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Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities Hardcover – October 5, 2006
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"Arminian Theology is a much-needed book, addressing many of the myths and caricatures about Arminianism that plague and muddle many contemporary theological discussions. Whether we advocate a particular theological perspective or not, it is imperative that we as Christians describe other theological perspectives with integrity, fairly and accurately. Dr. Olson is to be complimented for this excellent contribution." (Steve Lemke, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Fall 2013)
"Arminian Theology should prove to be a seminal text in understanding the historical contours of Arminianism. It is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to gain a cogent and perspicacious introduction to historical, evangelical Arminian theology." (Martin Povey, Stockport, Themelios 32/3, May 2007)
"Olson's purpose is to clear the good Arminian name of false accusations and charges of heresy. . . . InterVarsity Press has given a new voice to an evangelical position which has been, for the most part, suppressed and misrepresented." (Vic Reasoner, The Arminian 25:1, Spring 2007)
"Roger Olson recaptures Arminianism's original focus: pointing us to God's goodness rather than man's 'freed will.' This refreshing reappraisal should pave the way for better synergy between Reformed evangelicals and classical Arminians." (David Neff, editor, Christianity Today)
". . . a fine example of contemporary polemical theology at its best." (Daniel Castelo for Pneuma, 29, 2007)
"I heartily recommend this book to all who wish to gain a true grasp of authentic Arminianism." (Mark DeVine, Midwestern Journal of Theology, 2008)
"Olson's book is highly reommended for those who want to understand the Arminian-Calvinist controversy better." (Andrew V. Snider, The Master's Seminary Journal, Spring 2009)
"This is an extremely crucial work. It should be required reading for all students of theology. It is not a substitute for reading primary sources, but it is a helpful summary and introduction to the major issues." (Glenn R. Kreider, Dallas Theological Seminary, Criswell Theological Review 4/2, Spring 2007)
"Although many of the personal and institutional animosities that used to mark relations between Calvinists and Arminians have become muted in recent years, the differences are still with us. The issues are alive because they concern matters of central importance to Christian faith. In this book Roger Olson gently and firmly corrects misunderstandings of Arminian theology that are often held by Calvinists--and Arminians! His deft expositions of the historical texts offer a significant contribution to the health of theological reflection and relationships. At the same time he demonstrates how to be irenic without adopting an empty tolerance that makes doctrine irrelevant to the church's life and mission." (Jonathan R. Wilson, Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology, Carey Theological College)
"In this blockbuster of a book Roger Olson demonstrates that Arminian theology is faithfully Christian, faithfully Protestant and faithfully evangelical. He introduces his readers to a large world which many will never before have entered, the world of Arminian and Wesleyan theology, and even those familiar with this world will become more informed about it. In his contents page alone he provides more clarity on the contested issues in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate than many books on the subject. He methodically subverts many of the arguments that Calvinists routinely use against Arminian theology. This is Christian polemical theology at its best: massively informed, carefully and passionately argued, and friendly and courteous to the opposition. I recommend Arminian Theology enthusiastically, and I predict that, if it is read with the attentiveness it deserves, it will ratchet up the level of the American conversation on these issues." (Fisher Humphreys, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University)
From the Publisher
Features & Benefits
* Written by a respected and accomplished Arminian theologian
* Benefits those wanting clarity about classical Arminian theology, whether they are detractors, promoters or trying to make up their own minds
* As readable as Olson's Story of Christian Theology and Mosaic of Christian Belief
* A major voice to be heard in the middle of the current controversy between Calvinists and Arminians
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Olson’s Primer includes definitions which add a wonderful precision to his work. For example, he defines the heresy of semi-Pelagianism as the belief “that humans have the ability, even in their natural or fallen state, to initiate salvation by exercising a good will toward God” (p. 17). Later he revisits the definition with these words, “Wiley correctly defines semi-Pelagianism by saying, ‘It held that there was sufficient power remaining in the depraved will to initiate or set in motion the beginnings of salvation but not enough to bring it to completion. This must be done by divine grace’ ” (p. 30). Olson also defines Arminianism, breaking it into variants called “Arminianism of the Head” and “Arminianism of the Heart” (p. 16). He clarifies that Arminianism of the Head is guilty of the heresy of being “Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian” (p. 17). For this, Olson deserves praise.
