.
  • I deserved my abuse.[3]

Some might say that there is an awful lot we don’t know, and to say in effect that “God ordained and decreed the sexual abuse of a child for his glory and that child’s good” is going too far, beyond what we can with certainty say. But the traumatized mind goes there in a search for meaning and explanation of what happened to them, and will ask questions of why and how. Moreover, the typical Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty necessarily precludes seeing it any other way. Their definitions are imperious. Maxwell asks adherents of Reformed theology to own these entailments. He points out several things that may strike the onlooker as evasion. Calvin’s explanation of the will is one such example. “To say [as Calvin does] that free will is free, not because it is free in any sense but because it is a will, is a tautological way of precluding a libertarian quality to the will. In other words, for Calvin, the fact that a choice is made by the will (which seems free to the agent) is what makes it free, even though the will is not really free to do otherwise than God has preordained.”[4]

Or, Maxwell asks, if Meticulous Providence is indeed as described by Reformed theology, then why (as some do) make a distinction between God’s sovereign will and his permissive will? “If in fact all evil ought to be considered an instrumental means to a moral good—such that God is not morally culpable for decreeing and obligating it to come to pass—then what need is there for the distinction between decree and permission?”[5] Maxwell delves into aspects of how personhood, agency, and culpability inform our understanding of theodicy. These observations are valuable, and readers who disagree with some of the basic premise of his book would still profit by engaging with them.

In parts of the book where Maxwell deals with trauma and faith, he speaks of “pistic resilience” in various forms. Briefly stated, how can a person keep their faith when dealing with trauma and its aftermath? This is where one must read Maxwell’s analysis (and prescriptions) in a different light. In the midst of my reading of the book, Maxwell posted a video announcing that he is no longer a Christian. So whatever strategies for maintaining faith he presents, one has to conclude they are insufficient, for they haven’t worked for his own faith. Maxwell has not really expanded on his announcement, but one can assume it is related to his own abuse and trauma, since this plays such a prominent role as the reason for his book.

Whatever one concludes about Maxwell’s own case, it seems insufficient to say he misunderstood the gospel or had no clear understanding of Reformed theology. He holds a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary, and his doctorate is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, supervised by Kevin Vanhoozer. So, “unclear on the gospel” seems a poor explanation.

Maxwell oddly “out-reforms” the Reformed in a certain way. He affirms that even in the case of apostasy, “soteric benefits” are not lost.[6] Apostasy is no barrier to God’s faithfulness doing what he once promised to do—save sinners. This isn’t really a doctrine of perseverance, which says that believers persevere, and those who persevere are believers. In Maxwell’s conception, not continuing in faith has no effect on whether one inherits salvation. This is what makes his own case odd. Does he believe that he will be saved, despite his own lack of faith? Or, is he affirming a strictly atheist position—”God does not exist.”? He has not explained.

To suggest that continuing in the faith is unnecessary for salvation is indeed a kind of maximalist conception of God’s sovereignty, indeed so grand that those holding to Reformed theology would not affirm it. It is an odd reading of the New Testament evidence.

Maxwell notes that his book isn’t a critique of Reformed theology per se, and those who have found Reformed theology helpful are outside of his purview. Yet it is hard to see how the book is not a negative assessment of Reformed theology, because believers aren’t presented with a customized set of doctrines that addresses their particular needs, but not those of anyone else. It is not just a flavor of Reformed theology he critiques, but its essence. Maxwell’s personal experience colors his observations and his conclusions, but doctrine is not the kind of thing one can say “this kind didn’t work for me, I’ll try another brand.” In his assessment, if you need to leave the faith in order to process your trauma, then, says Maxwell, so be it. For a reader looking for meaningful help about how to processes trauma and remain in a relationship with God, the book may prove unhelpful. Indeed, the book ends with “It is what it is. Good luck.” I pray Maxwell once again recovers his faith and can attest that God’s revelation of Himself has provided the needed resilience over trauma.




[1] Paul C. Maxwell, The Trauma of Doctrine: New Calvinism, Religious Abuse, and the Experience of God (Minneapolis, Fortress Academic, 2021), xvii.

[2] Maxwell, 45.

[3] Maxwell, 179.

[4] Maxwell, 28.

[5] Maxwell, 70.

[6] Maxwell, 303.

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