Saturday, December 16

Book Review: Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

Olson, Roger. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Olson's book on Arminianism has created a lot of stir. Tim Challies read and reviewed this book in contrast to statements made in Steve Lawson's Foundations of Grace. And Phil Johnson and the Pyromaniacs invited Gary L.W. Johnson to review this book as a guest blogger. His review is a must read (Pyromaniacs: "Calvinists in the Hands of an Angry Arminian Part 1, 2, 3"). Johnson may have found more to disagree about with Olson than I would have, but too many people read into his title more than was there. I personally thought Johnson's pun on Edward's sermon was brilliant.

Olson states these as commonly agreed points against Arminianism:

Myth 1: Arminian Theology Is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology
Myth 2: A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism Is Possible
Myth 3: Arminianism Is Not an Orthodox Evangelical Option
Myth 4: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will
Myth 5: Arminian Theology Denies the Sovereignty of God
Myth 6: Arminianism Is a Human-Centered Theology
Myth 7: Arminianism Is Not a Theology of Grace
Myth 8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination
Myth 9: Arminian Theology Denies Justification by Grace Alone Through Faith Alone
Myth 10: All Arminians Believe in the Governmental Theory of the Atonement

I am not going to say a lot about these right now. What I plan on doing is over the next month or two going through some important (in my mind) statements Olson made and offering my critique and the Reformed counter point. I really appreciate the way Olson starts off: "I believe in turning to history for correct definitions and not allowing popular usage to redefine good theological terms" (10).

For any type of meaningful dialogue in theology (no matter what the topic is) this point is invaluable. If you want proof, look at the conversation James White and Tom Ascol tried to have with the Caner bros. If one side decides he/she is not going to debate theology with the accepted and historical definition of terms than debate is futile.

One crucial point for Olson is:

The Arminianism under consideration is an Arminianism of the heart as opposed to Arminianism of the head. . . . Arminianism of the head is an Enlightenment-based emphasis on free will that it is most found in liberal Protestant circles (even among liberalized Reformed people). Its hallmark is an optimistic anthropology that denies total depravity and the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for salvation. . . . Arminianism of the heart--the subject of this book--is the original Arminianism of Arminius, Wesley and their evangelical heirs. Arminianism of the heart emphatically do not deny total depravity (even if they prefer another term to denote human spiritual helplessness) or the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for even the first exercise of a good will toward God. (17)

This point hinges Olson's whole argument. If this point stands, his book stands; if not, then it fails to make its point. In my opinion, he does have a point. However, Olson provides evidence which in some way contradicts this point. In almost every section, his standard lot of Arminian theologians provides evidence which disapproves this crucial point. So in this way I applaud Olson for providing all the evidence even when it weakens his own point. What he does prove, I think, is that some Arminians are evangelical (contrary to what some Calvinists say), while some fail miserably to grasp the gospel at all. No stream of church is free from this problem, but it does seem a lot of prominent Arminian churches/pastors/books do promote some sort of aberrant gospel.

Another point which disturbed me was:

Few Arminians are willing to denounce their open theists brothers and sisters as
heretics, but most are unwilling at present to give up their belief in absolute divine foreknowledge, because the Bible seems to assume it everywhere. (198)
This is very unfortunate, not only is open theism unbiblical, it's a matter which concerns the very character of God and therefore is false teaching. Most conservative Calvinists I have come into contact with have no problem calling their hyper-Calvinists kin on their bluff and so I would encourage our evangelical Arminians counterparts to do the same.

Also, the chapter everyone should read (and when I say everyone I mean everyone) is "Myth 2: A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism Is Possible." I have heard countless times, "I am not Arminian or Calvinists." Or "We need to be balanced"--as if one side or the other is not. Olson makes the claim which I would also confirm:

Calvinist author W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Theological Seminary California, rejects [a hybrid of Arminianism and Calvinism--Calminianism]:
Some try to split the difference between Arminianism and Calvinism. They say something like, 'I want to be 75% Calvinists and 25% Arminian.' If they mean that literately, then they are 100% Arminian since giving any determinative place to human will is Arminian. Usually they mean that they want to stress the grace of God and human responsibility. If that is what they mean, then they can be 100% Calvinist for Calvinism does teach both that God's grace is entirely the cause of salvation and that man is responsible before God to hear and heed the call to repentance and faith.
Consistent classical Arminians agree with Godfrey that their system of belief is incompatible with Calvinism and would argue that most people who declare themselves Calminians or 75 percent Calvinist and 25 percent Arminian are actually Arminian! (67).

I know. I know. Those who take this label (i.e., Calminian or my personal favorite Biblicist) say they don't follow the teaching of any man. I don't either. I know. You can say your belief don't fall into any "system," but when what you teach lines up with the historical strain of theology then accept it. You are what you are. It does happen thought that men through out history have taught what I believe (and probably what you believe). When they agree with Scripture, I embrace their theology and thoughts. When they don't I reject their teaching.

Here's one test according to Olson: What's the controling element in your interpretation of Scripture--God as Love or as Sovereign? Arminians follow the former and Calvinist the latter according to Olson. In my opinion that is 90% accurate. I will have more to say about that in an upcoming post.

Overall I would say all of my Calvinist friends would benefit from reading Olson's Arminian Theology. It would help refine their own position and their argumentation against the Arminian position. Plus Olson offers a fair, historical, and scholarly description of Arminianism.

Soli Deo Gloria


Blogger Don Fields said...

Sounds like an interesting book and one that I should get. I am looking forward to your critique. You definitely have me interested. (Especially since I consider myself a four-point Calvinist.)

12/16/2006 07:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Kehr said...

When you're finished with Olson, you might look at Gerstner: "Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth".


12/16/2006 10:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Gordon Cloud said...

Here's one test according to Olson: What's the controling element in your interpretation of Scripture--God as Love or as Sovereign?

Why does he postulate this as being either/or?

The Bible teaches the sovereignty of God as well as God's very nature being love. We cannot pick and choose which attributes of God we wish to favor over others, particularly in light of interpretation of scripture. Doing so can cause us to go to extreme positions in our theology. Interpreting the Bible in consideration of all of God's attributes will eventually cause us to reach a balanced view.

While some of the myths listed certainly look interesting, if this is his approach, I wonder about his objectivity.

12/17/2006 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger Mathew Sims said...

Olson makes some great observations definitely look into his book.

Olson asserts that the pin for the Calvinistic interpretation is God as Sovereign and for Arminians it's God as Love. This topic will actually be my next post and I'm only going to hint at what I mean to say then. Notice first I made it clear that Olson says this and that I do not completely agree with him.

I agree with you. In any system of theology all of God's characteristics come into play. From what Olson says, it would seem he thinks Calvinists stress God's sovereignty to the point where the jeopardize his love. I think he is wrong.

Here the hint: To say God loves everyone the same way does two things. First, it diminishes the wrath of God directed to those who do not believe. Second, it diminishes God's covenant love (hesed in the OT) toward those who do believe. I'll flesh those out in my next post.

Soli Deo Gloria

12/17/2006 09:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Gordon Cloud said...

Thanks for your kind response, Matthew. I will look forward to reading what you have to say on this.

God bless.

12/18/2006 01:13:00 AM  

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