On the other hand, Olson’s Rules are one-sided and hypocritical. He tells Arminians to wear their label proudly (p. 242) but is silent toward the Calvinist. He chides Calvinist’s anti-Arminian arguments as “nothing other than vicious calumny” while instructing Arminians who “point their finger” not to cease, but only to “learn to appreciate” some Calvinist contributions Protestantism. He tells critics to refrain from straw man attacks (p. 243), but only accuses the Calvinists of this behavior in his examples. Olsen says both sides should admit the weaknesses of their own theologies, while he (an Arminian) does no such thing. Finally, Olson states that both sides “should strictly avoid attributing beliefs to adherents of the other side that those adherents explicitly reject” (p. 243), and yet he states that “the Calvinist notion… violates the character of God” (p. 38). Beyond this, Olson’s tone is often mocking as when claiming a Calvinist’s argument “boggles the Arminian mind” (pp. 38, 42, 101, and 116).
Olson attempts to define Calvinism as the “beliefs of persons who regard John Calvin … as the greatest organizer and purveyor of biblical truth during the Protestant Reformation” (p. 15). This raises objections without being productive. Olson smuggles a value judgement into the definition when he states that “many Calvinists reject Calvin’s ‘horrible decree’ of reprobation”. In yet another attempt to define Calvinism, Olson states that “Calvinism is the soteriological system stemming from Calvin, which is generally known under the rubric of T.U.L.I.P.”. The problem is that this rubric only covers the topics of Calvinism that were being challenged by the Remonstrants. By using T.U.L.I.P., Olson breaks his earlier word where he promised, “Because self-description is usually preferred over descriptions by adherents of other theologies, I will make clear how theological terms are used when describing both Arminian and non-Arminian theologies” (p. 15).
Olson defines Arminianism of the Heart with these beliefs:
* “All humans are born morally and spiritual depraved, and helpless to do anything good or worthy” (p. 33). This is called “inherited depravity” and “inherited sin” (p. 34).
* “A measure of prevenient grace extends through Christ to every person born” (p. 34). This measure provides all people with a “release from the condemnation of Adam’s sin” (p. 34). “Common grace alone [is insufficient] for willing the good … A special infusion of supernatural, regenerating or renovating grace is required for even the first exercise of a good will toward God.” (p. 42).
* In addition, the remaining portion (the “full benefits”) of prevenient grace provides “forgiveness of actual sins and imputation of righteousness” (p. 34) to “everyone who accepts them”.
* The predestined are those “who God foresees will accept his offer of salvation through Christ by not resisting the grace” (p. 35).
* “God’s electing foreknowledge is caused by the faith of the elect” (p. 35).
A bit later, Olson describes prevenient grace much differently when he writes, “Prevenient grace is simply the convicting, calling, enlightening and enabling grace of God that goes before conversion and makes repentance and faith possible” (p. 35). Whether Olson is referring to the first measure of prevenient grace that releases all from Adam’s sin, or the full benefits of this grace that provides some forgiveness of actual sins, this redefinition is most unhelpful. However, it is clear that resistance to that first measure of prevenient grace that releases all from Adam’s sin is impossible given Olson’s definition. Olson continues, “people are always able to resist the grace of God” (p. 35) with another lack of precision. It seems he is indicating that the first measure of prevenient grace is irresistible (because it comes to all) while the remainder of it is resistible.
It is also clear from Olson’s definition that the full benefits of prevenient grace (reserved for people who accept it) includes forgiveness of actual sins and imputation of righteousness. He adds a bit of complexity when he writes, “The person who receives the full intensity of prevenient grace is no longer dead in trespasses and sins. However, such a person is not yet fully regenerated. The bridge between partial regeneration by prevenient grace and full regeneration by the Holy Spirit is conversion, which includes repentance and faith” (p. 35). It seems that the person who accepts the full benefits of prevenient grace will most certainly receive imputed righteousness and partial regeneration from the prevenient Grace, and then also most certainly, that person will cross the bridge of conversion to receive full regeneration from the Holy Spirit.
It is tedious to restate that Olson said the full benefits of prevenient grace are for “everyone who accepts them”. It is worth keeping in mind however, as Olson now redefines the human responsibility in salvation from acceptance to non-resistance as he writes, “rather cooperation with grace in Arminian theology is simply nonresistance to grace” (p. 36).
As for the “will” Olson states, “prevenient grace does not interfere with the freedom of the will. It does not bend the will” (p. 36), while at the same time the will is “under the pressure of prevenient grace” (p. 36). Olson does not explain how the first measure of prevenient grace that is universally applied without a willing recipient is not bending the will. As for the remaining measure, he also does not clarify how pressuring the will is not bending the will or at least not interfering with the will. Olson concludes the chain of salvation with these words, “The cooperation of the human will is necessary because in the last stage the free agent decides whether the grace proffered is accepted or rejected” (pp. 36, 66).
In summary, Olson’s sequence of salvation is as follows:
1. All humans inherit depravity from Adam’s sin.
2. All humans receive an irresistible first portion of prevenient grace which releases the inherited depravity. This is not to be confused with common grace.
3. Everyone’s will is pressured to accept the remaining prevenient grace.
4. When a human does not resist, the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit works the salvation of the soul.
5. In the last stage each human alone determines whether or not they will be saved. In other words, humans are “the instrumental causes of salvation” (p. 37).
6. God’s knowledge of who will be saved is caused by humans.
Olson writes, “The main reason Arminians reject the Calvinist notion … is that it violates the character of God and the nature of a personal relationship” (p. 38). He then proceeds with a series of questions and statements that he does not attribute to Calvinists nor does he explain how they are necessary results of Calvinism. Therefore, he violates his own Rules of Engagement where all “should strictly avoid attributing beliefs to adherents of the other side that those adherents explicitly reject”. These violations include:
* “If God saves unconditionally and irresistibly, why doesn’t he save all? Appeal to mystery at this point does not satisfy the Arminian mind because the character of God as love showing itself in mercy is at stake” (p. 38).
* “If the humans chosen by God cannot resist having a right relationship with God, what kind of relationship is it?” (p. 38).
* “Can a personal relationship be irresistible?” (p. 38).
* “Are such predestined persons really persons in such a relationship?” (p. 38).
* “God ‘hides a smiling face’ behind the horrors of history” (p. 38).
* Calvinism “creates intolerable difficulties and gives rise to more exceptions than regularities” (p. 39).
* “The Calvinist God … is not a God of love” (p. 41).
It seems Olson is unaware of his hypocrisy as he writes, “the misinformation and distortion surrounding Arminianism in theological literature is nothing short of appalling” (p. 40) and “One principle that ought to be observed by all parties to this debate is Before you disagree make sure you understand” (p. 41).
Turning now to Myth 1, Olson argues that, “At times Wesley himself could see only a hair’s breadth of difference between [Arminianism and Calvinism]” (p. 59). What is not disclosed by Olson is what Wesley said at other times. In his sermon Free Grace, Wesley preaches, “Thus manifestly does this doctrine [predestination] tend to overthrow the whole Christian Revelation, by making it contradict itself; by giving such an interpretation of some texts, as flatly contradicts all the other texts, and indeed the whole scope and tenor of Scripture; — an abundant proof that it is not of God. … Such blasphemy...”. It is not as though Olson was ignorant of these words, for he refers to the sermon “Free Grace” (p. 109) later in the book. This blatant misrepresentation of Wesley by Olson throws into doubt Olson’s representation of other historical figures. It also makes it difficult to believe Olson when he claims, “To a very great extent the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism are more a matter of emphasis than radical difference” (p. 60).
Turning now to Myth 2, Olson now redefines Calvinism in a more appropriate fashion, referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith (p. 62). In fact this entire chapter is a most refreshing change from the rest of the book. The descriptions are more balanced, the arguments a bit more realistic, the rhetoric turned down, and all in all, worth the read.
By now it is clear what precisely the author’s underlying beliefs about Arminianism are. It also is clear that these beliefs have been communicated in this book with only passing references to Scripture. In fact, Olson claims, “I have concluded that appealing to Scripture alone cannot prove one side right and the other side wrong” (p. 70). This then explains the fact that there are so few Scripture references made in this book.
In Myth 3, Olson surveys the orthodoxy of various historical Arminian figures, arguing, “As with all orthodox Protestants, Arminians believe...” (p. 83) for a variety of topics such as the Trinity.
In his defense of Synergism, Olson admits that “the earliest and most influential Protestant voices - Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, to say nothing of Bucer, Cranmer and Knox - were monergists” (p. 95). He argues that because these reformers also practiced infant baptism and were advocates of the union of church and state, that any “historical argument [for monergism] breaks down” (p. 95). Yet, immediately after discrediting “historical arguments”, he appeals to the “historical perspective” to defend the orthodoxy of the Arminians that “arose within the bosom of the Protestant Reformation” (p. 95). In fact much of this entire book uses arguments based upon historical beliefs.
Myth 4 appears to be rehashing (with more external references) to what has already been stated. Myth 5 adds a bit more definition to the human will, saying that “God controls [the will] by putting boundaries around what it can do … it is never autonomous or absolute … God hedges [it]” (p. 125), without guiding the reader into understanding how this is not interference.
In one of Olson’s scarce Scripture references he argues against Calvinism when he writes, “After all, Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt 6:10 RSV). If God’s sovereignty were already completely exercised de facto, why would anyone need to pray for God’s will to be done on earth?” (p. 117). If Olson would have appropriately quoted the complete prayer, he might have seen his inconsistency with “hallowed be your name” and “lead us not into temptation”.
In Myth 7 we learn that “For Arminius, however, there is an intermediate stage between being unregenerate and regenerate” (p. 164). The remainder of the Myths do not break with the basic theme of the book, and Olson’s presentation is becoming predictable and repetitious.
The book was worth reading for the following reasons:
* To understand Olson’s sequence of salvation, including the two phases of prevenient grace and the final stage of salvation being decided by man.
* To learn Olson believes that a very popular form of Arminianism is semi-Pelagian as found in the United Methodist Church.
* For its trove of quotes from various Arminian authors over the ages, including a long index of the same.
This book was not useful for understanding the Scriptural support for Arminianism or for an index of Scripture references to study. This book could be improved by removing the hypocrisy without changing the message. I wonder if a book targeted at the semi-Pelagian Arminians (of the Head) could help them understand why they should consider classical Arminianism (of the Heart).
Olson's adroitly refutes each "myth" posited on Arminianism primarily by classical and contemporary Calvinists. (This theological genre is named for the early 16th century Dutch reform theologian and pastor, Jacob Arminius.)
Speaking from the "classical Arminian" camp Olson ranges over the vast surface of Arminius' beliefs: from human free will, to the sovereignty of God, to election and predestination, to Justification and the Atonement. By the end, Olson convincingly confirms that Arminius, as a Protestant, is significantly different from Calvinists, Catholics, and Anabaptists of his era and today. (Arminius seems to have appreciated Luther.)
Each chapter is helpfully composed and presented in the same way. Olson posses a "myth" (an untruth), rebuffs it, documents what Arminius himself say on the topic, and then presents various Arminian thinkers reflections on the theological issue. Episcopus, Wesley, Watson, Pope, Miley, Wiley, Theissen, Oden and many more over the past 400 years are variously considered and extensively quoted. The author poignantly recommends that Arminianism's critics would do well to study it before condemning it. Finally, he rightly challenges Arminians and their critics to work together for proclaiming the mission of Jesus Christ.
Olson's is a good read teaching much about theology, the via salutis, and God's love. Although somewhat technical this book is recommended to any with interest in various Christian doctrines (such as free will vs. predestination, irresistible vs. resistible grace, original sin, prevenient grace, imputed righteousness, forensic justification, penal substitutional atonement, etc.) Olson is a must read for all reform theologians, Arminians, and Calvinists.
Happy Reformation Day!
As an Arminian myself, this book helped me to check some false arguments in my own theology, as well as look behind some of the dead-end walls that had caused me to doubt Arminianism. For example, in arguments with Calvinist brothers, I had often stopped at "free will" as a reason for why God would intentionally limit His deterministic control of the universe in the realm of human moral choices. And my Calvinist brothers would (rightly) take me to task, saying that I was exalting human free will above God's sovereignty in importance. Did I really want to do that? And of course, the answer had to be "no."
But Olson asks another "why" question beyond free will, and points out that Arminians believe in free will not for its own sake, but because it is a necessary component of God's loving character. Thus the correct comparison is not between God's sovereignty and human free will, but between God's sovereignty and God's revealed loving character. And the question is not, "is God sovereign or is He loving?" but rather, "Which quality of God is more properly basic to His nature? Which one rules the day?" The Calvinist answer is that God is most basically to be seen as sovereign, whereas Arminians say that God is most basically to be seen as loving.
A great book, well-written with snappy prose, easily apprehended, and powerfully effective.
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